HC Deb 10 May 1968 vol 764 cc795-9

12.50 p.m.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 26, at end insert— Provided that this section shall not apply to any emission of dark smoke arising from— (a) any plant or equipment used for the manufacture or laying of road materials or road surface dressing or for the heating and planing of road surfaces; and (b) the burning in the open of

  1. (i) wood, rubbish and other residues on any building or civil engineering construction site, where no other practical means of disposal exist; or
  2. (ii) residues contaminated by explosives.
When the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Maxwell) introduced the Bill on Second Reading he assured the House that he would not ask hon. Members to take it or leave it and that he would be willing to consider reasonable Amendments. He will appreciate that this is not a wrecking Amendment but a reasoned one. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my hon. Friends and I have the same desire for clean air as he has and that we are anxious to make the Bill more practical.

The Amendment is designed to give exemption on a purely temporary basis. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that and will not claim that this can be done by regulations, as has been suggested. We should make laws which are easily understood and which do not need to be adjusted by regulations.

In our endeavour to make exactly clear what will happen when the Bill is passed, we are particularly concerned about the question of road works. Perhaps I should declare my interest in that I am a building contractor. It is because of that interest that I realise the implications of the Bill, and these have been causing some concern to the contracting industry.

The Amendment particularly concerns the use of tarmacadam burners on roads. This is a system used for taking off the top layer of tarmacadam before relaying, and two methods can be adopted. The first is to hack away the top layer by the use of compressors, which is a time-consuming and expensive operation. The second is to burn off the top surface by an operation known in the trade as planing. When I originally tabled the Amendment the Table Office thought that I meant "planning". The planing process is normally used and hon. Members who came to the House this morning by way of Birdcage Walk will have seen the work taking place.

To illustrate the advantages of the planing method; if a contractor was relaying Regent Street he could, by planing, carry out the burning process in a maximum of three-and-a-half days. If, on the other hand, that was not allowable, it would take four weeks to do the job by the other method. And instead of the operation costing about 15s. a yard, it would cost £3, with the additional sum having to be borne by the local authority and carried on the rates.

It is essential that planing may be done and that contractors are aware of this fact when tendering. If regulations had to be introduced, contractors would, when tendering, have to work on the assumption, assuming the worst, that he would not be allowed to burn off. As I have explained, planing is a normal operation which does not add anything in any real sense to foul the air and is of a temporary nature.

The second part of the Amendment is similar to the first and is also a temporary expedient. When demolition work takes place a large amount of rubbish is left on the site. A great deal of it is often infected by bugs and possibly infectious diseases. Hon. Members will have noticed the demolition work going on over the river at St. Thomas's Hospital. It would be ridiculous if every scrap of rubbish had to be carted away by lorry. To where would it be carted? In the process of moving it there would always be the chance of disease being spread as infested objects fell from the lorry. If this rubbish must be moved, it would have to be burnt or placed in a pit. This would be ridiculous. Some people have suggested that it should be dumped in the sea, but that would make matters even worse, because much of it would float and our beaches would be spoilt.

I trust that the hon. Member for Buckingham accepts that this is a practical proposal which would allow the contracting industry to know precisely what is expected of it under the Bill. I am not asking for contractors' permanent structures to be exempted. Contractors must abide by their responsibilities under the Bill in that respect. A tarmacadam plant which is a permanent installation would in no way be affected by the Amendment. That type of plant would be covered in precisely the same way as everything else coming within the Bill.

An even stronger argument can be applied to the part of the Amendment which would exempt "residues contaminated by explosives". The hon. Member for Buckingham will know from his war experience that explosives burnt in the open can do little or no damage—that is, as long as one knows how to deal with them. On the other hand, if they must be carted away there is more likelihood of an explosion occurring, with the possibility of danger to life. Thus, while the first two parts of the Amendment are necessary, the third part is essential for the safety of life.

The Bill has been waiting a considerable time to come forward and it is a pity that we are not able to discuss it in Committee upstairs. It seems ludicrous that the Finance Bill should be debated upstairs while a Bill of this nature, which could have been discussed in Committee in great detail upstairs, is having to be taken on the Floor of the House. I would be out of order in developing this argument, so I will only add the Government are to blame for this state of affairs.

Mr. Robert Maxwell (Buckingham)

I entirely accept the assurance of the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) that the Amendment is not of a wrecking nature. I must, however, with regret, resist it. My objection to it is simply that it is completely unnecessary, because it seeks to remove from the ambit of the Clause road works and the burning of certain specified substances.

I am legally advised that there is no doubt whatever that these items are at present not subject to the operation of the Clause, since roads are not industrial or trade premises. As for specified substances—wood and rubbish on building sites, and so on—the Clause, and par- ticularly subsection (3) empowers the Minister to exempt by regulations any prescribed matter. The question of what substances need to be exempted will fall to be considered later and I am sure that the Minister will be open to all reasonable suggestions. There probably will be several, but to try to specify two or three substances now on their own in the body of the Bill before we have properly surveyed the scene and given the matter the comprehensive consideration it needs would be unsystematic and poor workmanship.

Hon. Members need be in no doubt that there is no intention to stretch the Clause wider than it should reasonably be applied or not to exempt anything that should be exempted. But let us take things in their proper order, do first things first, and not swipe round at one or two things that happened to occur to us and then find later that we have a great deal more to do to finish the job. I hope that, with this explanation, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. Costain

I am in some doubt about subsection (1) (2). Will the hon. Gentleman explain the reference to … the emission of dark smoke from a chimney …"? I am not a lawyer, any more than the hon. Gentleman, and we may need the assistance of our legal colleagues on this matter. As I read it, the Minister has power to exempt the emission of dark smoke from a chimney. But what I have in mind does not come from a chimney. I am referring to what really are bonfires and I am therefore wondering if, when the hon. Gentleman referred to the powers of the Minister, these fires would be covered. Why mention the word "chimney"? I see that the Parliamentary Secretary himself has gone to take legal advice.

1.0 p.m.

Mr. Maxwell

This is a matter for legal interpretation. The legal advice which I have obtained makes it clear beyond peradventure, and I hope that in those conditions the hon. Gentleman will agree to withdraw the Amendment.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. James MacColl)

I am advised quite specifically that the wording has a wider application than is suggested by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain). The power to control it is very wide. Much the best way in which to be flexible in the control of this problem is by regulation rather than by provision in the Bill.

Mr. Costain

In view of the assurance given categorically by the hon. Gentleman, and supported by the Parliamentary Secretary, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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