HC Deb 18 May 1931 vol 252 cc1687-700

Order for Third Reading read Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."—[The Chairman of Ways and Means.]

Rear-Admiral BEAMISH

I beg to move to leave out the word "now," and, at the end of the Question, to add the words "upon this day six months."

I am asking the House to decide that this Bill ought to receive further consideration before it becomes an Act. It is a Measure to provide for the discharge of the sewage from a large portion of the county of Middlesex into the river Thames. After all, the Thames is a piece of national property, it is not the property of the Middlesex County Council for them to pollute. In this vast Bill of some 80 Clauses and three Schedules the Middlesex County Council are seeking the most complete powers to pollute that piece of national property. An Irishman might call that part of the river into which they propose to discharge their sewage the playground of 12,000,000 people, that is taking into account Greater London and the surrounding country. In my opinion we have had enough of pollution. We pollute the air in this country and we pollute the water, and practically nothing is done about it, and it is time the House of Commons put a check upon the exuberance of local authorities, who are desirous of getting unlimited powers of carrying out the kind of pollution of which I have been speaking.

It is time that the House of Commons discussed putting a check upon the exuberance of these local authorities, who are desirous of getting unlimited powers to carry out work of this kind. The Middlesex County Council proposed to discharge the storm water of something like 100,000 acres in the course of a very few hours into the river. Even worse than that, they are asking for powers to combine the discharge of the sewage of about 2,000,000 people at one spot at the reaches of this particular river. They are proposing to combine the treatment of the sewage of 25 or 26 sewage farms into one vast sewage farm, and there are not nearly enough precautions taken to prevent pollution taking place. If a pollution of the river does take place the maximum penalty is £100, and a daily fine of £50, and a fine of that description is not one which is likely to prevent the Council polluting the river. Those penalties might cost the Council about £18,000 a year, but it would cost them infinitely more to treat the sewage in another way. Therefore, except from a moral standpoint, it would be to the interests of the Council to put the sewage "plain and unadulterated" directly into the river, and that is one aspect of this question which I do not like.

I may remind the House that the smaller districts mentioned in the Bill have treated their own sewage, and mostly discharge it, after treatment, into the tributaries of the Thames, and they have unquestionably polluted those tributaries. What is now proposed is on a vaster scale, because it is a combination of the sewage of these smaller districts into one vast pollution. Lord Tennyson wrote something on the subject in "The Brook." We all love these brooks, and every Englishman, Scotsman, Irishman, and Welshman enjoys them to the full, but there is no doubt about it that the brooks which Lord Tennyson saw are not those we see round about London, and Lord Tennyson did not reckon with the Middlesex County Council when he wrote: With here and there a foamy flake Upon me as I travel, And here and there a silvery break Above the golden gravel. Now these brooks have been polluted and the river is to be still further polluted, and I saw the other day the following verse: Deprived of life, defiled it ran, A turbid noisome sewer; God's glorious gift destroyed by man, The reckless evil doer. That is the condition of many of the small tributaries of the Thames at the present time. They no longer flow freely, they are deprived of life, and here we have this vast pollution scheme running out to within three miles of Teddington Lock right into the middle of the river. Within a few hundred yards of the half-tide lock the river remains absolutely stagnant for an hour or two every day, with the result that this sewage is poured into the river, and the stuff out of the pipes floats up and down as the tide turne, and runs out and in as the case may be, the result being that the whole of the river from Teddington Lock to the mouth is to be still further polluted. We see the effluent, dirty and murky, floating past the Embankment of this House, and it is not right for it to pass the Embankment in that condition and it ought to be cleaned. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] I do not know whether hon. Members who interrupt me would like to see the river dirtier than it is, but on this question I speak from my heart, and it is not right that we should continue to look upon our rivers in the way we do now as an outlet of all the filth and garbage which has been improperly treated. We ought to have a bigger outlook, and our aim should be to purify the rivers so that the fish may continue to live and encouraged to come back into the River Thames. For some years I have been a member of the Joint Standing Committee on the subject of river pollution; naturally I pick up information on this question, and what I have stated is borne out by the evidence of witnesses before that committee. The main recommendation of that committee is contained in the second report, which was published some months ago, and the recommendations made in that report have not been carried out by legislation.

