HC Deb 21 February 1984 vol 54 cc791-800

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Garel-Jones.)

10.36 pm
Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise in the House the subject of the safety of the proposed installation, storage and retailing of liquefied petroleum gas at the Trocadero filling station, Uppingham road and Scraptoft lane, east Leicester, within my constituency.

The site encompasses a small part of a triangular-shaped area of land at the junction of the busy Uppingham road, the A47 and Scraptoft lane, presently occupied by a Shell UK petrol filling station. The station is situated two miles east of the city centre in a predominantly residential development of three-storey town housing in Scraptoft mews, with around 30 residents, bordering the site to the east. Detached and semi-detached housing extends along both sides of Uppingham road to the south-east, along Scraptoft lane to the north and north-east, and beyond Uppingham road to the north-west.

It is intended to locate the LPG installation close by the Scraptoft lane frontage of the Shell site within a landscaping area, bordered on the roadside by an existing curved brick screen wall, approximately 8 ft high above adjoining ground level and 11 ft high above forecourt level. The installation would consist of two 6,000 gallon storage tanks, mounted on supports within a 7.5 ft high chain link fenced compound.

My constituents have visited me and have written many letters expressing grave concern at the dangers of such a risk.

The site was formerly the Trocadero cinema, which after 20 years was converted to a bingo hall and dance hall. In 1970 there was a serious fire and the hall was virtually burnt out. In 1971, Shell finally took over. On 23 August 1982, consent was given to Shell to redevelop the existing petrol station, and this was completed in December 1983. On 31 December 1982, Shell UK applied to Leicester city council for approval to redevelop part of the petrol filling station by the erection of the building and plant for the storage and retail of liquefied petroleum gas, to which I shall refer as LPG.

Leicester's chief environmental health officer reported strong reservations about the proposal because of the risk associated with bulk storage and with bulk road tankers visiting the site, and I agreed with him. On 1 March 1983, Leicester city council turned down Shell UK's planning application because the proposed installation, located in a residential area, would be likely to constitute an unacceptable safety risk because of the possibility of an uncontrolled release of the LPG into the atmosphere and the consequent risk of explosion. Shell UK appealed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment against the decision, and the inspector who was appointed was Mr. P. R. D. Youngs. A local inquiry into the appeal was held between 26 October and 28 October, at the town hall, Leicester.

I shall not comment too much on the conduct of 'the case, other than to say at this point that Shell UK brought in technical experts from as far away as Holland, together with its leading solicitor, while Leicester city council brought in local officers, not necessarily able or expected to present the opposite side of this case. The inspector reported on 6 January 1984 that he was prepared to allow the development to go ahead.

This decision has been received with shock and fear within my constituency. The news leaked out just 24 hours after there had been a serious explosion at Desford on 26 January 1984, injuring seven people and causing over £50,000 worth of damage. The Desford press headlines were: A red cloud shot towards the sky. Flames leapt 40 feet into the air. Parts of gas cylinders were thrown many hundreds of yards". It is not surprising that a full inquiry is being carried out. I know how concerned people in Leicester are, and they need reassurance now.

As recently as 13 February, there was the incident of a leaking cylinder at Stoney Stanton. My constituents are rightly worried. It is, therefore, a matter of serious regret that, although all the legal avenues have been explored, we have not met with success. This Adjournment debate against this major blunder is our last resort.

No one has been able to prove the need for such a project. There are already three outlets dispensing LPG in Leicester, and the A47, where 15,000 vehicles passed the site on 21 May 1981 in a 12-hour period, was the least used route of the three main roads in Leicester.

The inspector admitted that the short opening hours of the other LPG sites indicated that current demand for LPG was low. I realise that appeals are judged primarily on their planning merits, but I really wonder whether need outweighed planning objections in this case. The issue in question is the likely effects of the LPG installation on the safety and amenities of those persons who live in the vicinity of the site.

On 28 January 1984, I interviewed 35 residents in the Uppingham road. Twenty-three of them were against the proposed installation. Nine did not even know that it had been approved. Three supported it, provided it was safe. It should be said that none of those three lived near the site. The site is not suitable, and no political party would want the installation on a site which already has 54,000 gallons of petrol stored underground.

