HC Deb 23 March 1971 vol 814 cc442-52

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

11.41 a.m.

Sir Fitzroy Maclean (Bute and North Ayrshire)

I had hoped that on this important subject I would address one of the fullest Houses I have experienced in my 30 years as an hon. Member. However, I am glad to see as many hon. Members in their places on both sides as are here because this is a matter of very great importance indeed.

Most surviving hon. Members—if "surviving" is the right word after that all-night marathon—are agreed, if they are agreed on anything, that we need more industrial development in Scotland. With the unemployment figures at their present level, we could hardly want anything else. However, what we need is not just any development anywhere, because that could defeat its own object, but the right development in the right place, and this is where differences and divergences of opinion are apt to crop up.

As soon as one starts comparing the relative merits and demerits of various projects and sites, one comes up against many highly complex and technical problems which require expert knowledge, in particular in deciding what contribution this or that project is likely to make to the economy, how much employment it will give and whether the advantages of siting it here or there are likely to outweigh the disadvantages.

Moreover, no one project or site can be considered in isolation. It must be thought of as forming part of a larger whole—as part of the social and economic life of Scotland, first and foremost, but also of the United Kingdom—and it must be thought of in relation to amenities and the environment, because heavy industry is not everything. Recreation and health are also important, as is the tourist industry, which is of far greater economic importance than many people realise and which cannot exist if one takes away the amenities on which it depends.

All these considerations clearly apply to the present proposals for industrial development at or near Hunterston. When the proposals for iron ore and oil terminals, a steel complex and an oil refinery were first put forward, it was clear that before any conclusion could be arrived at a lot of questions would need answering—questions about the value of these projects to the economy, the number of jobs they would provide locally and the suitability of this particular site by comparison with other possible sites from a technical, navigational, security and amenity point of view.

These were questions which it was beyond most of us to answer, but Ayr County Council, with negligible expert advice, somehow managed within a few weeks to arrive at what one can only describe as a snap decision in favour of immediate and indiscriminate industrialisation.

This decision, not unnaturally, aroused great indignation locally. The result, as we know, was the establishment of a public inquiry, which, I understand, cost more and lasted longer than any public inquiry in the history of Scotland. Nevertheless, it was welcomed by most people because it was felt that it would provide the answers for which we were looking.

I do not think anybody could have felt anything but impressed by the care and thoroughness with which the public inquiry was conducted and the scrupulously fair way in which the immense volume of evidence that was brought forward was considered, sifted and evaluated. By the time it was over everyone concerned would have been prepared to accept as impartial and well-founded the conclusions arrived at by the distinguished reporter.

Most people felt that, after all the time that had been taken and all the money that had been spent by both private individuals and the public, as taxpayers and ratepayers, the report would provide the answers for which we were looking—answers which it would otherwise have been impossible to arrive at. The majority of people felt that the purpose of such an inquiry was to discover what was really in the public interest and to enable everyone to see that justice was being done.

They were encouraged in this view by the outcome, at about this time, of the earlier Murco public inquiry, when the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross), who yields to no one in his anxiety to bring industry to Scotland, nevertheless decided to accept the reporter's recommendation against the siting of an American oil refinery and terminal higher up the Clyde.

When it became known that the reporter had indeed provided answers—rational, well-reasoned and well-informed answers—to practically all the questions to which answers were required—and, what is more, answers which took due account of the needs of industry, opinion and amenity—it appeared to most of those concerned that a satisfactory solution had been arrived at.

This is why it came as all the more of a shock when they read on and discovered that the Secretary of State had quite arbitrarily rejected most of the reporter's recommendations and, in particular, those which sought to safeguard the natural amenities of one of the most beautiful areas of Scotland.

What has made the verdict even more unacceptable is that there seems very little reason to suppose that any of the projects which actually look like coming to Hunterston, with the exception of the ore terminal, will really be worth while, will bring much employment locally or could not have been equally well sited somewhere else.

I know that in theory there is no appeal against the Secretary of State's decision. But I also happen to know that he and the Prime Minister will have an opportunity in the next couple of days literally to go over things again on the spot. I very much hope that they will use this opportunity to reconsider the whole problem, to have another think.

