§ Debate resumed.
§ 4.25 p.m.
§ Lord Flowers
My Lords, in rising to continue the debate on coal and the environment, I must first express my profound gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, for arranging this debate, and for the comprehensive and kind way in which he has spoken about my report. He has made my task much easier. I must also thank the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for their encouraging remarks. May I also express my regret that the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, has had to withdraw from this debate due to illness? In his absence, I have been asked to associate the Liberal Party with what I have 728 to say. I hope that they will find what I say broadly acceptable.
I am not sure whether it is quite the done thing to speak in this House about one's own report. I do so, of course, as your Lordships have heard, in a state of abeyance. But at least I have a chance to thank all those who have worked with me for the best part of three years—the members of the commission and of the secretariat and the many witnesses. If we have made a useful contribution, it is because we tried to establish a consensus—an unpopular word these days, I know—about how to formulate energy policies, so as to be broadly acceptable among all the many interests involved.
Our first conclusion, given in Chapter 3, was that, having allowed for all other ways of meeting energy demand, and however optimistic one can be about nuclear power, there was likely to be until the end of this century, and for some time thereafter, a continuing annual consumption of coal in this country in the range 110 million to 170 million tonnes. It is about 125 million tonnes at present. We assumed that most of this coal could, and would, continue to be produced by the National Coal Board, allowing a desirable margin for imports and exports. We asked ourselves whether this could be done and, if so, without unacceptable damage to the environment. Our answer was in two parts: coal production and coal use.
Regarding coal production, our main conclusion was that the programme of modernisation was essential. Only in that way could the interests of the taxpayer and the energy consumer, on the one hand, and the long-term stability of the industry and better pay for its work force, on the other, be reconciled.These two sets of interests",we wrote in paragraph 3.43,cannot be reconciled by policies which lead the NCB to produce the last possible tonne from obsolescent, high-cost capacity".We understood, of course, the serious impact which pit closures have upon a tight-knit mining community, such as one traditionally associates with the Welsh valleys, near which I myself grew up. I, too, wish to acknowledge the admiration for the miners of this country, for their courage and forbearance in many matters. But the new mining communities are different. At Selby, for instance, miners and their families are intermixed with agricultural and other workers over a wide area. One should not assume that the agonies associated with pit closures will continue for ever.
We found, moreover, that there was no necessary conflict between economic and environmental considerations. Despite very real difficulties associated with the control of subsidence and with spoil disposal—to which we devoted a chapter apiece—low-cost, high productivity mines now introduced or planned are designed to high environmental standards. As the new capacity comes into operation, the NCB will be able to phase out obsolete mines, especially in areas whose decline is associated with the worst environmental legacy of the past. They will also then be able to afford to improve the state of the continuing capacity.
The legacy of the past gave us great concern because it is responsible for the image of the coal industry 729 that most people have. A modern deep mine, well managed, need be no more obtrusive than any other heavy engineering operation employing a few thousand workers. But it has not always been so, and it is not always so today, as a visit to West Yorkshire would at once confirm. So long as there remain great tracts of neglected and derelict town and country, dominated by rusting pithead workings, by the bitter heritage of uncontrolled subsidence and scrofulous soil heaps, people must be forgiven for believing—incorrectly to be sure—that this is what a flourishing coal industry exists to perpetuate and proliferate.
Many of our recommendations were concerned with clearing up the legacy of the past, but I will mention only one. Noting what had been achieved by the Welsh and Scottish Development Agencies, who successfully mount modern enterprises upon formerly derelict mining land, we recommended in paragraph 22.62 a similar development agency, as the noble Baroness has mentioned, for the Yorkshire coalfield where so much industrial activity has taken place, and is taking place. I should like to ask the Minister what the Government's attitude is to this proposal. The problem is a real one—for the NCB, for the local authorities and for local people. I hope that the ritualistic dislike of quangos will not become a substitute for action.
As the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, has said, spoil disposal is one of the main problems of coal production. The huge tips which he spoke about will be well designed and well restored, especially if our recommendations are followed. But there remains the problem of scale. Particularly in highly worked areas like West Yorkshire we were not sure that there would be enough suitable sites. We recommended in paragraph 22.57 that the Department of the Environment should promote arrangements for spoil disposal similar to those which apply to aggregates. I hope the Minister will again be able to give some indication of the Government's response.
In the long run, however, I believe that much more effort must be devoted to modifying the modern long-wall process—and it is a modern process—whereby the roof collapses behind the cut seam and the spoil can then only be disposed of on the surface. Backstowage underground was once the practice, but it is now out of fashion. The reasons are perfectly sound. Longwall methods are high in productivity and constitute a relatively low health and safety hazard. A return to backstowage would certainly be technically very difficult but it is environmentally desirable. It might be economically desirable, too, because of the loss in value of agricultural land resulting from insufficient land drainage when the inevitable subsidence has taken place. It is therefore one of our recommendations that long-term research should be undertaken into new forms of backstowage which would be acceptable both economically and in terms of the health and safety of the workforce. It would be very long term work.
In spite of detailed criticisms, we were not at all condemnatory of the coal mining industry. Indeed, we were encouraged by the evidence. In the particular case of opencast mining, however, we came to the firm conclusion that the pendulum had swung too 730 far against the environment. It is an obtrusive technique to practise in such a densely populated country, full of sensitive landscapes, farmlands and homesteads. The difficulty is essentially economic. The NCB makes up its losses in unprofitable deep mines by its profitable opencast operations. In 1980–81, it made a profit of £157 million on 15 million tonnes of opencast coal, against a loss of £135 million on 110 million tonnes of deep-mined coal. The losses on deep-mined coal arise from the unprofitable old pits that we recommended should be phased out—as, indeed, they are being. As deep mining thereby becomes more efficient, we recommended in paragraph 22.73 that the annual volume of opencast coal should be allowed to decline somewhat. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government were convinced by our arguments on that point?
Before I leave coal production I must make one remark about the question of reserves. It proved to be a difficult matter to discuss, not helped at times by the somewhat naïve pronouncements of the NCB. According to the accepted definitions, there is every reason to suppose that the board can continue to declare, as far ahead as one can see, that there are 50 years of operating reserves at the present level of output. But it depends on the definitions: if the definitions in future are to depend upon the environmental consequences of eventual extraction, there may be greater uncertainties.
We did not discuss the proposed development at the Vale of Belvoir because it was simultaneously being considered at a public inquiry. We did, however, note in paragraph 6.24 that the visual impact at Belvoir would be significantly different from that at Selby, essentially because the geology of the two coalfields is so different. Selby is almost spoil free. Belvoir is not. If one development can go ahead but the other not, it follows that a new environmental criterion will have to enter the estimation of the NCB's operating reserves.
I confess that I was myself surprised by the Secretary of State's refusal to allow the Belvoir development to take place as planned. If the proposals were made in accordance with our recommendations—and I have no reason to suppose they were not—I find it hard to believe that the Secretary of State could have discovered in our report any substantial grounds for rejecting the board's submission. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten me about the role our report may have played in the thinking of the Secretary of State on this matter, and whether he was aware of the implication of his decision for future estimates of the operating reserves.
So much for production. Coal is used in power stations, for other industrial purposes and in domestic heating. In the future it may be used for synthetic fuels also, if the economics allow. In our report we pay a lot of attention to combustion technology in these different uses and to the means available to control the associated pollution—principally smoke, sulphur dioxide and, of course, ash. Smoke is really no longer a problem with power stations because they use electrostatic separators with an efficiency of something like 99.5 per cent., combined with hugh stacks to disperse the essentially gaseous residue. Low level emissions in towns are nowadays much reduced but in any case can be controlled by the introduction of further smoke control zones, if they are needed. We indicated where 731 the black spots might be. Ash disposal, as with spoil, is mainly a matter of site availability.
Sulphur dioxide is not so much of a health problem as it was once imagined to be, unless it is associated with smoke, and even then it is dangerous mostly to cigarette smokers who, quite literally, have the remedy in their own hands. The mandatory limits for smoke and sulphur dioxide set out in the EEC Air Quality Directive provide an adequate standard for the protection of human health. That being so, we also considered that they were adequate as regards local crops and vegetation and the protection of materials against corrosion.
There remains the vexed problem of acid rain. Sulphur dioxide, swept high into the atmosphere and carried across the North Sea, falls as acidified rain on to land which in certain parts of Scandinavia is already acid in character. Some of it also reaches the ground by dry deposition, but I will not go into that. The results are harmful to fish and to crops. How much of the damage results from acid rain and how much from the acidity already present is still hotly contested. It may be that adding lime to the appropriate watersheds would be a sufficient solution, although this too may have its side effects. The matter is being intensively researched under a convention of the Economic Commission for Europe. If acid rain should turn out to be the major culprit—originating in parts of the Continent, such as the Ruhr, as well as in the United Kingdom—and if it has to be arrested at source, the solution is likely to be very expensive, adding perhaps 10 per cent. to 20 per cent. to the cost of a unit of electricity. Someone has said that flue gas desulphurisation is the billion dollar solution to a million dollar problem. We did not think that enough was yet known to justify such expenditure at present, although we hedged our bets by saying that desulphurisation research should certainly continue.
Perhaps I should say a word about siting requirements for major energy projects. The problem arose, in our thinking, with synthetic natural gas for which a full-scale commercial plant would resemble a 2,000-megawatt coal-fired power station in terms of coal consumption, land take, water requirements, air pollution and ash production. There will be a need for sites of this kind not only for SNG plants and for coal-fired generating stations, but for other large-scale, energy-intensive industrial enterprises. We were not sure that there would be enough sites to satisfy the total need. I would like to ask the Minister whether he agrees with our recommendation (given in paragraph 22.128)—we considered it an important one—that the Department of the Environment, together with the energy industries and the local authorities, should undertake a joint review of potential sites of this kind, initially in Yorkshire and the East Midlands.
Finally, we devoted a chapter to the planning process whereby, under the town and country planning system, one tries to reach an accommodation between the principal interests involved in any major development. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, both emphasised that the concepts of balance and of the interaction between energy policy and the environment were throughout fundamental to the way we approached our task. But how that balance 732 is perceived is a matter of opinion—the opinion of ordinary people as well as of experts. Ordinary people are no longer content that Ministers and their advisers should have a monopoly of judgment of the public good. They want nowadays to participate in the decision-making process, and the means by which they do so, under the law, is the town and country planning system. We therefore made a number of proposals for streamlining that system. I will not go into detail; suffice it to say that we assumed the public would have to be better informed of likely developments than they generally are at present, starting from the top. It is first of all necessary that the Government should itself make clear at regular intervals how it views the energy scene—what are the requirements and how might they be met.
