HC Deb 11 May 1981 vol 4 cc594-600

Motion made, and Questions proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Le Marchant.]

12.5 am

Mr. Richard Needham (Chippenham)

I am grateful that the House is prepared to listen to me at this late hour on this important matter of the Department of the Environment's approach towards planning applications for nuclear shelters. This matter causes great concern to both sides of the House, as can be seen.

The Government, in their guidelines on domestic nuclear shelters, have gone some way towards making clear what the public should or should not do in the event of the horrible possibility of a nuclear war. This has inevitably created considerable debate within the country as a whole. Obviously, the tensions in the world have heightened the debate and in some sense made the matter more immediate and, therefore, more important to debate.

The domestic nuclear shelters that the Government have proposed are all very well for those who are able to purchase them and have sufficient ground in which to build them. They do not, however, deal with the problems of those who live in high-rise flats or those who do not have cellars. Therefore, many people who cannot have domestic nuclear shelters might, in the event of such a holocaust, look for some alternative.

That alternative concerns me, because no solution has been offered by the Government for such people. Into this gap have come various companies, some extremely reputable and others not so reputable, which have offered some kind of solution to the question of people's safety in the event of war.

There is such an application in my constituency, before the local district council. It is in the name of a company called Rusepalm Shelters. I am not sure whether "Rusepalm Shelters" is a hidden pun on the confidence trick that the company may be attempting to play on the ordinary public or on the fact that the Russians may attack us.

In any event, the company, playing on the legitimate fears of many people, has produced a pamphlet to encourage people to take up shelters in an underground ammunition dump sold by the Ministry of Defence. The brochure, nicely printed, introducing the chairman, Maureen Whittart—who looks the part—states: The main shelter will house up to 2,500 family units and there will be facilities for recreation and exercise, even during a nuclear attack. One can imagine that such facilities would be necessary in such circumstances. It continues: Among the apartment owners will be doctors, nurses, social workers, craftsmen, sportsmen, teachers and experts in many fields but, most of all, responsible people, with families, and the will to survive a nuclear war. This main shelter is constructed to provide safety for you, your children and your children's children. That the human race is meant to survive is proved every time a child is born. I cannot argue against those sentiments. However, beneath the photograph which shows this complex is the caption: All photographs taken prior to development. It states: The main shelter will provide the following facilities for communal use: Dining facilities for all main meals"— which is lucky for those who wish to eat— fully lit corridors; toilets; showers; laundry facilities; library which will contain a mini-computer programmed with survival technology, updated from time to time … The most modern and sophisticated electronic system for building services monitoring will be provided", whatever that might mean. Estimated survival of our population in the event of a nuclear attack is 43 per cent. Take advantage of this offer and you can be part of that 43 per cent. Hidden at the bottom of the same page is the statement: These apartments are offered subject to planning permission being granted. 99 year leases are offered for a capital consideration of £8,000 for a standard 13 ft by 14 ft four bunk unit. Mortgage facilities available—25 per cent. down, balance over five years". It is monstrous that such a brochure should be presented to the public in such circumstances. One of my constituents in a letter to me said: The exploitation of people's fears (aroused by very mention of the project) purely for personal monetary gain is peculiarly revolting. The applicants if ignorant of what nuclear war would mean are incompetent; if they do know they should be charged with fraud. Let us consider the site. What about sewerage? That might be a problem in a nuclear war as it is a problem at any other time. It gets very little mention. What about air supply and filtration? There is little mention. I pass from internal problems and ask what about the external problems. How would people get there in the event of a nuclear war or the tensions preceding it? It is proposed to accommodate 10,000 people on the site, brought in from all over the country. How would they protect themselves from the locals, who, seeing the massive underground shelter where people had purchased places for themselves, would undoubtedly try to get in with their families? My locals are tough and strong. The yeomen of England live in the Chippenham constituency. They would make every effort to ensure that they and their families were properly protected.

What about the military bases in the area and the need to ensure that during times of such tension the military traffic and operations continued? In my constituency there are Copenacre, Colerne, Rudlow, Lyneham and Hullavington, to name but a few.

Most important, who would look after these people when they emerged from their bunker—if, in the interim, they had not been roasted alive? They could hardly expect to get into their cars and drive away. The cars would have been incinerated on the 41-acre car park.

Into this matter comes the local authority, which is presented with a planning application for the site. It is difficult for a local authority to determine such an application. There is nothing clear in planning law about how it should go about it. I have a letter from the chief planning officer dated 13 April, which says: The type of considerations raised by this application are fundamentally different to those raised by the majority of applications. He can say that again. During peacetime one would expect little activity on the site. The activity and difficulties would occur in an emergency context, the exact nature of which cannot be accurately foreseen and the assessment of which must pose problems for a committee of a local authority". The need for Government policy to be co-ordinated on the issue is clear. People are now trying to make money on the legitimate fears that many hold about their future. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary can see from the glossy brochure that I have with me, those involved are trying to spread their views to obtain money. This is an illegitimate trade. It would be wrong to use the Government's proposals on domestic nuclear shelters to try to advance arguments for massive underground shelters.

