HC Deb 21 March 1972 vol 833 cc1455-70

9.0 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)

I rise to discuss a matter concerning environmental pollution and what has become known as photo-chemical smog.

First of all, I would like to deal with environmental pollution, especially as it concerns my constituency. It is a good example to take because it is a very old industrial town. If we were to look around we would find the environment effected similarly all over the country.

We all appreciate that there are many forms in which environmental pollution shows its ugly head. First, there is the air we breathe. Rivers and canals are amenities which have suffered over the years as a result of the authorities or the owners refusing to maintain or repair them. These two amenities can be made into two of the most beautiful possessions any town can have. What do we find? Very often we find that rivers and canals are used as tips for old bedsteads, old bicycles or anything that someone wishes to discard easily and cheaply without responsibility.

Then there are the roads and the development of road haulage over the last 10 to 20 years. I give the example of the occupants of houses who exist under terrible conditions created by heavy road vehicles using roads like the Marshalls Cross Road at St. Helens. It has reached a dangerous state when people cannot live in their front rooms because of noise and vibration. At times it is much worse than others. It creates a state of depression and ill health in my constituents. I have met them to discuss these conditions. I can assure the Minister that these conditions to which I have just referred are genuinely felt by people who are ill as a result of pollution of the environment by traffic which runs so close to the houses because of the narrowness of the footpaths that when it is wet enough their small garden walls are splashed with dirt from top to bottom from the wheels of vehicles passing by. If it is dry there is a whirlwind of dust.

The worst of these evils, as far as environment is concerned, is the noise. It is a disgrace in these modern times that people who have spent a lifetime buying their houses, which they contracted to buy some 20 or 30 years ago, find that now that the house has become their own conditions have changed as far as the environment is concerned and it is difficult to exist in their own homes.

A relief road to Marshals Cross Road is planned. I wrote to the local authority to see what could be done to help my constituents, and the reply was fair and to the point. Three such schemes are planned for new roads in this great industrial town. I am told that the relief road will have to take its turn. Therefore, it will be some years before my constituents can live in peace and reasonable quiet.

At a time when we are developing efficient and clean methods of hauling freight and carrying passengers around the country—namely, on British Railways—it must be emphasised that we have the cleanest trains in the world. I have travelled on railway systems in other parts of the world, and I should like to pay a compliment to the Railways Board and its staff for their efficiency. The electrification of our railways system will go some way towards cleaning the environment, but, unfortunately, many of our railway lines and services have been withdrawn and the lines have been taken up.

I appeal to the Minister to use his good offices—since I know he has some influence with the Government and with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment—to do something about the situation before it is too late.

There are other subjects to be taken into consideration in dealing with the environment, but we are reaching a stage in this country which has been reached in other countries, for example in the United States; namely, that we are experiencing photo-chemical smog. I have recently been reading various authorities on this subject, one an expert in the United States and another a scientist from Harwell. Our own scientists have now found photo-chemical smog not in towns but in the countryside.

It may be asked what exactly photochemical smog is. I have found that very few members of the public know anything about it. It is relatively unknown in the United Kingdom, and its effects may be suffered by many thousands of people before any preventive measures are taken.

I am obliged for a recent article in the Observer by the environmental correspondent of that newspaper, a Mr. Jeremny Bugler, in which his revelations appear under the heading "California style smog in Britain". Since reading that article, I have called for various reports from two separate authorities. In a recent supplementary question to the Department I wrongly designated Dr. John Reay. I have since discovered that he is, in fact, the head of the air pollution division of the Department of Trade and Industry. He did not carry out the several tests which I suggested, but he made a statement which has been mentioned in the Press. I apologise for the error contained in that supplementary question, and I thank the Minister for his letter putting me right. However, I assure Dr. Reay that many people will be interested to see just how seriously his department takes the smog problem.

There are many industrial towns and cities in this country which merit special attention, and in the interests of my constituents I call for regular tests for photochemical smog and for reports to be made available to Members of Parliament. I also call for continuous research into the dangerous effects of ozone and the possibility of broadcasting warnings to the public when ozone levels have exceeded safety levels.

A few moments ago I referred to the tests undertaken at Harwell. I understand that three scientists were concerned in them. They measured concentrations of ozone for a period of 35 days. They found evidence of photo-chemical smog in a series of tests. On six days they found ozone levels which reached or exceeded the safety levels recommended in the United States. On two of those days they found ozone above the safety level at which smog is known to cause eyes to smart—and this was in the countryside and not in a town.

