HC Deb 18 June 1974 vol 875 cc244-75

(1) In such cases as may be prescribed it shall be the duty of a local planning authority (as defined by section 290 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 and by section 275 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1972) to refer to the Commission any application submitted to them for planning approval for the construction of premises to which this section applies.

(2) It shall be the duty of the Commission to examine all applications referred to it pursuant to subsection (1) of this section with a view to satisfying itself that the construction of the premises (including the installation of plant therein) and any processes, operations or activities proposed to be carried on within those premises would not, so far as can reasonably be foreseen, endanger the health or safety of persons who may work therein or of any other persons who may be affected thereby.

(3) If the Commission are so satisfied it shall give its consent to the application concerned, but it may attach to such consent such conditions or requirements as to the alterations of the premises or the plant or as to modifications of the said processes, operations or activities. as it may thing necessary to secure the health or safety of the persons referred to in subsection (2) of this section; and if the Commission are not so satisfied it shall refuse its consent to the application.

(4) A local planning authority shall not give planning permission in respect of any application referred to the Commission under the provisions of this section unless the Commission has given its consent to the application; and if the Commission has attached to its consent any conditions or requirements the planning permission shall be subject to the same conditions or requirements

(5) The premises to which this section applies are any premises in which it is proposed that persons shall be at work and any premises of a class prescribed for the purposes of section 1(1)(d) of this Act.—[Mr. David Watkins.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. David Watkins (Consett)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The clause seeks to provide stringent provisions to control the building of potentially dangerous industrial plants and complexes which are likely to emit obnoxious fumes, noises, smells and generally to make life unpleasant, if not specifically dangerous, to people living within their vicinity.

I should like to explain how the clause proposes to achieve this aim.

First, it makes it mandatory for all planning authorities to submit to the Health and Safety Commission all planning applications for the construction of premises as defined in subsection (1) or, indeed, as prescribed by the Secretary of State.

Secondly, the clause places upon the commission a mandatory requirement to examine in detail all proposals submitted to it and to satisfy itself that there will be no danger not only to persons employed in those plants but to other persons, residents and others, moving about outside but in the general vicinity of the proposed site. That includes people not only living in the area but in adjacent shopping centres and on busy roads.

It will be readily perceived that if a potentially dangerous plant exploded or had a catastrophic fire and there was an immediately adjacent shopping centre crowded with people, a busy highway, or motorway, a great deal of damage and injury could be caused. Therefore, the clause places a mandatory requirement on the commission to examine in detail all proposals submitted to it and to ensure that there is no potential danger to people not only working in the plant but within its vicinity.

4.45 p.m.

The clause gives the commission power to take several courses of action. It can attach mandatory requirements for alterations to design and construction where it believes these to be necessary. Furthermore, it can make a mandatory order for modifications to be made to the processes to be carried on within the plant under consideration. Where it is not satisfied that the plant meets health and safety requirements and, furthermore, that it cannot be modified to meet those requirements, the commission will have power to refuse consent to the application submitted by the planning authority.

Finally, the clause provides that no planning authority can give consent to such a plant without the approval of the commission.

I realise that what will be in everyone's mind is the recent appalling disaster at Flixborough. We meet in the shadow of this terrible disaster to consider this Bill on Report. I have no doubt that all hon. Members want to ensure that nothing of that kind happens again. The clause seeks to create the Health and Safety Commission as the authority with the power and the technical backing, which is no less important, to do just that.

New petrochemical processes and products are being created in escalating numbers. That means that there is a vast potential danger, which is increasing all the time, in plants using petrochemical processes as a result of technological developments which are taking place.

As we witnessed at Flixborough, it is not only people working within plants but people living and moving about in their vicinity who are at risk. We need a body with power and authority, backed by technical expertise, to investigate planning applications for the construction of comparable plants in future, first, as to their location and. secondly. as to their nature.

We already have the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, which is a Government body independent of the Electricity Council and of the generating boards, which has a high measure of responsibility and technical competence to examine and consider the safety of nuclear installations. The principle of the power of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate and of what that inspectorate does is very comparable with the principle of what the new clause proposes that the Health and Safety Commission should do.

I make that point to illustrate the fact that I am not introducing a completely new, novel and ingenious idea but am seeking to build upon something which in principle already exists and to adapt the principle and apply it to the Health and Safety Commission.

I come next to an illustration of how such an independent and qualified body could modify the design of plants which may be submitted to it. One of the things which have emerged from the many tragedies at Flixborough is that the control room of the plant was sited immediately adjacent to the point of the initial explosion. In a situation such as that, such a siting means that the one place where monitoring devices give an indication of immediate danger and from which an instantaneous shutdown could be operated, and the one place from which safety devices could be instantaneously brought into action to minimise the danger, is the first place to be destroyed.

One of the things which the commission would be enabled to do, with the technical backing that it would have, would be to examine the design of plants to ensure that the control room was not in a situation such as that I have mentioned, where it would be the first place to be destroyed. It is the one place where something might be done to prevent a disaster, and this provision would ensure that such a place would not be destroyed.

The commission ought to have power to examine planning applications in this matter. It is the one body which is in the position of having the technical backup, the prestige and the authority to do this. The clause would give it the authority, plus a mandatory requirement to exercise its powers in the direction which the clause seeks to direct.

I remind the House again that we have recently witnessed a terrible explosion in which 28 of our fellow citizens have died and in which whole villages have been devastated. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis), when following up his Private Notice Question on 3rd June, asked the Secretary of State whether he would now concentrate his and the Government's attention on ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the community and ending this rape of the environment."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd June 1974; Vol. 874, c. 870] My hon. Friend's vivid phrase sums up what we have to do. The clause seeks to provide an instrument to do it. I commend it to the Government and to the House.

Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

I rise to support the new clause moved by the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. Watkins), who has made his case with compelling argument and admirable clarity. Certainly if the House accepts his clause, those communities whose environment is endangered by a growing concentration of industrial hazards will have secured a most valuable safeguard. At best, it may well prevent another Flixborough. At worst, it should be possible to prevent a bad situation—I shall mention such a situation shortly—from getting worse.

