HC Deb 15 January 2001 vol 361 cc174-80

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

1.31 am
Mr. John Healey (Wentworth)

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate on the Coal Authority's records of former mine shafts. I want to draw the House's attention to the problems of a couple in my constituency, Michael and Pauline Ryan, and to press the general case for reform of the way in which the Coal Authority handles the situation when serious doubt is cast on the accuracy of the mining records that it maintains.

Michael and Pauline Ryan bought their semi-detached house in Firth road in West Melton in 1980. That was the biggest investment of their lives, as it is for many couples. It cost them £11,000, and since then they have put a great deal of time and money into improving the house and its gardens. In February 1999, they sold the house and agreed the purchase of another, but 10 days before completion date the buyer pulled out. As Mr. Ryan said, the buyer pulled out leaving us puzzled and well out of pocket. The reason soon became clear. In the mining report supplied to the buyer's solicitor as part of the conveyancing process, the Coal Authority reported a disused mine shaft underneath the neighbour's adjoining property. The authority's report and its stance since have left Mr. and Mrs. Ryan almost £2,000 further out of pocket.

It is no understatement to say that the Ryans were devastated; they did not know where to turn. They were told that the value of their property had been halved. In an area where housing is in plentiful supply and the housing market is slack, buyers are reluctant to run any risk on such a property and lenders are reluctant to offer mortgages if mine shafts may affect the stability of the house in question. When Mr. Ryan first contacted me last February, he told me: A property we have invested 20 years in now seems a liability rather than an asset, through no fault of our own. The problem arises because the reporting requirements changed between 1980, when the Ryans bought their house, and 1999 when they tried to sell it. Until 1989, it was left to solicitors to decide whether to make inquiries about former mine shafts and what to ask. British Coal's practice in reporting such information varied from area to area. That was why, in 1989, the Law Society introduced a standard form with a standard question about any shafts, adits or entries to coal mine workings in the vicinity of the property. However, interpretations of "in the vicinity" of the property still varied, so in 1991 the Law Society, with British Coal, amended the standard form to ask about any shafts within 20 m of the boundary of the property. Mr. Ryan said at the time: We now feel backed into a corner with our only course left a potentially very expensive civil lawsuit against the Coal Authority. Mr. and Mrs. Ryan had paid for legal opinions, but they had also gathered all the relevant maps and records that existed. It became clear to Mr. Ryan—indeed, it has become clear to me as I have studied the evidence over the last few months—that there are serious grounds for doubting the accuracy of the one record, an 1875 geological survey sheet showing a mine shaft under Mr. Ryan's neighbour's property.

In the 1800s, there was a mine nearby with two shafts, both capped and still visible; but they were between 80 and 100 m from Mr. Ryan's property. The pit was called the Cottage of Content, or the West Melton mine. It was, with its shafts, plotted correctly on the 1851 Ordnance Survey map; the shafts were plotted correctly on the 1892 Ordnance Survey map, and on those produced in 1903 and 1905. On all those maps, there was no sign or suggestion of any other shaft in the vicinity of Mr. and Mrs. Ryan's house.

The 1875 record appears to come from two field slips produced by A.H. Green in 1872, when he walked through the best part of south Yorkshire plotting geological features on top of existing Ordnance Survey maps. I have studied the two field slips produced from the area, one clearly prepared in the field and one a fair copy transposed subsequently. The transposition involves a variation in the site of the mine shaft, and there is a clear suggestion that it was incorrectly plotted. The fair copy found its way on to the 1875 British geological survey map, reproduced in 1931. That is the record cited by the Coal Authority in the 1999 mining report on Mr. and Mrs. Ryan's property.

The clinching evidence for me is a mine abandonment plan, and the final closure of the Cottage of Content colliery in 1887. After 1870, all mines that were closed had to produce records of shafts and workings, which were then filed with what is now the Coal Authority. An inspector of mines signed off the abandonment plan for the Cottage of Content colliery on 1 November 1887. It shows two shafts in precisely the position indicated by the Ordnance Survey maps, and underground workings of the Melton field roughly on a north-south axis stretching away from where the third shaft is supposed to be—away from the Ryans' property.

