HC Deb 30 March 1971 vol 814 cc1427-52

(By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

7.1 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Tugendhat (Cities of London and Westminster)

Today is an important day in the Parliamentary year, with the presentation of the Budget, and today was more than simply an important Parliamentary day—it was an important day in the post-war economic history of this country. Therefore, to move from one of the high points of Parliament to Private Bills of this nature is a little difficult, and I hope that the House will appreciate it if I do not dwell too long on the details of the Bill, most of which are non-controversial. If other hon. Members wish to dwell on them, I hope that they will have plenty of time to do so and will not feel that I have taken up a disproportionate amount of the time available.

The Bill has four principal purposes. It makes provision to assist in the prevention of air pollution in the City of London, it provides for the notification to the health authority for the Port of London of diseases occurring in the port, it aims to regulate further the horse-riding in Epping Forest, and it alters existing obligations with respect to the opening of Tower Bridge. It also makes further miscellaneous provisions relating to different activities in the City.

Three of these four provisions are completely non-controversial, in the sense that there has been no petition against them, and there has been no suggestion that they were irregular or unfortunate. The fourth has aroused some controversy. I will deal with the other three first.

The business about the port health authority is very simple. It makes good an omission from the Health Services and Public Health Act, 1968, and brings the City into line. The Clauses relating to Epping Forest have been promoted after consideration of this matter with all the various interests connected with the forest and will, I am sure, make the forest an even more pleasant place than it is. I myself learned to ride in Epping Forest and I am delighted that it should now be possible to make the facilities even better for other people.

Part V of the Bill lifts certain obligations imposed originally in an Act of 1885—so to some degree this is a modernising measure—and introduces more realistic penalties for certain offences relating to city markets. In other words, this, too, I am sure, will be agreed as completely straightforward.

The controversial part of the Bill is Part II, which has been petitioned against. Like any other well-regulated local authority, the City would like and always has preferred its legislation to receive the universal approval and assent of the people involved in it. It is a matter of regret to the promoters of the Bill that it should have been petitioned against. I must make it clear that the City is not being obdurate. The Bill will go to Committee, if it is given a Second Reading, and all the aspects of this and other Clauses can be discussed there, and evidence will be subject to cross-examination.

Erskine May says that there is a crucial difference betwen a Private Bill and a Public Bill. With a Public Bill, on Second Reading, the House is expected, because it is a matter of public policy, to give its approval or disapproval to the Bill's principles. But with a Private Bill, the House is not required to approve the principles at all—only the Bill's passage to Committee. So with this Bill, where some parts have been petitioned against and on which there is more than one opinion, all the issues can be raised and examined openly in Committee. I suggest that the Committee is the place in which these issues should be dealt with.

The Clause which has been petitioned against would reduce the sulphur content in the air. This object will receive universal approval. Sulphur damages buildings, it harms plant and animal life and it harms human health. We all remember the dreadful fogs of the 'thirties, 'forties and 'fifties, when many old people suffered grave ill-health. The fogs were the cause of death in winter time.

Regardless of the difference of view on the details, I am sure that this objective will meet with the agreement of all hon. Members. This is particularly important in the very compact area of the City of London, where many buildings are close together and an enormous number of people—400,000 a day—come into the area. During the daytime, a great mass of humanity is pressed close together, so the dangers and difficulties of a sulphurous atmosphere are perhaps greater than in more sparsely populated places, or where people are not bundled so closely together during their working days.

The Bill seeks to set standards for new furnaces installed on or after 1st January, 1972, and for all furnaces as from January 1987, so this is hardly an extreme measure. It is a gradual one designed to bring about these objects. It sets standards both for oil and for coal. For oil, the maximum permitted sulphur content will be 1 per cent. by weight and for coal 1¼ per cent. There is a Clause setting penalties for contravention.

The City has a clean air record to be proud of. It was the first local authority in the country to prohibit the emission of smoke throughout its area. This was in an Act in 1954. With this experience, and in view of the enormous advances of the last few years, the City now feels that the time has come for it to move forward. It believes that this Measure will enable the air in the City to become even cleaner, the people to be healthier, our buildings to be better and for the quality of life and the standard of the environment to be improved in any way.

We recognise that some people feel that some Clauses in this part of the Bill could be improved and that there are aspects of it which have aroused dissent. We are asking the House to give the Bill a Second Reading so that these matters may be discussed in detail in Committee. We are not seeking to set standards for the whole country. We recognise that each area has its own problems, but the City has its problems and the Bill is designed to deal with them. Therefore, I hope that the House will feel able to give the Bill a Second Reading and to enable these matters to be dealt with in Committee.

7.10 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

I congratulate the hon. Members for Cities of London and Westminister (Mr. Tugendhat) on the admirable way in which he has introduced this Bill. May I declare a latent interest in that my first employers were the City of London Corporation who are the real sponsors of this Bill. I have nothing but the utmost praise for the City of London Corporation, for its work and many helpful activities.

I must declare an interest from a constituency point of view, too, because the City, among its many public works, maintains a number of open spaces and parks within my constituency. Were it not for the excellent work of the City I do not know what the poor people of my constituency, in the dock area of London, would do to get some fresh air. The Bill includes a suggestion to improve horse-riding facilities in Epping Forest. I support this. Over recent years parts of the forest have been churned up and this has caused difficulty to the general public, to mothers and fathers and their children out on picnics. Nothing could be worse than trying to walk through a forest churned up in this way. Even the best behaved of horses do not always control themselves, and if they do not churn up the forest there are other ways in which they can despoil the area.

