HC Deb 25 July 1973 vol 860 cc1706-16

4.25 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Delargy (Thurrock)

I am going to talk about holes in the ground, many holes-98 of them. These holes are deep; their depth ranges from 10 ft. to more than 80 ft. Some of them are very large. One of them extends for about 300 acres. They are ugly, useless and dangerous. Speaking from memory, within the last seven or eight years two children have been drowned in these disused pits, and there have been several other accidents. All these 98 disused pits are in my constituency. They are sand, gravel, clay and chalk pits. They cover rather more than 9 per cent. of the total land area in Thurrock. That is nearly 4,000 acres out of 42,000 acres.

This problem of land dereliction in Thurrock is so vast that in a brief Adjournment debate one can only outline it in general terms, and that is all I intend to do. But I would add that, although the problem in Thurrock is more serious than anywhere else in the country, it is not confined to Thurrock. It is a problem which is becoming increasingly national and, therefore, it needs a national solution. That is why it must be raised in Parliament.

In this part of Essex there have been excavations for many years. Sand and gravel have been dug out for whiting and lime. There used to be brick and tile works at Grays, Orsett and East Tilbury. But all these excavations are on a somewhat modest scale. It was only with the invention of Portland cement that the excavations began to be very deep indeed. That was a long time ago. It was, I understand, in the last century that Portland cement was invented, and the chalk and clay which exist there were needed for the manufacture of cement.

Later on, before and during the First World War, concrete became used in great quantities, and all the constituents of concrete are, we think unfortunately, present in Thurrock in abundance—clay and chalk for cement manufacture, and gravel and sand for concrete aggregates.

For a long time until fairly recently, minerals like these could be worked at the owner's wish. He could do what he liked, and, indeed, owners did what they liked. They came along with their great machines. They excavated all the gravel, clay, chalk and whatever else they wanted; they became rich in the process, and then they blithely walked away, ignoring the local population and leaving these great gaping holes which are there to this day.

Since the last war, however, some legislation has given control over the working of these sand, gravel and chalk pits. My first observation—and I repeat that it is a general observation—is that this control is not enough. The undertakings sometimes given by Ministers are not enough, either. As Shakespeare said: …put not your trust in princes. He meant, of course, Ministers. That is a rule which I have followed, no matter what party has been in power. I have never put my trust in Ministers.

I recall—I read the report again this morning—that I once opposed the digging of yet a new pit in Thurrock, in a very pleasant spot with a very pleasant name, Rainbow Shaw. "Shaw" is an old English word for a copse, a thicket or small wood. A very beautiful place it was. We were horrified to hear that even this was to be dug up for sand and gravel. In an Adjournment debate I opposed this, as indeed the local authority did. The county council, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and nearly everybody concerned opposed it, except of course the owners and the Ministry.

I was given an undertaking by the then Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, who now occupies, as Secretary of State for Social Services, an even more distinguished position in the State. In the midst of great regrets and apologies that this excavation had to be done, he said: The hon. Gentleman"— that was me— will find it the condition in the report of the inquiry that trees shall be planted over the worked out area of the site in accordance with such scheme as may be agreed with the local authority… This taking of sand and gravel will probably take about ten years at the end of which trees will be planted."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th July 1961; Vol. 645; c. 569–70.] Only part of that statement, the first part, dealing with the taking of sand and gravel for about 10 years, has turned out to be correct in fulfilment. Indeed, it took rather less. But the undertaking was given to me almost 12 years ago to the day. Yet where Rainbow Shaw used to be is still desolate, with this enormous gaping hole under the sky. The undertaking about the tree planting was not honoured.

However, I do not wish to be recriminatory today. What I want to do is to acquaint the Under-Secretary of State with a report which has just been published. I think that he has a copy. I hope he has. I requested that he should be given one. It is called "Land Dereliction in Thurrock". It is the result of an inquiry carried out under the supervision of the leader of the local council, Councillor J. W. Evans, OBE. It is remarkable in its scope and detail. It embodies months of observation and study, and examines in detail every one of the 98 sites, large and small, old and new.

The report explains the reasons for the problem and its extent. Under various headings it describes what the sites look like and what needs to be done. It states which is chalk, which is gravel and which is clay, and which is now derelict. It states which have water in them and which have not, which are used for tipping and which are not, and so on. It is a comprehensive report. I think that it is the 'first such report ever made, and we should take great notice of it. This is one of the chief reasons why I asked for this debate.

The report makes certain recommendations. One has already been acted upon locally in that the district council has appointed a committee for the environment to study this and other environmental problems in Thurrock. Besides the nuisance of these disused pits, we have other nuisances there—cement dust, for example, of which I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware. We have the nuisance of the oil refineries in East Thurrock. We have oil installations along the river from the neighbouring area of Canvey almost down to Purfleet. I join the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir Bernard Braine) in protesting against the construction of two more oil refineries at Canvey. Although it is not in my constituency, it is not far away.