I am talking about old quarries that have been used over the years as ammunition dumps. They contain a few old machines with their innards left rotting. The quarries have been taken over by speculators, whose plans have been thrust upon the public.

The Government must co-ordinate a policy towards such shelters. They cannot rely on the local authority, which in this case is faced with a planning application for a site in the middle of a farm. It would not create a large number of above-ground problems in its construction, and when the authority looks at the regulations it may find considerable difficulty in turning the application down.

Therefore, the Home Office and the Department of Trade must come together to set the standards and specifications for such shelters. The Department of the Environment must issue instructions on placement and access. The matter cannot be left to the whim of a district authority.

This debate is very important to my constituents, who have genuine fears about what will happen to them if such a horrific eventuality as we are considering comes about. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will make it clear that the Government are determined that such disgraceful proposals as are being put forward by Rusepalm will not go without proper condemnation and criticism.

I ask the Government to examine the matter seriously and ensure that such an application is at least called in. I ask that they will then, in line with their policy document on domestic nuclear shelters, provide guidelines and instructions on the much larger shelters that may be needed for those living in flats or houses with no gardens or cellars. I ask my hon. Friend to make clear where the Government stand and how they intend to operate.

12.17 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Giles Shaw)

My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Needham) has raised a matter of considerable importance to his constituency—one that goes far wider than normal constituency questions. The subject of tonight's debate raises issues far beyond those normally found in planning applications. The question of civil defence, which is not the least of those issues, is of course entirely the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I make no apology, therefore, for quoting my right hon. Friend during this debate.

The proposal to which my hon. Friend refers concerns the adaptation of extensive underground storage areas, now disused, for use as a communal nuclear shelter. The storage areas were originally Bathstone quarry workings. During the late 1930s the old workings were acquired by the then War Department. They were reconstructed and refurbished and made into a vast, fully serviced, underground complex of dry storage space. The complex was used for the storage of all types of ammunition until 1967, when it became surplus to the Ministry of Defence's requirements. In 1975 the site was put up for sale, and the sale included along with the underground storage complex, over 40 acres of land, together with a variety of buildings on the surface.

The site is in a rural area, east of Bath and west of Chippenham. The surrounding area is agricultural, but not within a designated area of outstanding natural beauty. At the time of the sale, Wiltshire county council, as the local planning authority, indicated that it would be prepared to consider future uses for the property for agricultural purposes and also for the warehousing and storage of certain unspecified types of goods.

Sale of the property was completed in 1976, and the site is now owned privately. As my hon. Friend spelt out, a planning application has been submitted to the North Wiltshire district council, which is now the appropriate local planning authority, to use the site for emergency residential accommodation.

This would be a commercial venture. My hon. Friend suggested that the terms of reference in relation to the application made to members of the public were a matter which should involve consumer protection activities and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade. No doubt my hon. Friend will consider such movements as well as raising the matter in this debate in connection with the planning application.

It is intended, apparently, that the underground storage areas should be converted into small residential units in which up to 2,500 families—perhaps as many as 10,000 people—would be able to live for up to three months in the event of a nuclear attack. Family units are apparently to be offered for sale on a 99-year lease at £8,000 each. there would also be extensive communal underground facilities for the residents.

As I am sure my hon Friend knows, the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 places on the local planning authority for the area the responsibility in the first instance for determining planning applications. The Act contains provision for the Secretary of State to direct that an application should be referred to him instead of being dealt with by the local planning authority. The overwhelming majority of planning applications, however, raise issues which, though they may sometimes be controversial, are primarily of local importance. Accordingly, it has been the policy of successive Governments that applications should be called in for the Secretary of State to determine only if they raise issues of more than local importance, and even then only if there are strong reasons why the decisions should not be left for the local planning authority to take.

The case to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention is clearly one of some difficulty. He could argue, as he has done persuasively, that the matter which is of concern to him is greater than that of a merely local planning issue. However, he will recognise that the local planning authority has powers available to it to determine the planning application on grounds such as sewerage, air supply, filtration, or transport in terms of access to and from the development. In other words, there are many aspects of this planning application which are not in themselves unusual for a local planning authority which has to deal with problems of this kind.

Mr. Needham

Does not my hon. Friend accept that in this instance it is not so much a matter of what the ordinary run of events will be? It is how such an application should be considered in use during the event, either immediately preceding or after a nuclear war. The local authority concerned cannot conceivably know exactly what the position will be, either in terms of sewage or in terms of access and, least of all, in terms of what the local surrounding conditions will be. Therefore it is not just a consideration which the local authority can deal with. It will have a much greater impact on and significance for the country as a whole, and I am sure that my learned Friend will deal with the disgraceful way in which this proposal has been presented to the public.

Mr. Shaw

But my hon. Friend touches immediately on the question which overlays his anxiety in this instance. It does not concern the planning application so much as the relevance of the application to the problems involved in nuclear dispersal, nuclear accommodation or the consequences of a large population unit surviving a nuclear attack. I suggest that these are matters which are not in themselves the responsibility of the planning authority or the Department of the Environment but probably are the responsibility of the Home Department in terms of the advice which it should be able to offer as the co-ordinating Department in these matters.