It is true that the actual treatment of sewage has made some advance, but not sufficient to justify the pouring of the effluent from the sewage of 2,000,000 people, and the flood water from some hundreds of thousands of acres directly into the Thames. The treatment of the sewage is not adequate to make the river pure. May I remind the House that the treatment of ordinary household sewage is fairly well understood, and it can be made comparatively innocuous, but the treatment of the effluents from factories whatever they may be—woollen or dye factories or sugar beet factories—is by no means helped by the combination of household and trade effluents, which constitute a very serious menace to the purity not only of the Thames but of all the rivers in the country. Many petitions have been put forward against this Bill including petitions from the Port of London Authority and certain trustees in the Isleworth Urban District, and in many other instances objections have been lodged. The Port of London Authority has insisted upon a standard of purity, but it is not sufficient, and we ought to aim at something higher and better than this Bill allows.

In many large areas a discussion has gone forward in regard to a scheme which has only been checked by the cost which affords a better system of dealing with the sewage of great cities like London and other large populous areas. It is a vast scheme for carrying away the effluents, and discharging them into the sea and that can be done. Schemes of that kind have already been put before the Middlesex County Council and the London County Council, and there is not the slightest reason why, in this time of stress and depression, a great combination, putting up, if necessary, national capital, should not be provided in order to carry out a scheme of that kind. We want a scheme which will deal at the same time with the sewage and secure for us a pure River Thames.

8.0 p.m.

I want to impress upon the House the fact that under this Bill we are embarking on a scheme involving the expenditure of £6,000,000 or £7,000,000 which is not going to make the Thames clean and it is really a step in the wrong direction. It will not clean the river, but it will make it dirtier than it is at the present time, and that cannot be right. I think the Middlesex County Council ought to consider the withdrawal of this Bill, and take into consideration some national scheme for carrying the sewage out direct to the sea. Plans of the cost of doing this have been considered, and I know the cost is very high, but we are wasting large sums of money in other directions, and the money would be well spent in a national way if the scheme I suggested were carried out.

There is another aspect which appeals to me and which I would like to touch upon—I refer to the outfall of this great sewage scheme which is to be close to the Teddington Tidal Lock, and it is to come out at Twickenham. The outlet will be right alongside the property of a school for girls, and that cannot be good for any school. I am personally interested in the school in question. For many years I have been on this school committee. I have known of its vicissitudes and troubles. It is called St. Margaret's School for the daughters of naval and marine officers. Naval and marine officers are not blessed with very much of this world's goods, and the result is that this school depends, not on charity, but on the money they Can raise in order to help the officers in question to keep up a school for their daughters. The outlet of the sewage scheme under this Bill is going to come out near a corner of the grounds of this school, an institution which has been in existence for 90 years. I happen to know that the school authorities have not been approached by the Middlesex County Council, and that body has not thought it necessary to do more than draw the attention of the trustees of the school to this Bill of 80 Clauses. Schools of that kind run by a committee are not well versed in regard to presenting petitions to Parliament and opposing schemes put forward by a great local authority like the Middlesex County Council. The result is that they have to face the prospect of the sewage of some 2,000,000 people being poured into the river literally at their door and flowing up and down to foul the banks of the river, and, as I think everyone in the House will agree, causing that school to close. It cannot remain open, because nobody would send a girl or boy of theirs to a school if they knew that the outfall for the sewage of 2,000,000 people ran within a few yards of its grounds. Although the school has as many as 150 pupils, only 10 pay remunerative fees, the money in the case of the remainder being made up by the generosity of subscribers, and this has been going on for more than 90 years. The school owns three houses and some nice property on the river bank, but the whole of that property will be immensely depreciated by this scheme. I would ask those who are responsible for this Bill to bear that fact in mind, to realise what it means for a school to be faced with such a prospect, and to do what they ought to have done, in my opinion, namely, to approach the school and see that the compensation which is paid to the school is not only adequate but such as to enable the school, if necessary, to be transferred completely to some other and more suitable site, where it will not be troubled with this, to my mind, terrible prospect of sewage pouring out at its very door. Looking at Clause 29 of the Bill, which deals with the subject of compensation, I see no prospect, unless the Middlesex County Council have changed their minds, of this school getting fair treatment. The Clause says: Any question of disputed compensation payable under this Act or under any enactment incorporated with this Act shall be referred to and determined by arbitration in accordance with the Lands Clauses Acts. I do not know how that will work out. I only know that no compensation can possibly make up for the discharge of sewage at the front door of this or any other school. I mentioned just now the penalty for pollution. If pollution takes place, there is a fine of £50 a day. But that is not going to be of any use to this school; the school will lose from A to Z, from beginning to end. I apologise for having detained the House for so long, but the matter is a serious one for this school, and I consider it to be, as far as the pollution of the river is concerned, a serious matter from a national standpoint. Therefore, I would ask those who control the destinies of this Bill to think again, to do the upright and sensible thing as regards compensation for this school, and to make perfectly sure that the pollution of the river is kept in check by every possible means that the law of the land allows.

