HL Deb 20 December 1965 vol 271 cc923-38

4.51 p.m.

LORD HAWKE rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what progress they have made towards securing that the English countryside is cleared and kept clear of abandoned motor cars and other dumped rubbish. The noble Lord said: My Lords, this represents my annual assault on the problem of the clearing-up of the countryside. On January 23, 1964, I raised the question first and outlined the problem as I saw it in considerable detail. The noble Lord, Lord Hastings, who was the junior Minister at the time, replied for the Government. He admitted that the problem existed. He thought, indeed, that it might become greater, because of the increased prosperity of the country and the increased ownership of property of various kinds. He said that an inter-departmental working party had been set up to consider the matter in May, 1963, but he considered that motor vehicles were a separate problem from the other problem of bulky litter, and that the local authorities were already tackling the question of motor vehicles. He said that the general question of bulky litter outside the ordinary refuse collection would be considered when the working party reported.

On May 13 of that year, I put down a Starred Question, to find out whether the working party had reported, and the answer was, "Not yet". So on November 26, 1964, I raised the matter again in an Unstarred Question, to find out whether the working party had reported, and I was supported among others by my noble friend Lord Mancroft, who detailed some dark deeds done down Montagu Square way. I elicited the fact that the working party had not yet completed its investigations, though in the previous July a draft circular had been sent round to the local authorities and such people as scrap dealers. They commented, and on October 22, 1964, a further draft went round, which it was hoped might be a finalised draft.

Apparently, the final circular went out dated February 11, 1965, and the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, was kind enough to send me a copy of it. It was a very excellent circular indeed, as it must be, because it contained almost a précis of our debate of the previous January on the subject, but it dealt only with old motor cars. I would commend to your Lordships' attention the time factor. This was a working party which was appointed in May, 1963, and they sent out a circular on one-half of their job in February, 1965. This seems to me to be a typical example of government by committee which pertains in Britain to-day, and the reason why things are so difficult to get moving is because of the appalling delays of this type of system. I do not know whether there has been another circular regarding the other bulky waste, but the committee's terms of reference, as I understand it, were certainly to deal with other bulky waste as well as motor cars.

There are two points in the circular on motor cars which I think are very apposite, and I should like to refer to them. First of all, in paragraph 10, the working party say: To be effective, action should be taken by all refuse disposal authorities. I should also like to read out the whole of sub-paragraph (3) of paragraph 11: Section 74 of the Public Health Act 1936 empowers local authorities to make a charge, if they think fit, for accepting a motor car for disposal; but private owners will be most likely to make use of the disposal arrangements if the service to them is free. Old cars are usually abandoned by people who are no longer able or willing to incur any further expense on them and even a nominal charge may prove to be a deterrent. I agree wholeheartedly with that, because it is a paraphrase of my speech on the subject.

I had confirmation of this even yesterday, when talking to a young relative of mine who happened to have a "runner" which had ceased to be a runner and who was considering how to dispose of it. Not for him, if possible, the resort to the scrap dealer who charged, but some quiet corner round his locality, which, needless to say, I told him he must not do. That is a typical example of the impecunious youth who has not got the £2, £3, £4 or £5 for disposing of an "old crock".

In the light of what I read out from that circular, I think the charge of £2 per car for disposal by the Westminster City Council, which I read about in the Press, is a mistake. It will drive owners to go outside the boundaries and dump their cars elsewhere, because, as the circular so rightly says, the system must be universal and free. Obviously, to be able to afford the very expensive crushing machines which your Lordships will remember seeing in the film Goldfinger, more than one local authority will have to share the expenses.

This debate is about all bulky waste —anything, in fact, which is not acceptable in the routine refuse collection. The circular, which was accepted by all local authorities, shows what they are trying to do about motor cars, or what Whitehall thinks they ought to be doing about motor cars, but we are in the dark as to what they are actually doing. At the same time, it throws no light at all on what is happening to the other stuff, and I look forward to having a Government reply on this point.

