HC Deb 26 July 1990 vol 177 cc671-9

11.2 am

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

Perhaps I can begin my remarks by picking up the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), who has referred to a serious environmental hazard. The management would no doubt say that it could not happen, because of the fail-safe systems involved. As with many sophisticated technical systems, however—whatever the experts may say—such fail-safe systems do fail, as we know to our cost.

I apologise to the Minister for Roads and Traffic for dragging him here this morning, as I know that he had alternative plans. I should also apologise to his son, as he is the one who will lose as a result of the Minister's presence here this morning. Perhaps the Minister will appreciate, however, that I am raising the matter of the incinerator in Trafford Park because my own son and three daughters live in the area in which it will operate. As both a parent and a constituency Member, I am concerned about the impact of that incinerator on the health of my children and those who live in the area.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) is here and is to speak later, because I wish to establish from the outset that this is not a partisan party-political issue but one that unites the entire community in our area. As the House would expect, I am authorised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) and my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) to register their opposition: the four constituencies most closely involved are—through their Members—united in their opposition to the development of the incinerator.

As the Minister will know, the plan is to build the incinerator at Trafford Park. Its function will be—at least in part—to destroy chemicals such as PCBs which are brought into this country from overseas. While the European Community Council of Ministers and the Minister of State, Department of the Environment were involved in the decision to ban imports from the Community—I congratulate the Minister on that—I feel that there should also be a ban on imports from the rest of the world. Nearly half of what is taken to the incinerator in Pontypool, south Wales is imported: we are bringing in other people's dirty washing.

I do not want to be accused of the NIMBY syndrome—"not in my back yard"—but I feel that we should recognise that, although the disposal of PCBs and other chemicals must be dealt with, we have no obligation to take on the world's problems. We should think seriously about what policies we adopt towards the importation of waste. Even in their unincinerated form, PCBs are dangerous chemicals, and, in the Stretford and Davyhulme constituencies in Manchester the lorries that carry PCBs are themselves dangerous, which in itself worries my constituents.

The reasons for our concern about incinerators are obvious. They have a bad record in general, and there is also specific concern about the company involved. The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs examined the ReChem incinerator in south Wales; a different company is involved in Manchester, but there are parallels. Torfaen borough council was so concerned about the incinerator that it submitted samples from the surrounding area for independent analysis.

The Select Committee reported that high levels of PCBs has been found in duck eggs near the plant and in grass samples—levels 50 to 100 times the background level of PCBs. That is from a plant that ReChem insists is technologically optimal; experts would say that the technology is of a kind that they would be prepared to reproduce elsewhere. However, the PCB levels are unacceptable to both the council and to the Select Committee. The Select Committee's report stated:

we recommend that major incinerators are not in future located near residential areas. The Minister knows Manchester and will be aware that Trafford Park is surrounded by housing that is in my constituency and those of other hon. Members. The site is yards across the canal from a major housing estate in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles. The location is certainly residential and the incinerator would fall foul of the recommendation of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs.

The Select Committee report has a considerable bearing on the proposal. I am greatly disturbed at the role played by Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution, which is the direct responsibility of the Department of the Environment. The inspectorate is the licensing authority and must license the incinerator and any other equipment that is required. To date, it has been incompetent. It placed a small advertisement in the Manchester Evening News inviting comments on the proposals. As far as I am aware, it was seen by hardly anybody. It was drawn to my attention by Trafford Park development corporation which told me that it had received a letter from the inspectorate saying that HMIP had no plans to block the proposal, subject to planning approval by the corporation.

The concern about the proposal was such that the development corporation, as the planning authority, arranged public consultation meetings. That was done at no small cost. However, the inspectorate placed just a tiny advertisement and says that there is no problem about the proposals. That shows contempt for people in the area.

