HC Deb 10 November 1953 vol 520 cc906-16

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

10.14 p.m.

Wing Commander Eric Bullus (Wembley, North)

After a six-day debate on the Gracious Speech, a notable part of which concerned housing, it is perhaps not inappropriate for me to refer to some difficulties that affect our homes which have not been mentioned. I wish to raise a certain question of nuisance caused by some factories in residential areas, especially in relation to my own division of Wembley, North. This is a problem which is likely to face the Minister constantly. It is a problem which requires immediate attention.

Many of our factories built in this country for light industries have been erected after the houses which surround or adjoin them, very often in residential areas. At first there are no difficulties, but when some of the light industries have become heavy or semi-heavy in character nuisances and complaints have become evident. Sometimes an amicable arrangement can be made, but often when companies have made genuine efforts the problem of noise, vibration, smell, and sometimes even of taste in the air, remains. I have two such cases in my constituency of Wembley, North.

The first, in Holmstall Avenue, Kingsbury, with postal address Edgware, contains 70 or 80 semi-detached houses built about a quarter of a century ago. The 60-foot long back gardens on one side of the road end abruptly. Factories were built after the houses, and the offices of those factories face the parallel road, Carlisle Road. There were no complaints until the character of those factories changed. Today residents complain of belching chimneys, noise, dirt and smells. I am told that the nuisances are experienced any time between 6.30 in the morning until after 8 o'clock in the evening. The time hooters and buzzers of the various factories do not synchronise, and I think it would help if one hooter or buzzer served for all the factories for a given time signal.

I doubt if a Ministry official has ever been to investigate the complaints of those householders. Their conditions have to be considered, and I think a visit to the area and the factories by a Ministry technical officer giving advice could solve this particular problem. At least nothing but good could come from such a visit by a technical officer of the Ministry.

The second case concerns the British Oxygen Company's factory fronting Carlton Avenue. This is a very disturbing case for it follows the Ministry's having overruled the experience and decision of the local council. The Ministry has been proved wrong in this case, and now the Ministry claims no standing in the matter. Meanwhile the health of residents in this residential area suffers and the Ministry, having disregarded the experience and decision of the local council, is not prepared to help.

I think the Minister will be aware that in 1943 the Ministry of Supply, with the planning consent of the Wembley Council, erected the original factory building to house a compressor plant. The council did not object to the proposal in the conditions of war then existing, and the obvious need at that time for providing a factory which would produce the gases so urgently needed. This was the least the council could patriotically do, and it did it. The buildings could have been sited at a much greater distance from the houses in Carlton Avenue, East, but apparently the Ministry of Supply desired to site the building in its present position, no doubt partly to reduce costs and partly, because of possible air raids, to decentralise the factory buildings.

There is little doubt that had the application been considered in the ordinary way, without the necessity of having to take into account the then emergency, the council would have opposed most vigorously the siting of the building so close to residential development. This is the town clerk's opinion, and there is no reason to dispute it. Carlton Avenue, East is undoubtedly a residential area in all conscience.

In August, 1950, the British Oxygen Company submitted to the Wembley Borough Council a formal application for planning consent to the extension of the factory fronting Carlton Avenue, East, and in October, 1950, less than two months later, the council refused the company's application on these grounds. In the first place, that it was intended that the extension would contain additional compressing plant, and, secondly, that no satisfactory assurance could be given by the company that the operation of the plant which they proposed to install in the extension would not increase the vibration caused by the existing plant, which was already proving detrimental to the amenities of the adjoining residential neighbourhood.

The company appealed against the council's decision, and on 19th December, 1950, a local inquiry was held. In a letter dated 9th February, 1951—two months later—from the then Ministry of Local Government and Planning, Ref. No. 1797/620/130. C/139/2. KB/MA, it was stated that the Minister had decided to allow the company's appeal. In the Minister's letter he noted that experts expressed the opinion that the plant proposed to be installed was, "not likely to cause a perceptible degree of vibration in the adjoining houses."

I pause to say that earlier this year, after a visit to the factory and the adjoining houses, a technical officer from the same Ministry reported that, in his opinion, serious disturbance was being caused to the occupants of three houses in Carlton Avenue, East, and that the company had been advised of his views.

In December, 1952, the company completed the installation of the new compressor plant in the extension of the factory and as soon as the compressor went into production a number of complaints were received from the residents of adjoining houses regarding the noise and vibration. The noise particularly complained of was a throbbing noise or a whining sound which could be heard distinctly in the houses in Carlton Avenue, East.

Complaints were made to the Minister, to the council, and to me as the Member of Parliament for the division, and correspondence ensued, but the compressor plant was brought into full operation on a 24-hour basis on 25th June last. Company officials have met representatives of the council and have sought to take some remedy. Indeed, I am prepared to believe that the company has done all possible within limits. The company are doing national work and I am satisfied that they have spent a lot of time and much money in seeking a remedy. The company took sound recordings on instruments placed in 296, Carlton Avenue, East, and the company claimed that the reading showed that the volume of vibration was low. But the council rightly takes the view that it is the effect of the sound on the individual that really matters and not the scientific measurement of the sound.

