HC Deb 14 April 1976 vol 909 cc1448-58

3.3 p.m.

Mr. Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the subject of the provision of toxic waste plants under the Control of Pollution Act 1974. I am also grateful that the Minister is here to answer the debate.

There are provisions in the Act requiring a survey and plan of the needs throughout the country to be carried out, but these have not yet been brought into effect. Indeed, a considerable time could elapse before any new waste disposal facilities are brought into being as a result of those provisions.

Therefore, in my view there is a danger of local authorities, charged with responsibility for finding the necessary sites, accepting proposals in a hurried and unplanned manner. Indeed, with local authorities acting individually, with no national or regional plan to follow, and no co-ordination, we could end up with a patchwork of ill-conceived and hastily erected plans throughout the country far in excess of our needs. [Interruption.] I hope that the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr), who has just walked into the Chamber, will not waste the time of the House, because we are a bit behind already. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr) must not intervene from a sedentary position.

Mr. Goodhew

This danger is already a reality and an important area of natural beauty in my constituency could be ravaged and spoiled for all time because of just such an ill-conceived proposal.

The Minister will be aware of an application by Contract Gully Cleansing Ltd. for permission to carry out the construction and operation of a treatment plant for toxic or hazardous liquid industrial waste at Redbourn Chalk Pit, Watling Street, Redbourn. The application dates back to 1974. The Hertfordshire County Council, the responsible authority designate under the Act, presumably anxious to act in that capacity, approved the application. I suppose that it did so feeling that it had to provide a site somewhere in the county.

The application was opposed by the St. Albans District Council, by the parish councils of Redbourn, Harpenden and St. Michaels, by the Redbourn Association, the Hertfordshire Society and other amenity associations as well as local residents of Redbourn. It was also opposed by the Member of Parliament—myself—in a written objection that was submitted to the public inquiry which was held on 18th March 1975.

The result of that public inquiry was that the then Secretary of State dismissed the appeal on matters of technical detail, but in his letter stated that he accepted the site in principle for an appropriately constructed plant. In that it seemed to me that he was pre-empting the right of my constituents to object to any new application. Nevertheless, I have advised the St. Albans District Council and all the others who objected to the original proposal to object to any new application that may be made.

After all, the chalk pit, in attractive rural surroundings, adjacent to the River Ver, is much frequented by walkers, naturalists and anglers. Indeed, the public footpath connecting St. Albans City with Redbourn village runs through the site. The site itself was designated as an area of special scientific interest under the National Parks Act 1949 for geological and botanical reasons. I shall not go into all these matters, because the Minister will have them available to him. Suffice to say that this is an open area of chalk, which is unusual in Hertfordshire, where the plants encourage butterflies, moths and other insects and animals which otherwise would not be there.

Furthermore, the Rothamstead Agricultural Experimental Station is less than two miles away. All this is apart from the traffic implications of the site being placed in this position.

The Minister will know that Redbourn village has running through it a high street, which is a main trunk road of 24 ft. 6 in., with pavements or footpaths of 3 ft. 3 in. on each side, on which two perambulators cannot pass, and where the requirement for a bypass has been accepted, but has been delayed because of stringency on public expenditure at this time. Therefore, any additional traffic of vast tankers thundering through this village must greatly affect the villagers.

