HC Deb 25 October 1972 vol 843 cc1295-324

8.20 p.m.

Mr. Laurance Reed (Bolton, East)

I am grateful that time has allowed us to raise, before the current Session of Parliament ends, some of the policy issues that face the Administration in upgrading our environment. Certainly, in the current Session we will all have experienced at first hand from our constituents something of the growing public interest and concern about pollution problems—whether in direct representations or in letters.

This concern, which has been taken up in a prominent way by the media, has been presented in this House through a number of debates, a whole host of Parliamentary Questions and one or two items of important and useful legislation. We are hoping that in the next Session time will be found for further legislation which we know is now being worked upon.

When we face what in some quarters is hysteria, when we hear people say that the hour is at hand, that the world is about to end because of pollution, it is important to remind ourselves and our constituents that pollution for the policy-maker is not a new subject. Seven hundred years ago, in the city of London, the use of coal was prohibited as being "prejudicial to health", and a special commission was appointed to track down the offenders and punish them for the first offence with "great fines and ransoms" and upon a second offence "to demolish their furnaces".

Queen Elizabeth I kept out of London because she findeth herself greatly grieved and annoyed with the taste and smoke of sea coals", which at that time were shipped from Newcastle. She seems to have had an especially strong sense of smell, because she even banned the making of woad within five miles of anywhere that she was staying, on account of the stench.

The Thames, although it was still a salmon river 250 years ago, was nevertheless badly polluted, as can be gathered from a little book called "Hints to Brewers", dated 1702: Thames water, taken up about Greenwich at low water, when it is free of the brackishness of the sea, and has in it all the fat and sullage from this Great City of London, makes a very strong drink. It will of itself ferment wonderfully and after its due purgation and three times stinking, it will be so strong that several Sea Commanders have told me that it has often fuddied their Mariners. That was 1702. By the last century, we know that the Thames was more than intoxigating. Parliament itself was inconvenienced and the old records show that strong language was used. The river was said to be in a "pestilential condition" and a "vile state". It was an "abominable ditch" and a "vast sewer" which would "surely spread disease and death around". A Mr. Brady in a Parliamentary Question complained that hon. Gentlemen sitting in the Committee Rooms and in the Library were utterly unable to remain there in consequence of the stench. He wanted to know what action would be taken to "mitigate the effluvium" and to discontinue the nuisance. So pollution, for the policy-maker, is not a new issue.

Why then, at a time when the air in our cities is visibly improving, many acres of derelict land are disappearing and life is returning to many of our rivers, should there be such a public outcry? I suppose that the odd spectacular accident which has attracted a great deal of publicity—like the Torrey Canyon, the oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel, or the drums which rolled up on the Cornish beaches—have played their part in alerting public attention and arousing concern on the issue.

Pollution, too, has become much more pervasive with the geographical spread of industry and development and it is increasingly difficult even for people with a great deal of money and influence to buy their escape from it. So protest is no longer restricted to any given district, it has become universalised. People are much more mobile, intellectually through the media and physically through the automobile. Whereas in the past, I suspect, they became inured to environmental squalor in their midst, today they tend to make unfavourable comparisons and discontent grows.

But perhaps the principal reason for the new public interest in this topic is that as people become more affluent and basic wants are satisfied they change their priorities. They may still want more goods, but not at the price of the "bads" which at present go with them.

The higher incomes and more leisure which we are promised will, I suspect, mean greater emphasis on the quality of life in the future. It is for that reason that I cannot agree with parliamentary colleagues—there are quite a few of them —who seem to suppose that pollution is just another trendy subject. The topic may be very much in fashion, but it is not a fad. There are votes in sewage: the environment as an issue has arrived.

The subject already influences policies in many fields that are not directly controlled by the Department of the Environment, and in time it is possible that it will condition them. As policymakers, we are presented with some very difficult choices when we are trying to set environmental standards. We are not helped any by being dependent upon experts who openly disagree about the technical solutions to problems and even about what the actual problems are.

The first question is, what level of purity do we aim for? The cost of control rises very steeply with the degree of purity which is adopted. The more we spend on abating pollution, the less we will have available for other desirable expenditures. Pollution has a real cost and ideally it should be reduced to the point where cost equals benefit. It would of course help if we could measure accurately the damage that pollution causes, but unfortunately ecological processes are so complex and can spread so far in space and time that it is exceptionally difficult to measure these costs with any accuracy. At present, we can really only make elaborate guesses.

A cost benefit analysis exercise certainly does not provide us with all the answers. In the environmental field, some of the most important factors are intangible—amenity, for instance—and these are difficult to measure in money terms. People want clean air and clean water, less noise and pleasant landscapes, but exactly how much are they prepared to pay in higher taxes higher prices or in benefits forgone?

The second question that occurs immediately to the policy maker is: what are the priorities within pollution control itself? Resources, particularly intellectual resources, are limited, and we cannot afford to do the maximum job of abatement everywhere or all at once. Is a reduction in noise levels more important than the suppression of car exhaust? Should contamination of water supplies take precedence over further improvements in relation to contamination of the air? The choices are rather complicated by the fact that controls of water pollution can create new air pollution problems, and the suppression of air pollution can increase problems existing in regard to solid waste disposal. So the effect of one programme on another has to he considered.

I suggest that, ideally, human health should be the top priority, with immediate consideration going to the environmental problems of areas where health hazards already exist. Second in priority might come threats to living resources like fisheries and ecological systems on which we are dependent for our long-term survival. Last ideally, should come things like dereliction and amenity. But the trouble is that people want a pleasant environment as well as a tolerable one, and, in practice, political pressures—which I certainly experience in my constituency—tend to build up in such a way that attention is concentrated on second magnitude problems at the expense of the critical problem areas.

