HL Deb 20 July 1955 vol 193 cc924-47

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to call attention to the effect of mining subsidence—on mature consideration, I have decided to adopt that pronunciation—on buildings in inhabited areas; and to move for Papers. This is not the first occasion on which I have addressed your Lordships' House, but it is the first time that I have had the temerity to initiate a debate. I ask for the indulgence which your Lordships invariably are generous enough to extend to inexperience.

This is not a Party question, it is a question of justice and of humanity; for what is happening to-day in the areas of England affected by subsidence due to mining is quite shocking. I do not attack the Coal Board. I have found their officials considerate and courteous; but the Board are bound by their statutory mandate. They must work and get the coal in Great Britain in such a way as to secure the efficient development of the coal-mining industry, and presumably in doing so they must do what the law permits: so much, no less and no more. It is the existing law which, as I shall submit, needs modification. In one sense, the problem is an old one. It has been before Parliament at least since the year 1923, when a Royal Commission on Mining Subsidence was appointed, though in the result no action was taken. Fresher in memory is the Turner Report, presented to Parliament in 1949 and reprinted in 1954. Doubtless many of your Lordships will be familiar with it. I shall have occasion, in the course of my speech, to quote from that Report and to say something about it in general terms.

A small Act, the Coal Mining (Subsidence) Act, was passed by Parliament in 1950, giving a statutory right to the owners of small houses with a rateable value of not more than £32 to have their houses repaired at the expense of the Coal Board when damage was done by subsidence. That was, however, a very inadequate measure, and its inadequacy was criticised at the time on the Second Reading debate in your Lordships' House. It was something, but it eased the problem only for a particular section of the community; and it may even be that, when the new rating valuation comes into force next year many who are now enjoying the benefits, such as they are, of the Act of 1950 will do so no longer.

I have said that in the areas affected by the full impact of subsidence the results are appalling; and indeed they are. I do not think that any of your Lordships who does not live in a mining area would really believe what is happening unless for some reason he happened to go and see it. In a previous debate in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, justly said that the average person in this country who lives outside these areas would hardly believe his eyes if he saw some of the effects of this subsidence on the homes of the people. In another place, not long ago, it was stated by the Minister of Fuel and Power, in reply to a Question that the number of houses damaged, according to the 1954 figures, was over 12,000. That would, I take it, be the equivalent of the results of a couple of major air raids, not with hydrogen bombs but with the kind of bomb that was used in the last war. I myself have seen whole streets in which no single house has been left undamaged.

There is a parish in Derbyshire in which we were advised that in a whole township there was no single house that could be regarded as secure. A church had to be abandoned and pulled down; the vicarage had to be abandoned and what was left of it had to be sold to the Coal Board. A Wesleyan chapel in the same area has had to be pulled down. The public library is strutted up with wooden supports and is partly unusable. A large secondary school in a similar state has more than once had to be closed as unsafe for a week at a time, and I am told that the events al decision is likely to be to abandon the whole building and build another school elsewhere, towards which the sum of £50,000, offered by the Coal Board as the cost of restoring the existing school, would be only a first instalment of the eventual bill. In another area a local councillor has publicly stated that they had literally hundreds of bursts in their water and sewerage services. On one occasion, when the water taps were turned on gas came out: both the gas and water mains had been fractured by subsidence and somehow they had become mixed up. In a recent report the consulting engineer stated that 220,000 gallons of water were running to waste every day in the sewers. In the first area that I mentioned, that of Swadlincote, notoriously a bad area from this point of view, it is stated that the temporary repair of public buildings is costing the urban district council £7,000 a year as an addition to the rates.

I could go on, for I have much more evidence, but I must not weary your Lordships. A rather unusual case, not in Derbyshire but in another part of the country, which has been brought to my notice is that of a churchyard in which graves were disturbed, causing considerable distress to the relatives of the persons buried therein, with the result that the incumbent and the parochial church council are confronted by the possibility of difficult and costly litigation. There was a case some months ago, in my own diocese, in which a choirman was killed by a fall of stone from a church roof, and the relatives are understood to contemplate suing for damages. It is suggested by the parish that the cause was subsidence due to mining. The Coal Board maintained that the roof had been neglected and that there was no evidence that the Board were responsible. Which of these views is the right one I have no means of knowing; but litigation, if it results, will be costly.

