HC Deb 22 March 1999 vol 328 cc135-40

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

10.57 pm
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

This debate centres on contaminated land in the town of Barton upon Humber on the south bank of the River Humber. That market town has a rich history and boasts 200 listed buildings. On part of the riverbank, the Far Ings nature reserve attracts many visitors from all over the world, but a shadow has been cast over the local council's plans to regenerate the town and promote its wealth of attributes. That shadow is cast by a 35-hectare contaminated site. The soil and ground water are contaminated by heavy metals, following the closure of agrochemical factories on the site. The leaching of those metals into the River Humber is a cause of serious concern.

Although what is known as the BritAg site was owned by ICI, it has absolutely no responsibility for cleaning it up. That responsibility lies with North Lincolnshire council which, through no fault of its own, has fallen foul of the "polluter pays" principle. The crux of my case is, should that principle be extended to the council tax payers of North Lincolnshire because of indemnities signed many years ago by Glanford borough council, which no longer exists?

I hope to show my hon. Friend the Minister that my repeated requests for assistance for North Lincolnshire council to decontaminate the land are warranted. He and other Ministers in the Department have heard about this case many times, through my persistent representations. There have been equally persistent representations from my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, whom I am pleased to see in the Chamber.

Let me explain how North Lincolnshire ended up in such an invidious no-win position. Following the closure of the BritAg factory, Tory-controlled Glanford borough council purchased part of the site from ICI in 1991. The other part was purchased from MTM, which also operated on the site. The council paid £335,000 for the site, and almost £140,000 was paid in consultancy and administration fees. Some superficial works were carried out at the time to make the site secure.

In purchasing the site, Glanford indemnified ICI from any clean-up costs. ICI tells me that it will seek such indemnities wherever it can. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell me that he will do all that he can to end such practices. They may be legally binding, but, in this day and age, we should not be letting polluters off the hook.

Having purchased the site, Glanford came up with an expensive plan for after-use, which would have cost £34 million. We are talking about hard after-use, involving more expensive reclamation and centred on industrial units. At the time, Glanford's existing industrial units were running at a vacancy rate of about 70 per cent., but it presented its plans with no firm guarantee of where the money would come from to carry out the work. A scheme existed enabling councils to bid for derelict land grants to clean up such sites, but Glanford did not know whether it would qualify in connection with the £34 million scheme.

Worry set in. Glanford began sending letters to the office of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions in Leeds, asking whether the site would qualify for a 100 per cent. reclamation grant. A reply dated 19 August 1993 stated: We have been advised by colleagues…that the withdrawal of assisted area status can have no effect on a local authority's entitlement to grant at 100 per cent. where schemes have already been approved. That is crucial to the argument, because the £34 million scheme had never actually been approved. A reply that I received today from my hon. Friend the Minister stated that, when English Partnerships was established in 1994, it took responsibility for the derelict land grant scheme, including projects such as this.

Glanford thought that it would get the money, but, in fact, no one had ever approved the project. Local government reorganisation also came into the equation. Glanford was to be abolished; Humberside, the county council, was to go; and four new unitary authorities were to be created, including North Lincolnshire. Following the May 1995 council elections, Labour won control of the new authority, and, following a "shadow year", the new council was due to "go live" in April 1996.

Back at the ranch, Glanford purchased a further six acres of contaminated land on the site—the former MTM works which I mentioned earlier. It purchased the land for £1 in December 1995. Again, the polluters were indemnified. It astounds me that the council purchased the land knowing that its days were numbered, and that nothing was likely to be done on the site before the new authority took over about 12 weeks later. Such activities merit an inquiry to discover what Glanford was getting up to in the early 1990s. I reiterate that we must put a stop to indemnities that absolve polluters from paying for decontamination.

In April 1996, North Lincolnshire council inherited severely contaminated land and found itself—through no fault of its own—in the shoes of the polluter, and hence subject to the "polluter pays" principle. Wanting to get stuck in and to sort out the mess, North Lincolnshire deemed the former Glanford plans to be expensive and unsustainable, and devised a more practicable scheme for after-use. The current proposals will create a more attractive environment in Barton upon Humber by removing the contaminated land and water to create a country park known as Water's Edge. That is the key to the regeneration of the whole waterside area and crucial to single regeneration budget bids in the area.

Water's Edge park will mirror the attractive and popular Far Ings reserve further along the riverbank. Reedbeds will be restored, and woodlands and hedgerows established. Essentially, it will provide for a continuous Humber wetland environment on the riverbank at Barton upon Humber—a unique visitor attraction. It will provide a focus for nearby sites of historic interest in the town. The scheme is sustainable. For example, a windmill will act as a source of energy and the energy needs of the visitor centre will be met through solar power.

The council has good working relations with the many partners involved. For example, Anglian Water will assist with the after-use by using its new deal environment task force on the site. I praise the current council for its efforts to resolve the mess that it has inherited.

The stumbling block, of course, is decontamination of the land. What assurances can the Minister give me and my residents that assistance is available? Again, I assert that council tax payers in North Lincolnshire are not the polluters and, thus, should not have to foot the bill for decontamination. The residents of the area should not have to pay for the incompetence of a council that no longer exists, or have to pay to let a multinational firm off the hook. I hope that the Minister will be able to offer my constituents, and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Scunthorpe and for Brigg and Goole, some guarantees that he will be able to assist North Lincolnshire council.

11.6 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Alan Meale)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) for raising the important issue of contaminated land at Barton upon Humber. She mentioned persistence; persistent she is. She has raised the issue with me and with my predecessor on a number of occasions. It is to her credit that she has done so. Many new Members could learn from the persistent manner in which she has carried out her role as the local Member of Parliament. I also pay tribute to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who for many years has raised this and other issues of contamination in the region, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey).