Atmospheric reactions are complicated and, unless one has worked as a scientist or technician in the department which specialises in this kind of work, they can be difficult to understand. But what is certain is that because of the reports which have come out of the United States and the steps which the United States Government are taking to amend legislation to provide preventive measures in that country this is a subject which requires constant and active research in the United Kingdom.

The story begins in Los Angeles in the late 1940s when, after a great deal of research, it was found that car exhaust fumes, and so on, reacted to a strong sun and a high temperature in the atmosphere. Scientists found that this produced hydrocarbons and other organic gases, carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen and oxides of sulphur. Further research carried out by other scientific authorities found that in addition to the above gases the ozone caused eye irritation and interference with visibility, damage to field crops, and the cracking of rubber products.

If the time allotted to an Adjournment debate permitted, one could develop this most important subject. But I must place on record my concern for the human race as a result of air pollution. Research has found that photo-chemical smog is the cause of bronchitis, chronic eye problems and nose, throat, lung and even heart complaints. These are the results of very careful tests in the United States.

I read the reply which the Minister gave at length in the Official Report on 8th March, 1972, at column 1438. I will not read it all, because I am sure that I am nearing the limit of the time which I am allowed. The Minister does not seem to understand the importance of getting on with the job. This appears to be a case where the Government are waiting for trouble before they act. I am asking for preventive action. The Minister does not say that he is taking action. If he reads his own words, he will see that at the end of his statement he said: As urban air continues to become cleaner and sunlight penetrates more strongly, photochemical reactions may need closer attention. Research is continuing and I shall be watching the position closely."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th March, 1972; Vol. 832, c. 1438.] When the hon. Gentleman said "may" he disappointed me. I wanted an assurance that he would deal with the matter and would continue to do so.

We must realise that the air is man's most vital resource and that it is dangerouse to allow the motor car industry in the United Kingdom to continue without an amendment of the law signifying that it shall change its method of production so that the exhaust will deal with most of the gases to which I have referred, if not all. Yet no legislation has been brought forward to provide for these measures.

It has been proved in the past that the British motor car industry is prepared to produce a car for the American market far superior to the car that it sells in Britain. In the next few years British car manufacturers will have to fit equipment to their cars, if they hope to sell them in the United States, which will meet the requirements of United States regulations about the prevention of air pollution and photo-chemical smog. If the United States can do it, I appeal to the hon. Gentleman to see whether he can find urgent means of dealing with our own industry.

I thought when I read what the hon. Gentleman promised to put in the OFFICIAL REPORT that this was characteristic of a Government Department. But it will not do. It is wrong and dangerous not to take preventive action without delay. The Government must take power to force British car manufacturers to conform with the rigorous standards which will be enforced by the United States Government from 1975.

I hope that the Minister will be able to assure me that towns such as St. Helens will receive the attention of the inspectorate responsible for testing for photo- chemical smog. This is essential if Members of Parliament are to keep in touch with the pollution of the environment.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that this is not the last word that he will hear from me. I have sent out to several authorities for reports on this very subject. Having found how dangerous photochemical smog is to the people of the United States, I shall give very close attention to it now that it has been found in the United Kingdom, and I appeal to the hon. Gentleman for his fullest co-operation.

9.20 p.m.

Mr. Ted Lead bitter (The Hartlepools)

The Under-Secretary of State knows the interest shown only recently on both sides of the House in this very important question of pollution and the problems created by the Local Government Bill, the Committee stage of which finished only yesterday, in which his hon. Friend has had a good deal to say on the subject.

Only a few days ago the Secretary of State presented a Bill to deal with the problem of waste disposal which was brought to public notice by the dumping of cyanide containers, to the danger of the general public, and particularly children. There was no question that concern was felt on both sides. This is a non-party issue.

Both sides of the House are concerned about the three Ps—population, pollution and privacy. The Under-Secretary has shown a personal interest in the problem of pollution, which, with the major changes in technology and the rapidity of industrial activity, combined with the incapacity of our social thinking to cope, has recently grown immensely. With the great changes in computer development, the same applies to population and privacy.

Now that we know the nature of the problem, how can we translate our concern into a practical solution? As the Under-Secretary will know from the speech that I made the other night, I believe that individual Members who are trying to find a solution are inhibited by the nature of our social organisations.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) has raised what is probably the most important problem with which we shall deal this Session. He presented his case reasonably modestly.

I shall not enter into the discussion of the problems of photo-chemical smog. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens is more knowledgeable than I am about that, and I wish to confine my remarks to general environmental pollution. In raising this subject my hon. Friend has performed a valuable service, because this is probably the most outstanding problem of our time.

