HC Deb 13 July 1953 vol 517 cc1854-66

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Kaberry.]

10.16 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

I wish tonight to call attention to the work of the river boards in connection with the prevention of river pollution. If I deal mainly with the extent of the pollution, I hope that the House will not think that I am criticising the work of the river boards; I am not. I believe that they are doing a magnificent job of work under very difficult conditions. I should like to pay a special tribute to the Mersey River Board, and particularly to its officers who are always most helpful and efficient and faced with a task comparable with any of the labours of Hercules. I want to give recent examples of river pollution as illustrations of the magnitude of the problem which the river boards have to face. For these examples I am mainly indebted to the Pure River Society, of which I have the honour to be president, and particularly to the hon. secretary, Mr. Anthony.

The first illustration relates to Kent and concerns the River Eden. The "Sevenoaks Chronicle." on 1st May, had this to say: On the River Eden, near Hever, is a peaceful spot which during the fishing season should be an anglers' paradise, and where children have often bathed. But now there are no children playing near the river and hundreds of fishes are rising to the surface to die. … Thousands of fish are dying from disease and fungus. Residents of cottages along the river bank have to keep their doors and windows shut because of the foul stench from the water. … Although cattle and domestic animals did not appear to be so seriously affected by the pollution, farmers were in some places erecting barriers on the river bank to prevent their cattle drinking from the river. The cause of that pollution was a tannery discharging into the river an effluent with which the local sewerage undertaking was not adequate to deal.

The second example comes from Lancashire, and the "Manchester Guardian" on 2nd July told us that in the case of the River Ribble, one of the most beautiful in the country, the previous weekend thousands of fish had been killed as the result of river pollution.

Turning to Bristol, to a case in which I know the hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Awbery) is particularly interested, on 30th June there was a report that the previous day about 5,500 dead fish had been found piled against the lock gates at Netham, Bristol. The cause of that was that the river upstream had got over-heated as the result of which the fish had been driven downstream and killed by the large amount of untreated sewage in the river.

At Hatherleigh, in Devonshire, a report appeared in the "Exeter Echo" of 29th June as follows: The sewage effluent at Hatherleigh is at least 18 times more pollutive than the approved maximum, Okehampton Rural District Council was told yesterday. … The sanitary inspector stated that there was little or no treatment of the sewage, which flowed through open irrigation channels and thence to the river. The last case has relation to the Thames, which has always had such a splendid record for the pureness of its water. Yet the "Daily Herald" on 1st July told us that the previous day the medical officer of health for Windsor, Dr. S. J. McClathchey, had referred to the Thames, saying: It is a mucky mess and not very nice to bathe in. The same day the medical officer of health for Maidenhead had warned that the public should not be allowed to bathe in the Thames. In almost every case where we investigate these instances of pollution, we find that they arise from the absence, inadequacy or obsolescence of sewerage or purification plant.

If we refer to the report of the Somerset River Board for last year, we are told on page 29 that of the 249 samples obtained from sewage works, 43 per cent. were unsatisfactory and that the figure in respect of trade effluents was 68 per cent. unsatisfactory. If we turn to the report of the Kent River Board for last year, at page 27 we find this description: All qualities of sewage effluent are discharged in the Board's area, some being excellent, though others are more in keeping with the quality of untreated sewage. Discharges of effluents from the following trades are also made to watercourses under the Board's control, invariably without treatment: Paper mills at which the whole range of activities of the paper-making industry is carried out; tanneries; breweries; canneries; sweet manufactory; engineering works; gas works; collieries; oil refineries; paint and varnish manufactories; flour mills; dairies; laundries; and gravel workings. In the case of the Mersey River Board, I have consulted them and I am informed that during the past year 36 per cent. of the samples of sewage effluent that they have taken were unsatisfactory or bad. The figure for the trade effluents is 64 per cent. In the case of the Yorkshire Ouse River Board, we are told that the River Swale, which is a very beautiful river indeed, is being seriously polluted by the discharge of crude sewage from the Borough of Richmond and that a tributary of the River Codbeck is being polluted by the discharge of crude sewage from Thirsk and Sowerby.