I do not, however, wish to make special reference to churches, understanding, as I do, that the Churches' Main Committee, after a full consideration, have made representations in the appropriate quarter. As Bishop, I am much more concerned with the human tragedies resulting from the damage to people's houses. The chairman of the Urban District Council of Swadlincote, the area to which I have referred, said recently: Not only from an economic point of view, but from a human point of view, it is ghastly … I have seen houses where you can put your hand through the wall and shake hands with people outside … I know people who have papered their houses three times in a year. My Lords, it cannot be good for the morale of the miners themselves that they should be aware, as they inevitably are, that their work underground is damaging, or is liable to damage, their own houses on the surface. I would ask your Lordships to imagine the unhappiness caused in the home to the young and to the middle-aged—people in some cases who have sunk their lifetime's savings in purchasing a decent home and the buying of furniture—when they find that their cherished home has become utterly unsafe, or even when they are merely confronted by the dirt and the grime, and the insecurity, that subsidence causes. I have had my attention powerfully drawn by people locally to the nervous disorders caused to the women—mothers of families, and wives—who have to live in such circumstances. It can lead to the break-up of family life, as well as to serious ill-health. It is quite shocking.

There are some sentences which I feel I must quote from the Turner Report.

We wish"— wrote the members of the Committee which drew up the Report— to draw particular attention to the fact that a community in one of our coalfields can suffer not only physical but also serious moral and psychological effects from subsidence. It can and sometimes does happen that a centre of community life such as a vital municipal building or a church is damaged seriously, or possibly even irretrievably, by subsidence. In such a case it is easy to imagine, but difficult to measure in terms of financial compensation, the effect upon community life: and that effect may have more importance for the nation than the getting of many tons of coal. The law in this matter is complicated. I shall not go into it in detail: I say simply that the situation to-day—the inheritance of two centuries of laissez faire—is in many areas desperate, and in all areas illogical and inequitable.

To put it briefly, there is plenty of evidence of present damage and an assurance of further damage. This problem affects, and will continue to affect, public and private undertakings, such as schools, hospitals, houses, health and sanitary services, and also agriculture, since good land can be rendered sterile. Some surface owners, such as the railways and canals, can, very rightly, acquire or keep rights of support. Other surface owners who have that right may have it taken away from them unless the national interest can be proved. Others have no right to support, but a Common Law or contractual right to compensation. Others, including the owners of small houses below the rateable value fixed by the Mining Subsidence Act of 1950, have a statutory right to compensation. And there is an important residue who not only have no right to compensation but, in common with other ratepayers who are better placed in this respect, share the burden of the repair and replacement of various public buildings. The only real protection in the generality of cases, I am advised, is the possibility of restriction on mining by action under the planning law. The efficacy of that in the future has yet to be measured; so far it appears to have achieved little. Moreover, where the planning authority, in anticipation of future subsidence, makes the provision of fortified foundations a condition of planning consent to new buildings, the cost has to be carried by the surface owner. The Turner Committee rightly said that no tinkering with the law can meet the case and that drastic measures are required. And the Committee, again very rightly, commended the whole matter to the attention of those responsible for the grant or withholding of planning permission to work the coal.

This matter has already been raised in another place during the debate on the Address on the gracious Speech without, so far as is known, any word being elicited from Her Majesty's Government. There is, I believe, a rising tide of public opinion on this matter—indeed, I understand that a deputation from the areas affected has this very day been meeting the Ministers of Housing and Local Government and of Fuel and Power to urge Government action. If planning control is ineffective, the Government should seriously consider affording by new legislation full protection to the community in these areas. If, for economic reasons, that should prove practically impossible, then the least that should be done, and that without delay, is to implement the recommendations of the Turner Committee. The most important of these recommendations are, first, that certain key points, being properties which play so vital a part in the life of the community, or a section of it, that the risk of interruption of their functions or of serious damage to their structure cannot be tolerated, should have an unqualified statutory right of support; secondly, that every surface interest, and not only some surface interests, should be compensated for subsidence damage.

The annual cost of these reforms, even if wholly met by the nationalised industry (and some may think it equitable that they should be met by Treasury grant), would, when you think of the figures in terms in which these matters have to be considered, be negligible. In 1949 the Turner Committee estimated the cost of their proposed reforms at £3 million per annum. Assuming, with the increase in prices since then, that the cost to-day would be £5 million a year, as it well may be, that would work out at something rather less than 6d. per ton of coal produced, which bears an insignificant relationship to the total retail price per ton. I appeal to Her Majesty's Government to take this problem seriously and to take action upon it. It is not right that those who have the misfortune to live in areas which are being undermined should suffer the loss, danger and damage which is befalling them, and should do so without protection or proper redress. I most earnestly hope that the noble Earl, Lord Munster, who I understand is to reply for the Government, may be able to give some reassurance and to announce at long last some effective Government policy. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.57 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to support the Motion very briefly. The facts are fairly well known in your Lordships' House to-day. We spent a number of days on them, when I had the honour of piloting through the 1950 Bill, and Lord Hawke and a few other noble Lords put many questions to me, all complaining about the inadequacy of the Bill. I took note of a couple of sentences from the speech male by the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, speaking for the Conservative Party. He said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 167, col. 810]: We support this Bill, as far as it goes, but we regret that it does not go further and give more broad justice to the mining community as a whole.… I cannot help feeling that it would have been far better to wait a little longer and bring in a more comprehensive and adequate Bill. We have waited five years, and now we hope to see that more comprehensive and broad Bill brought in by the critics of the previous Bill.