Instead of mouthing our concern about the way in which we are being affected by pollution we must begin to solve in a practical way the institutional and other problems that surround this issue. We cannot criticise each other across the Floor of the House over this. This is a non-party matter, and we are all involved in its solution. We must overcome institutional barriers and accept that several Government Departments are involved. Indeed, within each Department are several groups or bodies dealing with specific aspects of the subject.

How are we to co-ordinate the work that needs to be done if we are to make inroads into this problem? Let us first accept that various Departments are involved. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is vitally concerned. Only the other night we were discussing the food and fisheries aspect of the problem. The Department of Industry is vitally concerned with the industrial consequences of pollution. Then there are various public bodies, like the Meteorological Office. Let us accept that we face a common enemy and, first of all, avoid the fragmentation of activities.

I recall the Prime Minister's defining the wide area of activity of the Department of the Environment. It represents quite an empire. It would be interesting to hear the Minister's views on this subject. I have a sneaking suspicion about the way in which the problem will be tackled, bearing in mind the British character. Incidentally, when one considers how other countries have gone about tackling this and similar problems one is bound to wonder whether it is wise to try to define areas too precisely.

The British character seems to be greatly related to the notion of muddling along. That is a grave disadvantage, because we are so respectable about the problem of pollution that our mutual aid schemes, particularly in coastal areas for oil pollution—where it is an embarrassment, sometimes, to try to determine the source of pollution, either on land or at sea—are often such that the general costs of pollution are automatically placed on ratepayers and taxpayers while those responsible for that pollution are free from the charge of negligence.

Secondly, if we are not careful we shall fall into the unhealthy habit of talking too much about pollution, passing too many resolutions about it, and forgetting about the action needed to deal with it. We must preserve our parliamentary institutions and local authorities' areas of liberty to operate in the way in which they can and should but often this militates against action to deal with a problem. The Under-Secretary has sat on the Government Front Bench for hour after hour, and has addressed professional bodies around the country. I suspect that at the end of the day he must ask himself whether he is in control of events. I should say that even if I were on the Government side of the House, because individuals are not masters of their destiny.

Local authorities are passing various resolutions about pollution. The local authorities' national organisations—the rural and urban district councils and municipal authorities—all impinge on the hon. Gentleman's Department. He should ask himself how best we can arrive at a solution, bearing in mind that although a great deal has been said on this subject, and many resolutions have been passed, we have not had a breakthrough against what I call the institutional barriers. I hope that, without committing himself, the Under-Secretary will bear in mind my conclusions.

Every hon. Member has a common interest in the problem of pollution and the same applies to the other two Ps—population and privacy. Can studies be initiated to try to create a more streamlined approach to pollution? Everyone can speak in terms of increased expenditure, efficiency, rationalisation, co-ordination and co-operation. But how best can the various functions of all the Government Departments be co-ordinated under the control of the Department of the Environment? We must avoid too many people working in opposing directions with inevitable fragmentation and, consequently, a less effective approach to the problems of pollution.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens has initiated a most interesting debate, one which is probably far more important than the Budget Statement today. This matter affects the conditions in which people live. It would be worth studying these matters to determine the most effective approach to the problems of pollution which affect this country. I will not over-dramatise by saying it involves the world, because America and the Continent have their own problems. But we must attempt to exercise the maximum control possible in order to achieve the ends mentioned by my hon. Friend.

9.38 p.m.

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

I am sure that the House is indebted, not for the first time, to the hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) for raising the matter of pollution and, in particular, the problems of photo-chemical smog in the United Kingdom. I will first deal with the interesting and important points that have just been made by the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. Lead-bitter). I would like to give him the assurance that the question of how institutions should be organised to tackle the problem, which is as wide as the world and as diverse as human life, is very much before us at all times.

I would have thought that the most substantial step taken in this country, and perhaps in any other, in tackling the problem was the creation of the Department of the Environment, with complete comprehensive powers across the board. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has a general co-ordinating responsibility for environmental pollution as it affects all Government Departments. It is right that those functional Departments, whether the Department of Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, or the Department of Health and Social Security, should wish to deal with those specific aspects of pollution that come under their own activities. They have the knowledge and expertise.

But within the Government my right hon. Friend and I assisting him have a general co-ordinating responsibility, so that we can draw together all the diverse threads. That is why within my Department we have the sponsorship of all the local authorities, whose rôle is crucial, the whole of the water and sewerage industry, the Alkali Inspectorate—which touches not merely environmental questions but the whole of industry where there are emissions to air—the water and sewerage division of the Department, which deals with the effluent arising from industry, regardless of whether that be sponsored by the Department of Trade and Industry or my Department. We have the Noise Advisory Council, which is concerned with aircraft and other noise. Aircraft noise is the first interest of the Department of Trade and Industry, but the work of the council is co-ordinated within my Department. We have the Toxic Wastes Inspectorate. The hon. Gentleman was good enough to refer to the legislation that we have recently introduced. We have the benefit of the considerable technical and scientific knowledge of the Central Pollution Unit, which advises us across the whole board on this important subject. I should mention, too, the independent advice of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which looks at the whole gamut of the problem and advises my Department centrally on what is best to be done.

