HC Deb 28 March 1958 vol 585 cc809-18

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

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Frank Beswick (Uxbridge)

Last June, I put a Question to the Minister of Housing and Local Government about the pollution of the River Colne and the Fray's River, and the Minister said that his information was that they were … in a better state than they have been for some time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th June, 1957; Vol. 571. c. 1066.] The right hon. Gentleman seemed to me to be unduly satisfied with the condition of both of those rivers, and others about which Questions were subsequently asked. He said, indeed, that the position would "steadily improve".

It was later in the same month of June last year that the Middlesex County Council wrote to the local authorities concerned, saying: This year the council has considered further reports on the condition of the river, the general conclusion from which is that the Colne is too filthy for swimming and can be used for this purpose only at considerable risk. The County Medical Officer considers that the river is little better than dilute sewage, and constitutes a direct risk to any Middlesex resident who may be tempted to bathe in it. That did not seem to justify the Minister's complacency.

Subsequently, the Yiewsley and West Drayton Urban District Council, after receiving the letter from the county, had samples of the river water analysed by the Public Health Laboratory Service, whose report stated that the condition was … one hundred times worse than poor but permissible well water. The urban district council convened a conference of all the various bodies in the area concerned, from which confer- ence another fact emerged. The Deputy Secretary of the Thames Conservancy stated that … the average degree of dilution of effluent in the river below Maple Lodge was two parts to one at times of low flow and three and a half parts to one at other times. That has to be compared with a standard of eight parts to one set by the Royal Commission.

So far from there having been the steady improvement which the Minister promised last June, I had only this last week a letter from the secretary of the Uxbridge Rovers Angling Society. I know the secretary very well—I happen to be President of that Society—and I respect his judgment. He tells me: Whilst making allowance for excessive drainage due to rain or snow it would, nevertheless, seem that there is insufficient filtering of the liquid effluent before its discharge to the river. This sediment must settle on the river bed or on the banks and must surely be a danger to public health. One also notices the odour given off by the water, which is definitely more pronounced nowadays. I must say also that, in the summer time, my constituents who live along the side of the Fray's River invariably complain about the weeds that grow along there, and the smell that they get in the warm weather. Although I know that the Thames Conservancy has done something there, and has cut down the weeds once a year, nevertheless what the secretary reports about the odour is borne out by information that I have received from residents living alongside the tributary to the Colne—and I may say that the tributary is not so bad as the main river.

The secretary goes on to refer to the discharge of other industrial matter at Long Bridge, Uxbridge, to the amount of suspended matter in the water, and also to the presence of detergent foam in the river—a problem, of course, not peculiar to this river alone.

This pollution of the river seems to have been intensified by two factors. First, there is the discharge of effluent from the Maple Cross Sewerage Works, which has increased over the past years. Secondly, as far as I can gather, the flow of water in the river has decreased because of the amount extracted for various purposes higher up above Maple Cross.

The Uxbridge Borough Council asked the Colne Valley Sewerage Board for an assurance that it would not increase the amount of effluent discharged into the River Colne, but the clerk to the board, in his reply, regretted that he could not give that assurance. On the other hand, while we cannot get an assurance that the volume of the effluent will not be increased, the extraction of water higher up the river tends to increase, and I have been informed this week that there is an application from the Luton Water Corporation to extract a further large quantity of water from the River Ver, which is a tributary of the Colne.

If these two tendencies continue—one the volume of the effluent to increase and the other the amount of water flowing down the river to decrease—it will not be very long before we shall have a river in name, but which is, in fact, only a course for the pure sewage effluent from the Maple Cross works.

I want to put one or two definite questions to the Parliamentary Secretary, and I believe that the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell) also has one or two points he wishes to put. First, is it or is it not dangerous for my constituents to bathe in this river? Secondly, if it is dangerous, what is the hon. Gentleman going to do about it? Are we to leave the position as it is, or are we to try to improve it? Thirdly, can he give me an assurance that these twin tendencies—an increasing volume of effluent and a decreasing amount of water—are not to continue, or that we are to do something to stop them?

The Colne Valley Sewerage Board, as far as I can see, seem to be content to rest upon the fact that the chemical content of the effluent which it is discharging into this so-called river is up to the statutory standard, but surely we cannot be satisfied with that alone. Surely it is not enough simply to say that the effluent conforms to some formula, without regard to the amount of river water with which it is eventually mixed and diluted. Moreover, what about the question of the bacteriological content? Are we again simply to have regard to the chemical standard of the effluent, without looking at the bacteriological content of this mixture as it goes downstream?

I have heard that nothing more can be done to improve the condition of this river beyond the works that have already been constructed at Maple Cross because of the expense. I wonder whether the Parliamentary Secretary will say if that is the position. After all, we are spending large sums of money on anti-polio measures, apart from the high cost involved in the treatment of victims, and this expense is one that should properly be set against any money that is spent on the removal of the sources of some of this infection.