Let there be absolutely no doubt about the need for a provision of this kind. In paragraph 295 of its report, the Robens Committee said: Our attention has been drawn to a number of locations in this country where highly explosive or flammable substances are kept in such quantities that any failure of control—however remote the possibility—could create situations of disaster-potential. At paragraph 297 the committee said: Situations of considerable potential risk to the public can be created in a variety of ways and circumstances … The problem can be particularly acute in sites or areas where there is a gradual accretion of potentially hazardous development by different employers. Existing technical problems may be compounded by new and possibly incompatible developments nearby, and administrative arrangements can become complicated because of the number of authorities that might become involved in one way or another. The paragraph continues: there have been expressions of public concern from time to time about the possibility that official controls may be inadequate or inadequately co-ordinated". As examples of that concern, the Robens Committee specifically mentioned the Adjournment debate on the subject of fire hazards in Canvey Island which I initiated in the House on 24th November 1970 and reports on other hazards in our neighbouring district of Thurrock. The Robens Committee rightly pointed out that to some extent local authorities have powers to prevent the creation of neighbourhood risks by the use of their development control powers under the town and country planning legislation. But what happens when, as in the case of Canvey Island, successive Governments have persistently, deliberately and crudely ignored the protestations of the local planning authority, the local district councils and the local people, and have forced unwanted oil refineries on the top of existing and known industrial hazards, piling risk upon risk without any regard to the totality of the effect that their separate decisions have upon the environment and also the health, safety and peace of mind of the local inhabitants?

Is it not the most appalling indictment of such an attitude on the part of successive Governments that we had to wait for a Flixborough before anyone in authority took any notice of our predicament in South-East Essex?

Let us consider that predicament. I make no excuse for going into this matter in some detail, because what is happening to one community may happen to others, and there is a moral to be drawn and a lesson to be learned here. Canvey is an island of less than 4,000 acres, on about half of which some 30,000 people have been encouraged by the planning authority over the years to establish their homes. On the other half there is a heavy and growing concentration of high fire risk installations. First, we have the largest methane gas terminal in the United Kingdom, with storage for 110,000 tons of frozen gas below ground level, and a variety of other products. I have checked the figures and am told that, in all, some 24.6 million gallons of inflammable material is stored in that one installation.

Next door we have the Texaco oil storage tanks, with 5¾ million gallons of Class A highly inflammable products, and 7¾ million gallons of Class B products, which are only slightly less inflammable.

Then we have London and Coastal Oil Wharves, Ltd. which is licensed to store 61.2 million gallons of chemical products—50.5 million gallons of Class A products and 10¾ million gallons of Class B products. I am advised that this includes some 1,200 tons of cyclohexane, the material which lay at the heart of the Flixborough disaster. A spokesman for the company let it be known, no doubt in order to allay our anxiety, that this was by no means the most dangerous chemical stored in that particular installation.

The hon. Member for Consett rightly drew our attention to the dangers to people living or working near a potential risk. There are 32 residential caravans and three occupied cottages immediately adjacent to the storage installation that I have just mentioned. There is a small number of other houses within 150 feet of it. The main residential area, where 30,000 of my constituents live, begins about a quarter of a mile away. This is the area of risk in which successive Secretaries of State for the Environment have seen fit to authorise the building of two new oil refineries.

I have said before, and I say again that this is planning turned upside down. For those of us in South-East Essex, the Department of the Environment has become a sick joke. It seem quite impossible to make the mandarins of Mar-sham Street understand that in this day and age there is no excuse whatsoever for adding hazards to those which already exist. In doing so they must inevitably compound the chances of something going wrong.

5 p.m.

Some years ago the Department of the Environment drew up guidelines for plan fling authorities on the siting of our re fineries and their implications. It was with some difficulty that I managed to get a copy in 1972. It was promised to me and then conveniently forgotten and I had to press for it. That paper drew attention to the dangers of air pollution and made the important point that there could be no guarantee of complete immunity from occasional malodorous emissions. The plants on Canvey will stand in the path of the prevailing south-westerly winds which exposes not merely the population of Canvey but one ten times greater in neighbouring South-East Essex and Southend to pollution.

This will be additional to an existing nuisance. My constituents constantly complain to me about the emissions from the existing oil refineries to the west in Thurrock. I have initiated a number of Adjournment debates on the subject. Yet such considerations of amenity have been completely swept aside by successive Secretaries of State.

Mr. William Baxter (West Stirlingshire)

Has there not existed a responsibility upon the local authorities to look after the interests of their areas? I recollect that when I was a member of Stirling County Council and interested in the port of Grangemouth a conference of port health authorities was taken around that area by the local authority representatives, and we were shown with pride and satisfaction what they had achieved in this direction. Before condemning succeeding Governments the hon. Member should at least be a little critical of the local authority.

Sir Bernard Braine

I can well understand the surprise of the hon. Member at what I am saying. One would naturally expect the planning authority to be the first line of defence in a matter of this kind. If, however, he will be patient with me I will illustrate just how little influence the planning authority can have on matters when the interests of foreign oil companies are involved.

The guidance paper to which I was referring also drew attention to the substantial flow of tanker traffic and the need for suitable roads to avoid congestion and an unacceptable level of noise and fumes. The fact that Canvey is an island dependent upon two bridges converging upon one roundabout, and is, therefore, far more vulnerable if anything should go wrong than any other place in the Kingdom, and its single fire engine might have to be supplemented by fire rescue services from the mainland seems to have been totally ignored. Imagine the difficulties which would arise if at the same time residents were trying to get off the island.

It was small comfort to read in The Sunday Times on 9th June: The potential for disaster on Canvey … is sufficiently great for Essex Council's emergency planning group to have devised a meticulous scenario for the very serious situation which could develop on the island. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy), present, because if there is anyone in the House who understands this problem it is he, and I am grateful for the support he has consistently given me over the years in trying to alert the authorities to our situation on Thameside.

