HC Deb 20 December 1960 vol 632 cc1260-70

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

12.17 a.m.

Mr. Speaker

Before the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. W. Clark) commences, it might be convenient if I indicate what on the face of the matter appear to be some difficulties. As regards discussing the merits, the hon. Member refers to an inquiry which I understand is going on pursuant to Statute, subject to some temporary adjournment. I think that it would be in accordance with the Rulings of my predecessors if I say that, if the Minister be pursuing the method of inquiry laid down by Statute, the House may think that it is not desirable to attempt by any means such as Parliamentary debate to sway his view about a conclusion to which he would have to come upon the outcome of the inquiry. If there were matters relating to the drill of the inquiry, perhaps other issues might arise. I do not know about that.

Mr. William Clark (Nottingham, South)

I am very grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. I shall endeavour to keep within the rules of order. I am sure that you will assist me if I happen to stray. I will try not to stray.

The inquiry, which you, Mr. Speaker, rightly said is going on at the moment, is about a proposed power station at a place called Holme Pierrepont, which is very near to my constituency of Nottingham, South but is actually in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Carlton (Sir K. Pickthorn). I have spoken to my hon. Friend and I hope that, if he is successful in catching your eye, Mr. Speaker, he will be able to make a brief intervention.

Obviously I do not intend to discuss either the merits or the demerits of the siting of the power station. However, in order to state my case I must say something about the power station, its geographical situation, and the fact that when built it will be the largest power station in Europe. It will have nine miles of sidings and, when in full production, will use ten million tons of coal per annum.

It will be sited about three miles from the centre of Nottingham. One can imagine that a power station of this magnitude is bound to dwarf Nottingham. It will certainly tend to dwarf a highly desirable residential area in my own constituency, namely West Bridgford.

Many months ago I received various representations and petitions from my constituents about the power station. I spoke to my right hon. Friends the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Minister of Power. Eventually, a public inquiry was decided upon. It is about the public inquiry that I particularly want to speak. One must appreciate that anything preceding a public inquiry—about a power station or whatever it may be—raises a considerable amount of local objection.

The public are rather suspicious of the inquiry. Rightly or wrongly, they think that the power station will spoil the amenities of the district. The inquiry was ordered on the 22nd November this year and originally it was to comprise two inspectors, one from the Ministry of Power and the other from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. When the inquiry eventually started there were not two inspectors but three. There were two from the Ministry of Power and one from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. This, to my mind, sowed in the minds of the public in and around Nottingham the first seed of discontent in that they did not particularly want the inquiry and that they were told that there would be two inspectors only to find that there were three, of whom two were from the Ministry of Power.

The second thing that happened was that the scheme as originally envisaged contained two chimneys of about 600 ft. in height. Between the commencement of the scheme and the public inquiry the 600 ft. became rather elastic and ended up as 650 ft. I should have thought that the Central Electricity Generating Board which is responsible must have had some sort of consultation with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to change the original planned chimneys from a height of 600 ft. to one of 650 ft. Bearing in mind the preceding circumstances, again the public thought that here was a scheme run by one of the nationalised boards which, rightly or wrongly, could be altered at the whim of the nationalised industry concerned. This was the second seed of discontent sowed in the public mind.

I pay tribute to the impartiality and fairness with which the inspectors endeavoured to carry out the inquiry. They did one thing which helped all the objectors in the area. They held a public meeting in my constituency which 400 or 500 people attended. Certain questions were posed to the inspectors and they tried to allay some of the fears. One question asked was whether the Minister of Power would consult the Minister of Health about the danger to health from the smoke that must obviously come from the huge chimneys. The extremely unfortunate answer was that no consultation would be held with the Minister of Health. Bearing in mind that it was known that a few days later medical evidence from the objectors would be presented to the inquiry, the public wondered what was the good of bringing forward medical evidence if the Minister of Health was not to be consulted. This was the third seed of discontent sowed in the public mind.