I accept that my hon. Friend has raised what I consider to be a matter of some importance, in that there could be for local planning authorities the requirement to determine an application in good faith relative to local planning requirements and to the 1981 conditions under which they operate, which somehow transfer them, given the possibility of nuclear attack, into realms where they have not either the relevant experience or where, perhaps, they lack the relevant advice. I understand my hon. Friend's emphasis on those aspects of this application.

Of course, the matter fundamentally relates to planning for nuclear conflict or nuclear fall-out. My hon. Friend will know that the Home Office is the main Department concerned. The local planning authority will clearly want to consider carefully many of the aspects relating to nuclear policy before determining the application. I know that it has sought advice from the Wiltshire county emergency planning officer. But these planning issues, while I admit their importance, are essentially matters on which the local planning authority concerned is still best placed to reach a decision.

Civil defence is, of course, a different matter. It may be helpful if I say a few words about the subject. Before doing so, however, I must stress that I can offer no opinion tonight, one way or the other, on the planning merits of this application, although I have taken on board my hon. Friend's anxiety about the terms under which this offer is being made to members of the public. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade to the matter and invite his comments on it.

There is of course nothing new about communal shelters. A great many were constructed for use in the Second World War, and some of these are still in being. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced in his statement on civil defence to this House last August that the Government propose that a survey of existing structures suitable for communal shelter purposes should be conducted".—[Official Report, 7 August 1980; Vol. 990, c. 793.] A survey of this type is a rather more complex matter than may be generally appreciated, and while a possible approach to the task has been carefully developed over the past few months, the Home Office has yet to discuss with the local authority associations, as my right hon. Friend undertook, how best to carry out the survey. I cannot, therefore, say tonight how the workings, subject to the planning application, might rank in the results of the survey.

Naturally, if they were to be successfully adapted to shelter use their significance would be enhanced, but even then their precise ranking in the war emergency plans which Wiltshire county council is obliged to prepare under the Civil Defence (Planning) Regulations 1974 would be essentially a matter for that authority. In exercising its judgment in the matter the council would take account of local opinion.

In response to public and parliamentary interest, the Government have published in recent weeks detailed guidance on the construction of domestic nuclear shelters. However, contrary to suggestions in some quarters, the Government are not advocating the acquisition or provision of nuclear shelters, whether communal or domestic. The Government are certainly not offering special financial incentive, by way of tax or rate rebates or outright grants.

It is commonly overlooked that most houses in this country offer a reasonable degree of protection against radioactive fall-out and that protection can be substantially improved by quite simple measures. The material is ready now, should the need arise, for an intensive publicity campaign on television, radio and in the press, informing people what they can do quickly to effect the improvement and what other steps to take to increase their prospects of survival. The booklet "Protect and Survive" was designed to supplement this campaign. The plan has been for rapid printing and circulation in a war crisis at a time when its impact would be greatest. In keeping with this Government's belief that the public has a right to information about civil defence, and the likely effects of a future war, the booklet has been made available to the public and for the last 12 months has been on sale through Her Majesty's Stationery Office. There are copies of the booklet in the Library, together with copies of the Home Office guides on domestic nuclear shelters and on nuclear weapons. The "Protect and Survive" measures, simple though they are, could enable millions of people to survive who would otherwise be killed.

This proposal, if it went ahead, might encourage a section of the population, in the event of an emergency, to move out into rural areas to seek shelter. The Government's advice, however, is that in a crisis people should stay put. The implications of applications such as this one for national civil defence policy are clearly of wide interest, and I give my hon. Friend an undertaking that I shall involve my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office in discussions on the matters raised in this debate. He is right to alert the House to this issue, and I shall see that it is properly drawn to the attention of those who are responsible in the Home Office.

In addition, if the local planning authority dealing with the application has any specific questions on national civil defence policy relating to the application I shall ask the Minister of State to consider what advice might be offered.

In relation to the Department calling in the application, what has been said is important. I have not given the undertaking which my hon. Friend sought. I cannot leave the matter there. I should like to consider the issue and discuss whether there is ground for calling in the application. I am not persuaded that the ground, in terms of local planning requirement, is such that it requires the Secretary of State to act under section 35 of the Act and call in the application, although significant planning elements are associated with the application.

My hon. Friend raised the question of how a particular application fits into the Government's advice on planning for nuclear emergencies and whether advice should be given to local authorities about the way in which they handle such applications. That is not the same as saying that the planning aspects of the application are such that they warrant the Department taking action under section 35.

I shall write to my hon. Friend after I have had more time to consider whether action should be taken on the planning merits. I have said sufficient to show that I believe that my hon. Friend has raised a matter of considerable merit. I understand why he has raised the topic. The issue requires slightly more consideration than I have been able to give it before determining my Department's view. Discussions with the Home Office are relevant and necessary.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to One o' clock.