HC Deb 30 October 1990 vol 178 cc934-42

Lords amendment: No. 292, before clause 133 insert the following new Clause—

(".—(1) For the purposes of the registers to be maintained under this section, the Secretary of State may, by regulations—

  1. (a) specify contaminative uses of land;
  2. (b) prescribe the form of the registers and the particulars to be included in them; and
  3. (c) make such other provision as appears to him to be appropriate in connection with the maintenance of the registers.

(2) It shall be the duty of a local authority, as respects land in its area subject to contamination, to maintain, in accordance with the regulations, a register in the prescribed form and containing the prescribed particulars.

(3) The duty imposed by subsection (2) above on a local authority is a duty to compile and maintain the register from the information available to the authority from time to time.

(4) A local authority shall secure that the register is open to inspection at its principal office by members of the public free of charge at all reasonable hours and shall afford to members of the public reasonable facilities for obtaining, on payment of reasonable charges, copies of entries in the register.

(5) Regulations under subsection (1)(c) above may prescribe the measures to be taken by local authorities for informing persons whose land is the subject of entries in a register about the entries or for enabling them to inform themselves about them.

(6) In this section—

Read a Second time.

Ms. Walley

I beg to move, as an amendment to the Lords amendment, amendment (a), in subsection (1)(a), at end insert '() define contamination'.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to take the following: Amendment (b) to the proposed amendment, in subsection ( 1 )(b), after 'them', insert 'together with the types of investigation to be conducted for the purposes of identifying contaminated land which is—

  1. (i) contaminating other land or water (including contamination from mine workings);
  2. (ii) causing no damage in its present condition; or
  3. (iii) suitable for development or other use.'.
Amendment (c) to the proposed amendment, in subsection (3), at end insert 'and to undertake such investigations for the purpose of the compilation of the register as may be by the Secretary of State by Order made eligible for such assistance as he considers appropriate, and in respect of land falling within subsection (1)(b)(iii) above the cost of such investigations may thereafter in whole or part be a charge on that land payable to the Secretary of State by the person developing or otherwise making use of the land).'. I have to inform the House that Lords amendment No. 292 involves privilege.

Ms. Walley

As there exist clean air quality standards, we should be moving towards a system of quality objectives for clean land also. Anyone who has lived near derelict or contaminated land will know the importance of having it cleaned up in the interests of the community and of the public at large. Identifying which land is contaminated and the nature of the contamination is the first step towards achieving that objective.

At earlier stages of the Bill, it seemed that the Government were not in favour of establishing a contaminated land register. The very fact that we have moved on from that position is to be welcomed. This evening, the message that needs to be got across is that when the Minister agreed that the Government would go away and consider this matter he gave his assurance that that would be done in full consultation with the local authorities concerned. If we are to make any progress with drawing up a register of contaminated land, local authorities will have to be fully involved and will need the resources to carry it out.

8 pm

Consultation with local authorities is the reason for our amendments. We have had a commitment to consultation and the Department of the Environment has issued a consultation document, which I understand was based on fairly extensive studies carried out in Cheshire, but a scheme was not properly introduced. At that stage, there was concern about the way in which a contaminated land register would be established. It is important for the Government to confirm that that consultation exercise should continue. During the course of further consultation—I hope that the Minister will give us an assurance that full consultation will take place—we should get some idea of what form it might take. It is all well and good to know that there may be contamination somewhere, but that knowledge needs to be supported by additional investigative effort to determine whether or not contamination exists. Having established that it exists arid its nature, it is then important to decide on remedial action. Also, the local authorities involved need a priority ranking for deciding how soon action should be taken.

I am sure that the register will be useful when bids are made for improvement of derelict land and in helping local authorities to decide how to deal with rolling programmes for contaminated land.

The compilation of a register should be far more than an aid to potential developers which, according to the Lords amendment, is now the Government's intention. Registration of contaminated land should be a wider issue. The register should be used as a basis for restoring such land either for development or, if it does not reach that grade, for some other useful purpose. Therefore, we need to do a thorough job, and we need complete information on the nature of contamination.

