HC Deb 19 July 1974 vol 877 cc991-8
Mr. Spriggs

I beg to move Amendment No. 61, in page 89, line 54, at end insert: -'and in any one instance shall do so if requested by at least sixty persons listed in a current Electoral Register in the area of or adjacent to the relevant emission' ". I have read the clause very carefully, I have a constituency interest in this matter in that my constituents have suffered as a result of emissions from chemical works in St. Helens on a number of occasions. When reading the clause I took exception to its permissive character, especially that of subsection (2). My amendment would insert the words and in any one instance shall do so if requested by at least sixty persons listed in a current Electorial Register in the area of or adjacent to the relevant emission. One has only to look at subsections (3) and (4) to find the word "shall" instead of "may", and that we are telling the local authority the powers that it shall not have. However, in subsection (2) we have the word "may".

We are trying to persuade the Minister to give local authorities mandatory powers instead of permissive powers. Many hon. Members from the industrial conurbations of the North and the North-West know only too well, to their regret and sorrow, the suffering of their constituents. Many of our constituents, although never having worked in industry themselves, suffer from severe bronchitis. We must take note of that.

I received a letter from my hon. Friend the Minister this morning in which he referred to the matter about which I am talking. Concerning my constituency, he tells me that this is principally a local matter and will have to remain a local matter. But I am afraid that it will not have to remain a local matter. It will not remain local when literally hundreds of people block the entrance to chemical works, and when men, women and children lie down in the road to demonstrate their opposition to tanker traffic passing through the narrow streets of an industrial town and carrying one of the most dangerous chemicals produced in this country. That is why we ask the Minister to accept the amendment.

I believe that without upsetting a lot of people and many industrial firms, the Minister can alter these permissive powers. When the human element enters into an industrial atmosphere of this kind, we have learned to our cost the mistakes that have been made when a human factor is not taken into account. The clause refers to research and the gathering of information about chemical emissions. We already have alkali inspectors whose duty it is to visit these plants several times a year. I was in touch with the Department under the previous Administration and I have met the Alkali Inspectorate.

5.0 p.m.

Before this firm was allowed planning permission, an alkali inspector and someone from the technology section of the Department attended two meetings in St. Helens. I will see that the Minister receives copies of the minutes listing the names of those attending.

My constituents in the Sutton district of St. Helens have suffered from several emissions from the chemical plant on their doorsteps. Let me issue a warning. Demonstrations have proved that people are not prepared to put up with anything that someone above decides is good enough for them. Poor people are entitled to a fair share of the quality of life and to parliamentary protection if firms refuse to act responsibly. Without hesitation, I blame the firm concerned. Unless the law protects my constituents and others in similar situations, my constituents are determined to take the law into their own hands. They see no other way to protect themselves and their children.

The present system of monitoring emissions is nothing short of ridiculous and leaves my constituents and me very angry. In view of the types of gases and liquids which are allowed to be emitted into the atmosphere, all those interested should have this information whenever they require it. I certainly object to any part of the clause saying what local authorities shall not do. I would rather that the word "may" be substituted for "shall" in that place, so that local authorities wherever these plants operate dangerously shall have powers parallel to those of the Alkali Inspectorate to enter premises regardless of whether the owners will accept them. We should give them mandatory powers to enter those premises. Reasonable notice should be given to everyone before entry is made. It is wrong, I stress this as strongly as I can, that we should deny this. It is imperative to give local authorities parallel powers so that they may work, not in competition with the Alkali Inspectorate, but in co-operation with it.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs). There is an area of West Ham known as Manor Road which for many years has not had the best kind of housing. The council is now spending a considerable sum of money on refurbishing the area. Alas, the air there smells constantly of sulphuric and hydrochloric acid, as some hon. Members who went to school there will remember. This smell has been in the area every time that I have visited it.

I do not say that these emissions are dangerous. The problem is being examined and I am glad that my hon. Friend is corresponding with the Alkali Inspectorate about it. Unfortunately, a great deal of public confidence in the Inspectorate and in the Department of the Environment has been lost because these emissions continue. One can detect them in one's nostrils continuously. There have been difficulties in the past as a result of the operations of the plant responsible for the smell.

My hon. Friend spoke of a lack of confidence in the Inspectorate. I do not know whether it is well-founded but I am prepared to believe that these gentlemen are doing a good job. That is not enough. They have to be seen to be doing a good job. The public must be given evidence that all is well.

I very much welcome Clause 75 giving the discretionary power to local authorities to work parallel with the Inspectorate. I am not sure that that is enough. While many authorities will take these powers seriously, some may not. It may not be for any bad reason but simply because it is yet another thing for local authorities to do. They do not always have the resources they need. It may be a matter touching on the rate of industrial employment in the area and employment itself. My hon. Friend and I have tabled this amendment to make it obligatory for a local authority to take such steps if 60 or more persons currently on the electoral roll in the area of or adjacent to the emission ask the authority to take such steps.

In other words, we are giving the local authority the opportunity to show that it is aware of the problem. Even if the power is never used it may help local authorities to discharge their responsibility to the public by taking action before it is forced on them. I hope my hon. Friend will realise that this is an attempt to improve the Bill.

