HL Deb 26 April 1967 vol 282 cc591-608

5.36 p.m.

BARONESS STOCKS rose to ask Her Majesty's Government: Whether they are satisfied that the present pattern of local government allows for the provision of adequate resources, financial, technical, and administrative, for the prevention of coastal pollution by the discharge of sewage into the sea; and whether they will consider the advisability of creating administrative machinery for regionally planned sewage disposal, comparable to that exercised by the Water Resources Board by virtue of the 1963 Act. The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. Oil, of course, has a much more pungent smell than sewage, but when the smell of oil has been eliminated from our beaches the smell of sewage will remain. Also, of course, the evil of our beach pollution by sewage is a growing evil. Its growth is conditioned by the growth of our population, by the increasing mobility of our population, and by that great tidal movement of men, women and children to the sea coasts that occurs at certain times of the year.

I do not want to elaborate the details of what one sees on a sewage polluted beach. I do not want to make my speech more disgusting than I can help. I am sure that many noble Lords have seen for themselves what can happen when sewage is inexpertly discharged into the sea. The evil was very well illustrated a little while ago by a cartoon in Punch depicting a small motor boat being navigated in a thick sea fog, and a young woman was leaning over the side of the boat and saying to her male friend: "We can't be so far from the pier now because we're going through the sewage." That in fact is no exaggeration, because I hold in my hand a photograph taken at the sea's edge looking down from the pier at Bridport harbour, which shows precisely what that young woman saw when she was "going through the sewage". I will not describe it further, but any noble Lord who wishes to see it can do so at the close of this debate. It is no exaggeration, and this evil is a growing one. I think I ought to mention that in the case of Bridport harbour the local authority has, since the photograph was taken, instituted, in conjunction with two neighbouring rural district councils, an expensive sewage disposal scheme. So perhaps that photograph is now something of the past. But in many areas it is not a thing of the past; it is a thing of the present and, alas! of the future.

Not only is the problem growing, but, happily, consciousness of the problem is growing. Only this morning I was delighted to hear on the B.B.C. programme "Today" the news that Mr. Cordle, Member of Parliament for Bournemouth, is on the warpath in another place on this same subject. There has for many years been a Coastal Anti-Pollution League, which has done its best to ginger up local authorities and has kept account of those local authorities which have acted in the matter and of those which have not. Meanwhile, Mr. Crossman, when Minister of Housing and Local Government, paid serious attention to the problem last summer. He spoke on it at Brighton, on June 27, to the Institute of Sewage Purification. He said—and I quote from his speech: … the pollution of beaches by sewage must be stopped … in many cases we are still relying on grossly inadequate methods of sea disposal; often of Victorian vintage, hopelessly worn out and never designed for the amount of effluent they now have to handle. He instituted an inquiry among local authorities into their methods of sewage disposal, and he quoted the result: … if a number of these health resorts feel satisfied with their present arrangements as described to me, I certainly am not. Mr. Crossman continued to elicit reports from local authorities, and let us hope that his successor in office feels as strongly about it as he did.

Meanwhile, the British Safety Council have taken the field and have "weighed in" during the last few months with their campaign against what they delicately describe as "our stinking beaches". As a result of this The Times of January 12 reported that the Corporation of Weymouth was threatening a libel action against the Council's Controller, Mr. Tye, claiming damages for having cast aspersions on the holiday amenities provided by Weymouth Corporation for its visitors.

With regard to the British Safety Council, unfortunately I cannot go all the way with them as regards the remedy and their statement that the only completely safe way is to treat sewage inland. It can be so treated, and in many cases it is. I have visited the sewage works of a large authority, the West Hertfordshire Main Drainage Authority. It is a most impressive scheme operated by a joint authority comprising one county council, three boroughs, four urban districts and five rural districts. The point is that a large joint authority can do that sort of thing effectively, for reasons implied in my Question, but coastal authorities have to reckon with geographical features, such as the fall of the land towards the sea, to obviate expensive pumping. Inland treatment is not, therefore, a practical proposition so far as they are concerned.

