HC Deb 07 July 1955 vol 543 cc1471-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

11.38 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)

I am glad of the opportunity of raising tonight a matter which concerns some of my constituents. The question I have to raise arises from the Rural Water Supplies and Sewerage Acts of from 1944 to 1955. It concerns the inhabitants of part of my constituency known as Norland Town, which although called a town is actually a village, and a scattered one at that.

The Sowerby Bridge Urban District Council, the local authority concerned, proposes a drainage or sewerage scheme for Norland Town, and the question arises whether the local authority shall be given some contribution towards the cost of this scheme under the provisions of the Rural Water Supplies and Sewerage Acts of from 1944 to 1955.

I suppose the first question to consider is whether the scheme is necessary at all. I do not think it would be needful for me to argue that at any length. A brief description of the conditions it is proposed to remedy would not be amiss, however. There are 110 houses concerned in the proposed scheme. Only two are on what is called the water-carriage system. Sixty-four houses have pail-closets, including the school, where the children are using old-fashioned-type tub closets, and where the medical officer of health says there is a distinct risk of a spreading of excremental disease.

The remaining houses are connected to existing sewers which discharge into cesspools. In these, gravitation, aided by waste sink water, carries the sewage into the cesspools, and the cesspools for the most part are put on agricultural land on the slope of the hillside towards the town of Sowerby Bridge. The cesspools are in a constant condition of overflow, and they foul the private water supplies on the hillside which are used by householders lower down and nearer the town itself.

It is a remarkable thing that these cesspools are apparently on a lease from the owners of the land which may be terminated at three months' notice. One is horrified to think what might happen if those concerned chose to give notice to the local authority to remove the cesspools from their land. The cesspools are certainly a nuisance, and those concerned in agriculture complain. There are other undesirable features about them which are a constant source of difficulty and objection.

I will sum this up by saying that the medical officer of health, the West Riding County Council, and the Ministry, all realise that the scheme is necessary.

The next question is, who is to pay? Does the scheme qualify for a grant? Section 1 (1, b) of the 1944 Act lays it down as a condition of a contribution that the expenditure shall be incurred in making adequate provision for sewerage or the disposal of sewage by a rural locality. The question is, therefore, whether Norland Town, despite its name, is a rural locality.

Norland Town was previously part of the Halifax rural district, and it is now part of the Sowerby Bridge Urban District. It is a fact, however, that it is not necessary for the local authority concerned to be a rural district council for it to be able to qualify for a grant towards expenditure of this kind in a rural locality because Section 1 (6) of the 1944 Act says that a local authority, for the purpose of the Section, shall be the council of any borough, urban or rural district, and the Parliamentary Secretary said in a speech on the Second Reading of the 1955 Measure on 22nd February, as will be seen in c. 1221 of the OFFICIAL REPORT, that in a small number of cases contributions had been made to urban areas. I think that he said that consideration had to be given to each case on its merits.

In Norland Town, which I would emphasise is a village, and a very scattered one at that, there is not a single factory or industrial building of any kind. It is on the edge of the moors, 500 ft. above Sowerby Bridge and 750 ft. above sea level; it is a kind of crow's nest overlooking the small, closely packed town. It is served by a bus service. It is the sort of place to which people from Sowerby Bridge and Halifax go by bus for a breath of moorland air. The fact that there are only 110 houses and fewer than 350 inhabitants suggests that it is a rural locality. There is, anyhow, other evidence to support that view.

The West Riding County Council consultant engineer said in a letter addressed to the West Riding County Council on 3rd December, 1953, referring to the conditions there: …I have no doubt that they are such as to qualify for consideration in respect of grants-in-aid under the 1944 Act; the area concerned, although within the jurisdiction of an urban authority, seems to be undoubtedly largely rural in character. The West Riding County Council itself gave notice that it accepted the view of their consultant engineer, and for the purposes of Section 2 of the 1944 Act, associated itself with his view. So there are two authorities who say that this is a rural area, and I say it is too, if one's observation and judgment is of any account. I have been over every yard of the proposed scheme since the Election and before.