I must be extremely careful here, but during the inquiry it was maintained by the Generating Board that it was more economical to put the proposed power station on the Holme Pierrepont site than on an alternative site that was offered. Various figures were bandied about by the Board. One was that about £600,000 per annum would be saved in running costs if the station was erected on this site. Objectors in the area are fairly comprehensive. They challenged the figure of £600,000 but on being closely questioned the Board's witnesses would not give any satisfaction. It seemed that the smog of officialdom had descended on these figures and that witnesses hid behind official secrecy and said, "We cannot give you that information."

My point is that if at a public inquiry it is maintained that there will be a saving of £600,000, £700,000 or £800,000—whatever may be the amount—and, under questioning, that figure cannot be substantiated to the objectors, it is evident that the witnesses can just as easily say that the saving will be £5 million or £6 million. It can be put at any figure, if the objectors are not to have the right to question it.

In another place on 1st December of this year, the Lord Chancellor, speaking of another inquiry and referring to fresh evidence being called, said: I emphasise this point because I should like it to be clearly understood that my right hon. Friend's mind would never be influenced by evidence that had not been made available to the other side—that would be clearly contrary to natural justice—and I should never be a party to a proceeding of that kind.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 1st December, 1960; Vol. 226, c. 1246.] Coming as it does from the head of the judiciary, that makes it fairly conclusive that this evidence, whether the amount be £600,000 or £700,000, should be made available to the other side in this case.

The accumulation of the circumstances of this public inquiry has caused a great amount of local concern. Apart from the fact that the local objectors did not want the power station, they find, first, that the inspectorate has been changed from two to three; next, that the height of the chimneys has gone up from 600 ft. to 650 ft.; third, that the Ministry of Health will not be consulted and, finally, that there is this secrecy about the figures.

I have considerable sympathy with the public up there, and I feel, as they do that prima facie the circumstances show that this inquiry has already been settled. The allegation is being openly bandied about in Nottingham and district that although the inquiry is being carried on it will not alter the decision to put the power station there. When it started, the inquiry was estimated to last three or four days; it has already lasted three or four weeks, and has now been adjourned to 23rd January. Obviously, therefore, it will be some time before my right hon. Friends the Ministers of Power and Housing get the report from the inspectors.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for coming to the House tonight, but I want from him a categorical assurance that the report from the inspectors will be absolutely unbiassed, that all evidence from all the objectors will be considered, and that, if fresh evidence comes out about the figures I have mentioned, that evidence will be given to both sides, including all objectors, even if it means reopening the inquiry.

I have tried not to discuss the merits of the siting of the power station, where-ever it may be, but this matter is not only of local importance to Nottingham. The whole subject of public inquiries is a matter of national importance. The nationalised industries have tremendously wide powers; they should not have the additional wide power of being able to hold a public inquiry more or less as a sop to the public, with the issue already having been decided. I am certain that the impartiality of these various inquiries should not only be expected to be shown but should be manifestly seen, and I hope that my hon. Friend will give me some assurance that will allay some of the concern so widespread in and around my constituency.

12.29 a.m.

Sir Kenneth Pickthorn (Carlton)

The site under discussion is in my constituency, and almost all the winds that blow over it spend most of the rest of their force in blowing over the rest of my constituency. I do not find it very easy to know how, in four minutes, I can say anything that will be helpful to the constituency, especially in view of the extreme difficulties about rules of order. I shall do my best to avoid merits, but I suppose that it is not improper—indeed, it must appear from what has been permitted already—to indicate what the merits must be about.

There are the obvious matters of merit—amenity, green belts, loss of farming land—and then I come to one which has been mentioned already but on which I should like to make another distinction. I refer to health. From the point of view of many, if not most, of those of my constituents who are concerned in this matter, the health factor must, I think, be the most important, and there is a distinction here between health and Health. We may well understand that the Minister of Power is considering, has considered or will consider matters of health, with a small h, although in some particular connection he may not think it necessary to negotiate with or even to consult Health, with a capital H, the Minister of Health. Also, if I may finish the list of the sort of things under which merits must come, there is candour, the giving of all proper information for cross-examination.

It is of immense importance that it should be made plain that all these are the sort of matters which the Minister of Power has in mind, has had in mind and will have in mind, and all of them, perhaps most of all in what they add up to, represent what was referred to in another place—the necessity of justice being seen to be done, openness, fairness, impartiality, natural justice and the rest.