As we have heard, the Water's Edge site at Barton upon Humber represents bad news. The site is part of the unfortunate side of our industrial past. It was first used as a clay-pit and then as a chemical factory. That has left the land seriously contaminated, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes has rightly pointed out. That contamination is leaching off site into the Barton haven and River Humber and threatens the chalk aquifer underneath the site. It "neuters" the site and prevents it from being returned to a worthwhile use.

Further bad news is that the potential cost of reclaiming the site runs into several million pounds. The complexity of the technical and legal issues involved makes reclaiming the site that much harder. However, I hope to give the House some better news in respect of that dilemma.

We have systems in place to stop the creation of such problems. Many of the current problems on the site are the result of unregulated dumping of chemical by-products and wastes. I am pleased that such practices are no longer allowed. Furthermore, the Environment Agency enforces a stricter system of waste management licensing, which ensures that waste materials are properly treated and disposed of.

The chemical factories that were once on the site would have been subject to environmental controls under the system of integrated pollution control. That system will be enhanced later this year under the European directive on integrated pollution prevention and control. The House will be pleased to learn that my Department has recently carried out a third round of consultation on how to implement the directive and a Bill is under discussion in another place.

The key aspect of IPPC is that, when a licensed installation closes, operators will not be able simply to walk away from the site—as they have done in the case that we are debating—but will be under a legal obligation to clean up any decontamination and to restore the site to a satisfactory condition, which definitely did not happen at Water's Edge.

I am sure that the House will join me and my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes in saying that we hope that not many sites are as bad as Water's Edge. The Deputy Prime Minister himself has, in very strong terms, commented to me that even one contaminated site is one too many, and that it is important that we continue identifying such sites and taking the necessary action to deal with contamination at them. The sentiment is particularly apt in the case of Water's Edge, as the Deputy Prime Minister represents a constituency that is not very far from it.

Later this year, we shall bring into force a new statutory regime for contaminated land, implementing provisions in the Environment Act 1995. The provisions will place on local authorities and the Environment Agency a clear duty to find problem sites and will provide real teeth in ensuring that proper remediation is done. We are also working on improving the availability of technical solutions to the problems of land contamination.

My Department—with the Environment Agency, English Partnerships, its Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland counterparts, industry and the science research councils—is launching a new initiative, entitled CLAIRE, which stands for contaminated land applications in real environments, which will build a network of demonstration sites for innovative remediation technologies.

Although all that may be better news for the future, and we should not be creating any more Water's Edges, we still have to contend with the task of dealing with Water's Edge itself. On that matter, I can give my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes—for her persistent and very hard work on the issue—some good news.

North Lincolnshire council, which owns the site, has been working up proposals on sorting out the problems at the site: to deal with water pollution; to create—as my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes mentioned—new wildlife habitats; and to open the site for public amenity use. Like her, I think that those proposals are very imaginative and worth while, and that they will create a major new environmental asset out of a currently horrible environmental liability.

The proposals have been in gestation for some time. As my hon. Friend said, part of the site was purchased, in 1991, by Glanford borough council. The purchase was funded by the derelict land grant, provided by the former Department of the Environment. More recently, English Partnerships has provided further grant support for site investigation and design work. In the 1997–98 financial year, £150,000 was paid for the work to be done.

We are now able to make real progress. Last week, North Lincolnshire council submitted to my Department a formal bid for funding support, under our contaminated land supplementary credit approval programme. SCAs give local authorities permission to borrow money to fund specified capital works. The cost of servicing the debt is taken into account in local authorities' revenue funding in subsequent years.

The contaminated land SCA programme exists to support work by local authorities in dealing with the environmental risks caused by sites for which local authorities themselves are responsible. That might apply when they own the site or contaminated it themselves.

Funding support is available also for orphan sites, where a local authority or the Environment Agency has to deal with a site from which the original polluters have long since disappeared and at which the current owners are not able to pay for remediation.

In the case of Water's Edge, as my hon. Friend said, the site is owned by North Lincolnshire council. The council's bid has been for the first stage of works—to stop current pollution of the Barton haven and the River Humber, and to protect the aquifer under the site. It is a three-year programme which is expected to cost £5.7 million, with £1.2 to be spent in the next financial year.

Discussions are continuing with English Partnerships on funding for the next stage of works—which will be to improve the site's natural habitats, and to open the site, as a water park, to public access. I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that, in consultation with my colleagues in the Department, I have approved the bid for the supplementary credit approval to fund work at Water's Edge in the coming financial year. My officials will write to North Lincolnshire council tomorrow to confirm that.

Shona McIsaac

I thank my hon. Friend for that information. I am delighted that the SCAs have been made available. That is excellent news for my local authority. Will he confirm that the SCA is not borrowing and will not be a debt landed on the council, as some people wrongly assume?

Mr. Meale

My hon. Friend is correct. It is borrowing, but it is set against and taken into consideration with other money from central sources. Anyone who tries to give the impression that yet another debt is being laid on the community has misinterpreted the reason for such funding, which is to clear up contamination in special circumstances or to deal with extra needs that an area may have to sort out for its constituents. I understand that some people have been making false allegations about the credit approvals that the Government have allocated. Those in North Lincolnshire council are the best people to judge such a decision. There are many other sites around the country for which local authorities want SCAs. If they were given approval, there would be a clapping of hands and joyous sounds coming from those directions.

I hope that the work can start without further delay. If we debate contaminated land at Barton upon Humber again, it will be to trumpet the success of the reclamation project.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her persistence and endeavour. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole and my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe, who is on the Front Bench, for all their hard work to start the process of remediation and clear-up of the contaminated land.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Eleven o'clock.