HC Deb 01 November 1966 vol 735 cc421-30

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

11.51 p.m.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

The subject of this Adjournment debate is the problem of excessive noise in certain areas of the Walton constituency. I want to make one very brief remark—it has nothing to do with prisoners knocking on the doors of Walton Prison trying to get out! The noise and the nuisance about which I shall speak are from industrial premises which have been developed in residential areas.

It is not a new problem and it is not confined to the Walton constituency in Liverpool, but the examples which I shall give both underline the general problem and show the need for further action in those cases. Walton constituency is an area of mixed development. It has a number of factories mixed in among houses, particularly in the older residential areas. The three specific examples which I have in mind are the most serious, but there are others.

I cannot do better than quote from a letter which I received from the Town Clerk of Liverpool, dated 29th July, 1966. The letter reads: The premises of Taylor's Bakery, Spratts Patent Limited, and Reads Limited, are all old established industrial premises in the Walton Area. When the City Council prepared its Development Plan, under the provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, it was anticipated that the premises would remain in industrial use for the period of the plan, i.e., 20 years, and for this reason they were shown on the Plan as being zoned for industrial purposes. When the Plan was approved by the Minister in 1958 zoning of the premises as industrial was confirmed. The roads affected are Richie Avenue, Immeson Street, Bull Lane and adjoining roads.

During the past few years, all these factories have been extended and new plant has been installed. There are night shifts in two of them and there is often late overtime working in the third.

This causes a great deal of annoyance, and I would say, misery, to the people living locally. Before the expansion of the factories the level of noise was tolerable. Since the expansion, with the new plant, the people in the locality have suffered considerably as a result of the increase in the volume of noise. Especially is this true at night. To some people, and this has been medically proved, excessive noise, especially a constant vibration and hum, is the equivalent of physical pain. I have received petitions and representations from the people in all of the areas close to the factories involved and I have visited the areas affected, even at night.

I have made representations to the local authority and the medical officer of health has been very active in this matter. I have also visited two out of the three managements and some action has certainly been taken. There are snags and difficulties and the law requires to be considerably strengthened. In the case of Spratts' factory, the firm is carrying out work which will reduce the noise, at a cost of £5,000. The other factories have also carried out work to reduce noise, but the truth is that while night shifts are worked, the noise, even though reduced, will continue. In a letter dated 27th October, Professor Andrew Sample, the Liverpool medical officer of health, said: I am of the opinion that the main complaint in this particular case is the situation of the factory and complaints will still be made, even if the present work proves satisfactory. I think that this complaint has placed on the Health Department a burden which should have been avoided at the planning stage instead of leaving the Department to try and solve an almost insuperable problem. Nevertheless, my Chief Health Inspector and his Department will persevere until every possible step provided by legislation has been tried. I am not criticising the Health Department or the efforts made by the various firms concerned. The truth is that the law as it stands is not effective enough. I also believe that in the past the Ministry has too readily given its consent for planning permission. Let me give a quotation from the Digest of Planning Decisions on Industrial Development 1959: Again the Minister on appeal granted permission, subject to certain conditions, for the erection of a workshop for use in connection with a sheet-metal works, notwithstanding that the works was badly situated, being in an old-established residential district. Redevelopment of the area was not imminent and the local planning authority appeared not to be intending to secure removal of the industry within the foreseeable future. I raised with the local authority the question of whether the night shift in the case of one factory could be removed. The reply was as follows: You will remember in my letter, dated 22nd June, I informed you that the management were being requested to close down the night shift and a top level conference was arranged with the senior directors … who came down especially for the conference, when the request was put to the management. They communicated with their head office and the Department was informed that the whole factory has been geared to a 24-hour output and if the night shift closed down the factory would not be economic, which would certainly give rise, if not to a complete shutdown, then to a considerable redundancy problem. We already have more than enough unemployed in Liverpool and I have no wish to see further redundancies, but I equally wish to see my constituents living happily and in a relatively peaceful atmosphere.

