HC Deb 16 November 1984 vol 67 cc897-906

Order for Second Reading read.

9.48 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill concerns two issues relating to former mineral workings. Its main purpose — and all but one of its clauses relate to this — is to wind up the ironstone restoration fund now that there is so little remaining ironstone working in England. The second purpose, with which clause 7 deals, enables local authorities to get on to land quickly to take remedial action when they have reason to believe that there is a risk of subsidence because of former underground mineral workings.

The problem with the ironstone restoration fund is that, although its income has dried up with the marked reduction in ironstone working, it is still required to finance agricultural aftercare and afforestation. After 30 years of useful life in which it has almost, but not quite, completed its task, the fund is able to meet its remaining financial obligations only with the help of substantial voluntary assistance from the British Steel Corporation.

The BSC is the only major operator still extracting ironstone in the United Kingdom, and for some years it has been the only operator contributing to the fund. It is already bearing the fund's financial burdens on an informal basis. The time has come to wind up the fund, to transfer such money as will be left to the BSC and to provide for the necessary future aftercare and afforestation.

The fund was set up under the Mineral Workings Act 1951 in response to increasing public anxiety about the dereliction of land in the east midlands ironstone field. The working of ironstone by opencast methods is not a 20th-century phenomenon, but has been going on for centuries. However, the dereliction was new. Until about 1914 ironstone working was confined mainly to the shallower seams of ore, which were cheap and easy to restore by back-filling as part of the extraction process. It was normal to restore the land as extraction progressed, and restoration was usually required by the terms of the operator's lease from the ironstone royalty owner. The pressure for production to meet the demands of the first world war changed that. Operators were driven to work deeper seams, restoration became less easy and more expensive and, inevitably, an increasing quantity of worked ironstone was left unrestored.

By 1950 about 2,500 acres of land were unrestored in Northamptonshire alone. The then Minister for Local Government and Planning, the late Mr. Hugh Dalton, described areas he visited as resembling deserts of the moon … horrible to behold … and bound to have the most depressing effect upon the morale of all those living near them. The then Government were faced with a serious problem. Their solution was to designate those areas that they considered most vulnerable as the "ironstone district" and to set up the ironstone restoration fund to fulfil three main functions: to meet the full cost of reclaiming the land; to facilitate the full restoration of future workings; and to assist owners and occupiers of restored land to return it to beneficial after-use for agriculture and forestry. Today the fund is administered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

The system of finance worked quite well during the years in which the British steel industry was buoyant, but over the years technical and economic developments have reduced the demand for locally dug ore. Contributions to the fund decreased as the rate of extraction fell. As a result the fund is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. This year the generosity of BSC has come to the fore. It has voluntarily undertaken to pay nearly £400,000 over and above its required operator's levy to keep the fund afloat until 31 March 1985.

Without that contribution from the BSC the fund would be nearly £105,000 in the red. Expenditure in the region of £290,000 is estimated and the Exchequer would have to supplement the regular BSC contributions by a further £600,000 to keep the fund afloat until the end of the current PESC period, which is 31 March 1987.

The fund has done a good job, but it is now at the end of its useful life. The circumstances which gave it birth have been overtaken by events. The small, environmentally irresponsible operators have disappeared from the ironstone scene and have been replaced by a responsible nationalised industry. The pre-1950 dereliction has been restored, and most of the land worked since that date has been repaired and returned to beneficial after-use.

Some land is still being worked for the steel industry, but that is all either within the ownership of the BSC or under its control. All that remains is to complete the aftercare work on a handful of the most recently restored sites. I shall explain how we propose to deal with those in a moment. In short, we believe that the time has come to give the fund a decent burial, which is what the ironstone provisions of the Bill set out to do.

Clauses 1 to 3 and 6 contain provisions to wind up the fund, to transfer its assets to the BSC and to make general house-keeping arrangements to tidy up its final account.

The main meat is contained in clauses 4 and 5, which make arrangements in recognition of the fact that some owners and occupiers, whose land has already been restored with financial help from the fund, still have legitimate expectations from it in respect of the agricultural aftercare or afforestation of their land. I fear that at first sight those arrangements may appear a little arcane. That is because they are essentially transitional provisions and must therefore reflect the rather complicated aftercare arrangements contained in the 1951 Act.