I am glad that the City of London, with its usual courtesy, has discussed this with interested parties in advance and is now to develop areas where horses and riders can be happy and, more importantly from my point of view, where children and the general public will be happy. I also support the suggestion contained in the Bill to do with Tower Bridge. This is an anachronism.

I am surprised that anyone should have taken the trouble to oppose the Bill. No doubt when the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) comes to speak he will give his reasons for opposition. I support the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster, who said that there is nothing to prevent the Bill being discussed in Committee. It seems an unnecessary worry and expense to the City of London. There may be other occasions when other promoters will not be so democratic as the City of London has always been. It is always willing to discuss the provisions in its various Bills. I am sure that if the objections had been taken to the City of London they could have been overcome. Alternatively, they can be discussed in Committee.

The City of London is doing a very good job, at the expense of its ratepayers. Most of these are large business houses so there are no real poor ratepayers in the City. It is doing something which is very good. The hon. Member made a remark about the inter-war years and the thirties and I facetiously remarked that, "We cannot all remember back that far." Some of us can and we do remember those fogs. It is right that a person could not get across from one side of the Mansion House to the other so thick were those pea-soupers. Big Ben may have stood out in the fog-laden atmosphere but in the City where there is severe congestion it was impossible.

I agree that the City should do all it can to prevent sulphur emission from furnaces. The hon. Member said that this was not meant to be a pattern but I hope that it will be. If the City can do something to prevent the emission of sulphur I hope that other authorities will be asked to copy its lead. If this is one of the objections of the petitioners I hope that that objection will not be listened to in Committee, because I do not think that it can be well-founded.

7.18 p.m.

Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Bedford)

I hope to be able to allay some of the anxieties of the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis), particularly since he says that this will create anxiety among other people in other parts of the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Tugendhat) said that he did not want this to set a precedent, but the very basis of the Private Bill procedure is that once a Clause sets a precedent it is open to any authority in any part of the country, no matter how haphazardly it may be adopted, to operate that Clause. It will have the effect not merely of wrecking the market for coal, which has a very high sulphur content, but of wrecking the market for oil, which has a limited capacity in the United Kingdom.

I pay tribute to the City of London for several innovations. It preceded the Clean Air Act of 1956, a contribution for which I must give it full marks. It has also put forward such suggestions as pedestrian islands and the police have made a very good contribution. That is where I must part company, because I feel that this is a piece of window-dressing. I do not intend to obstruct the passage of the Bill. It must have a Second Reading, but it is only right that I should explain that while I am an ardent conservationist I think the City is going about this in the wrong way.

The Bill singles out an area which is too small for practical purposes. It is one square mile, which is a very small space when dealing with a gas like sulphur dioxide. If we compare it with New York, where they have a limit in force over 365 square miles, it can be seen that the scheme can be operated rather sensibly on a rational basis. I would have hoped to have extended it to the Greater London area.

If we look at foreign countries, in the Federal Republic, there is a sulphur limitation on fuel oil of 1.8 per cent. in the Ruhr; 2 per cent. in Frankfurt; in France, the sulphur limitation on petroleum products is 2 per cent. in Paris, and has been since 1964. It is to operate at Lyon and Marseilles at a later date. In Italy there is a sulphur limitation on fuel oil of 1.1 per cent., but in the large cities such as Milan it is doubtful that it could be enforced.

In Sweden, sulphur limitation on petroleum products is nation-wide at 2.5 per cent. This applies to Stockholm and Gothenburg. It is noticeable in other countries that it applies to cities and not merely to integral parts of cities. The City of London is an integral part of London. It is too small to be workable, if one compares it with New York, which has 365 square miles. It is a pity that a fault has been made here.

Another basic fault is assuming that a curtain can be placed around the City of London. This gas will drift according to the vagaries of the weather. It will come downstream or, in fog, it will accumulate, and by its own force it will drift in certain areas and thus cause problems. Therefore, it is necessary to go well beyond the City of London if one is effectively to control it.

To look at the problem from its basis, the research and intelligence department of the G.L.C. indicated the following figures on 26th March, 1970. In the City of London there were 369 micrograms of sulphur per cubic metre of air. In Lambeth the figure was 346. In Westminster, which is the other part of my hon. Friend's constituency, the figure was 306. This problem derives largely from oil. Sixty per cent. is from oil, but my calculations are that coal's responsibility is about 3 per cent.; yet coal is brought into the Bill.

There have been negotiations on this matter. I had a most cordial lunch with the City of London and I tried to persuade the Corporation to eliminate all references to coal, because while coal may be responsible for creating difficulties in other parts of the country, certainly it is not at fault in the City of London. The figures compare very favourably with those given by the National Society for Clean Air at a conference on the 24th October, 1969, in that the summer average in the City of London was 310 micrograms per cubic metre of air and in the winter it rose to 490. These are well below the figures where one had a higher ratio of concentration in the London smog of 1952. In 1952 the figure went as high as 3,830 micrograms and in 1962 the figure went to 5,660.