I am not going to cite many instances. As your Lordships know, I spent fifty years in the Wigan district. I do not suppose there is a district in the whole of the United Kingdom more adversely affected by subsidence—not subsidence—than the Wigan district. I have a note here from the people there. They have grave difficulty in securing those points referred to by the right reverend Prelate. They are anxious not to receive payment for subsidence later on, but to prevent it, and they prefer to pay. But the cost is getting very heavy. The county borough of Wigan has already paid £20,000 to the National Coal Board in respect of one seam under a reservoir. The payment of a further £20,000 is anticipated in respect of another seam. These key points are vitally important, but they are most costly to a township like Wigan.

As the right reverend Prelate said, we must not forget that these are mining families. They have run the risk of mining life already; they have paid their toll in life and limb, and now they see their homes tumbling about them. I myself saw it happen. I lived in a row of twelve houses. The whole twelve sank and there was a fractured water main which left the lower rooms flooded. It is not a very satisfying sight for a miller, after a day's work underground, to find his home flooded as a result of subsidence. That is happening, and one need not relate all the details. I would only refer to one other small place where I lived for a good part of my life—Ashton-in-Makerfield. Knowing that I was to speak the people there also sent me a few figures. In 1953–54, as a result of mining subsidence, their expenditure for sewers was £944; pumping cost £44, and sewage disposal works £996. Other figures were: water services, over £2,000; roads, nearly £200; housing repairs, £200; miscellaneous purposes, £644. That is a township of 20,000 people, mostly miners.

It is clear that something should be done. But what? There was the small Act of 1950, to which the right reverend Prelate has referred, by which we tried to help those who we thought were in the greatest need. They have been substantially helped. The Coal Board have not been niggardly; in fact, they have been generous. I am not one of those who feel that this expenditure should be placed on the Exchequer alone. I feel that it is wise for the Coal Board to bear a share of the expenditure, because I think that to give the Board responsibility for mining coal without any responsibility for subsidence might make them less careful and less anxious to reduce, and, if possible eliminate, subsidence. I agree that it could be a costly business, and cost was the only reason for the inadequacy of the 1950 Act. It may be that to-day the cost will cause everyone to think twice.

I have had the good fortune to meet the deputation which saw the Minister of Housing and Local Government, and also the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power to-day. They report that the results were satisfactory. I need go no further than to say that the Ministries wish all details and aspects of the problem to be examined to see what can be done. In the last sentence of the Press statement, however, there is a passage which troubles the deputation and myself. Having said that the Ministries will do all they can to implement the Turner Report and all its findings, the statement records that the Minister of Supply said he was prepared to give local authorities an assurance that, if no such comprehensive solution should prove practicable, the Government would be prepared to extend the scope of the forthcoming review of local government finance so as to bring within its terms of reference consideration of the burden falling on the rates in areas liable to specially serious mining subsidence. I cannot believe that it is the intention of the Minister to disregard the individual householder, though I am not sure. I do not like the qualification "serious mining subsidence." I regard all mining subsidence as serious, and I fear that the insertion of the word "serious" may be intended to cover something which later may create difficulty. I would ask Her Majesty's Government to look at this problem fairly and squarely.

I believe that the recommendations of the Turner Report are good. The recom- mendations regarding cost—one-third to be borne by the Coal Board and two-thirds by the Treasury—are very satisfactory. One may feel that the Coal Board are carrying very heavy expenditure, but I should not like them to be relieved of it altogether, for I am most anxious, first, that the Board should do all they can to prevent subsidence (and they can do a lot) and, secondly, that where subsidence takes place, they shall realise they have a responsibility. I am not sure that it would be wise to relieve the Board altogether of financial responsibility, as has been suggested. My view is that those miners who run the risks of mining life should not have to run the risk of subsidence of their homes.

4.5 p.m.


My Lords, in view of the two speeches to which the House has listened there is no need for me now to enlarge upon the vital nature of the damage being done through subsidence almost continuously, day after day. I have been asked to deal with the more narrow aspect of local authorities who have to cope with this situation. The Act of 1950 has done a certain amount to implement some of the recommendations of the Committee presided over by Mr. Turner, but an enormous number of problems and dangers are left and these entail very great expense on local authorities. On the narrower aspect of urban district councils, it is estimated that the areas of over 100 of these authorities are subject to mineral subsidence, and I have been given figures for 1953 showing that this has placed on these particular authorities a burden of approximately £100,000 in respect of sums that can be charged to revenue and £97,000 in respect of capital charges. These figures may sound very small, compared to the enormous figures which we are used to hearing quoted on various subjects in Parliament; but it constitutes almost a scandal that, in spite of the efforts that have been made, local authorities are still suffering very materially.