The real point is that these extensions and developments ought not to have taken place. I suggested to the City Planning Department that possibly the firms could be relocated on one of the industrial estates. Unfortunately, this is no longer a feasible proposition, but it might have been possible had the idea been mooted at the time the firms applied for permission to extend their premises.

It might be suggested that the firms can be prosecuted under the Public Health Act. That could be done, but the medical officer of health, in a letter to me dated 16th September, said that he felt that it would be useless. The letter says: With regard to your inquiry concerning the legal position, I enclose a copy of a recent case concerning similar problems taken in London. You will notice the case was dismissed yet the level of the noise nuisance in the case would be considerably higher than the noise which will come from the above factory when the works have been completed. That case was heard at the St. Albans Magistrates Court on 1st June, 1966, and was brought under Section 94 of the Public Health Act, 1936. Let me quote from the report. It says: Dr. G. D. Best, clerk of the Council, appeared for the Council, and evidence was given by the senior public health inspector, Mr. J. Snowdon, together with three residents living near the factory concerned, all of whom were affected by the noise, particularly at night. Mr. Snowdon stated that complaints about noise from the factory started in the latter part of 1964 and despite remedial measures carried out by the company he was satisfied that a nuisance existed, particularly during the hours of darkness. He had taken noise level readings at night from various locations, and these readings varied between 38 dBA and 44 dBA. Appearing for the defendants, Mr. Gerald Lawson, Q.C., outlined the measures which the company had taken to reduce the level of noise coming from the factory and indicated that it was essential to operate the factory for 24 hours each day. Supporting evidence was given by the managing director and a representative of a firm of noise consultants. The Magistrates dismissed the case but no order was made as to costs. The Council subsequently decided not to appeal against the decision. That, then, is the problem. The people in my constituency were very happy living in their homes, the factories were extended and now their lives have been transformed. In many respects, their lives are a misery due to the noise, especially at night.

I am therefore asking the Minister to do a number of things. First, will he look at the existing law and see if it can be strengthened to give greater protection to residents affected by such developments. Secondly, will the Minister assure me that before planning permission is granted for extensions, etc., to existing industrial premises in built-up areas, a most careful scrutiny will be carried out to see what effects the extensions are likely to have on noise levels, thereby causing great unhappiness to local residents? Thirdly, will the Minister set up a thorough-going inquiry into the particular cases which I have raised, with a view to the adoption of even greater measures to relieve my constituents of the noise? Lastly, will the Minister urge all local authorities, and the Liverpool City Council in particular, to make certain that, before such permission is given in the future, they will suggest that firms develop their factories on industrial estates away from the residential areas?

12.4 a.m.

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

It is some considerable time since this House has had the opportunity of considering industrial noise, and we are therefore indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) for having raised the subject this evening. I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend for the very able and lucid way in which he has explained to the House the serious annoyance to which many of his constituents are being subjected.

I do not intend in my reply to minimise the extent of the nuisance which my hon. Friend's constituents are suffering. Industrial noise is a problem which concerns us greatly at the Ministry. We could ourselves provide a considerable volume of evidence that it is causing widespread annoyance, and we are determined that greater attention must be given to the reduction of such nuisance. As standards of living rise, our willingness to put up with noise falls, and rightly so. As many as two-thirds of all the complaints about noise that we receive in the Ministry relate to noise from industry. Most of the complaints relate to noise from much the same kind of long-established industrial firm as the one which my hon. Friend has mentioned tonight.

One of my right hon. Friend's major Departmental responsibilities is town planning, and in planning control a great deal is being done to ensure the proper siting of these new factories which of necessity must produce noise. Public health authorities should always be consulted where a new industrial building is likely to be used, or could be used, for a process which would give offence to its neighbours, and I commend this practice of consultation to authorities which may not yet have adopted it. We have a great responsibility to do all in our power to ensure that we do not bequeath to the generations to come the kind of problems which we have inherited and are discussing tonight.

