HC Deb 06 April 1955 vol 539 cc1303-12

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

10.2 p.m.

Mr. George Isaacs (Southwark)

I feel that I should apologise to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government for keeping him here this evening after a long and tiring day on the Front Bench opposite. I keep him here because I must draw attention to the insufferable nuisance imposed upon people in my constituency who live in the area where the Bankside Power Station is located.

When the old power station was partly demolished, and we learned that a modern station was to be erected, we had mixed feelings about it because Southwark Borough Council and London County Council had set aside a little stretch of river bank, on which were buildings demolished as a result of the war, to establish a riverside pleasure garden. It should be remembered that Southwark has no park or open space except for the piece of grass round the War Museum and that we were looking forward to using that site. Our disappointment was lessened by the fact that the new power station would at least do away with the nuisance caused by the old station, from which we had suffered for many years.

It is a pity that it is the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government who is to reply to the debate, because the man I want to get at is the Minister of Fuel and Power. I think he must have some right and authority in this matter and some control over the body which is running this plant. There have been complaints for a long time about the nuisance caused by the insufferable amount of grit emitted from the power station. When the new station was contemplated a great deal of fuss was made about the possibility of the smoke from the power station damaging St. Paul's Cathedral. Far more fuss was made about that than anything I heard mentioned about possible damage to the health, comfort and temper of those who lived in the immediate vicinity of the power station itself.

I want to quote a few figures to the Parliamentary Secretary, although I do not expect to have from him tonight an undertaking other than that he will look into this matter and see what the Government can do. In September, 1950, while the old plant was in full operation, the deposit from the station was measured by means of one instrument placed immediately alongside the station and another instrument located at the Town Hall in Walworth Road, a mile away. We found that the deposit recorded at that time was the equivalent to 235 tons to the square mile on Bankside and a mile away in Walworth Road the deposit was 60 tons to the square mile. That was the highest recorded. In 1951 it dropped to 172 tons, and in 1952 it rose to 192 tons.

We made investigations about it. When I say "we" I mean the local authority made the investigation through its medical officer of health, its sanitary inspectors, and so on. They went into the matter very carefully. Our inspector reported that the deposit was so bad that it can be classified as one of the black spots in the Kingdom. He went on to say that the deposits were in excess of those of nearly all the industrial centres in the country. He is speaking of a piece of land right in the heart of London, opposite St. Paul's Cathedral, and it is a bit unreasonable to think that not only the residents there but the business houses should have to put up with this nuisance. Residents have complained, business firms have complained about it. Sometimes, in the summer, all windows have to be kept closed, because if the residents try to get fresh air all they get is a fresh dose of grit.

We find some ups and downs in the amount of deposit. For example, in February, 1953, the deposit from the Bankside station was equal to 268 tons to the square mile. But in July of that year it went down to 62 tons and it has gone up and down in various ways since. Strangely enough, in July, 1954, the deposit was much higher than it was in October or December. We are anxious to know what are the reasons for it. We know that less coal is being burned, fewer boilers are being fired and that there is practically no operation in the summer months by this plant except in an emergency. Why, then, do we get 77 tons in July? I think I may be able to give one of the reasons later.

The dirt that is noticeable when people are walking in this area when the grit is falling is actually felt under the feet, as if they were walking on sand. If it can be felt under the feet, one can imagine what it will be like in the atmosphere and in people's houses. I believe that the station staff have made every effort that they can within their power to put it right, but I do not think the British Electricity Authority has done as much as it might.

We referred the matter to the Research Station, at East Greenwich. Again, when I use the word "we" I mean the local authority, of which I was a member for so many years that I still think of myself as a member. The report given to the borough council was dated March, 1952, and, among other things, it said: It is stated that each dust extractor fitted would cost £10,000 and, in addition to this, there would be the cost of the fan and motor replacements and the modification of the rest of the boilers. But the Research Station goes on to say: An appreciable reduction in grit could be obtained by installing a less efficient dust extractor at a cost estimated by the B.E.A. at £1,000 per boiler. The station has only four or five boilers in use, so that it will not cost a lot of money. Indeed, it is costing more in the nuisance and trouble being caused in the area. One suggestion was that the Authority could extend the oil-firing system to the boilers in the old station. There is a pipeline there and it would not take much to run it from the new station to the old station and burn oil instead of coal.

We took the matter a little further. We raised it with the Authority direct, and I have here one or two examples of its letters. On 6th December, 1950, the Divisional Controller wrote to our Town Clerk: We have good grounds for believing that each succeeding year from now on will see some lessening of the use of the old boilers, and after 1954 it seems likely that their use would be able to be restricted to relatively very few hours per year. We understood that when the new station went up, the old one would disappear, but half the new one went up and the old one was left. It is a cockeyed system of economy to go on using the old plant.

There was some hope of a reduction of the nuisance in 1951. We had a second letter dated 2nd January, 1951, from the same Divisional Controller, who wrote to our Town Clerk: I am further assured by senior responsible officials that the present grit eliminating efficiency is as high as when first installed. I am glad to add that I find no reason to query these observations. What efficiency? Is dropping 250 tons of grit on us efficiency? And if it is as high now as when first installed, Southwark has something to be grateful for in that this machinery has not deteriorated but has remained as efficient as when it was put in 50 years ago. That is not approaching this matter in the spirit in which such an authority should treat reasonable complaints made by a local authority.

