HC Deb 16 November 1973 vol 864 cc890-911

1.6 p.m.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

In rising today to deal with the Total Oil depot at Langley, in Slough, in my constituency, and the accident that occurred there on 5th October, I have the full support of my local authority, of the residents of Langley—who were and still are affected by this development—and hundreds of others in my constituency who know what happened and are just as much concerned for the safety of their neighbours as they would be for themselves. I have the support, too, of many people on Canvey Island. The hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir Bernard Braine) is present, and I know that he hopes to participate in the debate, because his constituents are experiencing perhaps not exactly what happened at Langley, but similar problems.

What underlines this debate is the growing general concern over the siting of certain installations connected with oil, and in particular over what happened at Langley on 5th October. There is a great deal of planning background to the Total Oil depot in my constituency, and much of it is extremely confusing. Going back into history will not help the situation very much, but it is important to underline one or two of the aspects of the background to this debate so that everybody understands the problem that confronted the local authority at that time, and will confront it in future, and also the difficulties that are met in trying to gain full knowledge of what happened on that day.

It was in 1835, or round about that date, that Acts connected with railways laid it down that operational land—that is, land within the control of the railways—was exempt from normal planning procedures. Planning legislation was introduced only this century, and thus, at the time that the operation of railway land was discussed there were no means of controlling what would happen on it should it be put to use. When the legislation on planning was brought into operation it was ruled that such land could be brought into planning control only by the Minister making an appropriate order.

The land which the railway proposed to use for the depot was operational land and unfortunately came within the council's development scheme. It was argued, at the time, that although the local authority could apply for an Article 4 order, which would have involved the Ministry in looking at the whole development, we would no doubt have lost such an application for the permission to be refused since we had scheduled that land for development as a local authority.

The trouble was—I know that the regulations have been changed and it would be interesting to know why—that when a local authority, over a period of years before such matters arose had said that the land was available for certain types of development, it was not possible for it to foresee that such things as oil installations would come under this general heading. If that had been so the Langley Depot would have been strongly objected to by the local authority and the residents.

Unfortunately, the local authority was caught by the general terms surrounding the whole question of development sites. I do not believe that anyone in the area at the time welcomed the fact that an oil depot was to be built on the railway land. My correspondence on this matter goes back for five years. It is important to remember that when it was known that such a project was to be built, the residents mounted large-scale objections and demonstrations.

Many of the objections were concerned with the traffic hazard created by oil tankers moving along narrow roads. The nearest tank at the depot is about 100 yards from the back of a row of houses in Mead Avenue. When we took up the question of traffic congestion with the firm—which was always courteous, and tried to meet our objections, bearing in mind that it had an interest—we were told that the safety risks, danger from fire and derailments were minimal and did not constitute any real hazard.

This was never accepted by the Langley Residents' Association, representatives of which I met from time to time as an intermediary. I also had correspondence with the Department of the Environment and others. On 5th October, in the evening, there was what I am told I have to call a mass ignition of petrol. I am told that I must not call it an explosion because, technically, it was not. We will call it a mass ignition, which means that a lot of petrol was ignited at the same time.

For the people in the area who saw a 60 ft. flame within 100 yards of their houses it was an explosion, or appeared to be. Whatever it is called, at the depot we had a fire of gigantic proportions, which caused a great deal of fear. It has resulted in people in the area being terrified of what may happen next. We understand, although much has to be confirmed, that the locomotive concerned drew tankers away while the discharge hoses were still connected to a tanker that was being filled. We know that the hoses broke and oil and petrol spilled along the railway line. It would appear—this has to be confirmed—that the application of the brake caused the resulting fire.

No one was killed and the injuries were confined largely to the firemen, who, as usual, did a magnificent job in a situation of such magnitude. The heat was tremendous, and it must have been felt there was imminent danger to the residents, because those living in the immediate area and not just in Mead Avenue were evacuated on the advice of those concerned with safety. Large numbers of people took others into their homes and looked after them until it was safe for them to return home. Many of these were elderly people, and some were children. These people are frightened about what the future is likely to hold.