The guidance paper also pointed out the danger of fire and stated that Most refinery fires will not affect areas outside the refinery itself. It must be accepted, however, that an extensive fire is always possible and this should be borne in mind when considering possible siting locations. It would obviously be undesirable, for example, for a refinery to be so placed that a serious fire could involve other premises or cut off access to such premises. Equally it would be wrong to site one close to a plant at which bulk storage of other hazardous materials takes place. Armed with this excellent advice, it is not surprising that Essex County Council, the planning authority, has consistently opposed the building of oil refineries on Canvey Island but has been overruled. What is astonishing is that Governments which advise the planning authorities in this way should themselves blithely ignore that advice.

Why is it that Governments fail so often to see the problem in the round? In the debate in 1970, to which the Robens Committee's Report refers, I outlined some of the warnings and the narrow escapes we had already experienced on Canvey. I drew attention to the dangers—indeed, the folly—of introducing oil refineries into an area where there were already far too many major fire hazards for the health and safety of my constituents. What I said I have been careful not to repeat too frequently because one naturally does not wish to arouse unnecessary fears. I said I have no wish to be alarmist. Indeed, I am choosing my words carefully. But the Aberfan disaster crept upon us largely unawares precisely because no one ever thought it was his responsibility to calculate the risks being taken. I beg my hon. Friend to make sure that his colleagues understand fully that before any deliberate decision is taken to add to the existing fire hazards on Canvey Island, they must remind themselves that the safety of more than 25,000 human beings is involved."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th November 1970; Vol. 807, c. 378.] All that has happened since then is that the population has increased by some 5,000, and we have had two oil refineries forced upon us.

It is against this background, where the local planning authority has been reduced to impotence and the views of the local people have been completely thrust aside, that I have been waging my campaign to get Governments to accept that there must be an inquiry into the totality of the effect of industrial planning decisions on our Thameside communities.

So it was that where we were debating the Langley oil storage fire last November I drew attention to the lack of coordination in these matters and asked the then Minister for Local Government Development, the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page), to call a halt to work on the refineries and to order an inquiry. His reaction was interesting. He was the first Minister ever to admit that he was anxious about the situation and, wanting to see for himself what that situation was, he told us that he had flown by helicopter over the Thames estuary. He said: 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 gets a very good knowledge by looking at it from the air."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 16th November 1973; Vol. 864, c. 904.] He told me that he could not answer for the Government but that he would talk to Ministers about the need to take a round view of the problem. He said that he was considering and discussing the matter with his colleagues.

We then had a General Election, and during the campaign the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) who is now the Secretary of State for the Environment, made a solemn pledge in a letter to my constituents that if he became the Secretary of State for that Department—and, wonder of wonders, he did—he would certainly take a fresh look at the whole refineries situation. The present Prime Minister also got in on the act and authorised a letter to one of my constituants in which he said: The new Labour Government would re-examine the proposals for the construction of these refineries in the light of strong objections from local residents. In a cause of this kind I am willing to accept allies from whatever quarter they may come. However, before Flixborough the Secretary of State declined to grant me the inquiry I wanted. Even after Flixborough he still declines to take action until the report on the disaster was available. The disaster makes no difference to our situation: it was bad before; it is bad now.

The clause is limited, as I understand it, only to future planning applications, and I doubt, therefore, whether it has any immediate relevance to the distressing situation I have described. The Minister has won golden opinions by his sensitivity to the question of safety. I am, therefore, taking this opportunity to press our case and to ask the hon. Gentleman to say when he comes to reply whether the Health and Safety Commission will have any powers to deal with our situation. One oil company has full detailed planning permission, and is planning and building now, and the other has already received outline planning permission. Could the commission, for example, insist that the planning permission be revoked?

The Prime Minister gave a specific pledge during the election that our situation would be examined again. I expected that promise to be implemented straight away. I did not think that we should be forced to wait until the lessons of the Flixborough disaster had been learnt. That disaster was bad enough, but our predicament existed before that. I expect the Minister to be explicit when he replies, and to explain whether the clause, which in essence the whole House must welcome, has any message for the people of Canvey, and, if not, whether he will convey the views I have expressed this afternoon to the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister.

Mr. John Ellis (Brigg and Scunthorpe)

I support the amendment. All hon. Members owe a debt to my hon. Friend the Member for Consett (Mr. Watkins) for his expedition and expertise in tabling it so that we could have this important debate.

I hope that no one thought that the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) spoke with too much passion. Representing the constituency in which the disaster at Flixborough occurred, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that if anyone is in any doubt about that he should go to Flixborough and see what remains of that plant and the devastation in the surrounding villages. He should visit the relatives of those who were killed and witness the manifest tragedy that was caused.

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman in that he has on his hands a potentially very dangerous situation. The people I represent can now sleep soundly. The plant is destroyed; the damage has been done. We must ensure by any means possible that we prevent such a disaster occurring anywhere else. The disaster at Flixborough occurred in a comparatively modest plant employing 550 men on a shift basis. It was not a great geographical concentration such as the hon. Gentleman describes at Canvey Island.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Baxter) asked "What about the local planning authority?" What about the authority, indeed? Flixborough started out as a plant producing fertiliser. It was replanned. Other processes were brought in, it was expanded, and there were plans to expand it even more. I doubt whether any hon. Member understood the word "cyclohexane" before the disaster. Some of us understand it all too well now, and understand its propensities.

I have the greatest sympathy with local planning authorities faced with a situation in which technology advances so fast that when the plans come up for approval they cannot be aware of what they are approving. How can they know? This is a branch of technology in which very few people in the country may understand the full capacities of the chemicals we are manufacturing and what those concerned are seeking to do.

There have been too many fingers in the pie already. I welcome the Bill in general. It seeks to establish a Health and Safety Commission and a Health and Safety Executive. The clause is right to put the responsibility fairly and squarely on the commission, and the Minister should have powers to intervene and help out with the benefit of the expert knowledge that he has.