Local authorities will do the work in most cases but this will give extra encouragement, not only to make sure that they do it, but to ensure that the public have confidence in the local authority and the Alkali Inspectorate. The public will know that if at any time they can get 60 persons to agree then something will have to be done.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I regret that I have to support the argument of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). I have no doubt about the probity of the Alkali Inspectorate in respect of its expertise, but I doubt whether it is capable of carrying out its functions to the full because it is overworked. As a result, in one part of my constituency there is a cement works which belches out noxious fumes and dust. I have received constant representations over the years about houses, cars, caravans, and particularly windows being covered in a thick coating of dust. The Alkali Inspectorate has repeatedly visited the works but the local electorate is not satisfied. I have written repeatedly to the Department about this matter. The inspectors visit the works and things improve for a short time but then we are back to the same old trouble. It is not the fault of the Inspectorate. They are overworked and as a result they cannot fulfil the aims of the original legislation.

I hope that this new proposal will improve the situation and stop some of the emissions with all the damage, difficulty and trouble they cause. They are polluting people's hopes, and in some cases they are threatening people's health.

Mr. Denis Howell

I am sorry that we have embarked upon a discussion of the Alkali Inspectorate which is totally outside the scope of the amendment as far as I can see. I congratulate hon. Members on their ingenuity in raising questions about the Alkali Inspectorate. It may be overworked but it possesses a tremendous amount of expertise, and I cannot advise the House to undermine that by breaking up the inspectorate. It would be impossible for 400 local authorities individually to collect and collate the expertise of the inspectorate.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has asked the Royal Commission to look at the whole question of air pollution, including the positions of the Alkali Inspectorate and the local authorities. If people feel strongly and if they have any evidence which suggests that there should be a change or a strengthening of the procedures rather than of the allocation of responsibilities, I hope they will present their evidence to the Royal Commission.

My hon. Friend's amendment introduces a novel concept into our law. It suggests that 60 electors, by signing a petition, could require a local authority to act. I suppose the closest we have come to that was the old town poll principle which over many years came to be regarded by the Labour Party as objectionable and as something which should be removed. As implemented it prevented local authorities from doing things which by and large more radical authorities wished to do.

That is likely to be the long-term effect of this proposal. I am sure that that would not happen in St. Helens, but if the provision was written into the Bill it would be available to more reactionary electors or ratepayers than are found in the progressive constituency of St. Helens. I understand the concern on this point and I know that my hon. Friend has waited a long time to raise this matter. He raised it on Second Reading. Since then I have agreed to meet a deputation from his local authority and very soon we shall be able to discuss the difficulties that arise from this works.

I hope that my hon. Friend does not expect me to spend more time on the proposal about 60 electors. The idea would be wrong in principle and would lead to considerable difficulties. Local authorities are democratically elected bodies and the pressure of local opinion makes itself felt as is shown by the situation in St. Helens which has resulted in my hon. Friend raising the matter and the local authority coming to see me. I would be loath to remove the rights of local authorities, which is what would happen under the amendment.

5.15 p.m.

I shall now say one or two words about the particular case which has given rise to the amendments. The sulphuric acid works in question causes considerable difficulty. I am told that within 600 yards of it there are three schools, playing fields, a reservoir, a hospital and six residential areas, three of which are new. At one of them, houses are still being built.

Whatever has been said about the Alkali Inspectorate, the inspectorate tells me that if it had been consulted by the local authority at the time it would certainly have warned the council against permitting the chemical works on that site. The inspectorate would have also drawn the council's attention to Circular 5/68 issued by the former Ministry of Housing and Local Government, which advised local authorities against including in planning consents conditions relating to matters dealt with in other legislation. I think that it is in that technical area that considerable difficulties have arisen.

There have been many complaints, particularly about smarting eyes and running noses caused by sulphuric acid spray from the cooling system. But I gather that that was in 1972–73, and that since then much of that problem has been eliminated by the installation of a new cooling system at a cost of £100,000. It seems that the Alkali Inspectorate and the local authority have persuaded the company to meet the situation. I have no evidence that the company was unwilling to be persuaded; it was possibly willing to do what it could.

Yet I still agree that the position is not satisfactory. The difficulty is that the houses and hospitals are up and the factory is up. It is open to the local planning authority which gave the planning permission, the St. Helens authority, to make an order under Section 52 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, requiring the discontinuance of the works. But such an order would be subject to the company's right of objection to the Seecretary of State. If the order were confirmed it would involve substantial compensation to the company, which would be a considerable burden on the rate-payers.

I hope that I have said enough to show that it is a very complicated matter. It is of serious concern to my hon. Friend's constituents. We are doing what we can to deal with it. There has been one successful prosecution of the company, but the fine of £100 imposed was reduced on appeal to £25. That shows the House the further difficulties we face. The courts obviously sometimes take a different view of responsibility from that which local authorities or we in this House would take.

The only satisfaction I can offer my hon. Friend is to say that my Department is totally accessible to him and to his local authority, as I am, to help in any way we can to try to mitigate the nuisance his constituents are suffering. I shall see that my hon. Friend is kept fully informed of what results from the deputation coming to see me.

Amendment negatived.

Amendment made: No. 62 in page 90, line 30, at end insert: 'or by exercising the powers conferred on the authority by subsection (1)(a) of this section without entering the work'.—[Mr. Denis Howell.]

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