I think it would be very valuable if it could be made plain that there have been communications with the Minister and between the Minister and the Ministers of Housing and Local Government and of Health, and that the Lord Chancellor's assurances mean that under what one might call the Franks Statute he can refer any such inquiry which may seem to him to deserve particular attention for consideration by the Council on Tribunals—and that even if he does not, of course, someone else may. I think it very important that it should be made plain that that is a constant and continuous part of the Lord Chancellor's duty and that he has it in mind in this case as in the previous one to which he referred.

I will say one thing more only, though there was a great deal I should have liked to say. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. W. Clark) referred to the opposition being comprehensive. I find it very difficult to judge in arithmetical ways percentages of the population which are really hell-bent against this, hell-bent in favour of it or more or less indifferent. There is a very considerable number of people who have very deep feelings of doubt and even of opposition—quite enough to make it necessary for Ministers to pay every possible attention to the kind of factors which I have ventured to list. Of that there can be no doubt at all.

12.34 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Mr. J. C. George)

I am filled with admiration at the way in which both my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. W. Clark) and my hon. Friend the Member for Carlton (Sir K. Pickthorn) have kept tightly within the bounds governing the debate. I take it that the points which you have permitted to be put forward, Mr. Speaker, are the ones which I should answer, and no more than that. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlton expressed the desire that What the Franks Committee described as the characteristics which should mark the proceedings of tribunals—openness, fairness and impartiality—should rule at this inquiry. Indeed, my right hon. Friend hopes and does all he can to ensure, that at every inquiry which he authorises these characteristics do prevail, and he has no reason to think that this one will be any different from the others which have been held under the Electricity Acts.

The inquiry into the Central Electricity Generating Board's proposals to build a power station at Holme Pierrepont has now sat for ten working days, and in addition two days have been devoted to an inspection of the site and of alternative sites. It is to be resumed on 23rd January. Its ultimate duration will be determined only by the need to ensure a full and fair hearing for all concerned. Already the hearing has easily surpassed the previous record for inquiries ordered by the Minister of Power under the Acts.

It is being held jointly by two inspectors, the Chief Engineering Inspector of the Ministry of Power and a Senior Planning Inspector of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. They—and only they—have been officially appointed. Another inspector from the Ministry of Power is however attending as an assistant. There are not three inspectors at the inquiry, there are two officially appointed and the third, an assistant, is not formally appointed and will play no part in preparing the report to the Minister. This answers the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South.

It is the usual practice in cases like Holme Pierrepont, where application for consent to a power station raises important planning questions, to appoint an inspector from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to sit with the inspector from the Ministry of Power. This ensures that the Minister is fully informed on both the technical and planning aspects. The Minister of Housing is clearly very much concerned with the planning aspects of this application, particularly as the proposed site lies in the Green Belt. Also he is responsible through his alkali inspectors for seeing that emissions from power stations are by the best practical means.

Regarding the change in the proposed height of the chimneys, my hon. Friend has already had a full explanation from my right hon. Friend the Minister, but for the record I will repeat it. In the course of investigations covering this and other matters, the board naturally consulted various Government Departments to ascertain what their requirements might be; the Air Ministry were consulted and they recommended a height of 600 feet to avoid danger to aircraft. But the alkali inspector of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government required a height of 650 feet to allow for better control of emission from the chimneys. That is the simple reason for the change. It was not made by the Board, it was imposed on them. It was not to deceive the public but to improve the health of the public in the area round about the power station if it were to be erected.

There was some anxiety in the minds of both my hon. Friends regarding consultation with the Minister of Health. Obviously this cannot take place until the Minister of Power receives the inspectors' report, but it is clear that health is a matter of great importance in this case. The Minister of Health will certainly be consulted and asked to advise on all aspects within his responsibility. I hope this reassures both my hon. Friends that we are properly concerned that all aspects of health should be given their due and full consideration after the inquiry. I turn now to the serious statement made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South—that the result of the inquiry is more or less a foregone conclusion. One of the reasons he gave for this observation was that the inspector from the Ministry of Power had said that the inquiry would last only three days—or at least that someone had said that. From this my hon. Friend deduced that the whole matter had been taken lightly and a decision would not be made on the merits of the case.

