HL Deb 24 March 1914 vol 15 cc661-72


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a Bill which is supported by various smoke abatement societies and by a large number of municipalities or their health committees, and I feel convinced that the object of it is one with which everybody will sympathise. For a long time past there has been an incessant demand for a purification of the atmosphere, and the atmosphere really requires purification just as much as water and food or anything of the kind. There have been innumerable conferences on the subject, and the general ill effect upon the health and comfort of the community is not disputed. It is not disputed either that, unfortunately, England suffers more than any other country. I think it will be admitted that the first impression one derives, after passing any time on the Continent or elsewhere, upon returning to this country is an impression of a dull atmosphere, of an absence of sunlight, and the prevalence of fog No doubt this is largely due to climatic causes, and that is an additional reason for taking proper precautions. It would be an exaggeration, of course, to state that the whole of this country suffers from smoke. There are certain happy districts which do not suffer at all.

I will only touch upon two districts affected. One is, for instance, the case of London. London under present conditions receives only about one-third of the winter sunshine as compared with places in the immediate neighbourhood. The annual sootfall in London is no less an amount than 70,000 tons, which, I believe, formed in the shape of a pyramid would occupy more space than the Victoria Tower. It has been calculated on the analogy of Pittsburg, which I believe is the filthiest place on the face of the globe, that if smoke costs the inhabitants here only half as much as it does there, the deterioration and damage would amount to £9,000,000 a year. The other case is the area included within a parallelogram of which Sheffield and Leeds would be the eastern boundaries and Warrington and Preston the western boundaries. I think this district, which includes something like 1,500 miles, might without exaggeration be described as the workshop of the world. It contains a population of, I suppose, something like 4,000 per mile, and in this district is included some of the most pleasing scenery in the country. It is really not much of an exaggeration to say that there is no area within this district which is really clean. I speak from experience, because I live within it myself. Even in the districts where there are grouse moors, for instance, the atmosphere is impure, and there are certain districts in the neighbourhood of some of these large towns where the atmosphere is almost inexpressibly filthy. Even when the people are engaged in such an Arcadian occupation as haymaking they often emerge from their labours in the condition of colliers.

I might also say that in many parts of this area, supposing the inhabitants never went elsewhere at all, they would never realise what sunshine really is, never see the real colour of a tree trunk, and would probably go to their graves under the impression that all sheep were born black. Years ago I remember accompanying a very distinguished man, the last Lord Derby but one—a statesman who enjoyed the unique distinction of being a Cabinet Minister in both a Conservative and a Liberal Administration—when he went to cut the first sod of a railway in the neighbourhood of St. Helens. St. Helens is a very prosperous town in Lancashire, where the industry of man has considerably defaced nature. The local joke was that there would be no green sod for Lord Derby to cut, and I remember that when he was about to perform the operation he said, "It is a very creditable thing of St. Helens that there is not a green sod to be found in it." I thought this a deplorable sentiment, but at that time, between twenty and thirty years ago, dirt, black buildings, black sheep, and the like were considered invariable indications of prosperity and no steps were thought necessary to improve that state of things, but I am happy to think that opinion has largely changed upon the subject owing chiefly to the admirable work done by the various smoke abatement societies in this country.

The present law with regard to smoke abatement is contained in the Public Health Act, 1875, which places on the sanitary authorities the power and duty of preventing smoke nuisances and requiring furnaces and fireplaces to consume their own smoke. The weakness of this Act lies in the wording of it, and there are technical difficulties which I will not discuss at the present moment because I do not wish to unnecessarily occupy your Lordships' time. As a rule what usually happens is this. When a local authority proceeds against an offender in consequence of black smoke being emitted there is great difficulty in deciding what constitutes black smoke, and when the offender is fined only a small nominal fine is imposed, and perhaps he modifies the nuisance for a short time. About six months afterwards further proceedings are taken against him. Again a nominal fine is inflicted, the offence being treated as a new one, and so the matter goes on indefinitely. I said that great difficulty arose in defining what actually constitutes black smoke. I believe that black has been defined as the negation of colour, but the point is that smoke is objectionable no matter what its colour may be; and it is quite conceivable that in certain lights black smoke may take all the hues of the rainbow. In view of these technical difficulties it has been found in practice that this particular Act has not been of much avail, with the result that numerous towns have applied for special Acts, amongst them being London, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield, Birkenhead, Edinburgh, Leeds, and Bradford.

