HC Deb 04 August 1976 vol 916 cc1910-24

1.26 a.m.

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I suspect that I shall be the only speaker in this debate other than my hon. Friend the Minister.

I wish to raise two main questions concerning waste disposal in the West Midlands. One concerns toxic waste disposal. The second is the long-term situation as regards general waste disposal in the West Midlands by means of incineration and land fill.

The people in the area of the West Midlands County Council have been made very aware of this problem by the local Press in the past six or seven weeks. The local Press has excelled itself by bringing to the public's attention a major hazard which has occurred. There is near Walsall the shaft of a former coal mine—Walsall Wood Colliery—which for some years has been used for the dumping of toxic waste. In a recent 12-month period 10 million gallons of waste was poured down the mine shaft. It is a warren of toxic waste, because the shaft goes 500 feet underground and then 3,000 feet along the old mine workings.

The action of dumping waste has been defended by the company disposing of the waste—Effluent Disposal Limited. It intends to continue dumping millions of gallons of waste down the mine shaft for the next 20 years—in fact, till the end of the century. It claims that the mine shaft is a safe geological bottle, because the toxic poisonous waste cannot escape.

In fact, this is a geological time bomb which will probably affect our children and future generations. No one really knows what is happening down there. It is not possible to inspect the underground area. Even worse, six weeks ago a blockage occurred. The shaft and the workings can supposedly be used for 20 years. Because of the blockage, nothing is being dumped down there. The company is attempting to get planning permission to bore a hole to release the blockage by means of air pressure. The local residents are very opposed to this. Most of them did not appreciate what was happening. It was only the blockage that brought the operations at the mine shaft to the attention of the public.

Toxic waste is still being generated in the West Midlands. It is, in fact, being generated all over the country, because 40 per cent. of the waste which was being disposed of down the mine came from other parts of the country. The waste is still being disposed of, but now it is not hidden away several hundred feet below the ground but is being disposed of in an open lagoon of several hundred thousand gallons of poisonous waste. It is so dirty that the Health and Safety Inspectorate will not allow its inspectors to investigate the site. The lagoon is littered with tin drums and other rubbish which cannot be recovered. The area has been condemned as "monstrous" by Sir Stanley Yapp, who says that it is The unacceptable face of tipping", and that Effluent Disposal Ltd. is showing a reckless disregard for planning conditions". It has been condemned by the chairman of the county council's planning committee as totally unacceptable. Calls have gone from the county council, which has overall responsibility for the problem, to the Department of Industry urging Ministers to explore the possibility of offering incentives to firms to purchase equipment with which to treat their own waste. That is a laudable step because little is being done in that direction in this country—although I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will describe moves that are being made to avoid the dumping of waste in Essex. Wholesale dumping occurs off our shores, and there is also the nuclear waste that we do not know what to do with.

In theBirmingham Evening Mail of 6th July the Managing Director of Effluent Disposal Ltd, Mr. Malcolm Wood, referring to the remarks of Sir Stanley Yapp, is quoted as saying: Sir Stan is fully entitled to his opinions. He has only to close us down and he can deal with the 800 industrial firms in the West Midlands who seem to think that we are the right place for them. If he will tell us to which county waste disposal sites we can take the effluent, we will do it tomorrow. That is an irresponsible attitude. He shows not the slightest concern over the generating of waste. Those 800 firms should be doing something about the problem themselves.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will support the initiative of Sir Stanley Yapp and his colleagues on the West Midlands County Council and persuade the Department to take action. The problem will not go away. There will be constant battles over the planning application to bore a hole to open up the mine shaft. My constituents will not stand for that, nor will those of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Edge). He has received representations against the proposal to open up the mine shaft. We cannot allow waste to be deposited in an open lagoon for many more weeks. Action must therefore be taken.

While that specific problem is urgent, it is peripheral to the general problem of the disposal of household and industrial refuse. As long as their dustbins are emptied each week, the public do not want to know about the problem. They acknowledge the difficulties only when their dustbins are not emptied. The massive amount of refuse generated by modern society creates an enormous problem.

A very useful report by the West Midlands County Council chief executive, published in January, outlined the waste disposal problems in the county area. A horrifying picture was presented in the report, a copy of which was sent to my right hon. Friend. I shall mention the main areas in which his Department is responsible for finding a way round the problem.

The crunch is that land-fill sites are insufficient to allow for effective medium-term or long-term plans for waste disposal. In some areas there is a critical situation. We have different techniques for land filling. I shall not go into the technical aspects, such as the compression of waste before it is put in land-fill sites.