It is, of course, a scene that changes with time: with the state of the economy, with external events, with technological innovations, and so on. This, we believed, could nevertheless be made generally comprehensible and would greatly ease the problems of getting any particular development or project into proper public perspective. I would like to know whether the Government agree that this should be done. Secondly, we thought it important to have some idea of site availability—whether it is a power station, a colliery, a spoil heap, or an SNG plant—well ahead of time, so that there can be an element of choice. It really is not good enough to research only one site and then to claim too late that there is no alternative.
Thirdly, we thought that consultation with local interests should be progressive, beginning early at an exploratory level, becoming gradually more comprehensive as and when the project moves forward. Many of the tensions which are encountered at public local inquiries, often the culmination of the planning process, would be eased by more effective dialogue between the relevant interests during the early preparatory stages of planning. The British town and country planning system is astonishingly versatile when properly used—hence, incidentally, much of the objection to the formal continental and American processes of environmental impact assessment.
My Lords, I have spoken for too long. I hope that the report we are debating today may help to put the future of the coal industry into better perspective. I hope that its 70-odd recommendations, if adopted, will create better conditions, a better public image and smoother planning. The challenge is there—to the industry, to the workforce, to the customer; but only a modernised industry can meet that challenge. In that way, coal can continue to play its full part in the economy, and in that way it can do so without unacceptable damage to the environment.
§ 4.46 p.m.
§ The Earl of Lauderdale
My Lords, your Lordships are all greatly in debt both to the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, for opening this debate, and to the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, for the report which we are now debating. Somehow, I do not think of the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, as "quango Man" or homo quangus—much more, homo sapientissimus. Certainly I have found study of his report rewarding but also, I must say, most demanding. Before I go any further, I must crave your Lordships' indulgence for the fact that a 733 long time ago I was committed to an engagement this evening which causes me to leave here at 5.45 p.m. Therefore, it is likely that I cannot be here for the conclusion of the debate and I apologise in advance to your Lordships and to my noble friend on the Front Bench who will be winding up.
This debate occurs in the wake of the Vale of Belvoir decision. Perhaps it is worth recalling the reasons which were given in the other place by the Secretary of State for the Environment for his decision. In Hansard for 25th March 1982 (cols. 1096–1097) we read:Permission should be refused for the proposed spoil tips at Hose and Saltby".The Secretary of State went on:Other methods of spoil disposal should be further examined".He concluded:Had there been acceptable proposals for spoil disposal, I would have been minded to grant planning permission for mines at Asfordby and Saltby".Environment is, of course, the new religion and like many contemporary cults it is open to serious challenge. Environmental change is itself as old as geology—not so, however, environmental fashion. Environmental aesthetics are ever variable and ever volatile, and they are never predictable. There have been moments when the environmentalists have protested against the growth and, alternatively, the removal of hedgerows; of shelter belts; and even more recently of afforestration—let alone the almost paranoiac hysteria which developed a few years ago about the Brent geese being driven away from Maplin Sands as if there was no other place for the poor dear geese to alight and feed.
Either the landscape is to be kept static or we deny the energy needs of an industrial society while simultaneously wanting its comforts and its so-called improved quality of life. I was brought up on a nursery belief that one cannot have one's cake and eat it. It is inevitable that there will be an environmental on-cost which society must be ready to pay if it wants to have the energy that makes life more comfortable and more agreeable in an industrial world. This report focuses primarily on the problems which are going to arise in Yorkshire and the Midlands. The need is spelt out quite clearly. It is to cater for up to 60 million tonnes of spoil disposal a year which, if tipped, would require up to 500 acres a year.
I find paragraphs 9.31 to 9.33 not as sanguine as I personally could have hoped about the possibility of moving pulverised spoil for land reclamation of coastal sites, although at paragraph 9.33 there is the assurance:There is limited scope for using spoil for remote land reclamation. It should not be ruled out entirely and should be considered very seriously".I should have thought, to the contrary, that there was abundant scope for this, both on the coasts, like Lancashire, where the sea is receding, and on the coasts, like Yorkshire, where it is in fact eating the coastline away. We are not an under-populated island: if anything we are over-populated. For many years we have been proud that we grow as much food as we do for our own people, but we should surely be prouder still if we grew more. Areas that strike one as having a relatively shallow shore and seeming to invite reclamation would include the Firths of Tay, Forth and Solway, 734 Morecambe Bay, especially the Lancaster Sands, the Lancashire coast—all of it—Carmarthen Bay, the Lincolnshire coast, the Wash, Northern Norfolk, Maplin and the Kentish Flats.
But what about feasibility? There are more than 1,000 pipe-lines existing in the United Kingdom at the present time, legitimised by the Pipe-Lines Act 1962. Not only do they carry industrial gases, oil and petrochemicals, but they also carry cement, clay and coal. But whereas pipe-lining accounts for some 24 per cent. of freight movement in the United States and 17.6 per cent. in France, it accounts for less than 5 per cent. in Britain. Those are figures taken from the Transport and Road Research Laboratory in 1980. There have been many technical studies made, and one or two that have been brought to my attention are perhaps worth identifying. The Financial Times on 6th June 1973 quoted studies by the British Hydromechanics Research Association at Cranfield for a twin three foot pipe over a distance of 200 miles moving 10 million tonnes per annum of material at about £40 million. If one transposes those calculations to the sort of things we are talking about in Britain, which is a distance of, say, 60–70 miles to the coast, and you have 60 million tonnes a year to move, you get something like £60 million.
Three years later the Engineer, a serious publication in the field of mechanical handling, described on 29th April 1976, a comparison of costs for moving 1 million tonnes a year of aggregate over a distance of some 6;i miles by pneumatic capsules in concrete pipes. It found that the cost was 15 per cent. cheaper than the cheapest road haulage and 30 per cent. cheaper than by rail. These calculations take account of both capital and replacement costs. Broadly speaking, the figures work out the same but on a total annual output of, say, 180 million tonnes a year it looks as if you get a figure after inflation of somewhere between £5 and £10 a tonne on-cost to the cost of coal if you try and move this volume of spoil from, say, the centre of England, or the centre of Scotland for that matter, to a coastal site.
But against that one surely has to match the cost first of all of good farm land, or land of any kind, which is spared spoliation, and we are talking now about 500 acres a year, and also the cost of new good land which is created. So these are figures that should certainly enter into the calculation. There is, of course, another related factor to which the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, has just drawn attention. He has mentioned the need for sites for SNG plants in the future. I think one should also bear in mind the need for new power station sites in the future.
I was rather surprised in reading the Flowers Report that there was no obvious reference—I may not have read it sufficiently—to the studies carried out by the Watt Energy Committee published in March 1979 on Energy Development and Land in the United Kingdom. There is a very interesting map in that report which indicates the sort of areas that seem most likely to be needed for power station development in the next 30 or 40 years. I notice that a number of those coincide with the areas I have already mentioned as possible for reclamation. They mention the Firth of Forth, the Berwickshire coast, the Ayrshire coast, the Northumbrian coast, Morecambe Bay again, South Humber- 735 side, Severnside, the area of Devonport, the Dorset coast, the Southampton area, Suffolk and Dungeness. So it is not only a question of finding sites for colliery spoil, but it is also for power stations and the various forms of refinery such as SNG plants that are going to be needed. This seems to me to be the area that the commission might well have studied more sympathetically.
§ Lord Flowers
My Lords, if the noble Earl would forgive me, that is exactly the point I made in my speech, and it is also the point that is made in the report itself.
§ The Earl of Lauderdale
My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord for correcting me; homo sapientissimus beats the student every time. However, in the light of the general drift of the report, I find the noble Lord's conclusions quite remarkably restrained. I draw attention particularly to paragraph 22.57 where, in the most moderate language, we are told:We conclude that the problem of spoil disposal suffers from the lack of any coherent national or regional disposal policy and that better co-ordination",et cetera, is needed. That is a very modest way of putting what is a crying disgrace.
Of course it did not surprise me that my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, in opening, trotted out the sort of litany that issues from this Government—which in many ways, as your Lordships know, I support—about market forces. How on earth market forces are going to enter into providing the public service needed to create new land on a large scale, I do not know. I happen myself at this time to be concerned in seeking funds for a reclamation project of great economic benefit, sanctioned by the Minister of Transport in another part of the country, and I must say that the altruism of financial institutions, the altruism of the market, is not something that I have yet come to recognise. Be that as it may, there is obviously an area where market forces should be allowed to work their best, and there are areas where the public service has to exist.
We have two other quite modest recommendations in the noble Lord's report. At 22.126 we are told:there should be a more systematic explanation by Government of the progressive evolution of national energy policy, and of the options for its implementation".My goodness! I go along with that. Which noble Lord interested in energy would not endorse that over and over again? We are told that this should be accompanied by regularly updated indication of the order of magnitude of possible future requirements for major energy projects. Tell that to the market forces and I wonder what answer you will get? We in this House perpetually ask of the Government more intelligent and more penetrating surveys of energy policy. I would not like my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale to think that we did not appreciate the general conspectus with which he introduced the Government's view this afternoon, but we always want more and better.
Finally, at paragraph 22.128 the report concludes:long-term planning of land resources suitable for energy developments needs to be improved".My goodness! improved? It needs to exist; there is 736 very little at the moment. Whether all these polite words will affect this Government or any other Government in any way, I doubt. Reasoned argument in my political experience is nothing like so effective as hitting them with a hammer.
§ 5.1 p.m.
§ Baroness White
My Lords, I am delighted to be able to take part in this debate initiated so admirably by the noble Lord, Lord Kearton. We are all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, for his work in recent years in guiding public opinion in areas where authoritative analysis and informed judgment on technical and scientific subjects are needed. I had the privilege of sitting under his chairmanship on the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution when he produced the Sixth Report on Nuclear Energy, acknowledged to be a classic in its sphere, which won worldwide esteem as well as influencing opinion at home. The report entitled Coal and the Environment is not perhaps quite in that class, but it is a most thorough and well-balanced study of the effects of a major extractive industry which, having been in decline, is now seen to be re-emerging as a front runner, despite the caveats of the noble Lord, Lord Kearton. So the report that we are debating today is most opportune.
