HC Deb 21 December 1964 vol 704 cc1011-22

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

11.25 p.m.

Mr. Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

On 27th June last, my constituents and I heard the news for the first time that Agip Ltd., a subsidiary of E.N.I., the Italian State-controlled group of companies, was to build a £15 million refinery at Canvey Island. According to the Press, the project had the approval of the Board of Trade and an industrial development certificate had been issued to the company. It was expected that the refinery would be completed in 1967, and it seemed to me and my constituents that we were presented with a fait accompli.

Since there are already three large refineries in the Thames Estuary, the emanations from which have caused considerable annoyance and even distress to my constituents in the past, this announcement gave rise to widespread anxiety, not only to my constituents, but to residents of neighbouring Leigh-on-Sea, Westcliff and Southend. In passing, may I say that the nuisance from the existing refineries at Coryton, Shell-haven and the Isle of Grain, although intermittent, has been sufficiently great in the past to cause me to raise the matter with the Minister of Housing and Local Government.

In the summer of 1958, I handed to the Minister a petition protesting against atmospheric pollution by the refineries, which had been signed by nearly 6,000 Canvey residents. On 19th June, 1958, I raised the matter in this House with the support of Members from both sides. In reply, the Parliamentary Secretary admitted that there was a problem, and he gave some indication of how it was being tackled by the Alkali Inspectorate and the oil companies. I am glad to say that their combined efforts led to some improvement, though even now some of my constituents whose homes lie in the path of the prevailing winds suffer from time to time from the offensive odours which seem inseparable from the refining of oil.

These existing refineries, however, are situated some distance from the residen- tial areas of my constituency. One is on the Kent coast, nine miles away. Imagine the shock to my constituents when they discovered that a new refinery was to be erected immediately adjacent to the large and fast-growing residential districts of Benfleet and Canvey Island, where the combined population now totals over 50,000.

The proposed site is on low-lying ground on the island itself, about 550 yards from Benfleet Station, which is on the mainland. The residential area of South Benfleet occupies high ground which rises from the railway line to the north, up to a level of 250 ft. This is the height proposed by the oil company for its chimneys. Thus, when it is borne in mind that the nuisance caused by refinery operations in the Thames Estuary tends to be greatest in the atmospheric conditions in the summer months when the prevailing winds are southwesterly, blowing across the island towards the mainland, it should have been clear from the outset that a proposal of this kind, if approved, would make life intolerable for thousands of my constituents.

Obviously, while the height of the chimneys and the volume of noxious fumes emitted will depend on the kind of fuel gas or fuel oil burned, there is bound to be an emission into the atmosphere of vast quantities of sulphur dioxide. I am told that the volume could well be up to one ton of sulphur dioxide an hour. As the Minister knows, this substance is thought to be one of the factors contributing to the injurious effect of smog, and while in normal conditions most of the fumes would be dispersed in the atmosphere, under the strong wind conditions we occasionally get in southeast Essex, chimneys at 250 ft. or even 300 ft. would mean that my constituents in Benfleet would be exposed for short periods to high concentrations of sulphur dioxide which they would breathe in at almost ground level. Whether this would be seriously detrimental to health, I am not prepared to say, but it is bound to be extremely unpleasant.

Moreover, there is the additional nuisance of the oily smell which arises from the mercaptan products of refinery operations. Here again, I am advised that while medically this is not directly injurious to physical health, it can certainly cause, as it has done in the past, considerable mental distress.

The point which I make is that to approve a proposal which would mean that large numbers of people would have to breathe in noxious fumes at chimney level would make a complete nonsense of all the principles of good planning. It was bound to arouse intense and bitter opposition from the people who made their homes in the area and it did so. Thousands petitioned against it. I am glad to see some of my hon. Friends from neighbouring constituencies present. I am sure that they will agree with what I say.

My inquiries revealed an extraordinary state of affairs. The Daily Telegraph of 27th June last stated that Agip Ltd. had been given an industrial development certificate by the Board of Trade, though the spokesman of that Department was quoted a saying They knew none of the detailed proposals for the refinery. According to a spokesman for the company, speaking as though planning permission were only a little formality, the refinery was expected to be completed in 1967. I discovered that an I.D.C. had, in fact, been issued, but only after many long months of negotiations. I was told that the Board of Trade had tried very hard to persuade the company to go to a development area, but that it had refused and had argued that if it could not build on Canvey it would do so on the Continent. In the end, and "only after considerable hesitation", the Board of Trade approved the issue of a certificate. I was informed that approval was given only on the understanding that the further capacity that the Agip Company confidently expect to need later on will he put in a development district. I will refer to this somewhat odd restriction a little later.