This particular Bill, the Second Reading of which I am now moving, is based to a great extent upon the Bradford Act of 1910. The working of that Act in Bradford has been extremely successful. I went there myself in order to make inquiries, and I found that since the town, which is one of an extremely progressive character, had enjoyed these powers the smoke nuisance had to a great extent disappeared, and that the Act worked as smoothly as possible. In fact, I believe there are no complaints whatever against it. Clause 2 of this Bill assumes that smoke is caused by the improper construction of furnaces and fireplaces, and it simplifies the matter of prosecuting offenders and makes the fine deterrent. Subsection (2) of Clause 2 protects manufacturers from unfair attacks. Subsection (3) of the same clause, which deals with exemptions, deprives anybody of a grievance against this measure, because any one who imagines that his trade is likely to be injured will have the right to appear before the Local Government Board. As noble Lords are probably aware, there are certain trades which are already exempted from the provisions of the Public Health Acts, and their position will remain precisely as it is. Clause 4 appoints joint committees, which are urgently required in order to enable authorities in wide areas to combine and take common action. It also gives the valuable privilege of enabling one authority to prosecute another. One of the grievances in connection with this matter is that when one local authority does its duty it suffers from neighbouring negligent authorities who take no steps to enforce the various Acts. Manchester, for instance, is an example of a town which does its best to abate this nuisance and which suffers considerably from its neighbours. Clause 7, with regard to the appointment of inspectors by the Local Government Board, is based on procedure adopted under previous Acts; and Clause 8 reserves the powers which local authorities already enjoy.

I do not think it is necessary to say more in explanation of this Bill. But I should like to point out that it is framed on extremely moderate lines. The pro-motors have taken especial care not to drag in unnecessarily the Local Government Board, because, not unnaturally, the action of the Local Government Board is frequently resented by local authorities. The Bill is framed on the assumption that local authorities are ready to act if they get the power. It is also founded to some extent upon the belief that public opinion, as I have already said, has largely changed upon this question; and if public opinion has changed it really is due more than to anything else to the invaluable work which has been performed by the various smoke abatement societies. These societies have not only succeeded in influencing public opinion, but they have been able to show, in cases which I will not quote now, that considerable economy results from the use of smoke consuming apparatus, and so forth.

However reasonable and moderate this Bill may be, I recognise perfectly well that there is not the remotest chance of my seeing it passed into law. I may possibly succeed in getting it through this House, but I know quite well that the moment it goes down to another place it will be blocked by some ardent democrat in the interests of Democracy, or possibly by some gentleman on the same side of politics as myself. But what I venture to put before the Government is that if they approve of the principle of the Bill they should grant an inquiry of some kind. If the Government would consent to give an inquiry in the nature of a Royal Com- mission or a Departmental Committee the subject could be thoroughly investigated, and it could be done without loss of time. I feel sure that if this course were adopted it would meet with general approval. I believe that public opinion is ripe for a change in the law with regard to this matter, and I am convinced that if such an inquiry were decided upon it would be attended by results which would be beneficial to many millions of our fellow citizens. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.— (Lord Newton.)


My Lords, the noble Lord who has moved the Second Reading of this Bill concluded his speech with an appeal to the Government that they would institute some form of inquiry into this matter. I desire to join in that appeal, and for this reason. The noble Lord's proposal is very largely based, though not actually word for word, on a clause in the Bradford Corporation Act of 1910, a clause which was fought very hard for two or three days before a Committee of your Lordships' House on which I had the privilege of serving as chairman. I think I am voicing the unanimous opinion of the Committee when I say that we felt that a case had been made out for doing something, but when we came to close quarters the difficulty was to know exactly what to do and exactly what words to put into the clause; and that was why the last subsection of the clause in the Bradford Act enacts that the clause given to Bradford should only remain in force for five years unless Parliament should meantime otherwise determine. It was undoubtedly our intention, having heard the case, to see that, as far as we could manage it, at the end of five years another inquiry should be held— obviously a more detailed inquiry than we were able to hold, because there would have been the five years experience of Bradford. I am extremely glad to hear what the noble Lord says of the success of the experiment in Bradford. But it seems to me obvious that all parties— and this must concern traders very deeply —should have an opportunity of being heard before any general legislation is enacted. I personally should welcome this inquiry, and I feel sure, being as I am in touch with many of the munici- palities, that all would welcome a solution in the direction of some step along the road covered by this extremely important Bill.