But one has to put the whole thing in proportion here. The City of London is endeavouring to do this for one square mile. But there are other cities, large conglomerations of population such as Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol, which require legislation of particular significance to deal with their problems.

One would have thought that the Government should have introduced comprehensive legislation to deal with this problem, especially if it is not already provided for by the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968.

To give a further indication of the way that sulphur dioxide can drift, I mention the Bankside power station, which is just to the south of the river, where there is a 300 megawatt station operating. Through a gas-washing plant it removes 95.5 per cent. of the sulphur. But what is important is the amount of sulphur which is emitted into the atmosphere. That plant emits 24,627 cubic feet of sulphur dioxide per day.

Mr. Arthur Lewis


Mr. Skeet

Bankside, which has a scrubber. That figure is based on the consumption of fuel oil with a 2.6 per cent. sulphur content. That represents 359 tons per annum; in other words, to travel over the City of London there is available from this source a quantity of sulphur dioxide gas equivalent to a large number of commercial furnaces operating in the City, and this source is situated on the City boundary.

The washing facilities which have been provided in compliance with technical innovations and improvements have done a remarkable job since they were instituted by the G.L.C., and that body must be congratulated on what it has done. Unfortunately, washing facilities cause an inversion, that is, the plume is wet, and while there is a flue velocity, it tends to move down in a foggy patch. The result is that when we have a fog, the accumulation of sulphur dioxide can, in mild conditions, go right across into the City of London.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Battersea power station. That is operated not on oil but on coal. They had a scrubbing plant there, but it has been suspended for the last two years. I should have thought that, in dealing with this matter, the most sensible way would have been to provide a Clause in the Greater London Council (General Powers) (No. 2) Bill, which has had a Second Reading, that would have provided for all the surrounding boroughs, such as Tower Hamlets, Southwark and others, and Westminster. It could have been put in that Bill. That would have been in line with international precedent. It could have prevented drifting. The Clause could have been remodelled and then I should have given the authors of the Clause full marks for what they had done. It would have been full and effective. Going through the Clause in the Greater London Council Bill, I find no reference to anything of this nature.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

The hon. Gentleman may or may not be right in his opinions, but the City of London surely cannot be held responsible for what the G.L.C. may or may not have put in its Bill. The City cannot be bound by the G.L.C. Bill. Lastly, if that Clause were needed, the hon. Gentleman, and myself, perhaps, or anyone else, should have seen that it was put in. One cannot blame the City of London because we failed in our job or the G.L.C. failed in getting it in its Bill.

Mr. Skeet

I concede that the City of London cannot be responsible for the other Bills. But the City of London is responsible for the ineffectiveness of its own piece of legislation, when it is dealing with sulphur dioxide, which is a gas subject to the vagaries of the atmosphere. One square mile is a minute area.

Mr. Tugendhat

I appreciate that there are difficulties in that the City of London is a small area surrounded by a large area. Sulphur is heavy in the air and, therefore, when sulphur is in the air, concentrations are not readily dispersed. Therefore, if the City can create an oasis of clean air in the middle, which would bring about substantial improvement, that would be better for the other areas.

Mr. Skeet

I cannot concede that point because the wind blows sulphur dioxide about. There are tall buildings in the City and elsewhere. Most of the City has been rebuilt. Where there are tall buildings there is no reason why, but for the Bill, we should not resort to high flues and flue velocity to get rid of it at some height. Where we have scrubbing in the power station to which I have referred, we have a plume and inversion, which brings it down to ground level. In other parts outside the City of London, with domestic fires, it is at low level already and would move about at that level.

I have referred to the Greater London Council Bill. It is unique that there has been no City of Westminster Bill for three years and no provision here, although one has to bear in mind that this is a matter of public concern. I emphasise that. It is a matter of great concern for the Government of the day. If the Government want to get rid of this rather injurious sulphur dioxide, I will concede the case without arguing it, although the scientists are a little divided on this point.

In the Palace of Westminster there is a sulphur content of 2.4 per cent. which is burnt. In St. Thomas's Hospital over the river it is 3 per cent. to 4 per cent. No attempt has been made to deal with these, but they provide sulphur in the atmosphere which will sweep into the City of London. I quote these examples in an attempt to emphasise that to deal with this matter in a piecemeal manner is totally ineffective. It would have been much better to have left this until later.

I cannot possibly oppose every Bill which is introduced. I must take a stand on one. I did not take a stand on the Greater London Council Bill because I had already entered an objection to this Bill where I could make my case.

The Private Bill procedure is unique. Once a Clause has been laid down and has been accepted as a precedent, when local authorities are mediating what Clauses to put into their Bills they will pick on Clauses which have already received the approval of the House, whether on Second Reading or in Committee. This Clause, if passed in this form or in a modified form, would be accepted with alacrity by many county councils and other bodies. This proliferation of Clauses could be particularly dangerous to the coal industry: it could knock its production. It could also have serious effects for the oil industry, which will not be able to obtain the necessary supplies of low sulphur oil.

I turn to consider the impact of such a Clause moving elsewhere on the coal industry. The City of London used only 5,625 tons of coal last year compared with 120,000 tons of oil, which was equal to 200,000 tons of coal equivalent. It is interesting to observe that the Bill in its original draft did not include any reference to coal; this reference was inserted later. I went to the City of London and asked whether, if coal were responsible for only 3 per cent., it would not be advisable to leave it out altogether, because it was not the culprit and could justifiably be dropped.