Nevertheless, I know that I echo the sentiments of many people in expressing indignation at the high price charged for this report by Her Majesty's Stationery Office—namely, £23 a copy. This is well above the price acceptable to most intelligent lay readers who cannot look to public or professional funds to furnish them with a working copy. If one goes to a library one cannot underline and sideline, which is what one needs to do with a report of this type if one is to deal with it adequately.
I speak with recent experience, having 10 days ago chaired a seminar in South Wales of some 50 people representing all the major interests in the matter in the area, public and private, to discuss this very report. It was under the joint auspices of the Prince of Wales' Committee and the National Coal Board, South Wales Area. We decided to photocopy and circulate the 11 pages of conclusions and recommendations. I do not know whether we were in breach of the copyright law, but if we were, so be it. To my mind it is monstrous to ask public spirited people to give their time, effort and expertise over some three years, with little or no reward, and then to price the results of their labours out of the market, which is what has happened in this case. It shows complete disregard for the true public interest. This is not the occasion on which to pursue the matter, but I hope that some of us may perhaps be able to take it up in the future.
After that little diversion let me return to the report itself. I propose to touch on certain aspects primarily from the standpoint of the area that I know best—namely, that of the South Wales coalfield. This is not just being parochial; this coalfield represents, at their sharpest and most comprehensive, conditions which still prevail elsewhere, particularly in the North-East of England but also in parts of the North-West and Yorkshire—in other words, the areas of the old coal regime. The older mines are, for the most part, less profitable; opencast workings are tolerated because they are, on the whole, more profitable and help to 737 redress the financial balance for the coalfield as a whole. This is particularly important in South Wales where geology, topography and—in relation to pollution and run-off—heavy rainfall, all enhance the problems and consequently the cost of remedying them.
For us, many of the environmental problems are legacies of the past rather than apprehensions for the future. I do not think that there is much prospect of a Selby in Glamorgan. Consequently, we are concerned that we shall not be left behind while attention is concentrated on how best to handle the developing areas in the Midlands, Oxfordshire and parts of Yorkshire. This, we believe, could be a very real danger.
In the papers provided for our seminar by those who are actually working day by day in the coal industry, I was struck by the difference in attitude of those in the National Coal Board and the Welsh Development Agency—which in Wales is responsible for dealing with derelict land restoration—compared with some of the recommendations in the report. In a region with long years of experience in tackling dereliction in particular, and doing it on the whole remarkably successfully, as the report generously remarks, there is a natural tendency to take the line, "We have faced and solved most of these problems; we do not need changes, for example, in planning controls and the like. We have worked out a reasonable modus vivendi over several decades with the other authorities concerned; all we really need is adequate resources to get on with the job".
The anxiety in an area of this kind—and I would suppose it would apply equally to comparable areas in parts of England—is simply to be allowed to keep pace and not to slip back inexorably, which is the fear, because the funds available continue to diminish in value. Had we been holding the seminar, for example, in North Oxfordshire, I am sure that the attitude would have been quite different. There one looks forward to potentially intrusive development of rich resources in virgin land and, on the social side, to the possible advent of potentially obtrusive miners. I was delighted with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, about coal miners. Coal miners are among the best people in the world—they have to be. But the inhabitants of the rich acres of rural England may not see them in that way in the first instance, so they will be on the alert to protect themselves by every available means.
I believe that modern coal mining, properly sited and well run, need not be unduly detrimental. I think that the balance on this was very wisely expressed in the report. I believe that anyone living in any such area which may look forward to development of a modern coal industry, should find the recommendations in this report extremely helpful, based as they are on careful investigation and rational judgment.
However, I return to the historic areas in the coalfields—particularly in my own country of South Wales—with their steep-sided hills and the valleys so narrow that there is little space or flat land of any sort to accommodate the modern factories and workshops needed to keep active, economic life viable. Spurred by the Aberfan disaster and the development of modern earth-moving equipment, there has been a revolution in the treatment of coal tips and waste heaps. As the report emphasises, the newer tips are 738 far less obtrusive, although this has the disadvantage of using up more of the less steep land. But I was so glad that the report so vividly describes in Chapter 10 how closely bound together in such areas are the treatment of former and current dereliction with the prospects of providing future work and happiness for the communities who live in these valleys. I quote from page 71 of the report—and I think that this was referred to by my noble friend Lady Birk—where it says:over half of factory space built by the WDA in the last five years has been on reclaimed land".That is the measure of the importance of the new techniques which are now being adopted. In order to make the two policies of dealing with derelict land and with the provision of employment fruitful, there has, of course, as the report very much emphasises, to be the closest consultation and collaboration between the National Coal Board and its colleagues in the public sector, not least the local planning authorities.
On the whole, I think that this is very well carried out, but there are reasons of industrial relations—again referred to in the report—which make the National Coal Board understandably chary of announcing too long in advance the areas in which there may be closures of existing mines. This, of course, lessens the time and opportunity for those who have to take responsibility for new developments in those localities.
It is disquieting for us that at present the Welsh Development Agency's resources for land clearance are declining in real terms. I am not sure what effect the new Derelict Land Bill, recently introduced in another place, will have on their work, but, as the Explanatory Memorandum indicates that there will be no increase in public expenditure and that such money as is available will be defused by making grants to persons other than local authorities, it does not arouse great hopes. Fortunately, however, for us in Wales, some of the problems affecting local authorities in England are minimised by the use of the Welsh Development Agency as an intermediary. I am quite sure that the plea made by the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, and advocated in the report, that serious consideration should be given towards setting up a comparable development agency for the Yorkshire coalfield, should be taken very seriously indeed.
On the planning side, it is indeed true that there are differences of view between the National Coal Board and the planning authorities. I think that this is only to be expected. Again, there are some sensible suggestions in the report, and in particular one would draw attention to the suspicion felt by local authorities that the Minister for Energy is now regarded as being judge in his own cause. There are various minor points concerned with the general development orders which need attention. They are small in themselves, but they can make quite a considerable difference in local circumstances.
I should like to turn for a moment to opencast working. The report concludes that there should be no present increase in the total coal take by this method and that as more new deep mines are opened, the total of the opencast target should decline. It also suggests that the two sectors—deep-mining and opencast—should be financially separated. In South Wales 739 there would be considerable concern if this went anywhere beyond simple accounting practice. With the shattering experience in the mining sector which we have gone through in the past half century—and perhaps I might remind your Lordships that in the Rhondda where there were once 53 pits there is now only one fully working coalmine—there would be panic if the profitable Opencast Executive were to be hived off completely from the deep mine sector, because the one helps to sustain the other.
I think that it was right for the commisison to come down against anything so drastic. Nevertheless, having said how dependent we are on opencast workings in the South Wales coalfield, one must emphasise that only those who live near a long-term opencast site can appreciate the destruction and the loss of amenity that it can bring over a period which can extend to 20 years or longer. Obviously, it also gravely affects not only daily lives but property values for many families whose one major investment is likely to be their own home.
Hitherto, the common practice has been to receive authorisation for opencast working on a rolling programme basis, with renewal of permission after review, normally every five years or so. But more recently long-term, single authorisation sites have become accepted, with no provision for periodic review and hence no continuing incentive on the operator to keep all the conditions affecting noise, dust, visual encroachment and so on under stringent control. This can cause serious deterioration which may be accepted too readily in or near mining villages anxious to retain employment but regardless of the long-term future for the area. Once an area has become blighted, it can progressively deteriorate, and it is then very difficult to arrest the decline.
This point is all the more serious because there are apprehensions that, following a recent reference to the Monopolies Commission, there could be some possible privatisation—to use that ugly word, and it is ugly in all senses—of opencast coal working. For anyone who knows these areas, that could be disastrous. The National Coal Board has full responsibility as a public body to control the many private contractors who work on these sites. But to remove that dimension of public control on opencast working—something that affects people's lives so intimately over so many years—in my view would be a disgrace. I would hope that the Minister, to whom I have given notice of this point, can say here and now that such an idea in this context will never be entertained.
There are many other areas in the report to which one could refer with considerable interest and concern. I shall perhaps touch on only one, and that is the relations between the National Coal Board and the Welsh Water Authority. No doubt this applies in other areas to the regional water authorities as appropriate. The Welsh Water Authority has very considerable responsibility for some of the consequences of the activities of the National Coal Board. There are problems from washeries, from coal by-product plants, water from abandoned mines and run-off or leachates from spoil tips, tailings, large coal stocking areas and so on, all of which seriously affect water quality and fish life in our rivers.
740 Much of this surface drainage, run-off and overflow is not subject to any consent procedure under existing legislation. I am not suggesting that it should be made liable to legislative control, but it makes it all the more essential that there should be the closest co-operation and consultation between the National Coal Board and the water authorities. This used to be a matter of considerable discontent, but I think it is right to say that in the last few years relationships have very considerably improved. None the less there is still need for eternal vigilance.
There are so many other matters that one would like to discuss because this is a very full report and very closely argued, but we cannot deal with them all today. Nevertheless, this makes it all the more important that when the noble Earl, Lord Avon, replies he will give us some indication that the Government are not only actively considering all these suggestions but that they will make it their duty to give the public comments and replies as detailed and as authoritative as the proposals and recommendations made in this report; and perhaps we call also be assured that we shall not have to wait too long for the Government's considered response.
§ 5.19 p.m.
§ Lord Nathan
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, as are all other noble Lords who have spoken, for giving us the first and last opportunity of considering a report from the Commission on Energy and the Environment. This report, for which we are so grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, and his colleagues in the commission, demonstrates the misfortune which the country suffers from the Government's decision to let the commission fall into abeyance. Among many others, I have been concerned over some eight to 10 years past that such a commission should exist for the very purposes which are emphasised in this admirable report, which perhaps I might summarise as educational of the public with a view to establishing the options open with regard to an energy policy within the field, of course, to which this report relates. There is no other body of equal, or like, authority of which I know other than this which could undertake such a task. I shall refer later in my remarks to the underlying theme of this report, which is precisely the purpose of the report, to educate, and stimulate consideration of these matters so that people may be better informed. It is a great disservice to the country that this commission should be put into abeyance.
At this hour I believe I should confine myself to three points which have struck me as of particular interest and significance, one of which seems on the face of it to be so simple. One of the most significant conclusions reached is that industrial coal burn can be positively encouraged in most circumstances. This is stated in Chapter 22.122 and follows from the discussion of industrial coal burn in paragraphs 19.20 to 19.34. The significance of this conclusion to the lay reader is that it displaces the widely-held view developed over many years, that the burning of coal in urban areas should in principle be eliminated and be replaced by the use of electricity as the ideal solution.
