HC Deb 19 April 1948 vol 449 cc1537-44

Read a Second time, and committed.

8.35 p.m.

Mr. Harold Roberts (Handsworth, Birmingham)

I beg to move, "That it be an instruction to the Committee on the Bill to leave out Clause 13 and the Schedule."

Clause 13 is a provision in this general powers Bill which empowers the Smethwick Corporation to erect and maintain gas works on land set out in the Schedule, an area of approximately one and a half acres at Alexandra Road at Handsworth in the City of Birmingham. We have to see with what object this Clause was inserted and to consider why it is not now necessary and, as I think, rather injurious. For many years the Corporation of Smethwick have maintained a gas undertaking, as have their neighbours, Birmingham and Swan Village. The need for gas supplies at Smethwick is certainly increasing and the corporation, as undertakers, very properly considered the point of how those needs could best be met. I make no complaint whatever. It was their duty as undertakers to do that. Accordingly, last Autumn, when they were preparing their general powers Bill, they inserted this Clause.

The only place in which they could put the gas works was on this site at Handsworth in the City of Birmingham. I make no complaint of their action, but I wish to remind the House that the position is now entirely different. Since this Bill had its First reading, the Government have introduced the Gas Bill which was read a Second time and is now being considered by a Committee upstairs. By the time the general powers Bill of the Smethwick Corporation becomes law, the corporation will no longer be undertakers —nor will Birmingham or West Bromwich. All these undertakings will be merged in the West Midlands Gas Board, called into being, as the Minister in opening and the Leader of the House in winding up the Second Reading Debate pointed out, with a view to integrating the gas supplies of the country and in particular, as far as this board is concerned, the gas supplies of the West Midlands.

When one has a technical difficulty of this kind by which some people in certain parts of Smethwick do not get an adequate gas supply, one can conceive that there may be several ways, technically, of meeting the position. It would be possible to invoke the aid of the Swan Village works or to lay a new main from Birmingham; but none of those methods was legally competent at the time the Bill was promoted. They will be competent under the new Gas Bill. Therefore, as a result of Government legislation, this Clause is unnecessary.

Its effect cannot be good, because if one thing is necessary more than another to the success of the future working of the gas industry, it is that area boards should have an open mind and be free to judge between different technical alternatives. To prejudge the question of how the requirements of Smethwick can best be met by a Clause of this kind runs contrary to the spirit of legislation which has been promoted and which, one may assume, will shortly become law. My objection is of a non-controversial nature. If the course which I suggest was followed, no hardship would be inflicted upon anybody, and the general position would be maintained that it is wise in local bills to act in conformity not only with the law as it stands but with legislation which is now before the House.

Sir John Mellor (Sutton Coldfield)

I beg to second the Motion.

8.40 p.m.

Mr. Cecil Poole (Lichfield)

I ask the House to reject this Motion, and I do so not solely because I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Smethwick (Mr. Gordon-Walker) is unable to speak in this Debate, but also because I have a very good knowledge of the problems of Smethwick and adjacent boroughs in the Black Country, having lived quite close by for a very long time. We have heard a most amazing suggestion from the Opposition Front Benches as to the reason why Clause 13 should be deleted from this Bill. Apparently, the whole basis of the argument of the hon. Member for Handsworth (Mr. H. Roberts), quite contrary to what I anticipated, is that, he is anxious to safeguard the interests of nationalised undertakings. That is surely an amazing argument, when one has seen how the nationalisation of the gas industry has been opposed by hon. Members opposite.

It has been suggested that it is undesirable that these powers should be accorded to the Smethwick Corporation because, before they can be operated, the undertaking will have been nationalised; but in the Bill there is laid upon the corporation the responsibility of maintaining its undertaking in the present condition up to the time when it is taken over, and, moreover, there is also laid upon it the responsibility of providing gas supplies to consumers in its area. Therefore, it must fulfil these two objectives, but it is quite impossible to do that without Clause 13 of the Bill. The second suggestion was that Smethwick should take supplies from adjacent authorities, and Birmingham was suggested.