I thought that it would be impossible to find a benefit from the 1974 reorganisation of local government, but certain areas of the West Midlands will benefit. In Walsall there is only two to three years' supply of land-fill sites available. Dudley, Sandwell and Solihull District Councils will exhaust their land-fill sites in the next three years. Wolverhampton and Coventry operate only incineration and have no emergency tipping sites for use if the incinerators break down. Birmingham, a former all-purpose local authority, had a good record in many aspects of local government, and it has massive incineration sites, land-fill sites and emergency land-fill sites.

There were no plans before local government reorganisation to build incinerators at Dudley, Sandwell and Solihull or to extend the land-fill sites. I do not know what would have happened if local government had not been reorganised and the problem had not been pushed on to the county council. How those three large urban districts would have disposed of their rubbish, I do not know. This shows a degree of incompetence by the officers of the three former authorities.

I level no charges against the officers of the present authorities, although they may be the same people wearing different hats. Those responsible before 1974 for waste disposal policy in the areas I have mentioned probably would not last five minutes in a job in industry. If they are still involved in waste disposal in local government they should be carpeted, if not booted out. Their lack of planning has put a burden on the ratepayers of the districts that had done something about the problem, particularly the largest, Birmingham. The Birmingham ratepayers will have to get the ratepayers of other areas out of the mess their officials got them into through lack of foresight and planning.

The problem will not go away. I understand that demand for the use of land-fill sites in the West Midlands runs to 1.1 million cubic metres a year, even with the present use of incinerators in the area. I think that there are nine incinerators run by the county council. There are some private incinerators as well. Land-fill sites are being used up much faster than they are being acquired. As can be seen from the figures, within the next three years a serious situation will arise. We cannot wait three years before we start finding new sites.

One of the problems which is constantly raised in the West Midlands concerns the tight boundaries drawn around the West Midlands County Council following reorganisation in 1974. There is little green belt. Reorganisation plans were severely criticised by all parties in the West Midlands county area. This has prevented many policies for housing, industry and transport being pursued. Waste disposal is not something that is at the top of everyone's agenda—until something goes wrong and the waste starts piling up in the streets or poisonous industrial waste is tipped and forms lagoons in residential areas.

The Warwickshire County Council has been approached by the West Midlands County Council. The reply from Warwickshire, summarised in the report of the chief executive on page 25, says that the Warwickshire County Council indicated to the West Midlands County Council that there might be difficulties in the use of certain sites in the Warwickshire area for waste disposal operations due to the public's objection to imported waste from the West Midlands conurbation. That is a pretty disgraceful attitude when we think that a good many of the people who live in the villages of Warwickshire county area conduct their business activities in the West Midlands county area, either as owners of businesses or as employees.

It is the West Midlands county area that provides a great deal of the wealth of the West Midlands area. It ill becomes areas such as Warwickshire, which has umpteen exhausted gravel pits, which will have to be filled in some day and which are a scar on the landscape, to take this attitude. There is adequate capacity there for several years—well beyond this century. The attitude shown by Warwickshire should be taken up by the Department. It will be a serious handicap.

I understand that the Greater London Council has similar problems. One of the Press cuttings I have says that the GLC has been exploring as far afield as Warwickshire and Worcestershire looking for land-fill sites. The problem for the GLC is exactly the same as it is for us. There are tightly-drawn boundaries. This problem will not be solved by each authority having to dispose of its own waste when there are so many areas around the country which can be used for this purpose.

That is not to say that I do not want policies that will lead to our avoiding the generation of waste. I do not believe that twentieth-century society is known for its care of the environment in many aspects, certainly not for its wholehearted use of resources in a meaningful way through reclamation and recycling. We waste an enormous amount of resources, be it rubber, glass or paper, manufactured goods or natural materials. Once they are dumped, they are lost forever. There are examples of district heating schemes which use waste to generate heat.

A large company in the middle of Birmingham, IMI, has one of the largest private incinerators in the West Midlands. It uses waste from outside sources on a commercial basis and supplies half of its power requirements. During the three-day working week it was able to operate properly because it had this large incinerator. There are problems outlined in the county council's report regarding special waste such as that from hospitals and abandoned vehicles. A total of 1,700 vehicles abandoned in the West Midlands annually. That is not a large number. It shows that some vehicles are being taken through the trade.

With regard to animal carcases, the point is made in the report that the situation could become quite terrifying. The disposal of animal carcases in the West Midlands is generally left to two private firms which pick up 100,000 animal carcases per annum from the RSPCA, the PDSA and so on, and use them for the breeding of maggots and the manufacture of fertiliser. The county executive states in the report that the ratepayers would be faced with a serious problem if either of these firms ceased operations, the reason being that the incinerators used for the purpose have to be specially modified to dispose of animal carcases.