The directives of a prime energy source such as coal must be much more economical and better adapted to such purposes as space heating than electricity could 741 ever be. The directives for coal in industry, as compared with the use of electricity where the option exists, muct be advantageous. This is not the time to discuss electricity generation policy, on which I would claim no expertise at all, but in the light of this conclusion one is led to wonder whether the policy of constructing vast power stations on coastal sites or on coalfields with giant pylons striding across the countryside is the right exclusive policy.
One is led to wonder whether, whatever the fuel used, be it coal, nuclear or oil, the loss of around 70 per cent. of the energy consumed in such production can be justified when the greater part of that loss could be eliminated in suitable circumstances by using the waste heat created in the locality where the electricity is generated. In the light of the commission's conclusion, it would seem well worth reopening an inquiry as to the practicality of developing local coal burning power stations using heat which would otherwise be wasted, effectively.
In the report, emphasis is rightly laid upon the need for proper maintenance and supervision of the equipment used, which leads to the conclusion that those conditions can be more easily fulfilled in the industrial context than in the private home. I wonder, however, whether technology and inventiveness cannot produce some foolproof equipment which could enable coal to be used once again in the private home without causing pollution, and perhaps with the convenience of oil, by some kind of automatic feed.
Of course, the advantage of greater efficiency in the use of fuel is a reduction in the aggregate amount of fuel required. So far as the environment is concerned in all its aspects such efficiency must be advantageous. Greater efficiency must lead to lower pollution both locally and in these more obscure fields of the greenhouse effect and the problem with regard to acid rain. There is of course also the point now so much overlooked that the use of less fuel will conserve resources. It has only recently been less under consideration because of the oil glut. I suggest that this is a completely temporary phenomenon which will soon pass. This conclusion of the commission deserves therefore careful consideration not only for itself but also for its implications.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, mentioned earlier, the commission refers in paragraph 3.41 to the debate on the balance between investment in energy supplies and in energy efficiency. This is really another aspect of the point to which I have just referred. The commission have not embarked upon such a study, but say that they would have done so had they not been allowed to fall into abeyance. This is a crucial element in a proper study of energy policy and is just the sort of study which the commission could have done so well. I much hope that the Government will not allow the point to be ignored, but will see that such a study is undertaken by a suitably qualified body.
One of the curious omissions from most of the literature I have seen relating to energy is the absence of any proper consideration of the amount of energy used in an operation. Indeed, there is no commonly accepted measure of energy, although of course tons of coal or oil equivalent are used, kilowatts are used, and sometimes joules. The Watt Committee on Energy, to which the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, 742 referred, produced something in this field, and it would be wrong to omit to mention the work of Gerald Leach. With their pioneering work, however, there would be a lot to be said for incorporating in a study of energy supply and energy efficiency a study of this question which might be called "energy accounting". It is no use using money for this sort of accounting as it distorts the amount of energy used because of price fluctuations, taxation, and numerous irrelevant factors. It is the accounting of the energy used which is required, and I believe that this is a matter on which it would be most helpful if the Government gave some impetus.
Finally, may I refer for a moment to the underlying theme which runs through so much of the report relating to the need for progressive evolution of a national energy policy and the options open, and for wide public understanding of this. The implementation of major energy programmes inevitably involves all sorts of conflicting public interests. One only has to think of Windscale, Roskill, Belvoir, and the rest. Without a broad measure of public acceptance of the need for implementation of a particular energy policy there will be constant skirmishing between those other interests and the energy industries which can benefit neither side. We have seen it happen here, we have seen it happen in Germany, in Holland, in France, in the United States and elsewhere. This is a matter against which we want to guard not by protective measures but by the development of information and understanding.
I suggest that we can reach two conclusions from this. First, that there must be continual public awareness of the energy needs and of the options open, and secondly some adaptation of the present planning process is required. Whilst there is much flexibility, as the commission points out, in the present town and country planning system, the essential difficulty is that a planning application is quite specific whereas the question at issue may rather relate to national policy. As is stated somewhere in the report the benefit may be national but the burden will be local. This is the dilemma.
This is a matter of great and increasing public concern upon which there have been a number of conferences. Indeed one is to be held only next week under the auspices of the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Royal Town Planning Institute. This of course is not a matter which is related solely to coal and the environment, though chapter 21 of the report concerns itself with it. I much wonder whether the proposals made by the commission to alleviate the problem within the existing planning system will deal adequately with what the commission themselves regard as a key factor, and indeed perhaps the theme of their study. It is a matter on which I should be glad to know the Government view and what, if any, steps they have in mind to take by way of further study, changes in practice or in legislation.
§ Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran
My Lords, may I presume to ask the noble Lord a question, it being irresistible that I should ask a question of such a distinguished member of the profession of solicitors? He referred to accountability in regard to energy. With his great experience in the City of London, would be agree that the accounts of public companies should show not only accounts on 743 a financial basis but accounts in relation to energy accountability?
§ Lord Nathan
I would be frightened to accept that suggestion, my Lords, because the accounts of public companies are already over-long and so complicated as to be almost incomprehensible. I fear that if one had inflation accounting related to energy, we should all go mad, but the noble Lord raises an interesting point.
§ 5.32 p.m.
The Earl of Halsbury
My Lords, like those who preceded me, I wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, for initiating this debate, and the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, for standing in for him, so effectively that I must warn him that if I am ever in need of a stand-in, his name may be on the danger list. My old friend and colleague Lord Flowers has produced another of those reports of his which are always hallmarked by that distinction and elegance which are peculiarly his own, and I associate myself with what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady White, and others, about what a pity it is that the commission has been wound up. I also agree with what she said about the document being priced out of the power of the average person to buy it.
After serving my stint on Sub-Committee F, during which I specialised on coalmining, coal processing and the problems of coal pollution, I served in attendance on the Royal Society's committee on coal and the environment, the evidence from which noble Lords will find under Topic No. 4 on page 23 in the summary which has been given us by the Printed Paper Office. For the last 12 years, until the first of this month, I was chairman of the Meteorological Committee, to whom many of these problems were referred for resolution of one kind or another. I would say, taking a general attitude to the matter, and remembering that when I was born we were producing well over 200 million tons of coal a year, that I cannot believe that reverting to what was common practice in those days will have any very spectacular results, unless one can point to some technological feature which has changed in the interim, and as the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, said in relation to dirt, one can indeed find such a difficulty.
I wish to deal with some of the items in the Royal Society's evidence from the standpoint of the relative urgency of different problems in relation to their time-scales, and we might take as the basis of our timescale the span of the Industrial Revolution, which, for my own part, I always date from the first blast furnace of Abraham Darby in Coalbrookdale in about 1750; so the industrial revolution can be taken as about 230 years old. How does one look at a span of 230 years? It is long in one sense, but not very long in another. It is 10 per cent. of the time lapse since the death of Socrates, but its last third is coterminous with the span of my own life. Its last two-thirds are coterminus with the span of my life and my grandfather's life.
Talking of the span of my life, it more than covers the period from the first flutterings of the Wright brothers to the first manned landing on the moon. The point I wish to make arising out of those considerations is 744 that anything other than the shorter-term problems will be faced with a technology that we cannot imagine, because technology is advancing so fast, and the sort of doomwatch attitudes which will arise at the end of the life of somebody now being born are really otiose because our power over nature, if it proceeds at the present pace, will be so enhanced by then that it would be a waste of time now to start saying how we should tackle those longer-term problems in the future.
Take, for example, the problem of the glasshouse effect and so on—the rise of carbon dioxide —when nothing we do in this country can make very much difference to the carbon dioxide content in the world, but of course what the world does can make quite a big difference to the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere over this country. But the latest and most refined mathematical calculations—these have reached me only in the last few weeks, so they are stop press news—indicate that the atmospheric effects are a good deal more sophisticated than was originally thought. We may be going to be faced, for example, with much more in the way of local, than global, effects; there will be droughts in places where we are no longer accustomed to having droughts, and there will be floods where we are not accustomed to having floods. But all that lies a long way in the future.
Plant photosynthesis is at an optimum when the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere is three times what it is. Maybe that is what the long-term historical average has always been and plants have adapted to it. Maybe we are merely living in a carbon dioxide world at the present time. The great storehouse of carbon dioxide is the sea, and the sea and the atmosphere interchange carbon dioxide—nobody knows the details. If the sea warms up, it emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and if it cools down it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Having absorbed it, it can fix some of it as coral, future limestone rocks and so on. If we want to know more about that we must study not the atmosphere but oceanography because the two interreact and we shall never understand the atmosphere until we understand the oceans or vice versa. It may be a rather strange conclusion to say that if you want to know about the glasshouse effect, do not bother about measuring the carbon dioxide of the atmosphere but study oceanography. It is an example of how one adjusts one's priorities if one thinks in the right timescale.
I am sure sulphur pollution is a matter of relative economics. We should all like to live in the Garden of Eden, but we may settle for an industrial slut's paradise instead of the other kind if the maintenance of the Garden of Eden costs too much, particularly by way of resisting temptation from apples and other things. Sulphur pollution is soluble in terms of the fluidised bed combustion of coal. It leaves us with the problem, of course, of disposing of dirty anhydrite, but I come to the points raised by the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, about the need to use some of these materials for reclaiming land and so on.
The fall-out of sulphur or acid rain over Scandinavia is nothing to do with the long-term effects; that is a problem of the here and now because it affects, among other things, good neighbourly relations with a nice friendly people across the other side of the North Sea. And in so far as a substantial proportion of the 745 acid rain on Scandinavia is suspected—only suspected, not proved; and only a proportion, not all of it—to come from this country, we should, as a matter of good relations, take the matter seriously, study it and put the requisite resources behind it.
So far as the oxides of nitrogen are concerned, not to worry; there are a thousand thunder storms at work in the atmosphere at any given moment, all of them enriching it with oxides of nitrogen which descend in the rain as nitrates and nitrites and interact with organic amines to give carcinogens. Do not be too worried about carcinogens. The late Sir Alexander Haddow, who was the last of the great men of whom it was said that he carried the whole of cancer research in his head, which nobody could do now, used to give as his opinion the remarkable fact that in his view cancer was a relatively rare disease in a world full of carcinogens. He said that was a most remarkable fact and he thought that 80 per cent. of cancer was environmental, though he always pointed out that most people did not die from cancer and that those who did were without it for the greater part of their lives. That was his dictum—the remarkable fact that, as he put it, it was a relatively rare disease in a world full of carcinogens. I am sure that we ought to avoid them whenever we can. But any kind of a crash programme to reduce carcinogens or to suppose that we ought to invest everything that we can in reducing oxides of nitrogen because they can be a step on the chain would again be a misuse of resources.