After the disaster the depot ceased to operate and we were informed that investigations were to be carried out. The local residents' association, my local authority and myself, have always insisted that there should be a local inquiry into what went wrong on the night of 5th October. Obviously we want to know what caused such a thing to happen. Moreover, I feel that the local authority and I will not be in a position to give any assurances or to act as mediators or comforters unless we know the full facts. They will come to public knowledge only through a public inquiry.

Unfortunately, we have not got very far with our demand for a public inquiry. It is largely because of this that I raise the matter now. I have had extensive correspondence with the Department, and long telephone conversations, and I am hoping that I will be received to discuss the matter further. The fact that there has not been any sign of a public inquiry alarms us. The Home Office and the Department were involved and their case was that there would be two investigations, one by British Rail and the other by the Total Oil Company.

We were told—and I know this happened—that the Chief Explosives Officer of the Home Office would be present at both inquiries. My local authority sent along Dr. Black, who is our specialist consultant. It was agreed that he should be allowed to be present at the investigations, but he was not allowed to talk to any of the employees of Total Oil or British Rail.

My local authority, I and the residents feel strongly about the fact that a responsible, knowledgeable person, technically and locally, was not given the opportunity to talk to these employees. I would like to know why such permission was not given. We have been told that if there is to be a public inquiry it will rest on the results of the two investigations already held. I and my local authority assumed that the full facts of these investigations would be made available to us.

The local authority made representations and received a reply from Miss Bovill, the Private Secretary to the Secre- tary of State for the Environment, on 30th October, as follows: I note your statement that the corporation will be hampered in the performance of their statutory functions since the technical information will only be in the possession of the Home Office. But I am informed that the Home Office will certainly make available any relevant technical information concerning any remedial action that may be called for bearing on the functions of the corporation as a licensing authority. What good is that to the local authority or to me? My local authority wants, and has every right to demand, all the reports and proceedings of the two inquiries, so that it can draw its own conclusions on the causes of the accident, the result of the inquiries and the advisability of siting an oil depot so near the houses.

It is wrong that the Home Office should restrict information to that which relates to the local authority's position as the licensing authority for the petroleum establishment. That is too narrow a definition of the local authority's function. The local authority is concerned with the safety aspects, and it is under great pressure from the residents to find out exactly what caused the accident and to press for a public inquiry and the closure of the depot.

To my knowledge, there have been two previous accidents at the Total Oil depot. When the second one occurred I was in my constituency. I was received by the company and assured that there was no question of danger to individuals. Although they were not major accidents, the two previous accidents were disturbing. Having been constantly assured about the safety aspects of the depot, now that this more serious accident has occurred we feel that we have a right to be fully informed.

There is a great deal of history to the siting of the depot which, when examined in detail, explains why the local authority was not in a strong position to object to it. It may be a matter of interpretation, but I believe that the advice given to the local authority at the time led it to that conclusion. The regulations concerning railway land put the local authority in a difficult position, but since the accident the regulations governing planning permission for railway land have been changed. Had the change occurred before the first notification by British Rail of the establishment of the depot, the local authority would have been in a much stronger position to make objections to the Minister. The local authority is now in a much stronger position to make objections should a similar accident occur in future.

The local authority was told that because a certain type of development was scheduled for certain land owned by British Rail, the local authority, if it made objections, would be liable for £500,000 compensation. That represented a major difficulty for the local authority before March 1973. It was pointless for it to apply to the Minister when it knew that it was caught within the trap of the development plans. At the time the development scheme was drawn up, in the 1930s and 1940s, no one had reason to think that the land would be used for the siting of an oil depot. I am sure that the hon. Member for Essex, South-East will be familiar with the difficulties that have arisen on Canvey Island during the past few years.

We want full information on the two inquiries that have taken place. The local authority wants to be in a position to withdraw permission for the depot to operate without being subject to compensation. I hope that the Minister will receive a deputation from the local authority and others who are concerned. The hint in the correspondence from the Department that the local authority will be given only such information as applies to its function as a licensing authority suggests that it is likely that the depot will continue to operate but that perhaps more stringent safety restrictions will be applied, about which the local authority will be consulted. That is not good enough. We want the depot to be closed. It is in the wrong place, and it is time we recognised that the siting of the depot should not take precedence over the comfort, well being and quality of life of residents in the immediate surroundings.