The third question that any policy maker of responsibility must consider is what obligation he has to protect the interests of future generations against actions that are taken now. I believe that we certainly have such an obligation, and that we ought to take into account any costs that future generations may have to bear. Nuclear wastes are a particularly forceful example. We are being asked to construct more and more nuclear power stations in this country but we do not yet know how to dispose safely of these wastes. We ought to ask ourselves: are we entitled to commit future generations to tackle a problem which we ourselves do not yet know how to handle?

It is difficult to evaluate the benefit to our descendants of a given environmental improvement. After all, we do not know what value they will put upon it, nor do we know how the technology of waste disposal will evolve in that time. To persuade the public to think on a time scale longer than that of their own lives or that of their children has never been an easy exercise for statesmen and political leaders. The fact that people are more interested in the present than in the future has often been cited as an argument against entrusting the environment to the mandate of public opinion. I feel that that argument might be a little more valid if hon. Members here and in Parliaments overseas showed that they had a time horizon stretching beyond the next election.

Our common law, and I dare say that this will be a controversial issue in the next parliamentary Session, protects individuals to some extent against various forms of pollution. If an action is brought and won, the plaintiff is entitled to compensation for the damage he has sustained, he can also ask for an injunction to restrain the polluter. But many people whom I know would like to see this system enlarged into a charter of amenity rights. They argue that if we had this charter the very fact that we as individuals had an interest in clean land or clean air or a pleasant view would make potential polluters much more cautious, simply because they would wish to avoid any liability for damages that might arise. I accept that argument, but this proposal suffers from the drawback that common law has always suffered from, and that is the difficulty of collecting evidence to prove one's case and the prohibitive cost of bringing court actions. I do not believe that an extension of the law of nuisance would protect individuals when confronted with claims against giant corporations, although I would concede that we could expect the amenity societies in future to play a greater part in litigation on behalf of individuals and of their own members than has been the case in the past. The common law, which I do not wish to denigrate, does have weaknesses. It has been remedial rather than preventative. It has tended to aid the victim of pollution after the event rather than before it and the public's interest in a clean environment has been protected only incidentally.

Many people will conclude that we need more laws and legislation, but I stress that there are grave limitations on what statutory controls can achieve. The standards which we lay down in the House tend to be swiftly outdated by improved technology and new understanding of ecological hazards. Today we are hard put to it to find parliamentary time to keep up with the use of new materials and processes in industry. The fixed and rigid standards which, in the nature of things, we impose from the House may undercontrol pollution in that it may well be within the capacity of an individual firm to reduce the damage which it does below the legal requirement. However, there is no incentive to do so.

The weakness which I stress to those who are always looking for more and more public control to upgrade and improve our environment is that central control lacks flexibility. That means that pollution control officers can find themselves enforcing standards which are inappropriate to the given environmental situation in which they find themselves.

In seeking to control river pollution, it is necessary to take account of specific characteristics such as width, depth and flow rate, and of the different uses to which the water body may be put—recreation, amenity, transportation, fisheries, water abstraction, or waste disposal. When the rules are too rigid, too inflexible, when they are standardised and identical in every case, clearly that is not possible.

The method which we have adopted to get round these problems has been to delegate responsibility to specialised agencies and to give them latitude in applying restrictions and regulations. For example, the river authorities have a good deal of discretion in laying down consent conditions. That is also true of the Alkali Inspectorate, which has considerable discretion in what it will accept as "best practical means". This system allows the enforcement authority to determine the conditions according to individual circumstances, local ecology and economics, and also to take account of changes in technology.

The specialised agency provides a permanent organisation, continuously on watch, charged with suppressing pollution, and the system has worked well. The goals have been realistic, the timetables fair, and enforcement sensible. Nevertheless, the agencies, as we know from some hon. Members and certainly from outside the House, are under attack. They are accused of being soft on polluters and even of allowing themselves to be dominated by them.

The source of the dissatisfaction lies in the fact that a great deal of the work of those who safeguard our environment is hidden from view by out-dated Sections of the River (Prevention of Pollution) Act and Alkali Acts, which tend, not always intentionally, to promote secrecy about industrial effluents and wastes. Regretfully, although I am pleased to say that this does not apply to the Department of the Environment, the veil is sometimes drawn by administrative decisions also. Non-disclosure and lack of candour simply arouse suspicions that all is not well and undermines public confidence in the work of controlling bodies. It is the absence of accurate data that gives rise to misconceived and ill-informed comments and allegations that the environment is not being properly protected.

I do not believe that the argument that we need confidentiality to protect business secrets withstands careful examina- tion. It is not difficult for me to wade into a stream or water course in my constituency with a jam jar and take my own sample and go to the expense of having it analysed if I so wish.

In these days of industrial espionage, takeover and head hunting, I find it difficult to believe that another company which wishes to obtain the secrets of a competitor cannot do so. If greater protection is required for such processes, we should be looking to the law of industrial property and not to secrecy in pollution control.

I was pleased to note that the Second Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution proposed that research workers and other "responsible" persons who could use the knowledge for the ultimate benefit for the environment should have access to confidential information in future. Why "responsible" persons, and who is a responsible person? I believe that a file of analyses of all samples and other data should be open to inspection by any person on payment of a suitable fee. Without disclosure, there can be no right of objection.