I do not ask the Minister for all the answers today. There is not time and the Minister will not have had an opportunity to examine the problem in all its details. All I wish to do is to acquaint him with the problem and introduce him to this splendid report. I ask him to introduce a policy of firmer control over excavation. There has been some control since the end of the war but it is not sufficiently firm. We want to hear from the Government precise plans for the refilling of pits. We are vague about the Government's powers and plans for the subsequent use of the reclaimed land.

Many suggestions have been made. It might be used for rehousing. That would be useful as there is a strong suspicion that green belt areas might be used for the construction of houses. It would be much better for those houses to be built on the reclaimed sites which cover an area of nearly 4,000 acres. A great many houses could be built on 4,000 acres.

The reclaimed land could also be used for industrial sites. Along that part of the river there is already much industry. The area is handy for the river, the railway and the roads. Part of the land might be used for recreational purposes. There are already pleasant boating and angling facilities there and we should like to see more of them.

I know that the Minister is interested in this area. I hear that he intends to visit the site and look at the holes for himself. This is excellent news, but I am a little disappointed that I heard it by accident and not officially. The place he is to visit first is a pleasant corner in my constituency. Despite all the nuisances I have mentioned—cement dust, oil refineries and disused gravel pits—there are still some beautiful rural parts of Thurrock and I am sure he will enjoy his visit. I hope that he will come back full of knowledge and plans for the future, and the not too distant future. If so, the people of Thurrock, the district council and the modest Member of Parliament for Thurrock will be grateful to him.

4.39 p.m.

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

I am glad that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy) raised this important question because it has stimulated me—indeed it has required me—to examine in some detail what those responsible—the extracting companies, the local authorities and my Department —have been doing to mitigate the effects of the sand, gravel and workings on the environment of Thurrock.

I listened with care to what the hon. Gentleman said, because he has been concerned with this problem for a very long time. I pay tribute to the tenacity with which he has pursued this matter and to the great care for his constituents which he has shown over the years. It would be invidious of me to attempt to match his great local knowledge and concern. I content myself with paying tribute to him for his anxiety, which I share, that something must be done to improve an unacceptable situation.

I was interested, though saddened, to hear from the hon. Gentleman that not only are the workings ugly, which no one can dispute, but they are dangerous to the extent that two children have been drowned in the area. I join with the hon. Gentleman in much regretting that that has happened.

I have seen something of the area because recently I have flown over it on a number of occasions by helicopter. From a helicopter one is able to obtain a panoramic view of the whole, which is disturbing. I accept that the condition of the landscape in that part of Thurrock is very bad. It is a monument to the extractive industry's being allowed to tear great scars in the land, no doubt for perfectly good commercial reasons, but in too many cases to leave the mess behind for other people to clear up.

If the conditions of Thurrock are not good enough, as I believe to be the case, the same, I fear, must be said of the action—or lack of action—of both local and national government. My examination of the record—and I have gone into the matter fairly thoroughly since the hon. Gentleman initiated this debate—shows a large volume of good will and reams of good intentions, but almost no remedial action.

In 1966, seven years ago, in reply to a Question from the hon. Member for Thurrock, one of my predecessors at the former Ministry of Housing and Local Government said that the local authorities had adequate powers for restoring or improving the appearance of derelict, neglected or unsightly land."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th March, 1966;465.] That description, on the face of it. would seem to be tailor-made to fit the circumstances of Thurrock. But, as I shall show, there is apparently no clear agreement about the application to the Thurrock pits of that power of local authorities. The Government went on to say in the same answer to the hon. Gentleman that they would be making available grant to the local authorities for the purpose of restoring and improving derelict land. That promise has been honoured. Since that time, substantial and very welcome improvements have been made to derelict sites in many parts of Britain. Progress on derelict land clearance has been particularly encouraging in the North-West, the North-East, the Midlands, and so on. I should record the figures so as to put the matter into perspective.

Since 1966, just under 4,000 acres of derelict land have been reclaimed in the North-West, just under 8,000 acres in the North-East and about 7,200 acres in the Midlands. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome this heartening evidence of progress on a national scale, as I do, but the fact remains that I have been unable to find any record of comparable progress in Thurrock, and that is not good enough.

Mr. Delargy

May I ask t question here? Is some of the reclaimed land which the Minister hag mentioned the result of open-cast mining?

Mr. Griffiths

It varies a great deal and I would be wrong to attempt to break down the figures.

I have been unable to find any progress in Thurrock comparable to that which has taken place elsewhere. The hon. Gentleman is therefore absolutely entitled to complain about this on behalf of his constituents. One must rely for measuring the size of the problem on two reports.

The first is the Thurrock Report on Land Dereliction and the second is the Report of the Northern London Local Authority Sand and Gravel Working Party, both of which may be available to the hon. Gentleman. These reports do not always agree precisely on the figures but together they give a good indication of the scale of the problem. The Northern London Working Party calculations show that 515 acres are being worked for sand and gravel in Thurrock with 457 acres of sand and gravel workings having been completed and brought back to beneficial use. That is good. There are 1,488 acres of sand and gravel workings which have been completed but not. brought back to beneficial use. There is the problem.

