HC Deb 13 July 1972 vol 840 cc2017-26

11.53 p.m.

Mr. J. C. Jennings (Burton)

I am very glad of the opportunity to raise a matter of vital importance to a very attractive part of the constituency that I am proud to represent. Today has been an historic occasion on which we have debated a vital decision affecting the lives of millions of people in this country and outside it, but in this short debate we shall be discusing a decision which will effect the vital existence not of millions put of hundreds of people in two villages.

I will outline the circumstances of this problem. This is the "Year of the Environment". Nations of the world have met at Stockholm at a conference to discuss the great question of pollution and dirt and filth in the atmosphere and elsewhere. In my constituency of Burton we have two villages. One has the lovely name of Rolleston-on-Dove. The name of the River Dove immediately conjures up pictures of great amenity and beauty. The other village is Stretton, which is a lovely and attractive village.

Between the two villages runs a disused railway cutting. It is the proposal of the Tutbury Rural District Council, to fill in this long cutting, or at least a large proportion of it, between these two attractive villages with rubbish.

The lovely landscaped cutting is a most attractive open walk the like of which can be seen in North Derbyshire, of which the Peak District and surrounding country is only part. This cutting is of like quality and beauty but it is to be used as a rubbish dump—a tip.

The history of this matter goes back a little while. Just over a year ago Tutbury R.D.C. applied to the county council, the planning authority, for permission to use this cutting as a rubbish dump. Permission was refused by the county planning committee. There was, therefore, great relief.

The Tutbury R.D.C. then exercised its right to appeal to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. What a wonderful title that is—"for the Environment". When one thinks of what is happening in this little community one shudders to use the word "environment" in the sense that it is used by the Secretary of State.

The appeal was made to the Secretary of State against the county's decision, and then the most amazing thing happened. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be interested in this aspect of the case because it sabotages anything he has to say tonight; he is held powerless because of the peculiar circumstances and could literally say all that he has to say in two minutes or less. The peculiar circumstances were, first, an application; second, a refusal by the county planning authority; third the appeal to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State; and then, lo and behold, another application. This time the application differed in only one respect from the previous application. Instead of a long term, an indeterminate number of years, it was put at five years.

The result of all this was that the appeal to my right hon. Friend lay in abeyance and, while that appeal is lodged, my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary are almost powerless to say anything about it. So Tutbury R.D.C. is getting jam on both sides of the bread. It has appealed and put in a second application, this time for five years. From all that I can learn, it seems that on 26th July the county planning authority's sub-committee is very likely to grant permission.

We are in the "Year of the Environment". My right hon. Friend the Secre- tary of State and my hon. Friend stump the country talking in pious terms about the purity of the atmosphere and what must be done to rectify pollution of the rivers and the seaboard. We begin to think that they mean what they say. I have always believed that Ministers—particularly when the Tories are in power—mean what they say. In this case I take their word for their bond. They have said that they want to get rid of this type of pollution.

With the environment to the forefront of the considerations of almost every nation it is ridiculous to make the proposal, in a small and beautiful community, to dump filth and rubbish for five years, when in a technocratic age it should be possible to dispose of the rubbish by alternative means. The most subtle means that a local authority has is to appeal, to ask for the matter to be in abeyance and then to make another application.

Earlier today we had a debate which affected millions. At this stage in the day's proceedings we are dealing with the influence of "Big Brother"—the county council—upon the little parish council. Only through me, their representative in Parliament, can the parish council voice its desire for good environment against the arbitrary will of the big authority. I always thought that Ministers would provide protection from such action. I fear that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will say that he cannot give us that protection.

Some time ago the Department issued a working party report. My hon. Friend has had correspondence with me about this. The working party report, dealing with dumps and tips, ruled that no tip should be operated within 200 yards of the nearest dwelling. There was a proviso that other general considerations should betaken into account, but there was a minority report against the proviso.

There are 14 properties within 100 yards of the nearest part of the proposed site. This is in the parish of Rolleston. There are 64 properties within 200 yards and 104 properties within 300 yards. The proposal cannot, therefore, be dismissed as a minor matter on the basis that not much property will be affected. If my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary cares to examine the map—of course, he has maps in his possession—he will see that at Stretton there are considerable properties within 170 yards and 107 yards. There is an extensive estate nearby with 114 houses and next door to it there are proposals for further residential development.

I inspected the site on Saturday morning with about 40 of the residents. It was pointed out to me that if all the development which is envisaged takes place, the cutting will be surrounded by residential property. In the middle will be a filthy dump. I need not tell my hon. Friend of the results of such a dump. Suffice it to say that there would be rats, smells, flying paper and the rest.