The Select Committee report stated that the inspectorate is greatly understaffed. The Minister may want to comment on that. ReChem was asked: Would you acknowledge that the lack of inspectors working for Her Majesty's Inspector of Pollution is one of the reasons why there is something of a lack of confidence in the operation of your factory? Mr. Lee, the managing director of ReChem, replied: Yes. We would welcome as many inspections as possible. As far as we are concerned, the more inspections the better. The report says that the inspectorate found it difficult to fill vacancies and had problems about retaining staff. In October 1989 it was 45 staff short of a complement of 240. The report states:

HMIP therefore finds it difficult to respond quickly or effectively when incidents take place. At public meetings held recently in Manchester, the representatives of Leigh Environmental were asked how they would respond if there were unacceptably high levels of emissions of dioxins or other chemicals from the plant. They said that nothing could be done for days. Worse still, the inspectorate does not test for such chemicals but simply accepts the results provided by the company. It is unacceptable for it to be left to the company to provide evidence about whether it is causing pollution.

I have little confidence in the work of the inspectorate. It is charged by Parliament to safeguard the public interest but the public have little confidence in the way in which it has operated so far or in the way in which it will operate in future.

Leigh Environmental says that the plant will be operated to high standards and it talks about an efficiency level of 99.999 per cent. That seems satisfactory, but even at such high efficiency levels, evidence from around the world suggests that there is still significant pollution involving chemicals such as dioxins. Dioxins are among the most deadly chemicals known to humanity. They cause cancer and produce defects in unborn children. The consequences of dioxins in the atmosphere are devastating. Even at optimum efficiency such chemicals are still produced.

If an incinerator is operated at less than maximum efficiency, the production of unacceptable byproducts increases not just a little, but astronomically. An inefficient plant is an incredibly dangerous source of pollution. Leigh Environmental has a disastrous record. I shall quote from the company's log book which records happenings at its Yorkshire site. I have picked a few examples at random. The log book is filled in by the company's operatives and they recorded on 19 January 1989: HMIP round, big problem smoke. The company is anxious to make sure that the inspectorate does not catch it in default of its obligations. The log book is riddled with references to HMIP, and I am surprised that the inspectorate has done nothing to control the unacceptable operation of the plant.

On 13 March 1989, the log book recorded: Can you make sure you do not make any smoke in the morning as you will be watched by HMIP. Presumably smoke is all right in the afternoon or on the previous or following days, but there must be no smoke when the inspectorate is about.

An entry on 26 April refers to the incinerator and says: Do you really think the plant with a BS25 jet in the aux should run without telling anyone. I am not sure what that means. Another entry states: we have run at low temperature most of today". An incinerator running at low temperature is incredibly dangerous because such low temperatures produce the dioxins that not only pollute the atmosphere but can kill people. A company that operates its incinerator in a grossly incompetent and inefficient manner is unfit to operate one in a residential area.

On 11 July 1989 the log book states: There is a site visit tomorrow, so can you have a tidy up in front of tank farm, please Once again that shows care and consideration when there is to be a visit by the inspectorate, but little control when the inspectorate is not about.

On 23 August, the log book records a visit from HMIP and states: HMIP unhappy housekeeping around plant, open top drums without lids, also sodium analysis. Again the inspectorate caught the company carrying out unacceptable practices and did not take proper action. The log book lists numerous times when the plant was inadequately maintained.

On 6 April this year, one of the operatives wrote in the log book: It seems that nowadays safety of equipment and personnel come secondary to production. A company which, according to its own operatives, puts the safety of its equipment and personnel secondary to production is unfit to operate a plant in a residential area.

For all the reasons that I have outlined, we are greatly disturbed about the proposals to develop the plant. I am alarmed on behalf of my family and my constituents. The proposal will put a time bomb in our midst. It threatens the environment, the quality of life and, possibly, the lives of my constituents and those of other hon. Members.

I supported the creation of the Trafford Park development corporation. One of the problems is that it was given extraordinary planning powers and, in effect, took the place of the local authority. When the corporation was given those powers, it was assumed that it would have responsibility for planning on matters that affected only Trafford Park and would not have a wider impact. It was considered that the park was an industrial area and that it was quite reasonable to give the corporation such planning powers. I have doubts about whether that was true, but for the most part the development corporation has dealt with planning applications in a way that has caused no criticism. In this case, the development corporation is not the appropriate planning authority, because the issue has wide implications for the area. The proposal is of major concern within the development area itself. Kellogg, an international manufacturer of foodstuffs, has expressed concern and doubts about the impact of the plant, and no doubt the corporation will take its views on board.

