HC Deb 29 October 1970 vol 805 cc551-62

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

10.12 p.m.

Mr. J. C. Jennings (Burton)

At the outset of this debate on the pollution of the River Trent, I want to make two points abundantly clear. The first is that this debate has nothing whatever to do with the strike of public employees, because I tabled an application for this debate before that strike took place. Secondly, I would like to dispel from anybody's mind—I especially direct this remark to those who like Burton beer—that this debate has nothing to do with Burton beer. The water from which Burton beer is brewed comes not from the River Trent itself but from the artesian wells fathoms below the River Trent near the gypsum beds.

Having given that commercial, I turn to the serious problem of pollution in the Trent itself. This is a long-term problem—long-term past and long-term future. About 10 years ago I vigorously campaigned in this House time and again for the purification of the River Trent. The Trent River Board, as it was then known, the Trent River Authority, as it now is, did marvels. After a number of years the Trent improved and we were even able to see some fish in the river at Burton. But, unfortunately, in the last two years this situation has rapidly deteriorated.

Why is this so? It is due peculiarly to the position of Burton on the River Trent. It is situated eight miles from where the River Tame joins the Trent. Because of this, the Trent at Burton is severely polluted. The chief causes are twofold. The first is the river Tame, which is probably the filthiest river in the United Kingdom, and, when one thinks of pollution in other rivers, that is saying something. The other pollution comes from the headwaters of the Trent in the Potteries, but this is largely improved by the time that the Trent reaches the confluence of the Tame and the Trent.

The problem to which I am directing the attention of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment is really that of the River Tame. It is a river which flows through countryside, the Birmingham conurbation and the Black Country, and it is the worst of the two sources of pollution. The quality of effluent put into the River Tame is highly unsatisfactory, and it is this effluent, about which I shall say more later, that is almost entirely responsible for the filthy Trent, which once upon a time was called "the silver Trent" but which is now nothing more than an open drain.

On 25th September, the Daily Telegraph's magazine described the Trent as the worst river in Europe, with the exception of the Rhine. The fact is that human excrement and toxic industrial waste together add up to make the Trent the filthiest river in Britain and the second filthiest in Europe. It is no credit to anyone.

How does it affect Burton-on-Trent? Burton is in the peculiar position that it receives the full force of the pollution from the Tame, which carries it from the Black Country and Birmingham. It was said once that Burton sent its effluent, especially its beer effluent, into the Trent and that that was the cause of some of the trouble. We have now put our house in order. We have a completely modern sewerage scheme. But it does not help us, because we put our clean effluent into the Trent below Burton. Having put our house in order, we ask other authorities to do the same.

We have no river amenities in Burton. The riverside areas cry out for amenity development. There are no fish. Nothing lives in the Trent at Burton. No living organism can survive. Instead, we have flowing past us a deadly, dirty cesspool of messy putrefaction and grossly polluted effluent.

Any improvement at Burton depends entirely on an improvement in the Tame, and the next question to which I want to address myself concerns whose responsibility it is. I have already paid tribute to the River Trent Authority. It is fully aware of the problem in the area and, to my knowledge, is doing everything possible to alleviate it. I attach no blame to the authority; indeed, I take off my hat to it for its efforts.

What must be done is to involve the local authorities, industry, the Upper Tame Main Drainage Authority and, lastly, the Government. This is where I have to make some stern comments to my hon. Friend, since his Department has the ultimate responsibility.

I want to set my hon. Friend three targets, and I expect some action. The Upper Tame Drainage Authority must see clearly that the load of pollution from the 17 sewage stations or works in the Black Country is reduced considerably. For the most part, they are sewage works which, in an area like the Birmingham conurbation or the Black Country, are totally inadequate to take the load. The authorities must be encouraged, cajoled, financed, persuaded, or whatever other methods the Department for the Environment cares to use—[Interruption.] I did not catch that. It was too much of a whisper.

Mr. Ron Lewis (Carlisle)

Sack them.

Mr. Jennings

No, I do not think so. The Government are doing good work at the moment. I will not enter into those controversial waters. The waters of the Trent are controversial enough for me tonight.