This is a travesty of all that my hon. Friend has been preaching in this House and all that his Department stands for. The practical realisation of the gospel which he has been preaching can be achieved if he does what I want him to do. Tutbury has been offered participation in the use of a new incinerator scheme at Swadlincote, but it preferred to stay out of it. Remember that in two years' time we will have local government reform and Tutbury RDC will disappear. The large authority responsible for cleanliness, dumping and tipping will be the county council.

Look at the anomalous position and the subtlety of this dastardly deed—a description I use in all conscience. The county council on 26th July will decide—[Laughter.] My hon. Friend may laugh, but the people who live near the dump will not laugh. The county council will decide on 26th July whether to operate the dump, and in two years' time it will be the local authority responsible. In other words, if Tutbury RDC is given permission and the poor little parish council disappears the residents of Rolleston and Stretton will be left with no power and no representation. They will be at the power of "Big Brother."

In the "Year of the Environment", if my hon. Friend tells me that it can be done—and it will go on for five years if the order is made—but that the site can be smoothed over and planted with trees, I remind him that the result will be the destruction of a beautiful amenity, a great open public walk, a direct connection between two villages already beautifully landscaped, profuse with trees and wild flowers. My hon. Friend can look at a map, but one cannot see landscape on a map. There are seven schools within two-thirds or one-quarter of a mile of the cutting. These matters should be taken into consideration.

My hon. Friend has the power, if the decision goes against the parish council and the people in the houses who will have to stand the filth for five years at least and longer, to "call it in." He knows as well as I do what that means.

At risk of being out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, let me say that some of my constituents are busy listening to this debate, and for their benefit I want to explain that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State can call in the proposal, which means that if the decision goes against the parishes he can say to the local authority "I want to examine it and the final decision is mine." If he replies that he cannot make the decision, I say that that is rubbish. He has the final answer, and the Government can and should say what they want to do in this case.

If my hon. Friend is not prepared to call it in, I ask him to take into account the other alternative and to give the parishioners a chance to state their case. I ask him to appoint a public inquiry under the auspices of one of his inspectors and give these people a chance to state their case. I am not accustomed to making threats. You know, as well as I do, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that one does not get on with threats in this place. But I do say to my hon. Friend that the intensity of feeling in these two villages is such that if the decision places them in this horrible position they will feel so strongly about it that I cannot guarantee what action they will take. I simply say to him that I hope he will look at this matter carefully and scrutinise the whole position with fairness and give justice to the small man in these two villages against the arbitrary attitude of the big man in county hall.


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

As my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Jennings) has said, we began the evening dealing with matters concerning the great chancellories of Europe and we are now heavily involved in the affairs of Tutbury Rural District Council. We have moved from great issues of war and peace and sovereignty and the constitution to the consideration of a possible rubbish dump in a railway cutting. I make no complaint at all about that, for it is the duty of this House to consider all matters of concern to the country.

In particular, I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend's anxieties on this matter, for in my own constituency some time ago a very similar situation arose, when a disused railway cutting was proposed to be used to take the rubbish from one of the rural district council's tips. There was, as my hon. Friend will expect, a great outcry. I am not in a position to comment, as he knows, on the merits of the case he has raised, but I can tell him that in the event in my constituency, that planning permission was given, the railway cutting has been filled and that it has not damaged the amenities or the environment of my area.

My hon. Friend made a number of points but, above all, he rightly gave expression, as he always does, to his concern for the wellbeing of his constituents. But in raising the matter of the proposal of Tutbury RDC for the disposal of household refuse I am sure he is not overlooking the council's statutory duty to deal with the household refuse which is created in its area, and the fact that it must put that duty first.

My hon. Friend mentioned the report of the Working Party on Refuse Disposal, and he will be aware of the enormous and rapidly growing amount of household refuse which it is the duty of the local authorities to collect and to dispose of. By the end of the 1970s this torrent of refuse will have reached the staggering figure of 17 milliontons a year. It has to be disposed of somewhere, and no one citizen and no group of citizens can possibly contract out of the problem, because somewhere and somehow within our community provision has got to be made for dealing with the refuse we create.

Myhon. Friend has mentioned incineration. There is a great deal to be said for it, and I have looked into it with some interest. But it will not have escaped his notice that the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) have been extremely vocal in their objections to a proposal by their local authority to have an incinerator in his constituency. I hope my hon. Friend will take note of that. There is the difficulty that incinerators may be objected to just as strongly as tips.

