HC Deb 29 July 1997 vol 299 cc137-8
7. Mr. Jack

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions if he will conduct an environmental audit for the north-west of England; and if he will make a statement. [9354]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

A number of such audits have already been undertaken locally, including those conducted by Lancashire, Cumbria and Cheshire county councils, and the quality of life and sustainability audit recently completed by the north-west region of the Association of Local Authorities.

Mr. Jack

I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he consider again the question of an audit? If he were to carry one out, he would find that, in early July, there was a release to atmosphere of an extremely noxious substance that came in the direction of Fylde and caused great upset to many of my constituents, 300 of whom rang Transco to complain about what they thought was a major gas leak; it turned out that there was a sulphurous release from an oil and gas development operating in Liverpool bay. Will the Minister make early investigations into the matter? What specifically does he intend to do to prevent such noxious substances from reaching the atmosphere again?

Mr. Meacher

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is referring to a release from Broken Hill Proprietary—BHP—and I am certainly concerned about that; we are following it up and considering what action we can take, including prosecution.

I am also concerned about a further incident last Saturday—I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman was also referring to it—and both the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency have made extensive inquiries of Transco and all the chemical and petrochemical companies along the Mersey estuary, but we have still not been able to discover the cause of the leak. It may have been caused by an offshore facility—we are checking that option—or by a leak from a road tanker, but the police and the HSE have received no official report to that effect.

I am seriously concerned about such incidents, not least because the HSE already has in place a rigorous programme of proactive inspections of gas transporters such as Transco, precisely to ensure that there is compliance with the law and such incidents do not take place.

Mr. Kaufman

In considering any environmental audit in the north-west, will my right hon. Friend pay special attention to the land known as Kingswater park, which is the only open countryside that my constituents can reach on foot? Will he note that, at a public meeting at Fairfield golf club on Friday evening, hundreds of local residents expressed their total and angry opposition to any attempt by North West Water to ruin the land with its greedy and vandalising fingers?

Mr. Meacher

I am very concerned about North West Water on a number of counts—not least because the north-west has a far worse record than any other part of the country in adhering to the bathing water directive. I am also concerned about the issue raised by my right hon. Friend; if he would care to give me details, I will take the matter up personally with North West Water and, indeed, call the company in.

Mr. Yeo

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the process of environmental audit could usefully be extended to enable consideration of how the target of building 60 per cent. of new homes on previously developed land can be achieved? Or do the reported threats of the Minister for London and Construction to cover green-field sites with concrete mean that the Government have abandoned planning policies that protect the countryside and the green belt—notably, in such places as Uxbridge?

Mr. Meacher

The Green Paper to which the hon. Gentleman refers, which was issued by the former Secretary of State in the last Government—or perhaps I should call it the not-so-green paper—proposed that, initially, 50 per cent. of all houses should be built on green-field or countryside sites. The proposal was subsequently changed to a 60:40 split. That split comes from the last Government; it certainly does not come from us.

We are still considering the responses to the Green Paper and assessing the degree to which housing can be built on previously developed land. That is still the main intention. We are still very concerned about protecting green-field and countryside sites. I certainly will not take any lessons from Conservative Members, because it was they who put us in this position in the first place.