A private individual can get an impression of only a very small part of England, but in my immediate locality I think the position is a trifle better than it was a year ago. On visiting the favourite dumping grounds around Crawley New Town, mattresses seem rather scarce and furniture is not so ubiquitous as it was. But there seems to be a residue of small stuff, such as drums, large tins, discarded old silencers and portions of motor cars; while, of course, the hot-water cylinder that sprung a leak always finds its way into a hedgerow in the country. Other noble Lords may be able to provide evidence from their own experiences.

I have just been handed a cutting from the Yorkshire Post dated December 13, 1965, in which it says: The county surveyor of Westmorland, in his annual report, reported that during the recent holiday season ten tons of wastepaper, tins and bottles were collected for every mile in one cleaning operation on the A.6 north of Kendal". I am not thinking primarily of wastepaper, tins and bottles, because I regard those as the smaller waste; nevertheless when it comes to disfiguring the countryside they are certainly just as important as other waste.

In my locality, the rural authority will eventually have a clean-up, I suppose, as they do periodically, but labour is scarce and finance is a problem—and this brings me to another point. In all our discussions I have always stressed the view that the disposal of bulky waste was largely a financial problem. Given the money, the local authority could provide a service good enough to make it not worth while to dump. If there is not a good enough service in the towns, the burden will fall on the rural authority to clear up the hedgerows, which is unfair and is inefficient, because it means double handling—first to dump and then to "undump". One hears that central Government relief for the rates is impending. When this financial settlement is made, will Her Majesty's Government look into the question of providing some relief to the rural authorities to enable them to finance a proper system for clearing their areas of waste, most of which is suspected to emanate from the towns? I think this is fair. The town dweller likes to drive out into the clean countryside; and, as I say, one suspects that much of the mess is created by those from the towns. A uniform burden on the taxpayer to keep the countryside clean would seem more equitable than one on the comparatively smaller number of rural ratepayers.

In conclusion, may I say that I am glad that the problem of the worn-out motor vehicle is at last sinking in here and there, but I remain to be convinced that it is treated universally seriously. However, I do not see great comfort in the efforts so far made to deal with the other forms of bulky waste, and I hope the noble Lord who is to reply will be able to give me more reassurance on that point.

5.4 p.m.


My Lords, I have always supported my noble friend on the previous occasions when he has raised this matter, and I am duty bound, of course, to support him again to-day. I complain very slightly, if I may, about the wording of his Question, because he talks about "the English countryside ". My Lords, it is the English town-side as well. I must declare an interest, even though my noble friend may already have declared it for me. I wish he had not mentioned Montagu Square and the dark doings I referred to in our last debate, because the immediate result of raising that matter in your Lordships' House last time was that the very next morning there appeared outside my house a disused baker's van which took me eight days and cost a considerable amount in bribery to get removed.

This problem is common both to countryside and town. If the noble Lord doubts my word, he has only to go and look in Whitehall, where a small Vespa motor cycle was, at least last night, deposited at the end of Whitehall and Parliament Square, and, for all I know, is still there to-day. Perhaps he will go down to Cromwell Road, which is my favourite hunting ground for dumped rubbish but which has been rapidly improved since the railings were put there. Alas! Two days ago it was going back to its old form, and this with a specimen I have never seen in the eight years I have been keeping watch there—an old trombone.

May I briefly commend three points to the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison? I apologise for doing it again: I have done it about twenty times. Have we discovered what foreign countries do about this problem, or are they as regardless of it as we are? Have we investigated the possibility of dumping these disused cars and ironmongery out at sea, or is the cost of doing that prohibitive? Whichever course we adopt, I hope the noble Lord will agree with my noble friend Lord Hawke that this matter will have to be considered on a national basis. It must be a national service, which is understood on a national basis, and it must be a charge on the country as a whole; otherwise it will be universally evaded.