If the corporation refuses the application, as I hope it will, the company will appeal. The application will then go before the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Minister may say that ties his hands, as to the extent of the response that he can make. While I appreciate that, it is most unsatisfactory that we should be forced to fight with one hand or perhaps both hands tied behind our back. If an appeal is made, there will be a local planning inquiry, but if the corporation grants the application there will be no parallel right of appeal by the community.

I should like the Minister to say this morning that he will call in the application with a view to refusing it so that the threat to lives in my community will be scotched at this early stage. If he cannot do that, I should like him to say that the issue is of such importance that the corporation is not competent to determine the matter and that the Secretary of State will call in the application in such a way that will guarantee a local planning inquiry, at which local objectors as well as the company can make their case to the inspector, so that the matter can be properly considered.

The hon. Member for Davyhulme will demand for his constituents, as I demand for mine, that they are given maximum protection, and that includes a right to ensure that their concerns can be voiced at the highest possible level.

I am alarmed at the prospect of the incinerator, as are thousands upon thousands of people, including my constituents and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East, my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles, and the hon. Member for Davyhulme. Collectively, we want the plant stopped, and we look to the Minister to protect the quality of our constituents' environment. The best way to do that is to ensure that it is not allowed to be built.

11.23 am
Mr. Churchill (Davyhulme)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) on his success in securing a debate on an issue that is important to his constituents and to mine, and I thank him for his courtesy in volunteering to allow me to share some of the precious time available to him.

I re-emphasise the deep concern and disquiet that is felt by the residents of my constituency at the prospect of two incinerators in Trafford Park that will be used to burning of toxic and other chemical and clinical waste. However, public concern extends far wider than my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Stretford, to Eccles and Salford, immediately across the Manchester ship canal, and to the entire Greater Manchester area. The issue should not be viewed by my hon. Friend the Minister and by the Government as one that affects only one or two constituencies.

Trafford Park was the first and greatest of the purpose-built industrial estates, and it remains to this day the largest industrial complex in the United Kingdom. I have been closely involved with Trafford Park for 20 years. In 1970, together with Norman Quick, who this year is high sheriff of Greater Manchester, founded the Trafford Park industrial council with the aim of ensuring the continual development and prosperity of Trafford Park as a major industrial and commercial centre, and of improving its environment.

The past 20 years have seen a vast transformation in Trafford Park's environment, especially in respect of air pollution. In 1970, Greater Manchester's death rate from bronchitis was the highest in the country bar none. A high proportion of the deaths were due to emissions from Trafford Park, but also because almost every home had a coal-burning fire. The last two decades have seen that situation change out of all recognition. It would be tragic if today, in the 1990s, we were to put at risk much of the good work that has been done over the past 20 years. No matter how efficiently the plant may operate, and no matter how free of breakdowns it might be, the level of emissions will still be considerable.

At a public meeting at Lancashire county cricket ground two or three weeks ago, the promoters of the scheme, Leigh Environmental, admitted that PCBs and dioxins would remain undestroyed. Not surprisingly, the company claimed that the level would be very low, but that factor cannot be ignored. The plant would put out a large volume of various dioxides—particularly sulphur dioxide, which is believed to be a direct cause of bronchial problems, asthma, and various other ailments.

Although the Government have a responsibility to secure the safe disposal of chemical wastes, I agree with the hon. Member for Stretford that the heartland of a conurbation of 3 million people is not the proper place for that to be done. One acknowledges the difficulties that confront the Government. There is opposition, rightly, to the dumping of toxic chemicals at sea, and it is no longer acceptable to use landfill sites to bury such waste, because it can then find its way into the water table and may subsequently contaminate water supplies. That opposition led the Government to consider incineration as the way ahead.