We are told that, to survive, the existing Scottish steel industry must have a new ore terminal, and, if the middle Clyde is the best site for it, there clearly are, as the reporter recognised, strong arguments for putting it there—although it does not appear to me that the rival claims of Ardrossan, in my constituency, which is crying out for development, only three miles away, or Ardmore for that matter, have ever been properly examined as alternatives to Hunterston.

I want to look at the proposal for what amounts to a new industrial estate adjoining a possible superport. I do not find this proposal at all convincing. A new mammoth, £1,000 million steel complex, if it ever came, though clearly disastrous to the environment, would at least be industrialisation on the grand scale—and pollution on the grand scale. Apart, however, from the immense financial and social cost of shifting Scottish steel from Motherwell to Hunterston, there seem to be a number of hard economic reasons why this may never happen. Nor am I convinced that a superport, as envisaged in the Oceanspan scheme, is very likely to materialise either.

It seems that by rezoning the area for industry in anticipation of something that quite possibly will not happen, my right hon. Friend is all too likely to end up by falling between two stools and ruining the amenities of the Clyde for the sake of one or two tin-tack factories which would give very little employment locally and which could perfectly well have been sited elsewhere. In view of the conclusion reached by the reporter, I hope that my right hon. Friend may even now feel able to reconsider his decision on this issue.

But these are, for the most part, only long-term possibilities. On the other hand, there is one immediate project on which the Secretary of State has not yet given a ruling; namely, Chevron Oil's application to build forthwith a shoreside refinery and oil terminal at Portencross on the south side of the peninsula. I need not rehearse the arguments which led the reporter to recommend that this proposal should be rejected: the damage to amenities, agriculture and tourism, the danger of pollution, the negligible benefit to the economy, the small number of jobs involved and so on. But, instead of accepting the reporter's recommendation and rejecting the application out of hand, the Secretary of State saw fit to delay a decision until fresh evidence could be adduced by one of his right hon. Friends on behalf of the oil company.

This evidence, now that we have it, does not, quite frankly, amount to much. It purports to show, first, that, instead of a surplus, there is a shortage of refining capacity in the United Kingdom. Secondly, it tells us in effect that the profits to the American shareholders will not be quite so big if Chevron has to pipe the oil from the terminal to the refinery.

To take the second of these pieces of evidence first, it seems that the information is self-evident and not particularly relevant. We naturally wish the American shareholders well, but on condition that their gain should not be our loss, as in this case it undoubtedly would be.

As for the first bit of evidence, even if it were true last month, it has surely lost much of its validity this month with the welcome news of the proposed British Petroleum refinery at Grangemouth. In this connection, I emphasise the word "British".

So the Secretary of State, having in the first place resorted to the somewhat surprising expedient of allowing selected witnesses to adduce additional evidence after the inquiry was supposed to be closed, now seems, with the emergence of yet another set of facts, to have been neatly hoist with his own petard, which is surely something which should not have happened to such a distinguished artillery officer.

I hope once again, that in these most unusual circumstances he will read the report again and then follow the excellent example of his predecessor in office by refusing to let this beautiful stretch of the Clyde be defiled and polluted, all for a mess of American oil.

There remains one vital question, namely, that of nuclear security. When a first nuclear power station was sited at Hunterston, more than 10 years ago, it was officially stated that for safety reasons it had to be sited well away from any large centres of industry or population—which is primarily why it was put at Hunterston. But now there is talk of steel complexes and oil refineries and the infrastructure that goes with them all being sited only a few hundred yards from the original nuclear power station, Hunterston A, and any question of security seems at first sight to have been entirely forgotten.

I happen to know, however, that it has not been entirely forgotten, because, by a rare bit of luck, whoever happened to be licking up a letter to me from the Scottish Office under the last Administration enclosed the whole of the departmental minutes along with the Minister's reply. From these I was able to discover that at that time, in 1969, the original extremely stringent restrictions on Hunterston A were still regarded as being in force. Now, for some reason, possibly some security reason, the public inquiry does not seem to have elicited a clear answer on this point. But I want a clear answer, because for thousands of my constituents this could literally be a matter of life or death.

So I would ask my hon. Friend, when he replies, to tell me whether, as of now, the former security restrictions on Hunterston are or are not still regarded as applying, and, if not, whether this is because these restrictions, which were still in force in 1969, are now, in 1971, deemed, on technical and scientific grounds, to be out of date, or whether—and this I can hardly believe possible—it is because the Government's enthusiasm for industrial development on this particular site is such that they are prepared to take a gamble with the lives of a good many thousands of my constituents.