So the hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. Institutions do matter. But I think he will accept that, while no one will argue that we have got it right, a genuine attempt has been made to draw together the co-ordinating responsibilities within a single Department with great executive powers and a substantial budget, capable of redeployment as the Secretary of State judges right.

I turn to the points raised by the hon. Member for St. Helens, who rightly began fairly wide. He dealt with the whole range of environmental problems in south Lancashire, an area that I know well. I remember in the early years of the war being a fire-watcher in St. Helens. I know full well that it is an area which, due to historical circumstance, has more than its share of derelict land. It is close to the great River Mersey, whose condition is not so good as many of us would wish. It has problems of air pollution—and the hon. Gentleman also drew attention to the problems of vibration and noise arising from the very heavy traffic to be found in that area.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will acquit me of any discourtesy if I do not try to deal with all the many problems that he raised. We have put in hand a radical reorganisation of the whole water industry, which I hope will make it possible, by the early 1980s, to clean up the Mersey to the sort of standards which we are now achieving in the Thames. Not so long ago I met the local authorities and the industrialists in that area with a view to agreeing on a comprehensive programme, which will cost a lot of money and take a lot of time. There is now good hope of cleaning the Mersey over a decade.

As to derelict land, substantial grants are now available to any local authority prepared to make a sensible clearance programme.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman, with regard to canals, that where the conditions are met there will be greater opportunities not only under the new water organisation which is proposed but under Operation Eyesore which my right hon. Friend announced to clean up particularly rundown neighbourhoods. There are ways in which that can be applied to an area of derelict canal to improve the environment.

Mr. Leadbitter

That is an important point. We are on the lines of agreement here. I remember that when we were dealing with the Transport Bill in 1968 there appeared to be, on both sides of the House, some reluctance about dealing with waterways—principally canals. I am afraid that we are not doing as much as we should about opening up the canals that are available to us. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman can give an indication of the extent to which some canals which have not yet been properly opened might be made available to the general public.

Mr. Griffiths

This, in the first instance, is a matter for the British Waterways Board. It is my hope that through resources to be made available in future it will be possible to improve canals for navigation where appropriate, and also in their amenities and environmental aspects for the community.

Coming to the question of photochemical smog, I am grateful to the hon. Member for St. Helens for the way in which he has taken the opportunity to correct the remarks which he attributed to Dr. Reay when he first raised this matter in this House. Dr. Reay, who is head of the Air Pollution Division at the Department of Trade and Industry's Warren Spring Laboratory, has never reported that photo-chemical smog in this country has reached danger levels. This misunderstanding may arise from the fact that Dr. Reay has been quite correctly quoted as saying that the Harwell report indicates that we shall now have to take seriously the photo-chemical smog problem in Britain. On that I entirely agree.

I shall try to define what it is that we are talking about. Photo-chemical reactions take place in the atmosphere quite naturally all the time, through the operation of sunlight on various substances caught in the air. This can produce the typical heat-haze which one can see on a fine summer's day. There is nothing new in this; it goes on all the time. These reactions are particularly intense when certain man-made pollutants, particularly nitrogen' oxide and hydrocarbons, are present. In the extreme, these conditions can lead to watering of the eyes, reduced visibility and irritation to the nose. These are the manifestations which the public recognise as "photo-chemical smog". Photochemical reactions are affected by meteorological conditions. They are much more likely to occur when the weather is hot and sunny and the air is stagnant. This is the reason why photo-chemical smog is particularly associated with areas such as Southern California where these conditions, particularly of temperature inversions, frequently occur. They are much less likely to occur when the weather is cool and windy and where, comparatively speaking, there is less sunshine. In other words, in the typical weather conditions, exactly the conditions which obtain for the most part in these islands.

Nevertheless, it is a fact that as we remove smoke from our air, through the successful smoke control policy, we are allowing more sunshine to get through to us. We all welcome this, but, ironically, it is the very success of clean air policy allowing the sunshine to get through that makes the reaction more likely to take place. One indication of the intensity of photo-chemical reactions is the amount of oxidants, particularly ozone, in the atmosphere. In the particular conditions of the United States of America, levels in excess of 10 parts per 100 million have been considered evidence of photo-chemical smog formation. But the occurrence of such a level is by no means always accompanied by haze or reduced visibility and still less by smarting eyes. Indeed, high ozone levels can occur in turbulent weather conditions and on occasions when they would appear to be most unlikely.