I will quote again from Mr. Crossman's speech. He said: I cannot accept the extreme view that all sewage should be taken inland to sewage disposal works for full treatment, and that none of it should be discharged crude into the sea. There is a problem of economy here as well as one of amenity. If satisfactory results can be obtained—as they undoubtedly can be in the right conditions and with modern engineering—by first screening and then discharging into the sea, I see no case for spending vast sums on treatment inland: not to mention the problems you would then have of siting new sewage works in the rural hinterland. I will also quote (I am sure the writer will not mind) from a memorandum which was kindly sent to me by the Clerk to the West Hertfordshire Authority. He says: … I understand that the disposal of sewage into the sea if carried out on modern lines may not only be satisfactory but might even be termed the most satisfactory method at present available. It is essential to have a very long outlet pipe. It is essential to study the tides and currents before deciding where you can safely put the outlet from this pipe. Some sort of pre-treatment (for example. maceration) may be necessary. Disposal into the sea must not be judged from the horrible results arising to-day from the use of short pipes discharging too near the shore.

My Lords, one must not, of course, minimise the technical difficulties or the degree of expertise needed to achieve this result. I have here a paper prepared for a meeting of the Institute of Public Health Engineers, entitled Disposal of Sewage front Seaside Towns. It is a highly technical paper, and I cannot pretend to understand every word of it, but it lays down conditions which must be fulfilled in any preliminary survey if it is to he satisfactorily done. For instance: Offshore of the British Isles there is a basic drift or permanent current system and superimposed on this drift are tidal currents rotating in direction over the tidal cycle and varying in speed between springs and neaps. Information on these can he obtained from Admiralty or other hydrographic sources. Inshore these currents will be modified by the coastline. Surveys must be made to determine their speed and direction, and the effect of wind which can induce an additional drift of about 1 to 2 per cent, of wind strength … Then the writer points out that such surveys require a combination of various factors. For instance: tracking floats released over the tidal cycle from possible outfall positions; current speed and direction measurements at fixed positions; hydraulic model study; drift cards released from possible outfall positions; recording the movements of dye patches or other tracers.

It is obviously an expensive and highly expert business, which brings me to the gist of my Question. What kind of administrative machinery is suitable for the accomplishment of these tasks? The answer is indicated very clearly, I think, in the memorandum of evidence submitted to the Royal Commission on Local Government by the Institute of Water Pollution Control. I quote again: … the Institute strongly favours the establishment of single-purpose regional authorities … The existing local government areas are often a limiting factor in the efficiency of the sewage purification service. The fact that the purification of sewage is at present the responsibility of even the smallest local authority (except where it forms part of a regional authority) has led to the haphazard multiplication of sewage works. Many of these are well designed and efficiently managed, but there are many which do not perform adequately the duties required of them.

The Institute's memorandum goes on: Some authorities have voluntarily combined for the purpose of sewage purification and/or sewerage, and the Minister of Housing and Local Government has powers under Section 9 of the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act 1951 to direct two or more local authorities to unite for these purposes. So far as is known, these powers have never been exercised. My Lords, I should like to repeat that sentence: So far as is known, these powers have never been exercised. The memorandum continues: Sewage purification is one of the less publicised services administered by a local authority and its necessity and importance are often overlooked. Although much excellent work is being carried out in many parts of the country, sewage purification is regarded merely as one of the less important of a local authority's general activities. Money for sewage purification is often authorised grudgingly and is less than required to meet essential needs.

I suggest that such development could best be promoted—and here of course I am referring to inland as well as coastal authorities—by the creation of machinery comparable to the Water Resources Board. I will not try to look too far ahead, my Lords: … I do not ask to see The distant scene; one step enough for me. But if I did look far ahead I think I should be tempted to recall frequent references to sewage effluent in the Water Resources Board's Report for South-East England, which was discussed in this House a short time ago. I should be tempted to think that in the long view the problem of water resources and the problem of sewage treatment are in fact one problem and should be treated as such.