Captain BOURNE

I beg to second the Amendment.

I have been asked to bring this matter before the House by those, many of whom are not in a position financially, even if they had a locus standi, to petition the Committee, who use the reaches of the Thames between Putney and Richmond largely for the purposes of recreation. I am speaking at the moment on behalf of a large number of rowing clubs which afford opportunities for very healthy and pleasurable exercise and very interesting sport for a great many citizens of London. I have heard that some years ago—I am speaking now of a period beyond my own time—when the local authorities of London and Middlesex used to discharge sewage into the Thames, the state of the gravel banks in the neighbourhood of Putney, which necessarily became uncovered at low water, was perfectly hateful, and it was impossible to come ashore when the tide was low because of the appalling state into which shoes and clothes got. Of recent years, the discharge of sewage into the Thames has been under control, and, although I do not say that the water of the reaches of the Thames in the neighbourhood of Putney at the present moment is exactly clean, at least the banks are no longer so dirty as they used to be; and it is very much to be desired, in the interests of all those people who go down there on summer evenings to row at this time of the year, and on Saturdays and Sundays, that this part of the river should remain reasonably clean and pure so that they can take their pleasure thereon.

Anyone who goes down to that part of the river on a Saturday afternoon will be surprised to see the very large number of boats—eights, fours, pleasure boats, sculling skiffs, and boats of all sorts—"manned" by people of both sexes, who are taking their pleasure in that way, and these people are definitely nervous as to whether this Bill will not have the result of adding to the pollution and unpleasantness of that part of the river. The Middlesex County Council propose to put their outfall near to Isleworth Eyot, at a point at which, owing to the half-tide lock at Richmond, the river is naturally stagnant for considerable periods at the ebb and flow of the tide. I do not know whether hon. Members quite realise that the ebbing of the tide, during which this dirty water must move out to sea, occupies a period of eight hours, but, owing to the half-tide lock, the river runs low at Isleworth, and, therefore, when this effluent comes out, there will be over half a mile of the river bed filled with nothing but the discharge from the sewage of the Middlesex County Council, and, when the tide turns, that will be driven into a solid wedge of water and swept backwards to Richmond Lock, polluting the river all the time.

We are afraid, also, from the point of view of fish life. One of the greatest obstacles to this part of the Thames holding fish is not the dirt in the water at this part, but the outflow of sewage at Barking, which gives rise to an area of filth some four or five miles in length, which is carried daily up and down with the tide before being slowly broken up. Those who use the upper part of the tidal reaches of the river are very frightened lest this proposal should produce a similar belt of water which will be carried slowly up and down with the tide, killing the fish, polluting the river in these districts, and making boating a far more unpleasant job than it is at present.

There is another aspect of this Bill in which those for whom I speak are interested. As we understand it, the Middlesex County Council propose to turn into the river the storm water from a very large area—some 100,000 acres, as my hon. and gallant Friend has said—and we understand that at certain times of the year this storm water will be brought down very quickly. It is quite true that the Bill contains a proposal obliging the Middlesex County Council to provide a catchment basin equal to one-quarter of the ordinary dry-weather flow of sewage, but I do not know whether the House has contemplated what is going to be the effect of a very heavy storm, when the water would come down within a period of, say, three hours from an enormous area and concentrate in the Thames. The House, perhaps, does not realise that that might on occasion lead to a rise in the tide at London Bridge of more than 22 feet. It is obvious that, if these sewers are efficient, rain water will reach the Thames and be concentrated in one spot at a much greater speed than would be the case if it came in, as it does at present, from many different places, carried by different streams the maximum flow of all of which is not attained at the same time, and whose mouths are many miles apart. If all that rain water is concentrated in the river at one spot, it is likely to produce a much more serious effect on the height of the river in London.

