HL Deb 28 January 1985 vol 459 cc450-9

3.1 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Avon, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This is a short but technical Bill which has two purposes. Both purposes concern former mineral workings but are otherwise unrelated. The first purpose is to wind up the Ironstone Restoration Fund now that so few sites are being worked for ironstone in England and virtually all of these are under the control of the British Steel Corporation. The second is to make it possible for local authorities to get on to land quickly and to take remedial action where they believe that subsidence may occur because the surface has been made unstable by former underground mineral working.

I will talk first about the Ironstone Restoration Fund. That was set up under the 1951 Mineral Workings Act to deal with the growing dereliction in the Midlands ironstone field. Dereliction by the opencast working of ironstone became a problem from about 1914 onwards, when the shallower seams of ore began to be exhausted and operators were driven to work the deeper seams. Restoration of the deeper workings was, of course, a very much more difficult and costly operation and, sadly, many of the smaller, less responsible operators, simply took their profits and ran, leaving a trail of dereliction behind them.

The fund operates only within the ironstone district, which broadly corresponds to the Midlands ironstone field, and has three main functions: first, to meet the full cost of reclaiming land which had been left derelict or inadequately restored by 1950; secondly, to assist with the prompt restoration of future workings by contributing to the cost of levelling and spreading top soil; and, lastly, to help owners and occupiers of restored land to return it to agricultural or forestry use.

The fund has proved remarkably successful. Over the past 30 years, all the pre-1950s dereliction has been reclaimed and all but the most recent workings since that date have been returned to beneficial after use. It has almost, but not quite, completed its task. The problem now is that the fund is virtually bankrupt. Aside from a very small Exchequer contribution, the fund depends for its income on contributions made by the operators based on a levy of 7p (pence) per ton of ore extracted. The House will be aware that the demand for locally dug ironstone has reduced dramatically over the past 20 years. That has meant that the income to the fund has been drastically reduced at a time when an increasing number of quarry closures made accelerated demands on its resources.

The British Steel Corporation is now the only operator contributing to the fund. And, for a number of years, the fund has only been able to meet its commitments to private landowners, local authorities and others because BSC has voluntarily waived its own legal right to make often very substantial claims for the restoration of land which it had an operator's obligation to restore.

This year, even that has not been enough and BSC has had to make substantial voluntary donations of money—over and above the required operator's levy—in order to keep the fund afloat. It has already given £266,000 and will need to give more to meet claims expected to arise before 31st March 1985. Without BSC's assistance, the fund would already be insolvent and it is estimated that the statutory contributions from BSC and the Exchequer would have to be supplemented by a further £600,000 just to keep the fund afloat until 31st March 1987, which is the end of the current PESC period.

Clauses 1 to 3 and 6 contain provisions to wind up the fund, to transfer its assets to BSC and to make general housekeeping arrangements to tidy up its final account. Clauses 4 and 5 make transitional arrangements for the aftercare and afforestation of ironstone land in recognition of the fact that few owners, whose land will have been restored before the abolition of the fund, still have legitimate expectations from it in respect of the return of their land to agricultural or forestry use.

Clause 4 is intended to enable the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to honour arrangements made with landowners under Section 20 of the 1951 Act to bring land to, a good state of cultivation and fertility", so that it can be returned to agricultural use. His expenses in so doing are, under present arrangements, defrayed out of the fund. Clause 4 requires that those expenses shall be met, for a transitional period, by the British Steel Corporation. All the arrangements to which this clause applies will, of course, have had to be made before Section 20 is repealed. Where they relate to the aftercare of land restored before 1st January 1984, the arrangements may persist until completion or until 31st March 1990, whichever is the earlier. Where restoration was completed after 1st January 1984, the arrangements may persist for whatever period is specified in the formal agreement.

Clause 5 makes transitional arrangements for land which is to be returned to forestry. Under Section 25(1) of the 1951 Act, the Forestry Commissioners may make a special grant at an agreed rate to assist with the return of worked ironstone land to a condition suitable for forestry. Their expenses are currently defrayed out of the Ironstone Restoration Fund. Clause 5 will require BSC to reimburse the commissioners' expenses in making the special ironstone grant up until 31st March 1990, provided that the corporation and the Ironstone Royalty Owners' Association have been consulted about the rate at which the grant has been paid.

Those, then, are the ironstone provisions. In essence, they are very little more than a sensible regularisation of a situation which already exists. The Bill anticipates that the fund can be wound up and the new arrangements put in place in time for the British Steel Corporation to take on its new responsibilities at the beginning of the next financial year.

