Thursday, January 12, 2017

In Memory of John Cummings, former Easington MP

I was particularly saddened to hear of the death of John Cummings, whom I knew well in the period when we were fellow MPs from 1987 to 2005. He continued as an MP for a further five years after me.

It is not only that the MPs you get to know the best are normally those who are part of your own intake, but the only two times when John and I ever met outside of our parliamentary years both help to illustrate our strong connections.

We first met when both of us were seeking to be selected as candidates for the Labour Party, for the different areas in which we lived. There was, however, a big difference in our positions.

John was the leader of the Easington District Council, an electrician at his local pit and fully active in the National Union of Mineworkers in an area still dominated by pits. He clearly already had the nomination sown up from the start. Yet the surprising thing is that he became the only miner ever to represent the coal mining constituency of Easington or its previous Seaham Constituency. His Labour predecessors being Sidney Webb, Ramsay McDonald (who then defected to National Labour), Manny Shinwell and Jack Dormand. I always felt that Easington needed to be served at some time by a miner. John turned out to be the appropriate person.

In contrast, when I became MP for North East Derbyshire I become the first non-miner ever to serve the Constituency in the Labour interest. Although even with the pits in rapid decline, my own selection as a candidate turned out to be a much closer matter than John's.

When John used parliament to pursue the interests of his constituents, I followed his work with a special interest. For both my wife and I originate from the area covered by the Easington Constituency. My wife's father having worked at the coal mine at Shotton Colliery and my father at Easington Colliery.

During our period in parliament John and I (along with my wife Ann) went to Nigeria as part of a Commonwealth Parliamentary delegation. It was good to be with John whom we felt so close to. One of our visits took us to a rather isolated area with less than the normal first class hotel provisions. There was no shower nor other bathing facilities (beyond a bucket) and John informed us that he had had a “sparrow's bath”. It is a phrase (and practice) I have pinched from him whenever I am in a rush or face similar difficulties.

Unfortunately, I only met up with John once after we both left parliament. It was a somber but appropriated occasion.

There had been a pit disaster at Easington Colliery in 1951 when 83 men were killed (including two rescue workers). My father was at the pit at the time, but was working in a different seam to the one that was devastated. Local memorial services were held in remembrance of this disaster in 2011.   I met up again with John on this solemn occasion, which included a march from a local Church of England service to the mass grave at the Easington Colliery cemetery. It was led by the still existing local colliery band, playing Gresford – as it had be done many times during the funerals in 1951.

John had worked at Murton Colliery which was a neighbouring pit. Although this memorial was to be our final meeting and was built upon sad memories, it is also appropriate that it is the last time we met. It showed that the political path which he had followed was often a serious and somber business. In many difficult circumstances he showed that he had the background, values and abilities to seek to deliver improvements in the lives of those he served.

It is a pattern for others to seek to follow.

I also have a close personal debt to John. When my mother needed to be moved from accommodation in Donnini House at Easington into a care home (at the former residence of the pit manger), he helped in this process. This is a photo of him below, taken at Donnini House a decade later.

John Cummings, pictured at the opening of a new garden at Donnini House in Easington Colliery in 2005.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Fracking On Our Doorstep

 The frackers are coming - object now

The Derbyshire County Council has produced a very important document entitled "Shale gas and hydraulic fracturing (fracking)" for its area. It can be found via this link. The document provides a set of key links of its own, including access to documentation which has been submitted to it by the firm INEOS Upstream Limited. This firm holds authorisation from the Government to engage (under due procedures) in the exploration and exploitation of shale gas reserves across most of North Derbyshire and various others areas.

INEOS are expressing an interest in searching for shale gas in a field on land adjacent to Bramleymoor Lane, near Marsh Lane in the Parish of Eckington. It is border territory and the fields to the immediate south are situated in the Parish of Unstone.

Link here for the two page opening letter from the Office Director of INEOS to the Head of Planning Services at the County Council. This next link is to a 25 page document (including four  pages of maps) which is an application to drill a vertical core well in the above field. Then there is a further and important location map to be found via this link.

Yet all of this INEOS documentation needs to be handled with care. It is intended to give the impression that INEOS will merely be engaging in a vertical search for shale gas in an isolated rural area and that little disruption will occur.

Well that will certainly not be the case if they find what they are seeking.  For the next stage will be to seek to use this site to engage in horizontal underground fracking, which can cover lengthy distances. On page 6 of the INEOS publication entitled "INEOS - the energy behind UK manufacturing" it claims that its horizontal fracking activities can run up to 2,000 metres (which is around a mile and a quarter).

Near the field they will be operating from there is the built-up area of Marsh Lane. which commences just 300 metres (some 330 yards) from the field they will be operating in. Whilst the full 2,000 metres they claim they can operate over would reach Eckington, Troway, Apperknowle, West Handley and Middle Handley.

Then there is the possibility that horizontal underground fracking could reach much further than INEOS indicate. A firm called Halliburton in the USA have recently engaged in such an operation for a distance of three and a half miles. (See this link).  And INEOS can operate at the top level of this technology. So there is even a possibility of them extending their underground operations as far north as Mosborough in Shefield. South to Staveley, Brimington and the northern sections of Chesterfield. East to areas of Killamarsh. Then west to Dronfield over as far as its by-pass.