As I see it, the object in making pollution control data generally available is to strengthen the accountability of the enforcement agencies by bringing the public in on the decisions and choices that have to be made. There is under the present system no method whereby the plain man's wish for a clean river or smokeless air or an unspoilt view can form part of the defining of the consent conditions. The expert may know best; in fact, he almost certainly does know best about the technicalities and the scientific aspects of the problem; but what he does not know best, and what he will never know if he is cocooned and insulated from public criticism and comment, is what people are prepared to put up with in the way of pollution or what price they are prepared to pay for clean air and clean water. These are value judgments and in the end they can be made only by the public.

My plea tonight, therefore, is to restore the mandate of public opinion in pollution control and to give less ground to those technical experts who believe that they know all of it and that what they know is best.

8.43 p.m.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Birmingham, Handsworth)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Laurance Reed) is to be congratulated on his perspicacity and foresight in realising that the remaining stage of the Local Government Bill might terminate early and on getting in his bid for an Adjournment debate. I am delighted that my hon. Friend has raised the subject of pollution in the wider context of the environment.

I am grateful that in this, one of the last Adjournment debates before the Session ends, my hon. Friend the Undersecretary of State for the Environment is with us to answer this short debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his elegant sartorial attire which is surely suitable for a Minister replying to a debate on a subject such as the environment.

One of the most heartwarming trends in recent years has been that the environment has suddenly become one of the foremost political issues on a par with the equally important issues of employment, education and the economy. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East that it would be dangerous to try to overstate the case for the environment. All we are saying is that it should be treated as an equal and as a serious political issue.

If I may add to what my hon. Friend said, I think that one of the reasons why an increasing number of people have suddenly begun to realise the importance of the environment is the relatively small island in which we live and its densely populated nature. I do not want to bore the House with too many statistics tonight, but there is an interesting comparison that should be made. The USSR has approximately four times the population of the United Kingdom, yet it covers no less than 8.6 million square miles while the United Kingdom, a small island by any standards, has a land mass of less than 100,000 square miles. That means that it is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

I understand that, on average, we have about 600 people to every square mile in the United Kingdom, but even that conceals a more serious state of affairs, because in England, the largest part of the United Kingdom, the average den- sity of population is fast approaching 1,000 to each square mile. But it is not even as simple as that, because within England no less than one-third of our population lives on only 2½ per cent. of the land in our seven great conurbations —and to take the extreme case, in the greater London area, rivers and parks included, people are squashed together, on an average, at no fewer than 12,000 to every square mile. That is equalled only by Gibraltar, which has 24,000 people, excluding monkeys, living on only two square miles. Thus land is at a premium, and the way we use our land is vital. Thus, the environment should be treated as seriously as the economy or, to put it another way, conservation is as important as commercialism.

There are one or two specific points that I want to raise with my hon. Friend the Minister. I am absolutely convinced that one of the problems that we have to tackle with greater zeal is the question of the pollution caused by the motor vehicle. I have the dubious distinction of representing a constituency in the north-west part of Birmingham that is almost unique in the sense that it is almost totally encircled by urban motorways. It has the M5 down the west side, the M6 down the north and north-east side and the Aston Expressway coming in at the south-east. I am tempted to say that this is one of the major environmental problems that I face. My hon. Friend has been to Handsworth and he will know that about the only environmental problem that we do not have in that Mecca of municipal magnificence is oil pollution on the beaches.

My point is that with the advent of the urban motorway—and there will be an increasing number of urban motorways, thanks to the Government's forward-rolling motorway programme—it is essential to think in terms of the people who live near these vast flows of traffic. With the greatest respect, I say that as a matter of urgency the Government must come to terms with the problem and decide, for example, what the lead content of petrol that we are prepared to permit in our motor vehicles should be.

Another question that we shall have to face is the position of the emission pipe in the exhaust system of a motor vehicle. Obviously we have become trained to accept that this should be at the rear, and low down, pointing rearwards, but we may have to redesign motor vehicles so that the emission pipe outlet is at the top of the vehicle at the rear, facing upwards.

The second specific question is the increasing number of smokeless zones that we are creating, quite properly, in our towns. Birmingham has a progressive record in this respect.

There is one parochial point that I should particularly like the Minister to take up, although I realise that it might be a matter more for his right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Development. He will know that under the Clean Air Act, 1956—and I mention that for a particular reason: it is one of the first environmental Measures that this House passed and, although the environment may be new to the public, its problems are not unknown to this House; indeed, they go back at least 16 years—the right exists to grant to people who are changing to smokeless fires in smokeless zones seven-tenths of the cost of the conversion.

I have had a case in my constituency involving somebody who was presented with a statement by the council saying that the council was agreeable to paying seven-tenths of the bill for converting the fire to smokeless fuel, and the person concerned, an old-age pensioner, assumed that the figure which the council gave for the conversion would be the amount actually charged. But when the builder's bill came in, this old-age pensioner found that the cost of conversion was considerably higher, and my constituent is having a great deal of difficulty in paying the bill.

Will my hon. Friend pass on to the Minister the necessity for a clear statement on an estimate that it is only an estimate of the cost and not necessarily the cost at which the builder will undertake the work?

Mr. Charles Simeons (Luton)

Will not my hon. Friend agree that there is also the cost of running the fire to be taken into account? Smokeless fuels are far more expensive than the orthodox type of fuel, and whatever help is given is not really adequate for old-age pensioners. Further, those people who have their houses converted to electricity or to natural gas often discover that, having used the electricity or gas freely, they get a bill for £100 or so at the end of a quarter and they cannot pay. Whilst they are arguing, another bill, perhaps for £50, comes in and then the supply is disconnected. The electricity and gas authorities tell us that they cannot reconnect without a reconnection charge. This seems to be an insoluable problem that we ought to bear in mind.

Mr. Chapman

My hon. Friend has made a very serious point, and I certainly agree with what he has said. However, I want to confine myself to the strict limits of this Adjournment debate.