Whilst planning can do much to prevent the disturbance caused by new industry, nothing short of redevelopment is likely to deal effectively with problems which arise where existing factories are cheek by jowl with dwellings. Urban development schemes, and the present extensive slum clearance and rehousing programmes, are already doing much to diminish the difficulties, but these are long-term solutions. In the short term, the problem is too vast to be solved by these methods, so the main hope for the many thousands of citizens who must continue to live, perhaps for many years, in the close vicinity of noisy factories must lie in the efficient exercise by the public health authorities of the statutory powers which are available to them in the Public Health Acts and the Noise Abatement Act, 1960.

As a result of the Noise Abatement Act, any noise or vibration which is a nuisance is now a statutory nuisance for the purposes of the Public Health Act, 1936. The effect of this is to enable local authorities to abate noise nuisance, including industrial noise nuisances, by serving abatement notices on the offenders.

Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Aston)

Is not there an important qualification to this provision in the Noise Abatement Act, namely, that if the firm can prove that it has taken all the steps that it can to abate the noise, short of removing the process, it has a defence? This happened in the case to which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) referred.

Mr. Mellish

My hon. Friend is quite right, and this is a fair point. In the St. Albans' case the defendants put forward this statutory defence, and it was successful. They said that they had taken all practical measures to prevent and counteract noise, and it was on the basis of this that the magistrate dismissed the case. I was, however, going on to say what else the Government were doing to try to deal with this problem.

I was talking about the service of abatement notices on offenders, and I was about to say that if the notices are not complied with the council can seek to have them enforced in the magistrates' court. The two Acts also allow three or more occupiers of premises who are aggrieved by a noise nuisance to start court proceedings independently if the local council is not willing to act.

In the case of a factory or business, it will often be impossible for the management to abate all forms of noise. Company resources are not unlimited, even in the wealthiest cases, and beyond a certain point it will be quite uneconomic for a firm to carry out the work. Our economy could not stand widespread industrial closures because of noise, and for industrial nuisance the statutes provide that it is a defence in abatement proceedings for the defendants to prove that they have used the best practicable means for preventing and for counteracting the effect of the nuisance—the point which we were talking about earlier with regard to the St. Albans' case.

The position of local authorities under the Noise Abatement Act is that before serving an abatement notice against a noisy factory they must be satisfied that the conditions complained of are serious enough to amount to a statutory nuisance. They are precluded from acting if they take the view that the firm could not reasonably be expected to take further preventive measures to reduce the nuisance which is being caused to local residents.

In two cases known to us in my hon. Friend's constituency, the local authority concerned is the Liverpool Corporation. I understand that the view it takes after careful investigation, is that the firms in question are carrying out all practicable remedial measures to keep the nuisance from their premises to a minimum. The Corporation does not, therefore, feel in these cases that it can reasonably ask the owners to do more. The company was also trying, privately, to secure the rehousing of some of the tenants closest to their premises and, on this proposal, I am told that the firm has so far purchased three of the affected houses and is trying, with some difficulty, to negotiate the terms for a further 17 houses.

In the case of the factory at Long Lane, the Minister has received a full report from the Corporation in the last few days, and the management is doing all that can be expected. Something like £5,000 is being spent on sound-proofing, and other works, and windows are being sealed with appropriate materials and a large baffle wall is being built inside the factory.

Mr. Heffer

The local authority is now rehousing some of the employees.

Mr. Mellish

The local authority has received a full report about the factory and I am informed that something like £5,000 is being spent on sound-proofing. It is not a matter in which my right hon. Friend can intervene. He has no legal powers, and the Ministry's function is to hold a watching brief and to act mainly as a channel for complaints from the public, about which inquiries have to be made of the local authorities who have the executive power.

Local authorities do not always have the final word on the matter of noise, and members of the public can complain directly to the courts. There are two procedures, and in the case referred to, it would be open to my hon. Friend's constituents, if they thought that more could be done to reduce the noise, to invoke a complaint under the Public Health Acts. Alternatively, any one of them is at liberty to bring a civil action. In a civil action the defence, "the best practicable means", would not be available to the defending firm, but this sort of action can prove costly and I would not recommend that it should be entered into lightly and without the most careful thought.