It is of great importance that as citizens in a country who demand the provision of public services on an ever-increasing scale we have to look at attempts to meet these demands realistically and not respond, as through a reflex action of opposition, as the rule rather than the exception. As my hon. Friend has said, the planning application is in the process of being considered by the Staffordshire County Council. I do not know what its decision will be. But there most certainly is an appeal to the Secretary of State, lodged by the rural district council in July, 1971. I am therefore, as my hon. Friend rightly said, caught in a quasi-judicial position which demands from me tonight a degree of discretion in case anything I say may be thought to prejudice that appeal, in the event that it should be proceeded with. I must reply to my hon. Friend's points within these very severe constraints.

One basic fact is that the local planning authority is currently considering an application submitted by the rural district. It is its proper duty as the county planning authority to do so. I am sure I should do nothing to weaken or devalue the local planning authority's independent responsibility, for if I were to intervene in these matters, which are matters, of essentially local significance, I would devalue and, indeed, destroy the whole essence of local government.

The second important fact is that in April, 1971, the county council refused a previous planning application because of the likely emission of dust, wind-blown waste, fumes and smell. It was only thereafter that Tutbury appealed to the Secretary of State against the council's decision. The third fact is that in May, 1972, Tutbury submitted its further application for permission to tip for a limited period of five years.

The second application is the one we are discussing tonight. It is not of the kind which I would expect the local planning authority to refer to my right hon. Friend for his decision. It is unlikely to refer it because it is not a major departure from the development plan. It is essentially a local problem, and, as such, the local council is in the best position to make a soundly based decision in the matter. Under Section 35 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1971, the Secretary of State has powers to call in a planning application. But this judgment would not, in my opinion, be justified in respect of a purely local issue. It is a power that is used only when there are compelling reasons for considering that the decision should be taken right out of the hands of the local planning authority. I can see no grounds in the case of a railway cutting why my right hon. Friend should remove the council from all consideration of a matter which it is perfectly capable of dealing with itself.

In the event of the refusal by the county of the rural district council's application it is open to Tutbury to appeal again to the Secretary of State. But if, on the other hand, the local planning authority approves the application, the only way in which the Secretary of State could then intervene is to direct the council to revoke or modify the provision under Section 45 of the Town and Country Planning Act.

That is the planning position. I must adhere to our policy that we should not interfere in strictly local issues being decided by locally-elected people unless there is a major national reason for taking a decision out of their hands.

Mr. Jennings

May I ask my hon. Friend one simple, straightforward question? Is it not a fact that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has the power to call this matter in? It is not a question of "Will he?" or "Won't he?". He has the power, and this is what I am asking him to do in the event of the planning decision going against the villagers. Will he?

Mr. Griffiths

My hon. Friend must recognise that the decision has not been taken by the planning authority, and, therefore, he is asking me a purely hypothetical question. But I can see no reason, in the case of a decision about the putting of junk into a railway cutting in a local authority area, why the great engine of State should intervene in a matter which that locally-elected authority is perfectly capable of managing for itself, and with responsibilities to its own local electorate.

I want to deal now with the question of refuse disposal itself. My hon. Friend mentioned my Department's Working Party on Refuse Disposal, which consisted of a number of experts in waste treatment. It made a thorough review, and the majority of its members saw no reason why the controlled tipping of untreated refuse should not, provided all the necessary precautions were observed, remain a perfectly acceptable method of domestic refuse disposal for the foreseeable future. There is a proper place for controlled tipping, and there is no reason to conclude that this is merely a second-best adopted only by those authorities for which pre-treatment is not appropriate. No authority should any longer contemplate the mere dumping of rubbish on the ground with little thought other than to get rid of it.

Tipped refuse can be of value to the community in helping to reclaim or improve land. Unsightly holes or depressions and even railway cuttings in appropriate circumstances can be perfectly sound candidates for reclamation by intelligent tipping. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend should consider some of the expert opinion that is available to the local authorities as to controlled tipping managing to reclaim railway cuttings and ugly holes for the benefit of the community.

Mr. Jennings

It is not ugly.

Mr. Griffiths

In any case, this is a matter which overwhelmingly should be decided by a local authority. I know that in many cases where tips are improperly managed life can be most unpleasant for people living in the vicinity. At worst, a badly managed tip can constitute a hazard to health. It is precisely for that reason that we have asked all local authorities to carry out a full review of their refuse tips. I hope that all councils will take this opportunity to review the standards of operation and management of their tips and take all necessary steps to improve their condition.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday 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 twenty-three minutes past Twelve o'clock