I come to the very serious problems of ash, dust, dirty anhydrite from fluidised bed combustion, and so on. These are immediate problems, and we ought to keep them under continual effort. They are the problems of the here and now and are therefore the high priority problems that we have to solve with our own technology. In this context I must say that I was rather impressed with some of the efforts being made by the National Coal Board—and here I am not entirely in agreement with what the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, was saying—over the improvement of land following reclamation after opencast working. I have visited the Westfield opencast mine, which is the largest artificial hole in Europe. It is where the lowland coal seams come up against the Highland boundary fault, and the seams are twisted and imbricated, and involved with one another in all kinds of ways understandable only to geologists. One has only to look at what they are actually digging out to see that mining it in any ordinary way would be totally impossible. The surrounding countryside is barren moorland. Where it has been reclaimed it is beautiful green grass pastures, with a very much higher coverage of animals per acre than the original land ever had. I think that Westfield is a great credit to the National Coal Board from the standpoint of subsequent reclamation.
The reason that coal tips burn, emit nasty smells, and disfigure the countryside is that they are loosely packed aggregates which admit air, auto-combustion then takes place in masses which are too great for the heat to get out, and so they slowly become incandescent. The modern treatment is to take off the top soil, pack down the dust and dirt from the mine, ram it down hard with steamrollers, so as to pack it as tightly as possible, excluding the air, and then put the top soil hack again. I have seen that done in the Westfield 746 area, and there was no doubt that the quality of the grassland after it had been treated in that way was very much better from the standpoint of the coverage per acre of cattle that one would get than were the water meadows as they were originally.
However, the question of the disposal of the dirt will be with us for a very long time, even if we dismantle (as I have often said we ought) all the tips and rubbish of the last century. The problem of where to put them is with us, as is the problem of how to use the areas which the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, was talking about, such as Morecambe Bay, the Wash, the Thames estuary, and so on. The Dutch would never for one moment tolerate these enormous areas of shallow water—doing nothing about them while having to import food. They would be beautiful grass meadows, producing butter, breeding pigs, and put to other uses like that. We have to learn to do that.
Those are my conclusions from just putting the differential timescales on the factors on just one item in the evidence before the Committee. I believe that as the last Back-Bench speaker in what is intended to be a short debate that is about as much as your Lordships would care to hear from me this afternoon.
§ 5.43 p.m.
§ Lord Molloy
My Lords, I seek your Lordships' indulgence in so far as my name is not on the list of speakers. However, I have read the report, and it seems to me, having been born in the valleys of South Wales—where we depended wholly upon providing the nation with coal, coke, steel and shipping—that its whole basis is that of coal. The wish of my parents, and their parents before them, was: God hasten the day when the last pit could be closed for ever. I found the report of the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, admirable, and I was terribly touched by his speech and the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Kearton. I say that because I only wish that the report of the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, had been discussed in Parliament in 1933 or 1934. Had it then been discussed there would not now be in the valleys of South Wales, in the homes of many people, including my family, photographs of young men who were killed instantly or who perhaps (lied from terrible diseases which in those days we called "consumption". When the, clever people came along they called it pneumoconiosis, but we discovered that changing the name made no difference at all. You still spat up your lungs, you still almost strangled in order to get a breath of fresh air, whether you were the barber in the village or you were the miner. Such things could have been avoided had we had in those days a report of the nature of that by the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, and a speech such as that by the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, this afternoon.
I must say to the Government that it would be not only an insult to the members of the commission, but also a most callous act of indifference if action were not taken on what is proposed in this tremendous report on Coal and the Environment. What I say applies not only to South Wales or to Yorkshire, Scotland, or parts of Kent, but to the entire country. Coal—which is dealt with in the first part of the report—together with wool, ensured the richness of the nation. The British Navy could not have moved one tenth of the way 747 towards Argentina if it had not been provided with the anthracite coal of South Wales. The great industries of the industrial revolution could never have turned if they had not had the coal produced by the miners of Britain.
We must remember that when coal mining started our countryside was ravaged. I think of books such as Rape of the Fair Country, or some of the plays that have been written by some of our poets in South Wales. All these things are allied to this tremendous report. Perhaps they provide the emotional aspect of the subject, and this I believe is equally important. Not only was our countryside ravaged, but later on, right up to the 'thirties, (as the noble Earl Lord Halsbury, mentioned) there were the effects of the industrial revolution. I have experienced some of the evils of the industrial revolution. I believe that they could have been avoided if many years ago we had had a report of this character and eminent people such as the noble Lord, Lold Flowers, and his colleagues had examined what had to be done, not merely from a economic point of view, but of course from a humanitarian point of view, too.
I can remember as a small boy going to my grandmother's and there being a table cloth only on a Sunday. I recall getting my ears boxed—in the Rhondda Valley—for writing letters in the dust from the nearby pits which settled on the tablecloth. If the mining communities of Great Britain are to be expected to understand what is meant by the report, it must also be realised that the things that I have been talking about are common to people in Scotland, Northumberland, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, and right down to Kent. In those communities we knew one another through our meetings, via our different federations and later (from 1945) the National Union of Mineworkers. At this stage I want to endorse what my noble friend Lady White has said. What a shame that there is not an adumbrated edition of this magnificent report, which ordinary people could obtain, read and understand.
I hope that perhaps the noble Earl, Lord Avon, who will be replying to this debate, will take that particular aspect on board, because what is the point of having a report of this character when the very people who are affected most cannot afford to buy it? It is at this intellectual level that we sometimes find the most crass stupidity. This should be available to every coalmining family in Great Britain, as well as to all those who are involved in the running of this great industry.
We speak of (as I think they are called) spoils. Of course, we always use the word "tips". People did not say, "There has been a disturbance of the spoils in Aberfan": they said, "The lousy tip has moved and it has slain our children—over a hundred of them in just a couple of minutes". So let us use the words "coal tips so that we shall never forget what happened at Aberfan. That is not a statistic—that was an emotional rape of our own people by the Coal Board's predecessors, the private owners of the tips. Yet the strange thing is—and this is also strictly relevant to this particular report—that the British coalminers have a better industrial record than almost any other industry in our nation or, indeed, throughout the world.
It was in 1974 that there was a collision. There had 748 never been a wholesale strike in the pits since 1926. It was bitterness and anguish which caused the first, when they were driven back for less than they came out on strike for; and the last time they thought they just did not count. The fact is that they do count; and that is why I agree so much with my noble friend Lady White. I would wish that the majority of our coal-miners could afford to buy this report, because what they would say to me is: "This is a great report; it puts us, the miners of Britain, on the agenda". I think that is the greatest tribute I can pay to Lord Flowers and his colleagues.
I have sometimes wondered, as I have read what they can do in the Soviet Union. I am no particular admirer of that appalling régime, but I do not blind myself to some of their technological achievements. They put up the first Sputnik, and they put the first human being into space. I am not going to blind myself, either, to the fact that they apparently are able to take the spoil, the waste that is produced at the same time as the coal, and put it back into the holes that it came from. This is a most remarkable thing. They have no tips. The great caverns which the machinery of coal-mining gouge out of our countryside they fill up again.
I would not have thought that that was beyond the ability of British technology, and there is nothing wrong in following something which is pretty good; because from that, I understand—and I have read this very deeply—they found that they were restoring agriculture. They found that there was something in the coal dust which enriched the soil. I believe the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, touched on this. Therefore, not only did they get rid of the tips, but they created a new form of agriculture; and surely that cannot be bad.
On page 212 of the report, in Chapter 12, the commission says:… the Board has a responsibility to ensure that the best environmental practices available are introduced … in the day-to-day management of its operations".That, once again, I find truly remarkable. It is not leaving things, as at one time, always at the top, but in the day-to-day management. It is on issues like this that I should like to congratulate Lord Flowers and his colleagues, although I am bound to say that later in the recommendation they say that the responsibility should be at an appropriately senior level in the board. I would agree with that, with just one amendment. It is at the top level of the board that it has got to be, because then it will stand much more chance of becoming a reality.
We often used to say that if we had had to dig for bread, dig for butter and dig for bacon there would have been a much more humane attitude to this great industry. It fell into decline, there was a renaissance and then it declined again; and people have never been sure. This I have always found amazing because, it is still (as, for certain, it will be for the lifetimes of all of us here) a vital part of our British economy. I therefore believe that it commands all our technological and humanitarian endeavours to see that we have an efficient coal-mining industry that damages the environment to the absolute minimum.
I therefore appeal to the Government. I do not expect the noble Earl to give a complete answer to our 749 requests, but if there is no implementation of the vital sectors of this report—I do not mean overnight, but if there is not a programme of implementation of this report—if the Flowers Report is allowed to wither (if I may use that term), there will be very great anger, because despite its expense the National Union of Mineworkers will see to it (indeed, they have seen to it) that their members are aware of what is in here. Much of it they have been asking for. They now have their own technological experts and scientists advising them. It is not a case of having to depend wholly on the lads in cloth caps working in the pits. I therefore hope that these magnificent words (though I could quarrel with quite a lot of it) will not be allowed to turn sour. I sincerely hope that this report will not wither on the vine, because if it does then this great industry will be poorer and, what is much more important, our great nation will be poorer.
§ 5.57 p.m.
§ Lord Wynne-Jones
My Lords, I think that in your Lordships' House we have a great faculty for taking an extremely important subject and treating it in such a matter of fact way that it sounds as though it were not a very important subject. I think we regularly seem to do this in the field of energy. I myself have previously called attention in your Lordships' House to the fact that we do not have anyone of ministerial rank in your Lordships' House speaking for energy. In fact, this seems to be, not peculiar to this Government (although I am rather surprised that this Government, who have been talking as though they wanted to do something about energy, have fallen into the trap) but quite common. Indeed, it is a long time since we had someone of full ministerial rank speaking in your Lordships' House on the subject of energy.
In the debate that we have had today, which we are very much indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, for introducing, we have been exceptionally fortunate, as has been pointed out, in having the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, present and taking part. It has meant that we have had experts in the field of energy talking to us and have had the chairman of the committee responsible for the report. I must agree with my noble friend Lady White that the charge for this report is really excessive. It ought to be made widely available for it is an excellent and important report. To list it at £23 is really too high. I hope that the noble Earl will convey to the Government that we think that when reports of this importance come out they ought to be priced at a figure which makes them readily available throughout the country.