In view of the Government's concern about global warming, I wonder whether this is the best or the only way ahead. Above all, I query whether the middle of a residential area comprising 3 million people is the appropriate place for it. The incinerator is to be sited in Trafford Park, upwind of the conurbation of Greater Manchester, with prevailing westerly and north-westerly winds, and will have a devastating effect throughout the the area downwind of the plant, which includes the centre of Manchester and surrounding dormitory suburbs.

Local residents are not the only people to be concerned. Industry and commerce in Trafford Park feel that their interests will be blighted, none more so than food manufacturers.

One must ask, when Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution, seemingly with great and indecent haste, rubber-stamped this proposal, subject to planning permission by the development corporation, did it consider the implications for food processors in Trafford Park? Kellogg is in Trafford Park, producing cornflakes for the entire nation, and other major food processors are there. Is that a suitable place for a toxic waste incinerator, alongside major food-processing companies? My constituents certainly have the gravest doubt about it.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister inquire of the director of HMIP what consultations he has had with the chief medical officer of this country and the medical establishment about the suitability and desirability of placing incinerators in the middle of residential areas?

I agree with the hon. Member for Stretford, and I hope that Trafford borough council, which is considering the matter, will recommend that the proposal be rejected. I also hope that Trafford Park development corporation, which is the planning authority—like the hon. Gentleman, I have reservations about whether that should be the case in a matter which affects the environment and people's health—will refuse the planning permission applied for.

I hope that the Secretary of State will call in the plans because they are unacceptable as they stand. It is not merely a question of saying that we do not want this in our backyard: no one wants it in their backyard. It is not acceptable to spew toxic wastes out of chimney stacks within a few hundred yards of people's homes, schools and playgrounds.

A few years ago there was a malfunction at one of the sulphuric acid plants in Trafford Park. A big joke was made of the incident because young ladies working in office blocks on the other side of the ship canal in Salford found that their tights were disintegrating. This is a serious matter, not a laughing matter. One must wonder what effect such malfunctions and the continuing emission of wastes into the atmosphere will have.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give my constituents some reassurance on this matter.

11.33 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robert Atkins)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) on raising a matter which is of great concern to him. In his own inimitable way, my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) has spoken about the concerns of his constituents. The hon. Member for Stretford also referred to the anxiety of the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) and the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme). They will all know that I have come to this job afresh, and while I am familar with Trafford Park as an industrial site of great significance, and with both of the Old Traffords in the area, I am not as familar with the detail of this case as I shall inevitably become. I have considerable sympathy with the points that hon. Members have raised and understand their concern.

There has been a great deal of publicity in recent times related to problems associated with the movement and disposal of various kinds of waste and that has coincided with the growing and welcome public awareness and concern over the protection of our environment. It is not surprising that in this climate of opinion proposals for large new waste incinerators tend to generate genuine apprehensions, expressed across the House this morning, among people living and working in nearby areas who fear that the quality of the air they breathe may suffer as a result.

One can readily understand the feelings of the people of Salford and Trafford who, having seen, as my hon. Friend eloquently described, all that has been done since the 1950s to clean their air of smoke and pollutants, feel that they may now he facing a new, and perhaps more harmful, if less visible, threat. It is natural that they should feel that way, and that they should seek to have that threat removed from their locality. But, as hon. Members know, a statutory framework of control exists and is being operated to protect their interests.

The operation of clinical and chemical waste incinerators of the kind being proposed by Leigh Environmental at Trafford Park is a scheduled process under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, and the Health and Safety (Emissions into the Atmosphere) (Amendment) Regulations 1989. The incinerators, therefore, will be required to be registered with Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution before they are permitted to operate. They will also be required to use the best practicable means to prevent the emission into the atmosphere of noxious or offensive substances and for rendering harmless any which may be emitted. This requirement will apply to discharges occurring from anywhere on the premises as well as from the chimneys. It relates to the manner in which the plant is operated as well as to the provision of systems and equipment.