This is a question of real urgency and importance. The right reverend Prelate has enlarged upon the effect on the morale of the individual, and the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor, has conveyed the sense of defeat which this problem must entail on those working underground. That is a very important aspect, in view of the vital national importance of the development of coal extraction. One point which has emerged—and it has been almost generally accepted—is that, with the modern conditions under which coal is extracted, subsidence is more rapid and ultimately greater. No doubt it is necessary to make use of the most modern methods of coal extraction, for it is essential that this country should produce as much coal as possible; but surely there comes a point when planning authorities must intervene to see that unnecessary and avoidable damage is not done. The coal industry is, after all, a nationalised industry, and though the onus for service and responsibility has been removed from those who, in the old days, owned the coal below, some responsibility rests on Her Majesty's Government.

I should like to make an allusion to a particular conference which was welcomed by the Minister for Housing and Local Government last year. At the instance of the urban district councils, the Minister received a large deputation representing the Urban District Councils' Association and the Associations of Municipal Corporations and Rural District Councils. On that occasion, the Minister, with his usual courtesy and consideration, dealt as well as he could with matters which were raised, and I want to refer especially to something he said towards the end of his remarks.

After reviewing some of the evidence which had been placed before him—evidence that he had asked for and welcomed—Mr. Macmillan referred to the suggestion that the economic position of the country had improved. He also declared himself grateful for the information which had been afforded by members of the conference, and he went on to say (and I would commend this to the notice of your Lordships and of my noble friend who is to reply on behalf of the Government) that he appreciated the argument that the liabilities created by modern methods of mining should not fall, as they do at the present time, on the communities of the mining areas concerned. He made reference to the possibilities of taking steps, after examination of the evidence submitted to him, with a view to devising measures of relief. Since then the present Minister of Housing and Local Government has visited Derbyshire and has been given the opportunity of seeing the actual results of these mineral subsidences to which the right reverend Prelate has referred. He professed himself to be amazed, and gave indication of realising, perhaps more than he had done before his visit, the vital necessity of doing something more.

I do not wish to delay the House in this matter. Such a strong case has already been made from the point of view of the humanities that there is very little for me to add, except to say that there is this other side—the side that affects local administrations. I trust acid hope that my noble friend Lord Munster will be able to give us some assurance that further consideration will be given to this matter and, in particular, to the possibility of some further extension of the Act of 1950. We hope that the Government will not only give these questions their attention, but that they will also extend to those concerned their active co-operation.

4.14 p.m.


My Lords, I shall occupy only two or three minutes of your Lordships' time, but I would ask to be allowed to say a word or two in support of my colleague and neighbour, the Lord Bishop of Derby. I venture to think that he has done a public service to the whole Midland region and to the whole mining community in drawing your Lordships' attention once again so forcefully to the facts that he has brought forward. As Bishop of another mining area adjoining his own, I feel that I cannot keep silence. I want to underline his plea and to offer my small corroboration of the evidence which he has put before your Lordships. In Nottinghamshire we, too, know quite a lot about coal. If your Lordships should be fortunate enough in the coming winter to secure a few hundredweights of coal to burn in your grates it will probably come either from my friend's diocese or from mine.

As I say, we know a great deal about coal. We know, also, something about the damage that can be caused by mining operations; we know something of the injury to human health and happiness and the general welfare of the community which may ensue. I will not bring forward another lot of facts. The sort of evidence which my right reverend friend has put before the House could, no doubt, be paralleled from any of the mining areas. The actual damage in Nottingham- shire is, so far, apparently, not so acute as it appears to be in some parts of Derbyshire. But one never knows. We live precarious lives in these areas. As many of your Lordships who drive around on the roads on your lawful occasions are aware, you are continually encountering notices which say: "Danger. Road in danger of subsidence." You go bravely on but you never know when you are going to be involved in the sort of fate which overtook Korah, Dathan and Abiram—though perhaps for rather different reasons. We never know when a whole series of homes—the homes of a whole village community, perhaps—may be wrecked by undermining operations. The resultant instability and loss and injury in sheer human terms is something that the whole nation must take more seriously if it requires a section of our people to be engaged in mining operations.