Clause 4 is a transitional provision to honour arrangements which have been made to return land to agricultural use. Under section 20 of the 1951 Act, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food may enter into arrangements with the owners or occupiers of land which has received restoration payments from the fund to make grants for work to bring it to a good state of cultivation and fertility. His expenses in so doing may be defrayed out of the fund.

Most of the section 20 arrangements have already been completed but, as I mentioned earlier, there are still a handful of sites£about 16£on which some aftercare work has still to be done. The purpose of clause 4 is to enable my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to continue to honour those agreements for a transitional period and for his expenses to be met by the BSC.

All of the arrangements must be made before section 20 is repealed on 1 April 1985. Where they relate to the aftercare of land restored before 1 January 1984, the arrangements may persist until completion or until 31 March 1990, whichever is the earlier.

The cut-off date has been set at the end of March 1990 because that is five years from the introduction of the transitional arrangements, and because Parliament accepted that five years was a reasonable period for aftercare when it passed section 5 of the Minerals Act 1981. In fact, the reality of our arrangements is a little more generous because land restored by the end of 1983 could have the benefit of six and a quarter years' aftercare, and the statutory cut-off date will not apply to the one or two sites restored after 1983. The arrangements for those may persist for whatever period is specified in the formal agreement.

Clause 5 makes similar transitional arrangements for land which has been restored with the assistance of payments from the fund and is being returned to forestry. The afforestation arrangements are rather different from those made for agricultural aftercare but I am afraid just as arcane because of the 1951 provisions which they reflect.

Under section 25(1) of the 1951 Act, the forestry commissioners may pay a special grant at an agreed rate to assist with the return of worked ironstone land within the ironstone district to a condition suitable for afforestation. The grant does not form part of the normal forestry grant. The commissioners' expenses on that special grant are defrayed from the ironstone restoration fund. The provisions of clause 5 will oblige the BSC to reimburse the commissioners' expenses on that special grant until 31 March 1990, provided that it has been consulted about the rate of the grant.

It is important to recognise that the clause 5 arrangements relate only to the special grant which ironstone landowners and occupiers receive from the forestry commissioners. Their normal forestry grant under section 1 of the Forestry Act 1978 will in no way be disturbed by the transitional provisions of clause 5.

Those then are the ironstone provisions. They have been worked out in full consultation between officials of my Department, the BSC and the Ironstone Royalty Owners Association, which represents the interested landowners. Other Government Departments with an interest and local authorities in the ironstone district have also been consulted. In short, what is proposed is little more than a sensible regularisation of the informal position which, in essence, already exists. But the provisions are framed around the expectation that the fund can be wound up and the new arrangements put in its place in time for the BSC to assume its new responsibilities at the beginning of the next financial year.

The purpose of clause 7 is to give local authorities a power to enter land to survey, monitor or carry out reclamation works where subsidence has occurred or is likely to occur as a result of former underground mineral workings. Any proposal to introduce a new power to enter private land is a matter of obvious public importance and natural concern, and I should like to take time to explain to the House the background to it and why the Government consider the power is needed.

The widespread existence of old limestone workings in parts of the west midlands has been known for many years, but prior to 1978 it was generally thought that, if over time any underground collapse were to occur, it would have little effect on the surface. However, in that year subsidence over deep workings in Sandwell caused substantial damage to industrial buildings, serious enough to cause considerable concern about where else in the area other subsidence from old workings might be threatened. Accordingly, my Department along with the borough councils of Dudley, Sandwell and Walsall and the West Midlands county council commissioned Ove Arup and Partners to carry out a comprehensive study to determine the nature and scale of the problem.

The report was published in July last year. It identified a number of areas of limestone mining which were not suspected previously. It also highlighted the considerable degree of uncertainty regarding the precise extent and condition of many of the workings. I visited several of the worst affected sites and saw at first hand the problems which the authorities and the people of the region must face. I also met representatives of the financial institutions.