I gather that he has so interpreted a remark which was based on sound past experience. Sixteen joint inquiries have been held under the Electricity Acts. Fifteen lasted three days or less, including inquiries covering proposed nuclear power stations. Only one lasted more than that, and that extended to four days, plus two half days. The inspector was not, therefore, saying anything outrageous. He said: I had hoped that the inquiry would last only three days, but it looks as though it will last a fortnight His earlier hope was soon shattered as the massive volume of objections became known, and his practical forecast showed a realistic awareness of the situation as he saw it. I hope that this gives my hon. Friend new confidence in the inquiry and convinces him that neither time nor any other factor will prevent the issue being decided entirely on its merits.

The last point, which both my hon. Friends considered of great importance, appears to enter into the merits of the question before the inquiry, and I will deal with it but lightly. It is the Board's estimate that a saving of £600,000 per annum would be made if its proposed site were used instead of the one proposed by the county council. My hon. Friend said that the board had not yet complied with the demand of the objectors that details of how this saving had been calculated should be produced. I understand that the Board made a suggestion to overcome the difficulty. It felt bound to respect the sanctity of private contracts and was not prepared to disclose details of them for public scrutiny, but it suggested that the objectors should appoint a competent person of their own choosing to check the calculations, which are very complex, involved in computing the estimated saving. I am told that this suggestion was unacceptable because access to the actual contracts would not be granted.

However, I am now authorised by the Board to say that if such a person is appointed—and it hopes that he will be—he will be given access to the relevant documents including the contracts under a guarantee of secrecy. With this information, perhaps a new approach to the board's suggestion will now be made by the objectors, and the problem which worries my hon. Friends and others might disappear.

But there should be no change of attitude towards this problem. I would draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that the Minister will have to consider, when he receives the inspectors' report, whether the Board has made an adequate case, and this is one of the matters he will have to take into consideration. If he decides—and this relates to the point made by the Lord Chancellor in another place—that he needs more information before reaching a decision, he will then have to determine how it can best be provided.

Any factual evidence obtained after the inquiry would be submitted to the parties for their observations before a decision is taken. This is in accordance with the Franks Committee's Recommendation No. 83. The Committee also envisaged that there might be cases where it would be desirable to give the parties an opportunity to cross-examine on the new evidence. That is in paragraph 350. Whether it would be necessary to reopen the inquiry would depend on the nature of the new evidence, and this cannot be said until the Minister has received the inspectors' report. I can assure the House, however, that the Minister would certainly be prepared to reopen the inquiry if it appeared necessary to do so.

I trust that I have covered all the points raised, and have succeeded in removing some of the misconceptions which have, unfortunately, prevailed. I am glad to have had this opportunity to clear the air somewhat, for feelings have undoubtedly been running high. It does an inquiry no good if matters are allowed to remain in a state where ill-feeling is engendered. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South for raising the matter, even though it has been raised at a most difficult time, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Carlton who has most assiduously pressed his constituency views upon my right hon. Friend and myself. Indeed, for weeks past my right hon. Friend and I have been bombarded with correspondence from the hon. Members and with demands for interviews.

I hope most sincerely that what I have said puts the minds of my hon. Friends much more at ease and makes them feel that this inquiry will be conducted as it should be conducted, that the evidence will be judged purely upon the merits of the case, that the inspector's report will, as always, be truly impartial, and that all the evidence will, in fact, as it always is, be studied completely fairly and impartially by the Minister, and the decision taken entirely upon the merits of the case.

Mr. Ray Gunter (Southwark)

There is one brief point which I wish to raise. During the course of his remarks the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. W. Clark) said that the nationalised industries have very wide powers and he expressed the hope that those powers would not be abused. I assume from the Minister's reply that he is quite happy that the nationalised industry involved has not in any sense abused the powers vested in it.

Mr. George

I am quite happy in that respect.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to One o'clock.