The same working party has not made the same calculations for the clay and chalk workings. The figures I have given are for sand and gravel only. But the Thurrock Report on Land Dereliction shows that in addition to the figures I have given there are 615 acres of completed chalk workings, none of them restored, and 227 acres of completed clay workings, again none of them restored. There are 846 acres of chalk being worked or about to be worked, and in addition there are 158 acres of clay being worked or with permission to be worked. This demonstrates that the scale of the problem is great.

In a congested area such as Thurrock I can understand that it must lead some people to suppose that they are living on a part of the moon. In Thurrock 450 acres of sand and gravel workings have been brought back to beneficial use for open space and agriculture. This is good but not good enough. There are 1,500 acres no longer being worked which have not been restored at all. That is the problem that we have to tackle.

What I have discovered in examining the record of both Governments is that there has been a great deal of considering, studying, discussing and consulting. The one thing I have not been able to find is a great deal of action. I am determined, as are my right hon. Friends, that more must be done, and faster. I hope that we shall have the hon. Gentleman's support in seeking to achieve this.

It is acceptable neither to the Government nor to the local authorities that this disfigurement of the environment in Thurrock should remain year after year. We have to find in the late 1970s, or before, ways and means of tackling the problem more vigorously. It can be done only on a co-operative basis, through a working partnership between the county and district authorities on the one hand, and the industrial firms concerned, the amenity and other interests and my Department, on the other hand. All must take an active part in this programme. To this end we shall call meetings with all these bodies and with others concerned to discuss a possible action programme so that at long last, if we can get the agreement of all those concerned—and this will not be easy we shall come to an action programme by means of which we shall make a fresh start to do something, instead of merely talking about it, to try to get rid of some of this blight on the face of Essex.

I shall be asking why it is that planning conditions placed on the working of gravel, clay or chalk—planning conditions which require that such areas should be restored for beneficial use—appear not to have been enforced. That question needs to be answered.

Another question is why in some cases industry has had no planning conditions imposed upon it. It may be that in some cases work started on the pits before the days of planning control. Obviously we cannot go back retrospectively in the past to do anything about that side of the matter, but where planning conditions have been imposed requiring restoration, I shall want to be told why they have not been enforced and why some firms have failed to comply with conditions imposed upon them when they obtained planning permission for excavation.

We must also consider the matter of grants. This is a crucial matter because it is the giving of grants which has led to the clearance of so much derelict land in so many parts of the country. I have looked into the question of restoration of such land in Thurrock. We must remember that Thurrock is not a development area or a special development area and therefore in some senses is less in need of central Government grant than are some areas in the country where the problem is somewhat greater.

One of the problems to be faced is that there is no statutory definition of derelict land. The phrase used in the various Acts is "derelict, neglected or unsightly". The definition which successive Governments have adopted for administrative purposes is …land so damaged by industrial and other development that it is incapable of beneficial use without treatment. The practical fact is that where planning conditions have been imposed successive Governments have felt that that should be sufficient and that no grant should be payable on top. That is a reasonable proposition because the responsibility should lie with those on whom planning conditions have been imposed and who are benefiting from their commercial activities. Nevertheless, I shall be happy to look into the possibility of paying grant in some circumstances, but I make no undertaking on that matter, save only that I shall examine the matter in some detail.

The problem of mineral workings is not confined to Thurrock though I accept that it is very apparent in that area. To tackle the problem on a national scale, the Government last year appointed a committee of inquiry, under the chairmanship of Sir Roger Stevens, into planning control over mineral workings. So far the committee has taken evidence from a number of interested parties—local authorities, the extraction industries and so on, and has visited various parts of Britain where the problems caused by mineral workings are at their worst.

I do not know whether that committee has visited Thurrock. I will certainly extend an invitation to Sir Roger Stevens and his committee to visit the area. I understand that the Stevens Committee expects to report some time next year, and in the meantime I shall draw to their attention the hon. Gentleman's concern about the situation in Thurrock.

I think that the conclusion of the debate should be this. There are parts of Britain where, by the application of skill, diligence and care for the environment, old mineral workings have been recovered for a really valuable social use. I think of the great new recreation centre at Holme Pierrepont, near Nottingham, of the Cotswold Water Park, of the Raven-stone gravel pit at Olney in Buckinghamshire and of the Great Waltham quarry at Chelmsford. These are all examples where, with a little effort and co-operation, it is possible to recover old workings for valuable recreational and amenity purposes.

The problem at Thurrock is great. It would be an unwise man who suggested that solutions of this kind can be brought about easily in the Thurrock area. But something can be done. More needs to be done than has been done. I hope very much that the hon. Gentleman will accept from me that, against the background of a national programme whereby derelict land is now being recovered at a faster pace than ever before, the situation in Thurrock is unacceptable. We shall do our utmost within the parameters of the law to bring together the local authorities, local industries, local amenity societies and my Department to see whether more can be done in the near future than has been done in the far too long and indecisive past.

Mr. Delargy

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Five o'clock till Tuesday 16th October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 19th July.