There is just one argument I think I should refer to, in conclusion, because it may be cited by those who in this connection would prefer to leave ill alone. It has been attested by the British Medical Council and by certain medical officers of health, men of science and integrity, that bathing in diluted sewage is not necessarily dangerous to health. I have had long experience in the art of believing the almost unbelievable and I may succeed in believing even that, but even if I do I will not abate my agitation, because I also believe man does not live by health alone, but also by decency and æthetic sensitivity. If a perfectly healthy person were to spit into my cup of tea I should not regard the resulting mixture as poisonous, but I should regard it as disgusting and refuse to drink it. I beg that Her Majesty's Government may be persuaded to regard this evil as a matter needing serious consideration and even the imaginative construction of administrative machinery for its redress.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness this simple question? She has presented an alarming case, but, to her knowledge, are conditions here better or worse than on the Continent? I am thinking particularly of the Mediterranean beaches, where of course there are no tides. Will this alarm people who were going to have a holiday in this country but might be put off and prefer to go abroad?


My Lords, I think the answer is that the Mediterranean is probably as bad as the English Channel, and perhaps even worse. I have not encountered sewage in the Western Mediterranean. I have encountered it in the neighbourhood of Piræus, but most happily it is not our responsibility.

5.52 p.m.


My Lords, I cannot pose as an expert on this somewhat unæthetic subject, but it is a problem I have encountered in local government in a coastal area, and from what I know I would agree with the noble Baroness that it is a problem, and a growing problem, and if nothing is done—perhaps this is a truism—it will get worse. Having said that, I am bound to say that I hope the noble Baroness will not persuade the Government to create an entirely new machine in connection with this question of sewage disposal. I do not think that the analogy she draws with water authorities is a fair or correct one. One of the main duties of water authorities is the conservation of water, which very often means taking steps over a wide area. I have never heard of anybody wanting to conserve sewage. You can sell water. The capital works may be great, but you can make a viable financial scheme by selling the water. I think there have been schemes for producing a rather ineffective form of fertiliser from sewage, but I have never heard of any local authority tempted to regard sewage disposal as a commercial proposition. I am afraid the disposal of sewage is one of those things we have to face as a burden on the rates.

The point I am trying to make is that it is a very much more expensive burden for the inland authorities than for the coastal authorities. We have had rather an important case of this in ray neighbourhood. It was calculated that the cost of treating the sewage, a very large volume of sewage, by an inland scheme was just about three times what it would have cost to treat, on standards quite approved by the Ministry, by sending it far enough out to sea. I should add that not only was the capital cost much greater, but the subsequent maintenance cost of treating the sewage internally was very much greater. I think it would be considered very unfair and unreasonable if inland authorities had to bear the costs of their coastal neighbours, which is what I suppose regionalisation would mean. I think that what has happened is that the inland authorities have simply had to keep up with the times, because if they had not instituted proper sewage schemes there would have been an instant threat to their water supply. That is particularly true in certain soils, such as chalk.

When sewage is discharged into the sea, it would seem that the threat to public health—I am not talking about æthetics—is of an entirely different order. There are threats to such things as shellfish industries; but shell fish, like so many other things, are covered by regulations. As a matter of fact, I think some of the shell fish that are sold publicly have been gathered from quite near where sewage is discharged. Because this threat to public health has been less in the case of coastal authorities, I think they have been led to defer spending the money, which of course is always considerable, though far less than it would be if they were inland authorities. They perhaps have not been so active as they might have been. Then the democratic processes follow: a great deal of indignation is expressed, local protests are made, debates like this in Parliament may take place and the Ministry may step in. Eventually the drainage authority will spend money improving their arrangements in a way which some people think they might have done before. That is exactly what has happened in a well-known case not far from my own authority on the outskirts of Brighton. I have no doubt that in the course of a year or two the position there will be put right, and I have little doubt that in similar cases elsewhere that will be the process.

