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Heritage Organisations: Coal Supplies

Volume 809: debated on Thursday 21 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure that heritage organisations have access to sufficient supplies of locally produced coal to continue operating after 2021.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and remind the House of my interest as president of the Heritage Railway Association and vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Heritage Rail.

[Inaudible]—of the heritage sector. The legislation, which will come into force from May 2021, will end the sale of bituminous coal to households in England and lead to significant health benefits. While we acknowledge the indirect impact that this may have on the supply of coal to businesses, it is vital that the Government and the sector continue to work together to transition to cleaner alternatives.

My Lords, I know that the Minister appreciates the value of the heritage rail sector, but how does he envisage that heritage steam will continue to have access to high-quality bituminous coal if no UK-mined coal is available after next year? Transporting coal great distances from countries such as Russia or Australia adds to CO2 emissions and is expensive. Would it not make more sense for the mining of modest amounts of steam coal to continue in areas such as the north-east and south Wales?

My Lords, the legislation that Defra is bringing forward relates to households, and therefore we are working with the sector. It is important that we work with it not only through policy development but in looking at alternatives. Also, I understand that heritage rail has taken steps to improve efficiency and mitigate emissions. Therefore, as I said in my earlier reply, it is important that we work together on this, but this legislation relates to domestic consumption.

My Lords, I declare my interest as someone from whose land in Northumberland coal was being extracted until last year, including for heritage railways. The Minister will know that the Government refused permission for a further surface mine at Highthorn in Northumberland, disagreeing in the process with the county council, the planning inspector and the courts. I had no interest in that project, but I know some of the men who lost their jobs as a result. Given that this country has a continuing need for 5 million tonnes of coal a year, mostly for the cement and steel industries, as well as for the heritage rail industry, and that more of it now comes from Russia than any other country, with a far higher carbon footprint, why do the Government prefer to give jobs to people in western Siberia and take them away from people in Northumberland, and to increase emissions as a result while rewarding the persecutors of Alexei Navalny and Sergei Skripal?

My Lords, the National Planning Policy Framework is very clear that planning permission should not be granted for the extraction of coal unless the proposal is environmentally acceptable or, if it is not environmentally acceptable, provides national, local or community benefits which clearly outweigh the likely impacts. Clearly we are moving into a situation where in this country we are reducing the use of coal for the very important reason of human health.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Craft. Craft industries have long prided themselves on their commitment to a green economy. However, coal is required for the firing of certain heritage bricks which have a unique quality. Does the Minister agree that such uses, including coal for steam, are the exceptions proving the rule for the future green economy, and are necessary if we are to preserve our industrial and architectural heritage?

My Lords, again, we are working across departments with the heritage sector, because we want to have a long-term future for it. However, we need to find alternative ways of securing the heritage sector while having a cleaner and greener economy and reducing emissions, which are making a significant impact on people’s health.

My Lords, we have heard concerns about the importation of coal, and I understand that some heritage rail organisations are currently importing coal, including from Germany. Can the Minister clarify how much coal is currently imported for this purpose, whether the amount is expected to increase, and what the impact of new border controls will be now that we have left the European Union?

My understanding is that, of the 26,000 tonnes of coal used for heritage rail, 90% comes from four British open-cast mines, and therefore any requirements will be about negotiating a suitable ongoing domestic supply. As I said, we want to work with the heritage sector on these matters. My understanding is also that coal imports are overwhelmingly not from EU countries.

My Lords, the Great Little Trains of Wales, Snowdonia, Talyllyn, Llangollen and others, are critical for the hospitality offer, yet heritage trains as a whole emit only just about half of the CO2 that people use in their domestic barbeque charcoal briquettes. The challenge is to find a solution to this problem to keep the trains running. I note that in his responses so far the Minister has not yet offered what the potential solutions might be. So will he support research into this matter and, in particular, into whether the residue steam coal in our unsafe, above-ground coal tips can be manufactured into the lump coal needed to ensure that these trains and the jobs they support survive into the future?

My Lords, I have been very clear that we are working with the heritage sector. Indeed, the legislation that relates to domestic consumption is being phased in so that we can work not only with consumers but with the heritage sector. So I reject the tone of the noble Lord’s question, because this is an area we want to work on. I remind your Lordships that we are doing this because fine particulate matter is very damaging to people whose health is vulnerable. To work on a cleaner health agenda, we need to apply our minds to how we can find alternatives.

Has the Minister ever travelled behind a steam locomotive? Has he no sense of soul about Britain’s steam heritage? Is he not aware that steam locomotives are temperamental creatures that depend on a certain supply of bituminous coal to work effectively and efficiently? Is he, as a member of a Government who have frozen fuel duties for the past 11 years and done far more damage to the environment than any steam locomotive, really trying to tell us that 35,000 tonnes of coal will damage the environment to such an extent?

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord heard my first reply. This legislation is about domestic consumption. In people’s houses the increase in fine particulate matter from domestic consumption has caused concern, and we will not meet our legal and binding obligations unless we attend to this. I should also say that two villages away from where I am sitting is the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway, affectionally known as the “Middy”. I am well aware of it, I have travelled on it and I enjoy it very much, but we need to work across the heritage sector, not only with the rail sector, because this is a very important health issue.

My Lords, while I have genuine sympathy with heritage railways and others, such as the owners of traction engines and the like, does my noble friend agree that this should certainly not be a reason for opening any new coal mines in this country while importing the type of coal required is still possible? As my noble friend said, it is worth reminding other noble Lords that this is being done for health reasons.

I have said what the National Planning Policy Framework states, and I agree with my noble friend on why we need to do this and why we also need to work with the heritage sector.

Does the Minister not realise that if you go to places such as the north of England on a weekend and see thousands of people stood around, waiting, you know that a steam locomotive is going to be travelling through and people are waiting to view it? Does the Minister agree that there is no finer sight in this country than such a vision? Will he guarantee that it will be there for my grandchildren?

My Lords, that is absolutely what we are working on with the heritage sector because we want a viable future for these great heritage assets of our country. However, I go back to the fact that this is legislation reducing and changing our requirements for domestic consumption. I fear that some noble Lords are misinterpreting that. We are working with the heritage sector because we want a long-term, viable future for it.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I apologise to those noble Lords I was unable to call. We now come to the third Oral Question.