12 noon

Dr. J. Dickson Mahon (Greenock)

I am much obliged to the hon. Member for Bute and North Ayrshire (Sir F. Maclean) and to the Minister for allowing me a minute or two to comment on this matter and make the position of my right hon. and hon. Friends clear.

To take up the past point made by the hon. Gentleman, I agree that he is perfectly entitled to ask for that assurance in view of the seriousness of the matter which he has raised, which is one which concerned us, and still concerns us, on this side. However, despite his remarks about the inquiry, the nature of the facts elicited at the inquiry, and the reporter's own opinion, we very much agree with the Secretary of State's decision on this vital matter.

We are concerned to know whether this lengthy inquiry is to be reconstituted and yet again extended. May we know whether the Secretary of State has come to the conclusion that the inquiry should be reopened? It is most important that we know what is happening in this area. It is a matter of great urgency, and it is one entirely for the Secretary of State in his capacity as planning Minister for Scotland.

While we are glad that the Prime Minister is very soon to fly over this area with the Secretary of State—we wish them bon voyage—I should make clear clear that we regard this foray as one in which the Prime Minister is assessing, with the Secretary of State, the need for a large steel complex in this area, and that question is most pertinent to the Prime Minister's visit.

We understand from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that there is at present going on a six-to-eight-week review of the steel investment programme, which vitally affects the future investment of the British Steel Corporation. We hope that the Scottish Office will convince the Prime Minister that, should there be a large plant—and we all hope that there will be one—it should be sited at the best navigable site; namely, at Hunterston, for there is nowhere else in the United Kingdom.

12.2 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Development, Scottish Office (Mr. George Younger)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bute and North Ayrshire (Sir F. Maclean) on securing this Adjournment debate on a matter which I know to be of the greatest importance to all his constituents, whose interests he has been closely watching throughout the whole controversy. I pay tribute to the way in which he has done that and also to the manner in which he has raised the matter in the House today. Also, I thank the hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) for keeping his remarks brief so that I may have time, I hope, to answer a number of the points which have been raised.

Perhaps it would be most helpful to the House if I first briefly recapitulated the history and the present position of the proposals for development at Hunterston. At the beginning of 1969 the Clyde Estuary Development Study Report identified Hunterston as potentially a deep-water terminal and as a possible site for steel working and oil refining. Later that year, the Chevron Oil Company applied for planning permission for an oil refinery with associated marine oil terminal.

It seemed desirable to look at all the possible uses of the peninsula as comprehensively as possible, and it was arranged that Ayr County Council would submit a development plan amendment zoning land for an ore terminal, a general user port, an integrated steel works and an oil refinery with marine oil terminal. It submitted this amendment at the end of June, 1969. A great many objections were received and a public local inquiry—my hon friend said it was the longest for a long time, if not the longest ever—in preparation for which a great deal of evidence was circulated in writing beforehand, was arranged. This inquiry lasted from mid-November, 1969, to mid-February, 1970.

The report was received last summer, and the Secretary of State's decisions on it were issued on 9th December, 1970. Briefly, these decisions were that land should be zoned for an ore terminal and a general user port; that a further tract of land would be zoned for industry, but that a decision as to whether this land could be used for an integrated steel works would be postponed until the economic case for doing so could be more closely examined on the basis of a planning application.

No decision was taken on the oil refinery because it had emerged during consideration of the report that the evidence affecting the oil refinery application was in some important respects out of date. Since December, a memorandum by the Department of Trade and Industry supplementing the evidence on the oil refinery has been circulated to parties and has drawn a good deal of comment. It seems likely that the inquiry will have to be reopened at the beginning of May to consider the supplementary evidence by the Department of Trade and Industry and the comments on it, but this is still under consideration. I assure the House that there will be no undue delay in my right hon. Friend coming to a decision on this point.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

Will it be circumscribed to this issue or will it go wider?

Mr. Younger

It will be confined to the issue of the evidence, the new evidence, produced by the Department of Trade and Industry in connection with this particular part of the proposals.

My hon. Friend suggested that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had rejected most of the recommendations of the reporter. With respect, I ask him to look at that again, because my right hon. Friend's actual decision letter does not bear that interpretation. In fact, he departed from the reporter only in asking for more evidence on the Chevron proposal and on zoning for industry, without commitment to the land being proposed for the steel development itself.