I turn now to the second purpose of the Bill, which is contained in Clauses 7 and 8. Those clauses give local authorities a compulsory power to enter land to survey, monitor and carry out reclamation works—without the owners' consent—where subsidence has occurred or is likely to occur as a result of former underground mineral workings.

Any proposal to introduce a compulsory power to intrude upon private land without the consent of the owner or occupier must be given serious consideration, and I owe it to the House to explain the position carefully. There are a number of areas which are underlain by old mineral workings. That is why we propose that these powers should apply throughout England and Wales. The most immediate need, however, arises in those parts of the West Midlands which are extensively undermined by old limestone workings. Noble Lords may recall that in 1978 subsidence over deep workings in Sandwell caused substantial damage to buildings on an industrial estate. Since then, there have been other less dramatic, but potentially dangerous, incidents. Inevitably, there is considerable concern in the area and action needs to be taken to restore confidence and avoid blight.

My Department, along with the Dudley, Sandwell and Walsall borough councils and the West Midlands county council, commissioned Ove Arup and Partners to carry out a comprehensive study to determine the nature and scale of the problem. Their report, published in 1983, identified a number of areas which were thought previously not to be at risk and highlighted the degree of uncertainty about the precise extent and condition of many of the workings. An action programme under the derelict land reclamation scheme is now under way. Obviously, the authorities need to have access to sites which may be at risk and the co-operation of owners and occupiers is needed. I have no doubt that this will be given in the vast majority of cases. However, some difficulty has already been experienced because of the natural reluctance or the absence of the person concerned.

Delay could put not only the owner's land at risk but also that of his neighbour. That is why, when and only when, urgent action is necessary in the interests of public safety, it needs the backing of the new power.

Clause 7 contains this power of compulsory entry. It only applies where a local authority have used, are using, or are considering whether to use, their power under Section 89(2) of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 to carry out works on any land for the purpose of reclaiming, improving or bringing into use land underlain by abandoned underground mining operations, other than coal. The clause contains elaborate safeguards for both owner and occupier of the land to which entry is needed. It also contains important provisions to compensate people for loss, damage or disturbance.

Clause 8 provides the power compulsorily to carry out works for the purpose of reclaiming, improving or bringing into use land under which underground mining operations have ceased. The House will have noticed that subsection (3) lists certain conditions which have to be met if the local authority are to be able to carry out those works without consent of all the persons interested in the land. The situation must be urgent; the surface must have collapsed or be in imminent danger of collapse; and the works have to be urgently necessary because of the risk of death or injury to persons or damage to other land or other property. As with Clause 7, there are safeguards for persons interested in the land, and compensation provisions are made for damage, depreciation, loss or disturbance. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Skelmersdale.)

3.12 p.m.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, first, I should like to thank the Minister for explaining this Bill so clearly and also so briefly. It is certainly not the type of Bill which is going to get high television ratings, but nevertheless its importance is very much greater than perhaps the interest displayed in it generally would appear to suggest. The Bill expresses an intention which all interested parties—these include local authorities, the British Steel Corporation, geological and environmental groups—support; and my colleagues and I on these Benches agree that, although some details may need to be clarified and perhaps adjusted, the Bill is one which should be widely welcomed.

As the noble Lord the Minister has explained, the purpose is two-fold. As he pointed out, the first part of the Bill concerns the winding-up of the Ironstone Restoration Fund which had been set up under the 1951 Mineral Workings Act. The decline in ironstone working has seen a concomitant fall in the income of the fund while the financial pressures of agricultural after-care and afforestation continue unabated. As the Minister has told us, the fund, as it was expressed on the Second Reading in another place, is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and without the contribution from British Steel it would indeed be bankrupt.

If, by transferring the assets of the fund to the British Steel Corporation, the continued improvement of land decimated by ironstone workings is secured, then that is a useful exercise. But of course any change in the system of financing is bound to worry those who benefit under the present system. Clauses 4 and 5, which the Minister spelt out, are intended to allay those fears by setting up transitional schemes to deal with existing arrangements concerning land being returned to agricultural use and to forestry.

During the course of the consideration of this Bill in another place the Government showed very welcome flexibility. For example, it was agreed that the level of payments of grants for afforestation should be subject to consultation with the Ironstone Royalty Owners' Association as well as the Forestry Commissioners and the British Steel Corporation. Can the noble Lord explain, therefore, why there can be no statutory provision for the annual review of these special grants, despite assurances in the other place that an annual review would indeed take place? This particular discussion in another place was on Report, on 9th January this year, as reported at col. 876.