I should like to corroborate what my friend said about the attitude of the officials of the National Coal Board. In a debate which is going on in another place this very afternoon about the coal industry I fancy that there will not be many bouquets for the National Coal Board. But it is only right and fair that, if anyone has anything nice which he can say about the National Coal Board, he should say it. So I want to utter a word of thanks and to say how grateful we are for the courtesy and the generosity of the National Coal Board through its officials, as it has been shown in relation to damage or danger to our churches. They give us the longest possible notice when operations are contemplated beneath a church. They lend us the advice of their engineers and other skilled experts. Then there are architects who specialise in the extraordinarily delicate and elaborate operations which are necessary in order that a church can be floated on a raft and supported on steel splints for a term of years. When this is done properly it quietly settles down without any cracking or damage at all. The National Coal Board interpret their financial obligations generously in paying for operations of that kind. I am glad to be able to offer them this little bouquet to-day.

But while the Church is grateful to them for the way our church buildings are treated, what we are primarily concerned with—and what we ought to be primarily concerned with—is men and women. We must not allow our gratitude for treatment which we receive for our buildings to make us any less vigilant or any less jealous for the rights of private citizens and individuals against an all-devouring bureaucracy. One of our most beautiful village churches is at the moment undergoing one of me supporting operations to which I have referred (an operation which will, I hope, secure it permanently) by the help and at the expense of the National Coal Board. Some fifty yards from the church there is the manor house or hall which is similarly endangered and the owner of which, to the best of my knowledge, receives no redress and no compensation whatever. There is an extraordinary inequality in the operation of the law in these matters, as the Lord Bishop of Derby has pointed out.

All I want to say is that I hope Her Majesty's Government and all concerned will interpret these facts and their obligations in view of them in human terms. When people's homes are being undermined their whole attitude to life is being undermined. We all know that there is nothing so demoralising to the soldier at the front as anxiety about his home in the background. It just is not right that a section of our industrial population should be exposed to the worry and anxiety which is involved as the result of these unexpected happenings and the perpetual fear of damage and the like. Many of them are without adequate redress. I notice that public men and leader writers are now fond of talking about "the economy" when they mean the life and work of the nation. I venture to think that these abstract nouns are extremely dangerous tools for administrators. No problem is rightly stated unless it is stated in terms of its actual effect on men and women. If the national interest requires that coal should be got wherever it is, at all costs, regardless of other considerations, then it surely must be a national responsibility, where-ever it is practicable, to ensure against the resulting damage and make it good when it occurs.


My Lords, before the noble Earl replies, I should like to put in a word on behalf of the agricultural community. Though I am bound to say that the terms of the Motion did not indicate that the right reverend Prelate would be likely to deal with the fanning community, I noticed that in his opening remarks he spoke of agriculture, and I should like to point out that in many areas subsidence is a serious problem for the farming community. I would re-echo what the last speaker said. Many owners of land, including owners of manor houses, have suffered considerably from what I prefer to call subsidence—my own early training would suggest to me that the syllable is long rather than short. Speaking as one who lives in the area of the Forest of Dean, of which I have been a verderer for forty-eight years, I have noticed the considerable amount of subsidence that has gone on all over the coalfield in the Forest of Dean, to the serious detriment of both landowners and farmers. In the past I myself owned a farmhouse a third of which disappeared below the surface, and it had eventually to be demolished. I had to erect a new farmhouse at no small expense, so I have a fellow feeling with my ecclesiastical colleagues, if I may so call them, in this matter of damage suffered by the landowning fraternity.

I should like to re-echo everything that has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor, as applied to the agricultural community. The remedy he has forecast is the remedy I myself would entirely endorse. I am sure that this is a matter which can no longer be overlooked, and I hope that the Minister will have something reassuring to say from the Government standpoint, not only in regard to the urban residents but also in regard to the agricultural community in coalmining areas.

4.24 p.m.


My Lords, as one who has lived with this problem all his life, I feel I should say a word to support the case which has been put by the right reverend Prelates and by my two noble friends. This problem ought not to be such a difficult problem to-day as it was in the old days. For one reason, in the old days it was often difficult to fix the responsibility for subsidence. Some of the royalty owners and landowners protected themselves against compensation in the event of subsidence, though I know that in South Wales many colliery companies have been most generous in carry- ing out repairs and in compensating those who have suffered. But no one was compensated unless he had a legal right to compensation. Only a small proportion of house-owners in areas liable to subsidence had these rights and it was difficult for them to get compensation.

I ought to say at once that it is impossible to think that we can deal with this problem of mining subsidence. I do not know whether your Lordships realise how immense is the amount of coal which has been extracted from the earth of this little island during the last 100 years, and coal was extracted long before 1850. Some time ago I took the trouble to work out the total of coal extracted during the last 100 years, not on a rough basis, but on the statistics provided in the statistical journal of the National Coal Board. The figure is between 20,000 and 21,000 million tons of coal. When we consider that enormous figure, it is amazing that the amount of subsidence has not been greater than it is. In the old clays we tried to avoid subsidence by very strict packing; but to-day, with modern methods of mining, I um afraid we shall suffer from subsidence even more than we suffered in the old days.

