Future of Coal in the UK

Lee Rowley Excerpts
Thursday 3rd December 2020

(10 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Brendan Clarke-Smith Portrait Brendan Clarke-Smith (Bassetlaw) (Con)
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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) for giving us this opportunity to discuss the future of coal in the UK.

Bassetlaw has a rich mining history, and historically Nottinghamshire was always a major supplier of coal for industry and home consumption, particularly during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Over the years, parts of Bassetlaw have suffered from the decline of the coalmining industries, including Worksop, Harworth, Bircotes, Carlton-in-Lindrick and Langold. The Harworth colliery closed as recently as 2006, bringing an end to 86 years of coalmining in Bassetlaw. Harworth coal was in great demand from railway companies such as LNER, and the Flying Scotsman locomotive, now on display in the National Railway Museum in York, was burning Harwood coal when it covered the 392 miles from London to Edinburgh in a record seven hours and 27 minutes in 1932. This is something we can be very proud of.

Today Harworth is an area truly proud of its mining history, parts of which can be found wherever you go, including the stained glass tribute at All Saints church. One of my first sporting events after becoming MP for Bassetlaw was to see Harworth Colliery football club, where I was also lucky enough to win the meat raffle at half-time. It was very refreshing that somebody was shouting “gammon” at me without it being an insult for once.

As a school teacher, I took many students to visit the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield. It is important that we give these generations a chance to learn about local history. While the past is important, it also gives us the chance to look towards the future. Yes, we want to move towards clean, efficient and renewable forms of energy, and the Government have set out an ambitious plan to achieve net zero by 2050. We want to see those 2 million green jobs by 2030 and be able to provide our constituents with highly skilled and well-paid forms of employment as a result. We want to be able to train our workers and help them to remain in our communities without feeling the need to move to big cities for work. We want to see a smooth transition to a new age of energy generation and realise that this cannot simply happen overnight. Keeping emissions down is key, but we must also consider the impact of importing coal when we still have the resources to supply this ourselves, as long as the proposal is environmentally acceptable or the national, local or community benefits outweigh its likely impacts.

There are other opportunities that the transition presents and legacies from the past that can form part of the solution. I have been highly encouraged by the potential of other schemes, such as exploring the possibility of geothermal energy from disused pits, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield has been championing, along with the mineworkers’ pension scheme and reforms. The UK will host COP26 in Glasgow in 2021 and the future holds many opportunities for us all, so let us be thankful for the role that our coal industry has played and continues to play in that.

Lee Rowley Portrait Lee Rowley (North East Derbyshire) (Con)
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Thank you for the opportunity to speak in the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) on securing it, and it is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith). Even in the year when our attention has rightly been focused mostly elsewhere, it is important to have opportunities like today to speak on important subjects such as this. If there is one subject, as the grandson of miners, that I feel I am always compelled to speak about, it is coal: the substance that both literally and metaphorically my constituency is built upon.

I will come to our transition away from coal as a country in a moment, but before I do, I hope the House will not mind if I, like others, dwell for a moment on the transition that my community has made away from coal. For North East Derbyshire, coal was and remains a huge part of all our lives and our history. It is an industry on which a predecessor of mine, Tom Swain, said 55 years ago yesterday from a Bench somewhere here, coal is only possible

“by dint of hard work and hard thinking. It is an industry which is dependent on very strong men battling every day of their lives with nature.”—[Official Report, 2 December 1965; Vol. 721, c. 1781.]

Even today, in North East Derbyshire, we mine. Hartington opencast in Staveley is, as far as I am aware, the last and largest opencast mine in England and will continue to produce coal until early 2021, when its regeneration is complete. I visited Hartington in the summer, by the kind invitation of John Wilson, and was enthralled and fascinated by it in equal measure. For a brief second, standing on the precipice of a canyon many metres deep, surrounded by this black gold, which has shaped our lives for generations, I felt a real link to my and our community’s past. When Hartington closes, it will be the closure of final chapter in a very long, illustrious and proud history.

While we remain proud of that heritage, life moves on and my constituency does, too. That is why we now must focus on the incredible challenge we have as a country to shape our new energy future. That all starts with agreeing a pathway to tread more lightly on this earth. The Prime Minister and the Government have inherited this commitment and have made a strong start towards achieving those aims and building on the progress already made, but in the short time I have left, I want to make three points on this hugely important area of policy. I know the Government understand those points and I am keen to see the wider public debate recognise and comprehend them, too.

