HC Deb 10 April 1956 vol 551 cc75-80

The owner of land shall employ the best practicable means for preventing combustion of refuse, other than refuse to which section sixteen of this Act applies, deposited on his land an for preventing or minimising the emission of smoke and fumes from the refuse and if he fails so to do, he shall be guilty of an offence.—[Mr. D. Jones.]

Brought up and read the First time.

5.45 p.m.

Mr. D. Jones

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

We discussed this matter in Committee, but the Association of Municipal Corporations is not entirely satisfied. Subsections (1) and (2) of Clause 16 deal with what I might call "live" dumps, in the sense that the heaps are still being produced from refuse taken from a mine or quarry still in operation. Subsection (3) removes from the operation of those subsections spoil heaps which are no longer in use for the depositing of refuse from mines and quarries; but there are other heaps of industrial spoil from which there is a danger of combustion and the emission of smoke and fumes, apart from those formed as a result of the exploitation of coal or shale.

The Association of Municipal Corporations feels that the position at the present moment is not as clear as it might be about where the responsibility rests for the prevention of smoke and fumes from refuse dumps. It might be difficult to fix responsibility upon the party responsible for the deposits where the dumps have been used by more than one industrial process, but it is fairly clear that no industrial refuse is deposited without the acquiescence of the owner of the land. Therefore responsibility for the prevention of smoke and fumes from this rubbish ought to be placed fairly and squarely on the owner of the land. I have no doubt that the landowner was adequately compensated in the past for the use of his land for the depositing of industrial refuse. Having received his compensation, he must accept the consequences of the user of the land for that purpose.

The purpose of the Clause is to remove any possible ground of doubt and to place on the owner of the land this obligation to use the best practicable means. An argument may arise about the best practicable means, but I can at least plead that the words are used in other parts of the Bill with the approval of the Minister. If it is right to use them in other parts of the Bill, I see no reason why I should not use them in the proposed new Clause. We feel it is right that responsibility to comply with the provisions of the Bill should be placed on the owner of the land.

Mr. T. Brown

I beg to second the Motion.

This Clause will strengthen the Bill, because there is a danger that some people will escape their responsibilities if the Bill remains as it is. The question of spoil heaps has been a burning question for nearly a century, particularly with those who happen to live in districts where spoil heaps are on fire. I have always maintained that spoil heaps in these days are a disgrace and are unnecessary. The stuff that is now deposited upon the surface ought to be packed or stored underground, but we have not reached that stage yet and we must therefore deal with the problem as we see it.

My purpose in supporting the Clause is partly because of the tremendous effect spoil heaps have on the men who work underground. It may not be within the knowledge even of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power, and certainly not of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and some hon. Members opposite, that men have had to cease work underground because of pollution from smoking spoil heaps. That may surprise some hon. Members. I remember an instance when we could not work underground in a downcast shaft adjacent to a spoil heap. When the wind was serving from the east we had to cease work because of the polluted condition of the air sent down the shaft. That is a very serious state of affairs which ought to be prevented.

Most of these spoil heaps emit large volumes of smoke, not for an hour or two hours a day, but for 24 hours a day, seven days a week and twelve months in the year. They sometimes look like Mount Vesuvius in eruption. They are pouring forth these highly obnoxious fumes.

The Minister or the Department should take a very serious view of the situation now prevailing in the mining areas. There are three urban authorities in my district which are suffering tremendously from the effect of smoke pollution from this source. In one area five such spoil heaps are emitting smoke and sulphuric acid which is poisonous to the people living in the neighbourhood. The Clause will not impose any great hardship but will at least give the local authorities in whose areas these spoil heaps are situated some authority to deal with the position.

Many years ago I was a member of a health committee. We did our best to limit the laying down of these heaps. We were told that the new system of laying them down would mean that they would not burn. We were told by the experts that if the heaps were made in the form of a pyramid they would not be subject to spontaneous combustion. But what did we find? We found, much to our surprise—and much to the astonishment of the experts—that they did get on fire. There is conclusive evidence in the district from which I come that heaps have been burning since 1919. They are still on fire, and still the health committee of the local authority has no power to help to prevent that kind of thing taking place.

