HC Deb 24 March 1981 vol 1 cc807-10
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

With permission, I shall make a statement about Canvey Island.

An exploratory local inquiry was held in 1975 to consider whether to revoke outline planning permission that had been granted to United Refineries Limited for an oil refinery. At the inquiry an assessor recommended study of the inter-related risks of the Canvey area. This study was then carried out by the Health and Safety Executive, which concluded that the risks did not justify closure of any of the existing installations at Canvey provided that certain improvements were carried out. The local inquiry was reopened in 1980 to take account of its findings and the inspector was asked to consider the safety aspects of the proposed refinery, having regard to existing uses in the vicinity.

I am publishing the inspector's report today. Copies have been placed in the Library.

On the matters under consideration before the inquiry, the inspector found no real disagreement with the Health and Safety Executive's findings on the order of risks involved, and he concluded that the additional risk from the proposed refinery would in itself be comparatively small.

However, notwithstanding improvements initiated following the HSE study, the inspector was concerned about the possible consequences of any incident at the nearby British Gas methane terminal, and judged that it would be wrong for that terminal to remain sited so close to the resident population unless a foolproof device for the protection of the public could be installed.

I must stress that the methane terminal was not itself the subject of the inquiry. The inspector did not consider, and was not asked to consider, all the issues involved in the safety of this plant, but in the light of his very serious remarks I consider that it is essential for these issues to be properly and urgently subjected to a full inquiry, at which all the facts and opinions can be evaluated and considered.

I am therefore today contacting the Castle Point district council with a view to arranging a full inquiry under planning powers, to be arranged as soon as possible. The inspector, with specialist assessors, will be asked whether it would be right to begin discontinuance procedures or whether, in the light of the evidence given to the inquiry, such a step would be inappropriate.

As the terminal is operational land of a statutory undertaker the report will be made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy as well as to me. Meanwhile, I propose to defer further a decision on whether the United Refineries Limited permission should be revoked. I shall also defer deciding a planning appeal by London and Coastal Oil Wharves Limited for development at its site near the methane terminal.

I am sure that the House will agree that we must reach properly informed decisions on these issues, which concern both the safety of people living in the area and the public interest in maintaining the gas supply.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)

I thank the Secretary of State for making the statement. I thank him, in particular, for deciding to publish the report. That is a most helpful action. I am sure that he will agree that there will be a great deal of concern in the Canvey, Thurrock area, which is in any case a high-risk area, as a result of his announcement, not because anyone would quarrel with it or challenge it but because the very fact that the right hon. Gentleman has called for an inquiry will, of itself, heighten anxiety about the situation in this area.

Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance that the inquiry will be as speedy as possible and that the outcome and the findings will be published as quickly as possible? Will he also assure the House that whatever the findings and recommendations of the inquiry, and whatever interest they may damage, if they are helpful to the environment of the people living in the area he will not flinch from carrying them out?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's comments. I think that I can help. I would want to proceed as quickly as possible, compatible with the thorough nature of the job to be done and the preparation of the necessary work and evidence. The inspector's report that follows from the inquiry would have to be published. I take the point put to me by the right hon. Gentleman that there is bound to be public concern and public interest in the matter. It has been a characteristic of this situation for a considerable time. In one sense, I believe that the holding of a major public inquiry of this sort will reassure people of the Government's determination to see that all the issues are properly ventilated as quickly and as effectively as possible.

Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that having fought for years for a full investigation of the huge concentration of risk from gas, chemical and oil storage to which my constituents have been exposed, I am delighted, as they will be, to hear that this is now conceded and that, in the meantime, the development of other hazardous activities is to be frozen? That is a victory for common sense.

My right hon. Friend will appreciate that when I have studied the inspector's report there will no doubt be many questions that I shall wish to ask. There are, however, three that occur to me now. First, will my right hon. Friend be good enough to explain why it is necessary to have an exploratory inquiry—that is, an inquiry into an inquiry—into the feasibility of removing the British Gas terminal, which accounts for one-third of the total potential risk to my constituents? Surely, if he is to allay public anxiety about a major hazard that has already had three enforcement notices served on it by the Health and Safety Executive for neglect of elementary safety precautions, he should set up his main inquiry forthwith.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend will know that British Gas is already decommissioning its below-ground storage of liquefied natural gas. Can he tell the House how long this welcome process will take?

Finally, can my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that in the meantime the British Gas Corporation will not be permitted to reactivate its liquefied petroleum gas pipeline, as it is seeking to do, which would give it an excuse for permanent above-ground LPG storage on the island?

Mr. Heseltine

I believe that the whole House is aware of the assiduous manner in which my hon. Friend has sought to represent the interests of his constituents as he saw them. I am grateful for his remarks. I shall try to deal with the questions that he has put.

The inspector's report arose not from an inquiry into the methane terminal but from an inquiry into another planning matter. In that sense, it would be wrong for me to make a final judgment about whether I have the evidence upon which to move for discontinuance and, therefore, to that extent, to put the Government's opinion behind such a step.

I fully understand the validity of my hon. Friend's question, but in the circumstances it is right to establish the facts in respect of the British Gas terminal before we decide whether it is right to discontinue it.

My hon. Friend's second question concerned the time taken to decommission the underground storage. I understand that the time is expected to be about two years, but of course it will depend on the availability of alternative storage, principally in the Isle of Grain.

The third question concerned the reactivation of the liquid gas pipeline. The Health and Safety Executive would need to approve any such proposals, but I understand that at present it is not proposed to increase overground storage in connection with the reactivation of any underground pipeline. If that were to happen it would again be within the purview of the Health and Safety Executive.

Mr. Speaker

I propose to call the three hon. Members who have been rising.

Dr. Oonagh McDonald (Thurrock)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that his statement will be very welcome to the people of Thurrock? Will he assure the House that, in the additional inquiry that is about to commence, Thurrock borough council will be consulted, since a major incident in the Canvey Island area would affect Stanford-le-Hope and Corringham in my consituency? Will the right hon. Gentleman further accept that, to ensure public safety, further public spending may be involved or that assistance may need to be given to the companies that are already present in the area? Will he ensure that public expenditure of that nature will be forthcoming if the results of the inquiry show that it is necessary.

Mr. Heseltine

We shall, of course, keep the Thurrock borough council fully involved. It will be fully aware of the procedures and will have an opportunity to make its views known to the inquiry, should it wish to do so. At the moment, it is premature to try to judge what may emerge from the inquiry and to make commitments about public expenditure. The cost of accommodation would fall to Castle Point district council and the cost of the inquiry itself would fall to my Department. However, we shall have to judge the recommendations and findings of any report and then decide on the expenditure that may be necessary. If the Government decided that it was in the interests of the safety of the people to take certain steps, I cannot believe that public expenditure constraints would prove an overriding barrier

Sir Albert Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Trinity House pilots are extremely concerned about the Merchant Shipping Act which could result in a relaxation of pilotage in this part of the River Thames? Will my right hon. Friend arrange for them to give evidence in any inquiry?

Mr. Heseltine

I am sure that they would have a right to give evidence to the inquiry. Clearly, they would regard that as important.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the care and consideration that he has given to what is, by any standards, a vital safety and planning matter, and which, if he takes a certain decision, may be without precedent. Will he confirm that the planning permission was given by the Secretary of State and not by a local planning authority? Will he say what compensation is likely in the event of a revocation taking place?

Mr. Heseltine

I thank my hon. Friend for what he says, but I think that the procedures should be allowed to take their course before the House makes judgments about how the bills are to be apportioned between public bodies. Clearly, issues of public safety would have to prevail, and the allocation of costs would need to be discussed in those circumstances.