First, I sometimes wonder if the gravity of what we are trying to do has really been fully comprehended. We are committed to basically re-engineering four centuries of our society’s foundations in a single generation; 2050 is the most incredibly ambitious timeframe and we cannot lose sight of that, as—I do not mean to be typically partisan—the Opposition Front-Bench team did last year in the general election by just plucking dates out of thin air. We have made much progress but we must not diminish the colossal nature of this endeavour.

Secondly, we cannot solve climate change through rationing and nor should we want to. The debate on the environment veers too often towards control and compulsion—it will not work. That is why I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to jet zero and green maritime, which are actual solutions to how we live today, not seeking to reduce that. If coronavirus teaches us nothing else, it teaches us what happens when activity is constrained, even for a short time. Degrowth is a nice debate to have in academic green circles, yet it has real-life implications. We should not exchange one forced retraction of our economy as a result of a pandemic for a debate on another one done voluntarily. Climate change will be solved by innovation, not impediments.

Thirdly, we should, like so many of my colleagues, recognise that this debate is nuanced. Steel and aluminium require coal on a temporary basis, and we should never forget that. Technology will solve this problem—give it time.

Shaun Bailey Portrait Shaun Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow the fascinating speech from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley). I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) for a fantastic debate today.

In today’s debate on coal, we need to look not just at the substance itself, but at the economic and social factors that surround coal for the communities that have relied on it in the past and the potential we need to unleash as we go through this transition now. That is key to the comments we have heard today. The Black Country has a rich history of coal. At our peak, we had 441 pits, 181 blast furnaces, 189 works, 79 rolling mills and 1,500 puddling furnaces, all linked to coal. We have a proud industrial history. Our flag, designed in 2012 by Gracie Sheppard, reflects that and reflects the comments of the American diplomat Elihu Burrit that the Black Country is

“black by day and red by night”.

I am proud to wear this band here every day to remind me of the communities I was sent to here to serve and that interlink together in that history and in that fight.

Our last pit closed in 1968 and since then industrial decline has hit my communities in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton the hardest. The Black Country employs about 500,00 people, but since 1970 we have lost about 200,000 jobs in heavy industry, particularly since the decline of our coal industry. We have seen an additional 95,000 jobs created, but that still leaves us with a net shortfall of some 100,000 jobs in our area. That is where the potential of the transition comes in for areas such as mine. We have a real opportunity to ensure that as we come through and start to look at transitioning to net zero and being as carbon neutral as we can be we, areas such as the Black Country and my local communities can benefit. For example, we can ensure that our output gap, which currently stands at £2.6 billion, is closed. We can make sure that the unemployment rates, skills rate and low rates of starting businesses are all bridged by utilising the opportunities presented.

I wish clearly to make this point: as we go through this, the midlands is its own area and cannot be pigeonholed into other areas. We have our own socioeconomic issues. I stand in solidarity with my colleagues from other areas, but we need to be sure that as we seize these opportunities we focus them down. Let me say: wim the Black Country, we are not Birmingham. As we take advantage of this, that needs to be understood as well, because we cannot be pigeonholed as we look at seizing these opportunities.

I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced a £1 billion carbon capture and storage infrastructure fund, which will be crucial as we ensure that we take advantage of coal during the transition. This is about ensuring we can invest in low-carbon energy production, but, as right hon. and hon. Members have said today, that links to ensuring that the coal we still have here, which is not just going to be eradicated, is utilised. We have still got to ensure that the technology is there to be used in a way that aligns with our ambitions.

The midlands and the Black Country are ready for that challenge as we go through that transition. We have the universities in the area that specialise in green technology and green innovation. We have a fantastic Mayor in Andy Street who is passionate about ensuring that we get this right. We have companies such as Thomas Dudley in Tipton, which I know the Minister has had roundtables with, that are equally passionate about this. We have an energy waste plant in Dudley that is using exactly this type of technology to ensure that can use coal cleanly and focus on our carbon dioxide storage capability. In closing, let me say that we have the economic appetite, skills base, technology and drive. The challenge is there and the Black Country is ready to meet it.