5.15 p.m.

Chemical plants throughout the country are remarkably similar—open pipe work, nicely painted, many lights on. There is presumably the understanding that if there is a massive escape of gas it will disperse in the atmosphere and do no harm. We now know what happens if the gas is so volatile that in mixing with the air it creates a great explosive cloud and blows up, wrecking half the countryside, killing people, and leaving their families bereaved, as happened at Flixborough. Such was the paucity of thought about safety, health and welfare.

There may be a case for putting everything underground to contain it so that this sort of thing does not happen. My hon. Friend the Member for Consett said that at the Flixborough plant the control room was in the centre of the development and so was wrecked. Little thought was given to a matter as basic as that. All the records were destroyed. The local union secretary was the only one with records of who was at work. He was able to say who was on shift and who was not, and was invaluable in the first hours after the disaster.

There was danger from the very amount of chemicals stored close to each other. The cyclohexane blew up. The ammonia which was stored fortunately did not. Hon Members who speak of not thousands of tons of chemicals but many more in their constituencies are right to be disturbed. We need to examine the amounts of chemicals processed and stored. Instead of stockpiling them on the site, is it possible to bring in small amounts, carry out the process and then take them away rather than put them into tanks? Is it possible to separate the processes so that each is more self-contained and there is no possibility of flashback from one part of the plant to another causing ignition?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for coming to Flixborough as soon as he could. My constituents and I are obliged to him. I hope that he will consider the clause with kindness and tolerance.

We have had a grave disaster at Flixborough. I hope that our whole emphasis will now change. The amendment goes some way towards doing something about a situation that is serious throughout the country. The disaster has happened at Flixborough. Men have been killed, their children have been left fatherless, relatives have been bereaved, people have lost their homes.

If this terrible disaster has drawn the attention of the country to the potential dangers, we can say that if nothing else—and there is very little good that one can extract from the tragedy—we have alerted people, through the suffering of my constituents, to the potential hazards in our society. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister and the House will learn, and will consider the amendment and other possible legislation, so that we can look forward to a better and brighter prospect for the safety of people and whole communities, and they will not have to suffer as my constituents did in the vicinity of Flixborough.

Mr. Marcus Kimball (Gainsborough)

I support the clause, like my neighbour across the river, the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis). The hon. Member for Consett (Mr. Watkins), in moving it included these words: affect the people living in the area. As I understand it, the effect of the clause would be that the commission could put conditions on the granting of planning permission and instruct the planning authorities to take certain action. I want to be assured by the Minister that such conditions would include the power to notify householders of the kind of processes that are within their vicinity and the dangers that they may present.

The hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe was right to say that most people thought that the Flixborough plant was a fertiliser factory. The plant had existed for many years. Many people on my side of the Trent who were not employed within the plant were not aware of the existent dangers and of the process that was being pursued. A distressing feature is the article in the New Scientist of 6th June which states the present position: Neither when they were first built, nor now that they are in operation, has any local or national government agency exercised effective control over their safety …". That is, the safety of certain plants. The article goes on to point out that if it is proposed to build a nuclear power plant the electricity industry must provide detailed safety evaluation to the Nuclear Inspectorate before it receives a licence to build such a plant. This so-called fer tiliser factory changed to a process which virtually amounted to boiling petrol. It was able to do so without notifying the local householders and those involved in the plant.

I must add to what the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe has said about the visit of the Minister, accompanied by his right hon. Friend, to the area concerned. However sympathetic, helpful, understanding and kind they may have been, we must be forced to the conclusion that the only protection that will be offered to the householders and those whose property has been damaged will come from the normal insurance market. Therefore, it is important that the clause should put a duty on manufacturers and planning authorities to advise householders so that they may ensure that their insurance companies know about any danger in the area and so that they obtain proper care.

The more we see of a disaster such as that which occurred in Flixborough the more convinced we must be that the help available from the Government is extremely limited. The help available to my constituents in Amcotts, whose houses have been devastated, is limited to the 75 per cent. grant that will be available when the Housing Bill is on the statute book, the 60 per cent. grant which can be given by the second tier local authority to improve their homes and the total loss payment under the Housing Act 1957. Further, the Minister may urge that the local authority gives those concerned a mortgage to buy a new home.

That is all the practical help that the Government can give. That was set out in a letter from the Minister for Housing and Construction to the Clerk of the Boothferry District Council of 16th June. The help that can be given to householders is very much in the category of "You pay to get your house repaired and when we see the receipted accounts we shall pay you back."

However sympathetic the Government may be, the constructive help comes from the insurance companies, which pay as soon as the damage has been assessed. I place on record just how constructive the insurance companies have been. I know that reports have been unearthed by certain newspapers and television commentators of dissatisfied clients of insurance companies, but that is not my experience. In the village of Amcotts the insurance companies were on the spot. They have been as generous as any commercial enterprise could possibly be in the help that they have offered to my constituents. They have taken a thoroughly constructive approach.

One of the problems is that most people are under-insured at today's values. There is also the problem of those who have no insurance. The most practical way of helping people and avoiding the hardship and misery created by disasters is to ensure that we pass the clause. It would put a firm duty on the planning authority to ensure that everybody who has property or who tries to make his life in certain areas is fully aware of the risks involved.

It is significant that the only cash which has flowed into the households involved in the Flixborough disaster from any Government source is the grant from the EEC disaster fund which has been made to the relatives of those who lost their lives. Although we may be horrified about what has happened in North Lincolnshire, the House would do well to remember that the area has lost 500 well-paid and very good jobs. That is a disaster to everyone in the area. We must have these processes but we must ensure that the people living round about have the correct safeguards.