1.29 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

I support what the hon. Lady the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) said. The Total oil refinery is inside the borough of Slough in the hon. Lady's constituency, but it is right on the border adjacent to my constituency. When the large conflagration occurred on 5th October, some of my constituents were, naturally, apprehensive of the results that might follow if the fire spread to the storage tanks and explosion resulted. Had such an explosion resulted, undoubtedly the effects would not have been confined to the borough of Slough but would have spilled over into my constituency and affected certainly the safety of the property of my constituents.

It would be wrong for me to rehearse again all the matters which the hon. Lady covered in considerable detail. The point that arises at this time is that it is obviously wrong that anyone should be able to establish an oil depot anywhere without planning consent. No doubt my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Development will be able to reassure us about the change in the law and practice and tell us that it is comprehensive. There have been various exemptions for railway operational land.

The oil depot was established within the legal framework which existed at the time. Obviously, from the point of view of the local residents it would be better if there were no oil depot there. There are two aspects of that. There is the fire danger, which cannot be ignored, because whatever regulations there are people are imperfect and mistakes will occur. The other aspect is that of traffic, which is, naturally, rather lost sight of when one is talking about an episode such as that which occurred on 5th October when a large quantity of oil and petrol caught fire. The traffic consideration is material. If one were considering afresh whether one would put the Total oil depot in that position, the traffic objections would weigh as heavily as the safety objections.

Therefore, from both these points of view the local residents have reason to lament the presence of the depot in its present position. However, it is useless to think that one could get rid of the depot without compensation. After all, the company went there within the law, and if it were required to close or to limit its operations it would have to be compensated.

However, we can ask that the safety precautions and regulations should be examined with particularly close scrutiny as the oil depot is situated in a populated area. I realise that my right hon. Friend is probably not departmentally responsible for the safety precautions at oil depots.

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

I will try to be.

Mr. Bell

For the purposes of the debate, that will no doubt do. I was under the impression that it was a Home Office responsibility. I think it is technically. Therefore, I am speaking to the responsible Minister at one remove. I do not know whether we can have particularly stringent requirements imposed upon a refinery because it is in an unusually unsuitable position or whether we must make do with the general rules for safety in oil storage depots.

I join the hon. Lady in asking that the result of any inquiries which are being held into this aspect should be made known. One does not doubt the good faith and diligence of those who are officially responsible for these matters, but people living in the neighbourhood are worried about this kind of occurrence and want to know what went wrong and what is being done to stop it from happening again.

1.35 p.m.

Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

I welcome the opportunity that the debate affords to draw attention to a somewhat related problem in my constituency. The hon. Lady the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) was kind enough to refer to it. She has revealed a most unsatisfactory state of affairs in her own constituency concerning control over the siting of industrial establishments which by their very nature are high fire risks, especially where these are sited close to residential areas. She rightly emphasised the importance of the authorities not ignoring the feelings and susceptibilities of those who must live alongside these installations and the views of the local authorities concerned. That is why I strongly support the representations which have been made by the hon. Lady and by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell).

As a result of planning decisions made over the years we in South-East Essex now have, as I believe—a belief shared by the local authorities—far too great a concentration of industrial high fire risks for the health and safety of our population. On Canvey Island, where some 30,000 people have their homes, we already had the largest methane terminal in the country, methane storage tanks, oil wharves, and oil storage tanks. Now, despite determined opposition from local authorities, the planning authority and the Secretary of State's own inspector at the public inquiry, we are also to have two oil refineries.

However, this is in an area where we already have two of the largest refineries in the country only a short distance away, in neighbouring Shellhaven and Coryton, with other refineries opposite on the Kent side. All these installations lie in the path of the prevailing southwesterly wind. In addition to the 30,000 people living on Canvey, there are well over 50,000 people living to the north, in Benfleet, and an even larger population in the county borough of Southend, further to the east.