My Lords, I was glad to see that our debate last year was reported in that circular, particularly as my own speech was repeated in much better English than I myself command. Perhaps I may be excused from taking part in this debate next year, because I have a nasty feeling that the noble Lord will put exactly the same Question on the Paper and I expect will receive exactly the same answer.

5.6 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend Lord Hawke. I think I can say that in the Woking area things may not be quite as good as in the Crawley New Town area, because recently I received a full-scale timber-framed mattress, in good condition, with springs, over the hedge into my garden. I would not have objected—I might have been able to use it—but it was deposited on top of a rather rare rhododendron which I had just planted, doing considerable damage to it. That is about the only experience I have had of this, except for bicycle frames and bottles, which of course arrive in my garden by the score. On one occasion I received 24 milk bottles, bearing a Camberley dairyman's name, arranged neatly in a row. I cannot complain: but I must support my noble friend and say that a lot of trouble has been taken about cars, but little has been taken about other objects which may be thrown over the hedges.

I should like to say something about depositing rubbish at sea. I know it is done quite a lot. I know it is done off Plymouth, because when I went on a marine biological course at Plymouth we used to dredge there and there was a most interesting set of animals which lived amongst the rubbish. We used to fetch up old teapots covered with sea anemonies and wormlike creatures which were of great interest. That was certainly an economic and simple way of getting rid of your rubbish.

5.8 p.m.


My Lords, I wonder whether your Lordships will forgive me for joining this debate at a late stage, but one suggestion has been made which I feel has a lot of merit, and I should be grateful for your Lordships' consideration of it. It is that on every new purchase of a car there should be an additional licence fee of two guineas which would be paid into a fund which would be held and could be claimed against by local authorities when they had an old, disused car to pick up and dispose of. In that way it would be paid for. As new cars came on the market the fund would grow and the old cars would then start to disappear. With planned obsolescence, the useful life of a car is rapidly decreasing, and instead of having wonderful old Morris Cowleys around there will soon be only five-year-old cars completely disused and appearing on the streets in this way. The problem is going to grow rather than get better, and, as the new cars came along, the fund would grow and could take care of these cars when they in turn became wrecks.

5.10 p.m.


My Lords, may I begin in all sincerity by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, for raising this subject again. I think it is his fourth effort; but I am very glad indeed that he goes on hammering at it. It is necessary. This is really a matter for the local authorities. There must, of course, be powers to deal with the position in some form or another—they may be powers of prosecution; they may be other powers. That is naturally the business of Central Government. But when it comes to dealing with the question of people dumping bulky rubbish or motor cars, I think that clearly that cannot be done by some sort of campaign from Whitehall. It is a task the local authorities must carry out; and the circular to which the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, referred was sent out to local authorities to help and encourage them and to stress the importance of this question. I am sorry to disappoint him in thinking it was the debate here which was the cause of the circular, because in looking at the time of the debate I find that the circular was already in its final draft and had gone out at that time. Whether it was the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, who prompted the circular or whether it was the circular which inspired the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, is a question we need not trouble about. They were both on the right path.

It is, of course, not true to say that nothing has been done about this question: or that it has been left at the circular stage. What in fact has happened has been that, as regards the motor cars—and I have not forgotten the other dumped rubbish—there has been an informal committee with representatives of the Ministry and representatives of local authorities. You cannot treat individually with all the local authorities in these cases; you must deal with the associations, and the associations then have to deal with their members. They have all been represented and the London boroughs, who have a peculiar problem, have been represented by Haringey, which speaks on behalf of the others. This informal committee has led to a very considerable number of authorities —about 50 in the county council range, when I last heard of them—taking action and moving in the matter. The sort of thing they do is to come to arrangements with the trade—arrangements which vary from case to case and which I think ought to be left to the local authorities and to the local trade representatives—about the disposal of these disused motor cars.