Special wastes regulations will apply to materials arriving at the site as well as to solid wastes leaving it, and Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution will be consulted by the Greater Manchester waste disposal authority about the terms of the licence for the disposal of these wastes.

There is therefore in being a comprehensive system under which Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution—the national regulatory body—will apply detailed control over operations at the incinerators, should they be built. Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution is of course closely aware of what is proposed and I understand has raised no objection to the planning application.

The controls apply to the operation of the plant but its development is also subject to the normal processes of planning control. To a large extent, that is the substance of this debate. Planning controls are concerned with regulating the development and use of land in the public interest, an expression which, on the face of it, is extremely wide. In general, however, it is unnecessary and unreasonable to seek through planning control to duplicate controls that operate under separate and more specific legislation. Nevertheless, there may be occasions when the use of planning controls is justified. Local authorities were advised in the Department's circular 11 of 1981, on clean air, that

Planning permission should be refused only where the authority is satisfied that the development in question would result in a significant deterioration of local air quality even after the use of specific process to control pollution". It is open to planning authorities to refuse permission for a particular development when that development will be registered by HMIP, provided that they are satisfied, having regard to all the material considerations, that the effect on the atmosphere is unacceptable, or that it is otherwise contrary to the public interest to allow the development to proceed.

These, then, are the control procedures operating in respect of the Trafford park incinerator proposals. The question arises whether the planning issues raised by them are such that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should intervene and call in the planning application for his own determination. This would have the advantage, for the objectors, that if my right hon. Friend did call in the applications, he would almost certainly arrange a public inquiry into them.

The vast majority of cases which are called in have already been referred to the Department as substantial departutes from the operative development plan for the area. In the case of the incinerator proposals, I understand that Trafford park development corporation has not treated it as a departure from the plan. That is not to say that the application could not be called in, but in this situation very strong grounds for doing so would be needed.

Hon. Members are concerned that the local planning authority in this instance is an urban development corporation and not a local authority and, moreover, that the effects of the incinerators, should there be any, are more likely to be felt by people outside the corporation's area than those within it. Hon. Members have made the point that it is on the edge of the site.

It is true that the corporation has a duty to secure the regeneration of Trafford Park and therefore seek to promote investment and development there, but the corporation is also a local planning authority with the same responsibilities for controlling development as other planning authorities. It has the same duties with regard to giving publicity to applications and for consulting other authorities, and, like other planning authorities, takes into account representations made to it.

I have no doubt that Trafford Park development corporation takes these duties seriously and will take careful and full account of the understandable fears of its neighbours, and of evidence about the possible consequences of operating the incinerators. Indeed, it seems to me that a corporation in whose interest it is to promote a good image of its area, is most unlikely to give less weight to questions of the sort than other authorities.

I therefore do not consider that the fact that these applications are being considered by a development corporation, or the fact that much of the concern that it is causing arises in neighbouring areas, are in themselves issues of a nature which would justify intervention by my right hon. Friend. I see no reason to suppose that the corporation will not consider all the representations and objections made most eloquently and forcefully by the hon. Member for Stretchford and by my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme, and that it will not make a decision based on all the material considerations.

In coming to a decision, the corporation will have the benefit of the environmental statement prepared for the applicants and submitted with the planning application. In accordance with the relevant regulations, the statement has been placed on deposit with the application and has been available for public inspection since 5 April. There has, therefore, been time for other authorities and bodies to study it and to prepare cases against it. I am sure that the development corporation will consider any such cases most carefully.

On the evidence so far before the Department—I repeat those words for the benefit of the hon. Member for Stretford and my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme—on the evidence so far before the Department, I am not persuaded that a sufficient case has been made for taking the exceptional step of calling in the planning application. I understand people's fears about the proposal, but I do not think that fears alone, unsubstantiated by evidence, are sufficient to justify calling in the application. I can assure hon. Members, however, that all that has been said today, and any new evidence and representations that may emerge, will be carefully considered and appropriate action taken by me and my right hon. Friend if it is necessary to do so.

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