The National Coal Board has given an undertaking to the City of London that it is prepared to comply with the specification if it is practicable to do so and that it will not be necessary to have any legislation. However, unfortunately we have reached the position where we are debating this matter and what comes of it will have to be decided elsewhere.

Clause 3(9)(b) is quite a stiff provision. It defines "sulphurous fuel" as a fuel where the sulphur exceeds 1.5 per cent. of the weight of the fuel. The rather vague expression "sulphur compounds" is used. I should have thought that coal itself is a compound of sulphur and other elements. The expression "sulphur compounds" is meaningless to me. If this expression is to remain, it will be unlawful even to strike a match in the City of London because the content of a match head exceeds 1.25 per cent. by weight of sulphur. However, I shall take no point on that.

The figure of 1.25 per cent. is in excess of the availability of low sulphur coals. In the United Kingdom the sulphur content by weight of coal varies between 0.5 per cent. and 3.5 per cent. with an average of 1.6 per cent. However, these coals are found in locations such as Scotland and Wales which are remote from the market.

Availability is not the only problem. To comply with the standard which the City of London is setting, the National Coal Board would be required to impose a control limit of 0.9 per cent. to reach a specification of 1.25 per cent. This is because the sulphur content varies seam by seam and pit by pit. It would impose an intolerable burden on the industry if the Clause were to be repeated in other parts of the country. I hope to receive from the Minister an undertaking that the City of London will be regarded as a unique place and it is not intended that the Clause should have availability elsewhere.

There is a patent unfairness vis-à-vis the oil industry, because if oil is set at 1 per cent. on a calorific value basis coal should be set at 0.66 per cent. and not at 1.25 per cent. In other words, the Clause has not been thought out and it seeks to do in a limited area that which could be done in a greater area but which it would be impracticable to do at present.

I do not want to take too many Committee points. I shall refer to these points only very briefly. Although the whole scheme is to come into operation in 1987 for new furnaces, the provision in Clause 3(2)(a) the renewal or replacement of a burner or other device used for, or in connection with, the heating of a furnace shall be taken as the installation of a furnace will mean that the slightest adaptation will bring an old furnace within the full implementation of the Clause.

Mr. Tugendhat

The City of London has issued a public document pointing out that this is a point on which it proposes to introduce an amendment. My hon. Friend will find that this point is met.

Mr. Skeet

This just bears out my point that that this whole matter has been ill thought out. However, I am delighted that improvements are on the way. Clause 3(4)(b) provides a defence if "suitable fuel was unobtainable". This could be considerably improved upon by making use of a general provision taken from Section 16 of the Clean Air Act, 1956, which says: in the case of smoke emitted from a chimney, it shall be a defence for the defendant to prove that the best practicable means had been employed to prevent the nuisance. This would be a general Clause and it would be cumulative of the earlier Clauses. Or use could be made of Section 6(4)(d) of the 1968 Act— any other matters requiring consideration in the circumstances. Provision should be made for a third party defence so as to cover the case of the National Coal Board having supplied coal to a company and existing resources being used up before a piece of equipment is declared illegal.

Another thing that perturbs me is that reading Clause 3(1) with Clause 3(9) it is clear that no allowance is made for any improvements which may ocur in technology over the years. If the sulphur content in oil exceeds 1 per cent. and that in coal exceeds 1.25 per cent. high chimneys cannot be employed. No schemes such as the injection of limestone and dolomite into boilers, which would be available under modern methods, can be employed: that would be contravening existing legislation. This is another matter which needs clearing up.

It is well known, and it is provided for in the 1956 and 1968 Acts, that one of the best methods for getting rid of sulphur dioxide is to force it through a fairly high chimney at great velocity, throwing it out to a considerable height so that it will drift away in the wind. The House has already provided for this in legislation, but it would not be available in respect of any plant in the City of London because it has been negatived by those two Clauses in conjunction.

One has to consider two factors in relation to the effect on the oil industry if this principle were to be repeated elsewhere in the country through Clauses in other private legislation. One is the availability of oil of low sulphur content. We derive most of our oil from the Middle East, and some of it from North Africa. Political difficulties have supervened in Africa, and in Nigeria the situation has not improved. I readily admit that the sulphur content there is right down to zero or only as little as 0.25 per cent. by weight, but 55 per cent. of oil from the Middle East has a sulphur content over 2 per cent. and 45 per cent. of it has between 1 and 2 per cent. sulphur content. The little we derive from South America has, for the most part, a sulphur content of 2 per cent. The demand for low sulphur crude is extremely high, but world availability is small. I am particularly concerned, therefore, lest provisions of this kind should be copied elsewhere.

Morever, there is a limited amount of hydrofining capacity in the United Kingdom. It is limited to about 225,000 barrels a day, which is about 10 per cent. of that in Europe. Although the oil companies and the National Coal Board could probably deal adequately with the City of London, they certainly could not deal with similar cases elsewhere, so this, too, is a matter to be carefully considered.