The right advice, if I may respectfully say so, to be given by the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, to his impecunious young relative is: "Ask the council". That is the right thing to do. Of course, if you can manage it through the trade on a private basis there is nothing to prevent you from doing so; but if difficulties of pocket or circumstances prevent this, then the right course is to go to the council.


My Lords, the noble Lord said that 50 councils have done something about this. Am I right in saying that there are rather more than 50 councils in England?


Yes, but I said these were on the county council level—although I think I dropped my voice at that point and perhaps the noble Lord did not hear me. But that is the position.

My Lords, I will now turn from the county councils to the other authorities concerned. The county boroughs have been asked to take action about this, and take a view somewhat like that expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, to-day, which I myself would expect to be true. They say that the trouble is that the people go out and dump outside the borough. One particular town clerk expressed this point very clearly. There is no point in instancing the case; but it clearly must be so. I am not for a moment denying the existence of similar difficulties inside the towns, too. But for the boroughs in particular, and especially the boroughs not of the wholly unmanageable size of modern London, there is no doubt it is a problem—not only of what happens there but of their own borough residents going out into the country and dumping motor cars there.

I turn from that to the London problem. I am afraid I did not spot the object at the bottom of Whitehall and did not get as far as the Cromwell Road to-day. However, there is no doubt that a great deal of cars are being left in one place or another. I think the number is possibly exaggerated, but as nobody can produce exact figures it is difficult to say. But there is no doubt the problem exists. The London boroughs are being pretty good about it. They are taking steps to make similar arrangements to those which I have described about getting rid of the scrap. It would take an insufferable amount of time if I went over this position borough by borough and county by county and tried to say what arrangements have been made in each case, and I am not sure it would be a good thing to do so because in many cases the authorities are merely experimenting.


My Lords, may I ask this question? The circular recommended that the service should be free. Do the majority in fact provide this service free or do they, as in Westminster, charge for it?


I should have to obtain the information to answer that. That would involve the question of how many councils have exactly what arrangements started already. I can try to find out that information. I hope the noble Lord will excuse me from having a special, detailed inquiry. I will inquire about it and give him general information. I agree with what the noble Lord said and I shall come to the question of central funds in a minute. I agree with him that the service ought to be free because the people who are going to throw the cars away are the kind of people mentioned in the paragraph of the circular he quoted: people rather badly off, last owners and probably the poorest owners, and perhaps the least careful owners, of the cars in question. There is every case for doing this free and if it is done on a wide enough scale it is thought that the scrap dealers, the breakers-up, can make something out of it and there may be no need to charge. It depends on the scale on which it is done.

On that point, before I leave London, there is one very encouraging feature in that the Greater London Council is taking an interest in this problem. They have not taken any definite steps so far—they have hardly been in a position to do so—but are co-ordinating the efforts made in the first instance by the boroughs. In London, as in the country, this is a question best tackled in the first place by the smaller local authorities; that is to say the district councils in the counties and borough councils in the towns, at any rate so far as collection goes. It may be possible to co-ordinate a little more—and by co-ordinating I mean working together literally—the arrangements for disposal. It can be done and some local authorities are beginning to try out (it has been a little slow, I agree) the possibility of getting larger plant which can deal with a considerable number of cars at a time.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, asked me about the position in other countries. This is a very acute problem in America. They have more cars; but they have one advantage (if it is an advantage) in this respect—namely, they have a great deal more room. But they are trying to get their disused cars broken up, and are using very large plants indeed. I gather that when one says "large" one means over 100 cars a day.

Of course, you cannot deal with them on Goldfinger lines, where. I understand, the car, passengers and everything else were all squashed up into one enormous, glorious lump. I did not see the film, but that is not the practical way to do it. There are parts of a car which are far more valuable when the car is broken up than when it is squashed up. For example, you have to keep other metals away from steel; and there is not much that you can do with decayed coachwork. But I am not trying to teach the scrap dealers their trade; I think they know it pretty well. There is an opening for the disposal of cars, breaking them up into a suitable form, so that the steel and other bits can be disposed of, on a scale rather larger than it is now being exploited and carried out.