Despite that evidence, the Coal Authority's views remained fixed. In a letter sent to Mr. Ryan last February, N.G. Wilcoxson, operations manager of the Coal Authority, wrote: The fact of the matter is that The Authority holds records which clearly indicate a shaft in the position of Mr. Ryan's neighbour's property. As such we are duty bound to reveal this fact when requested to do so through the procedures of a Law Society coal mining search application. In the same letter, however, Mr. Wilcoxson concedes that the shaft position must be taken as approximate, but the information in our possession does not constitute conclusive proof that this shaft is the same as either of the other two shown on the Ordnance Survey maps, and therefore sufficient evidence does not exist to enable me to delete the shaft from our records. In conversations with the Coal Authority, Mr. Ryan was left in no doubt that even if further evidence was produced, there was no certainty that the Coal Authority would indeed remove the shaft from its mining reports.

I have checked with mining engineers, including a large company that is contracted to the Coal Authority. Geophysical techniques can be used to verify the presence or absence of former mine shafts. Drilling, radar-type techniques and microgravity surveys are among the commonplace techniques these days. The cost of such a report to Mr. Ryan would be £2,000 to £2,500, but the experience of companies that have carried out such surveys, including in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson), who I know would have wished to be here tonight, has been that the Coal Authority will still maintain the shaft on the register, albeit perhaps with some qualification where it has not been found. That problem has been confirmed in my discussions with solicitors, mining advisers and academics as I have researched the problem.

I have four criticisms of the Coal Authority. First, the onus is entirely on the individual to check the accuracy of the Coal Authority's records and reports, with all the time, effort and cost that that entails. Secondly, the Coal Authority appears to take no responsibility for the accuracy of the records that it holds. Thirdly, the Coal Authority has no procedure established for resolving a situation where there is serious dispute or doubt about the accuracy of its records. Finally, it gives no undertaking that if its records are wrong, they will be amended.

Mr. Ryan's plight is not commonplace, but it is not a one-off. The South Yorkshire mining advisory service, which is an admirable body providing advice and expertise to local authorities in South Yorkshire, but not to individuals, maintains that the problem is becoming more common because solicitors are taking more trouble in the searches that they undertake as part of their conveyancing responsibilities.

The Coal Authority does not keep statistics of cases where the accuracy of its maps or records is in dispute, but its latest annual report gives some indication. According to the 1999–2000 report, the authority supplied 370,000 mining reports to solicitors, local authorities and for internal use. Despite those 370,000 mining reports, there were only 1,815 inquiries about its mining records. Of those, 1,292 concerned abandonment plans, 189 geological issues and 99 were coal commission inquiries, leaving 235 in the "other" category. Mr. Ryan's case would have fallen under that category. In the past year, the Coal Authority could have dealt with a maximum of just over 200 cases of that type. Almost certainly, it will deal with many fewer than that.

It is a problem that could occur for any family in any former mining area. Solving it would make small-scale demands of the Coal Authority, but it would make a huge impact on the lives, prospects and peace of mind of families hit by blight to their property.

In the case of Mr. and Mrs. Ryan, there is good news to report. As a result of the interest and inquiries from the Minister's office in the run-up to the debate, the Coal Authority seems to have had another look at the evidence. I quote from a letter dated today to Mr. Ryan from the same N.G. Wilcoxson of the Coal Authority: On 10th January 2001 we received a faxed copy of a letter dated 9th January addressed to you from BGS— the British Geological Survey. This letter contained new information that was sufficient to enable us to delete the shaft from Coal Authority records. I can confirm that future coal mining reports prepared by the authority, for your property, would not disclose this shaft. Although I am delighted for Mr. and Mrs. Ryan, I am disturbed that other people in coalfield areas may suffer the same plight. I ask the Minister to consider that, when there are good grounds for doubting the accuracy of the Coal Authority's records, the authority should be required to have in place a system of checking the accuracy of its own records and to amend them when they are wrong. There should also be a publicised verification procedure, so that individuals such as Mr. Ryan know what they have to produce for the Coal Authority to take their case seriously.

