Skip to main content

Opencast Mining

Volume 465: debated on Monday 23 May 1949

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Popplewell.]

10.9 p.m.

I make no apology for raising the matter of the operations of opencast coal because I have endeavoured in every conceivable way, by writing letters and personal interviews with the Minister of Fuel and Power and the opencast mining branch of that Department, bring a degree of contentment, if not satisfaction, to the constituents of my division; but having failed to get what I thought was reasonable and fair, I decided to put a Question on the Order Paper to elicit some information and to make certain recommendations. On 17th February of this year I asked the Minister of Fuel and Power the following Question:

"if he will consider the advisability of setting up a departmental committee of his Department and that of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to give consideration to the complete and satisfactory restoration of the land, after the operations of the Opencast Mining Branch of his Department, with the objective in view of bringing a degree of contentment to those whose land has been requisitioned for opencast mining."
The Minister replied:
"Restoration of agricultural land is carried out under the supervision of the county agricultural executive committees, and sites are not released from requisition until the committees are satisfied that the restoration has been properly carried out. In the circumstances, there appears to be no reason to set up another committee."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th February, 1949; Vol. 461, c. 1312.]
I say, with all respect to the Minister and his Department, that the machinery he indicated in that reply has fallen down completely. I followed that reply by asking supplementary questions to which I did not receive a satisfactory answer, and I am therefore raising this matter tonight.

It is apparent from the Questions to which no satisfactory answers have been given, following which hon. Members have raised the matter on Adjournment Debates, that opencast coalmining in this country has caused and is still causing a great deal of anxiety and trouble wherever it is carried on. I know it is in my division. Unfortunately, or fortunately, for me, there are in my division seven urban authorities, in five of which opencast mining is taking place, so the House will appreciate the difficulty with which I am confronted.

The Opencast Mining Branch is making great inroads into farming land; in many cases it is taking very valuable agricultural land, and causing untold anxiety, distress and inconvenience to those who live in close proximity to the opencast mining sites. My experience over the past few months has been that the existing machinery, which was indicated in that reply of the Minister's on 17th February, is unsuitable for dealing with the problem in all its aspects, and it has failed to fill the bill in bringing about that degree of contentment which is so essential to every right thinking person in this country. The present administrative machine fails to face up to the many and varied problems which have been caused by opencast mining operations.

I claim that I am to a very large degree a realist; I wish to face up to the real issue, and I must admit at once that the production of coal is an essential factor in the restoration of the economic life of this country. Having made that admission, I must say that there is no reason on earth why the greatest possible care should not be exercised by the two Government Departments, or by the departmental committee which I have recommended, in the winning of opencast coal. My experience, which covers a period of about four years, in dealing with this question has been—and again I say this with all respect—that there is complete disregard of everything connected with the land upon which opencast mining operations take place.

They disregard woodlands, amenities and land drainage, and they fail adequately to compensate for the requisitioning of sites. The people who unfortunately reside on the sites or close by have to experience untold anxiety, worry and inconvenience, which in my judgment ought not to be. As Britishers we ought to be able, by consultation together, to help those who are unfortunately placed, whether they are farmers or artisans. Someone at the regional level or the national level should heed the crying need for fair play and justice to be meted out to these people.

Let us take the question of compensation paid by the Government Departments for requisitioning sites. There are four kinds of compensation. There is the compensation for crops being grown when the land is requisitioned, and com- pensation for damage done to land, which is payable only when it is derequisitioned. I could amplify that by saying that there has been some land lying dormant in my constituency, from which opencast coal has been extracted, since 1946. Thirdly, there is rental compensation which is calculated on the rent payable for the land, subject to the maximum of 160 per cent. on 1939 values. Fourthly, there is compensation for complying with Government directions.

This code of compensation has great defects. It is fixed by the compensation Act of 1939 and bears no relation to the present-day circumstances of the farming fraternity. It does not take into consideration or make provision for the loss of the farmer's livelihood during the period of requisitioning. Such loss is quite considerable, particularly where the larger part of the farm, or all of it, is under requisition for three, four, or even five years.

Let me sustain that argument by citing four cases in my constituency without mentioning the farmers by name. We have Orrits farm of approximately 60 acres, of which all but six have been requisitioned. The farmer has been displaced after more than 50 years hard and strenuous labour. After bringing his farm almost up to the acme of perfection he is now turned off his farm by the opencast mining branch, and what is he told? He is told, "We take your farm from you. What we will do is to find you a job on the opencast working." Never in my experience, whether it be under a Labour or Tory Government, have I witnessed anything like it.