The inspector himself felt bound to admit certain matters. In his letter, on page 2, paragraph 2(2), he said: To the question of whether that need —that is the need for the plant— is of such overwhelming proportions that it can override the general presumption against any kind of development in the Ver Valley, other than that appropriate to a rural area, there does not seem an easy answer. What amounts to a chemical treatment plant would undoubtedly be fundamentally out of place in such a rural location; and the comings and goings of vehicles to and from the plant and the noise and disturbance that would be created by the vehicular and other activity therein would inevitably be a source of detriment to the rural amenity in the general vicinity of the access land and appeal site. That seems an extraordinary basis on which the Secretary of State should finally decide in principle in favour of the site. The decision seems to have been based on the inspector's first conclusion. Again—I read from the letter—he said: Although a liquid industrial waste treatment plant of the type proposed would have the technical capability of treating only some 41 per cent. of the present liquid industrial wastes produced in Hertfordshire "— which I regard as a somewhat small percentage— and the total volume of those wastes would comprise only about 12 per cent. of the plant's total capacity "— in other words, 88 per cent. of the plant's capacity was to come from elsewhere— I see very little merit in viewing the need for such a waste treatment plant either in terms of what it would or would not be capable of treating or in the context of the needs of a single county. In order to ensure that the environment is properly and adequately protected, the safe disposal of hazardous wastes is of fundamental importance and this is particularly so of liquid wastes because of the ease with which, if disposed of irresponsibly, they can get into the underground or surface waters and becomes a source of pollution. I add, in parenthesis, that he can say that again. The forthcoming county surveys and waste disposal plans that will be required under the Control of Pollution Act 1974 will doubtless enable the problem of waste disposal to be both investigated and dealt with on a comprehensive basis; but in view of the fact that the provisions of the Act requiring a survey and plan have not yet been brought into effect, some considerable time could elapse before any new waste disposal facilities are brought into being as a result of those provisions. In other words, the then Secretary of State was saying that this is a beautiful spot, that it is the last place an earth for a toxic waste plant, but that as we have not yet got down to making a survey and plan we had better do something. His thinking was, to say the least, a trifle woolly. He was at that time the Minister responsible for protecting the environment—not for destroying it. Even the county council had some reservations. Paragraph 195 of the report of the inquiry said that In the not very distant future the county council would be required under the Control of Pollution Act 1974 to carry out a comprehensive survey of the waste disposal needs of the county and thereafter to produce and bring into operation a waste disposal plan; and the county council's environmental health officer had agreed that it would have been preferable to build a plant in Hertfordshire after the survey and plan had been completed, not the other way around. He had also agreed that the 59 per cent. of the county's wastes the proposed plant would not be capable of treating would remain a problem if the present application were successful. So here we are. It is quite remarkable, and what is particularly worrying is the lack of information on this whole subject. On 12th May 1975, I asked the Secretary of State how many sites within a radius of 100 miles of Hertfordshire were the subject of planning permissions or applications for the disposal of industrial waste. The answer was that the information was not available.

It is both astonishing and disturbing that there should be no such information. On 17th March this year I asked a fur- ther Question of the Secretary of State, about whether he would carry out a national survey to revalue the national and regional needs as to quantity and quality of dangerous waste for disposal. His answer was: No. Section 2 of the Control of Pollution Act will, when implemented, impose a duty on waste disposal authorities to conduct a survey of the controlled waste in their areas and to decide what arrangements are needed for its disposal. The Act provides for the authorities to co-ordinate their plans where waste arising in one county can most advantageously be disposed of in another."—[Official Report, 17th March 1976; Vol. 907, c. 568.] Since last year's inquiry, various alternative sites have been mentioned to him. The Minister probably knows about them, but I would gladly write to him about them.

We have the county council's letter which I received only a few weeks ago, which says that At the Planning Inquiry the County Council's relevant witness was asked, in cross-examination, whether he was aware of other disposal plan applications, the suggestion being that at least one of these might render the Contract Gulley plant unnecessary. The response was given that the County Council were aware of various applications made throughout the country and obviously the Secretary of State would take into account this evidence in reaching his decision. I wonder whether the Secretary of State did take that into account. I would like to ask the Minister today if he could not persuade the Secretary of State to call in the Redbourn application and all other outstanding applications under this Act and wait until the implementation of Section (2) of the Act before agreeing to any new sites.

I have been approached by a firm of solicitors, Messrs. Denton, Hall and Burgin, which acts for some of the interests locally. Its letter says: We consider that the most appropriate method for proceeding in this case under existing planning powers is for the Secretary of State to call in this planning application and to set up a planning inquiry commission into this and any other site which could possibly provide a better alternative within the region to be served, and that only after a thorough investigation of these alternative sites should a decision be taken. We think it should be emphasised that these powers are presently available under the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. However, the Secretary of State will not be able to make a decision on the submission of such a commission until the application has either been called in by him for decision or an appeal against a refusal or non-determination of the planning application by the Local Planning Authority … the very purpose of the planning inquiry commission procedure was to inquire into planning applications involving matters of national or regional importance or unfamiliar technical or scientific considerations. Surely that fits this case exactly.