The next point, which is not a parochial one but is a national point of some consequence, is one that I have raised with my hon. Friend not only at the party conference but also in a Question in the House last week. I am absolutely convinced that we shall have to limit loads and lengths of lorries that use certain roads in certain towns, cities and villages. I do not believe that the main argument should centre around whether or not this country should permit 40-ton lorries to use the roads, because they do on the Continent and more specifically within the countries of the existing Six in the EEC.

My view is quite simple, and it is this. The length and load of a lorry that ought to be allowed to use a road should be based on the design of the road itself. I do not doubt that there are certain motorways in our country that could take 40-tonners. In that sense, the environmental problem is not whether 40-tonners should be allowed to use certain roads but whether, recognising that we have to take a certain volume of goods from point A to point B, we should do it with 40 32- tonners or 32 40-tonners. I would rather have fewer larger vehicles, provided those larger vehicles can use our roads in safety.

But the point I make is that, whether we allow 40-tonners on certain of our roads or not, we must forbid even 10- tonners to use some of the narrow streets in our towns and villages. This is necessary, I am convinced, not only for reasons of safety and the need to reduce atmospheric pollution; it is necessary to prevent the inherent damage which can be done to interesting old buildings in our towns and villages. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will move Government policy in that direction. I am convinced that it must be done by national regulations so that the rule is uniform throughout the country. I realise that my hon. Friend disagrees, and he will rightly point out that local authorities already have the power, if they wish, to ban lorries of certain lengths and loads from using certain streets. But if it remains only their prerogative to introduce such regulations it will be done slowly, far too late and haphazardly. I urge my hon. Friend to move some way in that direction.

I come next to the problem of the disgracefully dismal, drab and ugly scenes to be found in far too many of our towns and cities. One of our most wonderful achievements in the past 27 years has been the creation of national parks, a scheme to preserve some of the most beautiful parts of our countryside. By and large that policy has been successful. We now need a concerted effort to give a face-lift to, or to remove altogether, the ugliness of some of the worst industrial scars which still remain in our urban landscape.

Why, for example, do not the Government establish a policy for the creation of urban parks? Why not tackle some of the worst areas in certain of our conurbations and show what can be done to make a dramatic improvement with but small expenditure? It is a disgrace to any nation which calls itself civilised still to tolerate some of the environmental squalor in which far too many of our families still have to do their best to survive.

Incidentally, I am personally most grateful to the Government for their acceptance of my suggestion to make next year national tree planting year. I realise that my hon. Friends may laugh at that, and I know that in the Smoking Room I am now referred to as "The doggies' delight". But I believe that by the planting of trees we can do much to cover up some of the necessary urban eyesores in our towns and cities.

Trees are not just beautiful objects in themselves. One can use trees to cover up industrial eyesores, one can use trees to cover waste and derelict land and, last but certainly not least, one can use trees as a valuable sound baffle between the motor vehicle on the one hand and the pedestrian or resident on the other hand.

The British people are becoming more discerning about the sort of areas in which they live. Yesteryear, they were prepared to pay the price of the belching factory chimney because it meant jobs, and if the chimney was not belching, in all probability there was unemployment. Now, however, the public are more sophisticated. They realise that they can still have their jobs yet the factory chimney need no longer belch.

The statisticians tell us that the great majority of families in this country now have a car. Now that more than every other family has a car, an increasing number of the public are demanding that cars should be quieter, cleaner and safer.

I want to finish by paying a tribute to the Government, a tribute that I do not believe is too fulsome but is, deserved. They have recognised the importance of the environment and so structured their Administration that they have set up a Department to try to cope administratively with the many problems related to it. I do not doubt, nor do I try to conceal, that to protect, improve, conserve or preserve our environment will cost money. If we are to say that electric pylons should not strangle or straddle our countryside, we must be prepared to say that it will cost more money to put the cables underground; if we are to say that we should preserve more of our old buildings in our towns and villages—and, in view of the rate at which old buildings are being demolished, I believe that we and our children and our children's children will rue the day when we allowed so much of our architectural heritage to be razed to the ground by the bulldozer—we must be prepared to pay what I believe to be a modest price. If we are to have fume-free vehicles, it will cost us money.

The purpose of the debate is to recognise those problems and ask our Government to consider the environment on an equal footing with the other pressing political and social problems. I have every confidence that they will do so and that they have the administrative machinery with which to try to achieve what an increasing number of our people want—a pleasant, healthy, decent environment in which to live and work.

9.2 p.m.

Mr. Charles Simeons (Luton)

I am sure that everyone will join by hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Sydney Chapman) in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Laurance Reed) for choosing the subject of the environment for debate. I am glad for a number of reasons. First, it is one on which people are focussing their attention. Secondly, it is one on which there are many misunderstandings. These surround the purpose of change which I believe my hon. Friend the Minister has in mind. Lastly, we want to consider the consequence of the action which is called for upon ordinary people.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has said on a number of occasions that polluters must pay for their pollution. I have heard no one who disagrees with him. The faces of harassed housewives who have to clean their children's clothes on the beaches light up, and they think that that statement is wonderful. But the cost will not be borne by the companies or even the local authorities involved in disgorging, because both have no money of their own, except a few companies with large investments, and the only way in which they can obtain the money to carry out treatment is from the public. Therefore, the cost of a cleaner environment in round terms is 4p on a packet of crisps. But I am certain that that price is worth while. I am equally certain that my hon. Friend the Minister has plans which will do much to meet that end.