Because one can produce evidence such as the noble Baroness has produced—and one does hear complaints and letters do go to the Ministry; that is, I suggest, part of our ordinary democratic way of life—I do not think that should be taken as a reason for making extensive changes. With one slight qualification—your Lordships may consider that this is being very complaisant—I hope that the machine will be allowed to go on as it is. My one qualification may sound rather trivial. Your Lordships may in the past have read a book called Clochemerle, a French book, which gave a very amusing account of the Party and even national complications that arose from the proposition to put up a simple piece of sanitary construction. The same sort of thing can happen here. The situation may arise where you have a Conservative administration on the borough and a Labour Opposition, who may persuade themselves and the voters that the Conservatives, by their inertia, are putting their children in real danger of being poisoned. Equally, that can happen the other way round. Yet the life cycle of the bacillus coli is not really a Party question. I think, therefore, that when these protests take place the Ministry might be a little more ready than they have been to call for reports, and possibly to hold inquiries and to pronounce some judgment, more to reassure local opinion than for any more serious purpose.

I agree with the noble Baroness that although people may imagine that their health is being undermined, it is not the threat to public health which occasions difficulty; it is much more the unattractiveness, which I entirely agree ought to be prevented, that leads to the supposition that people's health is being seriously endangered. For that reason, a little more supervision from the Ministry in some of the more arguable cases might be a good thing. But this is not the moment, when so many other matters of high priority need attention, when we ought to consider substituting a different kind of organisation to carry out this work. It would certainly be much more expensive, and I doubt whether, in the long run, it would be more effective.

6.2 p.m.


My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness for bringing forward this important subject. The treatment of sewage in our coastal towns and towns on our tidal waterways has become almost a perennial subject for debate. Although much discussion takes place, it appears that little is done. I appreciate the point made by the noble Viscount, and from my understanding I think he is correct when he says that the chief difficulty in this question is that of cost. He pleads, in effect, that the matter should be left as it is. I disagree with that entirely. I agree that public health in our coastal towns and towns on our tidal waterways is not so affected by the lack of treatment of raw sewage as would be inland towns, if those places were not compelled to treat raw sewage. But because of their particular siting on these waterways I think it is totally wrong that these towns should escape this expenditure and should allow untreated sewage to enter our waterways and the sea.

Most noble Lords who have visited our coastal towns will have seen the awful effects of this sewage floating about in the water among the bathers and other people who are trying to enjoy the benefits of the coast. Of course to change a system that has been allowed to develop in the industrial era, of open sewers going into the tidal waterways, and of sea coast towns piping short supply lines out into the sea, would be a most expensive business for those who are affected. We have had this problem in the North-East, particularly on the Tyne, which has become an open sewer in many ways. Hundreds of sewers flow into the Tyne and they are dependent upon its tidal waters to wash the sewage away. To say the least, that is something to be abhorred.

I remember taking an active part with the Lord Mayor of Newcastle, with a view to getting all local authorities on each side of the Tyne to discuss whether there was a possibility of some joint action to deal with this matter. I am happy to say that we had the co-operation of Newcastle University, who undertook over many years to survey the currents and everything connected with them, to see how far it would be necessary to take the pipeline out into the sea, and also what would be the cost involved in collecting the sewage from the various sewers that now run into the Tyne and giving it some kind of treatment before allowing it to flow. It is most gratifying that this long exercise, conducted by the University in co-operation with all the local authorities, has at last brought agreement in principle as to how this should be dealt with.

This is a big step forward. It indicates, too, that while under our present structure of local government that can be done in a conurbation such as the area surrounding the Tyne, with isolated sea coast towns it is not quite so easy to get co-ordination in that direction. With the regional department structure about which we are now talking so much and, it may be, with the Commission inquiring into the future planning of local government, this may be something to which close attention will be given.