Mr. H. Roberts

My suggestion was not that at all. There will not be any adjacent authorities; it will be one authority, which will supply the area.

Mr. Poole

That is the position as it may be subsequent to nationalisation, but the fact that we nationalise the gas industry does not of itself produce any more gas. It does not create more gasholders. The problem of Cause 13 is the provision of an additional gasholder for Smethwick. There was also the suggestion that Swan Village or Birmingham might supply additional gas for Smethwick from their undertakings, but the hon. Member for Handsworth is an alderman of Birmingham City Council, and surely he ought to know that Birmingham itself cannot make sufficient gas to meet all its needs, and is, at the present time, taking a large supply from Coventry to meet the needs of its own people on the east side of Birmingham. Further Birmingham is most reluctant to continue to supply Smethwick, which she does at the present time. Smethwick is now taking gas from Birmingham to meet the needs of her consumers.

The problem is this. Here we have a county borough almost entirely built up and with a density of population of 30 to the acre, which is, I think, the highest figure for the whole country. The local authority cannot even build its own municipal houses within its own boundaries but has had to construct 1,200 houses outside those boundaries, because its own area is completely built up. Here we have an industrial borough with very great demands for industrial gas, and with an expansion, figures of which I have, which has been a twelve-fold increase over the past quarter of a century. The position is that unless this Clause remains in this Bill, there must of necessity be a large number of industrial undertakings in the borough of Smethwick which will not be able to carry on with the demands of the export programme and will not be able to maintain full employment for the 40,000 people who are employed in those undertakings consuming industrial gas.

I cannot believe that at a time when production is so necessary Members on either side of this House will wish to deprive the industries of this country of the wherewithal to keep production at its peak and to maintain full employment for the people engaged in industry. As to the point that the area boards should be left free, and that this Clause will in some way hamper them, I am advised that that is not the case, that what is proposed in this Bill is very suitable for any proposed national gas grid that might be created, and that this additional gasholder will fit in very well with any scheme which any area board might devise.

I cannot help feeling that the hon. Member for Handsworth may be somewhat influenced by the fact that it is proposed to erect this gasholder in part of the division which he has the honour to represent in this House. Nobody likes a gasholder anywhere. They are not very sightly things. The greatest possible efforts have been made by the Smethwick Corporation to meet the needs of all concerned in the location of this gasholder. I have already said that the borough is wholly built up. They went to the adjacent City of Birmingham and, in consultation with the City of Birmingham, they selected certain sites. Before even entering into negotiations with the owners of any of the sites which they thought were suitable, they went to the Birmingham City Council, who are the planning authority for the area, and got from them full approval of the site which is suggested. They have since then moved the original location of the gasholder to a site which the Birmingham City Council, of which the hon. Member for Handsworth is a member, have suggested.

The proposed location of the gasholder is where the Birmingham City Council themselves have suggested it should be. It is at least 150 feet from any house, and it has been sited on ground which I suggest will be much less unsightly when the gasholder is on it than it is at present. That may seem an astonishing thing to say, but if any right hon. or hon. Member would like to see a photograph of the site in its present condition, I shall be very happy to oblige them. A gasholder on this site will considerably improve it. That may be a shocking thing to say of an area like Handsworth, which claims to be a very respectable part of the City of Birmingham. However, we are told that the camera cannot lie, and I have copies of the photograph which I shall be very glad to show to any hon. Member. I suggest that this Clause should be left in the Bill, and that the Committee upstairs, to which the Bill will be remitted, is the right and proper authority to decide whether a Clause shall be deleted from the Bill. Therefore, I ask the House to resist the Motion and to allow this Bill to go to the Committee upstairs in unamended form.