The situation concerning the disposal of scrap tyres in the West Midlands is bordering on the ludicrous. Some 20,000 tons of used tyres has to be disposed of in the West Midlands county area. I am told that 45 per cent. is reprocessed in one way or the other, leaving some 55 per cent.—11,000 tons of scrap tyres—to be dumped. What could be more ludicrous than a natural resource that originally came from the ground, via the trees, being buried back in the ground?

My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the Green Paper dealing with waste, published in September 1974, heralding a new policy for reclamation. It talked in paragraph 34 about rubber and the disposal of car tyres. There had been a national survey, and it pointed out that one-third of a million tons of tyres had to be disposed of each year. The survey suggested that substantially less than half the tyres were dumped. That may be the position nationally but it is certainly not the position in the West Midlands, where 55 per cent. or more is being dumped and buried underground. In addition, there is no generation of waste heat from the tyres. They are simply filling up sites which would normally be used for other purposes related to waste.

Ministerial action is required by the county council and by the taxpayers in the area. We cannot convert overnight the 800 firms which are disposing of their own waste, much of which is extremely dangerous. Therefore, some appropriate action has to be taken to deal with the problem. We cannot just go round the country looking for odd sites. The matter has to be handled with care. Hydrological surveys have to be taken, otherwise we simply pollute the water that is in the ground.

As to reclamation, I have read the report on the trial in the city of York by the glassware manufacturers. They wanted to train or encourage people to save glass and to separate out the coloured glass from the rubbish. The idea was related to no-deposit glass bottles, but after a three months' exercise it appeared that 12 per cent. of the bottles collected were deposit bottles. Apparently the people did not even bother to collect their deposits. There is something more than the situation existing in York which needs to be tackled, and perhaps it requires to be done on a national basis.

We cannot go on building incinerators willy-nilly, and the number of gravel workings and quarry sites available for the dumping of waste is limited. We cannot continue to do this for centuries to come. Incineration can be clean and can be very efficient technically. The county council is at the moment building a new incinerator at Tyseley, in Birmingham. The chairman of the environmental services, Councillor Knowles, said in a letter to me two weeks ago that under the Government directives we are unlikely to get any money for capital schemes of this type for some years to come". If the implication is that incinerators will not be built in the West Midlands, at least three of the seven areas I have mentioned will not have any capacity for disposing of household rubbish. My right hon. Friend must take that matter on board.

Site acquisition is the next possibility. If we do not build enough incinerators, action must be taken to sort out the areas—I have highlighted Warwickshire, but there are other places—where there are adequate sites which are not close to residential areas. We must not have a situation where a county can say "We do not want the rubbish from the conurbation." That is not a reasonable attitude to take.

I realise that this is a West Midlands problem, but I have a constituency interest. Within my constituency is the site of some disused gravel workings. My right hon. Friend knows about it because he lived in the area at one time. The site covers 147 acres. Some of those responsible for waste disposal in the West Midlands have got their beady eyes on that site. The potential for landfill on the site is 3 mililon cubic yards. At the rate at which we require sites—1 million cubic yards a year— that would be available for only three years; but that would buy a lot of time to look for other sites.

I understand from the county planner that the site would not take more than 1 million cubic yards if a proper reclamation scheme were operated for the site. I am referring to the old site of the Queslett Sand and Gravel Company, known variously as the Queslett or Great Barr quarry or the Booths Lane site.

The county planner has said that the county will not allow the area to be used as a landfill site without its forming part of a total reclamation plan. The site is in a built-up area alongside schools, houses and the M6 motorway. The residents will not stand for it being filled up, levelled, and someone saying "What shall we build on it?" That is no use at all. It has been a disused quarry for some years and there is a nature reserve on the site now. It could be used for housing and recreation. Indeed, it is being used for certain emergency refuse disposal. No one will object to 1 million cubic yards of waste being dumped there if the reclamation plan is worked out before the dumping takes place.

The Severn-Trent Water Authority is to conduct a hydrological survey in the area of the site to ensure that any dumping of waste will not affect the water in the area. I should like my right hon. Friend to bear in mind that different authorities—the Severn-Trent Water Authority and the West Midlands County Council—are already looking at that site. I hope that the Department of the Environment will take a national view.

We should not allow a situation to develop which will enable people in two or three year's time to say "It is a major scandal. Neither the Government nor the council have done anything about it. No one has blown the whistle on it. There has been the usual cock-up that tends to occur in this area."