When considering the form of consultation, we must decide whether blight which might arise when a site is registered as contaminated should be taken into account. We need to have regard to the effect that registration could have on nearby property values. That, in turn, raises the issue of compensation. However, blight should not be regarded as an argument against the register. We need to work out a method which will bear in mind the long-term implications of a register.

The need for a clear and complete definition of contamination, as set out in our amendments, is fundamental. That definition needs to be established and then applied nationally. If that is not done, misleading comparisons about the scale and nature of the problem could be made in different local authority areas. In the preceding debate, we discussed sites of special scientific interest and the need to study them on a national basis so that standards applied to one could be applied uniformly to the others. That should also apply to contaminated land.

During consultation, we need to have regard to the question of liability for contamination and to consider blight. If we are to do more than a mere desktop study of the way in which the contaminated land register will be compiled by each local authority and how it will be applied nationally, it is obvious that financial resources will be required. That calls into question the estimates given of the cost of setting up the register. Has the Minister taken into account the greater financial consideration that will be involved, especially in view of the debate on standard spending assessments which I understand will take place tomorrow? It is important to know how much of the additional cost will be accepted by the Government, arid how much money will be available from central Government to deal with the problem. I have also touched briefly on methodology. It is important that extra resources are provided so that the problem can be dealt with in much the same way in different areas.

For all those reasons, we believe that it is important that the final stages of this legislation should not be concluded today without further assurances from the Minister about how he expects the registration of contaminated land to be dealt with.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I and my colleagues are signatories to these three amendments, and I do not wish to amplify at any length what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent. North (Ms. Walley) said.

Each amendment contains valid points. Clearly, we need to define contamination. We welcomed Lords amendment No. 292 which provides that there should be a public register, as it is important. Like many other hon. Members, I know from constituency experience—this applies especially in urban areas but also elsewhere—that people want to know exactly what use has been made of a particular site, the chemical and physical effects and their consequences upon the land. The only way to achieve that is a public, and easily accessible, register. The imposition of a duty upon local authorities to keep such a register will be a useful addition to the right to know about the local environment, whether one is a local resident, an occupier, a prospective purchaser or whatever.

The second amendment seeks to establish the seriousness of contamination, and that is equally important. Once one knows the extent of contamination the appropriate response can be made, and once such knowledge is publicly available it is more likely that, even if other authorities do not respond, public opinion will be mobilised and will force public or private authorities to take the appropriate action

The second amendment seeks to establish the extent of contamination and that may also have beneficial effects, as it may release land for development which would otherwise have been blighted. Clearly the Minister and his colleagues in the Department of the Environment would welcome that. Sometimes, urban land does not sell, or it cannot be developed because it is thought to be contaminated, and the register would deal with that problem.

The third amendment is practical. The person who benefits should contribute to the cost of administration involved in establishing the physical quality and the consequences of contamination upon the land.

I hope that all the amendments are either immediately acceptable, or can be accepted as suggestions for moving in the right direction. Also, I hope that the Minister will give us an assurance that the welcome addition of a register can be strengthened by the addition of these amendments.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

I welcome the fact that the Minister has honoured the commitment that he gave in Committee that the Government will take note of the Select Committee's report on contaminated land, which was published while that Committee was dealing with the Bill. We welcome the fact that a move has been made—it is certainly a step in the right direction.

The amendments try to improve on what the Government have done. I hate to say so, but the Minister is genuinely concerned about the problem of contaminated land. I know, because he represents a neighbouring constituency to mine, and ours is a part of the country that has more than its fair share of contaminated sites, because it was in at the birth of the industrial revolution. The same is true of sites in many industrial towns and other places. I therefore do not doubt the Minister's concern.