The present working of the Noise Abatement Act was one of the matters considered by the 1963 Wilson Committee on Noise. This Committee reported that the problems of dealing with industrial noise were high among the matters causing most concern to local authorities. In general, however, the Committee could see no alternative to the present law of nuisance as the remedy where prevention fails, or where it cannot be undertaken for one reason or another.

It is our intention that a circular giving guidance on the subject of industrial noise should be issued shortly to local authorities affected. This circular, which will also deal with some other recommendations in the Wilson Report, will request authorities, before taking action against noise from industrial premises of whatever kind, to consult the local Factory Inspectorate. The Factory Inspectorate has responsibilities for the health of workers under the Factories Acts, and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, 1963. They should, therefore, often be able to provide local authorities with useful advice or, alternatively, to suggest the best resources for which specialist advice can be obtained.

A further recommendation of the Wilson Committee was that steps should be taken to establish a simplified procedure for giving a reasonably reliable guide to the probable public reaction to industrial noise. I hope that this recommendation will shortly be implemented. The British Standards Institution is considering a draft British Standards method of rating industrial noise affecting mixed industrial and residential areas. When this new standard is approved for publication, it should result, if adopted generally by public authorities, as I hope it will be, in the more consistent treatment of industrial noise from area to area.

I said in my opening remarks that I would not seek to minimise the nuisance which my hon. Friend's constituents are suffering. Nor do I make any pretence that it is possible in present circumstances to do much more to bring them early relief. I regret that no quick or easy solution is at hand. But I hope that I have reassured the House that progress is being made towards solving this problem on a number of fronts. In new industry and planning there are great opportunities, which we are taking and will continue to take. In existing industry we hope that by harnessing the expertise of the Factory Inspectorate to the ever-growing experience of the local authorities we shall ensure that everything that can be done will be done to keep industrial noise within reasonable bounds. The long-term and only final answer lies, as I have said, in our plans for new housing and the redevelopment of our outworn cities; we intend to press on with these with all the speed that our resources allow.

My hon. Friend referred to the planning aspects of these matters. There are no specific instructions to local planning authorities to take account of noise when considering planning applications. It is, however, well understood by all concerned that noise, together with any other amenity elements, is a material consideration to be taken into account when applications for planning permission are being dealt with. The fact that amenity is taken very seriously is shown by the provisions of Section 28 of the 1962 Act, which specifically refers to the interests of amenity as being one of the factors to be taken into account by local planning authorities in considering whether discontinuance proceedings should be taken.

Further, the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order, 1963, distinguishes clearly between light industrial and general industrial building by de- scribing the former as being the one where the process can be carried on in a residential area without detriment to the amenities of that area by reason of noise, vibration, smell, and so on. No transfer from light to general industrial activity can take place without planning permission.

I said earlier that we shall send out this circular. It is our intention to increase the amounts which courts can fine firms who are guilty of any offences. We will do what we can, by way of calling the attention of local authorities to their rights in this matter. I cannot promise my hon. Friend any legislation—indeed, on Adjournment debates it would not be in order to talk of new legislation but I can say, if it is any comfort to my hon. Friend, that he is talking to someone here tonight who has exactly the same problem. My constituency is one of the victims of the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the century, where firms and houses were mixed together. It is a problem that I have to live with every day. It seems only yesterday that a great housing estate built in my constituency was hailed by everybody as a triumph. We now know that this was one of the greatest planning disasters of the time, because it should never have been built there. It is an industrial area. My hon. Friend certainly has my sympathy and my support to help him.

It is to his credit that he has taken the time of the House at midnight to raise a matter which may appear trivial on the surface but which, to his constituents and to him, is very important. I thank him for doing so, and I assure him that the resources of my Department will be available to him and his Corporation to do what we can to help solve this very difficult problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.