HC Deb 13 June 1990 vol 174 cc441-8

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

2.19 am
Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)

I am taking this opportunity to raise the question of pollution of our coasts. It will come as no surprise to the House that I want to concentrate on the coastal area of the Flyde, and I hope that others of my hon. Friends will make contributions on the subject.

Of course, we regret that the state of the Flyde coast has resulted in a decision to take the North West water authority to court. We also regret that there has been pollution for many years and that situation should be changed.

I want to say only this about the manner of pollution and taking us to court. I do not believe that that will do anything to solve the problems in the north-west or in the Fylde. However, I want to take this opportunity to try briefly to put some things right.

There has been a great deal of discussion and propaganda in the north-west about the state of our beaches, and from that one would think that pollution levels had got worse. In fact, with the exception of one blip, they have improved steadily during the 1980s. At the beginning of the decade the bacteria level was more than 4,000—I will not go into the details; I want only to draw attention to the change that has come about—and that is now down to about 1,200. That is better than for many years. It is not good enough and we must do better, but we can at least take encouragement from a fourfold reduction in pollution. I hope that we can get down to the required level within the near future.

I shall be brief so that my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) and my hon. Friends the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) and for Fylde (Mr. Jack) will be able to contribute to the debate. I am happy to give them some of the time that I am privileged to have tonight to allow them to make their points. I shall leave some of the details to my right hon. and hon. Friends. I simply want to draw a broad picture of what has been happening and to try to put right some of the misconceptions in the north-west.

There are two main issues. The first is where the new major treatment works is to be sited and, in addition, we must decide the process whereby water will be discharged. We have a water-borne sewerage system, and at the end of the day large quantities of water will have to be discharged.

Some things must be remembered. First, North-West Water has stopped having the lowest capital expenditure in the country, and now has the highest, because of the improvement in its infrastructure and its investment programme. That is in no small measure due to the fact that the Government, when North West Water was privatised, wrote off £1.6 billion of debt. Therefore, the Government have done their duty and have helped North West Water to face its problems.

There have been active consultations between the water authority and the local authority. They had a meeting two weeks ago when they spoke to the local authorities. What is more, we have had a promise, not from the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, who is on the Front Bench, but from another Minister in the Department, that he will meet my colleagues, who are here tonight, and local councillors. So we have consultation with the Government and we are extremely grateful for their good will and co-operation.

Today we have also had a promise—although we have known of it for a little time—that £300 million will be spent by North West Water over the next three years to improve bathing beaches, and I emphasise that we are talking about bathing beaches. Clearly, North West Water is facing the problem seriously and is actively intent on improving the position.

The likely time scale is that, if there is good will, by he end of this year, and possibly before, the inland treatment works which is necessary now will have been decided upon. It should be said that it is now up to us in the north-west to agree. We have had arguments about whether there should be an outfall and other discussions. But now that we know that we are to have an inland treatment works, with an outfall, if we have the courage to fact up to the difficult decisions that have to be taken, by the end of the year, or possibly by next year, we will have a scheme which can then go ahead. There is every possibility that our problem can be solved, perhaps not in 1991 but possibly by mid-decade.

The Government are determined that we should stop being branded as the biggest polluter in Europe, and we are grateful for the encouragement that we have had from them. Others need to help us now. If we are sensible we can cure our problems, although they are difficult, within four or five years. With the good will of the Government and North West Water, that is exactly what we shall do.

2.28 am
Sir Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South)

I want to make two brief points. The first concerns the European Community. I ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment to tell us now many other European Community countries are being prosecuted. I understand that every other European Community country, apart from Portugal, is in the same situation as this country in respect of prosecution. I want to dispel the impression, which is widespread in this country, that only the United Kingdom is considered by the Commission to be in breach of its directives.

There is also a proposal that polluted beaches should be signposted. Will signposting apply to all European Community countries? I hope that I shall not be told that only the United Kingdom will be obliged to signpost beaches that do not comply with the directive.

We should move forward with all speed to ensure that the bathing water off our beaches complies with the required European Community standards. Two points are relevant in that context. First, let all those in the north-west work together to achieve the objective that has been set before us. We should cut out the politicking; there has been much too much of it. Most of the politicking has come from the Labour leader of the Lancashire county council, Councillor Louise Ellman. I hope that she intends to keep quiet on the issue. Since the abandonment of the plan for a long sea outfall, she has called for a public inquiry. That would be wholly inappropriate; at the moment, there is nothing to inquire into because there is no plan. I hope that on both that point and others she will keep quiet and that she will co-operate with all of us so that we can make rapid progress towards compliance with the directive.

Secondly, I hope that the Government will investigate the possibility of using disinfectants, either in the long term or in the short term. New types of disinfectants, known as benign disinfectants which do not have adverse spin-off effects, are available. If it is necessary to test them to find out whether they are effective, I hope that that will be done rapidly. I hope to take a representative of a company that manufactures these disinfectants to see the Minister. I am optimistic that their use will achieve the desired results.