I shall now quote from a further letter to our Town Clerk, sent this time by the Generating Engineer on 21st November, 1952: It is difficult to understand why the deposited matter in the Bankside area has increased between 1951 and 1952, as this indicates that the deposited matter does not have any relation to the running of the Generating Station which, in 1952, burned only two-thirds of the coal used during the corresponding period in 1951. In other words, "Please, Sir, it ain't me; it's the other bloke." There is no other large chimney there but that of Barclay's Brewery, and that has been checked. It is true that there are one or two other large chimneys in a more remote part of the district, but they have been checked and there have been no complaints by the fuel overseers or the sanitary authorities. Yet we are told that it must be somebody else.

Then the authority put forward this—there may be something in it, too: The wind was in the direction of your sampling apparatus for 20 per cent. of the period during 1952 as against 45 per cent. for the 1951 period. That puts me in mind of the picture "Gone with the Wind." It is true that when the wind is in the east it blows past our recording instrument, but somebody else is getting it. It is coming down because what goes up must come down. The letter continues: … it is not possible to form any conclusions that the Generating Station has been responsible for grit deposits to the extent mentioned in your report, and I regret that I am not able to give observations on the probable reasons for the increase. Well, it is up to the Authority. Its chimneys are responsible; its coal is making the grit. It may be someone else's wind that is blowing it in the wrong direction, but we are still getting the grit.

I then took up the matter with the Ministry and I received a courteous letter saying that it was giving the matter its consideration. This is an interesting sentence: Moreover, the tops of the chimneys are below the level of the buildings of the new ("B") station— I use the "(B)" as it is used in the letter—in parenthesis and not in the sense in which it is used in my constituency— and the adjoining B.E.A. offices … and it seems likely that they cause down draughts which have tended to hinder the dispersion of waste glass from the chimneys. What an upside down way of putting it, that the chimneys are lower than the top of the new station. The old ones were there first. Surely the B.E.A. recognise that, if it is resting upon this statement, it is an admission that the building of the new station above the level of the chimneys of the old station has caused the trouble from which we are suffering.

There is then the statement that to make a practical remedy would be expensive, so expensive that it would be unreasonable to commence it. The letter ends by saying: I am afraid that real relief from this annoying emission will only come when the full plant of the station is built. We are asking the Minister of Housing and Local Government to hurry his colleague the Minister of Fuel and Power about completing the building of the new station.

This is not the only thing about it which is detrimental to our locality. The Authority has built its big station there and left us practically nothing for our little garden promenade, which is close to the site of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Bankside is a historic part of Southwark, and Southwark is an even more historic spot than the City of London. The power station has been put there, and behind it there is a huge block of offices, and this is on a site where we hoped to build homes for our people. However, the Authority has possession of it and it seems to want to hang on to it.

There is one more letter to which I want to refer, and then I will not worry the Parliamentary Secretary any further. This is a letter to me from the former Minister, and it is dated 31st March, 1954. It says that the coal consumption is less than half what it was four years ago. I admit that the amount of grit dropped is only a little more than half what it was; we are not getting so much, but we are still getting too much.

The final sentence reads: During next July and August the station will be closed down completely, and only brought into use in an emergency. It was not closed in July and August. In July, it dropped 77 tons on Bankside and, in August, 22 tons. Although the station was said to be out of use, the grit still dropped. Perhaps that is the reason for the case that it was not the Authority's power station which caused the trouble; but the station was in use.

In one part of the correspondence there is reference to the needs of the country for electricity, and it says that half of the old obsolete Bankside station, burning huge quantities of coal, must be kept in operation because the country needs electricity. Some of the people in other parts of the country who need the electricity should come forward and have a bit of the grit as well.

One must be in that area to appreciate what it is like. Our people have grit in their eyes and grit in their food; there is grit underfoot and grit in the laundry on washing day. I know that what I say has happened. There are the large blocks of the Peabody Buildings less than 150 yards from the station. The only place there for women to dry their laundry is on the roof. They put their laundry on the roof, and the grit comes down. Father comes home to tea, and mother goes upstairs to take in the washing, and when she comes down father knows all about it because she is not in a good humour if she finds that she has to do her laundry all over again. I can say with some justification that this is a nuisance not only physically but in the way it upsets amenities and family life in the area.

The Authority says something about the economic cost of effecting an improvement; but economy is a question not only of money but of comfort, health and reasonable conditions of living. I appreciate that it is not the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, represented here tonight, which is responsible, but I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to ask the Ministry of Fuel and Power to look into the matter and ask the British Electricity Authority to hurry on the only thing which can stop the grit falling, which is to remove the cause. I want the Authority to get on with its plans to clear the area so that we can proceed with our improvements and give our people relief from the nuisance from which they are now suffering.

