HC Deb 15 March 1994 vol 239 cc745-6 3.30 pm
Mr. Robert Ainsworth (Coventry, North-East)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require those who were responsible for polluting land to be responsible for its restoration and decontamination; and for connected purposes. The Bill is designed to ensure the remedying of contaminated land under the general principle of the polluter pays. The need for and the benefit of such legislation should be plain to all: the improvement of our environment in the immediate locality of the sites involved, the removal of obstacles to the redeveloping of derelict and contaminated land and thereby relieving pressure on green belt and virgin green field sites, and the insurance of not handing to future generations the responsibilities of our actions in a totally unreasonable and irresponsible manner.

My Bill would require a monitoring of current processes to ensure that contamination is avoided and minimised. It would require the treatment of contamination as it arises or, where appropriate, in a reasonable time scale of a site being vacant or a polluting process ceasing to operate. It would require the establishment and maintenance of a register of contaminated land to ensure that full information was available to potential purchasers, developers, local authorities and the public.

The necessity for such a Bill should be clear. The Government have repeatedly mouthed the slogan of "the polluter pays" and time and again they have run up to the fence and refused to jump it. In January 1990, the Environment Select Committee said: it is the responsibility of the polluters to restore land on surrender or to ensure that clean up will take place. It called for a code of practice to be implemented by the industry within two years and, failing that, for legislative action to be taken. Almost four years later, the Lords Committee on remedying environmental damage said that when one considers Government policy, It is quickly apparent that the polluter pays principle is providing no more than general indications of what might he desirable policy. The Government's recently released consultation paper "Paying For Our Past" shirks the issue entirely and effectively advocates the continuation of the status quo. It states: If unnecessarily early steps to treat land have to be taken, this may positively jeopardise wealth creation … Contamination on most sites can he safely left until an opportunity such as redevelopment arises. That, plus the Government's deregulation initiative, should be understood as the. clearest of signs that the Government will maintain the status quo. The green veil behind which they have sought to hide their policies has been exposed and has fallen, and we can now see clearly that the vested interests which caused many of the problems on the sites, and which in some cases continue to cause them, are to be protected.

The realities of the Government's protecting of the vested interests and of the status quo can be seen all over the country. I could give so many instances that I do not have time to mention them all. In Armley, in Leeds, the residents of 258 properties face average bills of £7,500 to clean up asbestos pollution. A former factory has been clearly identified as the cause of the pollution, yet residents have been told by the local authority that if they do not clear the pollution the council will clear it at their expense.

The failure to enact section 37 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 caused a huge rush among waste disposal operators to return their landfill licences, thereby avoiding all responsibility for the damage done to the sites over the years when profits were derived from their operation. The liability has thus been transferred back to the public purse. The Government's failure there has imposed a direct and considerable burden on the taxpayer.

In my constituency we have Foleshill town gasworks site—57 acres of derelict land, some of which has been derelict for 20 or 30 years. That is 57 acres of disgrace, danger and mess for the people who have to live around it. The site cannot be properly protected, and children gain access to it and play dangerously there. Criminal elements, too, gain access and get up to all sorts of activities such as breaking up cars. The heavy metal deposits on the site are a grave danger to the health of nearby residents. Moreover, the potential opportunity to create 2,500 jobs in a constituency in which 6,000 people are unemployed continues to be missed because of an over-long negotiation between British Gas and the Government about who should accept the responsibility.

Some issues that arise from that example are outside the scope of my Bill, but I can mention some of them. For instance, who is responsible for the pollution on such a site? British Gas was publicly owned until recently. Now that it is a private company, is it to accept responsibility for the pollution, or did the Government frame the privatisation legislation so as to transfer the asset into the private sector while leaving the liabilities with the taxpayer in the public sector?

Another issue that is causing problems affecting the site in my constituency is an unholy row between the Department and British Gas on grant allocations in central Manchester, where it is alleged that British Gas has managed to claim £4.4 million for site redevelopment to which it was not entitled.

It seems that the old maxim, "Tell Sid," which we heard at the time of privatisation, will soon become, "Keep a close eye on Sid" if the lesson of central Manchester is learnt. Meanwhile, the people of Foleshill continue to suffer that appalling situation in my constituency, and the consequent lack of opportunities. That and the many other examples from all over the land should prove that legislation such as my Bill is required.

The Government have signed up to such documents as, "Agenda 21" and "Sustainable Development—the UK Strategy". Those documents stem from the Rio summit and, as has been shown, the Government are effectively sustaining the status quo and their policy is totally at odds with those stated aims. My Bill will be at odds with their policy; it will be at odds with the thrust towards deregulation in this sector. It will seek to take effective action, to prevent, cure and monitor contaminated land and to relieve the green belt by, wherever possible, bringing it back into economic use at the expense of the polluter.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Robert Ainsworth, Mr. Geoffrey Robinson, Mr. Jim Cunningham, Ms Estelle Morris, Mr. Jon Owen Jones, Mr. Cynog Dafis, Ms Ann Coffey, Mr. Robert Litherland, Mr. George Howarth and Mr. Harry Barnes.