Finally, I am not here talking about a river which runs through a highly industrialised district. with wharves and docks alongside, and with no access for ordinary people. I am talking about a river which, with its tributaries, runs through the open fields and through residential districts. It is within easy access of a considerable urban population, and ought to be available to them as a healthy centre for sport and relaxation.

I want children to be able to paddle and bathe in this river without fear of infection. Citizens ought to be able to walk alongside without being troubled by the obnoxious smell which is there in the summer months. Moreover, anglers want to be able to go there and get their sport and relaxation without the unfortunate experiences which they have had in recent months.

With the advance of civilisation and all the technological advances which have been mentioned already this afternoon, we should have better and healthier conditions and a higher standard of hygiene —not smells and pollution of our rivers. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell us that something will be done to improve the condition of the River Colne.

4.11 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

This river divides the constituency of the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick) and that which I represent. We are well informed about this river as the result of many conferences and much discussion. The fact is that in the River Colne the proportion of sewage effluent to pure water is, on the average, one to three, whereas the proportion recommended by a Royal Commission is one to eight. I doubt very much whether, even with a dilution of one to eight, a river could really be recommended for bathing in.

I think that perhaps the most important and certainly the first service which the Parliamentary Secretary can render this afternoon is to say distinctly that it is quite unsafe and, indeed, dangerous for anyone to bathe in the River Colne as it is at present. That fact might be given full publicity and made absolutely clear. It might be argued that if it is a question of bathing in this small river, on the one hand, and a very great expenditure of public money, on the other, one should accept the deprivation of the amenity. That is an argument which I have not got time to go into now, speaking as I am, at twelve minutes past four. But let us put bathing aside.

There are other considerations. Let us have no doubt about it—this river smells. One does not have to go very near it to experience the smell. It can be savoured by anyone going along Western Avenue on a summer day as he crosses the county boundary and crosses this river. It is a very strong smell in suitable weather, and this is a great annoyance to those who live near to it.

This question raises almost an issue of principle. A great many people live in South-East England in very crowded conditions, and the problem of their sewage disposal is very real. One appreciates that. But here we have a small river which has been turned virtually into a surface sewage outlet. It is virtually nothing else now. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and his Department should think long about this matter. I am having troubles about this river higher up its course, where it runs past my constituency. There is a proposal that a fantastic amount of sludge should be deposited from the Maple Cross works on a part of my constituency. I will not deal with that this afternoon, except to put it to my hon. Friend that if we have a river in this condition running through a populated area, and if, also, it is proposed that from this works should be deposited a large amount of sludge— 85,000 tons a week, I believe—we have reached a point where the Department ought to consider whether a different system of sewage disposal could be developed in crowded areas.

The situation will not get better. Indeed, it will get worse. These are developing areas, and they are developing quickly. There are. I believe, methods of sewage disposal which avoid this diffi- culty. As a matter of principle my hon. Friend should ask his Department to advise him about this problem. It is now sufficiently acute to bring the hon. Member for Uxbridge and myself to raise it in Parliament, and it will become much more important and acute in the future if nothing radical is done about it.

4.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. J. R. Bevins)

I am obliged to the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) for what they have said this afternoon. It is quite natural that they should ventilate this question on the Floor of the House on the Adjournment. The hon. Member for Uxbridge, of course, has for a long time evinced his concern about the pollution of this particular river.

At the outset, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the Thames Conservancy is the authority primarily responsible in this matter, and that the Colne Valley Sewerage Board is responsible for sewage disposal in the area. It is from the Sewerage Board's treatment works that the bulk of the effluent finding its way into the river comes. That is not to say that my right hon. Friend shrugs off any responsibility in the matter, or, indeed that we have any wish to be complacent. I say to the hon. Gentleman and to my hon. Friend that we shall certainly study in very great detail what they have said.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge asked whether the River Colne was unsafe for bathing, and if so, what we were doing to improve matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South, suggested that I might be doing a service if I were to say quite categorically that the river was unsafe for that purpose. It is perfectly true that, last summer, the local authorities in the area issued notices saying that the river was unsafe for bathing from the standpoint of health. I think that I can best answer the hon. Gentleman's question by saying that, certainly below Harefield, the river is between one-quarter and one-third sewage effluent. Even if the dilution could be improved or the standard of the effluent could be raised—these are important matters to which I shall come in a moment—the proportion of effluent to the natural flow of water would still be high.

Mr. Beswick

I should like to be quite clear about this. I do not think that the Parliamentary Secretary's figures are right. The figures I quoted were given to me by the Thames Conservancy and the Sewerage Board—as much as 50 per cent. effluent during times of low flow.

Mr. Bevins

I do not think that we need to cavil about the exact proportion. We are, I think, agreed that the proportion is high. As I was saying, even if the dilution could be improved or the standard of the effluent raised, the proportion of effluent to natural flow of water would still be high. That, I think, was the point that the hon. Gentleman was at pains to make.

