David Hunt – 1986 Speech on Oakthorpe Underground Fire

Below is the text of the speech made by David Hunt, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy, in the House of Commons on 12 February 1986.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) on securing an important opportunity to draw attention to the difficulties faced by the people of Oakthorpe. My hon. Friend has acquired a well-deserved reputation as a diligent and effective constituency Member and on this topic he has argued tirelessly and strongly for a just and equitable solution to the problems that he has outlined. I welcome this opportunity to participate in the debate. I do so primarily as a member of the Government, but I am the Minister with special responsibility for the coal industry.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his eloquent account of the events at Oakthorpe and of the impact on the people there. I and many of my ministerial colleagues—I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold), the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, on the Government Front Bench—much appreciate the concern which must be felt by those living in and around the village and by the bodies concerned, the two local authorities—Leicestershire county council and the North-West Leicestershire district council—and the National Coal Board, irrespective of any issues of liability. I am pleased to see present tonight my hon. Friends the Members for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) and for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), both of whom have been strong supporters of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West in his determination to help those of his constituents who are facing serious difficulties.

One of the things which tends to characterise a community at a time of difficulty is the way in which all concerned pull together to deal with the problem in hand. I understand that all three of the parties I have mentioned are working closely together to do what is necessary to fight the fire and to deal with the consequences.

The Government have been following with close interest and concern events at Oakthorpe since the fire was first drawn to their attention last autumn. I have received letters from a number of people who live at Oakthorpe. They have been very moving letters. I am therefore pleased to be able to report to the House tonight that much positive progress has been made in helping them.

I have been regularly informed by the National Coal Board of the action which it has decided to take. I have been impressed by the depth of its concern. It has not waited for legal wrangles about liability—a matter which can be settled ultimately only by the courts—before taking action as a good neighbour at Oakthorpe. I understand that it has brought together its own mining expertise and that of contractors specially brought in to work there to consider how to fight the fire and how to deal with the effect of the damage by the underground heating on properties in the area. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West has paid tribute to that. The business of tracing the origins of the fire and then of dealing with it is, I am told, a specialised engineering feat.

Since the beginning of January a highly specialised firm of construction engineers under contract to the board has completed an initial drilling programme. The purpose of this was exploratory, to ascertain ground temperature and so plot the fire’s course. Several drilling rigs made a total of 62 boreholes and the evidence from these has led the board to instruct the contractors to embark on an extensive exercise to limit and dowse the fire.

The current operation involves constructing a cement curtain around each individual property affected, with the object of shielding it from the effects of high temperatures. In addition, the introduction of cement into the surrounding coal seam acts to cut off the underground air flow and so contributes to extinguishing the fire. The cement is pumped into the seam by way of holes drilled around each property or by a surrounding trench. The process is called grouting.

The latest figures from the National Coal Board show that to date the contractor had drilled 182 boreholes and introduced over 88 tonnes of grouting material into the earth. The results of this operation have been encouraging. The grouting of one house is now complete and tests have been carried out. These show early indications that the process is beginning to bring the fire under control. The board has decided therefore to pursue the grouting operation on other properties in close consultation and with the consent of individual owners and tenants.

Furthermore, I have been assured that the health and welfare both of the inhabitants of Oakthorpe and the contractor’s employees is a priority during this operation. Regular monitoring and testing of temperature and for the presence of carbon monoxide are being carried out, and remedial measures would be put into effect, if the levels were to rise. Emergency arrangements have been well planned. Some properties have, for example, been fitted with carbon monoxide alarms as a precautionary measure. I understand, having talked to senior officials earlier tonight, that so far there has fortunately been very little evidence of carbon monoxide. That is good news for all concerned.

The National Coal Board is also in regular contact with the Oakthorpe residents’ action group, dealing with individual and general queries and the supply of regular information on work in progress. Day-to-day problems are dealt with on the spot by an NCB engineer who visits the ​ village daily. I understand that as part of the general information gathering and dissemination process a further public meeting is to take place.

Remedial work is of course at an early stage as this operation requires precision and expertise, but the National Coal Board has good reason to believe that the methods employed will be successful. Plans are already being formulated for renovation of the sites by landscape gardening. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West will have found this catalogue of National Coal Board action encouraging.

I think that the fire at Oakthorpe demonstrates very convincingly that the NCB is a concerned body which is anxious to do all that it can to relieve hardship to communities. In this case it is not even the board’s actions which have caused the problem, nor does it necessarily have any responsibility in the matter. But because NCB staff are best placed technically to provide advice and practical assistance, they have stepped in and co-operated with the local authorities to solve the problem, as I have explained tonight. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestions that the board’s actions are the result of my intervention; but I have to tell him that he exaggerates my influence. I am sure that the board acted out of generosity and public spirit.

Throughout the exercise at Oakthorpe, the National Coal Board has been working in close co-operation with the local authorities and their contractors. This is a fine example of community effort. In addition to helping on the technical side, I understand that the local authorities are also taking action to ensure that people in the village are being rehoused, if necessary. I am sure the House will agree that all those concerned have made and are continuing to make strenuous efforts to deal swiftly and energetically with the immediate problem of dowsing the underground fire. I congratulate them on their skill, energy and enthusiasm. However, there is a distressing side to the story of which my hon. Friend reminded us tonight. He rightly pointed out that we are speaking of damage to people’s homes and the resulting heartache and anxiety caused to a close-knit community. That is, indeed, a serious matter.

The local authorities have been energetic in seeking help to meet costs already incurred. My hon. Friend the ​ Minister for Environment, Countryside and Local Government has been in touch with them recently to ascertain the position, and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West referred to the letter of 5 February. I understand that the Department is now considering the position but is still awaiting from the local authorities my hon. Friend’s request for further financial information. I hope that that can be provided as quickly as possible. I know from my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden that her Department will then consider urgently whether any financial assistance would be appropriate.

The question of liability is, however, a complex issue which cannot be addressed without careful consideration of the long-term consequences. Both the Government and. the NCB must remember that they are dealing with public money. The immediate and overriding aim must be to dowse the fire. I hope that I have persuaded the House that the NCB and the other parties concerned are doing all that is humanly possible to do that.

I should like to end by assuring the House and. through my hon. Friend, the people of Oakthorpe that the Government are keeping closely in touch with the position there, and that I and my ministerial colleagues hope that progress will quickly be made to overcome their problems. My hon. Friend has rightly emphasised an invitation for me to visit Oakthorpe, and I thank him for it. I accept the invitation, obviously, without any commitment regarding eventual financial liabilities, but as an opportunity to see for myself the results of work already carried out. providing me with first-hand experience of the position which I can also pass to my hon. Friends at the Department of the Environment.

There will undoubtedly be difficult judgments to make in the future about where responsibilities for this fire lie. But we may congratulate all the parties concerned on being prepared to take action to solve the immediate problems. at Oakthorpe on a without prejudice basis. I know that I can rely on my hon. Friend to keep me in touch with progress, and I hope that what I have said will have done much to reassure the people of Oakthorpe.