This must be the Minister's first target. I will give his this fact. I can give him any amount of statistics. About 40 per cent. of the total sewage load comes from these 17 sewage works, which are totally inadequate for their work.

As a result of agitation years ago, we got new sewage works at Minworth in the Black Country. These are completely modern, but they are only adequate in good times. The other 17 are not adequate. In this area, local authorities must face their responsibilities. The remedial measures that have taken place, or not taken place, in the last few years in this area have shown no degree of urgency.

This vicious, vile, dirty, filthy, River Tame has no chance of recovering before it reaches the Trent. It pours its filthy waters down past Burton, and the effect is felt in Nottingham, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Whitlock), if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, will probably testify. The quantity of effluent is so large and the quality so poor, and the Tame pours 200 million gallons a day into the Trent. One would think that the Trent would be the bigger river of the two; but in volume of water, if that is what it can be called, the Tame has a greater volume of water than the main river. This is the extent of the problem. We see a sorry picture of neglect over a long period.

A scheme for the centralising of sewage works in the Black Country, apart from Minworth, was banned by the previous Government in June. I give my hon. Friend his second target. Revive this scheme, finance it, and see that we have something that will at least help over the years to ameliorate this problem.

What else can the Minister do? He can come and see for himself. I have been down the Tame and the Trent from the source of the Tame to the Humber. The Tame has to be seen to be believed. If the Minister cannot find time to come and see Burton and the Tame—and see how our beer really is made—will he receive a delegation from the corporation so that they can tell him about matters that I have not time to tell him tonight? I want the Minister to see and to learn what is possible if the River Trent were clean—the amenities that we could have in a delightful little place like Burton. I think that he should insist on improvements in sewage treatment in Birmingham and the Black Country. It needs his time, energy and planning, and some Government money.

I have here a report—I will not bore the House with it—from the Trent River Authority which says that the sewerage systems in the Black Country, … are inadequate to pass peak flows of sewage even in dry weather conditions. The result of these inadequacies and defects is that frequent or continuous discharges of crude sewage are made from overflow points on the sewerage system and find their way into water courses. That is the picture.

What are the Government's plans for all this? I should like to hear from my hon. Friend about short-term and long-term plans. I have no intention of being put off by vague promises or specious words. This is a repetition of the campaign that some of us fought ten years ago. I tell my hon. Friend, with a warm smile in my heart and no malice aforethought, that, unless I get a definite promise of some action and, within a reasonable time, see that action is being taken, this campaign will continue to be waged. This is not just a local problem. It affects five and a half million people living in the Trent basin, and I urge the Minister to treat this as a matter of extreme urgency and give it top priority.

10.25 p.m.

Mr. William Whitlock (Nottingham, North)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to support what was said by the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Jennings), but I must be brief because I know that the Minister wants time to reply to the debate.

The anger which the hon. Gentleman has expressed about the pollution of the Trent near Burton is justified and understandable, for here is a town which has a modern sewage system but yet does not benefit from that system because of the gross neglect of others upstream of Burton. In June I had the opportunity, with the Trent River Board, to inspect some of the areas for which the board is responsible, and I learned of the way in which the state of affairs around Burton is caused. It is due to the ever-increasing quantities of sewage and industrial effluent which are discharged to the upper and middle reaches of the Tame in the way which the hon. Gentleman has described.

I find it difficult to believe that although the state of affairs near Burton is bad it is nevertheless better than it was five or 10 years ago. I find that difficult to understand, because I saw the gross pollution of the Tame, and at one spot, if I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would not have thought it possible in this day and age that a natural water course could be allowed to become so horribly and disgustingly polluted by untreated sewage. About 100 yards from that spot were dwelling houses, and I do not understand why the people in those houses are not clamouring night and day for rectification of those conditions.

The sewage treatment facilities over much of the Black Country area present a sorry picture of many years of neglect. Many of the sewage systems date back to Victorian times, and these are totally inadequate for present populations. We could debate this matter at great length, and I should love to do that, but there is not time because the Minister wants to reply to the debate. I believe that we must look at this problem to see what new policies and new powers are necessary to cope with it. I hope that the Minister, in the short time that he has been in his present office, has had time to look at the problem and will be able to give us some hope for the near future.