I have yet to find anyone in favour of this project, except Shell UK. The company seems to be totally indifferent to the wishes of my constituents, and it has not even contacted me or attempted to reassure me or my constituents about the safety aspects or sent me a copy of its report. If that is the company's attitude, no wonder the opposition is growing.

The four local Conservative councillors involved—Guy Collis and Michael Clayton, both from Humberstone ward, and John Allen and Lynda Eaton, both from Thurncourt ward — have raised with me the safety aspects, the matter of the built-up area and the inappropriate siting of this LPG installation. It is obvious to me that an uncontrolled release of LPG would lead to a gas cloud explosion that could have catastrophic consequences.

The area concerned is largely occupied by the middle-aged. The Uppingham road shopping precinct is used by a large number of people, as is Humberstone park, where many children play, to the south-west of Uppingham road. The A47 becomes very congested in the rush hour and on Friday nights. If there was an explosion, which could be caused by one of the numerous road accidents at the busy junction of Uppingham road and Scraptoft lane, many people could be injured and perhaps some lives lost.

The inspector said that there would be an element of danger from the presence of the LPG installation—which he estimated at a one-in-50,000 chance. However, we have already had two explosions this year alone, at Desford and Stoney Stanton.

To avoid any further risks, and if the plan is to go ahead, I must demand that there is a restriction on the quantity to be allowed and stored, and also a minimum distance specified from the nearest residential property. The Health and Safety Executive guidelines would have to be strictly adhered to.

A pressure vessel failure must be avoided, as a major release of LPG forming into a vapour cloud could spread over houses and could then ignite. The inspector says that 10 to 20 per cent. of vapour clouds ignite. A cloud igniting may not have any people inside, but that is not the point.

I think it only right that a full programme of safety education for all employees of the petrol station should be immediately introduced. It is not sufficient to have only one person on duty at the Trocadero self-service garage, looking after the six petrol pumps and the LPG store. There should be at least one full-time employee exclusively looking after this installation who would be properly trained, and not just for the minimum four hours under the Shell course. I also request that LPG should be made available only between normal working hours, and sold only during daylight, and definitely not on a 24-hour basis, as the petrol is now.

The original application specified two 6,000-gallon tanks of LPG. There should never be more than that. Even the inspector specified that as the maximum. Lorries coming in to collect LPG, off-loading or loading, should be allowed to do so only during those normal working hours and one at a time.

I am surprised that such stores are not sited at all principal motorway service centres. I should have thought that that would be the correct site for them. The site should be regularly visited by the Health and Safety Executive to ensure that the LPG installation is being kept up to safety standards and that no temporary or untrained personnel ever operate the LPG mechanism.

I stated earlier that Leicester city council did not produce any technical evidence on the safety aspects at the inquiry. It has to be said that, even if it had, the odds were weighted against it. Councillor Lynda Eaton, a local solicitor, and myself believe that local authorities are at a disadvantage against large petrol companies, because they have all the funds and the authorities do not. Shell UK was clearly prepared to fight this all the way to the High Court. It was determined to win, and showed this by bringing over every resource possible, including experts from Holland.

Once Shell UK knows that it has won, a dangerous precedent will be established and the inspector's report will be used as a public relations job to any other questioning local authority, which will ask "If a large local authority such as Leicester lost, what chance have we?"

If I cannot stop this site, I must provide as much publicity as possible on the case to other local authorities to try to protect them, if only to balance out their previous distinct disadvantage. The Government should exercise greater control over the appeal procedure under the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. The applicants can have things so weighted in their favour as they continue to bombard local planning authorities that the local authorities get tired of turning down the applications.

The small man—in this case Leicester city planning department—did not have the necessary free funds to challenge Shell UK on a specific point of law in the High Court.

The inspector should pay attention to the locality. The Trocadero is less than a mile from a conservation area. My constituents see the value of their houses dropping. Compensation should be made available and it should be Shell's responsibility. The inspector should look more at environmental circumstances as well as probabilities.