One can appreciate that, even if they are in a regional area, under the present structure inland towns might object strongly to any part of their rate contribution going towards assisting the coastal towns which have escaped that financial problem in the past. Therefore, the time will probably come when the Government must take some decision, with a view to making it an offence to let open sewers run into the sea or into our tidal waterways without any form of treatment of the sewage. Probably that will not come about for some years, but I think the development that is now taking place indicates that there is a greater necessity than ever to preserve our waterways and our coast so that people can enjoy them more than ever.

Unless the Government take some action, expensive as it may be, one can see that this will be an extremely difficult problem. The River Airedale in Yorkshire is a foul, stinking mess. I was in Castleford only the other morning, and I saw the effluent coming from the mills spread along the river. The detergent that is being used at Castleford is flowing all over the streets, and I am told that many times it has been six feet deep, covering a mini-car. The urban authorities and the people concerned have had many interviews with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government on this matter.

This is an extremely difficult question for the Ministry to deal with, but in this day and age this must not be allowed to continue. These rivers should be utilised as they were in days gone by, before the industrial era destroyed them. They must he preserved as a useful amenity and as a useful "lung". I commend my noble friend Lady Stocks for having raised this matter, and I hope that this debate will be an added spur to the Government to think out further action. This is not an easy matter, and it is something over which Government after Government have avoided taking decisions in the past. Therefore, the more that we urge upon the Government of the day that this is a matter on which people desire to see some action, the sooner we shall see some practical steps taken.

6.11 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add a word of encouragement to the suggestions which the noble Baroness, Lady Stocks, has put forward in the unfortunate situation which obtains on our coasts. I am prompted to speak because a parallel has been drawn between the way in which local authorities operate inland, and the way in which coastal authorities work in these matters. It is true to say that local authorities inland do a fairly good job of work in the treatment of sewage and its disposal. But one must remember that the only way in which this material can be got rid of is by putting it into the sea or into the inland rivers. The noble Viscount said that the bacillus coli was not a political animal but was rather a persistent one. If one wants potable water, water to drink, one must get rid of the bacillus coli, and in spite of all the sewage treatment which takes place when suppliers of water, like the Metropolitan Water Board, extract water from the Thames they have to give it very heavy chemical treatment to kill the bacilli in order that Londoners can be reasonably safe when they consume the London water.

I sit as a member of a river authority, the Thames Conservancy, and the lesson which I would draw is this. The local authorities are encouraged to do their duty because the river authority acts as a policeman in this matter. The great problem that we find in regard to rivers is that no matter how well the local authority may carry out its duty in relation to sewage treatment, so much depends on the flow of the river itself; in other words, the degree of dilution which is available to take the treated sewage. In the sea of course there is a massive dilution, and people on the sea coast are in a much happier position than those inland. The anomalous situation is that, with their powers, the river authorities are doing their duty not only to conserve the river, but to keep it as clean as possible.

A river like the Thames, for example, undergoes some amazing treatment, and it is a wonderful story to trace it from Swindon. The water is taken out at Swindon, then put back again, and by the time it has been diluted and floated down to Oxford, Oxford takes some out and puts some material for disposal back again. The water is taken out and put back again about half a dozen times before the Londoners have it extracted for their purpose. The encouraging thing about all this is that due to the powers which the river authorities have, the tendency in this country is for rivers to become cleaner. This is a wonderful thing considering all the great problems of population and the more difficult problems of industrial effluent, with all the new industrial processes which cause great trouble for those who have to treat the effluent. The good thing is that we are getting better rivers, and we are able to apply much higher standards than has been the case in the past.