I admit that it is not a very common occurrence, but still, with a very heavy flow of rain coinciding with the tremendous discharge from this proposed new sewer, a 22-foot tide at London Bridge may be expected about eight times a year, and in such circumstances the chances of flooding, at any rate in these upper tidal reaches, would seem to me to be very greatly increased. The effect of all this water pouring into the narrow tidal estuary will be to bank up the flood tide and cause it to rise continually, until finally it bursts its banks and floods the land alongside it. Floods do not often occur in this part of London, although we have seen serious results from them in recent years, but in the higher reaches they are very serious for those who use the river, because, although the boat-houses are mostly built above the average level of the highest tides, anything which tends to increase the liability to flooding is a positive detriment to these people. For these reasons, those who boat on the Thames are nervous about this Bill, and I hope that whoever replies on behalf of the Middlesex County Council will be able to give us a satisfactory answer on these points.


The House aways requires a very strong case indeed before it rejects a Private Bill on Third Reading. I do not think that there has even been an instance, certainly for many years past, in which a Private Bill has been rejected on Third Reading unless it could be alleged, and alleged with a great show of truth, or any rate of conviction, that the Bill involved large questions of principle. The bitterest opponent of this Bill could not say that it raised any large question of principle. Indeed, so far from its raising any large question of principle, it comes to this House as an unopposed Bill. It was introduced in another place, and there were, I think, the usual number of petitions from people who were anxious to be satisfied, but all except three of them were satisfied before the ease was even heard by the Committee of the House of Lords, and before it reached its Committee stage in this House every single petition had been settled, and the Bill was not dealt with by an ordinary Committee, where people are heard in opposition to the Bill, because there was no opponent. My hon. and gallant Friends were not there, and no one else was there to oppose, so it went before the Committee on Unopposed Bills, with the keen approval of every local authority concerned in this area. It went there with the strong support of the Port of London Authority, who are concerned with maintaining the purity of the River Thames in this area, and with the strong support of the Metropolitan Water Board, who have to look after the purity of the water that we drink. It is not surprising that it had, and has, that overwhelming measure of support. Anything more unlike the proposals of the Bill than the description that my hon. and gallant Friend gave it would be impossible to conceive. One would suppose, from what he said, that this was a proposal for the first time to put sewage effluent into the Thames. It is not the case. What is happening to the sewage effluent of the 27 local authorities to-day?

Rear-Admiral BEAMISH

They are polluting the tributaries of the Thames.


For the first time in all the years that we have sat together in the House, I really resent something that my hon. and gallant Friend has said. I resent his attack on the Middlesex County Council for carrying through a great work of purification. He says the sewage of these 27 authorities comes into the tributaries of the Thames. He did not tell us so in his speech, but that is what is happening to-day. The whole of the sewage which this Bill is going to deal with is finding its way into the Thames to-day in a state of impurity which is a very great inconvenience to everyone. If we do not pass this Bill, it goes on and every one of these authorities will go on increasing its sewage works. Some of them have plans in hand for doing it if the Bill is rejected. Instead of putting up an efficient and up-to-date plant, they would go on expanding, as a relatively small authority must, with the kind of works that there are to-day. What is proposed is to concentrate the whole of the sewage works of these 27 authorities in a single works, the most scientific and up-to-date sewage works that have yet been established. The ablest engineers have been called in, and, for the first time in the history of the country, the effluent coming into the river is going to conform to the standard of efficiency and purity that was laid down by the Royal Commission. Actually at this moment three of these sewage works are sending their relatively foul sewage into the Thames just about where the Metropolitan Water Board takes its offtake at Kingston. My hon. and gallant Friend is drinking that at present.


He is not.