We constantly have discussions and debates, on other pieces of legislation, about whether or not things should be on the face of the Bill. It does make a great difference. As I know the Minister and other noble Lords are aware, a report in Hansard carries no weight at all when it comes to the courts and any reference is made to it. All it does is spell out the inclination of the Government at that time. It does not have any value in law or in legislation. Either it should be on the face of the Bill or there should be some form of regulation or even a circular to make this absolutely clear. I do not think we are convinced that "subject to annual review" should not be included in the legislation. I should be grateful if the Minister would reply to that.

The transitional arrangements are due to end five years after their introduction—that is, in 1990—unless the restoration work happened not to be completed until after 1st January 1984. If this is the case, then the British Steel Corporation's financial liability can be extended by arrangement. But what I should like to ask is: what will happen if subsidence occurs in an ironstone area after 1990 and it is recorded that reclamation work had been completed before January 1984? Is this a gap which is being left and is it a trap which some people could fall into without being aware of it at the time? I wonder if it is something the Government should be looking at.

During the Committee stage in another place, the Minister's answer to that question was that there might be a longer-term problem which the Government and local authorities would have to work together to overcome. Can the noble Lord explain what sort of provision is to be made with regard to this potential longer-term problem? Will it involve, for instance, any financial burden on the local authorities? I would point out that the resources of local authorities are already wildly overstretched, and it is here that the situation will get worse and not better. Is it not true that the Bill as it stands has removed the right of local authorities to seek central Government reimbursement for reclamation work done on land left derelict since before July 1950? Schedule 2 repeals the sections which provide for central Government reimbursement to local authorities for the restoration of land left derelict before July 1950. This is of some importance. The repeals in Schedule 2 take away this right and then there will be nothing left to fall back on. I wish the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, were here, because this is one of his particular subjects and I am sure he would be making this point far better than I can myself.

This was a point raised by the Member for Kettering in another place. It is causing great anxiety to the Northamptonshire County Council and to other county councils which are also concerned about it. As I understand it, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary is supposed to be visiting Northamptonshire today. If he is, then maybe it is too soon to get a signal from him. Perhaps the Minister can tell us if he is on his way there, if he is back, or if he has a further date if this one was not taken up. This is a very important part of the Bill and I think that Schedule 2 should be looked at very carefully once again. It always worries me when I see all these repeals. An awful lot of sections of the 1951 Act are wiped out and, if the Bill goes through, there will be very little left of it.

Clauses 7 and 8, to which the Minister has referred, embody the second intention of the Bill. Clause 7 allows local authorities to enter land to survey, monitor or carry out reclamation works where subsidence has occurred or is likely to occur as a result of former underground mineral workings. Clause 8, which was introduced during Committee in another place, allows similar work to be carried out without the consent of the owner or occupier where it has been impossible, for various reasons, to obtain that consent. These important new local authority powers are rightly extended by the Bill to all areas and not only to the ironstone district set out in Schedule 1. This was opposed by some Members on the Government side in another place, but we on this side agree entirely with the Government that the powers are essential if the Bill is to be made to work properly.

However, it seems that what the Bill does not specify is the problem of Crown lands. These are not included at all. The Minister said in Committee in another place at col. 18 of the Official Report for 4th December 1984 that despoliation from tin mining on Crown lands would "have to be handled by separate arrangement". Will the Minister clarify the thinking of his department on this point, since it is of grave concern to areas such as Cornwall and Wales?

Finally, I should like to ask one further question. The Bill is quite specific: the first part deals only with the ironstone district and ironstone workings. Could the noble Lord look beyond the scope of the Bill before us and say what happens in the case of land despoiled by, for instance, limestone workings? Will there be any compensation related to the improvement of these areas? In other words, how does this Bill, which is quite a small Bill in itself, fit into what I describe rather highly as the Government's grand scheme of things or of life in this country, or, indeed of finance? How will they deal with it? Do they have a place for it? Do they expect it to be extended in other areas?

Having said that, and in the hope of obtaining answers to the points that I have raised, I should like to offer our support for this measure.

3.21 p.m.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, I wish to congratulate the Minister on the clear and competent way in which he presented the Bill. In order to save time, let me say that I should be interested to study the answers which will be given to most of the matters that have been raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk. In some respects this so-called short and technical Bill is exceptional from a drafting point of view and, perhaps, from a constitutional point of view, and I say that for the following reason. Its first six clauses deal with a very narrow power, but it then introduces two clauses which have far greater and wider powers. Therefore, as a matter of pure drafting, it is unusual. It is usual for a Bill to have general clauses at the beginning and for those clauses then to be followed by the narrow powers. But in this particular case the reverse is true. It is worth considering the powers that the Bill contains.