I fully understand the position of the Board of Trade. They are anxious—and so are we all—to encourage the expansion of our home refining capacity. Such expansion assists in the balance of payments. It is a useful means of stimulating regional growth. That is why so much recent development in this field has been steered to the North-East, South Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Here, however, an exception was made, probably as a result of a threat to take the business elsewhere. But it was also made in circumstances in which the Board of Trade admitted that they knew nothing of the planning implications. There may have been some consultations with the hon. Member's Ministry. I think there were. But I can assure the Parliamentary Secretary that there were none at all with the local planning authority whose proper task it would be to consider these implications. One would have thought that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government would at least have made some soundings at officer level.

It is true that the Board of Trade have made clear to the company that the granting of the certificate did not prejudge the question of planning permission, but from the outset the view has been widely held in my constituency, even by persons knowledgeable in planning procedure, that an important overseas company could not have received an industrial development certificate unless it was fairly sure of its ground.

Indeed, I have it on good authority that when the Essex County Planning Committee came in the last few weeks to consider the company's application for planning permission they were advised by their chief planning officer that the issue of a certificate meant that the erection of this refinery would be consistent with the proper distribution of industry, and, therefore, the planning authority were debarred from considering the general question of the distribution of oil refineries. Why should it be debarred? What is planning about? If an I.D.C. has the effect of limiting the fullest consideration by a planning authority, I hope that the Government will take steps to change the system.

Surely it was important in this context for the planning authority to decide whether the health, amenities and general environment in which thousands of people live, not only in my constituency but in neighbouring areas as well, are likely to be affected by adding a further refinery to the area. How can one even separate the more detailed planning considerations from the broader question of the distribution of industry policy?

In this case the county planning committee, when it came to consider the matter, had to take into account much more than the proximity of an oil refinery to a large and growing residential area and adjoining seaside resorts, and, therefore, with questions of amenity and atmospheric pollution, important though these considerations are.

Canvey is an island. Its access to the mainland presents a serious and growing problem. The planning authority had to consider, therefore, the whole question of communications where there is already difficulty of access. A new road bridge would have to be built. One is planned, in any case, and is long overdue. But economy and convenience to traffic suggest a low-level bridge which would require the permanent closure of Benfleet Creek to certain types of boat. Parliamentary power would be necessary to do this. I am advised that, at the earliest, either a low-level or a more expensive high-level bridge could not possibly be ready until mid-1969. Yet the applicant company expected the refinery would be completed two years earlier, without having any regard to the chaotic and dangerous traffic conditions which would be created.

The planning committee had also to consider the demand for water which, as the Minister knows, is in acute short supply in south-east Essex. It had to consider fire precautions which depend, in their turn, on adequate communications. All these matters could not be separated from the general industrial and residential pattern in south-east Essex, and, indeed, that of a far wider area around. Fortunately, the county planning committee decided last Tuesday—that is, after I had applied for this Adjournment debate—to refuse planning permission. I am certain that it was right to do so, and nearly everyone in south-east Essex—and, I am sure, in the county borough of Southend, too—heaved an enormous sigh of relief. I hope that this is the end of the matter.

But, with respect, I submit that there are certain lessons to be drawn from this experience. Whatever our differences in the House, there is one matter on which I am sure we are all united: the need to secure a balanced development of our national economy. Clearly, an industry like oil refining is of special importance for encouraging economic growth. It provides a focal point for the expansion of other industries, especially for the rapidly growing and technologically advanced petrochemical industry.

Bearing this in mind, the proper place for this proposed refinery is not in the middle of a growing residential area but in a development area. It is clear that the Board of Trade took this view over a long period, and was right to do so. The Board was wrong to change its mind, and I hope that the Minister will agree with me. At any rate, I am sure that he will agree that it is wrong for any company, let alone a foreign one, to be able to dictate, as this one appears to have done, where it is going to put its installations.

I invite the Minister to consider, secondly, that it is wrong, and certainly wasteful of time and money, to encourage developers by granting an I.D.C. in cases where it should have been manifest from the beginning that there would be serious planning objections. In short, his own Department should have warned the Board of Trade.

In this case it was announced to the world that a foreign oil company would build its refinery without those who issued the I.D.C. having the slightest idea of exactly where the installation would be built, except that it would be somewhere in the Canvey Island Urban District, what sort of installation it would be and what its effects would be on tens of thousands of people living nearby.

What was the result? Having made its announcement, the company sought to overcome local opposition, I think unwisely, by inviting local district councillors to visit refineries in Italy at the company's expense to see how unfounded were the anxieties of the objectors.