Mr. Hugh Delargy (Thurrock)

I shall be brief for two excellent reasons. My first reason is that the clause of my hon. Friend the Member for Consett (Mr. Watkins) is so well drafted and is so obviously necessary that I am sure all hon. Members must be in agreement with it. Secondly, speeches have already been made to add to the excellence of his case. I refer particularly to the speech of my honourable neighbour, the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine), who for so long has been fighting for the safety of his constituents and, incidentally, of my constituents. He has attacked both parties with commendable impartiality. I hope that he will continue to do so.

There have been other disasters besides the terrible event which happened in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough.

Mr. Ellis

Brigg and Scunthorpe.

Mr. Delargy

It is so difficult to remember constituency changes. I seem to remember that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) came from a seaport at one time which was made immortal in Treasure Island. However, he now represents somewhere else, and I am not so familiar with the geography.

It was a terrible disaster which occurred in Flixborough and it attracted the attention of the entire nation. Our hearts went out to all the people who died, to their relatives and to the people who suffered. We bear in mind the houses that were destroyed, the jobs that were lost and the fears which still remain. The fears of the people who live in disaster areas is an important matter.

There have been other disasters which have not attracted the same attention, which were not nationally known but which were terribly important to the people living in the areas concerned. Just a few years ago—the hon. Member for Essex, South-East will remember—a collision took place between tankers in the Thames. The hon. Gentleman will remember the explosion in East Street, Purfleet, some years ago, when the Government had to institute several inquiries. The people in the area were frightened that some other disaster would occur. Even more recently—in fact, just a few months ago—there was a terrible fire at one of the refineries at Shellhaven, which received very little publicity.

5.30 p.m.

There are just two questions I wish to put. First, how does it happen that everyone concerned except the Government realises the danger of concentrating these dangerous premises in a small area? We all seem to be aware of it except the Government, no matter from which party they come. We have never had an answer to this question, though we have been asking it for years.

Secondly, I would like to hear more about those promises given during the General Election by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister himself. Surely, by now, after three-and-a-half months, particularly after the Flixborough disaster, we should be seeing some results of those promises. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will have something to say about the promises made about these terrible dangers facing so many people living in such neighbourhoods.

I hope the clause will be accepted. Among other things, it would greatly simplify the law. For example, when there was the explosion in East Street, we discovered that more than one Government Department and more than one local authority were concerned. The river board was concerned as well as others. The clause would confer great benefit on the nation and also—for which I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Consett—confer great benefit on my own constituents.

Mr. Walter Clegg (North Fylde)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. Watkins) on new Clause 2. He has done the House a service in enabling us to discuss this matter. It follows the path laid down by a Government circular issued on 12th January, 1972 and dealing with the question of planning permissions involving the use or storage in bulk of hazardous material. It was clear from that document that the Chief Inspector of Factories knew of the dangers.

I want to quote from one of its paragraphs because it shows that the clause would be pursuing a process which was intended at one time. Paragraph 3 of the document stated: The terms of reference of the Committee on Safety and Health at Work, under the chairmanship of Lord Robens, ask them to consider whether any further steps are required to safeguard members of the public from hazards, other than general environmental pollution, arising in connection with activities in industrial and commercial premises and construction sites. The report of the Committee will assist the Government in the formulation of long-term policies for dealing with these major hazards". Meantime, it was said, the local authorities should carry out the provisions of the circular and consult the Chief Inspector of Factories about such problems. That circular was linked with a memorandum about major hazards, by the British Chemical Industry Safety Council of the Chemical Industries Association, which was quite clear. It began: In recent years the size of chemical plants … has been increasing substantially and this has meant in certain cases a new scale of risk to the public at large. So the industry knows the problems, just as hon. Members do.

Will the Health and Safety Commission have sufficient technique to be able to evaluate plans put before it? If it is to do a useful job, it must employ people of at least equal calibre to the petrochemical or chemical engineers who have designed the plants. I want to be satisfied that the necessary technical staff will be available to it.

Mr. David Watkins

This is an extremely important point. I made it in my own speech. I envisage that the commission must have this sort of technical back-up. As I see it, it is the only body which could be in a position to have such technical back-up.

Mr. Clegg

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It seems to me that the clause would make it necessary to have the commission's approval for the developments and plans submitted to it. But what concerns me is the freedom of the local authorities, after the commission has given permission for such developments, to give planning permission for other developments in the vicinity. If the new procedure is to be followed, it should be a condition that no further development will take place within the area which would make it hazardous to people's health. For example, if a certain factory is established and is made as safe as it can be, is the local authority to be able to say that it will allow a housing estate here, a shopping development there, or perhaps even a new factory elsewhere in the area?

I have in my constituency a chemical works at which, fortunately, there has been no such disaster as that at Flixborough. But one is worried about the effects of explosions. On the planning side, the local authorities should bear in mind the total consequences. This would mean that, once permission had been given by the commission, and it said that there should be no further development within a periphery of, say, 10 miles, the people with interest in the area would be consulted so that they might know that there was to be a freezing of development for some time. With these observations, I support New Clause 2.

Mr. James Dempsey (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

I want to draw attention to an element which has largely been forgotten in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Consett (Mr. Watkins) referred not only to safety—and one understands why the debate has concentrated mainly on safety, following the tragedy at Flixborough—but to smell, and smell does not seem to have featured very much in the discussion. Even if escaping gases do not cause an explosion, they can still be dangerous to the health of a local community.

Part of my constituency is much afflicted by an obnoxious smell coming from industrial waste. It is no exaggeration to say that even schools have to be closed early because of the awful effect of this pollution in the neighbourhood of Sikeside in Coatbridge. I could also illustrate, for example, cases of windows and doors having to be sealed and the interior of houses having to be fitted with air sprays to try to combat this awful smell suffered in that part of the country. There have even been infectious diseases notified which, it has been claimed, originated from the foul, obnoxious stench from the form of industrial waste of which I speak.

This is an indication of the serious health hazard that industrial waste and chemical elements cause if they get into sewers, or, indeed, into other parts of the neighbourhood. I wonder to what extent the new clause would refer this problem to the commission. What authority or powers would the clause impose on the commission to take effective action to control the situation? I hope that this will be dealt with in the reply to the debate.