My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed to say a few words in support of the Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Newton. Firstly, I should like to congratulate him on moving in the matter as he has done. We all know him as a determined rooter-out of the various pests and scourges of the community, human or otherwise, and now that he has turned his eye upon the smoke fiend that has preyed upon us too long, I feel that there is really some chance of its extermination.

I have two grounds for supporting my noble friend this evening. The first is this, that I think a very strong case can be made out, and has in part been made out by him, for legislation. The second is that the same thing practically has been done with success elsewhere. And here, if your Lordships will allow me, I may quote my own experience in India. When I went out to Calcutta as Viceroy I was horrified at the extent to which the beautiful climate of Bengal was being vitiated and injury was being done to public buildings and the amenities of the place by the smoke from the great factories that are constantly growing up around Calcutta. Every afternoon I used to look out and see the sun sink to rest across the bosom of the Hugli draped in a funeral mantle of black, and I felt that steps were required to put this matter right. I am bound to say that, in the first place, I got not much support from local opinion. The Local Government were averse from moving in the matter because so many important mercantile interests were involved. But I was resolved to push the matter forward, and accordingly I got an expert from England. He came from Sheffield, where they have great experience of these conditions, and he delivered to us a most excellent report. Upon that we legislated in Bengal, and we did very much the same sort of thing that the noble Lord wants to do by his Bill.

We set up in Bengal a Smoke Commission with an equal number of members, half official and half non-official, with power to appoint inspectors. We made rules as regards the emission of smoke from the tall chimneys and as regards the construction of furnaces. So successful was this Bill when enacted that in less than three years the average emission of dense black smoke from those tall chimneys at Calcutta had diminished by over 80 per cent. We found that the generating plant was being improved, that stokers were trained to serve their furnaces in a more economical and scientific fashion, and that gas engines and other motors were widely taking the place of coal fires. At first—and this is a difficulty that has to be met with here—the factory owners were, if not hostile, at any rate suspicious, but soon they came into line, and presently they gave us their hearty co-operation, no doubt influenced largely by the fact that we were able to show them that the expenditure in which they were involved was more than recouped by the saving in the fuel which they used. The upshot of it was that in only a few years time Bombay introduced the same legislation. It was equally successful there, and at the present moment not a doubt is cast anywhere in India upon the advisability and practicability of this method of dealing with the subject. I draw from that brief narrative an omen of encouragement to the noble Lord in the ideas that he has placed before us.

We are dealing in this week of our history with important events which occupy and distract our attention; and yet, after all, is it unfair to ask your Lordships for half an hour to contemplate that which is really a great injury and incubus in the daily life of the nation? I am not going into the question of the great factory towns, although I am fairly familiar with the evil there. But take the question as we know it in London. You have merely to look at medical statistics to see how injurious this smoke nuisance is to the health and vitality of our people. Doctors will tell you of the number of pulmonary diseases that are due to it alone. Look at its effect on our public buildings, our ancient historical fabrics in London, always wearing a livery of sooty black, corroding their surfaces, impairing their beauty, threatening sooner or later, I suppose, something like destruction. Look at the effect on our own houses, our furniture, our clothes, the works of art in our public galleries, every one of which has, owing to the smoke of London, to be safeguarded by glass. Look at the effect upon the vegetation and plants in the parks and gardens of London. That is, after all, only a very brief summary of the effects of smoke; and when you realise—because there are occasions when statistics, though repulsive, are more effective than any other argument—that annually 200,000 tons of sulphur are poured out over this city in sulphur gases and soot, and that it is calculated, 76,000 tons of soot are laid down upon London every year from the skies, you will have some idea of the magnitude of the evil with which we are grappling.

My noble friend said that substantial advance had already been made. That is quite true. But it has not been due so much to legislation as to other influences. It has been due partly to a change in public opinion on the matter, and still more to the activities of those bodies and leagues that he mentioned. There is an admirable body called the Coal Smoke Abatement League, which has in this matter, by instituting inspections and by here and there enforcing prosecutions, done a great deal to ensure a higher standard. I would ask your Lordships to submit it to the test of your own experience. Would not all of you agree that in our own time there has been an enormous difference in the atmospheric conditions of London? Thirty years ago the average number of days in the year on which there was a dense London fog was thirty; it is now less than ten; and really the time, I imagine, will some day come when the London fog—that most hallowed institution, which has inspired the genius of poets and painters for years, although it has never elicited anything but a groan from anybody else— will be only a memory of the past. You can look at the figures, too, at the Observatories of the number of sunshiny days in the winter; the proportion of increase is about the same as it has been of diminution in the number of London fogs.