Repeatedly, over a period of about eight years, I have opposed the action of successive Governments in adding to these risks to our environment. In 1965 the Labour Government, supported at that time by a Labour-controlled Canvey Island Urban District Council, gave planning permission for an oil refinery to be established on the island in the teeth of local opposition. In 1972 authority was given by the present Government for another to be built. That, too, was bitterly opposed by the local population and by a Conservative-controlled local council. One would have thought that might have been the end of it. But this year authority was given for a second refinery. We in South-East Essex wonder why we have been singled out for such treatment.

The irony of it is that we have also got to take the Maplin development at the other end of the constituency, which we are assured by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be constructed in accordance with the highest environmental standards. We take that with a pinch of salt, because we have seen what has been done to the environment at the south-western end of my constituency by these ill-considered planning decisions which have been opposed root and branch by our local authorities and the residents. I have, of course, taken a deputation to see my right hon. Friend. I asked him to revoke planning permission, but he refused to do so. I asked him for an explanation of what he meant when he said that the national interest must prevail over our local amenities. I have never yet managed to elicit from him what, in this context, the "national interest" means. Nobody in our community would dispute that the country may need additional refinery capacity. The question is: is Canvey Island, with its large and growing residential population, the proper place to site it? We have had no answer to that question.

But leaving aside the whole question of local amenity, and the possibility which always exists with refineries, of occasional atmospheric pollution, there is also the danger accompanying too great a concentration of industrial high fire risks, of playing ducks and drakes with the safety of the area. I am not talking about something that might happen. I have elicited the fact that, since 1st January 1968, the Essex fire brigade has received no less than 116 calls to various industrial establishments in my constituency and neighbouring Thurrock. Of those calls, 54 were to the Mobil refinery at Coryton, 24 to the Shell refinery at Shellhaven and 16 to the methane terminal on Canvey Island. Let me say at once that the vast majority of these were not too serious incidents, but I am advised that there were in fact nine major incidents. Yet, against that background, we are now to have two additional oil refineries added to the scene.

Of course, the danger does not end there, because we have had repeated examples of bad navigation on the Thames, with incidents involving tankers. In July 1970 we had the SS "Monte Ulia" veering off course at Coryton, hitting an oil jetty, severing the oil lines there and literally setting the Thames on fire. In all conscience there have been enough warnings. Less than three weeks ago, we had yet another major fire at the Shell refinery at Shellhaven—the third in three years. I have to ask the question: who is responsible for looking at the totality of effect of these planning decisions, and for measuring the totality of risk? I have put this question repeatedly to Ministers in this House, but I cannot get an answer. Clearly, the first requirement—and what the hon. Lady has said this afternoon provides me with an opportunity to press the point—is an inquiry into the totality of effect of these cumulative planning decisions on our environment, and on the health and safety of our residential population on Thames-side and, in particular, in South-East Essex.

It is not as though I have only just thought of this matter; I have raised it over and over again. In December 1972 I told my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary: … I have one very simple question to put to my hon. Friend. Is there no limit to the number of installations of this kind with all their attendant environmental disadvantages and risks that can be planted down within sight and smell of residential areas or will my hon. Friend concede that we have already had more than our fair share of them?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th December 1972; Vol. 847, c. 1769–70.] Incidentally, that question was asked before the second refinery was authorised on Canvey Island, but I have never had an answer. Then, again, on 15th June last, in an Adjournment debate in this House after the second refinery had been authorised, I mentioned that I had taken a deputation to see my right hon. and learned Friend, and that he had refused to revoke his decision, and when pressed to say why he held that it was in the national interest he could not tell us. I asked that the implications for the health and safety of my constituents should be studied by the Government. I asked, at c. 1978, on 15th June: Will the Government consider the implications? Can studies on this subject be put in hand without delay?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th June 1973; Vol. 857, c. 1978.] I was given a promise that this would be looked at, but I have heard nothing further. I do not know how much longer we have to go on protesting in this House at thoroughly bad planning decisions or, if we have to live with them, how much longer we have to go on pressing for safeguards.