First, there is the narrow power to deal with problems arising in respect of one form of mineral extraction; namely, that related to limestone and iron workings and production in a narrow geographical part of the country. So narrow is the power that the areas concerned are spelt out parish by parish in Schedule 1 to the Bill. However, the second power arises in Clauses 7 and 8. It is much more general and applies to every area with underground mines throughout England and Wales, excluding coal mines. If I recall correctly, the noble Lord the Minister did not quite make it clear, at any rate to me, that this Bill is not concerned with the underground workings of coal mines. I may have misunderstood him, but I should like to emphasise that it has nothing to do with coal mines. I suppose it can be said by the Minister from a narrow legal point of view that, if one considers Clause 10, it could be inferred that the Bill does apply to the general power to which I have referred.

Clauses such as Clauses 7 and 8 introduce a new power to enter land. Such power, of course, is of obvious public importance and natural concern, and requires the most careful consideration. It is essential to safeguard the interests of all people relating to such land. When I read the Bill I must confess that I thought it was concerned only with ironstone workings. I consoled myself in having made that error by the fact that in another place the chairman of the All-Party Minerals Group (of which I happen to have the privilege of being a member), the Member for North Bedfordshire, felt that this Bill, when he first read it, was concerned only with ironstone workings. Therefore, it seems to me that one general aspect in relation to this Bill is that it should be made clearer that Clauses 7 and 8 apply to the whole of England and Wales.

I am not going to press this point, particularly as the Minister in the other place, at column 18 of Hansard for 4th December last year, explained why in his view it was essential to have this general power tacked on to the very narrow power in the first part of the Bill. He said: We face serious problems which affect many people and could affect a far wider franchise in this country. We could find that many millions of people are affected by former mineral workings. The predominant problem has been identified, but it could develop even further". That passage may emphasise the point that was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, about the powers of compensation of local authorities.

I now turn to two or three small points in relation to the scope of Clauses 7 and 8. Clause 7 is the clause which deals with the power to enter former mining land. The point that I wish to make is this. When you study subsections (1), (2) and (3) of that clause, is the definition of "land" and also "relevant works" adequate for the purposes which the Government have in mind? It is a somewhat complex question, and in this context I have given consideration to the scope of Section 29 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 and also to the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, particularly Section 290. I apologise to the noble Lord the Minister that I did not give him prior notice of this matter, but no doubt he will be able to deal with it—if he thinks that it is worth dealing with—later on.

The point is that where mining operations have taken place there will be surfaces of the land which have been used but which have not been directly undermined; that is, not in danger of collapse, as is emphasised so much in the course of the Bill. There may also be things like railway lines, ancillary buildings and places where extracted materials may have caused damage. In this connection, if we look at the definition in Clause 9 of "worked ironstone land", it says that that means: land which has been excavated in the course of winning and working ironstone by opencast operations, and includes land on which materials extracted in the course of such operations have been deposited". Therefore, in so far as the definition of "land" is concerned, I ask whether the Government are satisfied that their powers under the Bill can be directed towards the land which has been otherwise used and has not been directly undermined. The same point arises under Clause 8(1), (2) and (3).

I turn to the question of compensation. As the Minister has stated, under Clause 7(11) compensation is given to the person interested in the land, and it is defined in the following way: Where in consequence of an exercise of the power to enter land conferred by this section any damage is caused to land or chattels, or any loss occurs in relation to chattels, the local authority authorising the entry shall pay …". When one turns to Clause 8(9), which is the compensation subsection, one sees that to some extent the scope of compensation is different, because there it says: Where in consequence of the carrying out of works as mentioned in subsection (2) above any damage is caused to land or chattels, or any depreciation of the value of an interest in land occurs, or any loss occurs in relation to chattels", and then the compensation subsection continues as before. In this part of the Bill, for compensation under Clause 8 there is inserted a power to claim compensation not merely for the damage caused or the loss in relation to chattels, but also for depreciation of the value of an interest in land. Therefore, I would tentatively suggest that an amendment might be considered to the effect that the words: any depreciation of the value of an interest in land occurs should also be included in the corresponding subsection dealing with compensation in Clause 7; that is, subsection (11).

I have not referred to another subsection which deals with compensation and which refers to disturbance arising from the enjoyment of the land or chattels. However, both the subsections in Clauses 7 and 8 are identical, whereas the words which I have quoted regarding the loss arising from depreciation in land have not been included in Clause 7(11).