I am not going to add anything to what has been said by the right reverend Prelates the Lord Bishop of Derby and the Lord Bishop of Southwell and by my noble friend Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor, but I would mention that among the sufferers are some of the most industrious and thrifty of the mining population, men who in the early days joined a building club in order to purchase their own houses. Twenty or thirty miners would collect together, build their houses at a cost of £300 to £400, contributing the cost by deductions from their pay. Then, after ten or fifteen years, they would find the buildings becoming cracked because of subsidence. It is a cynical reflection on conditions in the coalfields that in subsidence areas miners were sometimes employed to work under their own houses, so that their work was responsible for the damaging of their own homes. I have seen that happen in my own village—I have lived in one of these houses myself. And there was no redress.

To-day we can place the responsibility upon the Government. Royalties are no longer paid to landowners. The Gov- ernment control the royalties and the National Coal Board is a national organisation, so we ought to look to the Government to assist those who suffer from the effects of subsidence. It is impossible to avoid it, because we cannot do without coal. We are faced with a difficult situation at the present time. I gave a figure some time ago that if we had to import 50 million tons of coal—that is, less than 25 per cent. of what we are producing in this country at the present time—it would cost at the present price something like £300 million. That is an impossible situation. Yet the very persons who have to live in these areas have for generations had to put up with inconvenience. There has been some alleviation as a result of the Act of 1950, but it is still not right for others to suffer.

I would impress upon the noble Earl who is to reply that this problem is an urgent one and brooks no delay. If to deal with it more generously than is being done at the present is going to cost £1 million—I had a figure given me this morning that the cost to the Coal Board (I think it was the latest figure they could give), was something like £600,000 a year, but it might be more—that cost works out per ton at something like 1½d. And if the figure is £2 million, it works out at about 2½d. a ton. I know that all these items mount up and that the price of coal has gone up a good deal. But, for all that, I would ask the noble Earl to make representation to the Ministers responsible and to the Government to make a comprehensive review of the Turner Report and see to it that legislation is introduced so that there will be no more suffering by anyone as a result of the extraction of this valuable mineral from the earth.

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad that the right reverend Prelate has put down a Motion—


My Lords, could something be done about the infernal noise that keeps interrupting some of the most interesting speeches? We on this side of the House just cannot hear what is being said because of these helicopters.


It is difficult, I agree, and I will certainly convey what the noble Lord has said to the noble Marquess the Leader of the House. As I was saying, I am glad that the right reverend Prelate has put down a Motion on the general subject of subsidence, for it gives me a chance of explaining fully to the House the views that Her Majesty's Government hold on this question. I do not think any noble Lord in any part of the House would complain of the manner in which the right reverend Prelate introduced his Motion. The matter is of the first importance, and from what he said it is obvious that, while he feels deeply on the subject, he is not unaware of the urgent need to increase the output of coal. The right reverend Prelate was supported by one of his brother Bishops and by other noble Lords who have immense knowledge of the coal industry in the past, and a good deal of knowledge of how the industry works to-day. I should not for a moment deny that heavy damage is caused in coal mining areas, and it is no good in any way trying to blink the seriousness of the position. I hope that my noble friend Lord Bledisloe will forgive me if I do not deal specifically with the farming community, or with the owners of land or houses, but rather with the subject as a whole.

I think it is true to say, as was said by the right reverend Prelate, that anyone who has been connected with the law of subsidence will know that it is a complicated and technical subject; and although I was dealing with it almost daily in this House some seventeen years ago, in conjunction, I believe, with the noble Earl, Lord Halifax, I readily admit that I had to refresh my memory upon a number of points of substance. I feel that the best course I can adopt today is to remind the House of the position since the earliest days when coal began to be mined in this country. I do so because it has a direct bearing upon the obligations which the Coal Board have assumed under the Act of Parliament which nationalised the coal industry.

Originally, the surface and the minerals were in precisely the same ownership, and the surface then had a complete right of support. There was something to be said at that time for the landlord who owned a vast estate and great mineral possessions. When the coal began to be worked the owner of both the surface and the minerals would enter into a lease with a company why undertook to work the coal. The lease laid down conditions, such as leaving pillars of support, payment of compensation for damage done and so on. There are, in addition, I understand, many other leases of ancient date which retained no right of support for the surface and no right of compensation for any damage done. The fact that no reservations were made in the lease was no doubt taken into account at the time when they were Settling the original royalties to be paid. It is worth remembering that any land which had lost the right of support through that method thereby suffered a considerable reduction in its value, and generally could be bought at a far lower price. Then there is a third case of more recent history where the interference with surface rights has been by Statute. The Coal Act, 1938, enabled all coal, known or unknown, to be severed from the surface, but compensation was payable for any damage caused by working the coal.