Many people try to make out that industry has been doing nothing about pollution; but pollution treatment is not new. In my constituency, where we have the motor industry using cyanide for plating and have light engineering, chemical companies, and a number of other concerns, businesses have combined to put in treatment plants which, when coupled with the services of the Luton sewage works, produce an effluent which provides London with its drinking water. Fortunately, it has a further treatment after that treatment at Luton, but very few people in Luton realise when they pull the plug each night what a service they are doing for those who drink water in London.

But the services for providing this are rather confused. I used to regard water as something which came out of a tap clean and, when it became dirty, one pulled out the plug and it disappeared into the ground for good. That is not so, of course. There is a cycle in which water is used a number of times. It is said that from the source of the Thames until it flows out to sea the same water is drunk by six different people—being purified in between, of course.

To carry out this immensely important operation, we have an enormous number of authorities. There are 29 river authorities, 1,391 local authorities which are sewerage authorities and 260 statutory water undertakings. Therefore it is remarkable that the standard is as good as it is. We have water and effluent controlled by no one Ministry. What is more, statutory water undertakings are under no compulsion to provide processed water for industry. If they stopped doing it, I am not sure what industry would do. There is a basis of charges which contributes to the cost. But there is no charge for water which is clean and discharged direct to rivers.

The first stage of change was the passing of the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act. I am not sure that industry is truly aware of its implications. I understand from local authorities and river authorities that all that a company has to do is to notify the authority that it intends to move something. The authority cannot stop it from doing so. But if the company moves it and pollution results, there is a heavy penalty. There is a list of exemptions. Large numbers of people believe that this exempts them from the consequences. It does not. It merely exempts them from having to notify the authority. The consequences remain. If the consequences arise and pollution occurs, the company meets its just fate. But large numbers of people do not seem to appreciate that.

Enormous gaps remain. Large numbers of companies have toxic material. I will not venture to say how they disposed of it in the past, but they are embarrassed today about disposing of it and the eagerness with which some contractors moved it before has evaporated. Therefore, one great gap remains in that we have to find quickly a means whereby organics and other toxic wastes, especially solid wastes, can be disposed of without harm to the environment.

The proposals contained in the White Paper dealing with the reorganisation of water resources and sewerage are extremely good. As the House knows, they divide the country into 10 regional water authorities. The merit of 10 different regions is, first, that they are big; secondly, that the state of rivers in different parts of the country is different and they can work at different rates; and, thirdly, they concentrate resources, which is vital.

The proposals will cut out overlap. We have all seen cases of two authorities, both ill-equipped, trying to measure the same substances often without the necessary apparatus to do so. The proposals will also provide a career structure which will revolutionise the whole water cycle. It will not be long before universities offer courses so that people can be trained in water management as opposed to one of the branches of it.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State tells us that sewerage has not changed for 100 years. Other people whom I know remind me that sex has not changed either. Both seem to work fairly well. Therefore, I would suggest that while we want to bring the techniques of the chemical engineer into this field, we want to do it carefully and to make certain that the innovations we introduce will not be susceptible to disruption, because most of us know that, bulky as they are, the average sewerage works can meet disaster, but if one has a neat automatic plant and someone does something unexpected, calamity will ensue and the people over a large area will be fully aware of what has happened.

Industry must make itself aware of the probable new form of charges, firstly that they will be charged for the water they use; next that they will be charged for the water they discharge, and if any subsequent treatment is required, provided it has been agreed that they can discharge anyway, then they will be charged at cost for this. This I believe will revolutionise people's thinking towards water. It will give companies opportunity, provided they know what the policy is—and, as I have suggested, this will vary with each regional water autho- rity—to budget ahead and to decide the extent to which they should install plant themselves and to what extent they should install recycling equipment. Superimposed on top of this there will be greater necessity—and this will be a rewarding pastime for local authorities and the regional water authorities in congested areas—to set up their own treatment plants so that small quantities of toxic material can be delivered there and treated in bulk centrally and much more cheaply than if each company were to have its own treatment plant; but this will only deal with small quantities, because the cost would be too great otherwise.

All this, in my view, adds up to an on-cost on industry. Exactly what it will be is difficult to say, but I hope my hon. Friend is seeking statistical advice on this from industry, because it will alter our whole competitive position if we are not careful. I was at the EEC the other day, and those whom I saw there spoke very well not only of my hon. Friend but also of the work being done in this country, and they gave the impression, which I am sure is right, that we are ahead in our thinking and in many of the things we are doing. This is fine, but the great problem is that if we proceed too fast we may well put ourselves at competitive disadvantage with companies overseas, and if, on the other hand, we try to clean up the north too fast we may then, in cur attempt to make the Mersey like the Thames, find that the chemical companies will leave the Mersey. I think it is absolutely vital that we have sufficient information so the charges are realistic, as well as compelling people to do those things which are necessary.

There are two points I should like to put to my hon. Friend. I would not expect him to answer one of them tonight, but I hope that as soon as he goes to get his dinner—I am sorry he has been delayed—he will have a chance to think about this and go on to give a great deal of thought to it, and that is the composition of the Central Council.

As I understand it, it is to consist of the 10 chairmen of the regional water authorities, boosted up by one or two other knowledgeable people. This, I think, in principle is all right, but in practice it will have no executive powers; nor will it have any knowledge, if my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend are to sit in a quasi-judicial capacity, as I believe they will, and as they have to now. It is vital that there is some central organisation which is detached from the Government and not under the Government's control or under my hon. Friend's thumb, and to which people will go and from which the Central Council can obtain its guidance. Here I would like to see the council supported by the Water Pollution Research Laboratories and the Water Resources Board. I have acquainted myself with what these people are doing, and I believe that the knowledge which they have and the advice which they can give is absolutely vital to central water authorities because in the absence of it a lot of men will have to do what my hon. Friend tells them because they will not know any better. I hope that he will give them the tools to get on and manage and that they will be given freedom. I am fearful that that freedom may be removed.