I regard it as fortunate to have industrialists who co-operate. Thank goodness I have in my constituency one large-scale industrialist who is spending a small fortune trying to overcome the problems. If we are to encourage industrial development which can emit industrial waste, I consider, as a layman, that there should be powers by the commission to enforce the provision of pre-treatment plants for effluent at the sites of the industries before effluent is allowed to enter a public sewer. In my area the local authority is doing everything in its power and large industrialists are co-operating, but there is still the problem of the small industry which thinks that it is not its duty to take effective steps to protect the community.

Of one thing I have no doubt—no men, women or children should be asked to suffer the unbearable smell of an industrial waste which gets into the air and floats over the community. In my area men returning from work have to leave their home with their wives and families and go to a local restaurant for a meal, for it is utterly impossible to consume meals in their homes because of the foulness and evilness of the stench pervading the area.

To what extent would the clause give effective powers to the commission and the local authority to ensure, for example, that in the development of industries which emit chemical waste the commission and the local authority can insist through either planning or some other control on the installation of pre-treatment plants to ensure that the effluent will be properly treated and the obnoxious smell removed before it goes into a public sewer? It would be helpful to have information on that. If the clause gives the commission and the local authority such powers I welcome it.

Mr. Paul Tyler (Bodmin)

I must sympathise with the intentions of the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. Watkins), who has put forward the clause, and other hon. Members who have supported it. None of us who witnessed the appalling calamity at Flixborough can be unsympathetic, and we have also been concerned for some time about other potential dangers, in areas such as Canvey Island.

However, I am concerned about the way the clause is drafted. I hope that in the Government's reply we shall have certain assurances. The most important question relates to the expertise of the various official bodies which under the clause may receive information. The hon. Member for Consett rightly said that in Committee he pressed on many occasions that the expertise should be such that it could properly tackle problems such as those we have been discussing.

It is evident that today the average local planning authority does not have the expertise to tackle the proposals for major industrial processes often submitted to it. The bigger the process and the bigger the international company involved the more expertise there is rolled out by big business. Many of us feel that the local authority cannot in such circumstances cope with the problem before it.

5.45 p.m.

There are particular difficulties in considering the clause. I wish to see how it relates to Amendment No. 25 tabled by the Under-Secretary, which deals with the problem of informing local people of certain changes in circumstances in a particular industrial process. We must be concerned that often the most dangerous or damaging changes in processes, or new processes, are such that we as laymen—indeed the average member of the public—can have no hope of considering them in their entirety, or fully appreciating them.

It has been suggested by the hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) that in some way the blacker the smoke the more dangerous it may be. But perhaps the fumes most dangerous to us are those which we cannot see. Where the potential dangers to safety and health are of that complexity, however much information may be given to local people, or indeed to the commission, there may not be an opportunity for local people surrounding the works where the process is taking place fully to appreciate the mine they are being asked to sit on. This relates to a point made by the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) about the Flixborough situation. People in that area had no conception of the process there, or of its potential danger.

Therefore, in relation to the connection between the clause and Amendment No. 25, which the Under-Secretary has brought forward in response to our pleas in Committee, I hope that the Minister can assure us that the clause will be effective. I understand that the Department of the Environment has for at least two years issued guidance on matters of this sort. In January 1972 the Department issued a circular of advice to local authorities. The question we must ask this evening is whether that advice has been followed and, if not, why not? Will the clause be a more effective vehicle for achieving the objectives which all hon. Members share?

Mr. Alan Lee Williams (Hornchurch)

I support the clause. I shall comment briefly on the problem of Canvey Island raised by the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) and say something about the Ford Motor Company, with regard to noise and pollution, which may be covered by the clause.

We must choose our words carefully when we are talking about a potentially explosive situation in Canvey Island. This may arouse all sorts of unnecessary fears, not only in the constituency of the hon. Member for Essex, South-East, but in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy) and in my own constituency.

There is a lot of anxiety about the use of tankers so far up the River Thames into Long Reach. Although it is not the subject of this debate, there is, I believe, a case for resiting the discharging berths for tankers further down the river, and I feel that a seaport at Maplin has some bearing in this connection, although I do not seek to raise that point now.

I shall deal with two constituency matters relating to the Ford Motor Company. I have had a series of discussions with the company on complaints I have received about emissions of not only smells and pollution, which affect paintwork and metalwork, particularly of motor cars, but noise from the company's foundry at bottom of Asketh Road in my constituency.

I am assured by the Ford Motor Co. that it is spending about £3½ million in trying to eradicate the problem of noise pollution. There is a great deal of concern about this foundry in my constituency. Last week a meeting was held, attended by about 200 people, at which great anxiety was expressed to me and local councillors by residents. What penalties will the clause impose upon those responsible for the emission of dirt and noise? What penalties will there be for those who endanger the health and safety, not only of those in the plant, but the health and safety of those living near the plant? How does the Alkali Inspectorate fit into this arrangement?

Mr. Baxter

No one would disagree about the need for this clause. What troubles me is that it seems to be implied that this terrible disaster at Flixborough arose as a result of a process taking place there which was not stipulated when planning permission was originally asked for and granted. It seemed to be a fertiliser factory. Then it moved to a new process. That appears to have been a departure from the original conditions and to have involved a change of use within the terms of the Town Planning Acts.

The local authority should be notified of such changes of use and its agreement to them sought. By setting up the commission we would not be altering the fact that a factory could be established anywhere in the country and a subsequent change of use could occur without proper notification taking place. I do not know the full story of this terrible tragedy. I have no doubt however that if the firm departed from the original planning permission this would have serious repercussions in terms of its public liability.

Mr. John Ellis

The point is that the new process brought with it a new complexity. I have heard it said that such a disaster could not happen, but it did. The local authority does not have the expert knowledge, irrespective of whether it knows about such a change, to make an assessment of the dangers. Extra guidance would be given by the requirement to submit plans to the Minister for examination.

