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Coal (Cynheidre And Abernant Mines)

Volume 645: debated on Tuesday 25 July 1961

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Gibson-Watt.]

11.35 p.m.

I am glad to have this opportunity for a short debate on the question of capital investment in the anthracite mines at Cynheidre and Abernant. I should explain that for some time past rumours have been circulating in parts of South Wales that all was not going according to plan at these two collieries. To ascertain the position, I decided to try to put down Questions to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power in the normal way, but owing to the regulations regarding nationalised industries and Questions I found that this was not possible and that I should have to get the information from the National Coal Board instead.

As a result, I addressed exactly similar questions that I had wanted to put down to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power to Lord Robens, Chairman of the National Coal Board, little thinking that in so doing I should be disturbing something of a hornets' nest, for since I received what turned out to be a forthright and revealing reply from the Chairman of the Coal Board I have received a number of letters and messages of encouragement from West Wales, on the one hand, and a certain amount of criticism from political and National Coal Board sources, on the other hand.

The first criticism came from the Chairman of the South-Western region of the Coal Board, who appeared with me on a television programme. He pointed out that he did not know what qualifications I had to deal with mining. It was also suggested that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary made similar comments, but I understand that they were the result of a misunderstanding. I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that if we had to have specialist qualifications before putting Questions or making comments on various subjects, we should have great difficulty in pursuing our normal Parliamentary duties. I freely admit that I have no mining qualifications, but neither, as far as I am aware, has Lord Robens, who, after all, is Chairman of the Coal Board.

The second criticism came from the hon. Lady the Member for Carmarthen (Lady Megan Lloyd George). I am sorry that she is not here this evening. I wrote reminding her of this debate, but I understand that she was detained for an engagement in Wales. In a recent speech, the hon. Lady described my inquiries as a "rash and ill-advised intervention". At a later stage, she invited me to withdraw what she then described as
"these wild statements which he has made without any justification".
I find both of the hon. Lady's accusations rather bewildering in the light of the facts contained in the letter from the Chairman of the National Coal Board.

This is a three-paragraph letter. The first paragraph deals with the capital authorisations of nearly £13½ million for Cynheidre and nearly £9½ million for Abernant. The third paragraph deals with the production target of Abernant and says something of the expectation of production this year. I will refer to that later. I wish at this stage to draw the attention of hon. Members to the second paragraph, which states:
"Cynheidre is more advanced in its development and we expect it to produce some 150,000 tons of anthracite this year. Although the original scheme and authorisation of expenditure was based on an output of 1 million tons a year, the difficult geological conditions have led us to review the commitment and to reduce the immediate objective for this new colliery to 550,000 tons a year. It is possible, however, that more favourable conditions will allow us at a later date to expand the output of the colliery to something nearer the original intention."
I cannot for the life of me see why when I express concern, first, that the target of I million tons, on which a capital expenditure of some £13½ million was authorised, has been slashed by half, and, second, when the actual amount of anthracite that it is expected to produce this year amounts to only a fraction—just over one quarter, to be exact—of the reduced target figure, I should be accused of making wild statements without any justification.

I submit that they are not wild statements. On the contrary, they are statements of fact, and there is every justification for concern, the more so because, unlike loans to the private section of industry, to which the hon. Lady also referred—Cunard, Richard Thomas, and Colviltes—all of which have been the subject of lengthy and hotly contested debates, followed by a vote, on the Floor of the House, capital sums expended by the National Coal Board, I believe, are authorised under the Coal Mining Industry Act, 1956, and, therefore, do not come before hon. Members for their close scrutiny and debate.

By far the most disturbing feature of all this, in my opinion, is that several of my correspondents from West Wales with wide experience of mining maintain that the Cynheidre project, as an economic proposition, was doomed to failure from the start—

I will give way in a moment. These correspondents also maintain that the warnings of the wise old men of mining were ignored when they referred to the geological difficulties in the area, and that I have only scratched on the surface in regard to wasteful expenditure by the National Coal Board in Wales.

How does the hon. Gentleman explain the fact that since, first, Cynheidre is in my constituency, and, second, that I am an anthracite miner and have spent all my life in the coalfields, I have not had a single word from anyone, wise or otherwise, about this? I wonder why they wrote to him and not to me.