10.28 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)

I can understand the concern which my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Jennings) and the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Whitlock) have voiced on behalf of their constituents in respect of the Trent and Tame rivers. In particular, I can understand the concern which my hon. Friend has expressed on behalf of Burton, which has embarked on a new sewage disposal scheme costing about £4 million to deal with its own sewage disposal wastes, only to find that others have not so far been able to follow suit. As a result, Burton is naturally concerned that its own efforts should not be negatived, and it wants other authorities to follow its good example.

I think that in this matter of river pollution it is desirable to look at the picture as a whole and this is something that I want briefly to do tonight.

The Trent itself is a clean river until it receives the discharges from the Potteries, and it is these which grossly pollute it with industrial and some other unsatisfactory effluents. But such is the capacity of rivers for self-purification that the Trent recovers sufficiently to support fish life for 17 miles above its confluence with the river Tame, which is eight miles upstream from Burton.

It is at this point at the confluence when things get worse. The average flow of the Tame at this point is greater than that of the Trent, and the Tame, as my hon. Friend rightly said, is an extremely dirty river and the major source of Burton's understandable discontent. The Tame is the main drainage channel for nearly the whole of Birmingham and the Black Country, and it is heavily polluted throughout its length. There are discharges of unsatisfactory sewage effluent and partially settled sewage. There are premature discharges from sewage overflows and, in addition, there are a number of effluents from metal finishing and other industries which inhibit the river's self-purification processes. I make no bones about that. But I would say to my hon. Friend and to the hon. Gentleman opposite that, if they have any specific evidence of danger to health, this evidence is not known to my Department, and they should produce it.

The picture which I have presented so far is gloomy, but we must put on record that, alongside the gloom, there is progress to report. I shall deal, first, with progress on the part of the Trent before it is joined by the Tame. At Stoke-on-Trent the corporation is building a new £1½ million sewage disposal works. Nearby, the British Steel Corporation has installed a treatment plant which has reduced the cyanide and zinc content of its effluent by not less than 90 per cent., and it is also investigating the installation of a further treatment plant to bring its effluent fully up to the Trent River Authority's requirements. I am glad to say, too, that the Michelin Tyre Company is likewise putting in treatment plant. I ask my hon. Friend to accept that these improvements in that area will help his problem.

I wish to note as well that the problem on the Tame itself lies, as has been said, with the Upper Tame Main Drainage Authority, which is the responsible body for the main drainage of Birmingham and the surrounding areas. When this drainage authority was set up in 1966—this fact cannot be burked—it took over a large number of very old and unsatisfactory treatment works in the Black Country. It took over, also, the centralised sewage treatment works at Minworth. Here, I think, there is sign of genuine improvement as the Minworth Works comes into operation. The final stages of these works, that is, the oxygenation tanks and associated works, are now under construction, and I can tell my hon. Friend that, when these works are fully operational in about a year's time, he will, I believe, find that there is a worthwhile improvement. Incidentally, these works will cost £20 million, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that they are designed fully to reach the Royal Commission standards.

The Upper Tame Main Drainage Authority's biggest problem for the immediate future is to deal with the old and unsatisfactory works in the Black Country which were there before it took over in 1966. To this end, as my hon. Friend said, the drainage authority applied for planning permission to build a new treatment works in the Sandwell valley between Birmingham and West Bromwich. That application was called in and, as he said, the then Minister decided not to grant planning permission. This decision was taken on amenity grounds and because the inspectors who conducted the public local inquiry came to the conclusion that a refusal of permission to build would not materially delay the coming into operation of a proper sewage treatment facility. I am glad to say that the drainage authority is now working hard on an alternative scheme based on the reconstruction of three or four major existing works in the area. This big job can be expected to be fully operational certainly by the end of the 1970s, and it will start to come into operation in phases before then. It will cost, I am told, an estimated £23 million. So, once again, there is a measure of progress.