When I first inquired into this subject I shared with the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, the feeling, "Have they done anything about it since the circular was issued?" The information which I have been given, the substance of which I have been trying to convey to the House, convinced me that progress has been about as fast as one can encourage local authorities to move in a matter of this kind. It is a difficult business for them. It varies in different cases and it is a not very attractive problem. There is no enormous immediate advantage to be gained. But it is a public service which requires to be performed.

I wish to turn for a moment to answer a question from the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, about other countries. I asked about this on my own initiative, and I was told that another country which is finding this matter troublesome and doing a good deal about it is Western Germany. I do not know what is happening in other European countries. They are, I think, going on more or less the same lines as we are. But, of course, our system of local government and that of other European countries, and of America, is so different that it is rather difficult to make a comparison on those lines.

Turning to the question of money, I would point out that the present arrangement is that all expenditure, if there was expenditure on this matter, would be borne in the first place by the rates, and if there was a profit it would go in the first place to the relief of the rates. But there is a rate-deficiency grant, and the intention and effect of that grant is that where councils have to bear what I might call an undue burden, a burden beyond their proper share, they should get relief from public funds. Councils which are troubled in that way do get that relief. Not every county gets rate-deficiency grant. It is reckoned on a comparison between what they can levy from the ratepayers and the duties which the council has to perform. This is a duty which would rank for a rate-deficiency grant. I suggest to your Lordships that this is the right way to do it.

In a way, this illustrates rather well the advantages of the rate-deficiency grant, Had we no rate-deficiency grant, we could be left with an almost insoluble problem about who would pay what. Take a case where someone took a car from borough "A" deposited it in the rural district of "B", and the rural district of "B", with the assistance of two more rural districts and the co-ordination of the county concerned, finally broke it up and sold it to the scrap dealer. How the burden, or advantage—for it might be an advantage—would fall, would be a very difficult matter to decide. Because that kind of question arises, not only in connection with disused motor cars, but with many other things; we have a rate-deficiency grant. If any alteration is to be made in the relation between local and central Government finance, I feel sure of one thing: there will be, there must be, an arrangement of the same sort in respect of cases now dealt with by the rate-deficiency grant. That is to say, a burden which, in some cases, is heavier than in others, or, conversely, resources which may be greater in one case than another, must be taken into account. I suggest that that is where the rate-deficiency grant, or perhaps a later and better adaptation of the relation between local and central finance, would be useful and the right way to deal with the matter.

My Lords, I have been talking about motor cars and taken them as an instance. It is an instance where this circular has been sent out and one can define, more or less accurately, what has been done. But there is the general question of bulk—


My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves the question of motor cars, I wish to ask him a question. I have listened to everything he said with great interest. I have always realised that this is a problem which will increase. Can the noble Lord tell me whether the suggested figure of £2, which was put out by certain authorities, for collection and disposal, was based on any knowledge of the cost, or was it a sort of shot? Would £2 bring in a surplus, or would there still be a deficiency? Does the noble Lord know the answer to that question?


My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot answer that question. The fixing of the £2 is, of course, a matter for the local authority. What I think the noble Viscount has in mind is that somewhere there must be some figures which would give an idea whether there was a balance between cost and expenditure in a run of cases. All I can say is that I am told that in fact some councils make a charge and others make no charge. Whatever charge is made now, I think that one should bear in mind the possibility that the methods of disposal may be improved by increasing the size of the plant used for the purpose, and as a consequence charges which may now be right may not necessarily be right in a short time. I doubt—I say this speaking off the cuff—whether local authorities would seek to make an undue profit in a transaction of this sort. It may be that they ought not to charge at all, and do charge. But I should have thought that extortionate charges would be unlikely.


My Lords, may I make one point? If there are these varying charges, with some councils charging and some not, people who live in the areas where a charge is made will dump, and it will cost the "dumpee" a great deal more than £2 to collect the dumped vehicle—more than can be got for it. Therefore surely it would be better for it all to be free.


