George Eustice – 2019 Speech on Tin Mining Subsidence

Below is the text of the speech made by George Eustice, the Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth, in the House of Commons on 9 July 2019.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Coal Authority to undertake remedial works on properties with subsidence damage as a result of tin mining; to make provision for the Coal Authority to make compensation payments in lieu of such works; and for connected purposes.

The Cornish tin mining industry left many great legacies. In its heyday, it generated extraordinary wealth for our nation. Between the 15th and 18th centuries, there was even a stannary parliament in Cornwall that had the power to veto certain tax proposals coming from central Government. The industry was also a catalyst for great invention and innovation. Richard Trevithick from Camborne invented the first steam locomotive, and William Murdoch from Redruth invented gas lighting—both inventions that shaped our modern world.

There were companies, too, such as Holman’s, which developed extraordinary drilling technology that was exported to mining operations around the world. When the industry declined in the late 19th century, Cornish miners took their expertise around the globe to build mines as far afield as Australia, South Africa, California, Mexico and South America. Today, we still have the world-famous Camborne School of Mines, located with Exeter University at Falmouth, and a new generation of companies is taking that heritage of drilling expertise to the oil and gas industry, and to renewables. There is even some discussion about reopening the last tin mine at South Crofty, as tin prices have recovered.

For those living in Cornwall, however, there is a less welcome legacy from tin mining—the problem of subsidence damage caused by historical mine workings. The subterranean area in Camborne, Pool and Redruth in particular, but also in many parts of Cornwall, is said to resemble a Swiss cheese. It is a complex network of tunnels and mines under the towns in my constituency.

Those mine workings pose several difficult problems for residents. First, there can be significant costs when damage occurs. One of my constituents had to raise a second mortgage on their property to secure £20,000 to put right a mining feature that had opened up in their front garden. Secondly, there is sometimes ambiguity over the liability of insurers. In general cases, insurers help when there is damage directly to a property, although they seldom assist when there are problems arising within the curtilage of a property but not to the structure of the building. They do not generally remedy features to prevent future damage.

The final problem this issue poses for my constituents and others in Cornwall is that there are many cases where people undertake a mining search with a particular company when they buy a property and the company tells them there are no issues, so they purchase a property and secure a mortgage, but often when they want to move and sell their home, they find that a different buyer will use a different mining search company that ​has different data available to it, and that reveals an issue that can make it difficult for a purchaser to get a mortgage.

The problems arising from mining subsidence damage are obviously not unique to Cornwall—coalmining took place in huge areas of this country—but what is unique to Cornwall is that there is no Government-backed scheme to assist residents with the problems they face.

There has been a long-standing Government scheme for coal. In 1957, when the Coal-Mining (Subsidence) Act was introduced, there was an opportunity to include tin mining workings, but it was not taken. In 1975, there was a new Coal Industry Act, which formalised the role of British Coal in giving compensation, particularly to the nationalised industry. Again, the opportunity to include tin was missed. In 1991, new legislation was introduced to consolidate the compensation schemes in this area, through the Coal Mining Subsidence Act 1991. Again, tin was excluded. In 1994, the Coal Industry Act assigned responsibility for these compensation schemes to the Coal Authority and, again, this excluded tin. My Bill would correct that long-standing oversight and end the prejudice against communities that suffer from subsidence damage as a result of tin mining.

It is sometimes said that coal is different, and it is sometimes said that coal is different because it was a nationalised industry. However, this claim does not stand up to any kind of scrutiny, because the 1991 Act applies to all damage caused by coalmining, whether that was pre-nationalisation, during the war or post-nationalisation, and whether it was private or public. Even after the nationalisation of our coal industry, there continued to be some private mines. Indeed, the original 1957Act on coalmining subsidence mainly addressed the issue of private mines, where the liability for damage could not be established.

Sometimes it is said that the geology of Cornwall means there are fewer problems. Cornwall is okay, people say, because it is built on granite and there are fewer subsidence issues. All I can say is that if a homeowner does have a subsidence event on their property, that is every bit as difficult for them as it is for any resident in a coalmining area. The fact that there could be proportionately fewer cases in tin mining areas, frankly, ought to make the Government more ready to act in this space. There is no need for the Treasury to fret about the cost of it all, because including tin mining would be a modest extension of the scheme.

The Coal Authority deals with between 500 and 600 claims in coalmining areas each and every year, and it has a budget of about £27 million, much of which is ​spent on remedying subsidence issues. In 2014, there was a triennial review of the functions of the Coal Authority, and in 2017 a separate, tailored review was run by the Cabinet Office. Both those reviews concluded that the current approach and the current system in the Coal Authority were fit for purpose. They considered other alternatives to compensate communities, but those were all ruled out. My contention is that what is good for coal is good for tin.

I am aware, from my discussions on this, that the Treasury—I think some officials in the Treasury—also took the view that there was an unfairness here, with coal being treated differently from other types of mining. Initially, I was encouraged by that, but the Treasury being the Treasury, it of course had a rather different solution to this, which was to pull the rug out from under the coal scheme, rather than to add tin to it. Thankfully, both the reviews and Ministers have ruled out such action.

My Bill would broaden the remit of the Coal Authority, placing an equivalent legal requirement on it to assist in subsidence cases in tin mining areas. The geographical footprint for tin mining—located, as it is, mainly in west Cornwall, although in other parts of Cornwall too and in some parts of west Devon—means there will be far fewer cases for tin mining than there are for coalmining. As I said earlier, the geology of Cornwall—built, as it is, on solid granite—means the Government could expect proportionately fewer claims coming from these tin mining areas than they currently receive from coalmining areas.

The addition of tin to the compensation scheme that has existed since 1957 would be a drop in the ocean for a Department such as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. However, it would mean a great deal to those families and communities that are affected by the blight of subsidence caused by mine workings. Given Cornwall’s great contribution to the wealth of our nation and to the industrial revolution, I believe that the least we could do in this House is correct this historical oversight, prejudice and injustice against Cornwall and against communities suffering from tin mining subsidence.