HC Deb 05 June 1956 vol 553 cc1041-50

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

11.39 p.m.

Mr. J. C. Jennings (Burton)

I am grateful for this opportunity of drawing the attention of the House to the deplorable condition of the River Trent at Burton. I assure the House that in the Burton area there is widespread concern regarding the present state of the river. Just as a wife is houseproud and looks after her house very well, so in the same way are Burton people town-proud. Their river flows through the town.

A river like the Trent should be a decided asset to a town from the aesthetic point of view, from the sporting aspect and from its pleasure-giving qualities, but this river is now a filthy river. It is no longer beautiful at Burton. Its sporting qualities are very limited and its pleasure-giving qualities are very few.

The corporation has developed the river banks—for instance, at Stapenhill, where there are beautiful gardens—and the river has housed boating and sailing clubs, rowing clubs, swimming clubs, and organisations like the Sea Cadets. Now, however, the sailing club can no longer operate, boating is very little done, rowing—and Burton stages one of the premier regattas in the country—is not a very pleasant sport, and swimming is completely ruled out.

Each year the medical officer—he has done it this year—has issued a warning that the river is dangerous and unsuitable for swimming. Sea cadets have their headquarters on the banks of the river, but, again, their operations are very limited. I received this morning a letter from the secretary of a Burton rowing club. Last Thursday, its senior eight were out rowing when members of the crew were seized with pains in the chest. This was caused by fumes rising from the river. This is not the first time that has happened and members of crews tell me that rowing on the river is now neither a healthy nor a pleasant sport.

I visited the Burton regatta three weeks ago and there saw the condition of the river. I actually saw gas bubbles rising in various parts of the river as a result of the contamination and pollution. The river contains vast areas of black mud, and I will explain in more detail later exactly what this black mud is and what it looks like. The river smells and what should be an amenity has now become a definite menace.

I was in a difficulty over this debate because in dealing with this question of the Trent at Burton one should deal with the general question of pollution. found myself in difficulty because two Ministries were involved. The Ministry of Housing and Local Government was responsible for the problem of pollution and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was responsible for the cleaning up of the river. Therefore, I had to decide whether I should deal tonight with the general problem of pollution, or with what should be a minimum alleviation of the dirty condition of the river by considering the question of the cleansing of the river. I decided to deal, first, with the narrower issue in order to try to get something done immediately about cleaning up the river on the stretches of the Burton reaches.

However, I must say something about the general question of pollution because the second problem of the cleaning of the river is bound up with the first problem. It is obvious that a faster flowing river will deal more effectively with pollution. Therefore, one must look at the origin of the pollution in this stretch of the river at Burton. Obviously it comes from two sources, the Potteries and the Black Country.

I give praise to the authorities that for years they have held back the pollution from the Potteries. They have kept it to the minimum. But the question of pollution from the Black Country coming into the Trent via the River Tame and joining the Trent at Alrewas has created a vast problem. For instance, on Friday last a sample of the water of the River Tame as it entered the Trent was taken for my benefit. I will not go into the technical figures—I am not a qualified techician for that purpose—but from a comparison of the figures for the last year it is clear that the degree of contamination at present is six times as great as it was between 1930 and 1939.

This is the condition of the Trent at Burton. It is absolutely impossible for any organism, vegetable or animal, to live in the water. For five or six miles between Alrewas—at the confluence of the Tame and the Trent—and the confluence of the Dove and the Trent, the river is a dead and barren stretch of water. The chemist who analysed the sample has submitted his report, which I had this morning. It states: If the present trend is not checked, the Trent at Burton will soon become a positive nuisance in a sanitary sense. What is the connection between this general problem of pollution and the Burton reaches of the river? I will try to trace that connection, and the problem which the Parliamentary Secretary will, I hope, say that he is going to face. There are five points, and they are these. First, the industrial pollution of the Tame delays the bacterial decomposition of organic matter until a few miles above Burton—a few miles upstream. Secondly, considerable quantities of partially decomposed organic matter from sewage effluents is carried down as black mud. Thirdly, this black mud deposit is in what are known as the "deeps" and in the river at Burton; fourthly—and here a great danger arises —the mud becomes heavily infected with small bloodworms which, as they die off and decay, give rise to most offensive odours. The river is evil smelling. Fifthly, the mud itself, in decomposing, gives rise to marsh gas and more offensive smells. In the summer, the gases generated bring large lumps of evil smelling black mud to the surface.

What should be a pleasant prospect for the people of Burton is, in the end, an ugly view; and an evil one. Now there is the problem of how to solve this bad nuisance. Four or five years ago river boards were set up, and I spent almost three hours yesterday reading the debates on the 1947–49 River Boards Act and the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act of four years ago.