I therefore ask my right hon. Friend this afternoon—I am not expecting him to give an off-the-cuff answer now—whether he will undertake to look into my complaints in the utmost detail and with the utmost speed. I also ask him to consider something else. From time to time, it has been suggested to me that a planning inquiry commission under the Town and Country Planning Act would provide a suitable means of looking at the totality of effect; in fact, it would not. I know quite well that this is a procedure which the Minister can undertake at an early stage before a planning decision is arrived at, but not after the decision has been made. Indeed, the view of the Department of the Environment has always been that there is no need for a planning inquiry commission, because at a public inquiry the inspector is perfectly capable of looking at the whole situation in the round. Therefore, I am asking my right hon. Friend to consider setting up an interdepartmental inquiry which will take into account not merely the planning decisions involved, but the health and safety matters involved.

Part of the difficulty, of course, is that the Department of the Environment is responsible for general environmental matters, for relations with local authorities, planning decisions, and the like, but ultimate responsibility for safety from fire rests with the Home Office. Indeed, responsibility for navigation on the Thames, and for transporting dangerous and hazardous cargoes up and down the river past my constituency, rests with the Department of Trade and Industry. Therefore, I urge my right hon. Friend this afternoon at least to concede that there is an urgent case for setting up an inter-departmental inquiry which will look at the totality of the effect of these matters upon the environment, the health and the peace of mind of tens of thousands of people who live in South-East Essex. Clearly, there is need for some co-ordinating authority. It does not appear to exist at the moment. I urge my right hon. Friend to set the wheels in motion in order that we may get such machinery established as quickly as possible.

Again, I ask whether, even at this late hour, it is not possible to stop the work on the refineries until such an inquiry has been held. I do not know what the financial implications would be. They might well be considerable. But I am concerned with the implications for the health and safety of my constituents. It is on this score, therefore, that I beg my right hon. Friend to consider very carefully what I have said and to arrange for me to be provided with an answer as soon as possible.

1.50 p.m.

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

I hope that the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) will forgive me if I deal first with the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Sir Bernard Braine). There was not time for me to be briefed on the points he raised, and perhaps I can remember them more easily if I deal with them first.

My hon. Friend has raised the question of the oil refineries in the neighbourhood of Canvey Island. I stress that these are refineries, whereas the hon. Lady referred to a storage depot, so we are talking here about two different things. My hon. Friend referred to two planning permissions. One was granted in 1965, and, as far as I personally am concerned, that was that; I held no responsibility for these matters then. I say that not as an excuse but just to put the history of the matter right. This project was quite a distance away from the residential part of Canvey Island. It is on that marshland before one reaches the island itself—the marshland which, from the environmental point of view, we have been very anxious to keep open. It is, as it were, the lung of Canvey Island, dividing it from the mainland.

There was a second planning permission, to which my hon. Friend did not refer. It related to the same applicants as the third, which he called the second, and it was made in 1971–72. Planning permission was granted to these applicants to build an oil refinery right in the middle of the marsh, blocking the gap between the mainland and the island. It was, in my opinion, a bad planning decision environmentally because it blocked up that lung, which should be kept open.

The applicants who made the second application then made a third application, in which they gave the local planning authority, and, on appeal, the Secretary of State, the alternative as to whether they should be allowed to go ahead with what was obviously a very bad earlier decision, or accept a concentration of their works with the refinery for which permission had already been granted next door.

We were at that stage presented with an extremely difficult dilemma, and, as my hon. Friend knows, on the first occasion the appeal was rejected with certain indications that it might be considered if the application were put forward again with the plans very much reduced in size and much more concentrated next door to the area for the existing planning applications. Further application was then made for the area which, when the decision rejecting the first appeal was given, had been indicated as being possibly acceptable. That is the history of the matter.

I think that, in view of the dilemma of previous permissions, the final result has reduced very considerably the area that will be covered by the refinery. I believe now that the two companies are in negotiation to combine their refineries and thereby reduce the unsightliness of what I, as a layman, call the "meccano" part of refineries—the unsightly steel girders and so on which are associated with a refinery. I believe that if that amalgamation can take place it will be a great improvement.