Further, on the subject of oil, while many of the systems devised over the years—alkalised alumina, catalytic conversion, and so on—have been useful in removing sulphur from flue gases for power stations, such methods would not be applicable in the City of London. I concede that. However, one would have thought that modern technological methods would be available for dealing with it in commercial furnaces but, if the Clause goes through in its present form, it will make it impracticable for any company to use an oil or a coal with a sulphur content higher than that laid down. Also, the Clause would knock out completely any resort to vortometric furnaces such as are now being brought into use in Canada and the United States.

Our national legislation today is wholly insufficient. The Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 do not deal with sulphur dioxide except by reference to high chimneys through which it is eliminated. The 1968 Act refers to fumes, but this is not intended to apply to sulphur dioxide.

I strongly urge, therefore, that an early opportunity be taken to pass amending legislation which would bring our national legislation up to date. We all agree that sulphur dioxide can be injurious. I hope to hear from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that, within two years he will be able to bring national legislation before us. In that event, of course, the relevant provisions in this Bill would be inoperative.

Why do I say that it is not necessary to have these powers at all? The City of London is quite capable of deciding, by its planning procedures, what it wants in regard to new furnaces. I quote here from "An Examination of Sulphur Dioxide as an Air Pollutant", a Report issued by the Technical Committee of the National Society for Clean Air. This is an explanatory note to the Committee from the City itself, and it shows that the City of London has effective control: When a new building has been the subject of a planning approval, the City Architect, in his report to the Improvements and Town Planning Committee, recommends that the applicant be informed in suitable terms of his obligations under the Clean Air Act, 1956 and under the Corporation's Various Powers Act, 1954, with particular reference to smoke abatement. Compliance with this planning permission results in information being forwarded to the City Engineer in accordance with the Clean Air Act, Section 3(3), which requires that a furnace shall not be installed in a building unless notice of the proposal to install has been given to the Local Authority. On receipt of this information, the applicant is advised that this has been noted, and at the same time, if in connection with such installation an unauthorised fuel is to be used, then his attention is drawn to the provisions of the Corporation's smokeless zone legislation. If the House will bear with me, two more paragraphs are significant: If as a result of this communication the applicant desires to use oil, he is informed of the procedure under which Conditional Approval is given by the Corporation provided the viscosity of the oil to be used does not exceed 220 secs. From the above it will be seen that the Corporation relies on the applicant complying with the planning permission to notify the Corporation of the type of installation to be used, and on his reaction when oil is the proposed fuel to the non-obligatory condition of approval which can be obtained if a light oil is used. Experience has shown that where a heavier oil has been first proposed, the suggestion that a lighter oil be adopted has usually been accepted, although there are cases where no further approach has been made in this regard; and one case where notification was received that a heavier oil was still to be used, without of course protection by way of conditional approval. It is clear, therefore, that the City of London has all the power it wants through its own planning procedures. It can say, "Unless you subscribe to what we lay down, you must not install the plant you have in mind". Why, therefore, must the City bring forward this long and complicated Clause, which is not in correct drafting form anyway, I consider, in order to achieve something which it already has?

Now, the question of old furnaces. These will be available, unless modifications have been made to them, until 1987. But one would expect that, well before then, new comprehensive legislation will be available which will make the City of London's Bill wholly inoperative. One has in mind all the time, also, that it covers only one square mile. The hon. Member for West Ham, North thought that, perhaps, it might be done on a broader canvass and it could be more successful.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

The hon. Gentleman will not wish to misquote me. I explained that the City of London cannot go beyond its own square mile. In these circumstances, why should we prevent it from doing what it knows to be necessary?

Mr. Skeet

It can occasionally be greater wisdom to try to persuade higher authority that something should be done. To take the hon. Gentleman's argument to its logical conclusion, one could say that it would be right to establish a precedent on a quarter of an acre, in relation to a single plant, but that would be absurd. Greater benefit is derived from accumulated wisdom directed to finding the optimum size or scale at which to work and then trying to persuade the authorities. I am seeking to persuade the Minister today that this is an urgent matter for public legislation. We should get on with it and clean our atmosphere. I am quite prepared to give the City of London credit for having come forward with a Clause, though one quite ineffectual for the purposes which I have in mind. There is no harm in its starting it. If the City wants a bouquet I am prepared to grant it, ineffectual as the provision may be. But I must stress the other side of the story.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

It is not a national provision.

Mr. Skeet

The hon. Gentleman misses the point. If it is accepted in this form, or a modified form, it will be open to parliamentary agents to have such a Clause adopted in all parts of the country. Do hon. Members see the effect of this on the mining industry, which could not meet the specification? To meet the specification of 1.25 per cent. laid down in the Clause it would have to have available in various parts a sulphur content in its coal of 0.9 per cent. The availability of such coal is distinctly limited. The industry would have to bring it from Scotland or Wales.

In the future science may be able to build a furnace where high-sulphur coals and perhaps oils can be burned, but the Clause would not permit that. Such technical possibilities are specifically ruled out by subsection (1).

Another reason why I think that the Clause is unnecessary is that there is already provision under Part III of the Public Health Act, 1936 to deal with the matter.

But perhaps an even more compelling point is that all fuel producers in the United Kingdom, I understand, are and have been prepared to co-operate voluntarily with the City of London, and the objections could have been resolved. The City could have achieved all its purposes by simply obtaining the voluntary understanding and acceptance of the coal industry and the oil companies. On that basis it would not have had to wait until 1987 but could have started operating the provision tomorrow.