Whilst I make a plea for the protection of an area of great natural beauty in my constituency, I have in mind that other mistakes could easily be made if the provision of toxic waste plants takes place in a piecemeal fashion as at present. I ask the Government to take action to prevent such a disaster taking place.

3.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

I commend the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) on his speech in what is really a continuation of the very spirited protest that he has been making on behalf of his constituents, who feel very strongly about what they regard as an intrusion into the environment of Red-bourn and the Ver Valley. It reflects the sort of local pride that can so often provide a driving force for improving or maintaining the quality of life in an area.

No one welcomes any reduction in the amount of countryside left to us for recreation and the tranquil enjoyment of natural scenery. Unfortunately, there are times when difficult decisions affecting rural areas have to be taken, when a balance has to be struck, and when the problem is not simply whether development should be permitted in an attractive area of countryside, but whether the gain from that development justifies the likely disadvantages from it in terms of reduction in the visual appeal of the area and the impact of the development on the life of the countryside.

In this case, which has been the subject of much correspondence and discussion, the decision of my right hon. Friend to indicate his approval of the scheme in principle, although the appeal was formally refused because of minor technical details, was taken only after long and careful consideration. A wide range of interested parties were represented at the local inquiry, and a similarly wide range of points were raised. All these, together with the inspector's recom- mendation, were taken into account by the Secretary of State.

My right hon. Friend noted in particular, as had the inspector, that the proposal had the full support of Hertfordshire County Council, the waste disposal authority, and that the Thames Water Authority also considered that the proposed arrangements to ensure the protection of water would be satisfactory.

I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to go into further detail on this particular case. Although the Secretary of State has announced his decision, it is, of course, not out of the question that he may have to consider a further appeal in respect of essentially the same development, as the hon. Gentleman himself has indicated. The hon. Member will, I hope, agree that in these circumstances it would be improper of me to anticipate the statutory processses by discussing the case for and against the development at this time.

The remarks that the hon. Member has made about the general situation in relation to waste treatment plants are, however, another matter, and I shall now deal with them.

The disposal of industrial waste is, as the hon. Member has indicated, a major and growing problem. It is vital that disposal facilities should be available. If they were not, industry would soon grind to a halt. The limited amount of land in this comparatively small island means that new ways of disposing of wastes—new places to put them—must constantly be sought, since any failure to match disposal capacity with the amount of waste being generated would have immediate and disastrous effects on the economic life of the country. The disposal of industrial waste is not an easy process. Done badly or in the wrong place it can threaten water supplies and endanger public health apart from any other environmental considerations.

Not all industrial wastes are dangerous. Most can be disposed of quite safely as long as the right precautions are taken. But it is clearly essential both that such precautions are taken and that a lack of disposal facilities does not tempt people to resort to illegal fly-tipping. For some of the most dangerous wastes, specialised treatment plants, which would serve wide areas of the country, may be needed, but for the wide range of industrial wastes, which demand care but no exceptional disposal methods, the main requirement is for adequate disposal facilities to be available fairly close at hand. Transporting the vast majority of industrial wastes over long distances for disposal is not only unnecessary; it can be positively harmful to the environment by creating extra traffic and by using up the disposal capacity at specialised plants or sites which would be better reserved for more dangerous wastes. For the great bulk of industrial wastes local disposal is much preferable.

These problems were debated at length both here and in another place during the passage through Parliament of the Control of Pollution Act 1974. There was agreement in all parts of the House that greater control should be exercised over the disposal of waste and that more thought needed to be given to matching the provision of waste disposal sites to the need for them. The Control of Pollution Act therefore provides that waste disposal authorities—in England, the county councils—should survey the wastes arising in or entering their areas as well as the present facilities for disposing of waste. As a result of these surveys the waste disposal authorities will be able to assess what disposal arrangements are needed for wastes in their area. The Act makes each waste disposal authority responsible for drawing up a waste disposal plan.

