HC Deb 22 February 1978 vol 944 cc1605-14

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bates.]

11.19 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles (Winchester)


Mr. Speaker

Will the hon. and gallant Gentleman kindly resume his seat while hon. Members leave the Chamber? We shall time his Adjournment debate from when I call him again.

11.20 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

We have a little local difficulty in Andover in my constituency, and I am grateful to the Minister for coming here at this late hour. I am sorry to keep him and the staff and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, any longer at the end of a very long day.

The background to our little local difficulty is that Andover has had a Greater London Council overspill of industry and population over some years past; and generally it has worked very well indeed in the area. There is a site on the Walworth industrial estate which is leased from the council to Laing's, the concrete construction people, for concrete prefabrication. Now this site is vacant and a firm called British Vita, whose headquarters is in Manchester, wishes to take over the lease to build a factory there.

British Vita makes polyurethane foam for a very wide variety of purposes, and I suspect that the green Benches that we sit on are probably stuffed with this sort of polyurethane foam. It is made by a chemical process involving the use of a liquid chemical called TDI, a substance which has to be used very carefully. However, the local authority's technical experts are quite happy with what is proposed by British Vita, the fire brigade is quite happy with it, and the alkali inspectors are quite happy with it. The Health and Safety Executive, set up by the Government, is happy with it, and the Southern Water Board is happy with it. It therefore looks as though everything, ought to be in order. The Department of the Environment has granted an industrial development certificate, and I am sure that it would not have done so unless it were happy that the process was a safe one and suitable for the area.

I am very grateful indeed to the Minister for confirming this point by letter only yesterday. His letter, in essence, says that there is no objection from the point of view of his Ministry's experts.

The firm applied in the late autumn and the application went through all the stages of the various council committees. The planning committee, which is an executive committee, gave consent, the policy and resources committee gave consent, and all seemed set fair. The firm was ready to start. It was ready to spend a good deal of money in the area—£2½ million—to build the new factory. A lot of money was spent on designing the factory. It is a very go-ahead and enterprising firm, and it planned to be in production by January 1979 and to give employment, incidentally, to some 120 people. I should have thought that that would be very well received in Andover, where over 800 people are unemployed now.

However, a very widespread agitation has broken out to prevent the scheme going ahead. This has resulted more than anything else from a BBC "Nationwide" television programme which was transmitted in January, featuring one of the local councillors. I am bound to say to this House tonight that I think this was a most irresponsible film, and it has caused a great deal of alarm and despondency among my constituents. Wider than that, it has worried a great many people who are already working in this sort of factory in other parts of the country.

The BBC, I understand, was offered expert advice from the various trade associations under which these foam manufacturers and rubber manufacturers are grouped, but refused to accept that expert advice or participation and went ahead in its own way. It produced a film, and I have now seen the transcript of it. It was disgraceful in its irresponsibility, and this House—and possibly the Minister—will perhaps agree with me that it ought to be looked into. If the BBC, which is not answerable to anyone, can do as much damage to the people of this country as it has by putting out this film, I believe that that is something which should not be tolerated in a free society.

Following the film, and following a campaign organised in the area by a group of councillors and private individuals and some industrialists, I received a great deal of mail, some of it in favour of the scheme and some of it against. I ought to say at this stage that this is not a party matter at all—at least, I hope not.

Of course, it is entirely council responsibility to decide a matter of this sort, but, although it is entirely a matter for the local council, naturally a Member of Parliament has to inform himself and take a view about a matter of such importance concerning so many of his constituents.

I have talked to councillors and to the officers of the council, the Test Valley Council. I have been up to Manchester for myself to see the whole process of British Vita and, to cut a long story short, I am quite convinced that the process is safe. It is safe both for the workers working inside the factory and from an environmental point of view, for the industries and the residents nearby. The firm is very expert, very experienced and very responsible. I put it on record that, although I went up to see the firm having no knowledge of its existence until I went there and no knowledge of the processes, I came away extremely impressed with its care for the safety and health of its workers. Frequent medical checks are given, as I was able to verify from talking to people on the shop floor or to anyone within the factory. There was a very good training scheme, and the people working there know what they are doing. I thought it was altogether an admirable set-up. As the Minister knows only too well himself, being a Member of Parliament, I have to represent both those who want the factory to be built, "chop, chop"—if I may coin a phrase—and those who object to its being built.

When I asked for this Adjournment debate, I did not know what the result would be. This afternoon the council held a meeting with a big crowd inside the guildhall and with bigger crowds outside. Frankly, there were some emotive placards on display, one of which said Our lungs before your profits. I went to the council meeting this afternoon and heard a mass of evidence both for and against the scheme. I was allowed to speak, and I did so unequivocally in favour of the scheme. Had I heard nothing of the scheme beforehand, I would have been convinced in favour of it, based on the evidence that I heard.