That is why I have taken this opportunity to raise the matter. I do not expect my right hon. Friend to give me any cast-iron answers, but I expect those in the West Midlands who are concerned about the position to be able in future to refer to this short debate and to hold the Government responsible—I know that my hon. Friend takes a keen interest—for taking action.

We must see some action if, first, future generations are not to be poisoned because of the dumping of toxic waste and, secondly, if the general industrial situation and householders are not to be buried in mountains of their own rubbish, the creation of the throw-away society that we have constructed in the twentieth century.

1.55 a.m.

The Minister for Sport and Recreation (Mr. Denis Howell)

I am sure that the House listened carefully as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) gave us a catalogue of the difficulties of waste disposal in one of our great industrial conurbations. As a sideline, he let my colleagues into the intricacies of the geography of the area in which my wife and I did our courting in our early days. It is, therefore, right to say that I have an intimate knowledge of the area.

I listened very carefully to my hon. Friend, especially as he concluded by saying that posterity would hold me and the Government responsible. The fact is that the Government do not have responsibility for the things for which he thinks they should accept responsibility. I shall try to deal with some of the points raised by my hon. Friend, but every matter that he raised is the responsibility of the local authority.

The Government have done more on this subject than has ever before been attempted. My hon. Friend spoke as though the Control of Pollution Act has not been passed. The first thing that we did on returning to power in 1974— and I regard it as no small achievement—was to get through Parliament, between the two elections of February and October, the 109-section Control of Pollution Act. It is the most advanced piece of legislation of its kind in the world, and I think it is evidence of the Government's acquaintance with the real and serious problems involved. I take no issue with my hon. Friend over that. He is right to outline the problems, but the passing of the Act means, as I am sure my hon. Friend will accept, that the responsibility for action lies firmly with the local authorities and the regional water authorities.

If at any time the West Midands authority, which is the waste disposal authority designated under the Control of Pollution Act—and particularly my old friend Councillor Dick Knowles, whom many of us remember for his work on behalf of the Labour Party and who is doing sterling work as a member of the authority—were to feel that efforts or initiatives were required by my Department, we should be delighted to listen to what he has to say.

With regard to the general problem of the disposal of toxic waste and the disposal of rubbish generally, and in particular the situation with regard to Walsall Wood, if my hon. Friend thinks that it would help me to visit the West Midlands and look at the situation, perhaps in company with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Edge), in whose constituency one finds the Micto site, I should be happy to put myself at the disposal of the authority and to do what I can to make sure that it has the powers that it requires.

It is the opinion within my Department that the West Midlands County Council is probably one of the most progressive and relevant local authorities in this respect. It has a very highly-qualified technical staff, and it is one of the authorities which, in advance of being required to do so by the Government under the Control of Pollution Act, is conducting a survey and providing a plan of the refuse and waste within its area. The council has, in fact, taken the initiative to conduct the survey and provide the plan.

This will be one of the important requirements of the Control of Pollution Act. Because of the financial limitations that are imposed on local authorities, we are asking them to start this on a purely voluntary basis in advance of making it a statutory requirement. It is very difficult to ask local authorities to exercise considerable restraint and then impose further financial burdens upon them.

We believe that there are many areas like the West Midlands which could get on with a survey and a plan, and we ask them to do so. As soon as we can, we will make it a statutory obligation on all the other authorities which have not yet got the staff to make a start now.

As my hon. Friend said, the West Midlands authority, in association with Imperial Metal Industries, is carrying out a pilot study to investigate the scope for using domestic waste as fuel. The West Midlands is one of the authorities which takes very seriously the responsibilities laid upon it in the Deposit of Poison Waste Act—the second of the great environmental Acts which this Government have piloted on to the statute book.

Mr. Rooker

Of course, I pay tribute to the fact that those Acts have gone on to the statute book, but many parts of them are taking a long time to come into operation. When my right hon. Friend has made it a statutory duty on the councils to get their waste disposal plans done, he will find that the Department will be confronted with a problem. There will be areas, such as the West Midlands, in which there are not normally enough land-fill sites, while in neighbouring areas, such as that of the Warwickshire County Council, there will be an excess of sites. Will the Department be in a position to reconcile the problems of these two councils?

Mr. Howell

At this time of night I certainly would not suggest that members of one local authority could march into the area of another and commandeer sites. If, however, we have the surveys and plans to which I have referred, it will be a duty of my Department to confer with the local authorities about any shortcomings these surveys and plans throw up. I give the undertaking that we will do this.

I agree with what my hon. Friend said about the very narrow confines of the boundaries by which the metropolitan authority was drawn. I do not share his great enthusiasm for the results of the local government reorganization—

Mr. Rooker

It was the only good point.

