HC Deb 14 February 1972 vol 831 cc208-16

12.12 a.m.

Mr. T. W. Urwin (Houghton-le-Spring)

At the end of a long day during which the House has been debating the very important subject of the emergency powers regulations, and calling into account, as many have done during the day, the dispute in the coalmining industry, it may be considered a little incongruous, and perhaps even a little impertinent, for me to be addressing the House on an Adjournment debate which has for its subject the question of coal and its distribution of coal as it affects that part of my constituency in which the Port of Seaham lies. However, I trust that the House will bear with me and realise that my constituency is heavily dependent, in the economic sense, upon coal as well as on the Port of Seaham which for many years has played an important part in the shipping of coal.

Since I first became a Member of the House in 1964, I have been actively involved on many occasions in the question of coal shipments from Seaham, an interest which has necessarily led to extensive correspondence with the National Coal Board, with the Central Electricity Generating Board, with the Seaham Harbour Dock Company, and with the local authority, Seaham Urban District Council. In addition, I have convened and participated in a variety of meetings involving representatives of those bodies. But, despite that enormous activity, I regret to say that coal exports from the port have continued to decline at quite an alarming rate.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Lord Lambton) fully understands the work that has been done, because of his connection with the Seaham Harbour Dock Company, over many years to try to alleviate this situation. The Port of Seaham was expressly built as a coal port with an export-handling capacity of 3 million tons of coal a year. Coal was first shipped from the port in 1857 and it is indicative of the times that the total volume of exports in that first year was more than two-and-a-half times the quantity that flowed through in 1971. This is in itself an indictment of recent policies.

The port is surrounded by pits of high productive capacity. Many have been the subject of intensive development and modernisation at a cost of several millions of pounds. Some of these pits are literally situated upon the seashore with direct access to 550 million tons of proven coal resources under the North Sea. There are eight collieries, including one of the largest in the country, indeed in Europe, which employ, according to the 1970 figures issued by the Coal Board, 13,030 men with an annual average output of 5,175,400 tons.

The port is uniquely placed to take full advantage of this large output. It has been described as unquestionably the best-equipped coal-exporting port throughout the length of the East coast of Britain. Its coal is in demand by the steel industry in Britain and Europe, the C.E.G.B. and other major industrial users who need coal delivered by sea. The total output of these collieries was, and could now be, loaded directly into ships at the Port of Seaham with minimum costs for transporting the coal from the pit and with no additional capital investment by the Coal Board. Shipments from the port have declined from 2,314,000 tons in 1930 to 1,197,998 tons in 1965 and to what I thought would be the all-time low in 1971 of 320,000 tons. It is of greater interest to learn that in 1971 the N.C.B. shipped a total of 6,227,682 tons through the North-East ports of Blyth, Tyne, Wear and Seaham. Of this total, only 320,002 tons were shipped through Seaham, representing less than 5 per cent. of the total shipped through those ports. If 1971 were bad by any standards, the estimated throughput for 1972 for Seaham is 280,000 tons. This is despite written assurances from the National Coal Board in July, 1970, that from 750,000 to I million tons would be shipped through Seaham each year over a three-year period, subject to the requirements of the Central Electricity Generating Board.

There is an undoubted paradox here, in so far as 1 million tons of coal per annum is being lifted from the Dawdon and Vane Tempest collieries, only a few hundred yards from the Seaham dock, and transported by rail to Sunderland South dock, a distance of between nine and 10 miles. This utterly Gilbertian situation, involving the by-passing of the excellent loading facilities at Seaham, is also the essence of economic madness.

During my dealings with this subject I discovered that the estimated cost of moving such coal, as far back as 1966, was 5s. per ton—a wholly unnecessary additional expenditure, which must inevitably be passed on to the consumer. It may well be that the Coal Board takes the view that the additional rail freight from Seaham to Sunderland is compensated for by the lower sea freights available on coal shipped to the south coast in larger vessels of 7,000 tons capacity which can berth at Sunderland, but that is not necessarily so. A new, vigorous and financially well-backed management team has recently taken over the Port of Seaham and is able and willing to ship coal from the port at competitive prices with those at Sunderland. The management has the ships available and there is the capability to load and turn ships around on a single tide more quickly than any port on the east coast. I submit that that reflects the lower sea freights available at Seaham.

Much has been said in the past concerning difficulty of access to the port, especially in bad weather, and this factor has occasionally been exploited against the port by potential users. In this connection I must emphasise that the dock facilities were specifically designed to load coal and similar bulk cargoes into ships up to 4,500 tons capacity and the management and personnel are quite capable of handling the total export requirements of the collective group of Seaham collieries at competitive rates which would produce substantial savings to the Central Electricity Generating Board and other consumers.