10.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. W. F. Deedes)

I should like to begin by apologising to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Southwark (Mr. Isaacs) for the fact that I was not available on a previous occasion because I was indisposed, and to add that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power would be with me this evening—he had every intention of being present—had he not been indisposed. I should convey that to the right hon. Gentleman. He has raised a subject of great concern to his constituents and of great interest to a number of city workers, and I will try to meet most of the points he has raised.

Two stations are involved—station "A," the old station, and what the right hon. Gentleman calls station "B," the new one. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman has any complaint about the new one.

Mr. Isaacs

None at all.

Mr. Deedes

It is therefore not necessary for me to make any defence about that. His complaint is that Bankside "A" station is the mischief. The station is completely out of date and is nearly at the end of its life. It is anticipated that in five or seven years, if it is not dismantled, it will be used only for emergencies. I am aware that the right hon. Gentleman would like to see it closed tomorrow.

Mr. Isaacs

They told us 1954.

Mr. Deedes

But there is the difficulty that it still provides electricity which we are told is indispensable and it is used to meet peak loads during the day. It is not operated during the night. It is being used less and less, as the figures show. In 1950 it consumed 109,200 tons of coal and 15,300 tons of oil. In 1953 those figures were 50,200 tons of coal and 6,600 tons of oil, and in 1954 they were 36,900 tons of coal and 7,000 tons of oil. The right hon. Gentleman will agree that that is a progressive reduction. In other words, it is a third of the coal consumption and 50 per cent. of the oil consumption of 1950. Failing complete cessation, such diminishment of activity is probably the next best thing.

I admit that the equipment for the purpose we are discussing is inadequate. Of the 18 boilers which the "A" station runs, only two are provided with grit arresters. The difficulty here is that the British Electricity Authority is reluctant to carry out expensive re-equipment of a plant with a very limited life. Let me say something about the serious problem of the different kind of emissions from the power station's chimneys, and let me stress the fact that my information is based on the report of the Chief Alkali Inspector. At the end of last month my right hon. Friend undertook to the right hon. Gentleman that such an inspection should be made and it was made at the end of last month, and what I have to say is largely based on what the Chief Inspector found.

I want first to deal with the question of soot. Boilers, both oil and coal fires, are likely to produce dark smoke for two or three minutes when being brought on load. That will not come as a surprise to the right hon. Gentleman. Thereafter, there should seldom be dark smoke. An observer is on duty to report the discharge of smoke to a boilerhouse foreman to record the occurrence and duration in a special log book, and that was found to be in order.

Mr. Isaacs

There is no complaint about smoke.

Mr. Deedes

The records have been checked. The Chief Inspector did notice two other chimneys in the vicinity producing dark smoke for extended periods.

The next question was that of sulphur dioxide. Assuming that 90 per cent. of the sulphur in the coal and 100 per cent. in the oil is discharged as sulphur dioxide, the tonnages discharged in the last five years are: for 1950, 3,140 tons, in 1952, 2,040 and last year, 1,100, that is about one-third of the 1950 total. So the emission of sulphur dioxide has been substantially reduced.

I admit that this is apparently in conflict with the readings of Southwark Borough's gauges, which showed an increase of about 30 per cent. in 1954 over 1953. One deduction is that some of the sulphur dioxide must come from other sources. Perhaps I might take up the right hon. Gentleman's point about the closing of the station in July and August, 1954. In fact, Bankside station" A" was closed down then and the lead peroxide instrument at Greenmore Wharf, one of the places where a gauge is kept, showed an appreciable amount of sulphur dioxide in the period. It is very difficult to check the sources of the emissions.

Thirdly, I come to the question of grit. It is the opinion of the Chief Alkali Inspector that the station is mainly responsible for grit deposits. I should add that there is an element of doubt created by the positioning of the gauge at Greenmore Wharf. This gauge cannot be regarded as affording an indication of the average level of grit deposited in the area, much less the borough of Southwark, because—and the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned this point—winds from the south and the west tend to bring waste gases from "A" station rapidly down to ground level. This may account for exceptionally high readings. Two gauges placed even quite close to each other will very often give widely different readings. To assume that readings may indicate an actual fall in tons on a square mile can, of course, be fallacious.

I have gone into the question of emission. We accept the opinion of the Chief Alkali Inspector that the position is unsatisfactory. However much one may argue about the instrument, that remains a fact. We accept it. We have discussed again the outlook for this older station with the British Electricity Authority. The occasion of this inspection was taken as another opportunity for raising the matter. I do not want to say that the last word has yet been said on that subject, but obviously, without my hon. Friend being here, I can only give solid assurances on the short-term course which is open to the Authority.

The right hon. Gentleman has shown his awareness of the fact that my right hon. Friend is not responsible directly for this or any other power station. In the short term, all we can seek is to keep pressing for close control of smoke and for yet a further reduction in the use of solid fuel. I hope that the occasion which the right hon. Gentleman has chosen for discussion of this subject will have its bearing—directly or indirectly—upon the attainment of this short-term objective.

Mr. Isaacs

I should like to thank the Parliamentary Secretary for that little ray of hope, and for staying here tonight to help us in this matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.