The great value of this report, simply called Coal and the Environment, is that it takes the whole field of coal, the possible uses of coal, the way in which it can be won, everything like that, and considers it in terms of the environment. We are accustomed now—and I think quite rightly—in the field of energy to have the problem of the environment raised all the time and it is right and proper that this should be so. It is quite wrong that we should undertake wilfully contamination of the environment without considering the advantages, disadvantages and the cost to the community; and therefore it is vital that this should be done.
We have had, particularly the last five to 10 years, a lot of criticism about the use of coal. We are in a very 750 difficult position because, if one looks at the matter today, despite all the talk about the availability of alternative sources of energy, the actual fact is that we are down to oil, gas, coal and nuclear energy for practically all our supplies of energy at the present time and in the foreseeable future. When one realises that gas, rightly, in my opinion, is treated in this country as a premium fuel and is not used in power stations (I think rightly), then I think it is quite wrong that on the Continent of Europe they have been using it when they need not have been using it for power-station work. If that is the case, and if at the same time we want oil for other purposes—and we do—then it is evident that for the generation of electricity, and for a great deal of the heating load, coal is one of the most important resources that we have.
Electricity can be generated from coal and electricity can be generated by nuclear power, but if there is to be environmental criticism of every nuclear station, every nuclear proposal that is put up, we fall back on coal. If there is to be an environmental embargo on coal, then we are in a very difficult position. Therefore, the importance of this report is that it examines in close detail the environmental factors which arise from the use of coal and it is very valuable to find that a lot of the (I think quite reasonable) feelings that people have had about the possible disadvantage environmentally of coal are shown by this report to be not as serious as was thought.
This, I think, is a highly important matter and the committee have gone through it extremely carefully. It starts with the winning of coal. There was a point at which I think the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, said something with which I did not entirely agree. It was that if we had not started with coal we should not have wanted to use coal. The first time I met the noble Lord was years ago when we were both visitors from the old Department of Scientific and Industrial Research to the British Coal Tar Research Association. It was then that I learned what an acute mind he had and ever since I have had a healthy regard for his acuity and for his sense and wisdom in dealing with matters. But I would suggest that perhaps in this particular case he is a little biased by the industrial/chemical upbringing that he had. He was with a firm that later found that he was a doughty opponent. The firm was ICI.
ICI think—I am right—the first major chemical firm that moved over from the use of coal to the use of oil. They did it at Bellingham. I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, was doing most of the work, but the man at least nominally responsible was Holroyd. I remember talking to Dr. Holroyd about this. I said, "If you had had the same chemical engineering techniques developed for using coal as the Americans had developed for you for using oil, would you really have switched to oil?" He said he was not certain. There is a transport problem involved—part from anything else; but one of the main troubles in the use of coal, he told me, was the enormous area that was required in Bellingham for storing the coal and for handling it. They were able to cut this area down to something like one-tenth by switching to oil.
But this does not apply when one is talking about power stations. The position is different. I have a strong suspicion that in the course of time we shall find our technology will allow us to use coal just as well as 751 oil; so I beg my noble friend Lord Kearton not to be too influenced in the future by his industrial/chemical background, which I think tends to prejudice him against coal.
The real problem which arises all the time is the necessarily environmental difficulty about winning coal. It is not possible to leave all the spoil down in the pit. You have to bring it to the surface; it is the only cheap, economical thing to do. You may later get it down into the pit but it is virtually impossible under present conditions to do it. It is interesting to note that the amount of waste material, of non-coal, which is brought to the surface is much greater than it used to be. The reason is quite simple; it is mechanical mining. You have a 100-yd wall; you run the cutter along this wall, and the cutter goes 1 metre into the wall. It takes all the coal out, shoots it on to a conveyor and the coal comes up to the surface. That means that there is no sorting possible at the pit face or down the mine. That can only be done above ground. So there is that problem.
With opencast mining we have other problems which are well known. I have had a little experience of opencast mining. I went to live in Newcastle in 1947 and on the edge of the town moor, along Grandstand Road where the old pitmen's Derby used to be run, an opencast pit was started. This lasted for about 15 years. There was an awful outcry. When it finished that ground was indistinguishable from the ground round about it—except that it was no longer sodden and a marsh.
There was another bigger area about 20 miles to the north of Newcastle, Acorn Bank, where there was an enormous scheme which lasted about 20 years. Essentially what they did was to take off the topsoil, they took off the overburden, and these were put all round the site. Then they cut down and simply scooped the coal out. They had a 20-ton scoop which loaded straight on to vehicles. They had to build a special road because the public roads could not take this. The whole thing now is splendid, ordinary farming ground. It is indistinguishable from the ground round about it except that it may be more fertile. So it can be done.
The County of Durham used to be one of the biggest and most important mining counties. Some of the best coking coal was produced there. When I first went there there were spoil pits all round the county. One can go there today and scarcely see a spoil pit. At Ferry Hill, which is running north from Darlington before you come to Durham, there was a station and that was an appalling mess about 30 years ago. Today it is unrecognisable. So these improvements can be made, but of course they are expensive.
The point which has to be realised is that it is not playing fair with the coal industry to put the cost of all that restoration on it. In the first place, a great deal of that cost is the consequence of what was done many years ago, long before the present NCB existed. We are putting an unfair burden on the NCB in asking them to repair what the previous owners did not have to repair. It is now a national task and we ought to see that. I hope that the Department of the Environment will bear this in mind. We want to have a fair country; we want our country looking beautiful. We 752 do not want it despoiled, but it is something which becomes at this stage a national charge for recovering the effects of the past. I hope that the Government will take this seriously.
One important matter which arises from this report is that the coal industry is, within certain limits, given the opportunity to go ahead and do things, and it therefore will be able to maintain its production. This is important. I know that there has been an argument about this. About eight years ago there was a lot of play in the financial press in particular of estimates made by Dr. Gerald Manners, Reader in Geography at University College. He claimed by his method of calculation and extrapolation that by the mid-1980s the total consumption of coal in this country would be below 85 million tons a year. It is far above that—it is more like 140 million tons. This figure received a lot of credence.
Some two or three years later I was chairman of the sub-committee of your Lordships' House which was dealing with coal. We asked Dr. Manners to submit a report. I have the report in my hand. The figures that I have mentioned are taken from what he said at the time. The committee as a whole were not satisfied with the arguments that he used. We said that we thought that the figure of our production should not drop below 150 million tons a year, and that we ought to try and raise it to 170 million tons.
It is interesting that only today the CEGB issued a statement about the coalmining industry. This is from Mr. Fred Bonner, the acting chairman of the CEGB. Spelling out the opportunities for coal in the future generation of electricity, he says that the CEGB and the South of Scotland Electricity Board together would have the capacity to burn over 80 million tons of coal a year into the next century. This is the same tonnage that the two boards are burning at the present time and roughly a third of all the coal mined in Europe. That is very interesting and shows what an important part coal is playing now and, in the opinion of the acting chairman of the CEGB, what part it will play if prices remain reasonable over the rest of this century. I think we can say after this very important and interesting debate that most of the criticisms on environmental grounds against the use of coal are either not valid, or we can see how to get round them. We are therefore faced with the vital importance of maintaining a coal industry at least at its present level, and maintaining it in such a way that when the end of this century comes this country is well equipped for any changes in energy policy which may be necessary. I ask the Government to bear this in mind.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ The Earl of Avon
My Lords, I add my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, for introducing this debate and for enabling us to consider the future of the coal industry and its environmental consequences today. In fact I also thank him for initiating this lively and informative debate. The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, by referring to gardens in my family name, has made me rather nervous in case I should find there has been some acid rain in my garden. However, the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, was kind enough to say that there were no Ministers of the Department of Energy. I do assure him that sitting on the Benches 753 behind me, there are Lords in Waiting who are worthy aspirants. It is just that there is no answering voice in another place. The noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, referred to the environment as a "religion". I am not absolutely certain that my right honourable friend would like to preside over a department of religion, but if it means, as I have a feeling it does, that you can have your cake and eat it, then perhaps it will be more attractive.
This afternoon we have had the particular advantage of the excellent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, speaking as he does with the authority of having a long and distinguished service with the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, and of course as chairman of the Commission on Energy and the Environment. Many tributes have been paid today to the excellence of the commission's work, and at the start I should like to underline that the Government are very grateful to the noble Lord and his fellow commissioners for their comprehensive and authoritative study. In particular I wish to stress that the decision announced last summer to put the Commission on Energy and the Environment into abeyance did not in any way reflect on the quality of the work they had undertaken. At the time my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment made it clear that we should continue to look for advice on specific related issues to fora such as the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Advisory Council on Energy Conservation and, if it proved necessary, we should hope to reconstitute the commission.
The commission was established to advise on the interaction between energy policy and the environment. The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, stressed the importance of this and I should like to underline it. The publication of their report last September has already served to encourage public debate on this issue, and I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, on the importance of this. More recently, the Government's decision on proposals for coal mining in the Vale of Belvoir has also focused attention on this issue, and I shall return to the subject later. We are most grateful to the commission for its examination of the ways in which energy needs and environmental standards can be balanced.
Upon publication of their report, the Government initiated consultations with the National Coal Board, the local authorities and their associations and other environmental and industrial interests. Your Lordships, and in particular, I am sure, the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, will be interested to hear that there was general praise for the report and a wide measure of agreement on its main conclusions. Following this consultation, the Government are formulating their response to many of the 70 or so detailed recommendations in the report. Your Lordships' views today are both a very timely and a very valuable contribution to the Government's views. It would be impossible, as I am sure your Lordships would agree, to deal with all these recommendations on this matter or with all the points raised this afternoon in my speech now. Rather, I propose, in answer to a number of the questions raised, to indicate the Government's general approach and their preliminary views on some of the main issues that have been raised today.
May I first set the environmental considerations against the background of the role of coal in energy 754 policy. My noble friend Lord Skelmersdale made clear in his speech the Government's commitment to the future of the coal industry. We welcome the commission's overall conclusion that there are no insuperable environmental obstacles to the future production and use of coal as currently envisaged in the United Kingdom. This is, of course, subject to important qualifications covering spoil disposal, opencast extraction and subsidence, to which I will refer in a minute. The Government also note the commission's view that modernisation in the industry affords the best prospect of striking an acceptable balance between energy and environmental interests.