An action programme has been set up under the derelict land reclamation scheme with the aim of resolving the problem, and we have appointed an advisory panel, under the chairmanship of Sir Edward Parkes, to assist in this. The local authorities in the area are developing a programme of, remedial work that will continue for some years. One of the first things identified as an essential need in the work was the importance of being able to gain access to sites that were found to be at risk, and to take prompt action. Many old mine workings lie below land that is privately owned, sometimes in multiple ownership, and I have no doubt that in most cases the consent of owners and occupiers to enter their land, to survey it and to carry out the remedial work will be freely given. It is obviously in their interests to do so.

However, there will almost certainly be cases—we have evidence of this already—where, through natural reluctance, or because of their absence, the consent of owners or occupiers will not be forthcoming within the necessary time. Delay would put not only their land, but their neighbours' land, at even greater risk. That is why the urgent action that may be required from time to time needs the backing of the new power. As the House will have noticed, the new application of the power is not confined to the west midlands. It will be available, and wisely used, where similar problems may arise. We are already aware of many other areas where there are such workings.

Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

My hon. Friend says that the power will have a wider geographical application than just the west midlands. Will he make it clear that the Bill affects only those areas listed in schedule 1 and that, despite what clause 7(2) says about, underground mining operations other than for coal", he is talking only about previous ironstone operations, not about the underground mine workings?

Mr. Macfarlane

If my hon. Friend studies my earlier words, he will discover that clause 7 deals with a completely different problem. I am confining my remarks mostly to the problems of the west midlands, but they could occur elsewhere. I shall enlarge upon this matter in a few moments.

The context in which the new powers will be exercised is set out in subsections (1) to (4) of the clause. Hon. Members will note the strictly limited purposes described in subsection (3) for which the power of entry may be exercised. Subsection (2) defines "relevant operations" by reference to section 89(2) of the 1949 Act. For the immediate convenience of the House, I might mention that these are defined simply as underground mining operations, except coal mining, which have ceased to be carried out.

Subsections (5) to (9) provide fairly elaborate safeguards for the occupier of land to which entry is wanted. Subsection (10) provides a penalty for wilful obstruction. Subsections (11) and (12) contain the important provisions for compensation for loss, damage or disturbance. Subsection (13) is a standard provision for arbitration in case of disputes over compensation.

In speaking to the clause on Second Reading, I should bring two points to the attention of the House. Subsection (5) requires seven days' notice of intended entry to be given to an occupier. The occupier was chosen as being the man on the spot with whom a local authority could deal quickly, whereas, highly desirable though it may be, an owner who is not also the occupier may be difficult to trace, with risk of unwanted delay.

We now consider it essential, to safeguard the rights of owners, that they, too, should be notified. One way of overcoming the problem of the difficulty in tracing owners is to have recourse to the reserve power in subsection (7) for a justice of the peace to authorise entry by warrant if access to the owner cannot easily be obtained. Accordingly, I am happy to tell the House that I shall be tabling an amendment in Committee to secure the requirement that notice of intended entry must be given to the owner as well as to the occupier, with recourse to a justice of the peace in case of serious difficulty in tracing the owner or obtaining his consent.

The second point concerns subsection (3), which authorises entry for the purposes of survey or carrying out remedial works. A local authority's power to carry out remedial works lies in the general derelict land reclamation power of section 89(2) of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. Subsection (3), however, does not permit works to be carried out under subsection (2) except with the consent of all persons interested in the land. So that, while the power to enter land without consent, if necessary, to survey it subsists in subsection (3)(b) and (c) of our clause, the same is not the case, as the text stands, in respect of the power to carry out remedial works without consent. The power of entry on to the land without consent for the purpose of doing works would not be of any practical use if the works could not be carried out because someone with an interest in the land had not given his consent.

Therefore, to make the provisions of the clause fully effective in respect of entry to carry out works, I am proposing to table an amendment to the Bill to override that constraint in urgent cases. I should emphasise that the intention would be to impose strict conditions on the exercise of the power to safeguard the position of owners.

10.5 am

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

I apologise to the Minister and to the House for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), who should have been here today. He was abroad yesterday on parliamentary business, and I am afraid that he is one of the many thousands of people who are waiting to land at Heathrow airport this morning. His aeroplane is circling somewhere above us, and I am sure his thoughts are with us.