Such visits took place. On their return, certain councillors were ecstatic about the way in which their hosts ran their installations. I make no comment here on the propriety of such invitations or of their acceptance, except to say that if one wants to know how refineries cope with atmospheric pollution, it is surely better to study the problem under the atmospheric conditions prevailing in this country than in the totally different circumstances of Southern Europe.

I would therefore ask the Minister to consider whether it is right that members of a local authority, in whose district it is proposed that a major development of this kind takes place, should pay visits of this kind to installations outside this country, let alone inside it, at the expense of the applicant for planning permission. Would he consider whether advice might be tendered to local authorities on this subject?

One of the tests of the Government's sincerity in planning matters will be the extent to which they discourage development of this kind in the already congested South-East and encourage it in the development areas. I ask the hon. Gentleman, therefore, if he will join with the Board of Trade, even at this late hour, to persuade the company concerned to go to a development area where, after all, there are now considerable inducements. In any event as was originally envisaged, if the company, had got planning permission for Canvey Island the subsequent expected expansion would have had to go to a development area. It makes little sense not to go now to a place where there will be no restriction on subsequent expansion.

While I do not expect the Minister to say very much about this last request now—obviously he will have to make careful investigation—I hope that he will give the House some indication of how he views the matter. At the same time, I hope he will deal with the specific matters of principle I raised earlier.

11.41 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Delargy (Thurrock)

Only a quarter of an hour ago I did not know the subject of this Adjournment debate. I was on my way out of the Palace when I heard what it was and I came in here to support the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) if only by my presence. I want to support him in a speech of about 60 seconds. I think that south-east Essex has been treated very cavalierly by various Ministries. The hon. Member has pointed out the various difficulties if this refinery is to operate in Canvey Island. There is a great demand for water, of which Canvey is very short.

The hon. Member has also spoken of the chaotic road conditions in his con- stituency. I suppose that if there is a refinery in Canvey the product will, like all other oil, go through my constituency on roads that were not built for such traffic. He has also spoken of the atmospheric pollution that is prevalent in all our constituencies. There are large oil refineries in Thurrock and also large cement works, so we not only have oil nuisance but the nuisance of cement dust as well.

I recently sent to my hon. Friend details of a newly invented filter which it seemed to us would get rid of the cement dust. The inventor has spent several years and several hundred pounds of his own money on his invention, with which my hon. Friend dealt in two paragraphs of his letter. I do not think that this is the way in which Ministers should deal with problems in areas like this.

11.43 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Robert Mellish)

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy) probably knows that I, too, have an oil refinery in my constituency, where we have the problem of smells and the nuisance that arises from such installations. I know, however, that the Alkali Inspectorate of my Ministry is first-class and does a wonderful job. I am sorry if my hon. Friend was upset by my reply, but I now make him an open offer. I hope that he will discuss this matter with me in the new year, when I will have the alkali inspectors with me. I assure him that anything we can do to help relieve his problem we will willingly do.

The hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) was quite right to raise this matter, particularly in view of reports that some 6,000 people in the area have signed a petition of protest——

Mr. Braine

The figure is 20,000.

Mr. Mellish

The hon. Gentleman said 6,000—I took it down.

Mr. Braine

I was speaking about an earlier petition of protest in 1958, which was signed by 6,000 people. The petition in this case was signed by no fewer than 20,000 of my constituents.

Mr. Mellish

I willingly accept that statement, and I am sorry if I conveyed the wrong impression. The petition was signed by 20,000 people and gives the hon. Member the right to raise the matter on behalf of his own people in what, if I may say so, has been a very fair and decent way. I assure the hon. Member and his constituents that the order of procedures in a case of this kind does not prejudge, as he said, any question of planning application which has been made.

On 23rd June, 1964, an industrial development certificate was granted by the Board of Trade to United Refineries Ltd. in respect of the company's proposal after the Board of Trade satisfied itself that the company had made a case for a Thames-side location and after obtaining assurances that their next refinery would be in a development district. It is the normal practice for the Board of Trade before issuing decisions on industrial development certificate applications to consult other departments, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Public Building and Works and others as required. In this case we were consulted and my Department raised no objection to the granting of the company's application without prejudice to or consideration of the merits of the local planning issues.

It is right to put on record that the procedure here is that an application for planning permission has to be accompanied by an industrial development certificate when the development in question involves the erection of an industrial building of more than 5,000 sq. ft., but the certificate does not authorise the building nor imply that the development in question must be located on a particular site and nowhere else. It enables the planning authority to consider the application because an application involving an industrial building not supported by an industrial development certificate, would not be a complete and valid application. It is for the planning authority to go into the planning merits of a proposed development having regard to local planning considerations.