Windy Arbour farm of 160 statute acres has had 70 requisitioned, with another 20 to be requisitioned. Maddox Farm, with an acreage of 109, has been requisitioned, and at present the whole of that farm is either requisitioned or under the threat of requisitioning. Lower Billinge Lane farm has an acreage of 61, of which 50 have been requisitioned. Then there is Harvey House Farm, which has 52 acres and has 46 of them under requisition. In another part of my constituency there is a farm in North Ashton, where 20 acres were requisitioned. Work was finished about three years ago, and the site was restored. Since then nothing has been done by any Department, and the field is lying dormant.

It is sheer idiocy on the part of the Ministry of Agriculture to plead for more food production when this sort of thing is going on under the aegis of another branch of the Government. From a national point of view, what are the inroads which opencast mining are making into our limited agricultural land? Up to the end of February this year 41,113 acres of agricultural land had been requisitioned for opencast mining, out of a total of approximately 24,000,000 acres under cultivation in England and Wales. In addition, 5,000 acres of non-agricultural land, including 2,000 acres of woodland, have been requisitioned. In Scotland, there is a similar story to tell, but it does not end there.

If the policy of the Ministry continues along present lines by 1951 over 100,000 acres of agricultural land will have been taken from the agricultural community. This is a very serious matter for the agricultural industry. Unfortunately, the requisitioning of such land is not spread evenly over the country. It is concentrated in a few areas. If there were opencast operations in every constituency represented in this House there would be a first-class row. It is very important the Ministry of Fuel and Power and the Ministry of Agriculture should take note of what is being said.

As the existing machinery has failed to give satisfaction, I suggest that a Departmental Committee should be appointed to consider the following matters: First, payment of adequate compensation to farmers for loss of crops, the damage done by prospecting and for the utilisation of land not specifically taken over for opencast work. Not only is land taken under which there is the coal, but a large acreage is required as a site for the top soil and subsoil which has to be removed to get at the coal. It is important that compensation should be paid for that. No. 2 is the restoration of land. I know from the Report of the Select Committee on Estimates published this year that paragraphs 8 and 9 emphasise that question which I am emphasising now, although I put my Question down before that report was published.

No. 3 is the drainage of the land which is so essential to its proper and satisfactory restoration; (4) there should be stricter supervision by the resident engineer to see that his contractors carry out the contracts entered into; (5) there is fencing which is very important; and (6) there is the water supply. I went to see a little village in my constituency, which had a very pathetic experience some two years ago, when opencast operations fractured the main. That little village, comprising 800 to 1,000 miners, was without a water supply for eight weeks and nobody would accept the responsibility. There are representatives of the Opencast Mining Branch here with whom I pleaded, begged and prayed to do something in order to restore the water supply which was badly needed. It took a long time to get them to move because they were doing what in Lancashire is known as "passing the buck."

No. (7) is the licensing of land and its reinstatement, and No. 8, financial assistance over and above the compensation paid to help the farmer adequately to provide shippon shelter for the herd of cattle which he is forced to provide when he has not the grazing land upon which to feed his cattle. I have taken steps to find out from the Ministry of Agriculture what is being done in this connection. The Minister tells me that he has pleaded for something to be done, but all his pleadings have fallen on deaf ears. Therefore, I say if the opencast mining operations are to go forward the responsibility rests upon the Minister of Fuel and Power to see that proper measures are taken to help the farming fraternity in order that they may get the degree of contentment they need for satisfaction.

I notice in the Report of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, which was also published since I put the Question down, have this to say on the subject:
"The Council for the Preservation of Rural England continues to be much concerned at the encroachment on land of high agriculture and amenity value by opencast operations. What has been said of ironstone workings from an amenity aspect is equally applicable to this destructive process. The damage in rural districts, in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Shropshire is increasing and is extending into Worcestershire."
There we see a body of men who are not politically minded expressing opinions on what is taking place in this country.

In five minutes I want to give an answer to a letter sent to the Ministry of Fuel and Power on 6th May and to which I only got a reply by special messenger today. This is what my hon. Friend said in connection with the complaints which I have made about this matter:
"The dust risk is now mainly from the access road since the large tip near the houses is complete. With recent rains there is now no sign of dust."
That is what my hon. Friend says in the month of May. I do not know what his Department has been thinking about, because rainfall for this month has been the least since the year 1881. In 1948 the rainfall in May was 1.22 inches; in May, 1949 up to last night it was 1.05 inches. Yet my hon. Friend says that the dust has been laid because of the excess rain.