It may surprise the House to be told that one local authority area in my constituency has three and a half acres per head of the population under pit heaps or water. The Parliamentary Secretary is frowning, but it is nevertheless true; three and a half acres per head of the population in that local authority is at the present moment under either pit heaps or water. It is quite true. We went to the trouble to find out. Who was responsible for it? It is true to say that what we understand today as private industry in the coal industry was responsible to a large degree. Private enterprise failed to do its duty. There was no penalty inflicted upon offenders, and time and time again they asked, "What must we do with the refuse which comes from the pit?" We have found the answer in some quarters and could find it in many other quarters if we applied our minds to the task with the seriousness which we attach to this Bill.

This Clause seeks to give local authorities some power to deal with the matter. I therefore make a strong plea to the Minister or to the Department to accept it. It would strengthen the Bill, and would give some hope in the mining areas where pit heaps are now burning away and have been burning, to my knowledge, for nearly half a century. But the salient point is this. Men who work underground are breathing air that is already polluted without any additional pollution from the surface. When men have to work in temperatures of 80 to 110 degrees, the one essential thing is that the air they breathe should be as pure as possible. In this case the situation is aggravated by these spoil heaps.

I beg of the Minister to accept the Clause. It will not entail any additional hardship in the application of the Bill, but will at least give some hope to those people who unfortunately live on top of the pits that they will be covered by the Bill, give them hope that at long last a genuine attempt is going to be made to get rid of burning pit heaps.

Mr. Powell

The importance, and the difficulty, of dealing with nuisances from abandoned pit heaps and from other industrial heaps is not in dispute, but the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) is under a misapprehension in thinking that the terms of his Clause would add anything to the powers which are already available to local authorities. Taking Clause 16 in combination with the relevant parts of the Public Health Act, 1936, the position will be that in regard to spoil heaps which are still accumulating, the colliery spoil heaps which are abandoned in future, the responsibility, under Clause 16, will lie upon the owner of the mine or quarry.

In the case of colliery spoil heaps which have already been abandoned, which are no longer being added to at the time of the passing of the Act, and of all other industrial refuse deposits, the local authority has power to proceed for nuisance under the 1936 Act, subject, of course, to the same qualification as to the best practicable means as the hon. Member has quite rightly found it necessary to write into his own Clause. Indeed, they have wider powers under the 1936 Act than this new Clause would give, for under the 1936 Act they can proceed not only against the owner of the land but also against the occupier—who may be the person who has the actual control of the land—and also against any other person who is responsible for the deposit.

The effect of this new Clause, therefore, would be rather to narrow than to widen the scope of the powers available to local authorities at present. It is, of course, as the hon. Member well recognises, upon the practicability of the measures for dealing with these—in many cases—old deposits, that enforcement founders. That is a real problem, and one with which one hopes that future techniques will enable us to cope, but I must advise the House that no extra powers—indeed, rather less powers—than at present would be given to local authorities by the addition of this Clause to the Bill.

Mr. T. Brown

The Parliamentary Secretary has referred to the Public Health Act, 1936. I appreciate, and I agree at once, that there are very wide powers contained in that Act. Nevertheless, it is true that no action has been taken under that Act to enable local authorities to eliminate present nuisances or to prevent the creation of new ones. I should like to ask him what number of local authorities have taken action under the 1936 Act to prevent this taking place.

6.0 p.m.

Mr. Powell

The question before the House is whether local authorities would be in any better position as a result of this new Clause being added to the Bill, and the point is that it would add nothing to their powers. If those powers are inadequate at the moment, they would remain inadequate in exactly the same degree, or, indeed, in a greater degree, with the substitution of this new Clause, and I must advise the House that it would be ineffective to make this addition to the Bill.

Question put and negatived.