If the local planning authority decide to refuse planning permission they need not be inhibited—and have not been in this case—by the fact that the Board of Trade has issued an industrial development certificate. The planning authority have to consider matters quite different from those which will have influenced the Board of Trade's decision to issue an industrial development certificate. The Board of Trade has a statutory obligation to encourage the expansion of new industry in the development districts, and one of the ways in which it seeks to meet this obligation is through the system of I.D.Cs. Applications for industrial development certificates are considered on their merits, but in general terms the Board of Trade considers favourably applications for certificates for development districts and considers critically applications involving expansion in the congested south-east and midlands of England.

This policy applies to oil refineries as to other industrial developments, but the possible locations for new oil refineries are limited by a number of technical considerations such as proximity to markets, the need for a deep-water berth to accommodate tankers—tankers of about 64,000 tons in this case—and adequate supplies of fresh water. The main oil refinery developments at present in prospect are at Milford Haven and on Tees-side, both of which are development districts. There are other proposals for new developments and extensions on the Humber, in Scotland and on the Mersey. The proposed, relatively small, project at Canvey was thus only one of a number of projects throughout the country. It would add little to the existing concentration of refineries on the Thames and was regarded as the most economic location for this particular Company having regard to its expected United Kingdom and overseas markets.

This industrial development certificate was issued only after the most careful consideration. The company was able to make an economic case for its proposal to site this initial project in the United Kingdom at Canvey.

Mr. Braine

I take it that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Board of Trade issued this certificate only after considerable hesitation.

Mr. Mellish

I concede that, certainly there may have been hesitation. I beg the hon. Member to accept—this was at a time when his party was in power—that the Board did not issue the certificate until very careful consideration had been given. Board of Trade approval was given on the understanding that the further capacity that the company confidently expect to require would be put in a development district. Agip Ltd. had undertaken to buy most of its equipment in the development districts.

So much for the Board of Trade's part in this. I emphasise that the planning merits of this proposal were not considered by my Department when the application for an industrial development certificate was made to the Board of Trade and when our views on whether the industrial development certificate should be granted were sought. The company's planning application was refused by Essex County Council Planning Committee on 15th December of this year. In view of the fact that the application may now be the subject of appeal to the Minister, I cannot, as I am sure the hon. Member will understand, comment in any way at this stage on the planning merits of the proposal.

I should like to say a word on the question of visits by councillors to Italy, to which the hon. Member referred. This appears to me to be the kind of matter in which the local authority are responsible, in the first place, to the law and to their electors, and I do not think that I should express any opinion on the matter.

But I would say this to the hon. Gentleman clearly and frankly. The planning application, now having been refused by the county council for reasons best known to itself, may well be—though I do not know whether it will be—the subject of an appeal by the company concerned. If that were to happen, there would be an inquiry. Objections to the proposals would obviously be stated by those who represent the petitioners. They would have their right to state their case, and the hon. Member would, if he so desired, have the right to be heard by the inspector at the inquiry. The company would have the right to put its point of view and to say why it thinks that this oil refinery should be sited in Canvey. The inspector would consider the evidence. He would then make a report to my Minister. I give this assurance, that my right hon. Friend, in his judicial capacity—for that is what it is when he comes to consider these appeals—would take into account all that was said and all that his inspector said.

The hon. Gentleman has done his duty properly by his constituents by raising this matter. I hope I have satisfied him that the issue of the industrial development certificate was granted for the reasons that I have stated—for instance, the economic arguments which the Board of Trade considered, when no question of the planning merits was argued. The application for planning permission, in fact, could not have been made had the I.D.C. not been available. The issue of the I.D.C. did not prejudice the planning considerations.

If there should be an appeal—I do not know if there will be—in view of the democratic inquiry procedure which I have outlined, my right hon. Friend would consider the report of his inspector in a manner which is customary to all Ministers, and would take into account all the objectors and applicants had stated. The hon. Gentleman has certainly done his duty by his constituents and, if I may say, he has done it very well.

11.53 p.m.

Mr. H. P. G. Channon (Southend, West)

I am sure the House is grateful to the Minister for that helpful statement. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) that my constituents are grateful to him for having raised this matter today because there is deep concern in the surrounding constituencies as well as in my hon. Friend's constituency.

I am grateful for the assurance which the Minister has given that should there be an appeal, the matters referred to by my hon. Friend will be subject to careful study by the Minister of Housing and Local Government. My constituents and I are grateful to my hon. Friend for the keen and active interest which he has taken in this project.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Twelve o'clock.