HC Deb 06 April 1987 vol 114 cc33-5W
Mr. Richard Shepherd

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has completed his consideration of the Black Country Limestone Advisory Panel's report on the Cow Pasture mine; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Ridley

I have given careful consideration to the report of the Black Country Limestone Advisory Panel on Cow Pasture mine. I have also taken careful account of the views expressed by Sandwell MBC and other local authorities in the west midlands and of the representations made to me by hon. Members.

Whilst I can understand Sandwell MBC's continuing desire for an engineering solution to remove the risk of subsidence from the Cow Pasture mine, I do not think that this would he an appropriate use of Government funds because of the uncertainty as to the extent and effects of any subsidence that may arise and the doubts expressed by the panel about the technical feasibility of the solutions considered, together with the high costs involved. I therefore accept the report's conclusions that the most sensible and cost-effective approach is a programme of monitoring and repair as and when necessary. Whilst this will not prevent subsidence occurring at the Cow Pasture mine, it will provide advance warning of the possibility of damage to property and of any necessary precautions to minmise the very small risk of personal injury. The Government will continue to fund the monitoring programme.

Should subsidence occur damaged property will need to be repaired. I have given very careful consideration to how the costs of such damage might be met, particularly in view of the wider implications for other areas of limestone mines in the Black Country.

I am not persuaded that a publicly-funded damage repair scheme is justified. The insurance industry already provides protection in respect of subsidence damage under normal household building insurance contracts. It would be inappropriate for central Government to fund any such scheme. Government are already making a proper and significant contribution towards the solution of the problems arising from abandoned limestone mines in the Black Country by providing substantial resources for investigation, monitoring and remedial action where appropriate. The Government will continue to provide financial support for that work. £11.9 million has been allocated to date and a further £5.0 million earmarked for the 1987–88 financial year. A large number of mines have already been investigated in all four Black Country boroughs as well as in the Wrekin district of Shropshire. As a result of these investigations, important progress has been made. Substantial areas.—some 61 hectares—have now been removed from the consideration zones for limestone mines, either because the mines have been found to be totally collapsed and therefore not liable to further subsidence or because the limits of mining have been more accurately defined than was possible on the limited information available when the zones were established. Infilling operations have already been carried out on a trial basis at the Castlefields mine, Dudley, and are about to commence at the Littleton Street mine, Walsall. Infilling of part of the Castlefields mine underlying Birmingham road and the Dudley Town football club, and of part of the Lincoln Hill mine, Ironbridge will also commence shortly. Thus engineering solutions have been adopted where appropriate and this will continue to be the case. Additionally, some £1.7 million has been spent so far by the Government on related research to evaluate surface land use in the general economic and planning context of the Black Country, to develop new techniques of monitoring the mines and the ground movements arising from them, and to develop new methods of analysis to aid decision making.

Private sector financial institutions have an essential role in ensuring that people living within the limestone consideration zones are not disadvantaged. To this end, the Government have consulted the Association of British Insurers, the Building Societies Association and the National House Building Council. Insurance companies, representing the bulk of the household insurance market, have stated that they cannot give an unconditional guarantee that insurance cover will be provided or renewed because this depends on the circumstances of individual applications. However, they have confirmed that they will not discriminate solely on the grounds that property is in a limestone area. Insurers will continue to accept household business, including limestone subsidence, in affected areas provided there is no evidence of existing damage to the property involved. This means that each risk will be considered on its merits and that subsidence cover will be available at standard terms and conditions subject to normal underwriting considerations. These assurances should provide the necessary confidence to owner-occupiers and property investors within the Cow Pasture mine area and other consideration zones in the Black Country.

Following on from this understanding with insurers. the Building Societies Association has stated, on the basis of its contacts with building societies operating in the limestone area, that it is not aware of any general bar against lending on properties in the area. Societies will consider mortgage applications on their merits in the same way as they would for other areas. As far as new building is concerned, the NHBC has stated that, provided its normal requirements for mining areas are met, it will issue its normal 10-year warranty for major structural damage to houses erected by registered builders. These requirements would include the provision of a mining/geology report which establishes the design critieria for subsidence and the foundation details, with calculations and details of any specialist works necessary to cater for the subsidence levels predicted.

These positive assurances are an indication of the responsible attitude being taken by the private sector and will do much to bolster confidence in the property market in the limestone areas. For their part, local authorities and statutory undertakers will need to act promptly and take any action necessary to maintain roads, public services and facilities in the event of any subsidence damage arising. They will also need to carry out any necessary environmental improvements and repairs to their own housing stock.

In addition to the Government's existing commitments, there are other important Government measures which will assist in alleviating the situation in the Black Country limestone mines area generally. These are:

  1. i. The use of HIP resources to enable local authorities to carry out any repairs necessary following subsidence damage to their own housing stock. HIP allocations for 1987–88 have already been made; in making allocations for subsequent years, the Department will take into account any additional expenditure which may arise on essential remedial work on the local authority owned housing situated over these old mines.
  2. ii. Where owner-occupiers of houses suffer hardship because they cannot sell by reason of the risk of subsidence I will consider, in exceptional cases, granting consent to enable local authorities to acquire the property.
  3. iii. Continuing expert advice. I have asked the Black Country Limestone Advisory Panel to examine carefully the overall strategy for dealing with the limestone problem and, in particular, to devise a programme for the completion of investigatory works and the identification of necessary remedial action in the remaining areas affected.
  4. iv. The Black Country is one of the areas where the local authorities have been invited to put forward projects for urban development grant and the new urban regeneration grant introduced under part III of the Housing and Planning Act 1986 is also available there. These grants may be relevant where development is proposed on sites affected by limestone working.

The limestone problem is a complex one and there is no single easy solution to it. We have developed the package of measures outlined above in response to the various elements of the problem. Continuing Government action, coupled with the assurances given by the insurance industry, building societies and the NH BC, and the local authorities' commitments, should go a long way towards restoring confidence in the local property market and to relieving the concern that has arisen due to a greater appreciation of the problems which might develop in areas affected by abandoned limestone mines.