With the A47 being a major coastal route with a high proportion of lorries and heavy traffic, a higher incidence of accidents must be expected, and there is a possibility that a lorry might run out of control and crash into the LPG plant. Should a double risk situation be allowed, with an LPG plant store and a large petrol station? It can be deemed that the risk is greater with the sum of the two. Should not the garage be closed at 10 pm with LPG being closed daily considerably earlier?

I welcome the presence of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment. What advice was tendered by the Health and Safety Executive regarding Shell UK's application for the Trocadero? What are the Health and Safety Executive's rules regarding the storage of LPG?

Is my hon. Friend aware—I am sure he is—that LPG consists of propane and butane but that Her Majesty's factory inspectorate does not keep comprehensive statistics concerning leakage? Why not?

In a written answer to me dated 7 February, it was revealed that in 1978 there were 40 and in 1979 41 reported incidents involving LPG fires and explosions at factory and construction sites. I should be interested to have more up-to-date figures as they seem to be disturbing. One wonders whether anyone was injured.

I also understand from a written answer on 7 February that the Health and Safety Commission is likely to publish a new consultative document containing proposals to revise existing legislation and advice relating to flammable gases. Does the Minister know what plans it is considering? Will they be retrospective and, therefore, affect all existing LPG sites? Should LPG installation plants be above or below ground? Which is the safer? I would have hoped that having houses only 40 ft away from the proposed LPG site, as we have at Scraptoft mews, where there are over 35 residents, would have excluded such sites from serious consideration. A planning application for maisonettes beside the Trocadero is still outstanding from March 1983. I wonder why. Nobody would want to move in— not absolutely next door to this LPG store—should it still go ahead, and I do not blame them.

While thanking the Under-Secretary for listening to my remarks, I urge him in reply to give the residents of east Leicester some hope by bringing pressure on Shell UK to reconsider this extraordinary decision, one which nobody wants, which has caused so much concern, which has made so many of my constituents write to me in the last three weeks and about which they feel that there is a safety question. They fear that their homes may not be safe and that their environment may be damaged.

10.51 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) on the spirited way in which he introduced what I believe is his first Adjournment debate. I also congratulate him on the research which he has undertaken and echo his hope that the interested parties who read his remarks will play a part in trying to reassure his constituents about many of the issues which have clearly worried them.

I thank my hon. Friend for the manner in which he opened the debate. I quite understand that he and his constituents are worried about whether it is safe for liquid petroleum gas to be sold from petrol filling stations, and I hope that I can offer some reassurance in the time available to me.

I must, however, make it clear at the outset that the decision on the planning appeal has been taken and, as my hon. Friend understands, cannot be reopened. After the applicants had exercised their right to appeal against Leicester city council's refusal of planning permission for the installation, storage and retailing of liquefied petroleum at the Trocadero petrol filling station in Leicester, one of my Department's inspectors, Mr. Youngs, was appointed to determine the appeal.

I should perhaps say that 95 per cent. of all appeals are now determined by inspectors, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to their work. I have every confidence in the ability and integrity of the inspectorate, and I believe that this confidence is widely shared.

Mr. Youngs is a very senior inspector who has worked in local government and who is a chartered surveyor as well as a planner. He held an inquiry which lasted three days, as my hon. Friend said, at which he heard evidence from the applicant, the city council and a number of local residents and councillors. When he had heard all the relevant evidence and seen the site, he gave his decision. That decision was that the applicant's appeal should be allowed and planning permission granted for the proposed development, subject to certain conditions.

The inspector's decision was open to challenge on legal grounds for a period of six weeks. I understand that this period has now expired and that no such challenge has been received. Apart from this limited right of challenge on legal grounds, a planning appeal decision, once given, is final. I have no power to reopen the decision, even if I thought—and I certainly do not—that there was some reason to do so. Planning permission has now been granted, and the only way in which the case could now be reopened would be for the city council to make a formal order revoking this permission.

I am bound to add, however, that, quite apart from any question of compensation, the applicants would have a right to make objections against any revocation order, and the city council would need to make a very compelling case to convince the Secretary of State that he should confirm it.