The problem which is being drawn to our attention is that, whereas the river authorities can test the river at every part of its length, can check the amount of sewage effluent that is coming into it, and can watch it to make sure that it is to the proper standard, one cannot do this with the sea where one is dealing with a much greater mass of water. The river authorities have the power to police the river and make sure that local authorities are doing a proper job, and it is quite apparent that there is here a need for some similar authority to be given by which we can be assured, not necessarily that the effluent will be to the same standard as that put into rivers, but that the effluent will be discharged into the sea at a safe distance, not only having regard to the safety factor, but also for the reasons which were put forward by the noble Baroness, bearing in mind the horrible situation which can arise in what would otherwise be a delightful coastline.


My Lords, I did not quite perhaps understand what the noble Lord was suggesting, except in regard to rivers, which is a different matter. Is he suggesting that the present sewage disposal works, which is a very considerable burden upon local authorities and a great responsibility, should be undertaken by a new and different type of authority?


My Lords, that is an entirely different matter, and I was not suggesting that.

6.17 p.m.


My Lords, much wisdom and many interesting facts have been put before the House in this short discussion. I should like to take up one or two of the peripheral points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Stocks, before coming to a more coherent account of the matter. She spoke with commendation of the initiatives of the British Safety Council in this field, and much of what she said I would endorse, and much of what they are doing the Government are very glad of. But there is one point to which I should like to draw attention. In its famous "stinking beach report" earlier this year it divided seaside resorts into various categories according to their sewage disposal arrangements. One of the categories was a black list, and it printed the names of the authorities concerned. It so happens that this list bore a striking resemblance, which may or may not have been coincidental, to a list which was given in answer to a Parliamentary Question in the House of Commons by my colleague Mr. MacColl when he was asked to divide into different categories the arrangements made by local authorities in this matter. One of the categories he gave was the local authorities who are satisfied with their present arrangements and who discharge untreated sewage into the sea.

The point here is that there is no reason whatever to suppose that the discharge of untreated sewage into the sea is by itself a bad thing. It depends entirely on how long the pipe is, as the noble Baroness pointed out, where it is situated in regard to the tides and currents, and all the rest. A local authority may quite rightly be satisfied with its present arrangements if it is discharging untreated sewage into the sea. Conversely, there are local authorities—and we know them well—which are discharging untreated sewage into the sea in the wrong place, with the disgusting results about which we have been speaking.

The noble Baroness said also that it was wrong of the British Safety Council to say that the only safe way is to treat sewage inland. For the reasons I have given this is very far from the truth. I have been interested throughout this debate to notice how little attention has been paid to the health side of the question. That is right. We have the report of the Medical Research Council of 1959, which is a little long in the tooth now, but there is really no change in knowledge in this field, and we have no reason to think that the health situation has changed since then, either. Their conclusion is that with the possible exception of a few esthetically revolting beaches around the coasts of England and Wales, the risk of bathing in sewage-contaminated sea-water can, for all practical purposes, be ignored. When I first read that sentence I thought to myself, "What does it mean?" I made inquiries and found that what it means is that unless you plunge into a bit of sea which is so absolutely filthy that nobody in his right mind could comfortably plunge into it, you do not run any danger at all to your health. That was the situation and it still is. All the same, it is possible, as we have all been saying, to be disgusted without having one's health endangered except psychologically—and this does happen.

The noble Baroness also quoted from a vigorous speech made by the former Minister of Housing and Local Government, Mr. Crossman, in which he said that certain authorities might be satisfied but he was not satisfied with the performance in some parts of the country. His remarks were duly noted, and, in so far as the situations of which he complained have not been rectified, the dissatisfaction remains.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stocks quoted from the Institute of Water Pollution Control's evidence to the Royal Commission on Local Government; and her own Question is so framed as to endorse the purport of that evidence. I should like to point out, also, that her quotation from the evidence—and, indeed, the way the Question is framed—coincide very closely with the evidence of my own Department to the Royal Commission on Local Government, which is published; and I quote: … many sewerage authorities are inadequately equipped for their functions and are only just keeping up with problems which are likely to grow even more quickly in the future. And Many sewerage authorities are too small in terms of population and command insufficient resources. This is very much what we all have in mind.