My Lords, I am not here to argue any general principle, but I suggest that one has to be rather careful about going too far in imposing rules on local authorities in a matter of this sort. That is the same kind of point which used to arise in respect of library charges, and I think that in the case of library charges there was a much better case for uniformity. What was done in the circular, as the noble Lord clearly pointed out, was that local authorities were pressed not to make any charges at all and were told that they could make it pay. To order them to do it without making any charge would be, I think, contrary to the way in which we usually deal with local authorities, and it would, I believe, cause a disproportionate amount of resentment. I should deprecate that way of doing it. At the same time, I would join with the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, in pressing on local authorities the desirability of providing this service free, if possible, and seeing, as indeed my right honourable friend Mr. George Brown would see, whether in the circumstances it was possible to improve methods and so to decrease or obliterate the charges, instead of making up for inadequate methods by unnecessary charges. I am not suggesting that the methods are inadequate. I merely say that they may be, and that most methods are capable of some improvement.


My Lords, in the part of London where I live it seems to be particularly common for people to deposit their cars. If I find one at a nearby front door, with no number-plates and the licence has expired, and I presume that it has been abandoned, who is the right authority for me to get in touch with: the police or the local authority? Would it be permissible for me to telephone them on the first day I see the car, or must I leave it for a certain amount of time so that it proves to be abandoned?


My Lords, I think that the right people to ring up are the borough council. There are police powers, but the responsibility is the borough council's. I suggest that it is a good thing that the noble Lord should take every possible opportunity of reminding them of these powers, but remembering, as I hope we all shall, that this is a problem which really arises out of the way we live in a crowded island, and one should not be too hard on people who are trying to cope with this problem, perhaps for the first time.

I am sorry to take so much time. In regard to other refuse, particularly bulky refuse, there is provision for dealing with litter. But litter seems to increase constantly in size and may vary from the cigarette end to the dead elephant. There is a Litter Act. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, and other noble Lords will not be too angry with me if I assure them that there is another body concerned with this matter—this time not a committee, but a Working Party. Like all Working Parties, they really have been working, and they have the advantage of consisting of people who are experienced in the problem they are dealing with. This Working Party hope to report in the spring of next year.


My Lords, can we sort this one out? Is this the Working Party who were appointed in May, 1963, with, I understand, dual responsibility, or is it the purely motor car Working Party?


My Lords, I do not think that it is the motor car Working Party, but one specially concerned with dealing with litter. I do not know its date of birth, but I think that it is a younger child than 1963. May I leave it at that at the moment? As I said, they are hoping to report in the spring of next year.

I agree with what has been said about litter being a real problem. I do not think that it is so large as the motor car problem, but it may be. That is one of the matters which the Working Party will no doubt let us know about. From time to time, criticisms have been made of the Litter Act. There may be questions as to whether there ought to be some further legislation, but I am inclined to think, as regards both refuse and cars, that the necessary powers are there. It is a case of organising and encouraging the use of them. If I have not said much about refuse in general, it is because a good deal of the same considerations—the functions of local authorities, and so on—apply here as in the case of motor cars.

I really am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, and to other speakers for raising this question, and for raising it repeatedly, because I am sure that it is a matter where local authorities need encouragement and a reminder that something must be done about it. I am sure that if this problem is neglected it will get worse. In fact, I do not think that it is getting worse; and that is one of the factors which make me think that the efforts that have been made are to some extent being successful. I feel that this question requires constant attention, and is just the sort of thing where Members of your Lordships' House may be able to do something practical to help, either by ringing up local authorities and saying, "There is a 'dead' car at my door" or something of that sort, or, where noble Lords serve on local authori- ties, by reminding them that, though this matter does not sound very important, it really is something that has to be dealt with. I hope that I have answered all the questions. If not, I will answer by letter any that I am asked.