It would be difficult even for the hon. Member to preach temperance in such circumstances. What is going to happen now is that the whole of this is going to be concentrated, and the effluent will be of a purity such as has hitherto been unknown. That is why the Port of London Authority and the Metropolitan Water Board are supporting this, and that is why, without any hesitation, I commend this great attempt at purifying the Thames to the House. It is a very economical scheme. All these local authorities have got together and asked the Middlesex County Council, as their combined agent, to undertake the work. They have brought in the best engineers. It is very efficient, it is economical and it is good business. I do not think I have ever come across a scheme that made a greater appeal to me by its sheer efficiency. If all the schemes that came before the St. Davids Committee were as sound economically as this, we should almost be conquering unemployment by now. There is a tremendous amount of work for the unemployed in this, and it is really economical work.

Who is objecting to the Bill? No notice was ever given. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley (Mr. Campbell) mentioned to me the case of the Rugby Union. He wished to be sure that they were not going to be prejudiced. The Rugby Union, whose ground everyone would wish to preserve, will certainly not suffer. At present it has the pleasure of being situated midway between two open sewage works. The old works will be abolished. The Heston works will go, because they will become the site of the new and greatly improved undertaking. The only thing that can possibly cause a nuisance, the sludge, is going to be taken away by high pressure pumps through a great pipe six miles away from the Rugby Union, and their patrons will in future enjoy their matches with far less risk than they do now. If people want to make a case in detail, the proper way is, first of all, by seeing the promoters. I am told that the promoters of the Bill have never had any approach made to them by anyone on whose behalf objection is made in the House. There was no appearance before the Committee. With regard to the girls' school, the existing sewage works is debouching its effluent above the water level, closer to the girls' school than the ultimate outlet is going to be. So far as the actual outfall goes, the girls' school will certainly be no worse off. It has been sitting near a sewage farm all this time. Instead of sitting near the old sewage farm, it will be equally close to the up-to-date one, which cannot be called a nuisance. If, by any chance, there was the slightest damnification to these people, if a. nuisance was caused—and I do not think any nuisance can possibly be caused—a special Clause has been put in which preserves a right of action.

So much for the girls' school. There is the case which certainly requires to be answered, made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Oxford (Captain Bourne). Excessive storm water finds its way into the Thames. If no precaution is taken, it might be argued with some force that the greater concentration of the storm water would send it into the river with greater force and at greater speed and that might, at very exceptional seasons of the year, have an occasional adverse effect upon the river. With great moderation he said that was not a reason for holding up the Bill, but he wanted an assurance that it was going to dealt with. I have been informed by the very distinguished engineer in charge of these plans that special precautions have been taken, and that a special reservoir is to be constructed to receive the storm water and to control its outlet into the river. The best guarantee which I can give is that, whereas the Ministry of Health who adopted the findings of the Royal Commission laid down a certain standard of size in respect of such a reservoir, in this case that size is to be doubled. That shows a great desire to meet the position, and I think that it does sufficiently meet the position. It was necessary to expose to the House in its reality what is the project before it to-night, and which comes to it with such unanimous support from all those concerned in the matter. I hope that without more ado the House will give the Bill the Third Reading.

The MINISTER of HEALTH (Mr. Arthur Greenwood)

The speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hendon (Sir P. Cunliffe-Lister) has relieved me of the necessity of saying very much. This is a £5,250,000 scheme which has resulted from proposals made by the Government to local authorities last year. It is a scheme for rationalising the very unsatisfactory system of sewage disposal in a large part of the county of Middlesex. I believe it will do it effectively, and that it will improve the system of sewage disposal in London. Sewage disposal is not a new problem. The assumption underlying the speech made by the hon. and gallant Member who opposed the Bill was that no sewage was going into the Thames, and that certainly no sewage was being taken into the Thames above the tidal part of the river. At least we get rid of that, and there is going to be a higher standard of purification than has been supplied anywhere in the country, even for small systems, where the sewage can be much more offensive than in the larger cases. I cannot see any real grounds for opposition. The girls of St. Margaret's School, rowing men, and fishermen, I think, will all be better off in consequence of this Bill, in view of the fact that there is unanimity, not merely amongst the local authorities in the area, but among the Metropolitan Water Board—which is responsible for providing pure water—the Port of London Authority, and the Thames Conservancy. The House may well give the Bill its Third Reading, and I think that it ought to do so.

King's Consent signified.