Those are the general leases which were in operation at the time that the industry was nationalised in 1947. But, on nationalisation, the Coal Board inherited all the rights and obligations which, as I have pointed out, may in many cases have been of old and ancient origin. It is, as the noble Viscount, Lord Hall, said, somewhat easier to deal with the problem to-day, in that there is one owner of the coal. It must be remembered, however, that the Coal Board are working the coal on leases to which they succeeded when the industry was taken over in 1947. The right reverend Prelate and other noble Lords who have spoken to-day will be aware that the Coal Board are now forced to work areas which, for some good reason, had been left unworked in the old days when the industry was in private hands. For instance, there was a case which came to my notice of the old workings of a pit which had been fully worked out, but where it was necessary to move somewhere else in the old pit in order to extract the coal which, for some good reason, had been left in the old days. After all, as I think was also said by the noble Viscount, Lord Hall, coal is in short supply, and it is the one essential raw material upon which every industry in this country must rely. It should not be thought that I am critical of the Coal Board, any more than the right reverend Prelate was. Nevertheless, I think they are, and must always be, far more impersonal than the original owner of the coal who would, if possible, have had a sentimental feeling towards his own property and any buildings which had been erected thereon.

I should like to revert to the year 1927, when the Royal Commission which was appointed in 1923 to examine the whole question of subsidence reported. In their Report they stated that they saw no reason to amend the law except in respect of owner-occupiers of existing small dwelling-houses. Some twenty years later, a Committee was appointed, under the chairmanship of Mr. Theodore Turner, and its terms of reference were: To examine the law of support and the problem of damage caused by mining subsidence in the light of the nationalisation of coal and the coal mining industry and to make recommendations. Anybody who reads those terms of reference will realise at once that they undoubtedly encouraged the Committee to take a completely different view of the problem from that which had been taken by the Royal Commission some twenty years before, and they possibly saw an opportunity, which had never occurred previously, of placing upon the new Coal Board the liability to pay compensation for all damage which may be caused by letting down of the surface. At the same time, the Turner Committee, as it came to be called, suggested that there should be a key-point principle. The idea was that the Committee would seek to apply a wide measure of planning over the whole country, instead of the existing law in relation to support.

Now we come to 1950, when the Labour Government passed an Act which, as I think was made clear by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor, made no attempt—indeed, it was not intended to—to implement any portion of the Turner Committee's Report. All it did was to deal with the special problem of small houses to which attention had been drawn by the Royal Commission some twenty-three years before. That Act gave a right of compensation to the owners of all houses of a rateable value in England of not more than £32, the right being given both to existing and to future houses. I might add here that if, after the passing of the Rating and Valuation Bill which is now before your Lordships' House, the assessment of these houses should be increased, my right honourable friend the Minister of Fuel and Power has power, under the Act of 1950, to make an order increasing the limits of rateable value for these houses.

From what I have said, the right reverend Prelate and other noble Lords will see that, besides this new Act of 1950, the Coal Board have succeeded to all leases which were in operation at the time the industry was transferred to them. From there, I should like to refer back again to the Turner Committee's Report, as there has recently been a good deal of pressure to implement some, or all, of their recommendations. As I read that Report, the Committee did not recommend any measures which would put an end to damage from mining subsidence. With the present state of technical knowledge, that could be brought about only by not working coal under any buildings or built-up areas. I have been advised that if the recommendations of this Committee in relation to the present law of support had any effect at all, they would tend to make it easier for the Coal Board to work the coal.

Many of the protests against the existing law have taken no account of that fact, and they are concerned primarily about damage caused generally and not about the liability to pay compensation. If the Coal Board to-day were to agree to the proposal that no coal should be worked under inhabited areas, it is estimated that they would have to sacrifice something like 80 million tons of coal a year. As the noble Viscount, Lord Hall, said, that is an impossible position to put the Coal Board in to-day. I am aware, and so is my right honourable friend, that the built-up areas are suffering most from damage from subsidence, and in nearly every case it is in the areas of the new coalfields where coal can be most economically worked. The great majority of these new coalfields are in the immediate vicinity of villages and large towns, where a good deal of damage might result from letting down the surface. But I think the whole House, and especially the right reverend Prelate, will agree with me that it would be utterly impracticable to-day, or indeed for many years to come, to allow the output of coal to be reduced in any way whatever.