He goes on to tell me that they are laying water pipes. Again might I remind the Parliamentary Secretary that in that district last week notices were issued to all the inhabitants asking them to economise in water, because the water supply today is 22 feet less than it was this time last year. I beg him to ask his Department and his officials not to send out letters to hon. Members such as the letter I received today, but to take a little notice of those people who know something about the situation prevailing in their constituencies. The hon. Gentleman was good enough to come to my constituency on the 21st March. He made certain promises. What is irritating me is that despite all the courtesy and the plausibility of his Department, the many promises which were made on the 21st March have not been fulfilled. It is about time the Parliamentary Secretary gingered up his Department to see that people affected by these operations are able to enjoy at least the ordinary comforts of life. I beg him to consider the appointment of a departmental committee.

10.31 p.m.

I am sorry to have to intervene at this stage, but obviously if I were not to do so it would be impossible to say anything about this important matter of opencast mining. Before I go on to deal with the main issues I want to take to task the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. Tom Brown) in relation to the letter which I have sent to him today. I sent that letter by hand so that he should have it before this Adjournment Debate and would not accuse me of allowing this Debate to come along before he received the letter. He made some play about the statement regarding the rain and the dust. I must put this right. The problem with which we had to contend, and which on all opencast sites is the same, is the amount of dust which arises by reason of the working. If it is not close to houses it does not constitute a big nuisance problem; but if it is near to houses it is a big nuisance problem.

I went to this site and met the hon. Member, members of the council, residents and everyone who had something to say about the matter, and I spent some considerable time there. As a result, a good many matters were decided which should mitigate the nuisance to a great extent. What I said about rain in my letter was that with the recent rains there was no sign of dust. That had nothing to do with the rainfall. It was merely an indication that if we could dampen the spoilheap and access roads, that will keep down the dust. It was merely an indication of the effect which water had. We are endeavouring to fix water pipes so that we can at least simulate rain every day to keep down the dust.

It was not fair of the hon. Member to suggest that I was comparing the rainfall this year with the rainfall of last year, or that I was even relying upon rain to keep down the dust. The letter made it clear that because of the recent rain there was no sign of dust. It was merely referring to the rain of the other day. Then I say that contractors are fixing water pipes along the road for use in future dry spells. I think that was reasonable, and I am sorry that the hon. Member should take that attitude and deliberately misinterpret and misquote the letter which I sent to him out of sheer courtesy before this Debate tonight.

What the hon. Member has said is what every hon. Member could say with some truth; namely, that in the main opencast mining is a nuisance to everyone associated with it—it is a nuisance to the farmer, it is a nuisance to the residents near the disturbance—and, generally speaking, no one welcomes it, There is no question, I think, that we would not bother to extract coal in this way and cause so much inconvenience to everyone concerned if it were not for the urgent need for coal. It is the urgency of the problem which demands it. There is no question at all that if one were to take the value of the crops on the land which is disturbed and the value of the coal, the coal wins every time.

It is interesting to note that in these last three years—and this shows the value of opencast coal—there has been produced by opencast methods 30.7 million tons of coal. The exports in the same period of three years are just 31 million tons of coal. So, in point of fact, the amount of opencast coal roughly balances with the amount of exports. I do not suggest that all the opencast coal was sent abroad, but what I do say is that it supplemented deep-mined coal here and enabled us to send that amount abroad. If we had taken no coal by opencast methods, we should have had none to send abroad in this period; and, undesirable as it may be to the resident and the farmer, we cannot do without opencast coal at this stage, and the Government do not propose to do so.

No, I cannot give way; the hon. Gentleman took twenty minutes of a half-hour's adjournment Debate, and if the hon. Gentleman thinks I am going to give way again, he is on the wrong wicket. We must go on with this opencast working. We shall move up from something like 13 million tons this year to perhaps 15 millions next year, and then "tail off" from 1951. We want to get rid of opencast mining, which is a nuisance to farmers. What the hon. Member complained about was very proper and I accept what he has said.

I never suggested I complained about the points he raises. I know about the dust nuisance and the problems caused by the blastings and the explosions and so on and things which annoy people. I am well aware that the farming community does not feel it is getting a fair deal. Attention was drawn to these points by my hon. Friend and I am certain, although there is not time for them to speak, that at least one hon. Member opposite wanted to speak about compensation. We take possession of land under Defence Regulation 51 and compensation is paid wider Section 2 of the Compensation Defence Act, 1939. I think it is Section 2 (i) (a) which refers to rentals; there is compensation for loss of crops growing when our opencast people go on to a site and the residual value of cultivations done before, for example seeding and manuring; and for disturbance, which is concerned with the moving of cattle to other grazing areas.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-one Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.