The Trent River Board came into existence under that legislation, and for four years the people of Burton, through the Burton Corporation, have paid an annual quota of £4,184 or, in round figures, £16,000 in the last four years. The people, naturally, expect that something will be done about the cleansing of the river; but, in those four years, as they known from their own visual experience, nothing or very little has been done. I have read through the accounts of the River Board for the year ended 31st March, 1955, and all that I can find to have been spent on the stretch from Alrewas to Burton is £222; or £192 for capital works, and £30 from the loan account labelled "regrading." The money spent on the Burton stretch in the last few years is infinitesimal.

There are, I suggest, two solutions. One is the long-term plan for dealing with pollution at source; that is, in the Tame itself. I cannot deal with that subject tonight, but I would say that I shall endeavour, as soon as I can, to draw the attention of the Minister to the general question of pollution from the Black Country. Secondly, there is the short-term aspect, and here we ask for some immediate alleviation to this most objectionable problem.

What leaps to mind immediately is the question of dredging and cleansing the river. The river at Burton has not been dredged for years. Burton submits that some of its £16,000 should be used for the purpose. Secondly, we ask that the Trent River Board should inspect the weirs, particularly the Drakelow weir. and ascertain what the best approach there is.

There is a difference of opinion on the use of weirs in rivers. A weir holds up the flow so that sedimentation occurs and silt is formed. In Burton, this has built up, thereby further impeding the flow and tending to collect more. Dredging is the answer to this problem. On the other hand, weirs have a beneficial effect in aerating the water, which encourages normal non-offensive bacterial decomposition of organic matter.

We have on the banks of the Trent. at Drakelow a large new power station which discharges water at a temperature 12°F. higher than the water of the Trent. and we get an average rise in temperature of the Trent of about 5°F. Reading through past debates, I note that time after time hon. Members who knew what they were talking about said that nothing kills animal and vegetable organisms in a river quicker than a rise in temperature as a result of water entering it.

I ask my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, who knows Burton and its setting and how beautiful it can be, to look very carefully into the question, to give the people of Burton some satisfaction for the £16,000 which they have contributed during the past four years, and to ensure that once more Burton can have as its river a beautiful stream running through the town with all the amenities that a river should give.

11.53 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Jennings) on securing the Adjournment tonight in order to ventilate the complaints of his constituents about the condition of the River Trent, at Burton. I know Burton-on-Trent, I have had the opportunity of visiting my hon. Friend there, and I know how very delightful the stretch of the river is as it flows through the town. I should be glad to see any measure taken that could improve its condition.

I sympathise with the complaints of his constituents and realise that in the exceptional drought conditions that we have been experiencing in recent months, when, I do not doubt, the flow has been exceptionally low, the position has obviously been aggravated. I feel sure that my hon. Friend and the people of Burton will recognise and understand that the conditions that we have had in the last two months have been exceptional. and that, whatever conditions there may be at present, normally with a far greater flow of water the conditions would be by no means so bad.

I would certainly agree that today the River Trent is by no means, when it reaches Burton, a crystal-clear mountain stream, and, more particularly, I should have to agree that its tributary, the River Tame, is very far from being a stream of pristine purity. As my hon. Friend observed, it is not for my Department to deal with the problem of pollution, but I can say, in passing, that there is a big scheme visualised for dealing with the noxious effluents in the River Tame.

The scheme is being promoted by Birmingham and the Tame and Rae District Drainage Board. It is estimated to cost £9 million over the next six years. It will, I imagine, deal comprehensively with most of the noxious effluents. I believe that it is to be shortly got under way by the first stage of a local inquiry. No doubt that, in the long run, is the greatest possible measure which can be taken to deal with the problems from which Burton is undoubtedly suffering.

Meantime, my side of the problem is rather to deal with matters of the flow and navigation of the river and matters of land drainage. There is a problem of the actual flow of the river at Burton, particularly the complaint of the odiferous mud banks of the Burton district, especially those at Drakelow Weir. There are certainly mud banks there and they certainly smell in dry weather. I understand that that weir is in a semi-derelict condition and at times of low flow, because of its faulty condition, the water percolates through its lower parts with the result that the level of the river is low at that time and the mud banks are then exposed. If they are exposed for any period, in particular because of the unpleasant deposit which comes down and to which my hon. Friend referred, then, of course, the smell given off is offensive.

On the other hand, when the river reaches either a medium or high flow, the obstruction of the weir in the river is sufficient to cause a very rapid rise in the river's level, with the result that the mud banks are then covered. The combined affect of those two factors is that the mud banks are never exposed for long enough for vegetation to grow over them. They are constantly being either dry or wet and the result is, of course, that they are in a condition of nuisance. If they were permanently dry, vegetation would grow over them and to a very large extent the problem would be overcome.

I understand that the Trent River Board had plans to deal with this matter in the past. The plan was, of course, to remove the weir. I imagine the plan would be to remove the weir completely and then dredge the channel of the river and use the dredged material to fill in the mud banks and shape up the banks, so that the mud flats would be removed and there would be a deeper and narrower channel. The problem caused by the mud flats would then disappear.