2.31 am
Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) for allowing me to take part in the debate. I thank also the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), for the recent decision by his Department to refuse consent for the construction of a long sea outfall at Fleetwood. That has been welcomed by all the people in Fleetwood. Like me, they believe that a long sea outfall, without treatment, is an unacceptable way to dispose of sewage in 1990.

That decision need not delay an eventual solution to the sewerage problems along the Fylde coast. What would have delayed the eventual solution would have been a public inquiry, as requested by Lancashire county council. From what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker), I understand that, once again, a public inquiry is being asked for, despite the fact that we do not know what scheme North West Water will devise. I urge the leader of Lancashire county council to consider what she is doing, if it would lead to delaying the opportunity that we have to work together to find a quick solution to the problems on the Fylde coast.

I am encouraged by the attitude of North West Water, now that it is in the private sector. Right from the outset, it has consulted all the interested parties about its proposals. That is a good move. It is also clear that North West Water is no longer under the same financial constraints as it was in the public sector. It wants to get on with the job of devising the right scheme as quickly as possible. That can be done in co-operation with all the other bodies—the county council, the local authorities and other pressure groups. Together they can find a solution to the problem. If there were co-operation, the scheme could be worked up by the end of the year and considered by the National Rivers Authority. Construction could then start in May 1991. Dissension, however, could lead to the scheme having to go to the Department of the Environment. There might also have to be a public inquiry.

The action of the European Commission in taking the Government to court is of no relevance whatsoever to the time scale for the scheme on the Fylde coast. An inquiry would not in any way help to speed that scheme, and the Government being taken to court would not affect its time scale.

If everyone in the Fylde works together with the water company, we shall have an opportunity to find our own solution to the problem—and that solution holds out the prospect of cleaning up our coastline and rivers once and for all.

2.34 am
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Miscampbell) for allowing me to participate in the debate. May I tell my hon. Friend the Minister that beach and river pollution in the Fylde coast area has cast a blight over that lovely part of west Lancashire. If, as my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, the problem is not addressed quickly, the development of our vital tourist industry may be significantly damaged.

Not only do people question the wholesomeness of an area when there is endless talk of pollution, but it inhibits the development of facilities, such as the riverway marina, which starts in Preston. People wanting to use the water facilities offered by the Ribble doubt whether it is the right place to use while pollution is the subject of so much discussion.

The beaches of Lytham St. Anne's, in my constituency, are affected by the same pollution factors that affect my right hon. and hon. Friends' constituencies in Blackpool. My constituents send a very simple message to my hon. Friend the Minister this evening: they want to see the ending of raw sewage dumping into the Ribble. It is increasing the river's bacteriological load and does riot enable it to satisfy European bathing water standards.

The solutions are known. They are the ceasing of sewage dumping from the Fairhaven pumping station and improvements to the sewage treatment works at Preston. Both can be achieved quickly. North West Water has published a study on the river estuary that indicates a time scale extending to 1997. The message that my constituents have sent me is also simple: 1997 is not acceptable.

This is one case where the problems and the solutions are not cash-based. Since privatisation, money has become available to the water companies in large quantities and it can be spent on known technical remedies. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to do what he can to achieve quickly the requirements of the municipal waste water directive, which will finally allow North West Water to undertake the necessary design studies, in order that the resulting sewage scheme meets the entire needs of the Fylde coast area and at the same time cleans up the Ribble.

The argument is not about NIMBY but is about what I call the IMBY syndrome—"in my back yard". We all have responsibility, and I heartily endorse the comment of my hon. Friends that we must all work together.

I have a vested interest. When one is learning to sail in the Ribble, as I am doing at present, and capsizes one's dinghy and has to swim around in raw sewage, it brings home in graphic detail the problem that has to be dealt with.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Jack

My right hon. Friend will forgive me, but time does not permit me to do so.

Mr. Jopling

Then perhaps my hon. Friend will come to Windermere instead; it will be more fun.

Mr. Jack

That is the imagery that we must address. That is the kind of tangible factor that must be confronted. The technology and the money are available. I ask for the co-operation of my hon. Friend the Minister in urging North West Water and the National Rivers Authority to deliver as quickly as possible a solution for the benefit of our constituents, our constituencies and our tourist industry.

2.38 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) on securing this debate and on the way that he forcefully set out the case for a clean and safe coastline for his constituents. I was also interested by the contributions of my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) and my hon. Friends the Members for Wyre (Mr. Mans) and for Fylde (Mr. Jack). On this and on many previous occasions, they have made my Department very well aware of the feelings of their constituents and of the need to improve the beaches and bathing waters along the whole coastline, not just that around Blackpool.

This debate is also attended by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling). They have made known to me in private as well as publicly their concerns and their determination that something be done to clean up the coastline.