The Select Committee recommended that there should be a national register and a national method to ensure conformity. That important principle is enshrined in one of the amendments. It would be wrong if one system were used in Brighton, Eastbourne and Bournemouth and another one in Bermondsey, Manchester, Rossendale and Burnley. We must ensure that the same criteria are used to determine contamination. The Select Committee recognised that that may cause difficulties. We suspect that many areas of land are contaminated, but the problems cannot always be identified. I recognise that it would be impossible overnight to compile an accurate record of the type of contamination on each site.

Contaminated land could be used for one purpose and it would not cause problems. However, there might be problems if the land use changed. For example, contaminated land could properly be used for parking cars. The site would be open to the air. If, however, the land use changed and houses were built upon it, the contamination would cause problems. We must ensure that the initial development on contaminated land is suitable. We must also ensure that the land is suitable for future development. we do not wish large areas of land to be made sterile. The Minister is aware of the problems that that would cause in his constituency.

This is a complex issue. Our amendments go further than the direction in which the Government are moving, due to the amendment that was carried in the other place. If the Minister cannot accept them, I hope that he will at least assure us that consultation will take place on the serious issues involved. We all know that there are difficulties. There should be consultation with the local authority associations and local authorities to ensure that we get it right. We do not want problems to arise later because we rush through legislation and get it wrong.

If the Minister is not prepared to accept the amendments, I hope that at least he will say that the Government are not absolutely certain that they have got it right, that they will hold consultations so that future disasters can be prevented and that they will ensure that there are safeguards to cover both immediate and subsequent developments. I hope, too, that the Government will ensure that everything possible is done, by means of better industrial waste disposal, to prevent the creation of new contaminated sites. Their aim should be to keep to a minimum the creation of further contaminated sites, which would only add to the problem caused by the already large areas of contaminated land.

Mr. Trippier

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) for his constructive and kind speech. I am also grateful to him for the nice things that he said about me. At the risk of being sycophantic, may I in turn say that I was most grateful for the all-party Select Committee report on the subject which, as the hon. Gentleman said, is incredibly complicated. A principal advantage of the Standing Committee procedure was that both sides of the Committee worked closely together and tried to get the legislation right.

We are entering the dramatic phase of having to identify what is contaminated land. It might help if I explained as briefly as possible what Lords amendment No. 292 says and then dealt, again briefly, with the amendments to it. After that, I shall explain how the consultation will take place. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) was right to press me about that point.

Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley)

Many contaminated sites cannot be identified because records have been either misplaced or lost. If housing is to be constructed on certain sites, should not the builder be required to carry out test bores to establish whether the land is contaminated? It may not always be possible to identify contamination, but that procedure would go some way towards eliminating the problem of building houses on contaminated land.

8.15 pm
Mr. Trippier

The hon. Gentleman may take comfort from the fact that I believe that we should go further than that. He has identified an incredible problem that is to be found in many industrial areas. The records have been lost. Many hon. Members who have served in local government will recall that prior to local government reorganisation the records of land in rural district council areas that was either contaminated or uncontaminated were kept in the memory of the chief executive. They were not written down for posterity. I make a light-hearted point about it, but I believe that that is fact, not hypothesis.

I intend to ensure that the registers include details of all land that may be contaminated so that the checks that the hon. Gentleman believes ought to be carried out can take place. The registers would be compiled by local authority officers. They would have to scan the area in some detail. We estimate that it would cost—I always love coming out with such a comment on the Floor of the House—about half a person a year.

Mr. Redmond

I accept what the Minister says, but the problem that concerns me is that the poll tax and the rate support grant have placed a stranglehold on local authority finances. To carry out such an exercise, which I accept would be a good one, would cost money. Local authorities ain't got that money. Should not an obligation to contribute towards that expenditure be placed on firms that want to build on land that may be contaminated?