However, I have learned this evening—just in the last few minutes—that the council has decided to rescind the minute to assign the lease to British Vita. The council in its wisdom has turned down the British Vita scheme flat, even after it had been through all the relevant committees.

There are many local political reasons why this may have happened, which need not concern the House tonight. I would only say that I am extremely disappointed with the result and would place on record that I think the council has made an absurd, even grotesque, decision. But I defend to the full its right to make that decision. The council has the right to decide—not this House nor myself.

I am very sorry for British Vita. It is an enterprising company which has spent a lot of money already in planning this ideal site which it was recommended to look at by the Department of the Environment. I fear that after this unfortunate decision by the council the company may find difficulty in getting anywhere else to build its factory. This can only be to the absolute detriment of the country's economic future and its export potential, because a great deal of the firm's product is exported. The firm is a very enterprising one and has a great deal of knowledge and know-how about this process. It has factories in about 20 countries all round the world.

In these unfortunate circumstances, the only thing I can do is to ask the Minister to take heed of what has happened. With the resources of his Department, perhaps he will undertake a broad inquiry as soon as possible into the use of TDI, because unless it is shown by the Minister or by some authentic body that TDI is safe if used properly—which I firmly believe—this part of British industry is under a very great disadvantage.

I shall be grateful if the Minister will undertake to see that his Department looks into the matter and in the fullness of time issues a definitive statement on it.

11.31 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Marks)

I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) for raising this issue and for the way in which he has expounded the case. Coming myself from an industrial area, I know that proposals for industrial development involving complex chemical processes can often give rise to concern on the part of local residents.

I welcome the chance to say something both about the particular circumstances of this case and about the arrangements for the control of industrial air pollution from difficult processes in general. Those who have studied the journals know that this process is expanding, and many industrialists have been told about the Walworth Estate and what a good one it is.

There is no need for a recommendation to go there either by the Department of the Environment or by any other Department, althouh I shall have something to say later about the approval given by the Department of Industry. It is not necessary for me to go over the background to this case in detail. The company's proposal is to construct a plant for the manufacture of chemical foam on a site of about 10½ acres on the Walworth industrial estate at Andover, which is an expanding town.

This proposal has been the source of concern, because the process involves the use of toluene di-isocyanate, commonly known as TDI. I shall use the shortened version, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman did. There has recently been a good deal of publicity about the process, about which the hon. and gallant Gentleman has gone into some detail. I shall not go into a discussion of the rights and independence of the BBC at this stage. I hope that in all future assignments it will try to give a balanced view of what is happening.

The local authority, in this case the Test Valley District Council, has granted planning permission for the plant. It is to be built on land in the ownership of the council. That was known when the application was put in. This is a matter entirely within the council's discretion. It is for the council to decide whether or not planning permission should be granted on the merits of the case, and it has done so. It would not have been appropriate for my right hon. Friend to call in a case of this sort since it does not raise implications of a regional or national kind.

TDI is used in a variety of approved processes in various areas. The local authority, in its planning function, has made its decision, for which it is democratically accountable to the electorate.

A few minutes before the debate started I learned that the council, in its role as owner of the estate, had refused to lease. As the hon. and gallant Gentleman said, probably more forcefully than I could have done, this is an astonishing decision and one not based an planning grounds.

Perhaps I should say something in general about TDI as a substance, although I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Industry, has given the hon. and gallant Gentleman an outline of the character of the process which is in question here. In appearance, TDI is a whitish liquid. It is used in a variety of industrial processes, including a number of coatings and the manufacture of nylon. Though it is toxic, it is not very volatile. It is not a dangerous material to store. It is also most important to note that it does not persist in the environment. It breaks down as soon as it comes into contact with moisture. Thus, emissions do not constitute a long-term environmental hazard.

Its effect on human beings in sufficient concentration is to produce irritation of the skin and eye. It can also cause asthma and is an irritant to mucous membranes. Prolonged exposure to very high concentrations can produce burns and sensitisation which leads to coughing and wheezing. But, because the substance has a strongly irritant effect, contact with it is likely to be very limited. It is not a lethal pollutant, but adequate care is needed in its control.

The recommended means of disposal is to allow it to react with water to produce carbon dioxide and other compounds. This method is to be applied in the present case—and I shall explain—by scrubbing the gases before emission.

However, before I come to the arrangements for the control of TDI in this case, I should refer to a point which my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Industry, made in writing to the hon. and gallant Gentleman. He explained the process whereby an industrial development certificate was granted for the plant, and also—a point which I should emphasise—that there was no question of the firm being directed to the Andover area. The company chose the site, and the Department of Industry accepted, purely on grounds of distribution of industry, that it was acceptable for it to invest there. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, the environmental side of the issue fell to be considered when planning permission was sought from the local authority.