I should make it clear that this is not the view of the Government. The Government cannot have any view on local government reform at the moment, because the matter is before a Royal Commission and we cannot prejudice its findings. But there is this convenient procedure, whereby a Royal Commission can call for the opinions of a Department, from the officials in a Department, without thereby engaging the commitment of the Minister of that Department; and that is what has happened in this case. So, subject to what the Royal Commission may have to say when they report, my answer to the first part of the noble Baroness's Question is that the Government are not satisfied that the present pattern of local government provides adequate resources everywhere for sewage disposal. I should also like to echo what has often been said: that the seaside resorts are in a certain sense lucky about this problem. They do not have half the problem of inland places, where the sewage really must be purified before it is discharged into a river.

As to the second part of the noble Baroness's Question, I think that the analogy with the Water Resources Board is perhaps strained. There is a need for planning and developing water supplies on a regional basis, and this is the job of the river authorities. Because even that will not solve all the problems, and because there will almost certainly have to be inter-regional transfers of water in the future, there is a national planning and co-ordinating task which has to be carried out by the Water Resources Board which was set up for that purpose.

I think it unlikely that the second aspect of inter-regional transfer of sewage is ever going to arise. I would distinguish from this the need for "know-how" on a national scale, so that experience in one part of the country is available to other parts. There is already a fairly good provision for this and we are not dissatisfied with it. Work is done in the Chief Engineer's Branch in my own Department, and it is done at the Water Pollution Research Laboratory in the Ministry of Technology, and also in certain professional organisations—principally, perhaps, the Institute of Water Pollution Control which we have already mentioned.

I should like to dwell for a moment on the pattern of research in the Water Pollution Research Laboratory of the Ministry of Technology. It was begun in 1962 and started with a study on the effect on beach pollution of pre-treatment of sewage by the two processes which we have heard about to-day—maceration and screening—before discharge at different states of the tide. This showed that the treatment reduced visible pollution, which is what we are worried about, and indicated that bacteriological pollution was reduced as well. I should remind the House that we are talking about bacteriological pollution within safe limits.

They also started studies of the way sewage was dispersed in the sea. The aim was to get detailed information on the distribution of sewage at various depths, and, of course, at depths which affected fisheries as well as bathers, and at different distances from different outfalls, and to derive from this information a means by which the likely distribution of sewage under various conditions could be predicted for use when one is trying to decide where to put a long, modern outfall pipe This research has proved a lot more difficult than was expected, and it is continuing, using new techniques. A new development is the use of radioactive tracers, so that one does not actually have to follow identifiable bits of sewage from the end of the outfall all over the ocean; one can follow a little bit of radioactive tracer, which is much easier to pick up with a geiger counter, and also a lot more pleasant.

There have been float tests, which save a lot of trouble. You simply drop a bottle off a boat in a given place, with a message in it saying: To any public spirited beachcomber—Please return this to the laboratory. You find out where it is picked up and how long afterwards. Bacteriological examination of water samples on beaches is also going ahead. An increasing share of the total resources of this laboratory is now being devoted to this very matter of research into beach pollution. It is not an easy one, and I am afraid the news is that the research has to go on for a little longer before any general conclusions which would be usable generally can be drawn from it.

As to the future, as I said, I must not pre-judge what the Royal Commission has to say about this matter, but we in our Ministry think it likely that there may be some use for really large sewage disposal works in certain parts of the country. We think it more likely that there will be a use for smaller disposal works, but still large enough to justify the combination of one or more of the present small local authorities responsible. Further than that I think I should not go. We are not satisfied with the situation, as I think nobody is who has been to some of the places which we are talking about. We think that there is no health danger, and that the unpleasantness ought to be coped with more easily after the Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that informative Answer to my Question.

House adjourned at twenty-nine minutes past six o'clock.