Additionally, the harbour master and chief pilot have confirmed that ships up to 5,000 tons capacity have in the past been successfully and efficiently handled at Seaham. There is no valid reason why coal produced in the Seaham group of mines should not be entirely loaded and shipped at Seaham.

Apart from the sound economic reasons for securing this objective the important question of employment also needs to be considered. The former owners of the port—I pay tribute to the manful efforts that they made to maintain the labour force, despite the rapidly declining trade in the port—were inevitably eventually compelled to begin the process of redundancy. When I first went into the question of the problems of the port, in 1964, and participated in trying to resolve them, I recall that the labour force was about 400. The decline in exports has resulted in that labour force being reduced to about 100 men. That is in itself a serious blow to an area that is increasingly subjected to heavy unemployment. It is essential that this wastage of manpower should be halted. However, one must be objective in matters such as this, and I realise that unless the annual rate of shipment is quickly restored to a minimum of 1 million tons per annum, there will be a distinct possibility that the port will have to close.

If this were to happen, a valuable export facility would undoubtedly be lost, and this at a time when every effort should be made to ensure our complete participation in the drive to obtain new and expanding markets for coal. The Chairman of the N.C.B., Mr. Ezra, recently emphasised that attempts should be made to double our existing exports to Europe, particularly in view of our impending membership of the E.E.C. I wish to declare my interest in that I am against the idea of our entry, but if we are to join, then we should be exploring every avenue to ensure that we are able to export as much as possible.

A further advantage which could accrue if the Port of Seaham were kept open derives from the potential use in land reclamation schemes in the United Kingdom and Europe of colliery waste which is arising at the South Durham collieries at the rate of 2.5 million tons a year. This waste is comprised of stones and colliery dirt which are presently thrown on to the Durham beaches at Seaham, Easington, Horden and Blackhall resulting in the most disgusting pollution of many miles of the Durham coastline. It has been widely reported that this pollution is worse than in any other part of the country, and it obviously prevents many thousands of people from enjoying what used to be relatively unspoilt beaches and facilities. These amenities could and should be made available again.

Successive Governments have spent much time examining the problem of pollution. The Secretary of State for the Environment is now looking into this problem and has indicated that he is investigating the whole question in depth. I appreciate, too, that the N.C.B. is searching for an alternative method of disposing of the waste. Seed is vital because I understand that by the mid-'seventies the volume of pit waste from this group of mines will increase to 3 million tons annually.

The possibility of using this waste material for land reclamation schemes—for example, in connection with Foulness—will have occurred to the Minister and the Department. Enormous quantities of this material could be absorbed in this way. In recent years the Dutch Government have used millions of tons of colliery waste in the construction of dykes in the Delta project, which has closed off several entrances to the Rhine near Rotterdam.

As participants in the disposal of colliery waste, the Port of Seaham informs me that the same loading facilities as for coal are availabe at the port to load shale, and that power barges are immediately available at the port to dispose of any unsold waste material at sea, which would at least put an end to the continuing pollution of the Durham beaches.

The Port of Seaham is well placed to handle this material, in addition to 1 million tons of coal, and this activity would provide employment for men recently made redundant in the port. There is a thriving angling club in the port and the new management has some sound ideas for the development of a small marina, but before any such scheme can go ahead we must remove this pollution from the beaches.

With these praiseworthy and laudable objectives in view, I call upon the Minister and his colleagues in the Government to give perhaps a little more urgent consideration to what is a very difficult problem; and to try to ensure that the facilities which are available at the Port of Seaham are utilised to the fullest possible potential in the future.

12.30 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Urwin) for having given me some advance warning about the matters which prompted him so eloquently to initiate this short debate. His main concern was with the diversion of coal traffic, mainly for power stations, from Seaham to Sunderland, and the consequent effect on the Seaham Harbour Dock Company and on employment in his constituency. I ought to explain at this point that it is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry who has the oversight of the National Coal Board and the Central Electricity Generating Board. These are the nationalised bodies of whose policies the hon. Gentleman appears to have some criticisms to make.

To deal first with the effect of diversion of coal traffic to Sunderland, it is the unfortunate fact that coal traffic from the Wear and other traditional coal shipping points on the north-east coast has been declining for some years. Sunderland South Dock is the only loading point which remains in use, and its throughput has changed little since 1964—about a million tons a year. So it is not correct to say that since that time Sunderland has been taking more traffic from Seaham. In fact, the boot is on the other foot, in the sense that Sunderland has taken no more at all but rather that the National Coal Board has actually diverted through Seaham some coal for the south of England power stations such as Battersea and Deptford which otherwise it might have been expected to ship from elsewhere.

That said, it is true that there has been a drastic fall-off in traffic at Seaham and, like the hon. Gentleman, I regret this. But the reason has to be faced. It is that there is a rapidly declining demand for gas coal. In years gone by, Seaham was an important shipping centre for coal for gas works on the Thames and elsewhere in the south of England, but today, as the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, scarcely any gas is being made in the south by the old carbonisation process. Virtually all the gas required in the south and the south-east comes from oil or, more importantly, from the North Sea or from the North African natural gas fields. So the gas coal traffic that used to play so large a part in keeping Seaham Harbour busy is simply not there any more.