Mr. Baxter

I cannot say whether there were people on the planning committee, or officers of that committee, who had sufficient knowledge and understanding of the technical processes involved. That is a matter for them. If such officials do not know what they are dealing with they have a statutory obligation to make themselves conversant with it.

Sir Bernard Braine

The hon. Gentleman is asking questions which require answers. I believe it to be true to say that the fire authority has considerable powers to deal with petroleum products. It does not, however, possess such powers with regard to a whole range of commercial substances not covered by the Petroleum Acts. I believe that the fire service would welcome an extension of powers and an extension of knowledge and understanding of these risks. There is a gap here.

Mr. Baxter

That is quite true. But this clause does not deal with that problem. It deals with the question of obtaining planning permission for a certain process. If the process is not divulged or if it is begun in a fairly acceptable way to which no one could take exception and then changes into something which presents great danger to workers and the community at large the commission would know nothing about it. It would be necessary for the Government to decide whether the time was opportune for a register to be compiled of the processes used in factories throughout the country. It could be that the terms of the original planning permission had been fundamentally altered. There could be great dangers to vast areas of the community.

I do not know the intimate details about this disaster. What I have heard disturbs me very much and shows that there is a need for something to be done. Even at this late stage I suggest that we should incorporate in the Bill some method whereby the commission would know what processes were being operated in our factories.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)

The hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) and my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy), are concerned that the economies of scale in Canvey Island have reached such a pitch that the community at large is at risk. What they have both recognised over the years, and fought against, is the fact that certain industries attract other industries, sometimes of equal risk, sometimes of greater risk. They seek to ensure that no further planning permission is granted without full knowledge of what is involved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) spoke eloquently about the Flixborough disaster and its effects on his constituents. Although that was a major disaster, it would be as nothing compared with the same type of event at Canvey Island. It is the size of the problem which gives greatest cause for concern. We are concerned that in such a situation there would be a bigger reaction, a multiplication of instances, and a major disaster the like of which we have never seen before.

This means that every time planning permission is granted it must be examined closely. The difficulty and expense of reversing planning permission is great. Local planning authority officials would welcome the clause because at least they would be armed with more knowledge. That is a good thing. That is all my hon. Friend seeks to achieve, and that is why the clause should be welcomed.

6 p.m.

Mr. Harold Walker

The House has been debating some very grave matters. The debate has been marked by searching questions. It has posed many questions for me, some of which I doubt whether it would be wise for me to attempt to answer—for example questions concerning Flixborough. I must say nothing which will in any way prejudge or prejudice the outcome of the inquiries that are being established.

Questions have been asked on matters which are still subject to planning considerations. I must be circumspect about the response I give. There are some matters—about which I make no complaint—in respect of which hon. Members have sought to take advantage of an opportunity to air very strong and understandable grievances.

I proceed by giving my response to the new clause proposed by my hon. Friends and at the conclusion of my remarks I shall answer some of the questions raised. I am impressed by the skill displayed by my hon. Friend in drafting the new clause and the amount of work he has put into it. I am in agreement with the spirit of the new clause, and I appreciate the concern shown by my hon. Friends in moving it. I am wholeheartedly in sympathy with what they seek to achieve. The Bill, as at present drafted, will contribute towards their objective.

I shall speak about the present arrangements, which deal with the commission's end of the affair. Subsection (1) of the clause is an enabling power, enabling us to say that in the case of certain work places applications for new constructions should be referred to the commission. The Bill already contains a specific power under Schedule 3(4) which may be used to require specified operations to be carried out under licence. This means that the regulations may require those planning to set up new, potentially hazardous plants to seek the consent of the commission—that is, they have to obtain a health and safety licence in addition to applying to the local authority for planning permission. If they do not receive a licence they cannot go ahead with the scheme, whether they have received planning permission or not.

Schedule 3(4) makes it clear that conditions may be attached to the issue of health and safety licences either in the regulations or as conditions built into an individual licence and worked out by a health and safety inspector at the design stage. That fully covers the substance of subsections (2) and (3) of the proposed new clause. Preliminary plans for making use of this licensing procedure are now well advanced.

Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)

Schedule 3(4) uses the words "of a specified authority". That authority is related to the commission.

Mr. Walker

It can either be the commission or a specialised body set up under the control of the commission. My hon. Friend's reading is that that will ultimately be subject to the control of the commission. I shall verify what I have said, correct it at a later point, or communicate with my hon. Friend in some other way, to confirm whether it is correct. If I am wrong I shall make a point of saying so in the House.

Turning to the local authority end of the matter, if the health and safety licence is not granted, the granting of planning permission will be of no avail to anyone subject to the regulations. As a matter of good practice local authorities should be fully informed about what processes are likely to be hazardous, and what conditions have been attached to safety licences, and so on, and should act accordingly in considering applications for planning permission and in considering their whole policy on residential and other development.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment said, during the course of his Flixborough statement, that much had already been done to ensure the fullest co-operation between local authorities and the health and safety inspectorates on potentially hazardous plants. A circular was issued to local authorities in 1972 describing what processes were likely to be hazardous, so that they could take that into account in their planning decisions and seek expert advice from the Factory Inspectorate when in any doubt.

For some time past officials from my Department and from the Department of the Environment have been discussing how we can ensure that safety licensing procedures and planning consents are fully co-ordinated. The new commission will want to follow this up at the earliest opporunity, in consultation with local authorities.

I hope that what I have said will reassure my hon. Friends and other hon. Members, first, that there are enabling powers in the Bill, similar to those which they are proposing, designed to prohibit or to impose conditions upon the construction of new, potentially dangerous factories, and so on, and, secondly, that co-ordination with local authorities, to ensure that planning decisions reflect safety considerations, can be ensured if necessary by the issue of directives to local authorities under town and country planning legislation and to the commission under this Bill; thirdly, that these powers will be used and that much work is already being done with that intention in mind.