Even if the above are only extreme possibilities, wide sections of urban areas could still find fracking taking place beneath their homes, schools, roads, shops, churches and the like. We need to be aware of the range of unhappy possibilities.

On top of which,  the application to operate from Bramleymoor Lane is likely just to be the tip of the iceberg. Next they will come for the rest of North Derbyshire and surrounding areas. So INEOS need stopping even before they get started.



Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Fracking In Areas With A History of Coal Mining

Image result for Fracking under coal mines

There are a large number of "Petroleum Exploration and Developent Licenses" which the Government has agreed with firms as the first stage of the development of fracking operations -  click here for the agreement in my own area which the Government have made with INEOS Upstream Limited.  INEOS hold a series of such agreements across wide areas of the East Midlands.

From the indications given by a platform speaker at a meeting I recently attended at Shirebrook in North Derbyshire, the firm INEOS will be applying at five sites in the East Midlands (soon after the New Year) to start its explorations for shale gas and oil. But this might just be the tip of the iceberg for such surveys do not normally need planning permissions when the above "Petroleum Exploration and Developent Licenses" are in operation - unless the work is due to last more than 28 days or it effects European-designated wildlife sites as in the Peak District.

Initially INEOS will engage in vertical core drilling.  This is, however,  just an opening which will lead on to underground horizontal drilling which uses seismic fracking techniques - this is what might take more than 28days. These are done to discover and then exploit shale gas and/or oil deposits. It was stated by INEOS that the horizontal techniques could be run for numbers of kilometres from their starting points. That enables vertical operations which might take place initially in farmers' fields to then take place under many people's homes, children's schools, public buildings, roads and the like. For it was in such areas (often built for coal miners) that coal getting took place in the past.

The Coal Authority have an important web-site which shows the extent of the differing types of mining operations which took place in North Derbyshire (and many other areas) in the past. This can be found by clicking here .  If this link does not work then you can google into "Interactive Map Viewer Coal Authority" to find the connection. But note that the Coal Authority hold the copyright on this material, so maps can't be reproduced for publication without their permission.

You will need to keep double clicking onto the general map on the above Coal Authority site, until you reach the best specific map for the area you wish to examine . Even then you can go a stage too far and will have to return to the start of the exercise. Once successfully established you can then, however, scrawl around to many other areas - anywhere in the country.

Note the tick-box headed "Planning" in the top right hand corner of the maps. The "Change Theme" section which can be found in the top right hand corner is well worth clicking into. A key item to tick is "Mine Entry". This will produce a series of red crosses indicating differing forms of mine shafts. These cover small "bell pits" (where a shaft was dug directly into a shallow coal seam and coal was extracted in something of a bell shape), up to major pit entry and exit shafts. Hence Dronfield where I live had coal near the surface in the past and still has in certain places. From the Coal Authority's discoveries we find over 230 red crosses - for a variety of differing forms of  operations. Yet Shirebrook shows only two red crosses, but these are for a major deep mine entry and an exit from its major pit, which had extensive underground operations. Then there are sets of brown crosses on the maps shown for adits (digging into hill sides for coal) - over 50 of these in Dronfield and just the one at Shirebrook. Much of Shirebrook will itself, of course, be built above its worked out major coal seam.   

An area with massive numbers of red and brown crosses is Chesterfield. They crop up all over the place in its wide Borough Council area, except for the old town centre. This does not mean that the old town centre has no coal seams near its surface. It is just that this area had already been built upon before such early forms of shafts were put into operation.  Digging close under the surface of town's famous Crooked Spire would never have be on, but this does not mean that its Parish Church does not still rest upon shallow unworked coal seams. Nor that INEOS will not find that it is a good underground place for its shale gas extraction.

The North East Derbyshire District Council area laps around the Chesterfield Borough Council in a C shape.  The combined area of the two authorities is covered in masses of red and brown crosses. On a crude count, there are probably more than a thousand of these in each authorities areas. Chesterfield being a more compact area. Where these crosses actually appear (and their quantities) will surprise many people.

Some might like to search for the red and brown crosses which are the closest to their homes, their work places, childrens' schools and the like - which seismic fracking (low-level earthquakes) could endanger. There was, for instance, an earthquake at Market Rasen at 00.55am on 27 February 2008 which led to 83 reports on its impacts being submitted from people in Chesterfield alone. See this link. The question also arises as to whether INEOS's (hopefully low-level) seismic activities could trigger anything similar ?

The Coal Authority also supplies a series of maps showing (a) coal mining risk areas, (b) the legacy of coal mining and (c) surface coal resources plans. The areas you may wish to examine can be found by clicking here.

There are many problems which arise from fracking operations which go beyond coal concerns. But coal related matters should be at the top of our list. They form the basis for the interests of firms such as INEOS.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Dronfield Against The Fracking Threat

FRACKING IS PLAIN D.A.F.T! (dronfield against the fracking threat).