Mr. Trippier

If developments take place on land that has been contaminated but cleansed, principally by means of the derelict land grant that we make available, using taxpayers' money—it is the most successful grant that is made by any Government Department, because there is a leverage of 7:1, which I believe is unbeatable—the Government can and do play their part. If we were referring to half a dozen or a dozen district councillors having to do the job, I might agree with the hon. Gentleman. I do not intend to enter into a major debate on the issue, but the money is there. The derelict land grant is focused on mining closure areas. The hon. Gentleman will concede that in those areas we have changed the rules in order to allow soft after-use. We have not insisted on hard or economic development of those sites. I am sure that the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) will confirm what I have said. He played a part in persuading me to change the rules when I had direct responsibility for the derelict land grant.

Mr. Hardy

I am grateful to the Minister for the courteous and considered way in which he has dealt with a problem that both my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) and I share. However, a powerful and grave anxiety remains, which I am sure that my hon. Friend shares: that although the Government have changed the rules, a change that owes much to the Minister, and although a slightly more helpful attitude has been adopted, the fact remains that the amount of money that is made available to assist the local authorities represented by my hon. Friend and me to surmount the appalling problems that are to be found in the largest areas of dereliction in Britain is relatively modest. Therefore, we are less sanguine than the Minister believes we ought to be.

Mr. Trippier

There you go, Madam Deputy Speaker. That shows that one cannot win. When I was the Minister responsible for derelict land grant, I tried to find the extra money that the hon. Member for Wentworth wanted me to spend in his constituency. I even moved it from Lancashire—the finest county that God ever gave to man—trundled it across the barbed wire to the other side of the M62 and sent it up to the Rother valley. I do not know how the hon. Gentleman has the brass neck to raise this matter on the Floor of the House when he knows that I did him the best favour that has ever been done for him by any Tory Minister. I am speechless. Well, I cannot be speechless because I have to continue with the amendment.

I have said that the register must contain all land that may be contaminated. It is important to make it clear that if there is the slightest doubt about any land, it must be on the register. I hope that all hon. Members grasp that. The public will have access to those registers. That was a courageous decision for us to take. They will give owners and potential buyers of a site details of any uses of that site that may have caused contamination. It was courageous of us to take that decision because it might blight an area. Many district authorities in our part of the world, especially in the north, have worked day and night to encourage inward investment and economic development. The district authorities may have to say, "Now that the register has come on stream, we have to admit that we have a lot of contaminated land." That would go down like a lead balloon with those considering investing in the area. That was what the hon. Member for Burnley referred to. It was a difficult decision, but I think that we have made the right one.

Opposition amendment (a) would require the Secretary of State to define contamination in regulations. We have concluded that that would not be helpful. As the hon. Member for Burnley suggested, contamination is hard to define precisely. It is a term for the scientific community to define, both generally in terms of the latest thinking and in relation to specific cases. A fixed definition might cause more problems than it solved. For example, levels of background natural "contamination" have yet to be established in many areas. A statutory definition might quickly become out of date.

Amendment (b) would require regulations to specify the types of investigation to be used to identify land as contaminating other land and water, causing no damage in its present condition, or suitable for development or other use.

In our view, it would be hazardous to create any rigid framework for the classification of sites such as the Opposition propose in the amendment. It is likely to be impossible to prove scientifically that a site is causing no damage in its present condition. The idea that a site is established as suitable for development or other use takes us back to the concept of "multifunctionality"—sites judged suitable for any use. I remind the hon. Member for Burnley that that idea was rejected by the Select Committee. Assessment of an individual site has to take into account many factors, including very detailed consideration of specific uses. In any case, a one-off survey would not be sufficient, as subsequent uses of land might alter the classification.

The object of the registers is to draw together information on the possibility of contamination. They cannot, in themselves, include judgments on actual contamination at sites or on their development potential. We have given that careful consideration. The people compiling registers would be able to pass such judgments only if they had full and up-to-date survey details on every site.