Indeed, in the mass of correspondence which I have had from the council and from tenants there is a copy of a doctor's certificate indicating that one tenant is "suffering from severe nervous exhaustion and fatigue due to the vibrations and thumping in her house which are disturbing her night and day." Other residents tell the same story. Children are affected; sleep is broken or impossible. Members of the council and others have visited the houses and satisfied themselves that the complaints are justified. The Ministry's technical officer admits that there is serious disturbance.

What has been the result of these representations to the Ministry? I have made representations to the Minister, petitions have been presented by the residents and the town clerk has written urgently and repeatedly. He has pointed out that it was the then Minister of Local Government who allowed the appeal of the company against the council's decision to refuse permission for the extension of the building which contains the new and offending compressor.

What is the upshot? In several letters which have flowed from the Ministry the text is always the same—"The Minister has no standing in the matter." This would seem to be absurd. The Minister in the last Government had the standing and authority to over-rule the decision of the local authority who knew of the difficulties inherent in such an extension in a residential area.

The then Minister in his wisdom indicated that the plant to be installed was not likely to cause a perceptible degree of vibration in adjoining houses. Now the pious forecasts having been proved wrong, the present Minister "has no standing in the matter." Wembley Council have expressed the hope that the Minister will receive them in deputation. I hope that my right hon. Friend will agree to receive them and discuss the difficulties with them. It is the least that my right hon. Friend can do.

The Minister has pointed out that in this case and in the case of residents in Holmstall Avenue, legal action can be taken by the tenants under Section 313 of the Middlesex County Council Act, 1944, but he then adds, rather significantly: But I should point out that it is a good defence to show that the best practical means of preventing or mitigating the nuisance, having regard to the cost and other relevant circumstances, have been used "— Then comes what I consider to be a warning— and if the factory owners are taken to court, they may well be less co-operative in the future. On this information one constituent of mine writes to me: This paragraph is tantamount to a legalised threat that if residents do not knuckle under to the position created, no attempt will be made to give relief. Why should the residents have the responsibility of going to court? It is, of course, for them to decide, but it is not unreasonable to suppose that they are extremely hesitant about embarking on costly litigation which presumably would be most vigorously opposed by the companies concerned, whose financial resources would enable them to pursue the matter to the highest authority. Will the Minister please give the matter earnest attention and if necessary meet council representatives? I think that that is the least that he can do, because I think that this is a problem that is likely to arise in other areas where light industries have become heavy or semi-heavy. By giving attention to this and similar complaints now I suggest that the Minister might save himself much trouble in the future.

10.28 p.m.

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

No one in this House or outside can deny that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) has shown indefatigable assiduity in the interests of his constituency. He has complained continually in an intense, virile and concentrated manner about the real difficulties which his constituents have suffered.

Tonight my hon. and gallant Friend has devoted himself to a historical survey which was precise in detail and reasonable in manner. He made one statement however, to which, with respect, I would take exception. He said that he doubted whether a Ministry official had ever visited the scene. In that, I am afraid that he is wrong, because a Mr. Clarke of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government has visited not only the factory but several houses in the vicinity of the disturbance.

My hon. and gallant Friend has a considerable grievance and has stated it in a most reasonable and exact manner. The matter was brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend in December, 1952, by the local authority, and since then we have had several letters from some of the residents and from my hon. and gallant Friend. One of our technical officers, Mr. Clarke, visited the site of the factory and went into four houses. In his view there was serious disturbance from a thumping noise caused by the new compressor in three out of the four houses he visited. We have been in touch with the company and I think my hon. and gallant Friend will agree that they have made considerable progress in meeting the complaints of the tenants. They have not been successful, but they have attempted to reduce the disturbance and are still making those efforts.

The difficulty with which we are faced is this. My hon. and gallant Friend asked if my right hon. Friend could receive a deputation. He cannot because he has no official standing in the matter. The decision given on the planning appeal in 1951 by the previous Administration, by the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton), was final. As the law stands, my right hon. Friend, whatever the merits of the case, cannot disturb that decision. I am not commenting on the merits of the case; all I say is that he cannot disturb the decision as there must be continuity in the government of the country. The decision is final and the Minister cannot enter discussions with either party to the appeal on the reasons which gave rise to the decision or on any part of the evidence submitted in the matter. As the law stands, my right hon. Friend is powerless to do anything in the matter. I agree that the previous Administration gave permission to the British Oxygen Coy. to extend their premises at Wembley.