Lastly, I have received leaflets—it is difficult to confirm their total validity—from the fishing fraternity asking me to raise a number of matters. The concern of the fishermen is that when the reorganisation takes place, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to bring common law actions against those who pollute but have received consents from the regional water authorities, the compensation being obtained from the regional water authorities.

I appreciate that if companies are to disclose what they are doing, they will wish that information to be kept relatively confidential. They will not wish to disclose what they are doing and then be forced to produce the information in court where their competitors will be able to get hold of it. But I do not believe that it is solely knowledge of the chemistry that makes a process successful; it is the know how about applying the chemistry. But it is a logical argument, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to set the fishermens' minds at rest, as I am sure he will.

I hope that companies will bear in mind that each year they have their books audited and that the auditors tell the shareholders how their company is being run. Nobody ever tells them what has gone down the drain, and the amount of money going down the drain in some areas is probably very large. If it is a precious metal, it is probably recovered, but there is a halfway house. In future, putting everything down the drain will be expensive and companies should now be looking around to decide what is the best course for them to take.

9.18 p.m.

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

I join with my other hon. Friends in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Laurance Reed) on having chosen this subject to bring to the attention of the House and on his foresight in achieving it at the end of the Local Government Bill. He made a speech which was thoughtful, philosophical and constructive, as all his speeches are, but I do not think that he will expect me to deal in detail with all his many observations.

However, I was impressed by his suggestion that some of the priorities that should be before us in the management of the environment and the fight against pollution were, first, human life—I am sure that he was right to say that that must come first—secondly, the effects of pollution and environmental mismanagement on the fauna and flora and ecological systems, for if they are destroyed they are almost impossible to replace; and thirdly, the cleaning up of dereliction and the eyesores of the past. I agree with his order of priorities, although I might put it slightly differently.

One of the functions of the Department of the Environment is a defensive function; that is to say, we have to protect the environment wherever it is good. At the same time, we have an offensive function in that we must make the environment better wherever it is not good enough. In our policies we attempt to discharge both major rôles.

We defend the environment where it is good by maintaining and, where possible, extending the green belt, by protecting the countryside, through good planning, against urban sprawl and, wherever possible, from too many over, head wires. We protect and conserve our historic towns where possible by bypassing them so that heavy vehicles shall not damage historic streets. We protect areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of scientific interest, the forests, and so on. So there is indeed a defensive rôle which we must carry out.

However, it is not sufficient for us to protect only the agreeable surroundings of those who have a good environment. Far more important is our task in improving the environment where it is bad. This means that for the ordinary man we must improve housing. I believe that the improvement grants policy, which has brought enormous betterment to many of our towns and cities, is an aspect of positively improving the environment; similarly, through general area improvement grants, the cleaning-up of derelict land and the clearance of slums. These are ways in which we attack the environment where it is bad.

My hon. Friend, whose knowledge on this subject is very great, is right that we must tackle pollution at its source—where our rivers, our air and our land have been poisoned in the past—and improve it for the future.

In mentioning the future, I come to my hon. Friend's point about thinking of the next generation. Very few of us in political life can afford to think much further ahead than five or 10 years, because those are the periods not only of Parliaments, but of reasonable rolling programmes during which policies can be worked out. But we must also have in mind the generations of tomorrow. One thinks of this particularly when one recognises that the depletion of resources on this planet is a very real problem and that pollution could, if it were not checked, make it very difficult for future generations to enjoy even the high standards of living that we know today.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Sydney Chapman) that Governments should now give to the environment the same priority and attention that they give to economics. My hon. Friend made one particular reference which I noted. He said that as environmentalists all we ask is that conservation should be as important as commercialism. I agree that that should be so, and I think that in our policies we have carried out his wishes.

I should like to deal with a few of the more specific points which have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton (Mr. Simeons) was particularly interested in water policy. He spoke of the new National Water Council which we propose to establish in the course of reorganising the water industry. Our intention is that the National Water Council should consist of the chairmen of the nine or 10 regional water authorities, if Parliament agrees that this shall be done. However, my hon. Friend is not quite right in saying that we intend to flesh that out, so to speak, with only two or three more people. On the contrary, we expect the National Water Council to have on it formidable representatives of industry, of agriculture, of the consumer, who must always be with us, and of the whole sphere of amenity, recreation and environmental protection.

I assure my hon. Friend that the National Water Council, far from being a toothless paper wonder, will be an instrument of real significance to which the Secretary of State and central Government will wish to look for advice and help on many occasions. I assure my hon. Friend that some national research capability, possibly based on the Water Research Association, certainly having the most intimate links with the WPRL, will be available to the National Water Council and to the Secretary of State so that some independent assessment of both technical and scientific developments and of development itself can be made.

Mr. Simeons

Will my hon. Friend think about the point that if these bodies are seen to be advising him and the council at the same time, they will lose some of their credibility because they cannot serve two masters? He must know that there are occasions when he must act in a quasi-judicial capacity.

Mr. Griffiths

I take my hon. Friend's point and I will see that he receives a copy of one of the many consultation papers we have been putting out on this matter so that he can pursue it with me on another occasion.