There can be ozone but no photochemical smog. I can only say that so far I have received no reports that actual photo-chemical smog has been significant in this country. Indeed, in other work carried out by the Warren Spring Laboratory in the first half of 1971 in central London, the formation of ozone by a photo-chemical smog-type process was shown to be of negligible importance.

I turn now to the work carried out at Harwell, about which an article appeared in the journal Nature on 18th February. The object of this experiment or observation was to measure ozone concentrations. The site, as the hon. Gentleman fairly said, was a rural one, although the A34 passes the entrance. On 35 days during the period 21st June-17th August the hourly ozone concentrations varied from zero to a maximum of 11.9 parts per 100 million. A concentration of 8 parts per 100 million was exceeded for relatively short periods on six of these days, on two of which values between 10 and 11.9 parts per 100 million were recorded. In the light of the prevailing weather conditions, the scientists concerned concluded that measurable amounts of photo-chemically-produced ozone were present at this place during that period. I must point out, for comparison, that the hourly average of oxidants in Los Angeles exceeded 10 parts per 100 million on close on 50 per cent. of days during 1964–67, and reached a maximum value of 58 parts per 100 million.

The Harwell measurements, by contrast, gave readings a very long way below these figures. Therefore, I must say that, while I agree that there is cause here for concern, and that we must pay attention to this problem, it would be wrong to set about an alarm on the matter. We welcome the Harwell work as making a significant contribution, but further work, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, is needed. We do not know, for example, the frequency or possible geographical distribution of levels such as those observed at Harwell. It is because we are concerned that an interdepartmental working party was set up earlier this year—long before any of the newspaper headlines—to consider the future needs for air pollution monitoring as a whole.

This working party will complete its work shortly. It has already identified hydrocarbons and oxidants, including nitrogen oxides, as two of the pollutants about which more information is required. I shall be submitting the report of the working party to the Clean Air Council, whose chair I take, as soon as it is available.

The hon. Gentleman also asked what is being done to reduce the emission of the substances which give rise to the problem—namely, the oxidants, the nitrogen and the hydrocarbons, particularly from cars. He was less than fair to my Department in suggesting that no action was being taken. On the contrary, we are considering what further research may be needed beyond that already in hand, and we have in this House amended the Motor Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations of 1969 so as to require that every petrol-engined vehicle shall be fitted with a crankcase ventilating device whose effect is to reduce hydrocarbon emission by 25 per cent. to 30 per cent. That has been done. A further amendment will be made shortly, requiring all diesel vehicles first used on or after 1st April next year to comply with a new British Standard which will ensure that the smoke they emit, instead of being black and ugly, is virtually invisible. This British Standard is forming the basis of similar requirements being introduced throughout Europe—

Mr. Spriggs

Can the hon. Gentleman say how many vehicles have been fitted with this equipment to which he has referred?

Mr. Griffiths

The crankcase breather is a compulsory requirement for all vehicles. For the others, the rules come in on 1st April next, and already industry is beginning to re-engine its vehicles to meet the requirements. I went up to Nuneaton to see the device being tried out at the Motor Industry Research Association. This is not theory; it is happening. It is what my Department has done. I could give the hon. Gentleman a whole series of examples of how action is being taken with motor vehicles to reduce the emission of these substances.

The hon. Gentleman is rightly concerned about the condition of the air not only over the United Kingdom as a whole but in particular in his constituency. I understand that, for I know that the atmosphere in South Lancashire is sometimes less than wholesome. One of the best things any local authority can do to help itself is to reduce the amount of smoke emitted into the atmosphere from the domestic chimney, as this is the main source of bad air in our industrial regions, much more so than industrial emissions. In St. Helens County Borough there are nine smoke control orders covering only 46 per cent. of its total area and only 32 per cent. of its total premises. I have the greatest respect for the borough, and I know that it is conscious of the need to control industrial emissions, but I am bound to say to it, through the hon. Gentleman, that a comparison of its clean air policy with that of the country as a whole and even with the North-West shows it to be lagging behind gravely. The figures for the black areas of the North-West are 53 per cent. on acreage covered and 52 per cent. of premises covered.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman in his concern for photo-chemical smog will realise that clean air, like compassion, starts at home and that it would be helpful if St. Helens could see its way to making more smoke control orders to improve the air enjoyed by his constituents and many of my old friends who still live in the area.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Ten o'clock.