HL Deb 07 May 1968 vol 291 cc1330-8

2.56 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Sewerage (Scotland) Bill be now read a second time. This Bill modernises the law under which local authorities in Scotland provide sewerage services. Where the Bill breaks new legislative ground we have generally proceeded on the basis of experience in the existing practice of Scottish sewerage authorities, in the corresponding English legislation, or in related fields such as the supply of water or the prevention of river pollution.

The main Acts governing sewerage services in Scotland are the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act 1892 and the Public Health (Scotland) Act 1897. These two Acts have enabled Scottish local authorities to provide a sewerage service of which they may be proud, but the Acts are beginning to prove unequal to new conditions. Last year a record number of houses was completed in Scotland, and the number will be still greater in future years, but we have a problem in the disproportion between the public and the private housing sectors, and we must aim to increase the private sector. There is also the quickened pace of industrial development in recent years. We are more fully aware of the dangers of polluted water, and of the danger that industrial development in certain parts of Scotland may be seriously impeded if industrialists cannot use: river water for cooling and other industrial processes. This background reveals the shortcomings of the old Scottish Acts dealing with sewerage. They almost disregard the problems, which have become so important, of the disposal of effluents from trade premises.

The Bill has two main parts. The purpose of the first part is to define clearly the extent of local authority responsibility for the provision of sewerage. The Bill will require local authorities to incur new expenditure in discharging their extended duties. The effect will be gradual. Comparatively little extra money will be needed immediately following the coming into operation of the Bill, but the cost will be cumulative. In this connection I might draw attention to Clause 60, which provides for the new provisions to come into effect on an appointed day, which will depend on economic circumstances. In preparing the Bill we have had extensive discussions with local authorities and with other interested bodies, including those representing industrialists and builders, and although I do not pretend that every provision of the Bill commands the approval of all the interests concerned, I can claim that the Bill has the general approval of all the principal interests that we have consulted.

I now turn to the provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 requires local authorities to provide the public sewers needed in their areas, together with sewage treatment works or other means of dealing with sewage. The clause requires the public sewers to be taken to points at which drains from premises can be connected at reasonable cost. This may seem imprecise, but experience with Section 8 of the Water (Scotland) Act 1946, on which it is based, shows that this is not so; in practice it will be found to state the duty of the local authority a good deal more precisely than the existing law does.

A local authority will not be required by Clause 1 to do anything which is not practicable at reasonable cost. If a question arises as to whether anything is practicable at reasonable cost, or about the points to which public sewers must be taken, it can be referred to the Secretary of State for determination.

Where a housing estate was being developed in the conventional manner, Clause 1 would require the local authority to provide the main internal sewers for the scheme, taking them along the streets to enable the drains from individual houses to be connected. About three-quarters of the local authorities in Central Scotland already do this. However, Clause 1 does not apply only to new housing estates. There are many parts of Scotland in which it would be quite impracticable to have trunk sewers covering a wide area, but in which small public sewerage systems, perhaps consisting only of a small sewer and a common septic tank would be practicable at reasonable cost.

Clauses 2, 3 and 4 are broadly consequential on Clause 1. They require local authorities to maintain their sewerage systems; empower them to construct new sewers and sewage treatment works; and enable them to close or replace sewers and other works vested in them.

Under Clauses 5 to 8, local authorities are empowered to enter into agreements with others as to the provision of sewerage. The most important provision is Clause 8, which allows a local authority to enter into an agreement with a developer, under which one or other of them will provide the sewers and sewage treatment works to serve a new development. This applies only where the local authority have no duty under Clause 1 to provide public sewers.

Clause 10 relates to the emptying of septic tanks. In some rural areas it is likely always to be impracticable at reasonable cost for local authorities to provide a public sewerage system, but clearly the local authorities should have power to provide a service for emptying septic tanks, and we consider it desirable that they should in time take upon themselves responsibility for desludging all septic tanks in their areas. For economic reasons we recognise that it will not be possible to do this immediately in all areas, and because of this Clause 10 does not impose on local authorities an unqualified duty to empty septic tanks.