As I understood him, the Minister was good enough to say that a survey had been made in relation to this problem. I have not had an opportunity to see it, but I wonder whether he would be able to say that the survey has dealt with some of the problems with regard to mining operations in parts of Wales. I have particularly in mind certain lead mines in areas in Cardiganshire, not far from Aberystwyth. It would be interesting to know as a matter of information whether that survey covers Wales.

3.34 p.m.

Lord Middleton

My Lords, I do not think I share the worry expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, about the fact that the provisions dealing with the powers of entry to come on to land where there are dangerous holes have been tacked on to the ironstone provisions. I propose to confine my very brief remarks to the ironstone provisions. As my noble friend has just reminded us, the main purpose of the Bill is to wind up the Ironstone Restoration Fund. This seems to be perfectly reasonable now that the working of ironstone in the ironstone district has virtually ceased.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to interrupt him. If he is saying that the Bill is mainly concerned with the winding up of the fund and not with the very important powers given under Clauses 7 and 8, I should have thought that he would have had some sympathy with what I had to say.

Lord Middleton

My Lords, I was quoting from the Bill itself when I said that the main purpose of the Bill is to repeal the provisions of the two Acts. The Bill contains six clauses to deal with that and two to deal with the other matter. As we have heard, the fund was set up under the Mineral Workings Act 1951 to finance the restoration of worked land and to make grants for drainage and other works necessary to bring the land back into agricultural and forestry use. Contributions to the fund were made jointly by the landowners, the Treasury and the mineral operators. Technically, the restoration of land that had been stripped of its soil and then worked for iron ore presented owners with all sorts of problems, some of which, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said, may not be fully overcome by the proposed cut-off date. Nevertheless, it is my understanding that the owners, while accepting that the purposes of the fund to which they have contributed over the years have broadly been fulfilled, have been anxious to ensure that the Government were fully aware of the inherently unstable nature of restored land.

When the Bill was introduced in another place and subsequently in Committee, certain proposals were made in order to ensure the fairest possible arrangements with respect to the funding of the aftercare of restored land. Here and now I should like to pay tribute to the very helpful and understanding way in which the Minister and his department have listened to these proposals.

Amendments have been made to the Bill and undertakings given, so that the Bill as we see it this afternoon disposes of the principal worries of the owners concerned. First, there has been what, in effect, is an extension of the transitional period during which grants for aftercare will be financed by the British Steel Corporation from five years to six and a quarter years for land restored after 1st January 1984.

Secondly, grants, while funded by the British Steel Corporation, will, in effect, continue to function through MAFF and through the Forestry Commission. Thirdly, by amending the Bill the Government have accepted that the rate of Section 25 payments—these are the afforestry payments—should continue to be reviewed under the existing system of consultation between the owners, the Forestry Commission and the BSC. The Minister has given an assurance that such a review will be an annual one. The noble Baroness would have preferred to have seen this assurance embodied in the Bill. I read what the Minister said at the Third Reading of the Bill in another place, and I, too, did not quite understand why he could not have included it in the Bill. He did not really explain.

I was interested when the noble Baroness said that there remains the question of instability of restored land in the future. For example, what happens when a drainage scheme installed before or during the transitional period becomes damaged by subsidence after the cut-off date of 1st April 1990? If Mr. Macfarlane is visiting the Corby area today, no doubt he will be able to see on the ground examples of the kind of problem which might arise under this heading. I shall wait with interest to hear later, if not today, what my noble friend can tell me on this remaining point, which is worrying the restorers of land which has yielded up its underlying raw material and which now must become productive again, and which must continue to be productive.

3.39 p.m.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, before the noble Lord replies, I wonder whether I might ask just one question. The noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, said that certain parts of the Bill applied very narrowly. Nevertheless, there are parts of our country and certain counties that are very importantly affected, and the importance did not come over in what the noble Lord had to say.

I cannot understand why the Parliamentary Under-Secretary has chosen to visit the sites concerned on this very day of Second Reading. Why was this particular day chosen? Would it not have been better for the Parliamentary Under-Secretary to have studied the problems on site before Second Reading? Would not that have placed the noble Lord in a better position to answer questions? Alternatively, could we not have put back this Second Reading a day or two until the noble Lord had had the benefit of the observations of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary? I should be grateful if the noble Lord could explain the reasoning, and if he could assure us it was not an underestimation of the importance of these problems to the Northamptonshire County Council.