HC Deb 25 January 1955 vol 536 cc38-42

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Minister of Housing and Local Government whether he will now make a statement of the policy of Her Majesty's Government in connection with the legislative and other recommendations embodied in the Report of the Beaver Committee on Air Pollution, Command Paper No. 9322.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Duncan Sandys)

I will, with permission, answer Question No. 87, which was not reached at Question Time.

Her Majesty's Government have given most careful consideration to the Report of the Committee on Air Pollution, under the chairmanship of Sir Hugh Beaver.

The Committee estimate that the smoke, grit, dust and noxious gases, emitted into the air from domestic dwellings and industrial plant, cause damage to property and other harmful effects to the tune of about £250 million a year. To this must be added the value of the heat wasted through excessive smoke, which is assessed by the Committee at between £25 million and £50 million a year. These figures take no account of injury to health and loss of life, as for example, the 4,000 deaths caused by smoke-laden fog in London two years ago.

The Committee make a number of important proposals, the adoption of which would, in their opinion, reduce the density of smoke in the atmosphere to an extent amounting perhaps to as much as 80 per cent. over the next 10 or 15 years. Their main recommendations are as follows:

  1. (1) That, subject to certain exceptions, the emission of dark smoke should be prohibited by law.
  2. (2) That industries, when installing new plant, should be required to take all practical steps to prevent the emission of grit and dust.
  3. (3) That, subject to confirmation by the Government, local authorities should be empowered to designate "Smokeless Zones" and "Smoke Control Areas."
  4. (4) That the duty of inspection and enforcement should be placed upon local authorities, except in the case of certain industrial processes, which should be supervised by Government Inspectors.
  5. (5) That householders in smoke restricted districts should be required to burn only smokeless fuel, and that the cost of converting domestic fireplaces for this purpose should be met, to a large extent, by grants from the Exchequer and the local authorities.
These are far-reaching proposals. They involve a number of quite complex technical problems and entail the expenditure of considerable sums of money. In addition, they raise important issues of policy, which directly affect local authorities, industry and private individuals.

All these various questions are at present being examined by the Government in ca-operation with outside interests concerned. I have already had preliminary discussions with representatives of local authorities and the Federation of British Industries. These first meetings indicate that industry would be ready to play its part in implementing this policy, and that the local authorities would be prepared to accept the additional responsibilities involved.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is having similar consultations north of the Border. At the same time, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Fuel and Power is examining the question of increasing the availability of the smokeless fuels that will be needed.

These studies and consultations have not yet reached the stage at which I can make a detailed statement on the various aspects of this question. Nevertheless, I can already inform the House that, while reserving their position in regard to individual proposals, Her Majesty's Government have decided in principle to adopt the policy recommended by the Beaver Committee.

Mr. Nabarro

May I ask my right hon. Friend—

Mr. S. Silverman

On a point of order. At 3.30 p.m., Mr. Speaker, you, in your discretion, interrupted a number of supplementary questions on a matter which properly arose at Question Time on the ground that it was 3.30 p.m. and that Question Time was over. Now the right hon. Gentleman the Minister for Housing and Local Government has occupied very nearly 10 minutes—

Mr. Ellis Smith

On a good subject.

Mr. Silverman

The right hon. Gentleman has occupied that time in telling the House the contents of a Report, which has already been issued and of which nearly everybody was already aware, in reciting the details and in adding that the Government were considering the matter, accepted the principle and had no detailed statement to make. On what principle was this regarded as so urgent a matter as to take up 10 minutes at this time of day?

Mr. Speaker

It has always been customary for the House to allow a Minister to answer a Question which is on the Order Paper after the hour for Questions has elapsed, and it is a matter of opinion whether the contents of the answer which is then delivered are of sufficient importance to justify that course. The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) evidently thinks that in this case they were not, but others might have a contrary opinion.

Mr. Nabarro

Is my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government aware that the statement which he has made accepting in principle, and I repeat in principle, a policy for clean air will be received with acclamation by all sections of the British people? In the course of his further consultations with the outside interests to which he referred, will my right hon. Friend seriously bear in mind the position of agriculture and the urgent need for increasing home food production? Will he consult the National Farmers' Union and the National Union of Agricultural Workers on the serious effect of atmospheric pollution upon the growth of crops?

Mr. Paget

In view of the highly complicated nature of this matter, does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the "Economist" that we could not conceivably have a less appropriate subject than this to be dealt with by Private Bill legislation?

Mr. Sandys

First, I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) for his remarks and, secondly, to assure him that the organisations to which he referred will be included in the series of consultations which are to take place. As to the question put by the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), I am sure that he will not expect me to comment on a Bill which has not yet been introduced to the House.

Mr. Noel-Baker

In view of the immense sum of £300 million which the nation is losing every year as a result of smoke and grit, and the fact that the Government have had this Report now for more than two months, cannot the right hon. Gentleman go further in assuring us that the Government will give large-scale help in the capital expenditure that is required, particularly for the production of more smokeless fuels? Does the right hon. Gentleman's statement that the Government accept the Report in principle mean that they will also make large grants from the Exchequer for this purpose?

Mr. Sandys

I said that we were looking into all the issues which are raised by these proposals. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman would wish me to make piecemeal announcements upon this matter, but I hope to be in a position to make a fuller statement before very long.

Mr. Popplewell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the House and the country realise the tremendous amount of capital expenditure involved before these conversions can be made fully but that the empowering of local authorities to make smokeless zones, to which he referred, is not likely to be very expensive from the Government's point of view? Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that he is prepared to frame a regulation which will allow permissive powers to local authorities to adopt it and establish smokeless zones without their having to resort to the cumbersome and costly Private Bill procedure?

Mr. Sandys

That, in general terms, is one of the proposals in the Report.

Mr. Popplewell

But will the Minister take action quickly upon it?

Mr. Dodds

These proposals of the Beaver Committee are far-reaching and very necessary; but does the right hon. Gentleman really believe that much progress will be made quickly without further legislation by this House? What does he propose to do about that? Is he going to leave it to voluntary support?

Mr. Sandys

One of the main proposals of the Report is that there should be legislation. I have said that I hope to be in a position before very long to make a further statement on the subject.

Mr. T. Brown

The right hon. Gentleman enumerated most of the proposals of the Beaver Committee, which we all welcome. He did not, however, refer to the action which the Government propose to take to deal with burning pit heaps, which are a menace in many mining areas. Will he consult his right hon. Friend the Minister of Fuel and Power and the National Coal Board on the control of these obnoxious pit heaps, which are causing so much disturbance?