Mr. Howell

My hon. Friend says that it was the only good point, and it may be that this is so. But the very point he has made illustrates the real shortcomings of putting together in one metropolitan county such as we have in the West Midlands—stretching from Wolverhampton to Coventry—all the social, industrial and waste disposal problems of the Midlands. Their confinement within one local authority's boundaries means that that authority cannot solve its own problems. Sooner or later, and I believe it will be sooner, we shall have to look again at the results of this rather ludicrous local government reorganisation which was foisted upon the country.

Under Section 1 of the Act a waste disposal authority is required to ensure that adequate arrangements are made by that authority and other persons for the disposal of controlled waste. It is now made an obligation for each local authority to be responsible for the disposal of the waste arising within its area. That is not to say that it must deal with all the waste that arises, but it must be responsible for it. There are two major sites for toxic wastes in this country, one at Walsall Wood and the other at Pitsea. I have always thought that it was totally unsatisfactory for large tankers to have to travel from all over the country to deposit toxic waste in only two sites, but it is very difficult to find other sites.

This is the first debate that we have had concerning the site at Walsall Wood, but I have taken part in a number of other debates about the problems arising at Pitsea. That site causes offence and creates problems with the large tankers carrying toxic wastes through the streets. For the moment, however—and this is one of the great justifications for the Act—only two such sites exist. The local authorities have far wider powers for dealing with those sites. They have a bargaining position when dealing with other local authorities in whose areas the wastes arise. They can say that they will no longer accept waste on the same scale as hitherto.

Under Section 2 of the Act, a waste disposal authority has a duty to survey both the waste and the facilities. As my hon. Friend said, the Severn-Trent authority has to be brought into the question of the Booths Lane, Perry Barr site. It is vitally important where there are lagoons or where dumping takes place in shafts that there should be daily tests of water resources and so on to make sure that the toxic wastes are not escaping into the watercourses. That was the great concern in the Pitsea case. The Thames Water Authority continued to monitor the site daily. I would expect the Severn-Trent Water Authority constantly to monitor the situation on the Walsall Wood site.

My hon. Friend asked what could be done about these sites. The Walsall District Council and the West Midlands County Council are unhappy about the present disposal operation on the Mitco site.

They are discussing with Effluent Disposal Ltd. what improvements should be made. I understand that the district council has served a "stop" notice under planning legislation on the site for alleged breach of planning conditions. If there has been a breach of planning consent, the law is adequate to deal with that and we shall follow with interest the result of the council's action.

The council is also considering, if it has not already taken, further action under the nuisance provisions of the Public Health Act 1936. It is open to the West Midlands County Council to prosecute under the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act 1972 if it considers that environmental hazards are being created on any of the sites mentioned by my hon. Friend.

A licence tinder the Control of Pollution Act will be required immediately for the use of a new shaft if one is to be sunk, and I see from aBirmingham Mail cutting that the county council seems agreeable to the sinking of a new shaft because the existing shaft is blocked. No one knows why it is blocked or how long it will take to unblock it.

I hope I have convinced my hon. Friend that we take his general point very seriously. We understand the difficulties. The whole nation has to be served and plans must be made.

If shortcomings become apparent when those plans have been made, we shall have to return to the matter. In the circumstances outlined by my hon. Friend, there would be shortcomings that we should need to consider.

I think that I covered my hon. Friend's question about the Walsall Wood shaft in my general review. It is the responsibility of the West Midlands County Council, in association with the regional water authority, to satisfy itself that the dumping undertaken by Effluent Disposal Ltd. is safe. It has adequate powers to do that.

I shall look carefully at the four points on which my hon. Friend suggested that ministerial action was required—toxic waste, reclamation, incineration and site acquisition—but I do not think that they are the immediate responsibility of Ministers as we have put responsibility for the control of pollution on local authorities and regional water authorities. However, I shall write to my hon. Friend if there appears to be a void in the legislation dealing with these matters.

Incineration would require a major amount of capital, which could be difficult in the present climate. Capital availability is known to local authorities and they must determine their own priorities. In some areas the priority might be incineration, in other areas it might be another aspect of local services.

My hon. Friend has raised some extremely important matters. It is right that they should be brought constantly before the House. It is right that we should examine our legislation and procedures to ensure that they are adequate. My hon. Friend is right to say that the problem is likely to become more pressing and not less pressing. It is right that we may have to return to these matters to strengthen or extend legislation after the planning and surveying has taken place. I can assure my hon. Friend, on behalf of my right hon. Friend, that we shall not fail to take that action if we feel that it is needed. I hope that for the moment he will rest assured that the priority we have given to this subject in the past two years is evidence that we share his concern.