It was known that the inquiry would be concerned largely with safety. An assessor, Mr. T. A. Kantyka, was appointed to advise the inspector on technical and safety issues. Mr. Kantyka retired about three years ago but previously had worked in the petrochemical industry for 32 years. He has specialised in safety matters, and was chairman of the European Federation of Chemical Engineers' working party on loss prevention for 10 years, between 1970 and 1980. For good measure, he is also a former vice president of the Institution of Chemical Engineers. Mr. Kantyka had previously acted as assessor at the inquiry into the British Gas methane terminal at Canvey Island. His appointment to the Leicester inquiry demonstrates how seriously the safety aspects of the proposal were examined.

The inspector's decision letter of 15 pages concentrates almost entirely on the safety issue, and I hope that this will be a source of comfort to my hon. Friend. The applicant's evidence that the design and location of the installation would be in accordance with the relevant Health and Safety Executive guidance note, CS5, and two liquid petroleum gas industry technical association codes of practice was not challenged.

Similarly, the applicant assured the inspector that the design and operation of delivery vehicles would comply with the relevant code of practice and the regulations governing the conveyance of dangerous substances by road, and that the storage tanks would be designed, fabricated and tested to the relevant British standard. It will be for Leicester city council to undertake regular inspections of that site and that storage. I could go on to repeat what was said about the storage temperatures, the safety of pipelines, the safety of the dispenser and the safety systems incorporated into delivery vehicles, but time would forbid that. There was evidence that, even if an accidental discharge should occur, there would in most circumstances be no risk to persons or property outside the perimeter of the site. In short, the safety issue was comprehensively and thoroughly gone into at the inquiry, and little if any of the technical evidence given by the applicant on this subject was challenged.

The assessor's views and conclusions were quite clear. He was satisfied that the requirements of the various codes were met and, to some extent, exceeded. The inspector accepted his advice on this point and on the risk of a vapour cloud being formed by a major release of LPG. He put that risk at one in 50,000 years.

The city council appears to have taken a very different approach, as my hon. Friend touched on. It was looking for conclusive proof of the safety of the proposed installation. It said, as quoted in the decision letter: Unless an accident was impossible, it was reasonable to consider one could occur. Whether it was probable was another matter, and was not relevant for the purpose of this inquiry". I understand and sympathise with this approach, but in a large part of our lives nil risks do not exist. We must constantly, in relation to development control, assess the degree of risk of a particular action and balance it against other reasons for or against the action in question. That is the approach the inspector adopted. It is the approach regularly adopted by the Health and Safety Executive as well, and I believe that it is the proper approach.

I realise that the fears of the local residents have been increased by two recent incidents at LPG depots. In one case, cylinders were being filled at a bulk storage site when there was a release of LPG and a fire; my hon. Friend touched on that point In the other case, a storage tank was being moved about on site by a forklift truck when the drain valve hit the ground. In this case, while LPG was released, there was no fire. These are not operations that would be carried out at a filling station, and the Health and Safety Executive takes the view that they have no direct relevance to this proposal.

The two incidents are being investigated by Her Majesty's factory inspectorate. In the event of the investigations revealing a breach of legal requirements, prosecution will be considered. I take note of the points my hon. Friend has raised and the fears that they arouse, and I shall draw them to the attention of my colleagues in other Departments so that he can have a fuller reply.

It has been argued also that there is no proven need to justify this development. I share the inspector's view that this argument does not get us very far. It is not for the developer to prove why he ought to be granted planning permission: our approach is that planning permission ought to be granted unless there is a sound and clear-cut reason to refuse it. I understand there are already some 400 autogas refuelling stations in the United Kingdom and that a significant number—at the inquiry, the applicants said about 50 — are at petrol filling stations. In addition, there are a number of private refuelling points.

The use of automotive LPG is growing, particularly by fleet operators, and this would suggest that the number of fuelling stations is also likely to grow. However, it is not for the Government to judge. We cannot judge whether the applicants are making a wise commercial decision in providing LPG facilities at this garage. The question is whether there is any adequate reason to refuse permission for the applicants to do so. In this case, the inspector, after hearing the evidence and seeing the site, concluded that the level of risk was well within the limits of acceptability. It compared favourably with the figure of the one-in-10,000 chance applicable to normal daily human activity, which is often adopted as the base line in other cases where safety is at issue. As there was no other planning reason for the application to be refused, the inspector allowed the appeal and granted planning permission subject to a number of conditions, two of which had been suggested by the assessor.