My hon. Friend also raised the question of the concern of anglers lest under the new arrangements they should lose their common law right of taking action against polluters or against those who damage their interests. I am glad that he raised the matter because there has been quite unnecessary misunderstanding about it. The issue is very simple. We are trying to clean the rivers. In order to do that, we have suggested that a number of measures will require to be taken—for example, that all trade wastes going into sewers shall be brought under control; that the discharges from industry to estuaries shall be brought under control, as recommended by the Jeger Commission; that more effective action should be taken where sanitary appliances discharge direct to rivers and estuaries; and a whole series of other measures. But one of the more important measures must be that if industry is putting increasingly complex, toxic wastes into water we must monitor more effectively their composition and effect on the water.

The point which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East raised about confidentiality immediately arises when one seeks to control and survey the wastes which industry puts into water. As my hon. Friend said, the day has gone when industry could reasonably say that industrial espionage could be conducted by people with metal cups collecting the effluent from the bottom of the river.

The dilemma is this. If the fact was published that industry was putting certain forms of chemical waste into a river, although the river authority might well be perfectly satisfied that, in spite of the waste, it was within the capacity of the river to purify itself it is possible —I put it no higher—that in these days of environmental zeal, sometimes excessive zeal, a local person, reading for the first time of some complex substance—diocyanate or something of that kind—might take fright without fully understanding the situation and seek in a magistrates' court an injunction against the firm. On occasion frivolous law suits might be instituted against a firm and conceivably a magistrates' court would grant an injunction and the whole industry might be brought to a standstill, with the men being laid off and production halted, simply because of a misunderstanding about what the chemical effluent amounted to.

The dilemma—and it must be described as a dilemma—is simply this. If we say "Let us be done with confidentiality, let us publish or require to be published all the technical data about all the effluents", it is possible that, through an excess of zeal and misunderstanding, a common law action would be started which was wholly unnecessary and which did damage to the industry and the community. We are seeking, in most detailed discussions with industry and all the other interests, to meet my hon. Friend's point, namely, to end confidentiality and to require total disclosure, but not in a fashion which will lead to frivolous litigation under common law which might damage the economy. This is a very real problem and that is precisely why we have made no decisions. The anglers can be assured that their interests are very much in our minds. If we want to end confidentiality we must give a measure of protection to industry against the frivolous injunctions that would bring it to a halt.

I have gone into this in some detail because there is much misunderstanding in the angling world. The consultation process in which we are now engaged will enable us to listen to and to learn from expressions of opinion from the angling world and all others. Only at the end of the day, which may well be some time from now, will we reach a conclusion and publish it. Until that time, I assure my hon. Friend that the angling interests are perfectly safe.

Mr. Laurance Reed

I quite agree with my hon. Friend. It is also worth making the point that under the common law only those with an interest in the river, such as anglers, have the right to bring an action, whereas if there are effective statutory controls with no confidentiality, with disclosure and therefore the right of public objection, everybody with an interest in the river, including the factory which disposes of its waste and also creates jobs, will have a right to be heard.

Mr. Griffiths

Absolutely, and much more effective invigilation and enforcement would be secured if we came to that decision. I hope the House will accept that "consultation" is precisely that. It is not the Government laying down what is to be done but rather the Government seeking the opinions of all concerned. I wish that those who read our consultation documents would recognise them for what they are, namely, examples of open government, seeking people's opinion and would not, as so often is the case, take counsel only of their fears and anxieties and assume the worst instead of coming to us and discussing the problems forthrightly. The anglers will be coming to meet the Secretary of State and myself to discuss this matter, I think next Wednesday.

My hon. Friend the Member for Handsworth raised the question of vehicle discharges to air and vehicle emissions. As he will know, since 1st January this year all new petrol engines built in this country have had to be equipped with a device for recycling crankcase gases that prevents their being vented direct to the atmosphere. This action, which the Government have taken, is expected to reduce hydrocarbon emissions from motor vehicles in Britain by 25 per cent.

We have also accepted the ECE regulations, which when they are effective—which I hope will not be long—will mean reductions of about 30 per cent. in carbon monoxide emissions and 10 per cent. in hydrocarbon emissions. On lead, which my hon. Friend was right to mention, the Secretary of State has already announced that the maximum permissible level must be reduced from the present figure progressively until, within three or four years from now, it will be roughly half the present permitted level. From October, 1972, all new diesel engines, in particular those powering heavy lorries, will be required to conform to a new British Standard substantially reducing the emissions of black smoke to a point where, when the vehicles are properly driven and maintained, the smoke will be virtually invisible.

My hon. Friend also asked about smokeless zones and clean air policy. I will write to him about the particular point he has raised, but I am sure that he and the House will be glad to know that we are now able to make smoke orders in this country at a record level. Not only in London but in Birmingham. Leeds, Manchester and in most of the great conurbations the clean air policy is now rapidly going forward. Through the splendid efforts of the Northern Panel of the Clean Air Council, of which I am chairman, as is soon to be announced, more and more local authorities in the North and particularly in the North-East are joining in this policy, so that by the end of this decade I have the real hope that all our major conurbations will have a degree of clean air, free at least from domestic smoke, comparable with that of London today. If we can achieve that cleaning up, we shall really have made a contribution to a cleaner environment.

Mr. Sydney Chapman

I am delighted to hear that. My hon. Friend has started at the right end by tackling the major local authorities in the big conurbations, but some of the smaller towns near large conurbations are very tardy if they happen to be on the windward side of the concentrations of population. Is it not equally important that they should be made to toe the line?

Mr. Griffiths

Yes, and I think that I know the community that my hon. Friend has in mind. There is no reason why any local authority suffering heavy concentrations of ground level smoke from domestic grates should not introduce smokeless zones. There is plenty of the necessary fuel and the approval of my Department would be forthcoming immediately an authority put in such a request. I hope that my hon. Friend will press on his local authorities, including the one that I suspect he has in mind, the wishes of the Government that they should get on with this programme quickly in the interests of their people.

