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The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mrs. Helen Liddell): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey) on securing this debate and raising the issue in the House. I am well aware that he has pursued the matter with vigour, and is able today to celebrate considerable success in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Ryan. I am very pleased to hear about that success. One can only imagine the distress that the events caused Mr. and Mrs. Ryan.
In general, such issues are not unfamiliar to the Government; hon. Members have raised them on several occasions. I am well aware of the difficulties and the effects of old coal workings on the value and saleability of property in some parts of the country. They can profoundly affect the plans of people who own houses that are found to be near mine shafts.
I am delighted for Mr. and Mrs. Ryan that some resolution has occurred; I hope that some important lessons have been learned. I shall ensure that the Coal Authority has an opportunity to read my hon. Friend's remarks with a view to taking his helpful suggestions into account. I stress that the authority is an independent statutory corporation, and I therefore have no statutory powers to intervene in its day-to-day operations. However, I know from my discussions with it that it is anxious to be as responsive as possible to the difficulties, and to improve administration as much as possible.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, Mr. and Mrs. Ryan's difficulties were caused by an error in the supply of information to the authority by a third party. I undertake to write to the chairman of the Coal Authority to ask for his assurance that the recurrence of the sort of errors about which we have heard tonight will be limited. My hon. Friend acknowledges that the case is unusual; it is rarely possible to deal with matters in a way that is acceptable to all concerned. However, it is important to recognise that everything should be done to assess the accuracy of the information that the Coal Authority holds.
A much broader, serious issue underlies the subject: the impact on property values when a mine shaft is recorded close by. That problem must be tackled. It tends to affect specific areas of the country, principally those where mining activity in the 19th century or earlier was followed by intensive urban development. However, it should be taken into account in general policy terms.
Let us consider briefly the way in which the Coal Authority handles records, and its powers. It has a collection of approximately 100,000 plans of former coal mining workings. They record 150,000 mine shafts. When those workings date from the 18th or 19th centuries, their status--whether or how they have been treated since working ceased--is unknown, and even their precise location may be uncertain. The Coal Authority is under a statutory obligation to make available the content of the plans and to establish arrangements to allow access to the information that they contain. The authority is keen to add to its records to ensure that the database is as complete and as accurate as possible. Perhaps modern technology will allow the Coal Authority to add to its records.
The Coal Authority has established a sophisticated mining reports database, which I have seen. It produces almost 400,000 mining reports, to which my hon. Friend referred, primarily for use by solicitors. Those reports answer questions from the Law Society on the presence of former coal workings, including mine shafts. Across the country, an average of approximately 2 to 3 per cent. of the mining reports will reveal a mine shaft.
As I said earlier, many mine shafts date from the 19th century. Until the middle of the 19th century, mine owners were not required to prepare plans of their mine workings. Those early plans were not prepared to any specified standard, and they have often proved unreliable. The Coal Authority exercises great care in transposing them to its database. However, it is only a custodian of old plans; rarely will there be personal knowledge or recollection that the recorded mines actually existed. Indeed, the authority pointed out that my constituency office was sited above a mine shaft. Not even the most elderly of my constituents--who have tremendous memories of these matters--could attest to a mineworking being so close to what is now a town centre. It is difficult to guarantee the accuracy of the information in the old mining plans, but every conceivable means must be sought to improve the accuracy. Many disputes arise for property owners because of accuracy. I thank my hon. Friend for some of his suggestions, which I will draw to the attention of the chairman of the Coal Authority. I will ensure that, in replying to me, the chairman replies also to my hon. Friend.
One other statutory power that should be mentioned is the authority's power to repair any damage caused by subsidence from former coalworkings at no cost to the property owner or the insurer. This power does not extend beyond coalworkings and can be invoked only where there is evidence of physical damage. It does not allow the Coal Authority to provide any compensation for loss of value of property as a result of the presence of a mine
My hon. Friend has mentioned the interest taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) and some of the issues affecting her constituency. He will be aware that my Department has taken a consultancy contract with Heriot-Watt university to look at some of the issues surrounding property values and the workings of mine shafts. I have not yet had an opportunity to look at the conclusions of that work, but I hope to do so in the near future. It may be that some measures come out of that to help us to address some of the issues.
I am anxious that these issues should be addressed by the Coal Authority as far as possible within its current legislative framework. Some of the suggestions that my hon. Friend has made are common sense and I hope that that will be taken into account by the authority.
There are complex issues here, and there are no easy solutions. A large number of players are involved, over many of whom the Government have little power. There is also an issue of perception; where a prospective purchaser hears of the presence of a mine shaft, it can cause difficulties with proceeding with a purchase. There is also the question of recording what has happened to a mine shaft--where that information is available--and whether it has been filled in. With more modern mine shafts, that is a relatively easy matter to deal with. With the older mine shafts, it is much more complex.
There is a need to look at the issues and I assure my hon. Friend that I will keep in mind his useful suggestions, which I will convey to the Coal Authority. I am determined that we keep in the forefront of our minds the interests of the people most affected by the situation; those whose homes become difficult to sell because of a mine shaft underneath or near to them. We will try to find solutions that are fair to them and to other home owners. My hon. Friend has given us some good suggestions tonight; I undertake to look at them in some detail.