I will not enter into any great detail concerning the difference of opinions in the Reports of the Royal Commission and the Turner Committee, but they differed in many important points. There is, however, one fundamental point in this Report to which I must draw the attention of the House. At present, many surface interests have a right of support which has been retained when the surrounding minerals were sold, or it has been purchased since the minerals were originally disposed of. The Turner Committee, except in the case of key-points, recommended that all these rights of support should be swept away and that no payment should be made to the surface owner for the rights that they would lose, except where those rights had been obtained by purchase in recent years. I do not know how the right reverend Prelate and other noble Lords feel on that point, but it seems to me that it would surely not be right to take away by legislative action all rights of support which had been paid for over the years and, in some cases, held for generations.

It is true that in the Turner Committee's Report something was to be substituted for this radical change in the law. It was to be brought about by the establishment of key-points, which the right reverend Prelate mentioned in the course of his speech, which would give support to works and buildings which play a vital part in the life of the community. All disputed cases were to be determined by a special tribunal. I think the right reverend Prelate, from what he said in his observations, is of the opinion that the Government should implement at any rate this part of the recommendations in the Report. But as I have endeavoured to point out, these proposals for a major and fundamental change relating to support, and in particular for drastic interference with the rights of surface owners, cannot be lightly accepted by any Government. Indeed, the Minister of Fuel and Power in the Labour Government explained that legislation could not be contemplated at that time, and certainly the present economic position does not enhance the prospects for further legislation now. However, my right honourable friend is prepared to have the whole problem re-examined. A comprehensive review will take place, but I regret that I cannot hold out any hope to-day of immediate legislation. Naturally, I shall communicate to toy right honourable friend the Minister of Fuel and Power the views which have been expressed with such force by the right reverend Prelate and others who are associated with him.

I would turn from that to reply to one or two questions which have been addressed to me this afternoon. The first one was by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor, who asked me a question about the meeting which took place this morning between the Minister of Housing and Local Government and representatives of local authorities. A statement was issued after the meeting which I think I had better read in full to the House. It says: The Minister of Housing and Local Government, Mr. Duncan Sandys, who was accompanied by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power, Mr. Joynson-Hicks, expressed strong sympathy with the position of those local authorities who had to meet a heavy bill for damage to their services as a result of subsidence. He referred to the recent announcement by the Minister of Fuel and Power that he was at present examining afresh the whole of this problem in consultation with the National Coal Board. He noted that the representations made by the deputation had been essentially directed to asking that the recommendations of the Turner Report should be put into effect. Clearly, if any such comprehensive solution were adopted, the difficulties of local authorities would be met together with those of other owners who were suffering from the effects of subsidence. However, my right honourable friend was prepared to give the local authorities an assurance that if no such comprehensive solution should prove practicable, the Government would be prepared to extend the scope of the forthcoming review of local government finance so as to bring within its terms of reference consideration of the burden falling on the rate of areas liable to especially serious mining subsidence. It was the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor, who asked me whether the second part of that statement which I have just read dealt with private interests. The answer is, No, it deals entirely with local authority interests and, naturally enough, if a comprehensive solution is arrived at, that will deal with all interests wherever they may be and whatever they may be; but the final portion of that statement deals entirely with the interests of local authorities, and no one else.

I have endeavoured to give the House a full account of the Government's views on a difficult and technical subject. I hope that I shall satisfy the right reverend Prelate if I say to him once again that we are re-examining the whole of this problem and if I assure him that the views which he has so forcefully expressed to the House to-day will be conveyed to my right honourable friend.

4.53 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank very warmly all those who have taken part in the debate and to express my gratitude for the sympathetic way in which the Motion that I brought forward has been received. I should like to thank also the noble Earl who has replied for the Government, but I do not find myself able to record any satisfaction at the terms of his reply. As I listened to him, I feared that an elaborate and very interesting history of the past was being substituted for any resolute determination to bring in necessary reforms for the future. That is, of course, a natural line for a Government to take if it has no real part in the cause of reform in a particular matter.

I trust that, when the comprehensive review of the whole subject which has been promised takes place—and I am grateful for that; any reasonable man recognises the need for a careful examination of the whole subject before a definite policy is formulated or undertaken—the Government will do something, and will do something in terms of justice and not simply in terms of economics. My belief is that in a generation or two, when perhaps great cities will have been so undermined as to be destroyed, historians, looking back, will regard the argument that economic necessity prevented reform at the present time as being parallel to the argument used in earlier generations to justify child labour in the mines, at the time when Lord Shaftesbury was pressing his reform.. There are considerations which ought to overrule economics in the interests of humanity and justice. I hope the Government, when the time comes to formulate a policy, will approach it in that spirit. I am grateful to the noble Earl for what he has said, especially his promise of consideration of the matter, and in accordance with the convenient precedent normally operative in this House, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.