But still—and here is the necessity for the new legislation contemplated by my noble friend—there is a great deal of apathy and indifference in the matter. Everybody is waiting for somebody else to move. There are a good many powerful interests involved. We have all of us got used to the smoke, and seem almost to regard it as a necessary condition of our existence. There is no doubt also that the law as it now exists is ineffective, and that there are too many loopholes for escape in it. I have had evidence put before me showing that in some parts of the country, owing to the weight of local interests, the authorities are reluctant to put the law into operation. Lastly, I suppose the idea still exists, which I found so rampant in India, that this type of legislation will be an injury to manufacturers because it will cripple their industry and reduce their output. I believe that to be an absolute illusion. I believe that the reverse can be demonstrated, and that the real justification for this legislation in the restriction of smoke is not æsthetic but practical, businesslike, and economic. In other words, we can show to these persons that they will be the gainers in escaping the wastage of fuel in which they now indulge by getting a larger return for their outlay. For these brief reasons, which I thank your Lordships for having allowed me to put before you, I wish all power to the elbow of my noble friend. I hope that the Government, whether they actually approve of this Bill or not, will at any rate institute the inquiry for which my noble friend has asked. For, believe me, there is no subject more worthy of investigation by a Royal Commission or Committee than this; and when some day, if he is successful, my noble friend hangs the scalp of what I call the smoke fiend at his girdle, he will have added one more to his many achievements for the improvement of the condition of his fellow countrymen.


My Lords, I would not have intervened in the debate on this Bill, as to which I understand that there is general agreement and that His Majesty's Government will consent to an inquiry, were I not under a sort of obligation to my noble friend who has moved the Second Reading to say a few words in support of it. I do not intend to recapitulate what has been said, but I think anyone acquainted with the history of legislation for the prevention of noxious vapours will know that it has not only protected the health and amenity of the country but has not been injurious to manufacturers. The noble Lord said that the statutory provisions now generally applying on this subject were contained in the Public Health Act, 1875. My recollection is that the Alkali Acts, which prevented noxious vapours from factories in South Lancashire, date back to the late 'fifties, and everybody who knew Lancashire in those days will recollect how pestilent vapours utterly destroyed the whole vegetation and will acknowledge that the passing of those Acts not only protected Vegetation but actually produced a new trade which was a source of profit. I will not trouble your Lordships further, but I give my hearty support to this Bill.


My Lords, I am sure we shall all agree with Lord Newton that the question of the further prevention of the pollution of the air by smoke is of real national importance, and that if we could succeed in purifying the atmosphere of London and other populous districts it would have a considerable effect in making life more cheerful for all classes of the population, besides improving their health, and, as Lord Curzon has suggested, preserving our public buildings. Whether this particular Bill, of which Lord Newton has given us a very lucid explanation, will materially effect the object in view I do not pretend to say, but it is no doubt a step in the right direction.

I do not propose to discuss the details of the Bill either by way of criticism or otherwise, as I have the authority of my right hon. friend the President of the Local Government Board—who, I may state, is in entire sympathy with the objects which Lord Newton has in view— to say that he proposes to appoint a strong Departmental Committee to examine the present state of the law and its administration, and to make proposals for consideration before Parliament definitely commits itself to any particular amendment of the law. My right hon. friend proposes to ask representatives of local authorities, engineers, and architects to sit on the Committee; whilst, of course, all interests concerned, such as the various trades and manufacturers that might be affected, will also be adequately represented. Perhaps in view of my right hon. friend's intention the noble Lord will be satisfied with the debate to-night and will not wish to go further with the Bill to-day, but be content to wait for the Report of such Committee. The Committee which is to be set up will be appointed as soon as possible, and I am sure that if Lord Newton will consent to serve upon it his services will be very much appreciated; and as soon as the Committee has reported, the Report will receive the serious consideration of the Government.


I should like to ask the noble Viscount whether he would be good enough, in the appointment of this Committee, to consider the interests of the agricultural community. Agricultural crops are liable to suffer a great deal of detriment from the smoke nuisance, and I therefore think that some representative of the agricultural community should be on this Committee.


The President of the Local Government Board, I know, wishes that all interests concerned should be adequately represented. I will therefore take care to bring to his notice the matter mentioned by Lord Barnard.


My Lords, in asking leave to withdraw the Motion for the Second Reading of this Bill I should like to express my thanks to the representative of the Government for the way in which my request has been met; and I need not say that, if the honour is paid me of inviting me to serve on the Committee, I shall be most happy to do so.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.