I ask the Minister to consider two points other than the obvious justice of requiring a public body to accept, assess and act on well-founded evidence that it may be in error. First, one of the Coal Authority's duties specified in the Coal Industry Act 1994—which established it—and as the authority's current corporate plan states, is to maintain records and provide information. Although the authority generally performs that duty very efficiently—for example, 86 per cent. of last year's 370,000 mining reports were returned within two working days, and 96 per cent. were returned within five working days—it should have in place a system for dealing with the exceptions, thereby reinforcing the integrity of its records.

Secondly, the matter is unfinished Government business. In July 1996, the Select Committee on Trade and Industry produced its Seventh Report, on former mine shafts, and its recommendation 4 stated: for mine shafts revealed on mining searches which are within influencing distance of existing buildings, the Coal Authority accept responsibility for seeking to determine their precise location in cases of doubt. In October 1996, the then Government produced their response to the report. They stated that they would consider recommendation 4 in light of the outcome of the work of the Inter-Departmental Working Group on Blight. However, four years later, in July 2000, when that esteemed group reported, it did not address the issue of mine shafts, but only addressed the specific issue that arises when large development sites require compulsory purchase of properties. The Minister may correct me, but I believe that, since July, no conclusion to the Government's consideration of the matter has been published.

My call is not for an open season on the Coal Authority. As I said, generally the authority efficiently handles its responsibility for Britain's mining records. Neither do I suggest that the Coal Authority should have a duty to investigate unless a threshold of evidence suggests that there are grounds for serious doubt or dispute about the accuracy of its records. I also do not—as the previous Government disingenuously argued in their response to the Select Committee—propose that it would become standard practice for solicitors advising prospective purchasers at least to inquire whether the Coal Authority had established the precise location of any disused shafts. As that response went on to state: On that basis, the annual cost of precisely locating shafts alone could well build up to some millions of pounds and the eventual cost to many tens of millions of pounds. It is not a matter for legislation or for the Coal Authority's quinquennial review, but a proper point about current operational policy. If my right hon. Friend the Minister can persuade the Coal Authority to accept such a responsibility, she will give hope and help to families such as the Ryans and reinforce the Coal Authority's role as the keeper of our nation's mining records.

1.49 am
The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mrs. Helen Liddell)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey) on securing this debate and raising the issue in the House. I am well aware that he has pursued the matter with vigour, and is able today to celebrate considerable success in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Ryan. I am very pleased to hear about that success. One can only imagine the distress that the events caused Mr. and Mrs. Ryan.

In general, such issues are not unfamiliar to the Government; hon. Members have raised them on several occasions. I am well aware of the difficulties and the effects of old coal workings on the value and saleability of property in some parts of the country. They can profoundly affect the plans of people who own nouses that are found to be near mine shafts.

I am delighted for Mr. and Mrs. Ryan that some resolution has occurred; I hope that some important lessons have been learned. I shall ensure that the Coal Authority has an opportunity to read my hon. Friend's remarks with a view to taking his helpful suggestions into account. I stress that the authority is an independent statutory corporation, and I therefore have no statutory powers to intervene in its day-to-day operations. However, I know from my discussions with it that it is anxious to be as responsive as possible to the difficulties, and to improve administration as much as possible.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, Mr. and Mrs. Ryan's difficulties were caused by an error in the supply of information to the authority by a third party. I undertake to write to the chairman of the Coal Authority to ask for his assurance that the recurrence of the sort of errors about which we have heard tonight will be limited. My hon. Friend acknowledges that the case is unusual; it is rarely possible to deal with matters in a way that is acceptable to all concerned. However, it is important to recognise that everything should be done to assess the accuracy of the information that the Coal Authority holds.

A much broader, serious issue underlies the subject: the impact on property values when a mine shaft is recorded close by. That problem must be tackled. It tends to affect specific areas of the country, principally those where mining activity in the 19th century or earlier was followed by intensive urban development. However, it should be taken into account in general policy terms.

Let us consider briefly the way in which the Coal Authority handles records, and its powers. It has a collection of approximately 100,000 plans of former coal mining workings. They record 150,000 mine shafts. When those workings date from the 18th or 19th centuries, their status—whether or how they have been treated since working ceased—is unknown, and even their precise location may be uncertain. The Coal Authority is under a statutory obligation to make available the content of the plans and to establish arrangements to allow access to the information that they contain. The authority is keen to add to its records to ensure that the database is as complete and as accurate as possible. Perhaps modern technology will allow the Coal Authority to add to its records.

The Coal Authority has established a sophisticated mining reports database, which I have seen. It produces almost 400,000 mining reports, to which my hon. Friend referred, primarily for use by solicitors. Those reports answer questions from the Law Society on the presence of former coal workings, including mine shafts. Across the country, an average of approximately 2 to 3 per cent. of the mining reports will reveal a mine shaft.

As I said earlier, many mine shafts date from the 19th century. Until the middle of the 19th century, mine owners were not required to prepare plans of their mine workings. Those early plans were not prepared to any specified standard, and they have often proved unreliable. The Coal Authority exercises great care in transposing them to its database. However, it is only a custodian of old plans; rarely will there be personal knowledge or recollection that the recorded mines actually existed. Indeed, the authority pointed out that my constituency office was sited above a mine shaft. Not even the most elderly of my constituents—who have tremendous memories of these matters—could attest to a mineworking being so close to what is now a town centre. It is difficult to guarantee the accuracy of the information in the old mining plans, but every conceivable means must be sought to improve the accuracy. Many disputes arise for property owners because of accuracy. I thank my hon. Friend for some of his suggestions, which I will draw to the attention of the chairman of the Coal Authority. I will ensure that, in replying to me, the chairman replies also to my hon. Friend.

One other statutory power that should be mentioned is the authority's power to repair any damage caused by subsidence from former coalworkings at no cost to the property owner or the insurer. This power does not extend beyond coalworkings and can be invoked only where there is evidence of physical damage. It does not allow the Coal Authority to provide any compensation for loss of value of property as a result of the presence of a mine shaft. Nevertheless, this power gives a very strong remedy and should be given careful consideration by those involved with property affected by former coalworkings.

My hon. Friend has mentioned the interest taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) and some of the issues affecting her constituency. He will be aware that my Department has taken a consultancy contract with Heriot-Watt university to look at some of the issues surrounding property values and the workings of mine shafts. I have not yet had an opportunity to look at the conclusions of that work, but I hope to do so in the near future. It may be that some measures come out of that to help us to address some of the issues.

I am anxious that these issues should be addressed by the Coal Authority as far as possible within its current legislative framework Some of the suggestions that my hon. Friend has made are common sense and I hope that that will be taken into account by the authority.

There are complex issues here, and there are no easy solutions. A large number of players are involved, over many of whom the Government have little power. There is also an issue of perception; where a prospective purchaser hears of the presence of a mine shaft, it can cause difficulties with proceeding with a purchase. There is also the question of recording what has happened to a mine shaft—where that information is available—and whether it has been tilled in. With more modern mine shafts, that is a relatively easy matter to deal with. With the older mine shafts, it is much more complex.

There is a need to look at the issues and I assure my hon. Friend that I will keep in mind his useful suggestions, which I will convey to the Coal Authority. I am determined that we keep in the forefront of our minds the interests of the people most affected by the situation; those whose homes become difficult to sell because of a mine shaft underneath or near to them. We will try to find solutions that are fair to them and to other home owners. My hon. Friend has given us some good suggestions tonight; I undertake to look at them in some detail.

Question put and agreed to. Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two o'clock.