Faced with that position, we had, of course, to consider to what extent that area of the Thames estuary has now become saturated with oil refineries. My hon. Friend asked who was responsible for looking at the totality of the effect. My Department is, of course, responsible for the planning and environmental side, but we take account of the safety aspects and the other points which my hon. Friend mentioned.

A Minister dealing with planning is supposed to have no knowledge at all of the area for which an application is made; otherwise he may prejudice the Secretary of State in his final decision on the appeal. I say from this Dispatch Box that I have always thought that that rule was nonsense; and I will say nothing about my knowledge of this area, if any, before the appeal was heard.

What I will say is that a few weeks ago, because of my anxiety—the same anxiety as my hon. Friend has expressed—whether we were reaching saturation point with oil refineries in this area, I spent a whole morning flying over it in a helicopter, because one gets a much better impression of this sort of development from the air.

From that experience, I believe that my hon. Friend is right—that we ought to consider very carefully the whole implications of any further development of this kind in the area. One can only get a knowledge of this by really looking at the area, and one does get very good knowledge by looking at it from the air as well as from the ground and studying the effects there.

I cannot off the cuff give my hon. Friend an undertaking that any interdepartmental committee or commission will be set up, but I look on it as the responsibility of the Ministers concerned to get together and ensure that further damage is not done to an area of this sort. I can assure my hon. Friend that, following my examination of the area from the air, I am in discussion and in consideration of the matter with my colleagues.

That is as far as I can go today in reply to my hon. Friend. I appreciate that he has taken the opportunity to raise the matter, thus giving me this further opportunity of expressing our concern with the developments in this area and with how much further, if further at all, we can go in any large development there. Of course, my hon. Friend has the same problems as the hon. Member for Eton and Slough in that these developments are near residential areas.

But in the hon. Lady's case the development was very much nearer residential areas. She has said that the depot is about 100 yards from the nearest residential area and I understand very well the anxieties of her constituents. The question is bound to be asked whether it is safe for an installation such as this to be sited near where large numbers of people live. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment fully appreciates this concern and recognises that these anxieties should be allayed as quickly as possible.

I ask the hon. Lady to accept that we are seeking remedies to the problem as quickly as possible, and I shall argue that her proposals might delay our efforts. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary shares this anxiety, and his Department and mine have kept in close touch since the accident occurred. I shall attempt, as I said to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell), to answer for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary today in respect of the matters which are his responsibility. The hon. Member for Eton and Slough asked whether we would receive a deputation. I would be most willing to discuss the matter with her and a deputation whenever she wishes, and if she thinks it worth while I shall invite one of my colleages from the Home Office to attend the meeting as well.

May I recall the circumstances of the fire, which I think are important? It broke out early in the evening—about 6.30—on Friday 5th October at the sidings adjoining the Langley oil depot while petrol was being discharged from a rail tanker into the installation. During the course of this operation the train moved, with the result that the pipelines through which the loading was taking place were broken and a major leakage of petrol resulted, which then ignited. A large number of appliances were called to the fire, and it was brought under control by midnight. As a precautionary measure, the unfortunate families living nearby—about 30 of them—were evacuated by the police, and trains on the main line were diverted. The fire was confined to the sidings, and little damage was done to the installations themselves and virtually none to any other property. As the hon. Member said, there were some slight injuries. Three firemen were slightly injured—two scorched in the face and one with a hand injury—but no other casualties were reported.

British Railways, on whose land these installations are, gave notice of the fire to my Department in accordance with the statutory requirements relating to railway accidents, and the Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways satisfied himself that proper arrangements were made for the protection of traffic on the neighbouring passenger lines, involving the closure of the lines to traffic until the following morning. It was his job to see that proper immediate steps had been taken to protect the public, and he found that the steps had been taken properly. Trains were diverted via alternative routes, and local passenger services were operated with the aid of a special bus service.

Having established that the fire occurred during the unloading of the train in the depot, the chief inspecting officer took the view that the investigation of it was properly a matter for the fire department of the Home Office, and he advised my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that an inquiry into the fire by the railway inspectorate should not be ordered and he found, as for the railway inspectorate, that all had been done that should be and there was no case for an inquiry on that side.