Nationally, we sometimes paint too gloomy a picture of the state of our rivers and coastal waters. In the United Kingdom, about 96 per cent. of our population are connected to the sewerage system and 83 per cent. of our sewage is treated. That compares well with any country in Europe. The problem for us lies in the discharges of untreated sewage to some coastal waters. Such discharges have a long history. Governments of all parties have received advice that in some cases they are not only acceptable but environmentally preferable. Such advice was given as recently as 1984 by the Royal Commission on environmental pollution, in its 10th report.

It is worth reminding ourselves that there is no method of disposing of sewage that is entirely free of some environmental cost. If we treat sewage, we need to find sewage works. They must be sited somewhere, and that can lead to contentious planning issues. The sewage sludge that results from sewage treatment must be disposed of to agriculture, it must be burned, or it must be land-filled. All those methods can be unpopular and controversial.

Nevertheless, we believe that now is the time to move forward. Following a consultant's report recently received by my Department, the Secretary of State decided, and announced on 5 March this year, that in future all substantial discharges of sewage would be treated. Most would receive secondary treatment, but primary treatment would be appropriate for coastal discharges when there was no adverse effect on the environment. This change of policy has been generally welcomed at home and abroad.

We have since moved quickly to implement this new policy. It will be expensive, but one of the great advantages of putting the water authorities into the private sector was that they now have access to private sector capital. We will take no lectures from our political opponents about this. Under the last Labour Government, capital expenditure on water treatment was halved. The financial position now is good.

We can look forward to a sustained programme of capital improvement. We have heard this evening of the urgent need to deal with the situation around Blackpool. Not only must we take into account the residents; we know that that town and the surrounding towns, have to cope with a huge influx of visitors during the summer months—not to mention a few party conferences in the autumn.

All this puts a considerable load on facilities, and we need to plan for a considerable expansion. So much has been known for some time. In 1988, the North West Water authority, as it then was, submitted plans to the Secretary of State for a scheme based on diverting sewage discharges from all existing sea outfalls to a new long sea outfall at Rossall point. That proved highly contentious, and some doubts were raised about the effectiveness of the scheme.

Following the change of policy that I have outlined, Ministers were not convinced that the scheme as proposed should proceed, and on 10 May my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State refused consent because the scheme did not incorporate treatment and there was no guarantee that a suitable site for treatment works could be made available within the design of the scheme. That rejection is entirely consistent with our new policy.

It is important to get on with the job of submitting a new scheme for treatment. I agree with my right hon. and hon. Friends that calls for a public inquiry are entirely misconceived; there is nothing to inquire into. We need a new scheme to be submitted for planning consent, after which work could start. I hope that the scheme will be completed by the mid-1990s. That must be the priority.

I confirm to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South that, with regard to breaches of EC directives, we are not the only country to be subject to infraction proceedings. My advice is that all countries, except Portugal, are the subject of infraction proceedings. Britain is not alone in having to appear before the European Court of Justice.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South mentioned disinfectants, which may be a short-term palliative. There is some evidence that they do not destroy viruses, so they are only a short-term measure. As part of our policy, we are encouraging water authorities to consider improved screening and possible use of disinfectants until a proper scheme can be worked out and implemented. I welcome the way in which North West Water has announced that it will be bringing forward proposals, and much of the work that has gone into the design and construction of sewers will not be wasted, because exactly the same sewage collection system will be needed for a future scheme.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South mentioned the signposting of beaches. This is a United Kingdom initiative, but it will be voluntary. We shall not make it compulsory for local authorities to erect signs showing the bathing water quality of their beaches. In line with our policy of free and open access for the public to environmental information, we feel that this information should be generally available.

I hope that in due course, after the scheme is fully implemented, Blackpool and surrounding beaches will not only reach European standards but will perhaps proceed to designation as blue flag beaches, and there is no reason why they should not do so well before the end of the decade. In that context, I should mention that the award of a blue flag for a beach depends not only on the bathing water quality, which is the duty of the water service company, but very much on surrounding facilities, such as information granted to the public, the fact that dogs are kept off the beach, the fact it is kept free of litter and the fact that other facilities are provided.

I hope that the local authority will use the next few years to ensure that the bathing beaches achieve the correct standards and to put in place the other facilities so that at the earliest possible date it can apply for blue flag status. I confidently expect that, well before the end of the decade, during one of my visits to Blackpool for the party conference, I will see blue flags proudly flying over those bathing beaches. If they are, it will be not because of premature calls, possibly politically inspired, for public inquiries but because of the technical skill and enterprise of North West Water and the political skill and perseverance of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and other right hon. and hon. Friends who are present this evening, who have consistently argued for measured improvement in the beaches and coastal waters along that coast. Considerable credit must go to them for keeping this matter constantly before not only the water company but my Department.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Three o'clock.