The Opposition take no exception to the Bill as it stands. We shall wish to make a few detailed points in Committee, but by and large we welcome the Bill. I thank the Minister for the clear way in which he explained it to the House.

10.6 am

Mr. Roger Freeman (Kettering)

The Bill will have important consequences for my constituency of Kettering in Northamptonshire, and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak during the Second Reading debate. To set the record straight, I assure my hon. Friend the Minister that my constituency no longer resembles the deserts of the moon. My hon. Friend referred to Dr. Hugh Dalton, whose initiative many years ago was important in setting up the ironstone restoration fund. It is appropriate, when one considers the subject of today's debate, that in some quarters of the Labour party he was called the iron Chancellor.

Ironstone working has now stopped in Northamptonshire. It reached its peak in about 1970 when iron ore was needed for the Corby steel works. With the sad closure of those works in 1980, no more iron ore was needed. Although working has ended, the affected landowners and occupiers have a continuing interest in the ironstone restoration fund and the provisions of the Bill for changing the finances for restoration work. It is important for the House to appreciate that there are two sorts of restoration for old ironstone workings. The first is where the old quarries are filled in; as my hon. Friend told the House, that work has largely finished in Northamptonshire. The second aspect of restoration is the aftercare, when the land is brought back into agricultural and forestry use. I am primarily concerned with the aftercare restoration.

Under the Mineral Workings Acts of 1951 and 1971, a tripartite system was set up to administer the ironstone restoration fund. Each of the three parties—the Government, the steel companies and the quarry owners—contributed to a fund to pay for the restoration of the quarries and the additional measures necessary to bring the land back into agricultural and forestry use.

I speak in part on behalf of the Ironstone Royalty Owners Association, which has a direct interest in the winding up of the fund proposed by the Bill. I should say at the outset that I broadly welcome the Bill and commend it to the House. The points that worry me can be dealt with in Committee, and I shall allude to them only briefly now. Before doing so, may I compliment my hon. Friend the Minister and his officials on the fair and open way in which they discussed with the landowners possible changes to the fund. It was much appreciated.

I also congratulate the British Steel Corporation on the expeditious and efficient way in which it restored almost 1,900 acres of open gullets in the Kettering and Corby areas during the past three years. I had practical experience last week of examining some of the restoration work done by the British Steel Corporation in the middle of my constituency, and that has been completed in an efficient manner. As this is only a Second Reading debate, I shall make only a few comments. In Committee, when we give the Bill further consideration, I shall be able to debate these points in more detail.

It is important to enshrine in the Bill the essential principle that any variation to arrangements affecting agricultural land agreed between my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and all the interested parties before 1 April 1985—that date is acceptable to the landowners—shall be made only with the written approval of all the interested parties. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, the Bill provides only that written approval should be obtained from the BSC. Clause 4(2) should include the need for the Minister to obtain also the written approval of the landowners and occupiers. It is important to retain the tripartite system on which the original fund was based.

The Bill is based on limiting the life of arrangements for aftercare of restored land where the basic work—filling in the holes—was completed by 1 January 1984, to a cut-off date of 1 April 1990. I can understand the desire of the Government and BSC to have a definite limitation to the period of financial commitment. That is logical, but I stress that subsidence after restoration work can occur beyond the five years from the completion of that work. What happens if there is subsidence after 1990?

I am sure that the Government will agree that such subsidence may occur. It is undeniable that, for geological reasons, it may do so. The Government's arguments may be that this subsidence may be minor and hence not many landowners will be affected, and that, in any case, if they are affected by subsidence after 1990, they can resort to the land drainage grant system. However, if the drainage grant system disappears, the landowners will be left without any financial support or recourse. I am asking only for an assurance by the Minister—not for any wholesale change in the Bill—and some comforting words that it is not intended to leave the landowners particularly vulnerable after 1990 should they suffer subsidence relating to the original restoration work.

One unknown factor that has not yet been encountered is the consequence of large-scale restoration work completed in a short time. We do not have a precedent, to establish whether and on what scale subsidence may occur.