Meanwhile, the authority is carrying out a number of interim measures. Since its inception, this authority has spent £12 million on capital works, and expenditure is planned to continue at a rate of not less than £3½ million a year for every one of the next five years. Again, I think, we can report a measure of progress.

Tamworth is spending £1½ million on new sewage disposal works, and over the river basin as a whole other major schemes are being carried out or are planned by Cannock and Leek Urban District Councils, by Stafford Rural District Council and by other authorities.

The effect of these various measures is that, progressively, there is an improvement in the quality of the River Tame. Even with the completion of the Min-worth Works, however, I accept that the position will remain unsatisfactory; there is still a long way to go. The fact remains that there is an improvement, and that improvement will go on.

The essential ingredients for success in this very large effort are threefold. First, there is the requirement that the authorities concerned shall be determined to get on with the job. My hon. Friend made that point, and I shall be surprised if the local authorities do not notice what he has said tonight. I am confident that those concerned in this river basin are aware of the gravity of the problem and the responsibility which rests with them.

The second ingredient is money. There have been no restrictions on local authorities' capital investment programmes in sewerage and sewage disposal. Expenditure has been rising steadily and I expect this to continue.

The third ingredient is time. De-polluting rivers is necessarily a slow and laborious process, and the task in the Trent basin is literally to overtake the results of 150 years of development. The designing and building of major new sewage treatment works is a long and complicated business.

None of this is to say that we are satisfied. The Government do not think that there are any grounds for complacency here, neither in this particular aspect of environmental pollution nor with regard to the improvement of the environment as a whole. The setting up of a new Department of the Environment under my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is a clear indication of that.

I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that the Government are taking a close interest in this situation in the Trent, and that my remarks will help him and his constituents in Burton to see how they fit into the larger picture of improvement of the Trent and Tame rivers as a whole. If he wishes to bring a deputation on this matter, we shall be very glad to receive it.

I turn finally to two specific points in respect of Burton. There has been a certain amount of complaint about smells from Burton on Trent's own sewage disposal works. It is well-known that brewery wastes are strong and difficult to treat, and that they account for about 70 per cent. of the total dry weather flow to the Burton works. I am pleased to note that the new sewage disposal works is producing a satisfactory effluent. One of the Ministry's engineering inspectors visited Burton last year to investigate the situation following the complaints. The inspector was not able precisely to identify their origin, but he did report that the smells were not typical of those normally found in the vicinity of sewage disposal works, and that they might more accurately be associated with industrial chemical processes. He was satisfied that the new Burton works had been satisfactorily constructed, and that the Council are taking all possible steps to eliminate any possible cause of the smells.

I add one word about the long-term plans for the Trent, which my hon. Friend wished to know. We look forward to going beyond the stage when the task is simply to clean it up. That is the first task, but beyond that one recognises that the Trent is a major carrier of water from the west to the east of the country. Generally there is plenty of water in the west and there is less of it in the east. The Trent is therefore a valuable supplier and carrier of water. It is necessary to utilise this major resource. That is why for the past three years my Department, the Water Resources Board, the Water Pollution Research Laboratory and the Trent River Authority have been actively engaged in a substantial research study to determine the best way to make the Trent fit for various uses—for water carriage and for many other things. This study involves conducting experiments into the artificial recharge of aquifers, and the building of lagoons along the river. In the end we hope that it will produce an appreciation of the most economical way to fit the river for wider uses, which can include recreation and water supply. This report will be ready early next year. It will form the basis for the future systematic development of the water resources of the Trent as a whole.

My hon. Friend, not for the first time, has done his constituents and the House a service in raising this matter. I assure him that the Government are in no way complacent about the situation. I will accept his invitation, if it is at all possible to do so, to come and look at the Trent, though I must tell him that when I was there the other day I was very glad to be able to see a fisherman with his rod pull out a fish from the Trent river.

Mr. Jennings

At Nottingham—not Burton.

Mr. Griffiths

Yes, indeed. I hope that one day my hon. Friend, the hon. Gentleman and I will be able to meet together to enjoy some of their admirable Burton beer and to take fresh fish out of the River Tame.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Eleven o'clock.