I think the answer to that is in the publicity relating to this subject. I have a cutting here dated 7th April, 1956, which states that the right hon. Gentleman referred to a total aggregate output of 700,000 tons. If Abernant is to produce 720,000 tons and Cynheidre, on the reduced estimates, 550,000 tons, that is 1¼ million tons. So that the right hon. Gentleman appears to have had doubts about the situation as far back as that.

Anyway, I hope that these allegations are wrong, but I have an uneasy feeling that some of them at any rate are true, for certainly the reactions of senior Coal Board officials to my recent inquiries—which I can describe only as being rather like that of a patient when the dentist is drilling on a nerve—are not likely to inspire confidence in this direction.

The geological problems associated with the anthracite field in the area of Cynheidre and Abernant are already well known. The disturbance of the strata was referred to in a leaflet which the Coal Board issued on the Cynheidre project as far back as January, 1957, and it was given as the reason for the adoption of the horizon principle of mining, as it is called, which I believe is widely used on this project and other major projects throughout the South Wales coalfield.

I appreciate that these geological difficulties can be very considerable indeed, and that they may cause great variations in production, but is the Minister really satisfied that in the full knowledge that these difficulties existed, sufficient borehole drillings and tests were made before this expensive project was started, and, if he is, that the right conclusions were reached as a result? Does mining have to be such a hit-and-miss affair in this modern day and age?

It is common knowledge that, for example, production of coking coal at Nantgarw falls far below expectations which were current when the capital expenditure was authorised, but in the case of Cynheidre the significant fact is not so much the disappointing production figure which is expected this year, but rather the halving of the target, for if the original target had been 550,000 tons and not 1 million, presumably the scheme as we know it today would not have been authorised in the first place.

What we ought to be told is what circumstances made it necessary to reduce this target so drastically that this was taken. Quite obviously, in a new colliery like Cynheidre it will take time to reach the full production figure of 550,000 tons a year. The Divisional Chairman of the South-Western Region estimates that it will take at least two years. I shall be interested to know whether my hon. Friend agrees with that estimate and what further capital expenditure he expects will be required before this full production is reached.

What are we to expect from Abernant? Capital expenditure was based on 720,000 tons a year. That, I am glad to say, is still the target, but I hope that this decision will not he adversely affected by the unexpected difficulties which my hon. Friend mentioned on his recent visit to Cardiff. Whether they do or not, it is obvious that the production of anthracite in South Wales will fall far below expectations over the next few years. How, then, is this deficiency to be made good?

I see from a cutting from last Friday's Western Mail that the National Coal Board has already authorised an increase in opencast mining for anthracite and coking coal in South Wales. Perhaps my hon. Friend will tell us whether he expects that supplies from opencast mining will be sufficient to bridge the gap and to keep our overseas customers happy in the meantime until Cynheidre and Abernant are in full production.

Then there is the all-important question of manpower, which is causing concern not only in South Wales but in other parts of the country. I am getting my share of the blame for that, too. I should point out, however, that the drift from the mines has been going on for some years now. It is not a new problem but it has certainly been aggravated by the wave of prosperity which we have experienced in Wales in the past couple of years. It is surely a matter of economics, but if by encouraging new industry to come to Wales we are responsible for creating a manpower shortage, then I must take my share of the blame, together with other hon. Members for Welsh constituencies, and not least the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths). I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is the last person who would want to see men obliged to work in the mines because no alternative jobs were available.

At a time when Government expenditure as a whole has to be contained, or even reduced, it is more than ever necessary that the nationalised industries, whose capital expenditure is not subject to Parliamentary control in the usual way, should be especially careful to avoid extravagance and waste. There are indications that something of this sort may have been going on in South Wales coalfields in recent years. Tonight I have posed some of the questions that the people of South Wales are asking about this capital expenditure. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to put our minds at rest, but, if not, I hope that he will seriously consider whether a full inquiry should be made into the circumstances surrounding capital expenditure on these mines at Cynheidre and Abernant and elsewhere in South Wales.

11.50 p.m.

I have given an assurance that I will be very brief in this intervention, but I am glad that I have caught your eye, Mr. Speaker, because the Abernant Colliery is in my constituency. The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Box) referred to rumours and expressions of opinion. The mining community which I represent is proud of the technical achievements at Abernant. The hon. Member dealt at some length with Cynheidre and made a brief reference to Abernant, and I will refer only to the latter. He referred to a discussion which he had on television with Mr. Kellett the South Western Division manager, but he has not told us something which Mr. Kellett said. With the greatest respect to the hon. Member, he said that he did not have enough knowledge of the industry to draw the right conclusions from the information which he had received.

