HC Deb 12 February 1986 vol 91 cc1072-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Donald Thompson.]

11.59 pm
Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)

I thank the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt), for his kindness in waiting up so late to respond to my Adjournment motion. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, for taking such an interest in the debate, which concerns an underground fire in a coal seam at Oakthorpe.

Who would have thought a few years ago that the village of Oakthorpe in the depths of Leicestershire would have achieved such fame and notoriety. We would rather not have that fame and notoriety. If we were not debating people's homes, investments and lives, the facts would be amusing. Few can have the doubtful pleasure of living above a smouldering coal seam with a temperature of 60 degrees celsius a few feet below the surface providing their own central heating. Even fewer can have gone to dig up potatoes in their back gardens to find them already baked, as Mr. Bates of School street did recently.

Oakthorpe is a most attractive mining village, close to the Derbyshire border of Leicestershire. Mining has been carried out in the area since the thirteenth century. Currently there are a number of active deep mines in the area.

As well as coal seams at a deep level, in the area of School street, there is a shallow seam of coal which outcrops just south of School street. It inclines away from School street at an angle of about 20 degrees in a northerly direction. This outcrop is composed of a sulphurous coal which is capable of, apparently, spontaneous combustion when exposed to sufficient air. It is that which is causing the problem.

I hasten to add that the outcrop is limited in its width to the east and west by major geological faults and that a large part of the village has nothing to fear. Furthermore, since the outcrop inclines so rapidly it reaches a substantial depth by the time it reaches an area called New street and beyond. I say this immediately, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because there is a fear, bordering on panic, among some villagers who would not be affected. There has also been a substantial loss of confidence in the property market for homes that would not be affected. I say to prospective purchasers and vendors: consult the divisional surveyor of the Leicestershire county council, who will be able to explain the outcropping and the geological faults and the facts about the property to be purchased or sold.

In September 1983, a property known as The Bungalow, in School street, suffered substantial damage. As is common in a mining area, the National Coal Board was notified and in September 1984 it sank boreholes. Those showed that the ambient temperatures were substantially raised. However, the board denied liability and did nothing to halt the fire, inform the county, the district or the parish councils, or adjacent property owners. It even did a smoke test which showed an influx of air—the very cause of combustion. As a result of that failure to notify anyone, the fire continued to smoulder unchecked. On 4 April 1985, the county council noticed a deformation of the carriageway, and that the garden area of No. 59 had subsided. The NCB was contacted and denied and liability. By mid-July, Mr. Sparham at The Bungalow was forced to evacuate his house due to a structural change and at the end of July smoke issued from another depression in the garden of No. 59 which belonged to a Mrs. Kent.

Leicestershire county council moved into action and engaged consultants who commenced monitoring procedures for subsidence, temperatures and gaseous emissions. By mid-October the consultants had produced an interim report and the possible extent of the problem was becoming apparent. It was at that stage that I was told of the problem and became involved.

In early November the consultants' first report was received and it was agreed by the county council that a borehole investigation would have to be done to find out the extent of the fire. On 18 November I met the county council's environment committee, which is chaired by Mr. Eric Lodge. I praise Mr. Lodge for the decisive and caring way in which he has dealt with the problem. At that meeting reports were given which stressed the potential dangers and spread of the fire. The NCB had the expertise and detailed knowledge of the area, but was hardly involved, for fear that it might be considered that it was admitting liability.

After that meeting I sought an urgent meeting with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy. He immediately recognised the emergency and promised the involvement of the NCB. I am very grateful for the way in which my hon. Friend has dealt with the problem and for the help, assistance and guidance that he has given. I have been told that there are few meetings in his Department at which the problem of Oakthorpe does not arise at some stage.

In the meantime, two further disasters had overtaken the village. Mrs. Kent's house had become so unfit for habitation, due to subsidence caused by the fire, that it had to be demolished. Mrs. Kent was rehoused by the North-West Leicestershire district council.