I should now like to say something about the arrangements for the control of processes using TDI, and, indeed, difficult processes in general. Since 1971, processes like this one involving the use of TD1 have been amongst those scheduled under the Alkali, etc Works Regulation Act 1906. This means that the works where the process is carried on must be registered with the Alkali and Clean Air Inspectorate, which is responsible for supervising the operation of the process.

The basis of the inspectorate's control is a requirement that the best practicable means should be used to minimise emissions from a plant and also to render harmless what must be emitted. The inspectorate satisfies itself generally that appropriate pollution control equipment is installed in a plant, that it is properly operated and maintained, that the plant generally is kept in good order and that the operators of the process are properly trained. In other words, the inspectorate exercises powers of prior approval over the equipment installed and supervises all facets of the actual operation of the process.

In total, the inspectorate is responsible for supervising some 60 processes in over 2,000 works, which account in total for over 80 per cent. of the fuel burned in the United Kingdom. The inspectorate has published notes on the best practicable means for many of these processes, including di-isocyanate works. The notes set out the control requirements, including numerical emission limits where these are appropriate.

In the case of di-isocyanate works, the aim is to limit emissions to 0.02 parts per million, provided that the chimney is of an appropriate height to ensure adequate dispersion. The inspectorate is satisfied that plants using this substance can be operated acceptably as regards to the local environment as long as their control requirements are observed.

Since 1971, when it took responsibility for processes involving TDI, the inspectorate has developed control requirements in the light of the experience it has gained. This has included supervision of British Vita's existing plant in the Manchester area. I gather that the inspectorate has had satisfactory dealings with the company to date and is content that its processes can be operated in an acceptable way. The hon. and gallant Gentleman has, I know, visited the plant in Greater Manchester and taken a great interest.

I know that TDI is a highly toxic substance, but that is not to say that proper arrangements cannot be made for its control. In this case the inspectorate was consulted by the company at an early stage to establish what its requirements would be, and is now satisfied that the emission control measures proposed will be adequate to satisfy its requirements.

The gases produced in the process are to be scrubbed to minimise the actual emission, and there will be a 100 ft. chimney to disperse emissions. The inspectorate is satisfied that these control measures are the best practicable and that they are adequate. The inspectorate has, of course, been in touch with the local authority to notify it of its satisfaction with the company's proposals.

I do not feel that there is much more I can usefully say about the particular circumstances of this case, and I hope that the explanations I have given will have done something to reassure both the hon. and gallant Gentleman and his constituents who have expressed concern about the company's proposals.

We have a system of air pollution control in this country that enables us to achieve the levels of environmental protection we require in a cost-effective way: that is to say, without imposing needless burdens on industry. I make no apology for emphasising this. Our policies are aimed at the protection of both man's health and his environment from avoidable risk. But no industrial society can expect to be entirely free from pollution. It is necessary to strike a balance between economic activity and environmental protection. The methods of working of the Alkali and Clean Air Inspectorate, as I have outlined them in this brief debate, reflect this. The control requirements are based on practicalities, on great industrial experience of what can and must be done to ensure adequate protection.

A crucial part of our system is liaison between central and local government, both in pollution control matters as such and—to use the jargon—at the interface between pollution and planning. We are very conscious of the importance of good working relations between those, whether in the Alkali Inspectorate or in local authority environmental health departments, who are responsible for air pollution control, and those who are responsible for planning control.

This is an important local matter which we have been considering tonight—as has the council—to which there are no easy obviously right answers. But I must make one thing clear. If the Alkali Inspectorate had not been satisfied that the proposed plant could be operated satisfactorily without undue detriment to the local environment and community, it would have said so. It has given its expert opinion to the company and to the local authority that the control measures proposed for the plant will enable it to be operated so as to meet its requirements. Measures will be taken both to limit emissions as required by the best practicable means for the process and to disperse what is emitted so that there is no unacceptably high ground level concentration of pollution locally. As I have said, I hope that this will reassure people locally.

To summarise, TDI, though toxic, is a substance that can reasonably be used in industry, provided that proper controls are exercised. I hope I have shown that the expectation is that such controls will be exercised in this case. Of course, the Alkali and Clean Air Inspectorate will be responsible for the control of emissions from the plant, and if any problems arise, I shall be happy to discuss them with the hon. and gallant Gentleman and his constituents.

I repeat that the advisory services of my Department, particularly the Alkali Inspectorate, are available to the hon. and gallant Gentleman, his constituents, the council and, perhaps I should add, the BBC.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

I am grateful to the Minister. I am only afraid that Andover has missed a trick.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to Twelve o'clock.