I put it to the hon. Member, with respect, whether he thinks that he is doing a service to the coal industry at this difficult moment by making the statements which he has made and casting any kind of doubt upon the successful conclusion of these projects. I will leave it there, because my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) and other hon. Members are anxious to hear the Minister's reply. I emphasise, however, the confidence of the mining community which I represent in the successful outcome of the projects at bath Cynheidre and Abernant. In conclusion, may I say that I deplore the hon. Member's action in bringing forward this matter without informing me that he intended to do so, since my constituency is affected, thus breaking a normal courtesy shown in this House.

11.52 p.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Box) for having forewarned me of some of the points which he has raised, and I am also grateful for the restraint with which he has handled a delicate matter of great importance not only in South Wales but elsewhere. A large sum of public money might be at risk, and it is right and proper that he should seek information. I will try to give him the fullest available information and will deal first with the direct questions which he put at the end of his speech.

The first was about the rephasing—not the slashing—of the target at Cynheidre from 1 million tons to 550,000 tons. This was decided early in 1960. To have any meaning, targets must cover only a few years. It was obvious early in 1960 that geological disturbances were certain to frustrate the original objective of 1 million tons in 1966. Psychologically, it was unwise to leave this original target alive. A figure of 550,000 tons by 1964 therefore substituted as a more realistic figure. But this substitution of a new short-term target does not mean the final abandonment of the original target, and the fact that the geological disturbances had been forecast, as my hon. Friend said, by wise old men—who always forecast difficulties in any new mining undertakings anywhere in Britain—does not mean that they should have been foreseen. Geological difficulties are not revealed in their entirety until the exploration is made. This is no condemnation of any of the planners employed by the National Coal Board.

My hon. Friend asked about the Abernant target. He mentioned that the original figure for Abernant remains. The difference is that we hoped for 720,000 tons by 1961. It is now forecast for 1964, with no change in total. I will deal with that later.

He asked about future capital expenditure. The further capital expenditure authorised for each colliery is: Abernant, a further £3 million, Cynheidre, a further —1·6 million. The last question was, how is the shortfall in output resulting from the unrealised expectations to be made up in the short and in the long term? In the coming winter Cynheidre and Abernant will be producing at an annual rate of 200,000 tons; this is additional to last year's anthracite output. In addition, the National Coal Board is seeking to increase output from open-cast sources of anthracite. While little will be obtained this year, in 1962, open-cast, Cynheidre and Abernant should produce together 500,000 tons of new output. Both these collieries, plus open cast sites, should make a rising contribution to market supplies.

With regard to the long term prospects resulting from the alteration in target at Cynheidre, it is far too early to assume that Cynheidre will not move on from 550,000 tons in 1964 to higher outputs in later years. I re-emphasise that Abernant is expected to reach the original target in 1964.

I now turn to the broader questions which my hon. Friend raised—the soundness of both projects, whether they were wisely conceived, efficiently planned and executed, and what are their prospects of success.

We must look back to 1951. Then the shallow coals were nearing exhaustion but the demand for anthracite was rising. The reserves remaining were at great depths, requiring heavy capital expenditure. But the market could not be ignored and the employment of thousands was involved. The reserves of are the two proposed collieries a estimated to be 150 million tons of the finest, quality anthracite coal, enough to supply the nation with its demands for anthracite for 50 years at current consumption, I have tried to estimate the cash value of the reserves, and at modern prices I assess them at £800 million. The market, miners' jobs and immensely valuable reserves of the highest quality coal demanded that the development should proceed. Decisions were taken to develop both collieries, using the most modern techniques and equipment.

What has been the course of events since then? I will deal with the facts and not with rumours and old men's tales. Facts are all that count in serious issues such as this when charges are made against the National Coal Board and the people who do its planning.

Cynheidre was approved by the National Coal Board in 1954 at an estimated capital expenditure of approximately £12¼ million. Previously, in June, 1951, the Board had given preliminary approval to a total of £7 million so that work could start on the sinking of the two new shafts. This was no more than a very approximate estimate made at the time when boring had not been completed.