Clauses 12 to 15 deal with the rights and duties of owners and occupiers of premises. An owner of premises within the area of a local authoirity is to be entitled to connect his drains, at his own expense, to the public sewer. But the connection requires the consent of a local authority, who may prescribe conditions, including the mode and point of connection. Clause 13 covers cases where the premises can be more conveniently connected to the public sewer or sewage treatment works of a nearby local authority—for example where a property is just outside a burgh boundary.

Clauses 16 and 17 deal with the vesting in the local authority of sewers and other works for whose maintenance they are then responsible. Clause 16 deals with apparatus which is included in or connected to the public sewerage system, while Clause 17 deals with private sewage treatment works, which are not connected to the public system. Clause 17 of the Bill does not impose any obligation on local authorities, but gives them a discretion to take over private sewage treatment works.

Clause 18 abolishes special drainage districts and provides for the cost of sewerage in counties to be met from the general county rate. In counties sewerage services are at present provided only within specified areas, known as special drainage districts. The cost is met substantially from special district sewer rates levied only within the special districts. Clause 1 will impose upon county councils a duty to provide a sewerage service throughout the whole county, so far as it is practicable at reasonable cost, and it follows logically that special drainage districts should be abolished and the cost of the sewerage services throughout each county should be met from the general county rate.

Obviously this will involve an increase in the general county rate, and for those who do not pay a district sewerage rate at present there will be an overall increase of rates, whether or not they get a better sewerage service. But the increase will often be less marked than might be supposed, because the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1947 already enables a county council to subsidise the sewerage service out of the general county rate, and there are few county councils which do not use this power. The subsidy is seldom less than one-third, and there are several counties in which it is substantially more than one-half, of the rate-borne expenditure on sewerage.

Nevertheless, there will be increases for some ratepayers and reductions for others as a consequence of the Bill. To enable any substantial increase to be phased, Clause 18 provides for a transitional period of up to seven years after the Bill comes into operation, and during this period the county council may meet the cost of sewerage partly from a diminishing special district sewer rate, which may be levied in the areas which were special districts before that date. This will also give time for county councils to make some progress towards extending their sewerage services beyond the special drainage districts.

We now come to Part II of the Bill, which deals with the discharge of trade effluents to local authority sewers. Clause 24 of the Bill entitles an occupier of trade premises within the area of a local authority to discharge trade effluent from those premises into the sewers or sewage treatment works of the local authority. It is an offence to do so without a necessary consent, or in breach of a condition imposed under the succeeding provisions of Part II of the Bill.

Clauses 26 to 32 deal with new discharges. They will require the consent of the local authority, which ally be refused or granted unconditionally or subject to conditions, including the making of charges for receiving trade effluents. A trader has a right of appeal to the Secretary of State against the decision of the local authority. Under Clause 32 a decision on an application for consent to make a new discharge can be reviewed by the local authority, but not normally at shorter intervals than two years.

Clauses 33 to 36 deal with discharges which were being made in the two years ending on the date when Clause 33 becomes operative. While the local authority cannot, without the agreement of the trader, order an existing disc large to be discontinued, they may direct that its continuance is to be subject to any conditions which they may attach to their consent to a new discharge. There is again provision for an appeal to the Secretary of State against their decision.

Clause 37 empowers local authorities to enter into agreements with owners or occupiers of trade premises for the reception, treatment or disposal by the authority of any trade effluent produced on those premises. The local authority and the trader can choose this as an alternative to the procedure of consents, directions and reviews provided for in the earlier clauses. An agreement night be a more flexible—and therefore more suitable—method of providing in advance for phased expansion of a factory, with corresponding expansion of the local authority's sewage treatment plant. Part III of the Bill contains ancillary provisions in common form.

My Lords, this Bill does not raise great issues of national policy. It is an administrative Bill, which contains a substantial element of consolidation and which is intended to improve the working of a local authority service which receives less attention than it is due. I hope that this Bill will play a necessary, if unobtrusive, part in the future economic development of Scotland, and in those terms I commend it to your Lordships. I beg to move.

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

3.9 p.m.