For practical purposes, therefore, there is very little prospect of turning this stretch of river into a bathing river. I want to make it quite clear that, in the view of the Thames Conservancy, the river never has been suitable or safe for bathing since sewage effluents have been discharged into it. The view of my right hon. Friend, of course, is in accord with the view of the Thames Conservancy.

The hon. Gentleman quite clearly had in mind that there was a risk of infection to bathers. On this matter, I am bound to say that I, as the representative of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, do not speak with authority, but I have discussed it with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health. I am told that no sewage effluent and no river flowing through inhabited places can be free of pathogenic organisms, that is to say, disease-giving organisms, although sewage purification usually reduces the bacterial content. This does not mean that rivers generally are, in the nature of things, a danger to health, or that, in the view of many people it would be unreasonable to take such a risk to health as might be involved in bathing in a fairly clean river. As hon. Members know, many people do so and are none the worse for it.

My information is that as yet no connection has been demonstrated between poliomyelitis and bathing. A committee of the Public Health Laboratory Service is now investigating the pollution of bathing beaches and I believe that this will throw light upon the effects of pollution generally. I cannot say when this committee will report, but I am told that there will be no avoidable delay. Having said that, and as I have no wish to equivocate, I am bound to agree with the opinions that have been expressed that the part of the river below Harefield should not be used for bathing.

The hon. Gentleman rightly invited me to say what is being done about it. Two questions are involved here. First, what can be done to deal with the increasing amount of effluent, which is largely due to increases in population especially in the new towns? Secondly, can we do anything to increase the dilution in the river? As the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend probably know, the first stage of the Sewerage Board's works came into operation about 1951. The second stage was completed in 1956. The board is now proposing additions to the work at a cost of about £750,000. The opinion of the Thames Conservancy is that these extensions to the present facilities will considerably help matters.

I know that my hon. Friend resisted the temptation to develop the argument as to what extent we or local authorities were justified in spending public money on work of this sort, especially having regard to the risk to health. I ought to make clear at this point that if, in the near future, this important extension should come before the Minister, and if it is shown that it is necessary for public health, the probability is that sanction will be forthcoming. Any of these sewerage schemes which are necessary in the interests of public health are never turned aside by my right hon. Friend. We have learnt that the Sewerage Board has it also in mind to undertake a dilution scheme to increase the natural flow of the river at the point where the effluent is discharged. My information is that the board is now at about the point of getting a report on its scheme from the consulting engineers.

Probably those two moves will lead to an improvement. But I give the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend an undertaking that we shall keep a very careful watch on the progress that is made. If we are able to help either the Thames Conservancy or the Sewerage Board in any reasonable way, then we shall always be glad to consider doing so.

There are one or two points of detail lo which I might be allowed to refer. The hon. Member for Uxbridge, speaking about dilution, referred to the possibility of, I think, the Luton Water Company applying for an order to allow it to take water from an underground source in the valley of the River Ver, which is a tributary of the Colne. The argument, which may well be valid, is that the flow in the Colne might be affected by this. Certainly, that view has been represented in public by a number of people. I cannot comment on it at the moment. In view, however, of the objections which are obviously entertained in certain quarters, there will be a public inquiry and in due course a decision will be issued.

I very much sympathise with the position not only of the local people, but also of the anglers mentioned by the hon. Member. I know that he is president of the local angling association. Although fishing has not, I believe, altogether stopped—in fact, people do not do too badly at times in this river—I understand that they suffer at least some inconvenience from smell. Weed-cutting is a matter which should be appropriately put to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but my belief is that the Thames Conservancy cuts and clears the weeds from these rivers, especially the Fray's River, at regular intervals.

Mr. Beswick

Only once a year.

Mr. Bevins


The final question referred to the prescribed effluent standards. This is a complicated matter which it is difficult to understand. The position is that the effluent standard in this case corresponds to the Royal Commission standard—that is, suspended solids, 30 parts per million, and biochemical oxygen demand, 20 parts per million. It may well be asked, if the dilution is so bad, why the standard for the effluent is not altered so that the one at least to some extent compensates the other. It is possible for the Thames Conservancy to make an effort to do that if it feels justified in doing so. If the Colne Valley Sewerage Board decided to appeal against it, it would have the right to do so to my right hon. Friend.

I think, however, that the view of the Thames Conservancy, judging by the inquiries I have made, is that while the board is not at the moment satisfied with the condition of the river, it feels that the two schemes to which I have referred will bring about a pronounced improvement in its condition. I end by reiterating that we shall keep a close watch on this problem, because we know how important it is to the local people.

Mr. Beswick

May I asked a question about the extension to the sewerage works? Do the new extensions mean that the works will be able to handle larger quantities of effluent or that the standard is in some way being changed, or what is their purpose?

Mr. Bevins

Obviously, the extension would deal with the same amount of sewage as is dealt with at the moment, but the effect of the extension would be that the disagreeable effluent, if I may so describe it, which found its way into the river would, because of the new plant and extensions, be less.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.