This was in no way comparable with the firm estimate of £12¼ million in 1954, by which time rising prices had increased the expected cost of the two new shafts by £2½ million. As my hon. Friend perhaps knows, the scheme included the sinking of two new shafts to a depth of 800 yards, the deepening of an existing shaft, and the provision of surface buildings of the most modern type to handle the expected output.

Because difficult conditions were expected at the face, the method of mining had to be the most efficient devised by mining engineers to reduce the cost of transport of the coal from the face. The surface buildings had to be the most efficient obtainable to meet the cost of handling the coal at the surface, thereby equating the cost to something like an economic figure.

What has happened since then? Two new shafts were sunk as planned, and the development of the surface buildings has proceeded normally at Cynheidre. Underground development, however, encountered unusually difficult geological conditions which delayed the progress of the scheme and led to substantial increases in costs for this part of the work.

In the light of the conditions encountered underground, the Board revised the target to 550,000 tons in 1964, instead of 1,000,000 tons in 1966. The fact that geological difficulties were encountered is no condemnation of the planning. Mining cannot be, and is not a hit-and-miss game as my hon. Friend suggested. It is impossible, however, to so prove a deep coal field as to avoid the chance of geological difficulties being encountered. It is economically impossible, particularly in the case of anthracite, and in the difficult fields of South Wales and Scotland. They cannot be economically proved so as to avoid troubles when operations commence. Therefore, there is always a risk. It is a risky venture at the best, and the fact that we have discovered the troubles here was not unexpected, and is the fault of no one. It does not represent a waste of capital assets by the Board. It does not mean, either, that the pit is condemned or doomed to failure. Almost any colliery of any size has had high outputs and low outputs. That is a characteristic of the mining industry. Cynheidre may come through to calmer waters and achieve the original purpose.

The Board believes that the geological proving was adequate under the circumstances. It had detailed information relating to the workings of old collieries round the field. The northern boundary is composed of a number of mines which have extracted the coal and have proved its existence and also proved the difficulties. They gave a good guide and a mass of information in relation to what could be expected at Cynheidre. But the Board was not content with that. It put down two deep and exploratory borings and brought in the Geological Survey to make a special examination and to collect all information in order to give the engineers a reasonable picture of what Cynheidre would look like after development. The Board is satisfied that the proving done was sufficient. The difficulties encountered were not unexpected. It has no doubt that this colliery will in future prove to be a good addition to the anthracite coalfields of South Wales.

Turning to Abernant, the picture is not so disturbing. This colliery was approved in 1953 at an estimated cost of 5¼ million. Now the full scheme is estimated to cost just over £8 million. Again, this consists of two deep shafts sunk to a depth of 880 yards. The target of 720,000 tons for 1961 has been altered, and is now 720,000 tons in 1964. The progress of the scheme has been excellent, but serious unexpected and perhaps unique difficulties have been met with in the shaft bottom. Excessive rock pressures not previously recorded have been encountered, and the massive excavations now necessary fora modern pit bottom have been pushed in to such an extent that they have had to be completely remade before a ton of coal could be produced. It must be appreciated that these happenings took a very long time to repair. In fact, the target has been delayed by three years, mainly because of the excessive rock pressures which were entirely unexpected and almost unique.

This colliery has had no other deviation from its plan. It has had very little increase in capital expenditure from the estimated figure. Everything indicates that, as at Cynheidre, it is in a difficult geological field and will have these difficulties and troubles, but the Board is satisfied that it has used all sensible methods of proving the field. It has provided the best possible equipment on the surface and underground. It has designed the roadways in such a way as to make for economic working and thus counterbalance any troubles at the face. The Board is confident that this colliery, as in the case of Cynheidre, will prove to be an asset to the anthracite coalfields of South Wales, and it looks with confidence to its future.

My hon. Friend talked about extravagance. The new mining facilities on the surface, placed in an old coalfield, are such as have never been seen before, and they give the uninformed an impression of extravagance. But these new, majestic structures are essential if coal is to be handled efficiently and economically. They give the wrong impression, but time will show that the Board's actions are justified, and that the coal will be handled economically and treated in the best possible manner for the market. Underground, the new horizon method of mining is mystifying to the older miners. They are used to straight roads into the coal, and straight roads leading away. In Cynheidre there are fourteen miles of tunnel, and everything is changed. There is change on the surface and change underground, which confuses and bewilders those who have seen nothing like it before. It is quite wrong to attribute extravagance to the National Coal Board—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at five minutes past Twelve o'clock.