My hon. Friend also spoke with some passion, as he has done many times before, about the problems of the heavy vehicle. Restrictions alone cannot be the answer. There must also be the facilities which will make the restrictions tolerable. That is why we now have the rapid increase in the road building programme. We are increasingly bypassing the towns and villages and are ensuring that, by the middle 1970s, all the major ports will be adequately linked directly with the motorway system.

We have at the same time embarked on the provision of a national network, costing £50 million, of heavy lorry parks, getting the big vehicles out of the towns to where they are safe and secure and the drivers have decent accommodation. About 50 or 60 of them will be ready in five years' time.

I agree that it must be our policy to make the large vehicle cleaner by controlling emissions and to make it quieter. We have put in hand a quiet lorry programme and we hope in five years to be producing at least the prototype of heavy lorries which will make no more noise than the Mini of today.

At the same time, we have to keep the large vehicle out of places where it has no business to be. Those who demand a massive and instant diversion of road haulage, for example on to the railways, must reflect on the facts. The average haul of over three tons in this country is only 25 miles and most lorry journeys do not start or finish at or near a rail terminal. There is no question in the Government's mind of massacring the railways. We are aware of the advantages of the railway train.

Sympathetic though I am to route discrimination, it would nevertheless be bad to harass our road haulage industry with regulations which have no bearing on health or safety and which could offer only a minimal gain for the railways. By the middle 1970s we expect to have put into practice a policy of route discrimination. This will keep the large vehicle in its rightful place, where there is room and need for it, while excluding it from places where it has no business to be, particularly the narrow streets and the country lanes. But in the process we must avoid impractical restrictions on farming operations, for example, and recognise that manufacturers, operators, wholesalers and shopkeepers—not to mention their customers—are entitled to expect that their activities in towns will not be thrown into confusion by ill-thought-out and premature restrictions. I accept that we cannot go on as we are, with heavy vehicles thundering through the narrow streets of our towns—

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Before my hon. Friend leaves the subject of roads and heavy traffic, will he comment on the ambition of certain local highway authorities—county councils and borough councils—to demolish large residential areas of their towns in order to build what they call inner relief roads or inner link roads which, far from removing the pollution from town centres, which I know is the ambition and the the policy of the present Government, brings faster and heavier traffic into those very areas from which we want to remove it? I refer to a proposal being considered at this time by the borough of Macclesfield to drive an east-west link road through a residential part of the town, so removing many amenities. The officials concerned seem determined to push the project through, despite vast opposition by civic authorities and residents in the area.

Mr. Griffiths

I am sure that if they have the opposition of my hon. Friend they will be very well aware of it. He will, however, understand that I cannot comment on a case of which I have no immediate knowledge. But on the general point that roads can be indiscriminately pushed through residential areas at considerable loss to amenity, I cannot disagree with my hon. Friend.

If we are to produce decent, or at least more tolerable, conditions in our towns we simply must accept further limitations on times and places of deliveries. Buses also will need, and the Government will see that they get, continuing help in town and country alike. We shall have to encourage local authorities to put in more peripheral car parks, and, where possible, pedestrian precincts, and at the same time to enforce and strengthen rules against selfish parking.

I am sure that the House will forgive me if I do not deal with the many other points raised by my hon. Friend. I note what he said about urban parks, but I must remind him of derelict land clearance, the eyesore programme, our efforts on twilight housing and general area improvement, the national tree-planting scheme and the new water policy, where we shall require the use of water space not solely for recreation but for urban amenity, for example in the form of water parks. These measures provide local authorities with ample opportunities to provide the very urban parks about which my hon. Friend so eloquently spoke.

In conclusion, I return to the thoughtful speech with which my hon. Friend launched the debate. I think that what he sought to do was to take the broad perspective of the organisation of the fight against pollution, and those who study his speech in HANSARD will recognise that there was much wisdom in it. I offer only these perspectives which my right hon. Friend and I have arrived at over the last two years. The first, very simply, is that, contrary to all the alarming headlines, we in this country are not losing the battle to protect the environment. I cannot say that we have won the day, but we are more than holding our own. I know that some pronouncements say that we are cosmically heading into an environmental apocalypse, that the insects will die, the ice caps will melt and we shall either drown in sewage or choke to death in sulphur dioxide. I do not dismiss those projections but I want to know more about them.

The fact is that our air is generally cleaner, that our rivers on the whole are a good deal less polluted and that our industrial effluent and toxic wastes, although much greater in volume and more complex in character, are on the whole less dangerous and less offensive than any of these things were 50, 20 or 10 years ago. I do not say that we have won the battle, but I say that we are more than holding our own and that the battle can and should be won.

My second perspective is that we must reject as misleading the false idea that growth is the source of all evil and that economic advance is the creator of pollution. If our pollution has become more acute, though not necessarily more unmanageable, over recent years, that is because our rate of economic growth has been not too high but too low. We have not had the resources to build quieter engines, to clean up the slums more rapidly and to make the rivers more pure. The Department of the Environment needs the resources in order to do those things.

My last perspective, and I know that my hon. Friend will be the first to agree with this, is that no nation is any longer an environmental island. We all share the great common estates of the sea and the air. Therefore, within the new European Economic Community there is a prospect for us to build an environment policy that will tackle pollution and improve the quality of life at a much broader level than ever before. I think that the House will accept that within the EEC there are many mansions. I have always believe that the EEC meant a European environmental community as much as anything else.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having opened this wide-ranging debate. I shall, as I promised earlier, have great pleasure in studying more carefully my hon. Friend's wise words in HANSARD tomorrow.