It may be that the outcome of the inquiries to which I have referred and which are being set up to look into what happened at Flixborough will suggest to us additional measures which we have not yet considered for protecting workpeople and the public. I am confident that the Bill, as drafted, will provide any powers now needed to implement any such recommendations of the inquiry without further amendment.

None of us can anticipate what may emerge from the inquiry. The House would wish that we should wait to see the outcome before contemplating further legislative changes.

I cannot comment on the remarks concerning Flixborough for fear of prejudicing the inquiry. It would be wise for us to wait for the outcome of the inquiry before we seek to make any further amendments to what we have already provided.

I urge the House not to overlook the fact that this Bill is basically an enabling Bill. We are empowering the Secretary of State and the new commission to do certain things, in certain specified, designated situations. I mention that in the context not of my hon. Friend's clause but of some of the remarks made and some of the matters to which I have been asked to respond. I am assured that the response which I gave to the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) was correct.

Dealing with one or two points raised, my hon. Friend the Member for Horn-church (Mr. Williams) asked about the level of penalties. Clause 33 provides that where there are serious contraventions of the regulations—regulations such as we are discussing within the context of Schedule 3—or contraventions of the licensing conditions, when those contraventions are serious—and some of the things we have discussed this afternoon would be serious contraventions—the fine will be open-ended. The maximum fine of £300 provided in the Factories Act and the fine of £400 provided in the present Magistrates Courts Act would not apply, and the fine would be open-ended. I hope that that gives the hon. Member some assurance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) raised the question of smells. He suggested that smells could constitute a threat to health. Emissions which may constitute a threat to health come within the scope of the powers of the new commission, within the scope of the regulations that can be made, and within the scope of the provisions of the Bill. Where the smells are merely an offensive nuisance and not necessarily a threat to health, they would come within the scope of the Control of Pollution Bill, which had its Second Reading yesterday.

As for the expertise available to the commission, we recognise the enormous demands made upon available expert resources by new and rapidly advancing technology. However, without being complacent, I must say that I was enormously impressed by the expertise shown by the Factory Inspectorate specialists at Flixborough. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) reminded the House, I visited the tragic disaster site both on the Sunday, and on the following Friday, with my right hon. Friend. I saw the factory inspectors at work, as well as chemical, explosives and fire inspectors. The other emergency services were looking to those inspectors for a lead and were submitting to their guidance because of the ability that they showed.

The commission will take within its scope not only the Factory Inspectorate but the inspectors who come under other Departments, like the alkali inspectors, the explosives inspectors and the nuclear installations inspectors, but it is envisaged that the commission will also establish specialist advisory committees to help with its work.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) has a constituency interest in what happened at Flixborough and has rightly shown, yet again, his concern about the villagers whose homes were affected. He asked for an assurance that in future people living in this kind of situation will be told of the risks. He will have gathered that Amendment No. 25, which I shall move later, meets precisely that point.

I understand and share the hon. Member's proper concern that compensation should be paid to those householders whose homes suffered from the nypro blast. The company said on the Sunday after the disaster that it fully accepted its responsibilities, was anxious to meet its commitments in full and would be establishing a committee to meet claims for damages. My right hon. Friend has expressed the view that Government or local authorities should be represented on the committee, as an additional voice to that of the company, in determining how the claims should be met.

Although the hon. Gentleman was right to remind the Government and other authorities of their responsibility, we should not overlook the responsibility of the companies themselves in these situations. Nor, in our anxiety to help the villagers, should we overlook the fact that our overriding concern must be for the relatives of those who died and those who were grievously injured by this tragedy.

The hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine), supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy), expressed powerfully and eloquently his deep concern about the difficult problem that he sees in his constituency. I would not seek to diminish the potential hazards, but since those additional matters are still subject to plan ning considerations it would be inappropriate for me to comment. In any case, they are the responsibility of the Secretary of State for the Environment. Certainly, as the hon. Gentleman asked, I shall draw what he and my hon. Friend have said to the attention of not only the Secretary of State but the Prime Minister.

The hon. Member also asked whether anything in the Bill would help the people of Canvey. He is concerned about the establishment of additional refinery capacity as well as the problem of existing capacity. If the hon. Gentleman's fears are justified—I do not say that they are not—I hope that the commission will be able to deal with the existing situation under Schedule 3(4). Without poring through the Bill to see in what other ways it will help, I can say that at least Amendment No. 25 will help to ensure that the people of Canvey are adequately informed of the risks which may surround them.

6.15 p.m.

Sir Bernard Braine

I am grateful for the Minister's thoughtful remarks, but I think that both the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy) and I would be disappointed if he did not convey to his right hon. Friends the fact, which no one would deny, that the Thamesside communities are the most threatened by their environment of any in the Kingdom. That being so, it is ironic in the extreme that the House should be considering a Bill which seeks to bring under control hazards affecting the environment of ordinary people without considering the communities which everyone recognises are under the greatest hazard of all. I hope that even if he cannot say anything about that today the Minister will not fail to remind his right hon. Friends of the gravity of the position faced by our constituents.

Mr. Walker

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall communicate not just the words of him and my hon. Friend but also the spirit of their speeches and the serious and grave tone of this important debate.

In the light of what I have said, I hope that my hon. Friend will agree to ask leave to withdraw this laudable new clause.

Mr. David Watkins

With his usual courtesy, the Minister has given detailed replies to the points raised. The gist of his speech was that in many important aspects the Commission will have the powers that we seek to give it. He also said that this is to a large degree an enabling Bill to take account of just such contingencies as the new clause would cover.

Nevertheless, this has been a valuable debate since it has allowed hon. Members like the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) to draw attention to valuable constituency experience and my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) to recount his vivid experiences in relation to the disaster in his constituency.

I accept that the Minister has said that the commission will have powers under other parts of the Bill to cover most of the points that we have raised. Nevertheless, it is right that the commission, the Government and everyone concerned with these developments should have been made aware of the concern throughout the House.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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