By November, the media were getting interested in Oakthorpe and when Mr. Bates dug up his ready-baked potatoes the story reached the national headlines. It was the subject of chat shows and "Any Questions" on the BBC and was even featured on Chinese television. However, the story masked the anxieties that Mr. Bates and his aged mother were having about their home, which was literally falling to bits about them.

There are 100 properties in the area that could be affected by the fire and 30 of them have already been affected in one way or another. Since my request to the Under-Secretary, the Coal Board has been increasingly involved. It has done a thermal survey and has four rigs in the area, drilling and injecting grouting to fill the voids left by the burning seam. I am told that in April the NCB will be moving in four more rigs to under pin and protect the local school. The board is working on the protection of The Gate public house by trenching and boring.

The NCB has publicly committed itself to do all that is necessary. The residents of Oakthorpe and I are grateful for its response. However, the NCB is always careful in its statements. It is anxious not to admit liability for the damage. However, as the NCB owns the coal, as it did nothing to stop the fire after its borings in September 1984 and as it has been mining to within 250 m of School street, many of us say that the board has a liability under the Coal-Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957.

As we agreed in November, when I met the Minister, we are dealing with people's homes and not with piles of bricks. We are grateful that the NCB has been acting speedily to save those homes. Although the board has taken the initiative in carrying out remedial work, the extent of the proposed works is not clear.

We should like a statement from the Government or the NCB that they will deal comprehensively with the problem, whatever its extent. We should like to hear that the cost will be borne by the Government, or the NCB. We should like to hear that the NCB or the Government will meet the full cost of repairs to property and infrastructure caused by this underground heating and its associated subsidence, including all the necessary redecorating to property and reinstatement of gardens.

Not only have foul sewers been damaged, but grouting has filled such things as drainage outfalls, all of which will have to be relaid. The county council has incurred large costs in dealing with the crisis, and a unique disaster of this sort should not be a burden on the ratepayer.

I have seen a letter from the Minister of State, Department of the Environment to the chief executive of the county council, dated 5 February. This letter shows sympathy, but it is sympathy without commitment. I am asking for that commitment.

There are other areas where environmental crises have been due to former mining operations. I am told that in Barnsley and Strathkelvin district methane gas leaking from old workings had gone into the buildings above and been a problem.

In Blaeneu Gwent, three houses over old workings collapsed. A mountainside was destabilised and it is sliding slowly into 170 houses. This was first noted in 1980. If action had been taken then, rather than in 1986, any action would have been far cheaper than it is now. It would have been better to act sooner rather than later.

Simply because this fire is slow burning, is it any less a disaster than if it were a sudden demolition of property? Is it any less a loss of property or hardship to those living in the area because there has fortunately been no loss of life or injury? This is a real and continuing emergency on a large scale, which demands Government action.

There are some possibilities and some solutions. Could the Department of the Environment and the Welsh and Scottish Offices perhaps consider an emergency fund as an insurance? If such a fund could finance immediate remedial work and reclaim costs from whoever was judged responsible for this cost later on, a great deal of good would be done. This would allow the immediate work to be done before the problems worsen, and it would not require anyone to prejudice their legal rights. While some might be insured, the insurance does not always cover all the problems, nor is everyone fully covered.

One very important aspect is that some people are quite unable to sell their properties. Mr. and Mrs. Bown, who have a property, at present unaffected, at 87 School street, in May 1985 purchased another property and put theirs on the market. Then the story of Oakthorpe broke, and although one or two people expressed an interest, they broke off negotiations for fear of the fire.

Can something not be done about this very real hardship? At the very least, either the owners should be compensated for the loss of market value caused by that fire, or the Government or the NCB should purchase, at full market price, any property in the area affected by the heat, if the owner wishes to sell.

These disasters are not unknown in the mining villages. My hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) and for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), who are both from coal mining areas, know these problems well. I am rather surprised that not one person is on the Labour or SDP Benches to discuss the suffering of a mining village. They care very little for these mining villages.