When this matter was first put to the Ministry, however, the letter sent on behalf of the Minister, on 17th August, 1954, said, the Minister was not empowered to give grant under the above Acts unless the work to be done was for the benefit 'of a rural locality.' The term is not defined in the Act, and it is the Minister's practice to interpret it as broadly as possible, but in this case he is satisfied that the Norland Town district cannot be regarded as rural in character and it does not satisfy the requirement of the Act. When the local authority made further representations on the matter, the Ministry replied, on 5th July, 1954: I have to state that grants under the above Acts are given to assist local authorities in the execution of rural schemes which, by reason of their expense, would otherwise be beyond local resources. In the case in question it is considered that the burden that will be imposed on the rates by carrying out the scheme is so small as not to warrant Exchequer assistance, quite apart from the question as to whether the area concerned is a rural locality for the purposes of the Acts. The Ministry, having first taken this stand on its view that this was not a rural locality, then shifted on to another leg, and said that, apart from that question, the burden on the rates imposed by the cost of this scheme was not serious enough to justify a grant. When I raised the matter with the Parliamentary Secretary on 17th November, 1954, to which he was good enough to reply on 30th November, 1954, he moved back on to the original foot. He said: I am afraid, however, that as the district does not in our opinion qualify as a rural locality, the burden on the rates, whatever view one may take about it, cannot be the deciding factor. It rather looks as if this matter is being first argued on the question of "a rural locality," then on the question of the burden on the rates, and that the argument as then reverting to the definition of "a rural locality." What is the present case against the making of the grant? Is it that the Minister says this is not a rural locality? Or is he now saying that even if it is, the cost of the scheme is relatively small? I agree that the cost is approximately £10,000, which would be the equivalent of just over a penny rate, and that, the Minister may say, is really chicken feed, that the local authority can surely afford to bear that, and there is no reason, on economic grounds, for asking the Ministry to make a grant.

I submit that one cannot consider this type of burden in isolation. The rate poundage in Sowerby Bridge Urban District is 27s. in the pound, and there are substantial burdens awaiting the local authority in numerous directions. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether he has ever heard of the straw which breaks the camel's back—or is he going to say that his sole interest is in the weight of the straw? I would draw his attention to the enormous problems that are confronting local authorities such as mine, where there is much that is old and inherited from the industrial development of a hundred years ago and much that has to be modernised, and where amenities are being provided for the outlying areas at great expense.

In the Sowerby Bridge Urban District, out of a total of 6,500 dwellings, there are 30 per cent. which fall short of proper standards in ventilation alone. There are 1,820 back-to-back houses, and hon. Members know what they are like; one door only in and out. There is no back door. There are 164 back-to-earth houses built into the hill-side with the back wall embedded in the rock or soil of the hill, with consequent problems of damp and other objectionable features which are very serious. There are 265 single back houses and 52 with only single rooms. I am told that 15 per cent. of the total number of dwellings in the urban district are such that they would justify inclusion in a clearance area.

Substantial grants are being made for the improvement and modernising of old houses and the local authority is cooperating to the utmost to help local owners to improve their property. Facing the local authority is the problem of carrying out a scheme for the treatment of sewage and trade wastes at an estimated cost of £30,000 a year, not all of which will be recoverable from traders. Substantial works for street improvement and maintenance have been held in abeyance for a long time. The sum of £25,000 should now be spent on improvements of very defective conditions in streets and surrounding roads of the area.

I think that the Minister must consider the question broadly. It is not sufficient to say that this is not a rural locality when anyone who knows it would say that it is. It is not enough to consider this as a case of a slight additional financial burden on the local authority, as this is cumulative. Looking at the map does not convey the true position of Norland in relation to Sowerby Bridge unless one studies the contour lines, because there is a sharp incline rising from Sowerby Bridge to this isolated urban area. I hope that these further representations I have made to the Minister will enable him to take a more sympathetic view of the claims of my constituents under the provisions of the 1944 Act.

11.54 p.m.

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

When we were discussing the Rural Water Supplies and Sewerage Bill a little while ago, the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) made an intervention on the subject of the grants under the Act, and I appreciated that he had a domestic interest in the subject which he has been able to unfold more fully tonight.