It is most extraordinary that the City wants the Clause in print. If an undertaking has been given by one industry, to my knowledge, and possibly by the other, that it is prepared to assist the City in 1971, and if the City lays down provision in its own legislation for 1987, but wants to achieve the goal earlier, as we all assume it does, will it not willingly accept the voluntary undertaking? Why insist on the letter of the law, and that the provision should go into a Clause?

If clean air is required, as I accept, then it may be that the victory is secured, because natural gas will flood into almost every corner of the City, particularly after the settlement in Teheran and the difficulties being experienced by the oil companies in Tripoli.

I can only state the reasons for the anxieties shared by many outside the House. I want to see action by the House on the problem of sulphur dioxide. It is some years since we have had legislation dealing with it. The Alkali Inspectorate will deal with it in industry, but not in commercial premises.

Therefore, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give an assurance that the Clause will be considered unique to the City of London and will not be recommended for acceptance in all parts of the country, where it could do great damage to the market for coal and lead to great problems. It could lead to great problems for the miners over their concessionary coal, for example, and it would be beyond the capacity of the oil industry to provide the necessary low-sulphur fuels which would be required to comply with all the local Bills. Such an assurance would go a long way to deal with these matters, provided certain modifications are made to the Clause in the Bill before us.

General legislation is urgently needed to schedule special areas of optimum size, to avoid our approaching the problem piecemeal. We should develop the policy of overseas countries, which is to work out the best size of area in which to deal with sulphur dioxide, bearing in mind that it is a gas and will drift with the prevailing winds.

I also recommend that the sulphur dioxide research and development programme which has been very successfully carried on by the Warren Spring Research Laboratory and the Institute of Geological Sciences be further extended and accelerated. I hope that substantial moneys will be accorded to them for these purposes.

The Clean Air Act, 1968 is in urgent need of revision. The word "fumes" there, which has been defined as meaning any airborne solid matter smaller than dust, which obviously does not cover sulphur dioxide, should be redefined to include sulphur dioxide. Then we may have a situation in which we are dealing with the problem in a practical way, and not the rather extraordinary way that we find in the Bill.

I have covered a few of the points and paid tribute to the City for having initiated an idea, but I have pointed out the difficulty that it probably has not considered. It is naturally concerned with its one square mile. We in the House must consider the rest of the country and the effect of such legislation on it. The United Kingdom has a high-sulphur coal, and oil coming from abroad is inclined to be sulphurous. Something practical must be done to deal with the problem by adopting the course I have suggested. We should treat the City of London as a special case. It is entitled to its Clause, and to its kudos. I hope that we shall meet in the centre, but if no assurance is given, and we find that we are faced with similar legislation elsewhere, there could be a very calamitous effect on both the coal and oil industries.

I have mineral interests, but not fuel interests, and therefore I do not consider that I must declare them.

7.58 p.m.

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

I should begin by underlining that we are discussing a Private Bill. My role in intervening in the debate is simply to indicate the Government's attitude to one or two aspects of the Bill.

I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet), who has spoken with great knowledge, that it is for the promoters of the Bill to convince the House of the need for it, and it is for them to meet the arguments he has put this evening. I take note on the Government's behalf of the matters he has put to me, but our debate must be confined to the terms of this Private Bill. It is very wide-ranging, not to say miscellaneous It ranges all the way from the regulation of horse riding in Epping Forest to refuse and litter bins in the streets and the notification of food poisoning to the port health authorities. My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will, of course, be submitting their reports to the House on the Bill.

For my part now, I merely want to mention three aspects. Clause 10 concerns the ponies in Epping Forest. Naturally, my Department is very much in favour of all measures which will preserve this splendid area of green space which the City of London, through its great generosity over the ages, has made available to large numbers of people. I was particularly glad that the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) spoke as he did about the horses. Having myself some special responsibility for sport and recreation, I, too, am glad that the Bill makes provisison for the protection of horse riding in the forest.

But it is, of course, Clause 3, which deals with sulphur gases, which has concerned the House. The Government are very conscious of the importance of clean air. It is fundamental to our very existence and my Department is determined that the progress, which has been considerable in this country in cleaning up our air, shall be maintained.

Our country has an excellent record in clean air, particlarly over the last 15 years. Nearly 4¾ million premises are now covered by smoke control orders. Over half of the so-called "black areas", where air pollution is worst, are now covered, and the average smoke concentrations in urban areas have gone down by 60 per cent. over the last 15 years. The benefits we have in more sunshine, cleaner buildings, better visibility and the end of the old pea soup fogs, to which the hon. Member for West Ham, North referred, are matters of common knowledge to everyone living in our great cities.

Nor are the emissions from industrial premises being neglected. The control which is exercised by the Alkali Inspectorate—an excellent body of people who do a first-class job—is ensuring that the best practicable means are used to minimise air pollution, and the co-operation that the Inspectorate gets from industrialists is, I think, the envy of many other countries. Therefore, I found it in no way surprising, though still gratifying, that the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, in its first Report, said that since the Clean Air Act became law in 1956 there has been a steady reduction in the emission of smoke and sulphur dioxide into the air over Britain. This has been achieved despite a 10 per cent. increase in population and a 17 per cent. increase in annual gross energy consumption. That is why, in Central London, as the Royal Commission went on to report, winter sunshine, as we are experiencing it this week, has increased by some 50 per cent.