We should like a statement of NCB liability, but we realise the real difficulty in which the NCB may be placed by the 1957 Act. We cannot wait for the result of a court case to relieve the situation in Oakthorpe. Even if we had a court case and the NCB were found not to be liable, could the Government abandon the people of Oakthorpe?

In the spirit of our discussions throughout, I do not ask for a finding of legal liability. Instead, I ask for action. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to visit Oakthorpe to see the work that the NCB has been doing and to obtain the facts for himself. Above all, I ask him to meet those who are affected, the local councillor, Mr. Horace Sankey, to whom I must pay tribute for his dedicated assistance, and county council officials. I ask that my hon. Friend visits the area to show that the Government care and to lift the morale and confidence of the residents in the area.

12.15 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. David Hunt)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) on securing an important opportunity to draw attention to the difficulties faced by the people of Oakthorpe. My hon. Friend has acquired a well-deserved reputation as a diligent and effective constituency Member and on this topic he has argued tirelessly and strongly for a just and equitable solution to the problems that he has outlined. I welcome this opportunity to participate in the debate. I do so primarily as a member of the Government, but I am the Minister with special responsibility for the coal industry.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his eloquent account of the events at Oakthorpe and of the impact on the people there. I and many of my ministerial colleagues—I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold), the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, on the Government Front Bench—much appreciate the concern which must be felt by those living in and around the village and by the bodies concerned, the two local authorities—Leicestershire county council and the North-West Leicestershire district council—and the National Coal Board, irrespective of any issues of liability. I am pleased to see present tonight my hon. Friends the Members for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) and for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), both of whom have been strong supporters of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West in his determination to help those of his constituents who are facing serious difficulties.

One of the things which tends to characterise a community at a time of difficulty is the way in which all concerned pull together to deal with the problem in hand. I understand that all three of the parties I have mentioned are working closely together to do what is necessary to fight the fire and to deal with the consequences.

The Government have been following with close interest and concern events at Oakthorpe since the fire was first drawn to their attention last autumn. I have received letters from a number of people who live at Oakthorpe. They have been very moving letters. I am therefore pleased to be able to report to the House tonight that much positive progress has been made in helping them.

I have been regularly informed by the National Coal Board of the action which it has decided to take. I have been impressed by the depth of its concern. It has not waited for legal wrangles about liability—a matter which can be settled ultimately only by the courts—before taking action as a good neighbour at Oakthorpe. I understand that it has brought together its own mining expertise and that of contractors specially brought in to work there to consider how to fight the fire and how to deal with the effect of the damage by the underground heating on properties in the area. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West has paid tribute to that. The business of tracing the origins of the fire and then of dealing with it is, I am told, a specialised engineering feat.

Since the beginning of January a highly specialised firm of construction engineers under contract to the board has completed an initial drilling programme. The purpose of this was exploratory, to ascertain ground temperature and so plot the fire's course. Several drilling rigs made a total of 62 boreholes and the evidence from these has led the board to instruct the contractors to embark on an extensive exercise to limit and dowse the fire.

The current operation involves constructing a cement curtain around each individual property affected, with the object of shielding it from the effects of high temperatures. In addition, the introduction of cement into the surrounding coal seam acts to cut off the underground air flow and so contributes to extinguishing the fire. The cement is pumped into the seam by way of holes drilled around each property or by a surrounding trench. The process is called grouting.

The latest figures from the National Coal Board show that to date the contractor had drilled 182 boreholes and introduced over 88 tonnes of grouting material into the earth. The results of this operation have been encouraging. The grouting of one house is now complete and tests have been carried out. These show early indications that the process is beginning to bring the fire under control. The board has decided therefore to pursue the grouting operation on other properties in close consultation and with the consent of individual owners and tenants.