I understand that, when the application was first made, Leicester city council consulted the Health and Safety Executive. The HSE said that it believed there would be insufficient health and safety grounds for turning down the proposal, provided that the recommendations in guidance note CS5 were met. I also understand that, since the granting of planning permission, HSE inspectors, including a specialist on LPG, have visited the site after discussions with an officer from the council and that they have repeated the HSE's previous view.

It may be helpful to widen the focus of this debate and to look more generally at what is done to ensure the safety of LPG installations. Apart from the location and separation from site boundaries, there are two other principles intended to ensure safe storage and use. The plant involved must be properly designed, constructed and maintained. Secondly, there must be appropriate safe systems of work. Provided that those requirements are met, a small installation such as a filling station poses no significant risk.

All industrial and commercial undertakings, including motor vehicle filling stations, at which liquid propane is kept are subject to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. Sections 2 and 3 of that Act lay general duties on persons operating such undertakings to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the safety not only of their own employees but also of members of the public and others who may be affected by their activities. The Leicester filling station would be subject to those provisions.

My hon. Friend expressed concern about the role of Shell UK and about the training and preparation of staff. I hope that his remarks will be noted and that some good will result from them, so that further reassurance can be given.

In addition, the conveyance of LPG by road is controlled by the dangerous substances regulations of 1981, and those regulations also cover the loading and unloading of vehicles. That, too, will reassure my hon. Friend's constituents.

In assessing whether or not those general duties have been complied with, enforcing authorities and others can draw on an extensive body of guidance, including standards and codes of practice issued both by the Government and by the industry itself. In particular, there is advice on the storage of bulk liquid propane gas contained in the Health and Safety Executive's guidance note CS5, "The Storage of LPG at Fixed Installations". The House is currently reviewing this guidance note. Among the matters being discussed with the industry is the provision of remotely operated emergency isolation devices. The applicants propose to fit such a device at the Leicester service station. The provision of such devices on installations is intended to enhance existing safety standards.

There are additional controls on the large scale-storage of LPG. The Notification of Installations Handling Hazardous Substances Regulations 1982, which came into force at the beginning of 1983, require anyone in control of a site handling certain quantities of defined hazardous substances to supply information about that activity to the Health and Safety Executive. The information is passed to local planning authorities to assist them in matters of development control for both the major hazard itself and developments nearby.

The HSE is currently reviewing the guidance note, and those matters are being discussed with the industry. The provision of the remotely operated emergency isolation is a very important feature of the safeguards, and I hope that it will further reassure my hon. Friend's constituents.

Further information is also passed to the local fire service. The quantity applicable to each of the hazardous substances is based on the recommendations of the advisory committee on major hazards, and the proposals for regulations were circulated to the CBI, the TUC and local authority associations as part of the consultation procedures. For activities involving LPG, the regulations apply where the quantity on site is not less than 25 tonnes, so that the Leicester filling station would not be a major industrial hazard on the basis of those regulations.

In premises subject to the Factories Acts—again, this would not include this filling station —the storage of LPG is subject to certain requirements of the Highly Flammable Liquids and Liquefied Petroleum Gases Regulations 1972. There are many other regulations, and new regulations are proposed which will relate to all flammable gases and oxygen.

I must emphasise that fixed bulk LPG storage tanks are not an unknown quantity from a safety point of view. In 1980, it was estimated that there were some 30,000 such storage tanks in the United Kingdom—a figure which, I must confess, came as some surprise to me. The safety record of fixed bulk storage tanks of liquid propane gas in the United Kingdom is good and there is no record of failure of any such tank in this country. Failure could theoretically occur due to mechanical defects in the tank, but this is extremely unlikely.

To return to the Leicester case, all the safety issues were thoroughly gone into at the public inquiry. The inspector had the best possible technical assistance and advice in evaluating what was said.

I understand the concern of my hon. Friend's constituents, but I hope that what I have said this evening will go a long way towards reassuring them. Others outside the House have a part to play, and I am confident that my hon. Friend's remarks will be widely read. I hope that commercial interests will play their part in helping to reassure my hon. Friend and his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Eleven o' clock.