My Lords, this is a Bill which extends and modernises the duties and powers of local authorities under the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act 1892, the Public Health Act 1897, the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1947, and one or two other enactments. I think the only novel thing which it seeks to do is to enable local authorities to accept trade effluents, which is provided in Part II of the Bill. There may be one or two particular questions which some of your Lordships might at some stage wish to discuss, such as the possibility that new rates might be levied on people who live in some part of a county which does not benefit from the improvements in respect of which the new rate is levied after the abolition, under this Bill, of the special drainage districts which we have at present, and to which certain rates are confined. Or possibly some of your Lordships might think it worth discussing the bearing of this Bill on river pollution, or on the use of sludge as an agricultural fertiliser. All questions of this kind, I would suggest, in so far as it may be desirable to discuss them at all, could be much more conveniently discussed in Committee.

As for the general improvements which the Bill seeks to effect, I think they are all plainly desirable. I was particularly glad to hear the noble Lord say that the Government with a higher proportion of private building in Scotland compared with local authority building, because our housing progress in Scotland has always been distorted by a lack of balance between the two.

I think that most of the proposals contained in this Bill, perhaps all the Bill, have been on the stocks for a long time. I believe that a good deal of it was drafted in the time of the previous Government, and it, cannot be said that it is being introduced hastily. Indeed, even as it is, it contains a prudent—some people might say timid—proposal that some of the measures for which it provides may be postponed if it is thought by the Secretary of State that they would impose too heavy a strain on our rather "dicey" finances. In agreeing with the Motion that the Bill be now read a second time, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, for his clear and concise explanation of it.

3.12 p.m.


My Lords, there are good points in this Bill, but the proposal to abolish special drainage districts and transfer the local authority drainage costs on to public expenditure is, to my mind, not at all satisfactory. Whether or not you provide your own drainage you are going to have to pay for the drainage of other people's premises. Where water is concerned, part of the cost still falls on the consumer, but it seems that drainage will fall entirely on the ratepayers and on the taxpayers.

Be this as it may, Clause 10 institutes, in my opinion, a severe injustice. When this Bill passes all ratepayers will be paying drainage rates. However, if someone, be he a large landowner or an old age pensioner in a small cottage, having his own drainage system (probably because there is no local authority drainage in the area) has a choked or full septic tank which requires emptying, the local authority can empty the tank, if they so desire, only after passing a resolution to that effect and securing the permission of the Secretary of State. Local authorities are trying to keep their rates down, and they are not going to undertake this task lightly. Few authorities will do the work free of charge, as the Bill stands at the moment. Why should it not be compulsory, where the work can be done at a reasonable cost, for the local authority to empty the tanks of people who, after all, are paying for it on their rates?

Clause 43 is somewhat similar. I think that this clause has probably been adapted from the Water Acts, but the supply of water and the removal of drainage are not similar. One can cause a nuisance; the other does not. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, will look at these problems and perhaps persuade the Government that on the grounds of social justice some alteration is necessary.

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, may I have permission to add one point to those that have been made on the Second Reading of this Bill? I wish to support all that my noble friend Lord Dundee has said in welcoming the Bill. I would welcome Clause 40, which gives the local authority power to undertake or contribute to the cost of investigations and research into sewerage. This is something the badly needs to be done. We are lagging somewhat behind in this matter as regards domestic sewage, industrial waste and animal waste.

The problem of the disposal of animal waste has been becoming more and more acute. I understand that a certain amount of work is being considered by the Ministry of Agriculture and by certain of the river pollution boards. I hope that on the passing of this Bill local authorities will be encouraged to make contact with the research work that is being carried out by certain of the local purification boards and with such work as may then be under way conducted by the Agricultural Research Council, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Department of Agriculture or other bodies. It is good that this clause should have been inserted, and I hope that, as outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, in his opening remarks, it will be put into effect to the general good of Scotland.

3.17 p.m.


My Lords, I was reasonably certain that it would be possible to do justice to the Second Reading of this Bill in a comparatively short time. I was not surprised, however, that the noble Lord, Lord Burton, drew attention to the special drainage districts and to the provisions for emptying septic tanks. I shall be surprised if I get through the Committee stage without an Amendment being tabled on one or other of these items. The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, thought that any points likely to be raised on a Bill of this nature would almost inevitably be points of a Committee nature; and from the spend with which we have got through the succeeding speeches on this occasion ore gathers that he was in discussion a true prophet.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.