British Railways and the Total Oil Company, whose depot it is, decided at an early stage to set up their own private inquiries. The Chief Inspector of Explosives at the Home Office arranged that one of his inspectors should take part in each of these inquiries. We were, therefore, involved via the Home Office in these inquiries. This was believed to be the proper way of handling the matter because, although this was indeed a major fire, it did not cause any loss of life or serious injury and the Home Office took the view that the facts would come out fully at these private inquiries. Nor was there any significant damage to property outside the railway sidings directly involved.

The Government would not feel justified in directing a public inquiry to be held at this stage into the circumstances of the fire unless, of course, it became evident that the essential facts could not be established in any other way. There is no reason to suspect that the investigations initiated by the Total Oil Company and British Railways and in which, as I have said, two of Her Majesty's Inspectors of Explosives have participated, would not reveal all the relevant information. The Chief Inspector of Explosives has now received copies of the reports of both these inquiries and has taken account of both of them in his own survey of the accident. Recommendations as to the remedial action to be taken in the light of it are being made to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

These are being considered by my right hon. Friend now, and, as the hon. Member was told in the letter which she quoted, arrangements will be made for the Slough Borough Council to receive as soon as possible all the information from these investigations which it is considered are germane to the exercise of their statutory functions in connection with the installation. I read those last few words from my notes, as the hon. Member did from the letter. I think perhaps the phraseology was a little too red-tapish. If the borough council had a representative at the inquiry—Dr. Black—I see no reason why the evidence given at the inquiry should not be disclosed, so far as it was recorded, to the borough council and discussed and a disclosure made of what was said about the need for remedial action.

Miss Lestor

This is a most important point. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman said he felt the narrowness of the language was a bit red-tapish. Is he now saying—and may I tell my constituents and my local authority—that the local authority will receive full copies of the reports and the evidence taken at the two private inquiries?

Mr. Page

I do not know. I have not seen the reports, so I cannot go as far as to say that. I think this is a subject which the hon. Member and I and the representatives of the borough council could discuss if there were a deputation. I shall then know a little more about the reports. I do not want to commit myself too far or commit my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, but I am saying only that when the authority has had a representative at an inquiry I see no reason why there should be any secrecy about that inquiry. I think it should be open to discussion between the local authority and my Department to see what steps can be taken over whatever evidence was given. The hon. Member will see that I have raised my eves from my brief and that I have spoken off the cuff on that. However, she made a very strong point that the local authority should be brought into this completely.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South asked whether specific remedial action could be applied to one particular depot. The answer is that it can. The local authority can attach any conditions it chooses to licences which the depot requires. If it is the local authority that has to apply the safety precautions, it is only right that there should be full discussion between it and the inspectorates of both my Department and the Home Office.

I listened carefully to the hon. Lady's arguments. I still believe that by virtue of the part played by the inspectors of explosives at the private inquiries sufficient information will come out of the inquiries. I am not anxious to set up any other inquiry, because what we want to learn now is what new remedial action is necessary, what safety precautions should be imposed at the depot. I have a nasty feeling that if we set up another inquiry I should have great difficulty for months in finding the right inspector to hold it. There would be legal representation arrayed on all sides, and possibly in about 12 months' time we should eventually get the inquiry to a hearing. If the hon. Lady agrees, I prefer to have informal discussions with her and the borough council, take their advice and give them recommendations from both my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State.

The two inquiries that have taken place are private, and, therefore, no report of them can be published as a public document. I want to discuss their contents with the hon. Lady and the borough. I have already explained that I want to involve the Slough Corporation in the matter as much as possible.

I hope that I can give further assurance by repeating a statement which has already been made elsewhere, that the Government accept that it is important that any lessons of general application which may derive from such investigations should be publicly available—that is, their results, not necessarily reports of the investigations—so that we may apply them generally.

I should like to deal briefly with the planning history. The site is part of a large area between the railway and the Grand Union Canal. For many years it has been railway operational land, and is so allocated in the Slough town map. When the town map was being prepared, no one considered installations of the sort we are debating.