So we have made much enviable progress in this country in the cause of clean air. But my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford and others are quite right in saying that, now that we have overcome the grossest forms of air pollution, it is time we turned perhaps more attention to the less gross but still unpleasant forms of pollution—one of which, sulphur dioxide, is the subject of Clause 3. Sulphur dioxide does have a corrosive effect on materials, which causes great damage. It is unpleasant, and no one would deny it. But I must say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford that, knowledgeable, indeed learned, as his speech was, he worried me once or twice in that he had the problem of sulphur dioxide rather out of perspective. I am sure that that was not his intention, and I do not think he created anything of a scare—I am sure that would not be his wish. But I must tell him that, in the concentrations in which sulphur dioxide is normally present in the air in this country, it does not present an amenity or health problem. I believe that I am right in saying that about one-third of the sulphur dioxide in the air we breathe comes from the sea and does not arise from industrial processes.

Concentrations of sulphur dioxide in this country are going down steadily. They have reduced by about one-third on average in urban areas over the last ten years. Nevertheless, of course, no one in his senses would deny that there are some areas where there tend to be higher concentrations of SO, and of course inner London, including the City, is one of them.

As my hon. Friend the Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Tugendhat) said in his engaging and compelling speech, the inner London situation is in some respects unique, because while the situation in the country as a whole is improving, in inner London the sulphur dioxide situation is not. Indeed, in some respects, relatively if not absolutely, it is getting worse. For example, ten years ago, only 12 of the 28 sites of highest pollution were in inner London. But today. 19 out of the worst 23 sites are in central London and there is no region in the country which has a higher average concentration.

My hon. Friend mentioned the reasons for this—the very large concentration of office buildings using oil-fired central heating; the fact that, whereas in industrial areas the clean air policy has been successful in mitigating these problems—for example, very high chimneys—in the City many chimneys are masked by taller buildings; and the particular configuration of the streets, or "canyons", as some might call them, where it may be that sulphur gas tends to gather in pockets and is not so easily dispersed by air currents.

It is sometimes suggested also that the large concentration of motor vehicles adds to this problem, but here again I think we need to get a sense of perspective. Before blaming the car exhaust, it is necessary to judge it in comparison with other sources of sulphur dioxide emissions. The other day, the Institute of Petroleum did a mock-up of the emissions of sulphur dioxide in a typical medium-sized town. It discovered that domestic heating emissions would be responsible for about 2,000 tons per annum of these emissions, that emissions from the generation of electrical power would add a further 2,000 tons, and that all the motor vehicles in the town would be responsible for only 50 tons. I think that that sets the matter in some perspective.

All of us agree on the desirability of seeing that these sulphur dioxide concentrations in central London fall much further and very much more quickly, and I think that we must, therefore, see this Bill as a proposal for what should be an interesting experiment. The Government's view is that it is a proposal for what could be an interesting experiment. But I must say—and here I am in company with my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford—that there are a number of questions of general policy and of economics which any Government would have to take into account in considering the proposals in the Bill.

The kind of fuel used in the City of London is of no real significance, or at least of no real proportionate significance in itself. But it must be recognised, as my hon. Friend suggests, that other authorities might well seek to follow the City's lead. What if they do? From the clean air point of view, one might well rejoice, but I am bound to put to the promoters of the Bill one or two questions which I hope they will feel able to discuss in Committee—for the Government wish and hope that the House will give the Bill its Second Reading.

Suppose the lead of the City of London were, sooner or later, to be applied nationally. In that case, would the limit of 1.25 per cent. sulphur content for solid fuel set by the Bill do damage to the market for coal, much of which has a natural sulphur content far in excess of 1.25 per cent.? If so, how much damage would it do? For example, how many pits might it close and what would be the addition to our import bill? I put these questions in an interrogatory fashion because they are the kinds of consideration which any Government must have in mind when faced with proposals of this kind.

Similarly, can the 1 per cent. limit proposed for sulphur in oils be met in practice by our oil industry? Imported crude oil from the Middle East has a much higher natural sulphur content than the figure allowed for in the Bill, and acceptable limits are being achieved only by the device of blending Middle East crude with low sulphur oils from Nigeria and Libya.

The widespread adoption of the City's criteria would mean either a swing to greater quantities of imported, acceptably low sulphur content crude oil from, for example, Libya—and it is by no means certain that we would get it—or the needs of one part of the country being met only by reducing the rate of blending and the burning of more sulphurous fuel in other parts of the country. In other words, there is a danger of assisting one part of the country—perhaps the square mile of the City of London—leaving other parts in difficulty. I hope that in Committee the promoters of the Bill will feel able to deal with this, among other points.

As drafted, the Bill concentrates entirely on the sulphur content of the fuel and makes no concession to other means of reducing sulphur values, for example, by some form of washing or acceptable measures of control by means of high chimneys.

Mr. Skeet

Would not my hon. Friend construe the relevant Clause as meaning that even though technical experience may evolve a furnace which is vastly improved and capable of accepting for burning a fuel with a high sulphur content, such a furnace would be precluded from using such a fuel?