In the case of the Northumberland and Tyneside River Board, we find this description: There have been no significant changes during the year in regard to sewage effluents affecting the quality of the rivers and streams in the Board's area. The reason for this will perhaps be better appreciated when it is realised that the sewage of at least two-thirds of the total population in the area is discharged in an untreated condition into the tidal estuary of the River Tyne … Their report goes on to say: Where sewage is disposed of otherwise than by discharge into tidal waters, it does not always receive proper treatment. In many cases it is found that there are no sewage treatment works, or that the existing plant is in need of major improvement which cannot be met by expenditure out of local revenue alone. The local authorities concerned have in some cases prepared, or are preparing, schemes for the treatment of sewage in their respective districts but having regard to present restrictions on capital expenditure it seems probable that the execution of many of these projects will be delayed. I have no doubt that some local authorities have been casual in this matter. Indeed, in two recent cases—the case of Lord Brocket against the Luton Corporation, and the Pride of Derby Angling Association against British Celanese, Limited, and others—there was some judicial censure of the attitude of the Corporations of Derby and Luton. But with exceptions of that kind, I believe that most local authorities generally want to help. We find, however, that in each case they come up against the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. It is not surprising to learn that Mr. Justice Vaisey, in one of the cases to which I have referred, said that he would advise the mayor and corporation of Luton to come up and besiege the Minister of Housing and Local Government.

I am not denying that some work of this kind is being done, as the Minister told the House in reply to a Question that I put to him on 7th July. What is being done, however, is not enough, and until the Government change their policy and unless greater financial assistance is given to the smaller local authorities, we can hope for little improvement in the condition of our rivers.

In the case of trade effluents, two things are needed. One is that they must be discharged into existing sewerage systems, which at present are overloaded, or must be treated by special purification equipment. Here again we find the restrictions of the Government on capital expenditure mean that the Board of Trade are seldom in a position to give approval to schemes of this kind. There are, of course, some private manufacturers who resent interference and refuse to cooperate, but I think they are in the minority. At the same time those who wish to co-operate are confronted by many obstacles.

So far I think three special points of interest have emerged from the experience of the river boards. The first is the remarkable ignorance on the part of manufacturers of the nature of the effluent they discharge into rivers. When the Mersey River Board, for example, asked a firm of tar manufacturers, which discharges 1¼ million gallons of effluent into the river every day, what was the nature of the effluent, they were told that the firm had no analytical details about its composition. The same reply was received from a firm of bleachers, dyers and finishers which discharged 168,000 gallons a day into the river.

The second point relates to the washing of coal. As far back as 1898 a Royal Commission reported on the polluting effect of washing black coal and their Report said that the effluent should not contain more than 40 parts of suspended solids per million. But at the end of last year the relative figure from Brackley Colliery was 13,900 parts instead of 40 and from the Parsonage colliery of Leeds the figure was 32,300. I think it is fair in that case to point out that some considerable improvement has taken place since then.

The third point refers to gas undertakings. Since 1847 it has been an offence to discharge into the rivers crude gas liquor from gas undertakings. Yet in the area of the Mersey River Board that discharge is still taking place. All hon. Members will agree that polluted rivers are destroying the amenities and the beauties of the countryside, killing fish and endangering livestock. They are a menace to health and are against the interest of manufacturers and water undertakings who rely on the good supply of clean water.

We are today making progress in this matter. But the rate of progress is held back partly because of indifference on the part of some local authorities, some manufacturers and some nationalised boards, but most of all I think by the policy of the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Board of Trade in respect of expenditure upon capital equipment. I hope that tonight the Minister will be able to tell us that he will take urgent action to acquaint local authorities, manufacturers and nationalised boards with their duties and responsibilities and will be able to announce an early date at which the present restrictions on expenditure of this kind will be removed by Her Majesty's Government.

10.29 p.m.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

I was very interested to hear that this debate was to be raised tonight. I am particularly concerned with the Maidenhead area. If my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government went to a little place called Bourne End—a lovely spot—and saw a stream called the Wye, I am sure he would be fully acquainted with the dangers and filth of pollution. It is a lovely little stream running through a beautiful garden, but if one looks into it one sees at the side that every weed and grass that comes into contact with it looks as if it has been dipped in porridge. The bottom of the stream looks the same. Sometimes it is bright red and at others it looks as though a giant washtub has been tipped into it with the detergent suds piled up on the top. It is a disgusting sight.

I believe this is due partly to the fact that the whole sewerage of the Wooburn Valley is antiquated and incapable of dealing with the modern situation. I understand that a projected scheme is being considered, and I hope my hon. Friend will give very serious consideration to this scheme and see that it is implemented as soon as possible. I should like my hon. Friend one day to come down, particularly at the weekend, to see this stream, and then he would understand the force of the argument which has been put by the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood).