Furthermore, I have been assured that the health and welfare both of the inhabitants of Oakthorpe and the contractor's employees is a priority during this operation. Regular monitoring and testing of temperature and for the presence of carbon monoxide are being carried out, and remedial measures would be put into effect, if the levels were to rise. Emergency arrangements have been well planned. Some properties have, for example, been fitted with carbon monoxide alarms as a precautionary measure. I understand, having talked to senior officials earlier tonight, that so far there has fortunately been very little evidence of carbon monoxide. That is good news for all concerned.

The National Coal Board is also in regular contact with the Oakthorpe residents' action group, dealing with individual and general queries and the supply of regular information on work in progress. Day-to-day problems are dealt with on the spot by an NCB engineer who visits the village daily. I understand that as part of the general information gathering and dissemination process a further public meeting is to take place.

Remedial work is of course at an early stage as this operation requires precision and expertise, but the National Coal Board has good reason to believe that the methods employed will be successful. Plans are already being formulated for renovation of the sites by landscape gardening. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West will have found this catalogue of National Coal Board action encouraging.

I think that the fire at Oakthorpe demonstrates very convincingly that the NCB is a concerned body which is anxious to do all that it can to relieve hardship to communities. In this case it is not even the board's actions which have caused the problem, nor does it necessarily have any responsibility in the matter. But because NCB staff are best placed technically to provide advice and practical assistance, they have stepped in and co-operated with the local authorities to solve the problem, as I have explained tonight. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestions that the board's actions are the result of my intervention; but I have to tell him that he exaggerates my influence. I am sure that the board acted out of generosity and public spirit.

Throughout the exercise at Oakthorpe, the National Coal Board has been working in close co-operation with the local authorities and their contractors. This is a fine example of community effort. In addition to helping on the technical side, I understand that the local authorities are also taking action to ensure that people in the village are being rehoused, if necessary. I am sure the House will agree that all those concerned have made and are continuing to make strenous efforts to deal swiftly and energetically with the immediate problem of dowsing the underground fire. I congratulate them on their skill, energy and enthusiasm. However, there is a distressing side to the story of which my hon. Friend reminded us tonight. He rightly pointed out that we are speaking of damage to people's homes and the resulting heartache and anxiety caused to a close-knit community. That is, indeed, a serious matter.

The local authorities have been energetic in seeking help to meet costs already incurred. My hon. Friend the Minister for Environment, Countryside and Local Government has been in touch with them recently to ascertain the position, and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West referred to the letter of 5 February. I understand that the Department is now considering the position but is still awaiting from the local authorities my hon. Friend's request for further financial information. I hope that that can be provided as quickly as possible. I know from my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden that her Department will then consider urgently whether any financial assistance would be appropriate.

The question of liability is, however, a complex issue which cannot be addressed without careful consideration of the long-term consequences. Both the Government and. the NCB must remember that they are dealing with public money. The immediate and overriding aim must be to dowse the fire. I hope that I have persuaded the House that the NCB and the other parties concerned are doing all that is humanly possible to do that.

I should like to end by assuring the House and. through my hon. Friend, the people of Oakthorpe that the Government are keeping closely in touch with the position there, and that I and my ministerial colleagues hope that progress will quickly be made to overcome their problems. My hon. Friend has rightly emphasised an invitation for me to visit Oakthorpe, and I thank him for it. I accept the invitation, obviously, without any commitment regarding eventual financial liabilities, but as an opportunity to see for myself the results of work already carried out. providing me with first-hand experience of the position which I can also pass to my hon. Friends at the Department of the Environment.

There will undoubtedly be difficult judgments to make in the future about where responsibilities for this fire lie. But we may congratulate all the parties concerned on being prepared to take action to solve the immediate problems. at Oakthorpe on a without prejudice basis. I know that I can rely on my hon. Friend to keep me in touch with progress, and I hope that what I have said will have done much to reassure the people of Oakthorpe.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Twelve o'clock.