If you have concerns or questions & want to know what this means for you, your family and your community & what you can do, then please come to this vitally important meeting at: Dronfield Civic Hall S18 1PD
On: December 8th 7.30pm Thank you Don’t miss out! See you there!

From "Dronfield Against Fracking" 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

New Labour And The Roots Of Labour's Crisis

The following two links give materials based upon my contribution at a recent day school run by  Independent Labour Publications.

Link 1 here.
Link 2 here.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Fracking : Why Dronfield ?

Image result for Fracking Photos(Apologies to the Simpsons)


Fracking is the process of drilling down into the earth then moving lengthy distances horizontally in order to allow a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals to be directed at underground layers of rock in order to release shale gas and/or oil. It involves what are forms of seismic activity, which are "hoped" to be only very small tremors.

But first of all, those undertaking the process need to find out if it will be worth their while. So, initially firms obtain permission from the Government to undertake investigations. Their searches require them to seek out appropriate sites to start their underground examinations. They will then push pipes into the ground, which can eventually be spread out horizontally in a number of differing directions to test whether they have found appropriate and commercially viable gas or oil supplies.

INEOS have been given authority to do this in my own town of Dronfield in the very north of Derbyshire. They are the largest chemical company in the UK, operating six plants, the largest being a crude oil refinery at Grangemouth in Scotland. They are not currently fracking in the UK, but are importing shale gas and oil from overseas.

Jim Ratcliffe owns 60% of their shares and is the 30th richest person in the UK at £3.2 billion – well ahead of Bernie Ecclestone and of the Queen's personal wealth. A UK fracking programme would place him even higher up this list.

To set the ball rolling for stage one of the process (searching for shale gas) a very badly advertised drop-in meeting was run by the Government's Environment Agency for the citizens of Dronfield recently. This is so they can claim (a) that we have been consulted and (b) that we know and are happy about what is going on.

Once INEOS finds what it is after and decides it wishes to obtain the shale gas, it will then apply for a license to the Derbyshire County Council. The Council have been adopting a “Minerals Local Plan” which will hopefully be tough enough for them to be able to reject such an application. Our Constituency Labour Party (based on a Dronfield proposal) have also sent the County a detailed resolution seeking to block such applications.

The problem is that even if the County Council reject INEOS's application, then Jim Radcliffe's company merely has to go over the County Council's head to the Government (under a fast track system) to get the blockage to their application removed.

So we are likely to be into a sustained political fight against INEOS's plans. At least, the Labour Party nationally came out against fracking at its recent Conference – so we can hope for some parliamentary opposition to the plans.

Why Dronfield ?

Today Dronfield is something of a middle-class, private-car user commuter town, mainly serving Sheffield; with its own Conservative dominated Town Council. So the depth of its working class mining history may come as a surprise to many. It is its mining past which makes it attractive for fracking purposes.

Figures for 1921 showed that 114 mining operations had taken place over time in Dronfield. Yet many more bits and pieces have since emerged. A late mine called Hurst Hollow at the far end of Dronfield Woodhouse, being closed in 1947. Nearly 70 years ago.

Coal getting operations started around the 16th Century – initially these were just surface pickings and shallow ditches at places such as Stubley Hollow and Hill Top .

Then up to the 18th Century came outcrops, adit mines (i.e tunnels into hillsides), bell pits where people dug a shaft into the ground and took out coal without supports in a circular fashion and then moved further down the coal seam to dig a fresh bell shaped pit. For instance, a map of Firth Wood indicates a row of 24 bell pits along a coal seam. Evidence of former bell pits were also revealed during the building of the Unstone-Dronfield By-pass. Holmley Lane and many other areas are also likely to have had bell pits.

There were also some 40 pits as either drift mines or with shafts in the Dronfield and Unstone areas by the second half of the 19th century. Their development being aided by (a) the establishment of the Lucas Iron Malleable Foundry in 1811, (b) railway development in 1870 when Dronfield Railway Station was opened and (c) the shortly lived Wilson Cammell Steel Plant on Callywhite Lane from 1873 to around 1883. It is claimed that by 1879 the neighbouring Dronfield Silkstone Pit was then the town's largest employer.

In the late 19th Century pits were also entitled Dronfield Woodhouse, Gomersal, Green Lane, Hill Top, Longcroft, Gosforth, Stubley Hollow. The Coal Aston area of Dronfield also takes its name from coal mining. Then there were also many pits in neighbouring areas such as Apperknowle, Mickley and a wide range in Unstone.

In other words, the Dronfield area has over time been pocked marked with pits and mining operations and is today covered with existing and worked out coal seams. Any building, garden, road, railway line or street is likely to be close to former coal mining operations. 

Shale gas and oil are likely to be found significantly in these types of area, leading to the clear danger of us being subject to major, dangerous, and long term fracking operations in our community.

In North Derbyshire, Dronfield is by no means alone in facing fracking dangers. It is united in this situation with many former mining communities whose pits were still functioning in the final decades of the 20th Century. We are by no means isolated in our struggle against fracking proposals. We need to appreciate that there is strength in unity. 

(Details of Dronfield's mining history can be found in articles in "Dronfield Miscellany" by writers including Kathy Kearn and James Cartwright).