10.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Ernest Marples)

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) and all hon. Members that I am as well aware as any of them of the pollution in the streams of this country. It is my habit every Sunday to take a walk of not less than 12 or 14 miles, and I pass these streams, especially at Maidenhead. There is a particular walk that I do from Henley, which goes by a place called Bigg's Bottom, and on this journey I see these streams, and so I have first-hand knowledge of the difficulties about the pollution of our rivers. I can assure my hon. Friend that I have this problem very much at heart. I am not a fisherman, but I like fish which are extracted from streams which are not polluted.

The hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) hoped that the Minister would be able to tell him certain things. Frankly, I should have been better able to tell him something if he had had enough courtesy to inform me of the points he wished to raise in the debate.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood


Mr. Marples

He was telephoned and asked what points he wished particularly to raise. At a second's notice, it is not easy to answer specific points about tidal waters which, in any case, are not under the jurisdiction of the river boards. He ought to know that if he really is taking his duties as president of the Royal Rivers Society as seriously as he would lead the House to believe. I mention that because the hon. Member had the advantage of a great education and a political background. He should be more courteous when he raises a debate of this sort.

Mr. Greenwood

The Parliamentary Secretary is behaving in a most extraordinary way. If he can tell me how this message was sent, I shall be interested to hear about it. It has certainly not reached me. It may be through some fault on my part, but the other morning we were on Standing Committee together and the hon. Member has had many opportunities of asking me what I wished to raise if he desired to do so.

Mr. Marples

The hon. Gentleman simply cannot get away with it like that. It is normal and customary in this House, if an Adjournment debate is being raised on which specific points require to be answered, that the hon. Gentleman raising the subject informs the Minister concerned of the specific points. I believe I am right in saying that that applies all round. In any case, the hon. Gentleman's private secretary was telephoned and asked what points he had in mind, but there was no answer.

Mr. Greenwood

If that did, in fact, happen, I accept the hon. Gentleman's explanation and apologise to him for not having replied to him, but at the same time he could have approached me in the House at any time in the past few days. I have not put a case requiring an answer on a specific point, except the general point of principle about the Government's attitude to capital expenditure on schemes of this kind.

Mr. Marples

I am sorry, but as I have noted it the hon. Gentleman said "I hope the Minister will be able to tell us—" and then he catalogued certain things. If only those points had been given to me before, it might have been possible for me to give the hon. Gentleman a more satisfactory answer, from his point of view and from the point of view of everybody. That is all I say. If the hon. Gentleman does not want to give notice when he raises an Adjournment debate, then that is his fault.

I join the hon. Member in paying a tribute. He started by spending less than a minute in paying a gracious, full and generous tribute to the river boards, and then the rest of his time was spent in saying where the river boards had fallen short in their duties. He catalogued many grievances.

Mr. Greenwood

I did not make one single criticism of any river board in what I had to say. My criticisms were entirely directed to the fact that they were being hindered in their work by the capital expenditure policy of the Government.

Mr. Marples

That may be. I am just informed, if the hon. Gentleman wants to know, that his private secretary rang my private secretary and my private secretary asked her to let me know of any particular points that he wished to raise. I should like to make that point clear anyhow.

Mr. Greenwood


Mr. Marples

I hope the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make some sort of speech.

Mr. Greenwood

If the hon. Gentleman says that then, as I have already said, I gladly accept it. I might perhaps add that when I asked the hon. Gentleman's Department for copies of the reports of the river boards I was only referred to the House of Commons Library.

Mr. Marples

If they are in the House of Commons Library, then the hon. Gentleman has got the reports. The hon. Gentleman catalogued grievances and quoted many rivers—the River Eden, the Ribble and so on. He stated the grievances but did not suggest how they could be remedied. This is the first time that river pollution has been debated in this House since we considered the Bill which is now the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act, 1951. I am glad that the matter has been raised. I wish that it had been done in a different manner. I say that because I have had some experience of the hon. Gentleman. It is not often that I have harsh words to say, but he has said them against me in the past on many issues, including National Parks—something which I remember deeply.

During the 12 months the task laid on the two Ministers has been almost completed. The river boards have been set up. I think that 32 are now firmly in the saddle. It would be appropriate for me to start by saying on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government a word of welcome for the river boards as the latest addition to our system of local government. The task of establishing the river boards was commenced after the passing of the River Boards Act in 1948. None of them have long histories.

I exclude from my remark the Thames and Lea Conservancies, which are not river boards although they exercise similar jurisdiction. Both of them have the powers of the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act, 1951, but they both have their own local Act powers as well. Many of the river boards were able to take over a nucleus of an establishment from the old catchment boards and the fishery boards but only a very fortunate few have inherited any effective organisation for the prevention of river pollution. In other words, from the practical point of view they really started from scratch.