8.48 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. Robens)

I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. C. Poole) for the case that he has just made against the Motion moved by the hon. Member for Handsworth (Mr. H. Roberts). While I do not propose to go into the amenity aspect of the matter, it is important that that part of the case should be put. On amenity grounds it can scarcely be said that there should be support for the Motion. However, I do not think that was the hon. Gentleman's case. His case rested on the fact that one should do nothing at this stage until the gas industry has been nationalised and the area boards have been set up, and that they should be left with the problem. His case, therefore, was that nothing should be done for some considerable time in view of the fact that the Bill for the socialisation of the gas industry is now only going through its Committee stage.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield for providing me with some information of which I was not aware; that is that the hon. Member for Handsworth is an alderman of the City of Birmingham. On learning that fact, I am rather surprised that the hon. Member should say that we should do nothing about gas production in that area. His city council have been most active lately; indeed, they have wanted the help of my own Department in relation to their own undertaking. They have made a great case for the expansion of his corporation's undertaking because of the great shortage of gas in the area. I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman, representing that city, coming to this House and saying, in effect, "Do nothing about gas production in this area." That is certainly not on all fours with the case which the City of Birmingham put up in relation to gas.

Mr. H. Roberts

I did not say, "do nothing about production." What I said was, "do not encumber the statute book with a statute with regard to acquiring a particular site and doing something of a technical kind which would be better dealt with by the area board,"—which I supposed in my innocence would come into being fairly soon at the pace they are working upstairs. If I am told, however, there is to be delay, and gas is not to be nationalised, I suppose I must give way.

Mr. Robens

It is clear that the hon. Gentleman is not cognisant of the Bill. In relation to this particular site it is not a question of erecting a gasworks.

Mr. H. Roberts

Has the Minister read the Bill? It says so.

Mr. Robens

I have read the Bill and, if I may say so I have also read the Amendments. I have no doubt that if the hon. Gentleman had taken the trouble to read them he would have seen that Clause 13 is to be amended to provide on this site that only gas storage shall be permitted. The production of gas is already proceeding apace and, indeed, my own Department has authorised the installation of additional carbonising plant and of the ancillary apparatus to make an additional 3 million cubic feet of gas, with provision to extend that 3 million cubic feet to 4 million. This plant could not be operated economically unless there was provided at the same time the additional storage space, and so the Smethwick Corporation were faced with finding a suitable site to hold the gas which they will make, which they have authority to make and which they are proceeding to make.

There is no room at all in their present gasworks and I need not go again into all the arguments presented by the hon. Member for Lichfield. He presented them quite clearly and described the steps taken by Smethwick to examine a large number of sites and the actual agreement with the City of Birmingham, as the planning authority, on the use of land outside their local boundaries. He made the position quite clear, and it is a fact that if Smethwick had the land around their own gasworks on which to place this holder, indeed they would have placed it there; but they have not got it and so, willy-nilly, they were forced to look elsewhere. By agreement with the corporation this site has been selected. The original site has been moved a little further east and the result, I understand, will be an improvement from the amenity point of view—it will be further away from the neighbouring houses—and it will be on a less high piece of ground and, therefore, not so conspicuous.

We come, therefore, to the real point of the hon. Gentleman's argument, that this ought to be left to the area board. I want to tell him this. There is an outstanding demand now in the area for 600 million cubic feet of gas per annum. Industrial users are requiring more and more. It would be quite wrong to wait until the area boards are set up before dealing with this problem. It would be quite wrong from the aspect of the country's desire for greater production. It would be wrong to do nothing about a very urgent matter. I hope that the House will not be swayed by the arguments of the hon. Gentleman, who showed (a) he had not read the Bill and the Amendments; (b) he is at variance with the local authority on this matter; and (c) he has paid very little regard to the progress of the Gas Bill upstairs, otherwise he would not have said that it is going through quickly when, in fact, it is going through very slowly indeed.

Question, "That it be an instruction to the Committee on the Bill to leave out Clause 13 and the Schedule," put, and negatived.

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