We fully appreciate the heavy commitments which Sowerby Bridge has to undertake or has undertaken, and certainly the drainage problems which confront the council. I believe the hon. Member mentioned £30,000 expenditure a year on that project. The town has industries which use a lot of water that has to be purified before it goes into the river. We know from experience that a lot of these industrial wastes are best treated with domestic sewage at sewage disposal works and the council has concentrated on that method of tackling the drainage problem. We hope to hear soon the exact plans that the council has so that a start can be made on an attempt at least to relieve the pollution of the River Calder.

I do not overrate the task which confronts the urban district council in improving the drainage in the main built-up part of the town but that is not the main issue which concerned the hon. Member tonight. Very naturally, the council and the hon. Member, on its behalf, are anxious, faced by this very considerable task, to have any help that may be forthcoming in the way of grant. I think that that is really his feeling. It has occurred to him that, if not in respect of the main scheme, at least in respect of the minor scheme of Norland Town, the Rural Water Supplies Act might fill the bill in every sense of the word.

As the hon. Member knows, because I mentioned this in the speech to which he has referred, the crux of the matter is expressed in the 1944 Act, namely, the "rural locality." That is the heart of it. A rural locality qualifies for grant under the Act, but nothing else does. I admit that this expression "rural locality," is not easily defined. It is not defined in the Act.

To find the right answer, as often as not we have to take into account the background of the Rural Water Acts. They were designed to encourage the improvement of the water supplies and sewerage in the countryside, bearing in mind that in many rural areas it is exceptionally expensive to provide these services. There is, for instance, the length of pipe required to carry the water from one point to another, and the layout is likely to be far more expensive than the layout in any town. That is the background against which we consider the expression, "rural water supplies". We look at the general character and geography of any locality, its population, its density, the way it is spread out, and factors of that kind, before deciding whether an area comes within the scope of the Act.

I think the hon. Member will agree that this commonsense approach produces a fairer answer than any attempt to design a rigid formula in regard to a "rural locality".

Mr. Houghton

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will permit me to say that nothing makes common sense to me unless it produces the money.

Mr. Deedes

I am speaking of the large number of area which we have to consider, some of which are included, and some of which would like to be included, but unfortunately are not. In the circumstances, I think that the hon. Member will agree that the main Sowerby Bridge scheme falls outside the scope of any grant.

Then there is the question of the Nor-land Town scheme. Norland Town was formerly part of the Halifax Rural District, and is now part of the Sowerby Bridge Urban District. We do not regard this as conclusive evidence of attachment to an urban or a rural area. The important point, which the hon. Member did not mention, is that Nor-land Town is situated less than a mile from the centre of Sowerby Bridge, which is a town of some 18,000 people. I took the point which the hon. Member made, but I have the contour lines on a map beside me. As the crow flies, or in a bee-line, the distance from Norland Town to the centre of Sowerby Bridge is about a mile.

That, in my opinion, makes it impossible to treat these two parts of the area in isolation. I assure the hon. Member that this is not the only case in which the matter has been decided in that way. We have compared this with other cases, and I am not satisfied that, on that basis, this is an unfair verdict. The hon. Member twitted me with switching from this question of "rural locality" to the question of the rates. It is true, and it is fair to add, that the rate burden on the Sowerby Bridge Urban District Council would not be onerous. However, that is not a matter which is usually considered in deciding the locality.

The object is to give assistance to rural areas where the scheme would be exceptionally expensive, and where it is likely that it would not be started unless some financial assistance were given. This assistance, with the county council assistance, which is added, conies to a considerable amount. That is the standard on which we judge it. From the engineering point of view this scheme is not a very complicated one, and of course it is only a small part of what the council have in mind.

Let me emphasise that in being unable to bring this small scheme within the terms of the Rural Water Supplies and Sewerage Act, I hope it will not be thought that we lack sympathy with the council and what it wants to do in its main project. I hope it will not be taken as a gesture discouraging the council in what is undoubtedly a very large and difficult task. We want to encourage the council, and we will do everything we can to do so, but, however worthy the scheme, I am afraid that it does not entitle us to devote money made available by Parliament to a scheme for which, in our very carefully considered view, that money was not intended.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Twelve o'clock.