Another factor which has undoubtedly operated to Seaham's disadvantage is its inability to take larger ships. The hon. Gentleman himself mentioned this fact, but I must tell him that it has become an increasingly important problem with the steady growth in the size of vessels in the coal trade. Seaham, I am told, cannot take ships of more than about 3,000 deadweight tons. Moreover, its ships can enter and leave only during relatively short periods before and after high water. By contrast, Sunderland can and does take ships up to 7,500 deadweight tons—

Mr. Urwin

According to my information, the fact that smaller ships use Seaham Harbour does not in any way affect the cost of coal shipments from Seaham to the Thamesside power stations.

Mr. Griffiths

I have just been telling the hon. Gentleman that the demand for gas coal on Thamesside is practically non-existent for that purpose, and the size of the ships makes a great deal of difference to cost. But, in the end, the choice of the port through which he sends his goods is undoubtedly that of the shipper, whether he be buyer or seller, and either as buyer or seller he has to arrange the freight and to pay for it.

He who pays the piper has the right to call the tune. That maxim holds good whether the person doing the buying is a private individual, a company or a nationalised industry. They must decide which port they wish to use, taking into account their financial position and their commercial judgment. The Government have no right to try to dictate to the National Coal Board or to the Central Electricity Generating Board, or to anyone else, how they should go about consigning individual shipments of coal from the Durham pits to the Thames power stations. This is a commercial judgment and there can be no question of the Government seeking to intervene in the commercial decision.

I am every bit as sorry as the hon. Gentleman to witness the decline in the affairs of the Seaham Harbour Dock Company. I am told that the total traffic has declined from 814,000 tons in 1969, of which 758,000 tons was coal, to a total of about 400,000 tons in 1971, of which only 300,000 tons was coal. I should add that there are imports of timber and wood pulp and shipments of lime, mouldings and other bulk products, but these do not add up to very much. In the recent past the company's main source of revenue has been from the disposal of colliery refuse, but here, too, the total revenue has declined steadily and the last published accounts show that the operating surplus was very small indeed.

The House will know that the Dock Company, which I understand is now under new and vigorous management, has recently deposited a Private Bill seeking powers to borrow and to develop land. The hon. Gentleman may think that this is an indication of an intention on the company's part to pursue as best it can policies that will benefit its undertaking. I am sure that the company would have the hon. Gentleman's support in that direction.

I turn to the other matters raised by the hon. Gentleman, which come within the purview of my Department and are very close to my heart. I refer to the problem of the disposal of colliery waste and the concern of local people and, I need hardly add, my concern about the effect of this pollution on the environment of Seaham and the surrounding area. From time immemorial the classic method of disposing of colliery waste has been to tip it on the sea-shore. This has not been done simply to save money, although that has been a major consideration; the dumping of this waste on the shore has had the practical advantage of providing a measure of sea defence to protect the cliffs from the North Sea gales in winter.

That said, I agree that the tipping of this waste on the shore operates against the best interests of the community. Even on the most favourable view, tipping hardly improves the landscape—I should say, perhaps, the seascape.

Just as in the past green belts have been created to protect our cities and their environment, so my Department looks forward in the future to the creation gradually of blue belts of clean seas around our coasts. This is all the more important because of the increasing international interest being taken in the North Sea's condition. The amount of waste tipped on the shore in this area is currently about 1½ million tons a year. It will be readily understood that this is no small problem. There is no easy solution.

We have to remember that the National Coal Board has an economic interest in these matters which ought not to be overlooked, particularly because of its impact on unemployment. A number of schemes to reduce the pollution have been considered. There was the possibility of selling the waste and shipping it to Holland. Various other proposals have been put forward. My Department takes very seriously the pollution aspect. A working party of officials of all the Departments concerned and the National Coal Board has, for example, been examining all of the implications, financial and otherwise, of off-shore disposal of colliery waste in a better fashion. The Working Party has not yet completed its work and I cannot anticipate the terms of its report, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that Seaham, as a possible place for shipping the waste to other destinations, is one of the places that could conceivably benefit as a port if the intention could be realised of removing that waste and dumping it elsewhere.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we appreciate the problems of Seaham to which he has drawn attention. I refer him to the White Paper on Financial Policy for Ports—Cmnd. 4794. I refer to hon. Gentlemen also to the fact that the new Dock Company is proceeding with energy and enthusiasm to help itself. If there is any advice which can be given by my Department or, better still perhaps, by the National Ports Council, to that company in its endeavours, I assure the hon. Gentleman that that advice will be very willingly made available.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to One o'clock.