Mr. Griffiths

It is not for me to construe that provision. The Government must indicate some of the questions that have been thrown up by these considerations. I put them in the hope that they, including other questions such as that which my hon. Friend has just raised, will be considered in Committee, for it is our hope that the Bill will receive a Second Reading.

The Bill stems from the local circumstances which obtain in the City. These circumstances are, in a word, unique. The proposed sulphur level for oil relates to the growing use of gas oil, which has a low sulphur content, in the City. More of this type of fuel is used in this area. Nor is it likely that the City will become a place where heavy fuel, oil with a high sulphur content, will be found to be an attractive fuel.

However, if these provisions were extended to other areas, there is little doubt that they could place heavy additional charges on consumers, both directly and through adding to the cost of electricity generation. In short, the Bill makes sense in terms of the circumstances in the City, and the Government recognise the special features of the pattern of fuel consumption in the City and the special pollution problems which the City appears to face.

Were it not for these special features, the Bill might be held to set an impracticable and, therefore, unacceptable precedent for other areas. In these circumstances and speaking for a Government who place the need for clean air very high on their list of priorities, I recommend that the Bill be given a Second Reading so that it may be sent into Committee where all the issues involved can be examined in greater detail than is possible tonight and with the benefit of expert evidence. As I said, my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment and Trade and Industry will, in due course, be making a report to the Committee.

8.15 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

I wish to raise some questions on Clause 12 which relates to Tower Bridge. My interest in this matter comes from my being vice-chairman of the River Thames Society, whose past president, Roger Gresham Cooke, the late Member for Twickenham, often spoke on Thames affairs.

The City of London is responsible for those bridges within its bounds and just outside, whereas the Greater London Council is responsible for the rest. I do not think anyone would wish to oppose Clause 12, either here or in Committee, but, like the Minister, there are a number of questions which I will ask so that they may be considered between now and the Committee Stage.

In 1885, when Tower Bridge was opened, there was great controversy about the rights of navigation as they then existed in the Upper Pool, and great restrictions were placed on the builders of the bridge, both while it was under construction and subsequently. I understand that those restrictions pertain to this day.

These restrictions give absolute right of passage to the river highway. Any craft requiring the bridge to be opened can do so irrespective of the inconvenience that that may cause to road traffic, and the City Corporation is required to place a tug on constant watch by the bridge to ensure that no craft, however propelled, is in danger at that point.

The Clause seeks to change that situation by saying that not less than 24 hours' notice must be given if passage through Tower Bridge is required, and that the arrival time should be stated in the notice as the intended time of passage. The need for this change will be readily appreciated. The Upper Pool—that part above Tower Bridge and on to London Bridge—has rapidly changed in the last few years and the demands on Tower Bridge are nothing like what they once were. It is expensive for the City Corporation to keep a full watch at this point and to keep the bridge fully manned throughout the 24 hours—on Sundays, weekends and Christmas Days—in case a vessel may wish to pass through.

The proposed change will alter the legal obligation in respect of this right of way. Instead of giving the right of way to the river highway, it will be given to road traffic. Nobody will question the need for a change in this respect. Whether 24 hours is the right amount of notice that should be given is a matter which the promoters of the Bill will no doubt wish to explain in Committee and to state if it has been agreed among all the interests involved.

There is a secondary consideration, relating to the maintenance of machinery. Clause 12(1)(b) requires the City Corporation … to … provide and maintain such machinery for opening the Tower Bridge as may be required for compliance with that section and subsection (1)(a) of section 12 (Tower Bridge) of the City of London (Various Powers) (No. 2) Act 1971. In other words, the machinery must be there to open the bridge, given 24 hours' notice.

I am not sure about the future. Indeed, nobody can be sure as to the future of this part of the river. While this may be a reasonable requirement now, if in the future—there are powers for variation to which I will come later—this time of 24 hours should be reduced, all sorts of difficulties may arise. Further, one must take into account the future of the bridge machinery. Many people find great fascination in this machinery of the last century. Indeed, eventually it might not be found possible to open Tower Bridge, given even 24 hours' notice.

The Pool of London is historic for our City and for the nation. It may be that in future, with a new land use round the river, cruising vessels and vessels of other sorts will wish to visit London. But if the machinery installed or modified can only take account of this 24-hour Clause there may be some difficulty. That question can perhaps be looked at in Committee.

Secondly, I wish to deal with subsection (1,c) of Clause 12. Power is given for the subsection to be varied by Statutory Instrument on application by the Corporation, or of any person appearing to the Secretary of State to be affected by the provisions …". In other words, the 24-hour period can be changed. But it does not state whether the interests of such persons are concerned with navigation or with road traffic. It might be advisable to state specifically whether the persons appearing to the Secretary of State should be confined to those concerned with navigation or to those concerned with road traffic. In view of the situation of Tower Bridge, it might be advisable to provide that the provision concerns only persons affected by navigation.

I hope that the Committee will consider these points. It is not any wish of mine to oppose the Clause or the Bill, but due to the national interest in Tower Bridge and its possible international significance and the fact that we would wish to preserve its interesting mechanism and the bridge as a focal point of our City, these points should be raised before the Bill proceeds to Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed.