HL Deb 09 November 1943 vol 129 cc614-23

LORD BARNBY rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether, in view of the necessity to increase available coal supplies, they will state present and future policy with regard to open cast mining; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the business of the House to-day has been heavy, and we have come late to this Motion, but I feel its importance to be such that I hope my noble friend who is to reply will not curtail his statement. There have recently been discussions in both Houses on the question of coal. Such discussions are habitually associated with keen con- troversy. These two recent discussions have been confined almost entirely to the habitual methods of winning coal while the terms of my Motion relate to an entirely different thing

Open cast mining is a civil engineering problem. I wish I had the power of expression which would enable me to impress the House and a wider audience with the importance at this moment of this particular subject. It is true that in the debate in this House on October 28 the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack did use his well recognized powers to give a picture of what open cast mining was, but, with perhaps regrettable candour, he admitted that the quality of the coal which was raised by this means was often variable in quality. I fear there may be some tendency to draw the inference that such a description might apply to more than a small proportion of the output. The importance of open cast mining and its value to the country at the present moment was given its true perspective by the Prime Minister when he emphasized that much had been accomplished, and that the programme ahead gave the prospect of a substantial contribution to the nation's coal resources. I think it is only fair, and indeed desirable, in connexion with this matter, to pay tribute in your Lordships' House, as it has already been paid in another place, to Major Braithwaite, the Member for Buckrose, whose imagination and technical knowledge led him to suggest these methods for meeting the threatened coal supply shortage and to recommend that this auxiliary method of winning coal should be applied.

It is indeed a remarkable thing that with all the civil engineering talent that we have in this country, and with construction done all over the world, no one ever thought of adopting this method of obtaining coal on a large scale before the war. At any rate we have reason to be grateful to Major Braithwaite for pressing this in the face of marked discouragement from official channels. Fortunately the early opposition was overcome by the Ministry of Mines, and I want to pay tribute to recent action on the part of the Minister of Fuel and Power. The present Minister of Fuel and Power has enthusiastically supported this means of increasing our coal supply. It is understood he has attached a senior member of his Department, Mr. Innes, to the Directorate of Open Cast Mining. He is taking charge of the distribution of this coal. It is reported there are over 50,000,000 tons of this coal proven. I hope my noble friend the Minister of Works, who is to reply for the Government, will give us some indication of what has been achieved up to date, because an authoritative pronouncement made by him will carry weight in the country.

We want to be told what amount of this coal there is available, the number of sites that are being worked, or at least some indication of the number of firms which are engaged in the work. My noble friend the Minister of Works has undertaken with enthusiasm this work on the part of the Government and it will doubtless be carried on with the energy that characterizes everything to which he puts his hand. I think it was in another place that Major Braithwaite stated that the programme suggested by the Prime Minister of 15,000,000 tons for next year would require about 8,000 men and that would be equivalent in underground mining to coal raised by about 70,000 miners.

I have read in the Press that Colonel Parkinson's firm carrying out some of this work has obtained 1,100,000 tons by the work of 350 employees—that is, a production of about 40 tons per man per week. Noble Lords will be familiar with the many claims made as to what is the average production per man-shift throughout the country with traditional mining. We require to get over the habitual conservatism of England which is inclined to oppose this new type of mining. I would point out that if 50,000,000 tons of coal are to be won that means on an average an overburden of five or six to one, and all the overburden has to be moved twice—it is the equivalent of moving 160,000,000 cubic yards. That collectively is equivalent to one of the largest civil engineering projects which has ever been undertaken in so short a period. That is the kind of project which my noble friend is carrying on. I personally have had the good fortune to see the Fooshun cut in Manchukuo. I have seen Yallourn cut in Victoria, and I have seen big operations in the United States. I realize how this must touch the imaginations of anybody who sees it.

In this country I have seen a site where an eight foot seam is at present being worked on some two hundred, acres of the Wentworth estate in the immediate vicinity of the house of a late member of your Lordships' House, Lord Fitzwilliam, in Yorkshire. There some two hundred acres of land are expected to provide 1,600,000 tons of coal. The expectation is that by next year production will have risen to some 50,000 tons a week from that site. I do not propose to go into the question of cost, which must necessarily be controversial, but noble Lords will probably have read the statement by the contractors to which I have referred that coal has been won by the firm at an average price of under £1 per ton. Whatever the cost, it is a war-time necessity to get this coal. I repeat that this is a prodigous engineering work which requires high engineering organization. From what I can gather from those who are familiar with this work the Minister is to be congratulated on having placed in charge of this work an exceptionally able engineer, General Apple-yard, who held a prominent command in his own sphere in the Army. He appears to have been wise in the choice of his district subordinates. The presence here of the noble Duke, the Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, reminds me that I should mention the agricultural aspects of the problem. This project is understood to be free from criticism on agricultural grounds. Where sites have been worked and the surface soil replaced and returned to agriculture, there has been complete satisfaction as to prospective agricultural production.

This coal is used either by industry or by public utilities or for house coal. I take it that the real problems are the screening of it and the selling organization and transportation. I have already referred to the fact that these public works contractors are raising it. For that purpose they need plant. They must use all the plant that is available in this country in the ordinary way, but under the severe effects of the war some 30 per cent. of it is all the time under repair. I hope my noble friend will be able to assure us that effective steps are being taken to make spare parts available for the machines. I hope that he will also be able to give some reassurance regarding one of the main difficulties of the present moment, that is screening capacity. It will be understood that if this coal is to be properly used it 1ms to be properly screened or graded and for that purpose screeners must be installed with proper bunker capacity which will enable coal to be economically and rapidly handled. Up and down the country there is undoubtedly loss being incurred through coal having to be double handred. It is taken from where it is won, it is deposited somewhere and then it has to be reloaded and sent forward to its ultimate destination.

I want at this stage to remind your Lordships that electricity alone last year consumed some 22,000,000 tens of coal. There is to-day a widespread misgiving among users of coal that much of this open cast coal is of low combustion virtue. In fairness attention should be drawn to the fact that electricity stations which are large users themselves must be able to handle coal rapidly and economically and require low ash content. The increased thermal efficiency of boilers has reduced very much the consumption of coal, and I am going to quote figures published by Sir Johnston Wright, chief engineer to the Central Electricity Board. In 1921 the average amount of coal required to raise one unit of electricity was 3½ lb. Recently it had been reduced to 1½ lb. It means that the 22,000,000 tons used last year produced electricity which would have required 50,000,000 tons twenty years ago. I hope that graphically indicates what open cast production is going to contribute to the solution of the coal problem.

There is some anxiety that deep level mines are in jeopardy through flooding because of the action of open cast workings. I think it will be an advantage if my noble friend could dispose of that anxiety now. This coal, if stored, incurs the risk of firing. Its volatile character makes it more subject to fire than ordinary deep mine coal. In spite of the shortage of wagons there is urgency for priority to be given in forwarding this coal quickly and storing deep mine coal which is less likely to fire. I hope my noble friend will be able to give some reassurance also on another difficulty, the resistance of coal-selling organizations, who not unnaturally dislike this new entrant into the field. We assume that all available plant in the country is being used and that the production of new machinery has been given all the priority possible.

That review brings us up to a few months ago. I understand that my noble friend felt that the equipment was insufficient for the programme with which. he was faced, and he therefore decided to turn to the only other possible source of additional equipment. My noble friend sent his representative, General Apple-yard, to America to make arrangements to secure the machinery which he sought. It is understood that necessary machinery has been promised. Without that machinery, I understand it is likely the programme would fail. There have been hints in the past relating to tardiness of the fulfilment of promises made from the United States. We had some experience with regard to some emergency requirements for the Central Electricity Board; these were implemented well on time. In this case it is to be hoped there will be full realization in the United States that such fulfilment is vital to achievement of this task which has been asked of civil engineering contractors.

The picture would indeed be lurid if there were a possibility of coal shortage. I have tried to touch on many of the anxieties which are felt at the present time. I make no apologies for raising this question even at this late hour. It is vital that the national effort should be supported. An authoritative statement from my noble friend will help. I feel sure that he will succeed in getting united efforts to obtain this fortuitous addition to our all-important coal supplies.


My Lords, I want first of all to say to my noble friend Lord Barnby that the Government policy is to increase the production of coal by open cast methods to the fullest possible extent. The idea of working outcrop coal was really initiated by the present Minister of Supply, Sir Andrew Duncan, and work commenced early last year under the Ministry of Fuel. It was taken over by my Ministry in December last and my Ministry now acts as producing agent for the Ministry of Fuel. An organization in our Ministry has been set up for the purpose of prospecting and proving areas of outcropping coal. Up to date 5,000,000 tons have been produced.


Hear, hear.


Of that 5,000,000 tons —which has been obtained since April, 1942— 2,900,000 tons have been produced since May 1 of this year. That is, as your Lordships will realize, in the present coal year. If your Lordships read, as no doubt some of you have read, the Ministry of Fuel's published figures of average weekly production, the output of open cast coal, you will see, rose from 27,000 tons in the first period of this year to 134,000 tons in September, and came down to 122,000 tons in October.

I want noble Lords to appreciate, as I am sure they will quite easily, that this question of mining open cast coal is largely dependent upon weather conditions. If the weather is fine you can get maximum production. If the weather it really wet it means that there is a lot of time when no work at all can be done. Hours of daylight also enter very largely into this. As a rough and ready rule I think I can say that you should expect to produce double the quantity of open cast coal in the summer months compared with what you can get in the winter months. I desire to say at once that the increased production that we have obtained has been brought about by the complete co-operation of the civil engineering contractors, who have worked whole-heartedly with us. The numbers of these contractors total sixty-eight, of whom nine form a committee which works directly with the Director of Open-cast Coal Production at my Ministry. They have been of immense assistance to us. The output of coal per man-hour for all employees and sites was 0.88 tons in July and 0.81 tons in August. I am speaking, of course, of open cast coal production.

Production of coal by these methods, as your Lordships will realize, is not without difficulties. In times of peace, without compulsory powers of entry and acquisition of land it would be almost impossible. It has been necessary to harmonize (shall I say?) the production of coal with the production of food, and this has been carried out in close co-operation with the Ministry of Agriculture with whom proposals are discussed and agreed. All restoration of land is carefully carried out under the direction of county war agricultural executive committees. The production of coal, I may say, has rather outstripped facilities for disposal during the past summer and a considerable quantity is now in stock as part of the national reserve. Arrangements are being rapidly pushed forward to enable this to be screened and loaded on to railways and canals. Steps have been taken—my noble friend Lord Barnby alluded to this matter —to ensure the cleanliness of 1he excavated product. Directly you get cleanliness you get, as is only natural, a far keener interest in this fuel from many classes of consumer.

High grade coal required for operational purposes has been withdrawn from many industries and replaced by other qualities and open cast coal. These measures are being continued and they will be steadily developed as time goes on. Industry has responded well to these demands by co-operating with the Ministry of Fuel and the large bodies of combustion engineers who have made it possible for the change-over to be made without serious effects on efficiency. Greater efforts will still be necessary, however, by industrial and domestic consumers and they will have to accept in future coal to which they have not been accustomed in the past, in order that more suitable coal may be made available for public utilities and essential industries and high grade coals freed for operational purposes.

As regards the future policy in this matter, the whole object of securing a much larger programme for the production of open cast coal in this country in the coal year 1944–45 can be achieved only if a very considerable amount of additional plant can be made available in time to commence operations in April next. This is a point to which my noble friend Lord Barnby alluded just now. For this purpose, the Director of Open Cast Coal Production has visited the United States, and the programme and the plant requirements have been agreed by the United States Government. It is hoped that additional plant will be made available in the near future. We have left a direct representative in the United States to let us know from week to week how this is progressing.

In the meantime, the programme of new plant construction in the country7 has been reconsidered, and the maximum possible number of large excavators due to be manufactured under the home programme will be allocated to open cast coal. A considerable number of screening plants and the railway loading facilities required to handle next year's programme will be provided. A special directorate has recently been set up in the Ministry of Fuel and Power for the purpose of ensuring that the output is satisfactorily distributed and sold. Considerable transport problems are involved, both rail and road, and these are being actively dealt with by the Ministry of War Transport, together with the Ministry of Fuel and Power and my own Ministry of Works. The Government regard this matter as of the most vital importance and are assisting in every way possible in the provision of plant, labour and materials with a view to getting the maximum possible production next year from this method of production, and in this matter the Government have had the support of the United States authorities.

There are a few points which will interest your Lordships, but I shall not dwell on them for any length of time. On the question of overburden, overburden thickness varies from 10 feet to a maximum of 60 feet at present. Most sites do not work beyond 40 to 50 feet, and the average depth removed is about 25 feet. With regard to coal, 3 feet is normally regarded as the minimum thickness of seam to be worked, although with a shallow overburden one or two sites are being worked with 2 feet 6 inches of coal. We are in some cases working seams up to 10 to 12 feet in thickness. Turning to labour, to which the noble Lord referred, at the present time we are using on all our sites, of which there are 84, just under 3,000 men, excluding clerical staff, who number 223. Another important point to which my noble friend alluded is that of spare parts and maintenance. Spare parts and maintenance have been a source of great difficulty during the year, but we are taking steps to review the whole position as regards the supply of spare parts and labour for maintenance.

It will interest your Lordships to know that outcrop coal has already been sent for operational purposes to North Africa and Sicily. Industrial users of coal are being required to take a proportion of their needs in open cast coal, the percentage depending on the particular process. The questions of the cleanliness and the calorific value, to which my noble friend Lord Bamby alluded, are of interest. As regards ash, the percentage of ash added to the coal during excavation is very small, and the total ash contents of the various coals varies from 4 per cent. to 20 per cent. The average coal has about 9 to 10 per cent. of ash.

We are endeavouring to get from America tractors, scrapers, draglines and shovels of a larger size and capacity. On the important point to which I have already referred of the difficulty of working in wet weather, I would mention that the draglines and shovels have the cabs closed in so that the operators are protected from the weather, and can thus work in wet or winter weather.

In conclusion, I should like to say that by these means we hope to arrive next year at a figure which the Prime Minister said in another place should be in the region of 10,000,000 to 15,000,000 tons, but I want to impress on your Lordships that that depends entirely on getting the necessary machinery. If we can get it and can do what the Prime Minister has suggested, we shall be making a very necessary and helpful contribution to the war effort. I have tried to answer most of the questions put by my noble friend.


My Lords, 1 am sure that you will be indebted to my noble friend for the very interesting information which he has given to the House. He has fully fulfilled my hope that he would give information which would serve the purpose of bringing into full relief what is really at stake in this project to which he refers. I shall not take up the time of the House by referring in detail to any of the striking points which he made except one, and that is that there are already 68 civil engineering firms employed on this work. That seems to emphasize the wisdom of this procedure in keeping these firms all "ticking over," so that they will be at my noble friend's disposal when he has, as we hope he will have in the not too distant future, a wider obligation in dealing with public works in the immediate post-war period. I ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.