In Carlisle Road there are small factories, and the Wembley Borough Council have two courses of action open to them; the first is compulsion and the second co-operation. Under compulsion they are able, under the Middlesex County Council Act, 1944, to take action against anyone who makes a noise which is excessive or unreasonable or unnecessary and which is injurious to health. For many years the council have been aware of complaints of noise from the four factories in Carlisle Road and have given their attention to them but they have not considered that the noise was in any way sufficient to warrant the exercise of these powers. That is compulsion; now for co-operation. They have tried to secure the co-operation of the managements of the factories in reducing noise and I believe, and so do the local council, that they have achieved some success. I have no doubt they will continue to press the managements to take remedial action to see that the noise is diminished and residents are left in peace and comfort.

I do not think the Ministry have much standing in the matter. The local council have standing in the matter and so far they have not asked for Departmental intervention. If they did as a council my right hon. Friend, as always, would be willing to consider the application on its merits, as he is bound to consider an application from any local authority. If those living in the neighbourhood of Carlisle Road consider that a nuisance of the kind described by my hon. and gallant Friend exists they can make a complaint, which must be signed by three people living within hearing of the noise, to the local justices. The justices can then order the abatement of the nuisance. But it is good defence in any action of this kind to show that the best practicable means have been used to prevent or to mitigate the nuisance, having regard to the cost and other relevant circumstances. Therefore the people living in the area have their remedy on the first and narrow question of the factories in Carlisle Road.

Now I come to the British Oxygen Company. The company have very large premises in Wembley. Part of their land fronts Carlton Avenue East, and there are houses and flats on the opposite side of the road and adjoining them on the same side to the east. Early in 1951, the previous Government, with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bishop Auckland in charge of the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, as it then was, gave the company permission, on appeal, to extend their premises at Wembley and to put up buildings to house a new big compressor for the liquid oxygen plant.

During the war the company had installed a large American compressor with horizontal movement which had caused a considerable amount of vibration in nearby houses. I think my hon. and gallant Friend will agree, and I am sure that the council will, that the company went to considerable trouble and expense to make sure that the new compressor would not cause disturbance to the inhabitants.

I wish to impress upon my hon. and gallant Friend that the Minister cannot receive a deputation as requested by the borough council as he has no official standing in the matter. The decision given in 1951 is final, and my right hon. Friend cannot enter into discussions with the parties. The only action which can now be taken under the Planning Acts is by an order under Section 26 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, requiring the company to discontinue the use of the compressor.

Such an order must necessarily be subject to full compensation, and I should not like to say how much that would be. It cannot be estimated, but the company have given some rough figures which may act as a guide. They spent £30,000 on trying to make the compressor quieter, and while it was out of action £400,000 worth of plant was lying idle. That does not mean that the compressor itself is worth £400,000. Nor does it mean that compensation for its discontinuance would amount to that sum, since the compressor and plant could be used on another site.

It is normal for the local authority to initiate Section 26 action, and therefore if the Wembley Council considers this is grievous to the interests of Wembley in general, and these residents in particular, they can initiate action under Section 26. The Minister has power to direct that: such action be taken, but it is normal for the local authority to initiate it, and they would pay the compensation, with the assistance of an Exchequer grant.

Therefore I say that the company have tried as best they can to redress the nuisance. If they have not been able to mitigate the nuisance completely, it may be it would be as well to re-house those inhabitants who are disturbed rather than to say that the factory should not be there at all. It is a question of the balance of advantage. It would not be right for my right hon. Friend to receive a deputation. The initiative lies not with my right hon. Friend but with the local council.

Before the appeal was considered by the previous Government the company went to a great deal of trouble and expense over the American compressor. Far be it from me to enter into international relationships, but I should say that the new compressor was supposed from the evidence not to create the trouble of its predecessor. Unfortunately, it created more trouble or, at any rate, as much. At the inquiry the company tried to prove technically, and I think that the local council official technician agreed, that the nuisance would not be substantially greater after the installation of the new compressor. The company tried everything humanly possible to see that vibration would be less.

At the appeal inquiry the company said that the new compressor would have a vertical movement with a different frequency. They thought that it would not cause any increase in vibration. The appeal was allowed. The site where the company is situated is industrial rather than residential, and the new compressor was urgently needed in the national interest. It has been operating since the end of 1952.

I do not think that my right hon. Friend could receive a deputation. If my hon. and gallant Friend writes to me I will try my best to take the matter up with the local authority to mitigate the nuisance for the benefit of the residents in whose interests my hon. and gallant Friend has been so assiduous; but the initiation must come from the local authority with, perhaps, encouragement from the Minister. After having gone into the matter thoroughly, I consider that it is up to the local authority as a council perhaps to pass a unanimous resolution, in which case I am sure that my right hon. Friend will do as much as possible. But for him to receive a deputation would not be in the interests of Wembley or anywhere else.

The House, in general, and Wembley, in particular, are grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend for raising this matter. If he can do anything by what might be called "old boy methods" to ease the situation of the residents of Wembley, I am certain that my hon. and gallant Friend will do so. I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend will be satisfied that he has served the interests of his constituents.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Seventeen Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.