I am also concerned about the procedure for determining forestry grants. The Bill proposes that the forestry commissioners shall decide on the rate of grants after consultation with the BSC, which ultimately will have to bear the cost. I am referring here to clause 5. I am unhappy that there is no provision in clause 5(1) for an annual review of such grants, which is surely both equitable and practicable, and is also the practice in present arrangements.

I am also concerned that there is no provision for the Forestry Commission to consult representatives of the landowners as defined in clause 4(1) of the Mineral Workings Act 1971. Is it not reasonable to ask that the Government should consult not only the ultimate payers of the grant — BSC — but also the recipients? The recipients of the grant have a legitimate right to be consulted as well.

I support the Bill, but I hope that the Minister will give us at least an assurance that he will review my points before we discuss them in detail in Committee. At that stage I hope not only to bring up these points but several other detailed points raised by the Northamptonshire county council, which has been in recent communication with me.

10.15 am
Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

I had not intended to intervene, because I had no reason for doing so other than to give my support to the proposals for restoration in areas where there has been ironstone working, but my hon. Friend the Minister replied very sharply to what was a modest request for information, and one wonders why he should respond in quite such a manner if the answer to the question is not as I might have feared.

I shall confine my comments to clause 7. It is reasonable on Second Reading to ask just what is the extent of the Bill's operations and whether, within the confines of what is intended to be a fairly narrow measure for restoration in carefully defined geographical areas, there is a power which may be used by local authorities in other contexts to examine areas which have been used for the working of ironstone.

Clause 7 applies where a local authority has been given certain powers for the purpose of reclaiming or improving land"— in which relevant operations have been … carried out". In subsection (2) "relevant operations" are defined, not as limestone workings, but as underground mining operations other than for coal. That is a wide definition. If the geographical limitations are not specifically those set out in schedule 1, this may have enormously wide ramifications and would be an extension of the powers which local authorities already have to enter land. If that is intended, it should be spelt out clearly on Second Reading.

I press the point about geographical areas because, if I do not misquote my hon. Friend the Minister, both in his original comments and in his response to me he said that the clause would have a much wider operation than merely in the west midlands. Would it not be simple for my hon. Friend, in replying to the debate, and in response to a direct question, to say that it will apply to those areas listed in schedule 1? We shall then all know where we are, and those of us who have an interest in the powers of local authorities other than in the restoration of ironstone workings will not have our fears raised.

It is desirable, before we vote on Second Reading, to know that it is intended that the Bill will apply only to the geographical areas delineated in schedule 1, and that in so far as it applies to mining operations other than those for the mining of limestone it will be limited to such mining operations within those geographical areas.

10.19 am
Mr. Macfarlane

I thank the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) for taking the place of his hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), whom we hope will have a successful landing and will be returned to the House as quickly as possible. I know that the hon. Gentleman is most diligent. I understand the circumstances of his absence and I look forward to his participation in Committee.

I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) to study what I said earlier. All the assurances and guarantees that he and I want are contained in the Bill. I have hinted that I shall have to draft amendments for Committee to ensure that those provisions are honoured.

The new application of the power is not confined to the west midlands. There could be other problems elsewhere. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) asked what would happen if there were subsidence after 1990. There may be a longer-term problem, which the Government and local authorities will have to work together to overcome.

The current problem has been prompted by difficulties in the west midlands and no one should underestimate them. We have a responsibility to ensure that if such problems arise elsewhere we have the necessary powers and safeguards available to us. That is why I shall be tabling amendments.

Most provisions of the Bill apply only in the ironstone district, but clause 7 applies to the whole of England and Wales. I am convinced that we need the powers in that clause to ensure that problems do not arise again.

This is essentially a two-purpose Bill. The first and essential purpose is to wind up the ironstone restoration fund, and the second purpose is to empower local authorities to enter land for the purpose of surveying, monitoring and carrying out remedial work when they have reason to believe that there is a risk of serious subsidence because of instability caused by former underground mineral workings. The scene could be wider than the west midlands and we must be vigilant.

I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. We are not poles apart on many of the points that he raised and I shall consider some of his suggestions. There is a system, involving my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, to ensure that grants can be made.

As for the tripartite arrangement on notification and discussion, I am the most malleable of Ministers on a Friday morning and I should like to consider what my hon. Friend said and come back to him in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 42 (Committal of Bills).