Registers will, of course, reveal a need for investigation of particular sites. I accept that that will require knowledge of the history of the site, the nature of the possible contamination, and the current or proposed use of the land. Elsewhere in the Bill we are strengthening provisions for dealing with sites that represent a risk to human health or to the environment. For example, there are clauses on monitoring of closed landfills and on statutory nuisance. The latter places a duty on local authorities to inspect their areas to detect any accumulation or deposit that is prejudicial to health.

The amendment also raises the question of the Government laying down methods of investigation in regulations. That would be impracticable and inappropriate. We shall certainly provide information and guidance to authorities, but techniques in this area are constantly changing and their selection has to be based on site-specific conditions such as soil types, combinations of contaminants and hydrogeology. Site investigations need to be carefully designed in terms of both information obtained and use of resources.

Amendment (c) would provide for Government support for local authorities' investigations, with costs recoverable in some cases by charges on the land concerned. In our view those cost recovery measures are neither workable nor necessary. This is a point for the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). I agree with most of what he said, but in one instance his comments ran counter to the principle of "the polluter pays". In bringing contaminated land back into use—back into the market place—the person who will enjoy the profits from the development should pay for the site investigations. I do not think that there is any difference between us on that.

If those who have contaminated the site in the past can be traced—I am hopeful that they can be in most cases—they should be made to pay. We shall encounter some difficulties with those who are impossible to trace, but if ever there was a case for the derelict land grant, this is it. I accept that not only is it the most successful Government grant in terms of leverage but it is the most widely appreciated, particularly in industrial areas that have become derelict as a result of the change in the industrial and economic pattern.

Mr. Pike

The Minister referred to multifunctionality. He is right to say that the Select Committee recognised that to deal with contamination in that way would probably involve unrealistic costs that could not be justified or met. Can he give an assurance that the register, which will be maintained in accordance with the amendment carried in the other place, will show that the contamination has been dealt with only to a certain standard? He referred to a chief executive in a rural district remembering what has happened, and I am sure that he will understand that in 20 or 30 years people may want to develop land for a different use only to find that the land may not be suitable because the contamination has not been dealt with to the necessary level. Will he give an assurance that that will be maintained on record?

Mr. Trippier

That sounds like a perfectly sensible suggestion. I promise the hon. Gentleman that I shall look at that. I can say now that I shall look at it favourably. There would then be a consistency between that and other public registers about which we talked a great deal in Committee. Under part I of the Bill, which deals with improving public access to environmental information, incredible detail must be shown on a register under the integrated pollution control. I know that the hon. Gentleman will accept that.

I think that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I wrap all that up with the consultations that we are now conducting with the local authority associations. I do not think that anyone should be so arrogant as to suggest that we have all the answers in this regard. We do not. We have a great deal to learn. The process of consultation will be carried through. It will involve not only the local authority associations but the many district authorities. I am concerned principally with district authorities that have had particular problems in the past and with those that have proved that they can deal successfully with the new forms of technology that can cleanse land. Another neighbouring authority to Burnley and Rossendale and Darwen is Blackburn. In evidence given to the Select Committee that authority was cited as a superb example of what can be done.

I hope that, with those assurances, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

8.30 pm
Ms. Walley

We have no doubt about the importance of derelict land grants and how, where they have been made available, they have transformed large areas of derelict land.

I take on board the Minister's comments that some of our amendments may constrict rather than allow us to keep abreast of the latest developments in technology. I rather suspect that the main thrust of his comments is that provided there is adequate consultation with local authorities, and that it takes place on the widest basis possible, the issues that we have discussed in terms of methodology and how priorities must be established to deal with contaminated land, including the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), will be returned to time and again. I am sure that, in the full process of that consultation, the issue of finance will be returned to time and again and I suspect that we shall have to press for more finance to be made available to local authorities to deal with the polluter-pays principle. We accept that there is a legacy of contaminated land, but in some cases there will not be a polluter who is directly responsible for the contamination.

On the basis of the assurances given by the Minister, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lords amendment No. 292 agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to.

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