In June 1967 the Slough Borough Council was informed by British Railways of their intention to lease the site for the purpose of a road-rail interchange depot, to convey oil in bulk by rail from Milford Haven to serve the Slough area. It was pointed out that that would be development permitted by the General Development Order 1963. Under that order, the development of railway operational land—the land in question comes within that definition—had implied planning permission; it did not need specific planning permission.

In July 1967 the matter was put to the borough plans sub-committee, of whose minutes I have a note here. The committee recorded no objection, subject to agreement on detailed design, layout and vehicular access. It considered that there was not a sufficiently strong case on its merits to justify subjecting the development to specific planning control by an Article 4 direction. It could have applied to the Secretary of State for such a direction, which removes the matter from implied planning permission under the General Development Order and requires an application for planning permission to be made. It no doubt had in mind the compensation provisions which the hon. Lady has mentioned. If a direction had been approved and subsequently permission had been refused on appeal, compensation would have been payable by the council in excess of £500,000, representing at that time, I am told, a 1½p rate for 30 years. Therefore, it was rather an important matter for the council to consider. Whether the law is right—

Miss Lestor

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that another difficulty was that even if the depot had been refused the land was still railway operational land, and that we could have had something worse and have gone through the same rigmarole again? That was the planning aspect that made it so difficult for the local authority, one that I am glad to say was changed last March.

Mr. Page

If my recollection is correct, the change came at just about the time we were arguing the case of the Abingdon gas works. The whole question of operational land of the nationalised industries came up, and eventually led to an amendment.

In May 1968 Total Oil submitted an application for ancillary buildings which needed specific permission. That was given in June 1968. Details of the buildings were approved, and permission to improve the road access was given, in February 1969.

News of the proposed depot was published in the local Press in the autumn of 1968, when it caused an immediate out- cry in the neighbourhood. There was correspondence between the hon. Lady and the Under-Secretaries to the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, both of whom explained the planning situation to her. The correspondence continued during 1969, leading to a deputation of the Langley Residents' Association, which the hon. Lady kindly brought to the Under-Secretaries.

At that time the deputation was concerned mainly with the traffic changes arising from the use of the narrow and winding Station Road and High Street, Langley, as the access route for tanker lorries, although I believe that there was also mention of anxiety about the depot being only about 100 yards from the houses. There were fears of loss of life and damage to property in a fire or explosion.

The deputation was told that planning permission was a matter for the borough council and that road improvements were a matter for the county council, and that the Departments could not move unless the local authorities applied for an Article 4 direction or in some way brought the Departments into the matter.

The depot eventually came into existence at the end of 1969. It fell within the class of permitted development in the Town and Country Planning (General Development) Order 1963. At that time the exemption from specific planning permission applied to those who leased lands from British Rail, as Total Oil Ltd. had done in this case.

It was in the amending order this year that we removed the offending words "or their lessees". The situation could not arise today. If Total Oil acquired the land now and put in an application as lessees of British Rail, it would have to apply for planning permission and go through the whole process. I am glad to say that we have amended the law. It is unfortunate that it was amended only after Total Oil had obtained planning permission for this area.

The hon. Lady asked whether we or the local authority would withdraw the permission now, and suggested that in some way it could be withdrawn without the obligation to pay compensation. I am afraid that this would need some form of parliamentary legislation. It is impossible under present law to withdraw a permission of this kind without paying compensation. The unfortunate thing is that, even if the Secretary of State took it into his hands—and he seldom takes this step—to withdraw permission if the local authority were not prepared to do so, the local authority would still pay compensation.

Miss Lestor

Will the Secretary of State pay?

Mr. Page

When I have been faced with the duty of withdrawing a permission of this sort, I have often thought that it would be nice to say "We will pay" and not force this on the local authority. But the law is otherwise.

The hon. Lady said she wanted to see the depot closed. That would go beyond the present powers. She would need legislation for that to be done, if it were to be done without large compensation being paid to the Total Oil Company.

What we can do, and are determined to do, is to look at these reports very quickly, have a discussion with the hon. Lady and the borough council to see what remedial action should be taken by imposing further conditions on the licence to Total Oil, and see whether we can give better protection to her residents. I look forward to further discussions on this matter as early as possible with the hon. Lady and her borough council.

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