My hon. Friend asked, also, why these recommendations of the reporter were rejected at all. I wonder whether that reflects some misunderstanding of the purpose of public inquiries and the rôle of reporters taking them. A reporter is responsible for the conduct of the inquiry and for the collation of the evidence in writing in such a way as to facilitate systematic examination leading to a decision. My right hon. Friend is very grateful to Mr. Keith, the reporter in this case, for his performance of this Herculean task.

A reporter may also make recommendations, and he usually does so, although he is not absolutely obliged to do so. But he has no responsibility whatever for the decision. This rests solely with the Secretary of State, and, so far as I know, has always done so. To regard any Secretary of State as bound by the recommendations of the reporter would, in effect, be to accord the power of decision to a private individual, who, whatever his personal merits, had no statutory responsibility and no elective office.

Sir F. Maclean

But will not my hon. Friend agree that in more than 90 per cent. of cases it is usual for the Secretary of State to accept the reporter's conclusions?

Mr. Younger

I could not be precise about it, but certainly in the majority of cases that is done, and it is a reflection of the excellence of the general system. Nevertheless, it is important to realise that ultimately the decision must be, and is, taken by the Secretary of State.

The safeguard of democracy is that the Secretary of State must take his decision on the evidence assembled for him by the reporter and must publicly relate his reasons to that evidence. I am sure that most people will agree that that is exactly what my right hon. Friend did.

My hon. Friend stressed the harm to amenity which would result from development at Hunterston. I do not doubt or deny that for a moment. Indeed, it was made perfectly clear by the reporter that the harm to amenity would be very great. But my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is well aware of this, too, as a passage in his decision letter of 9th December makes perfectly clear: The Secretary of State accepts that the siting of a steel works at Hunterston would have very serious am city consequences. The long-term economic and social advantages of doing so for Great Britain as a whole, and for Scotland particularly, could prove, however, to be more than sufficient to offset the amenity disadvantages …". That passage refers to the proposals for a steel works, which cannot be fully explored until a planning application has been made. I hope that the balance of these factors will be borne in mind by all concerned, because they are of the utmost importance in our consideration of all these questions.

My hon. Friend raised an important question when he asked what would happen in the future in relation to other applications. The first point to make about any further planning applications which may be received is that they will be called in and dealt with by the Secretary of State himself. That is the most important effect of the decision as regards the area of land originally zoned for the steel works.

From now on, the Secretary of State will personally oversee each and every application in respect of that particular piece of ground. Therefore, the fears which my hon. Friend expressed can be allayed. I think he suggested that the ground might find itself covered with a succession of tin-tack factories. I cannot think that that is likely. Indeed, the Secretary of State's oversight of each application is some assurance that he has no intention, and would not, I am sure, have any intention, of allowing that sort of development on these sites.

My hon. Friend also asked about the alternative sites. Of course there are alternative sites which were considered during the inquiry. He suggested that these possibilities still merited further exploration. I ask him to look at the report again, because examination of it will show that both Ardmore and Ardrossan were given exhaustive attention during the inquiry. Individuals may disagree with the conclusions of both the reporter and the Secretary of State on the relative merits of the three, but I am not aware that any new evidence affecting this issue has come to light since the inquiry.

As between the three alternatives, the reporter emerged with a clear conviction of the superiority of Hunterston as a deep water shipping terminal. Once again I quote from the letter of 9th December: Hunterston is superior to the other sites considered at the inquiry, having regard to depth of water; number of days in the year for safe berthing; the cost of works for equipping the terminal. Hunterston could provide access for the largest ships envisaged at present, and offers sheltered waters where they will be able to exploit their economic advantages to the full by prompt berthing, unloading and loading. It is free of the dredging and navigational difficulties of Ardmore. If large ships only are to be provided for, facilities at Hunterston can be provided at appreciably less cost than at Ardmore and for marginally less than Ardrossan. If both large and small ships are to be provided for, it is much cheaper than either of these possible alternatives. I do not know of anything that can be added to that.

My hon. Friend also asked about the question of additional evidence on the oil refinery. I have mentioned that we expect the possibility—

The Question having been proposed after Twelve o'clock on Tuesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eleven minutes past Twelve noon.