It is the Government's aim that, as far as possible, the planning procedures and objectives which apply to mineral operators generally should apply to the National Coal Board, although it is recognised that the scale of their operations can cause unique problems. New developments will be expected to meet the highest practicable environmental standards, in all respects—the impact on the environment during working, the disposal of spoil and the eventual restoration and after-care of the site. We should pay tribute to the environmental standards now successfully pursued at new mines, of which Selby is an oft-quoted example. I am assured that the National Coal Board is committed to maintain and improve such standards. I should like, at this point, to add my marks of respect to the National Coal Board, to the miners and to those associated with the industry, as many noble Lords have done this evening.
But we must remember that most of the coal will continue to be produced and, to some extent, burnt in established mining areas. In the public's eye, the performance of the industry will be judged as much by what is achieved, for example, at Barnsley in South Yorkshire as by what is proposed and effected at Selby in North Yorkshire. This concern was strongly voiced in the recent debate in another place. The benefits from a modernised industry should be widely felt and higher environmental standards should be pursued as vigorously with major investments in rationalising older coalfields as in opening up new ones. And at existing sites we look to the National Coal Board to continue to improve their environmental standards in line with those adopted elsewhere in the minerals industry. In most cases, as the commission concluded, it is an extension of current good practice that is required.
I now turn to some particular issues in which, as I have already said, the commission expressed reservations and which, as today's debate has shown, are also of considerable concern to many noble Lords. The first of these is colliery spoil disposal, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk. This is a major and growing problem, since mechanised mining has greatly increased the ratio of spoil to coal that is brought to the surface. That point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Kearton. In the past much of this has been tipped in bare, conical heaps neat the mine heads. I am certain that a high priority must, as the commission has said, be given to improved tipping and restoration techniques and to adopting new and more imaginative approaches to landscape design.
In the past decisions on disposal have often been taken in a too local and in a too short-term context. In the future, improved planning and co-ordination will 755 be needed to tackle the problem in a more imaginative way and this is what the Government seek. They are also considering the most appropriate arrangements to achieve this, particularly in the main Yorkshire-East Midlands coalfields. There are already regional groupings of local authorities and there are already examples of close working between local authorities and the National Coal Board. We must try to build on such established links rather than to create new machinery. The Government agree that spoil disposal must in future be tackled with greater imagination. This is as necessary in those areas like the Yorkshire coalfield, that have an existing legacy of spoil heaps, as it is in the case of new mining disposals like the vale of Belvoir where, as your Lordships know, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has asked that this aspect of the National Coal Board's proposals should be further examined.
The noble Lord, Lord Flowers, asked me some specific questions on Belvoir. I know that my right honourable friend's decision on the NCB's planning application for development of the Belvoir coalfield has had a mixed reception, but it did recognise the desire in the national interest to exploit this new coalfield while insisting that high environmental standards, particularly for spoil disposal, should apply. These commitments to new investment in the industry and to using, wherever feasible and appropriate, alternatives to local spoil tipping are key conclusions in the commission's report. The Secretary of State took account of the economic consequences of his decision and of the impact it would have on the NCB's forward policy. He accepted that the NCB might wish to submit new planning applications relating to revised proposals to exploit the massive national resources at Belvoir. I cannot say to what extent the commission's report actually influenced the judgment. Since the decision was made, senior officials in the Department of the Environment have held discussions with those principally involved, including the NCB, the trade unions, local authorities and environmental interest groups.
There is no single, simple answer to spoil disposal; certainly, it cannot be assumed that disposal to local tips can continue to provide all of the answers in the longer term. The Government believe that a more imaginative approach is needed. The commission has identified the alternatives—backstowing, land reclamation, marine disposal, commercial use. Progressive restoration techniques can also reduce considerably the amount of agricultural or other land which is out of use at any one time.
We need now to establish more clearly the circumstances in which these different methods are financially, technically and organisationally feasible. The prime responsibility for spoil disposal must be for the National Coal Board. But the local authorities have an important role in land use and pollution control and have already taken some initiatives; in particular, the feasibility study of reclamation with colliery spoil at Pyewipe on the Humber estuary. The Government are considering how the search by the board and the local authorities for more satisfactory strategies for spoil disposal can be assisted.
Next I come to subsidence. Like spoil, it features 756 in the traditional image of the coal mining area. In practice, it is fortunately a problem which affects only a minority of property in such areas. Nevertheless, it deserves serious attention. The commission examined the question of subsidence in some detail. They concluded that there were severe practical limits to minimising the incidence of subsidence, and that for the foreseeable future the right approach was to provide for the repair of damage after it has occurred. The Government agree with this broad conclusion.
The commission then examined the way in which the compensation system operates, and the various arguments relating to its possible extension. They said that most complaints related to the operation of the National Coal Board's code of practice, rather than to its scope. This is certainly an area which the Government intend to keep under regular review, in consultation with the board and other interested parties. As regards the scope of the present arrangements, it has recommended that there should be an additional right to compensation in certain circumstances for long-term residual loss of value of property caused by subsidence damage. This is a complex area, but the Government are studying it urgently.
One beneficial effect of subsidence deserves special note. Land sterilised, especially once flooded, can be a valuable habitat for wildlife. The commission argued that, in such cases, nature conservation can be an appropriate and attractive use of land. Your Lordships may be pleased to know that talks are under way between the National Coal Board and the Nature Conservancy Council to explore such opportunities. I was particularly interested to hear the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, about Northumberland, where the water has been so well covered.
I should now like to turn to opencast mining, which was mentioned by many noble Lords. The reason why the National Coal Board engages in opencast mining is to produce good quality coal with low production costs, and the commission recognised this. But it was also quite clear to them that opencast mining has a number of adverse environmental effects—the disfigurement of the landscape while operations are being carried out, the noise and dust which nearby residents sometimes suffer; sometimes, also, the increase of traffic on local roads. In addition, it is argued that there can be deleterious long-term consequences in the form of reduced agricultural yields and damage to the richness of landscape and ecology. But the very fact that opencast coal is a valuable national resource, which the nation neglects at its cost, makes it particularly important to make every effort to tackle and mitigate these environmental problems. The Government are conscious of this.
The commission examined opencast mining at some length. In particular, it recommended that applications for opencast coal working should be dealt with under the normal minerals planning machinery as for all other new mineral developments, and not directly by the Secretary of State for Energy as at present. This would, of course, be a major change in established procedures and the Government are carefully considering it.
But, wherever final authority for granting permission lies, the environmental problems of opencast working can be tackled more satisfactorily the earlier and more 757 fully local authorities and the National Coal Board's opencast executive work together. The Government welcome the efforts which the executive has made in recent years to develop forward programmes of opencast exploitation in close consultation with the local authorities in several areas, and also welcome the code of practice on the advance planning of opencast sites, which they and the local authority associations have agreed. In the light of the Commission's recommendations, the Government have the question of future opencast production under review.
In addition to these arrangements, the commission recommended that there should be guidelines to define preferred locations for opencast working. The Government view this as a positive proposal. Incidentally, I have taken careful note of the reservations of the noble Baroness, Lady White, about the Principality in this matter. Spoil disposal, subsidence and opencast working are the three issues to which the commission gave particular attention. I have given your Lordships the Government's general view on them. But there are two other issues which I would like to touch upon—pollution and dereliction.
The commission's study was concerned with coal use, as well as coal production. In the context of a continuing switch back to coal, especially in industrial markets, they examined the environmental effects of coal combustion and conversion to synthetic fuels like substitute natural gas. In doing so, the commission were able to draw widely on the valuable work carried out by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in their report on air pollution. The commission concluded that there is no longer major cause of concern on health grounds over ambient levels of smoke and SO2 from coal combustion. The Government agree, but will take all necessary steps to cope with the problem in areas where concentrations are still too high.
The Government note the recommendation that, in view of the need to keep the level of smoke pollution in urban areas at the lowest practicable level, the performance of domestic smoke reducing appliances should be carefully monitored. We welcome the commission's view that industrial coal burn can be positively encouraged in most circumstances; and I noted the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, on this point. But we are also alive to the potential problems, and are considering very carefully the adequacy of existing controls.
A number of noble Lords mentioned the "acid rain" problem, which is of particular concern to Scandinavian countries. The Government take this issue seriously, as is witnessed by our participation in this summer's International Conference on Acidification in Stockholm. We are also playing a very full part in the Economic Commission for Europe, under the Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution. Work is proceeding in a logical, sequential fashion from exchange of information, monitoring and research to development of policies, But before we consider remedial measures, we must be sure about the effects and their relative costs and benefits.
In considering pollution from coal use, there is a real concern to avoid recreating the problems of the past. But we also cannot ignore problems from the past that are still with us. The commission expressed the view 758 that land dereliction may be regarded as a form of environmental degradation which is just as unacceptable as other forms of pollution, and went on to make a number of specific recommendations. As noble Lords will be aware, for many years the emphasis in reclamation has been on helping local authorities to tackle historic dereliction in the major coalfields and industrial areas. The Government's derelict land programme for 1982–83 has been enlarged to £45 million—a considerable achievement at a time of continuing public expenditure restraint. Preferential treatment is to be given to joint schemes by local authorities and private developers for reclaiming land for immediate development.
If I may answer one or two points which were put to me, I should first like to refer to the cost of the report which was mentioned by quite a number of people. I must confess that it took me by surprise, because in my position it just arrives on my desk, and I was equally rather horrified when I saw that it cost £23. It is, I am afraid, the policy of Her Majesty's Stationery Office that the prices of publications should reflect the full costs of production. I shall, indeed, look into the idea suggested by a number of noble Lords that we might have an abridged version which would be more easily distributable. Incidentally, the Printed Paper Office's current price limit for free distribution of papers is £16. I believe that this may be of concern to the House, and I should like to bring this to the attention of my noble friend the Leader of the House.
The noble Baroness, Lady White, raised the subject of mining in South Wales. I believe that the commission rightly noted that major investment opportunities for new coalfields lie in Yorkshire and the East Midlands. But I can assure the noble Baroness that there will also be continuing investment and modernisation of the industry in South Wales. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales is committed to a continuing programme of restoration and clearance of dereliction resulting from coal working in South Wales, but I should like to endorse the commission's praise for the work of the Welsh Development Agency in improving and redeveloping land made derelict by coal mining. The Government intend their work to continue.
