7th June 2021: Lord Faulkner of Worcester:

My contribution to the debate with a reply from Lord Goldsmith.

My Lords, I am happy to support what the Government are doing in this Bill, and I do not dissent at all from their wish to improve the natural environment and air and water quality. It is entirely appropriate that there should be legislation to bring about the necessary changes. Clean and safe drinking water and effective sewerage in Victorian times, the smoking ban earlier this century, and the Clean Air Act of the 1950s were all the results of laws passed by Parliament. These all contributed massively to public health, and this Bill is intended to do the same. I certainly do not intend to oppose it.

However, such a policy brings with it a danger of unintended consequences. Had a ban on coal burning extended beyond domestic consumption, it would have wiped out almost overnight the entire heritage steam sector: coal-burning railway locomotives on conserved lines and main lines, traction engines, steamrollers, industrial museums, steamboats, pumping stations and traditional fires in historic houses.

Two years ago, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Heritage Rail—I declare an interest as one of its vice-chairs and also as president of the Heritage Railway Association—was sufficiently alarmed to conduct an inquiry into the requirement of heritage railways for coal and the future of steam locomotives in the United Kingdom. The group’s report concluded that steam trains are an essential part of the railway heritage offer and are the principal attraction for visitors. There is no practical alternative to the use of coal for steam locomotives on Britain’s heritage railways. The economics of heritage railways are fragile, and they would lose most of their unique appeal if they were unable to run steam trains. Such a loss would result in redundancy among paid staff, a restriction in operations, and a smaller sector.

It is worth recalling that, in normal times, these railways attract 13 million visitors, provide 4,000 jobs, with 22,000 active volunteers, and have a £400 million positive impact on the national economy. The impact on local tourism economies where heritage railways are located, particularly in rural areas, is immense. They also provide training and apprenticeships in a wide range of skills and disciplines. In remote areas, such as north Wales, they are already contributing to the levelling-up agenda. The value of the wider sector, which embraces steam road vehicles, ships and boats, is also considerable. It, too, contributes to local economies and offers training, education and apprenticeships. The same goes for engineering museums and historic houses.

I understand why the Government are ending coal-fired power generation by 2025, and I support the restrictions on domestic coal burning proposed in the Government’s consultation on the clean air strategy. I also welcome Ministers’ repeated assertions that the heritage sector is excluded from the proposals in the Bill. They are right to do so, bearing in mind that the quantity of coal used by the entire sector is no more than about 35,000 tonnes a year—the amount burned each day by the Drax power station before it was converted to biomass. Clearly the risk to public health is tiny.

However, having accepted that the sector may continue to burn coal to make steam, it will be essential that there is an affordable supply. I expect that in future all the coal needed will be imported from countries such as Russia, Colombia and the United States. Bearing in mind the scale of the carbon footprint involved in moving coal from one side of the world to another, that makes no sense to me while we here in Great Britain are sitting on vast unmined resources of our own. I accept that we have lost that battle, and it is worth remembering that heritage railways in particular are working hard to reduce emissions and are researching the potential for artificial biocoal.

However, we must not lose the next battle in which another, less well-disposed, Government may decide to attack the activities of the heritage steam sector, perhaps under the climate change rather than clean air agenda, and we need some certainty for the future. My colleagues in the Heritage Fuels Alliance and the HRA and I greatly appreciated the opportunity to meet the Minister on 25 May to discuss these matters and we are happy to accept his assurances for the purposes of this Bill. He will recall that he said that banning heritage coal use would be a disproportionate response to the clean air and climate change agendas and would damage the great cultural and economic value of the steam sector to our tourism economy. I therefore hope that the Minister will agree to accept an amendment I plan to table in Committee that will put that welcome support into the Bill.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)

The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, mentioned heritage rail. I enjoyed a passionate conversation with him recently, and he really made the case for the exemption. The Government are very confident, as am I, that heritage railways will continue to operate, because although our electricity systems will no longer rely on coal, it can still be used by a range of industries that need it. The decision on where to source coal is, obviously, a matter not for the Government but for the companies involved.

A link to the complete debate here