When the board tackled the problem, some years ago, it met the difficulty that the ownership of the weir was uncertain. After it had announced its intention of removing the weir, a local brewery company sought an injunction against it to prevent it removing the weir. On that, the river board—the catchment board as it then was—decided to desist and no action was taken.

In the light of the local complaints, which my hon. Friend has expressed so forcibly this evening, I will certainly be very glad to have consultations with the board and discover its plans for dealing with this matter in the future; but I reiterate that, although accepting that there is a general condition here with which we should deal, I do not doubt that the exceptional conditions of drought from which we have been suffering nationally in the last two or three months have greatly worsened the normal condition.

In fairness to the Trent River Board I would say that it really is a very good board. My Department regards it as one of the best in the country. It is a very efficient body, both from the engineering and administrative point of view. It spends about £500,000 a year upon the care and maintenance of its river and in judging how efficient it is I ask my hon. Friend to recognise—as I am. sure he does—that it has a very big length of river to deal with, taking into account all the tributaries. Its efficiency must be judged in the light of its work over the whole of its area. The recent big scheme it has completed at Nottingham—the Nottingham flood relief scheme—is an outstanding piece of work, for which it must be given very great credit. I am confident that in a general way it is doing all that can be done to look after a big and important river.

As my hon. Friend has recognised, the board has an exceptionally difficult problem with these noxious industrial effluents which are being discharged in the upper parts of some of the tributaries of the Trent, and which will be very expensive to clean up, but the scheme which I have mentioned will go a long way towards doing so, and under the powers that Parliament provided to the 1951 Act I hope that it will gradually be able to move upstream and deal with these noxious effluents.

I think that everybody recognised, at the time of the 1951 Act—in the debates in which I took some part, although we were then on the other side of the House—that however much we might wish to see rivers like the Trent cleaned up and put into a decent condition, so that fish could live in them again, it was bound to take a good many years to do it, and that all the time we would be swimming against the tide, with the necessities of modern industry continually producing effluents which were more and more difficult to deal with if they were to be made safe and non-injurious. However, I feel quite confident that in the Trent River Board we have a board which is an exceptionally strong one, and will be able to deal with these extremely formidable problems. As and when it is possible to proceed with these major works I have no doubt that it will do so.

For the consolation of my hon. Friend I would add that, although Burton-on-Trent, under the provisions of the 1948 River Boards Act, does not have a member on the board by right, we recognise that it is an extremely important town and, by an informal arrangement, by right hon. Friend has appointed one of the distinguished citizens of the town as a member of the board, as one of the nominated members with a particular interest in representing the lowland areas.

This gives Burton-on-Trent a voice on the board. It is always difficult for any area to know whether it is getting good value for what it subscribes, but, taking into account the very great annual expenditure of about £500,000 which the board is making on the river, and the great and valuable work it is doing, I should have thought that the citizens of Burton-on-Trent—even though they have not seen work going on around their town—would recognise that their £4,000 per annum is making a useful contribution towards the care of the river as a whole, and is good value to them.

These immediate remedial works to which I have referred can do something to improve the flow. I must make clear, however, that improvement of the actual condition of the river involves more fundamental works which are bound to take far longer to bring about. I do not doubt that with the combination of interests of the local authorities concerned and the river boards these will in due course be dealt with. As a result of my hon. Friend's eloquent representations tonight I am glad to give him an undertaking that I will ask the river board what its plans are to deal with the Drake-low weir; also, whether there is a prospect of dealing with this immediate problem so that we can at least see a prospect of reducing the exposed area of these mudbanks which, I imagine, are the problem at present.

I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend for bringing to my attention tonight something which I realise has been troubling his constituents, and giving me an opportunity to make this reply. If we could expect to get a reasonable precipitation of rain in the next few weeks— which would be gratefully received by all the farmers in the country—I do not doubt that it would go further than anything else to alleviate the problems of his constituents. No doubt my hon. Friend and the rest of us will be praying for such a precipitation.

12.8 a.m.

Mr. Charles A. Howell (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will ask the Trent River Board why the dredging which. in my younger days, and up to the war. took place at Burton-upon-Trent, has not been resumed. I think that that is the case. I hope he will not be too optimistic about the £9 million scheme for the River Tame, which, in my opinion, is to get the water away from my constituency. Once that happens it will mean that the black mud coming down now will come to Alrewas and into Burton much more quickly than at present.

Unless dredging takes place that will not help. If dredging is done now there is little industrial and residential area beyond Burton-upon-Trent—I think that Newton Olney would be the last point— and there is countryside in which the effluent could be dispersed before it reaches Nottingham. That is something which warrants immediate attention.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock upon Tuesday evening and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Twelve o'clock.