The noble Baroness also made some comments about the privatisation of opencast mining. Under Section 46 of the Open Cast Coal Act the NCB may also license private sector opencast mines, provided that each site is not expected to yield more than 25,000 tonnes of coal. In these cases, the licensee is responsible for obtaining planning permission from the local planning authority for operating the site. The Government have at present no plans to privatise the NCB's opencast mining.
Both the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, and the noble Baroness, Lady White, mentioned the proposed Yorkshire Development Agency. The Government recognise the unique scale of both past and future problems associated with coal mining in Yorkshire. Extraordinary effort is needed to tackle the problem. The commission, as the noble Lord said, recommended a special development agency with its own budget to deal with such problems as dereliction. The Government are considering their proposal. We certainly recognise, as did the commission, the con- 759 siderable achievements of the Scottish and Welsh Development Agencies, but we believe it to be right to be wary of establishing such agencies unless existing institutions are clearly unequal to the task. We are not at the moment convinced; nor are the local authorities who have made strong representations to the Government on this proposal.
I should like to say something about land availability for energy development. The Government accept the commission's view that there is a need to get more consideration of the energy industry's land requirements into land use planning in advance of individual projects for developments like coalfields or power stations coming forward for approval. In that way, we might have a better informed debate about alternative locations, might enable local authorities to assess the impact of these developments on their policies and might provide more certainly for the energy industries that their land requirements are recognised. A pilot study in one region, to examine these issues further, as the commission proposed, is one possible next step in pursuit of this objective. We are examining it carefully in consultation with the industries and the local authority associations.
The noble Lord, Lord Nathan, mentioned planning control. The new Town and Country Planning (Minerals) Act 1981 gives to county councils and other mineral planning authorities important new powers to protect the environment, and it applies to the NCB as well as to other mineral operators. In particular, the provisions of the Act will, when in force, make the reworking of old colliery spoil tips or other mineral waste tips a development requiring planning permission. The authorities will also have new powers to make it easier for them to impose up-to-date environmental conditions where the original permission was granted some time ago. In certain circumstances, the amount of compensation which authorities may be liable to pay when taking such action will be reduced. The Government are also looking at the provisions of the General Development Order 1977 in relation to the 1981 Act and, more generally, in relation to mining operations, including those of the coal industry. The general development order recommendations made by the commission in their coal study are being considered at the same time.
Where industries remain in the public sector, the Government are seeking to introduce the kind of disciplines to which the private sector is subjected. This is done, first, by imposing strict targets for financial performance designed to promote effective cost control within the industries and, secondly, by external scrutiny, including the use of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission under the powers of the Competition Act 1980.
In his opening remarks my noble friend mentioned these energy predictions. They are neither forecasts nor prescriptions for the future. Rather they seek to cover a wide range of possible outcomes to aid discussion of the energy options facing this country. The energy industries, too, can make an important contribution to this debate by indicating their intentions well in advance and putting their plans for new investment projects into a wider context. But the need for the industries to respond to market pressures means that 760 it is unrealistic to think in terms of an energy blueprint.
I realise that I have dealt only with some of the issues upon which the commission reached conclusions and, indeed, with some of the questions which have been raised today. The points made by your Lordships will, as I have said, be taken carefully into account in the Government's formulation of their full response to the commission's report. I should like to digress at this point. The full response will have to take a little time, but I hope I have indicated that action is already being taken on various sectors of this report, and will continue to be taken in advance of any full report.
I am grateful for all the contributions which have been made, and in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, for initiating the debate. While I have been unable to indicate the Government's final views, I hope I have conveyed to your Lordships the Government's conviction that the publication of the commission's report provides an opportunity, which is even now being seized, to act positively in striking a necessary balance between energy and environmental considerations in the further development of the coal industry.
§ 6.46 p.m.
§ Lord Kearton
My Lords, in my closing remarks I hope to be brief. I should like to thank all those noble Lords, and particularly those noble Baronesses, who have spoken so eloquently in the debate. My noble friend Lord Flowers must feel gratified by the wide approbation his report has received. Everybody congratulates Lord Flowers. It is literally a report without price. It could be that arrangements should be made to price it at a much higher level than did the Stationery Office, and then to make arrangements for complimentary copies to be sent to the miners' unions and to all people who take a legitimate interest in this question—because the object of the commission, as has been stated, is to inform, to instruct, to guide and to put us generally on the right path.
In quoting from the report, I got the feeling that it had some of the characteristics of both Shakespeare and the Bible. Everybody found in it what they wanted to see. Some people found in it great encouragement for the coal industry in the future. In my opening remarks I seized upon some of the reservations and qualifications which the commission's report also included and which were touched upon by the noble Earl, Lord Avon, in his closing remarks.
It was a great pleasure to hear that very sturdy champion of free enterprise, the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, say that market forces alone were ridiculous as a motivation to get the best out of the coal industry and the best out of national resources. I thought his suggestions for the disposal of spoil by long distance pipe-line to estuarine and other sea areas opened up a rather interesting prospect, in which all the beauty spots I have been used to visiting for a great many years will, in the next few years, if Lord Lauderdale has his way, under Government control and Government spending be the scenes of extensive tipping of rather miserable spoil. So I hope the noble Earl's attitude regarding Government action is not necessarily followed.
In paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Flowers, the noble Earl, Lord Avon, put me slightly in mind 761 of the Secretary of State for Energy in another place paying tribute to Mr. Glyn England: that he loved Mr. Glyn England very much but he reserved the right to dispense with his services. I get the impression that the Government have taken the same line with Lord Flower's report. Utmost tributes have been paid, but in practice Lord Flower's commission is in abeyance. However, I got some comfort from the fact that the noble Earl, Lord Avon, said that it could be resuscitated. It is obvious that the general opinion of everybody who has taken part in the debate is that the commission should be resuscitated. There are many very important topics upon which it can speak.
I was rather alarmed when the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, talked about living in an industrial slut's paradise. I certainly lived in an industrial slut's slum at one time. The noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, mentioned that at one time I had the pleasure and distinction of working for ICI at Billingham where we used a lot of coal. That was some 50 years ago. The use of that coal made one village nearby, Haverton Hill, literally uninhabitable. The village had to be abandoned because of grit fall-out, fume fall-out and so on. I do not think that sufficient tribute has been paid to the fantastic work of the generating board of this country in recent years in burning 75 to 80 million tonnes of coal so cleanly, efficiently and effectively. It has been one of the great reasons why the pollution of our atmosphere has been diminished. We have kept up the coal burn, but we have at the same time enormously ameliorated the atmosphere.
I was very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, who was not down to speak, did in fact speak. I think my acquaintance with the coal industry is probably even longer than his. I am much older. I was brought up in the coal mining industry. I remember the conical tips in an area of North Staffordshire where pottery was made in the old days by the old-fashioned coal-fired bottle kiln. One of the chief exports of the Potteries, apart from the most beautiful chinaware in the world, were postcards saying "This is the filthiest town in England", because all the smoke coming from the bottom of the kilns made the conditions so bad that for about 300 days of the year one could not see one's hand in front of one's face. So I have experience of seeing the dereliction which coal mining causes, but it was also a fact that unless coal was used in combustion under proper conditions it made life pretty intolerable for people who lived in the place.
I believe that most noble Lords who have spoken have the impression that the report of the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, is being taken most seriously by the Government. I was particularly pleased at some of the opening remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, when he said that the report showed enormous balance and that the Government intend to keep this balance in mind—a point which the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, also emphasised.
We must remember that the coal industry has a future so long as coal is produced economically. Coal had a major reprieve when the price of oil went up so abruptly in 1973–74. It had another reprieve when the price of oil went up in 1979–80. Until a year or so ago, everyone was forecasting that the price of oil would continue to rise in almost geometrical progression until the end of the century. This no longer looks so 762 certain, but I believe that those people who work in the industry have not perhaps thought beyond the fact that geometric increases in the price of energy may not come to pass.
If the coal industry is to be an industry in which people are proud to work, and in which they get proper wages and compensation, then coal must be produced at competitive prices. This means facing the closure of old, worn out collieries, which are a very high cost. The Coal Board has not disclosed the costs of coal from individual pits. We know that the cost of coal from various areas varies by a factor of more than 2:1, and so the cost of coal from various pits must vary by a much higher ratio. For the long-term prosperity of the coal industry, to keep inefficient, old and high cost pits working is a nonsense. Dealing with the human problems caused by the closure of these pits is a separate issue which all Governments must have very firmly in mind and do something about.
Going back to my childhood, I remember seeing miners in the streets with black faces and with clogs on their feet, getting up at unearthly hours and coming home at unearthly hours—and being pretty poorly paid. As a young man, I went down a number of mines all over the place—some deep pits, some mucky pits, some wet pits and so on—and it left me with an admiration for coal miners which I find difficult to express. The noble Lord, Lord Molloy, made the point that 50 or 60 years ago it was commonplace for mining mothers to say, "It will be a good day for England when there are no more coalmines". We must have a modern coal-mining industry if we are to provide wealth from the natural resources of this country.
The noble Lord, Lord Nathan, was perhaps modest in not mentioning the fact that he started this whole ball rolling in 1973 with his report on energy and the environment, which was a seminal report and one which everyone in the energy field remembers with respect and admiration. The noble Lord picked out the idea of combined electricity generation and the provision of steam for district heating as something which the report touched upon and advocated. I myself thought the report was very cautious in that respect. The report felt that there were some specialised cases where there could be an application for this, but that because of the particular conditions in this country, it was unlikely to find very wide adoption.
The summing up by the noble Earl, Lord Avon, was extremely constructive, thorough, detailed and most helpful. The noble Earl, on behalf of the Government, obviously took on board this very severe problem of spoil. As has been mentioned, the amounts of spoil which are going to be produced in the next 20 years look like being 50 per cent. more than the spoil produced in the previous 200 years. It is a major problem and it will not just go away.
I though that the noble Earl, Lord Avon, was a little too complacent about subsidence. In the debate in another place some two months ago, there were graphic descriptions of the effect of subsidence in certain areas of Yorkshire. My own recollection is that one whole new estate of some 200 houses had to be virtually abandoned, and the general anguish, discomfort and worry due to subsidence caused to people living in such areas is something that both the coal industry and the Government have to take very 763 seriously. Having given that slight caveat, I must say that I am deeply grateful, as I am sure everyone is, to the noble Earl, Lord Avon, for his most constructive and helpful summing up of what the Government intend to do. We all look forward with the greatest interest to the definitive proposals which we understand will be coming out of the Government quite soon. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.