One of the major purposes of the Control of Pollution Act is to foster the sensible integration of waste disposal activities, whether these are undertaken by local authorities or by private firms. To this end the Act lays on waste disposal authorities the duty to consult widely when drawing up their plans. They must consult the water authority, the waste collection authority—in England, the district council—and representatives of the private waste disposal industry. Particularly important is the obligation on any waste disposal authorities whose plans include the export of waste for disposal in the area of another authority, to consult that authority. In addition, we shall be advising them to keep in touch with neighbouring waste disposal authorities, even where they are not proposing to export waste to them, so that they may see whether there are any opportunities for sharing which are not immediately obvious. Each waste disposal plan must be made publicly available before it is finalised, so it will be possible for the public as well as for waste disposal authorities to see how neighbouring plans interlock before final decisions are taken.

In view of all these provisions I do not think it is reasonable for anyone to claim that the Control of Pollution Act will lead to a situation in which individual authorities press ahead with meeting their own requirements and disregard what is happening just over their boundaries. Nor do I think it likely that an over-provision of disposal facilities will result. Nationally, we are still likely to need more disposal sites, including treatment plants. On the local level the waste disposal authorities will be in the best position to assess what their waste disposal problems are and how they can best be met. The establishment of a treatment plant requires as much investigation of the demand for the service offered as does any other industrial project. This in itself will tend to prevent the duplication of facilities which the hon. Member fears.

I very much regret that progress in implementing Part I of the Control of Pollution Act has been slower than we originally envisaged. We are hoping to introduce the licensing system for waste disposal sites within the next few weeks, and this will be a big step forward. It will not only give waste disposal authorities the power to exercise positive control over the disposal of waste in their areas; it will also extend their knowledge of the types and quantities of waste that are being disposed of, and where they are going. But, given the constraints on local authority expenditure, it was not possible to do everything at once, and the waste disposal plans, together with the surveys on which they need to be based, have had to take second place. We shall bring in the relevant provisions as soon as we can.

Meanwhile, many waste disposal authorities have gone ahead with their surveys in advance of any statutory requirement, and some are now showing interest in getting on with the plan. I believe that there is a real desire on the part of all waste disposal authorities to get on with both tasks as soon as the present very difficult financial situation allows.

I have stressed the important rôle placed by Parliament on the waste disposal authorities. This is not to imply that the Government have no responsibilities. My right hon. Friend will determine appeals against the decisions of waste disposal authorities on applications for disposal licences. He will receive copies of each authority's waste disposal plan and will therefore be able to assess the provisions being made in the national context. He will also exercise a general oversight of the new systems introduced under the Control of Pollution Act. The Department's officers are in close touch with the authorities all the time, and the very close contacts that are maintained are being reinforced by periodic meetings to keep the working of the new licensing system under review.

These systems are not sacrosanct. If experience suggests that modifications are necessary, my right hon. Friend will be ready to make them. But it is surely premature to dismiss as inadequate or harmful the provisions which this House has approved before they have even been put into practice. I cannot accept that intervention by Government to dictate whether waste treatment plants should be provided is appropriate. The machinery embodied in planning legislation and the Control of Pollution Act give ample opportunity for all the relevant factors to be taken into account. It would not be a proper use of the resources of central Government to attempt to short-circuit this machinery before it has been given a chance to work.

The hon. Member has raised a serious issue, one with which we have constantly to deal in the Department of the Environment. I assure him that I shall read carefully what he has said on this important matter and will be ready to receive any further representations fom him. In the light of the seriousness of this matter, I welcome this opportunity of putting our view on record. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that we shall go on trying to protect the environment, striking a proper balance, and taking note of all representations made by the hon. Member and his constituents on a matter about which they feel so strongly.

3.27 p.m.

Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)

I am sure that we are all grateful to the Minister and to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew). I do not want to discuss a particular case, although one has arisen in my constituency at Warboys. It is right that we should devolve—if that is not the wrong word—responsibility to local authorities for matters which so greatly affect local people. The county councils, as waste disposal authorities, are in great difficulty sometimes because they realise that the discretion that they have to exercise must depend upon factors which have an influence far beyond their own boundaries.

I hope that, in spite of my agreement with the Minister's remarks about not over-centralising things, in suitable cases where there is obviously difficulty for the local authority, the Secretary of State will not hesitate to call in an application either for a disposal plant or for the use of a site for disposing of toxic wastes.

I wonder whether the Government would consider creating a system for minimising the amount of toxic industrial waste that is created in our society.