HC Deb 17 March 1982 vol 20 cc357-9 3.30 pm
Mr. John Heddle (Lichfield and Tamworth)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Coal Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957 and the Coal Industry Act 1975; to make new provision for the making of payments in respect of damage and consequential losses caused by subsidence resulting from the working of coal; for the notification of withdrawal of support from land; and for connected purposes. The present law on compensation, which has not been revised for some 25 years and which gives the National Coal Board considerable discretion in the treatment of claims for compensation, falls well short of protecting adequately the interests of individual home owners, tenants, business men and farmers, whose property is often damaged well beyond repair by coal mining and subsidence.

With the threat—I use that word advisedly—of coal mining hanging over huge areas of the country for many years to come, proper advance notice of mining activities and full compensation to cover consequential losses from subsidence, as is available in all other European countries, is essential in the United Kingdom.

Hon. Members will know that some legal obligations are devolved to the NCB to make good or to compensate for damage caused by subsidence and mining activities. Broadly speaking, those obligations relate only to damage to land and buildings. The legal obligation on the NCB is too loosely defined. Mr. and Mrs. John Citizen are not adequately protected in law. Nor can they necessarily be assured of receiving fair compensation for damage to their home, business premises, farm or smallholding, or for nuisance or disturbance, as would be the case if their property was in the way of a new motorway or bypass.

The reason is simple. The NCB has a duty to compensate the public according to a code of practice, but that code of practice has absolutely no standing in law. It is capable of being interpreted for the convenience of the NCB and cannot readily be challenged by an aggrieved house owner, business man, farmer or smallholder who is perhaps unfamiliar with the nooks and crannies of compensation law. Unlike the application of compensation law in all other respects, the NCB has wide discretion as to how and when to pay compensation. The board therefore has the psychological advantage of being able to act as judge and jury.

Judging from the heart-rending correspondence with many of my constituents in Staffordshire, the board has been known to offer compensation to property owners and tenants on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. I illustrate my point by drawing attention to a question and answer in a National Coal Board booklet entitled "How to make claims under the Act". It says: Will the repairs always restore the property completely to its condition before the damage? No. in most cases the Coal Board's obligation is to do such repairs and re-decorations as are needed to make the property reasonably fit for its use at the time that the damage occurred. Who is to say what was the state of the property when the damage occurred? Moreover, who will determine the definition of "reasonably fit"?

I understood that the basis of compensation in a fair and equitable society was to restore the property to its original state or, if that is not possible, to compensate the owner in full. My Bill would give home owners, business men, farmers and smallholders that basic right in law.

Furthermore, the person whose property is affected by subsidence is surely unable to quantify the damage unless he or she has the opportunity to prepare a schedule of the condition of the property before the damage takes place.

The Bill requires the NCB to notify owners and occupiers of property which is liable to be affected by mining that damage is likely. It also requires that such notice should be given at least three months before work commences, to enable the property owner or tenant to prepare a schedule. At the moment, the NCB is obliged merely to place a notice in the public notices section of a local newspaper and in the London Gazette. How many of our consituents make a regular habit of reading the public notices section of their local newspaper? How often do hon. Members read the London Gazette from cover to cover?

The Bill will ensure that the intention to mine is revealed in local searches, in order to put prospective property purchasers from outside a mining area and their solicitors, who may not be familiar with that area, on inquiry. At present, the NCB has no legal duty to advise of its intentions. Nor do local authorities have any legal duty to reveal the position or extent of mining activity.

The Coal Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957 stipulates that compensation shall be based upon the amount that the property has depreciated or the cost of carrying out remedial work, whichever is the less. That is unfair. Sufficent compensation should be paid to restore a property to its former state, or, if that is impossible because the damage is so extensive, there should be sufficent to provide the aggrieved party with suitable alternative or, of practicable, identical accommodation.

Many thousands of acres of good, fertile, cultivable agricultural land are rendered unproductive and unworkable by mining activity each year. It is imperative to protect our declining stock of land. Restoration work should be carried out wherever possible, even though the cost of restoration may exceed the value of the land.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

It all has to come off the shovel.

Mr. Heddle

If the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) were to listen, he might hear something that is advantageous to his constituents.

Mr. Skinner

Not from a landowner.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) must not shout out from a sedentary position all the time. The House cannot conduct its business in that way.

Mr. Heddle

The Bill seeks to make the NCB responsible in law for consequential losses, as is already the case for householders whose property is taken in whole or in part under the Land Compensation Act 1973.

The coal industry occupies a vital and unique place in our economy and has a duty to work to win coal. For the benefit of the hon. Member for Bolsover, I am not a mining surveyor—

Mr. Skinner

The hon. Gentleman is a valuer.

Mr. Heddle

—or a mining valuer. I in no way criticise the conduct or attitude of the NCB or its employees whose duty it is to operate the code of conduct fairly and equitably.

In the light of the many letters that I and no doubt many hon. Members have received, and in view of the publicity given to heart-rending cases in which whole communities have suffered because of coal mining subsidence, I suggest that the public would be better protected if compensation were put on the same independent basis as all other forms of compensation—in the hands of an independent moderator or umpire. The National Coal Board should be divested of its role as judge and jury and cede the robes to the district valuer. Only then can Mr. and Mrs. John Citizen know that their compensation is determined not at the behest or whim of an interested party, but on the basis of fairness and equity.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Heddle, Sir Derek Walker-Smith, Sir Hugh Fraser, Mr. Jack Ashley, Mr. Tony Durant, Mr. Sydney Chapman and Mr. Patrick Cormack.