They started from scratch a few years ago but it is 200 years since the pollution started. We must always bear in mind that these are very young bodies dealing with a very old problem. When the River Boards Act was put on the Statute Book one of its principal objects was to bring into existence river authorities capable of dealing with the rivers as a whole. That was possibly the main purpose of the Act—preventing and reducing river pollution in our rivers as a whole. The powers at their disposal were strengthened by the River (Prevention of Pollution) Act of two years ago; but two years is really a short time where our rivers are concerned. The boards have had to build up their own organisations, they have had to recruit officers, they have had to acquaint themselves with the problems of their areas and make contacts with the local authorities.

I put it to the hon. Gentleman that in all fairness I do not think we are justified in expecting spectacular results, because technically it will not be possible to get them. There are two provisions of the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act to which I should like to refer. One is Section 5 and the other is Section 7 of the Act. River boards are given the power to make bye-laws setting the standard for effluents. In all discussions on pollution we ought to try to be constructive and not purely destructive. Section 5 gives the power to make bye-laws setting the standard for effluents. Perhaps I might put this in an unscientific way. The standards would define the maximum amount of the impurities which would be tolerated in discharges to sewage disposal works from industrial premises and the like.

This power to make bye-laws and to define what shall be meant by pollution in different areas or for different schemes is being taken very seriously by the river boards. From the annual reports to which the hon. Gentleman referred—copies of which can be found in the Library—the hon. Gentleman will find that the first essential, as in all matters of construction, is to make a survey of what are the actual facts of the situation. The river boards are making river surveys which really are the essential preliminary to the formulation of practical standards. We hope from the Ministry point of view to try to deal with the problem with the help of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries who give us that technical advice on matters which the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham has very much at heart.

We are trying to study the problem, and trying to define certain standards, and we hope to circulate these findings to the river boards. But the practical difficulties are very formidable, and it will be extremely hard to draft satisfactory bye-laws because of the many and complex technical problems involved in modern industrial processes, and the innumerable ingredients finding their ways into the final discharge of the waste matter.

The Department is trying, under Section 5 to compile, collate, and analyse the technical advice necessary for the river boards, and this is advice which will be buttressed by the advice which we receive from the industrial concerns themselves. That is Section 5.

Section 7 gives complementary powers to the river boards, and states that anyone wishing to make a new discharge, or increase an existing one, must get the consent of the board concerned before doing so. But, industry and local authorities cannot hold up new works while the river boards establish themselves. Industry and local authorities must go on with their normal functions; industrial processes, and local works, such as sewerage schemes, cannot be stopped because the river boards have been established. The boards have been faced with awkward problems, but I think that they are doing a good job under difficult circumstances, and where time is pressing against them.

River pollution is no new problem; indeed, it is two centuries old, and as our cities and great urban areas have grown, many of our rivers, especially in the north, have deteriorated considerably. But nobody can apportion blame for this, and I am sure that no hon. Member of this House would wish to do so. Today, the problem is to reverse the trend, and anyone with any practical experience knows that it cannot be done quickly. It may take generations. To provide treatment capable of dealing with the huge quantities of waste material going into our rivers means, not only heavy capital expenditure, but a tremendous amount of research and experiment before some trade waste can be treated at all. Nobody can really say what type of treatment is necessary for all waste from modern scientific processes, and so, there must be not only the capital equipment but also scientific knowledge, which must be the basis before any plant is installed.

River boards have an important role to play, and among their work could be the pointing out to industry and local authorities of their shortcomings not, if I may use the word, in "snooty" letters but by co-operating with those using the rivers; by offering advice and help where they can on how sewage and waste can best be treated. It is the job of the boards to be constructive, and not merely to say to industry and the local authorities, "Thou shalt not," but to show how much they can co-operate by explaining how this, or that, can be done.

Frankly, the river boards have made an excellent start. Co-operation behind the scenes does not hit the headlines, but it is something which is vitally necessary if we are to solve the problem of the polluted rivers in this country. The "back-room boys," the technical staff, the people who have no publicity, are really the chaps who are going to give us rivers free from pollution, and not the boys in search of a lot of publicity on a particularly spectacular deterioration of a portion of a river.

I grant my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and the hon. Member opposite that many of our rivers are in an unsatisfactory state. The question is, how are they to be put right? It will not be done merely by pointing out where they are wrong, but by people being constructive and indicating in a technical and practical way how they may be put right in the shortest time. Co-operation between the boards and the local authori- ties or firms producing the sewage or trade waste will not produce results without actual work.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Fourteen Minutes to Eleven o'clock.