§ 3.5 p.m.
§ LORD MOLSON rose to call attention to the urgent need to purify British rivers now polluted; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is no new thing for this House to interest itself in the pollution of rivers. One hundred years ago, the River Thames flowing past this Palace was on many occasions—especially on summer evenings when the tide was out—so malodorous that both this House and the House of Commons adjourned because they found it intolerable to remain here any longer. Although during that time the population in the Thames Valley has increased a hundredfold, and industry more than a hundredfold, the water of the Thames, even down here, is relatively satisfactory; and throughout what I have to say this afternoon I shall take what has been done on the Thames; as an indication of what can be done, and ask why other British rivers should not be in the same relatively satisfactory state.
§ If any of your Lordships know as little about the technicalities of sewage purification as I did when I began to study this subject, you may care to hear, quite briefly, what method is adopted. It is quite one of the most interesting examples of the natural ecological balance of Nature, which tries, when it has got out of balance in some way, to put things right; and in the biological purification of sewage and other polluted water Britain has in large measure led the world. We have led the world in theory, and sometimes in practice, although not to the extent that would appear to be desirable.
§ Biological filters have been successfully used in this country since the end of the last century. They provide a simple but extremely effective way of purifying any water polluted by organic matter, bringing about something like a 95 per cent. purification of the water. The process consists in trickling the polluted water through beds of a coarse granular medium, which may be, for example, gravel, clinker or slag The bed has to be well ventilated to ensure that there is an adequate supply of oxygen. A film of micro-organisms, usually consisting chiefly of bacteria, forms over the whole 631 surface of the medium, and these have the effect of purifying the water. The degree of purification, of course, depends upon the conditions but, as I have said, it is by no means impossible to obtain a purification of 95 per cent. The activated sludge process was actually the invention of scientists in this country; it is widespread throughout the world, and we have some extraordinarily successful examples of it here.
§ My Lords, the degree of purification needed, and therefore its cost, obviously depends upon the purpose for which the water is immediately going to be used. The first stage of purification is merely to prevent the water from being visibly and offensively polluted, and to prevent evil smells. A higher degree of purification will enable fish life to be maintained. Then, thirdly, it is possible by a further degree of purification to make the water fit for all purposes, including human consumption. In the case of industrial effluent, which is of ever-increasing importance, the same bacteriological process is effective for dealing with any organic pollution. If there is metallurgical pollution, or some kind of chemical pollution other methods may have to be adopted. The devising of purification methods is obviously immensely simplified if the scientists are informed in advance of the processes which have produced the effluents. Let me give an example which will be well known to all your Lordships.
§ In the early 'fifties many of our rivers came to be polluted by foam from deter-gents. It was most offensive to look at, and was also found to imperil human health. As a result of the deliberations of a committee set up by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government it has been found that for almost all purposes what are called "soft" detergents are as effective as hard detergents. Some scientists in the Water Pollution Research Station have produced a fascinating diagram showing the shape of the molecules. In the case of the hard deter-gents they were very complicated and could not be broken down in the ordinary sewage works, but soft detergents are easily broken down and can be dealt with by the ordinary sewage works. This is a remarkable example of willing co-operation by industry, 632 first of all in providing all the information and then in voluntarily agreeing not to manufacture detergents of the hard variety. This illustrates that it is possible to purify even the more difficult industrial effluent.
I am advised (this is a quotation from a learned paper, and I have had it checked by another learned chemist dealing with this subject) that:
it is technologically possible to treat any waste water to a condition where it is restored to virtually the same state of purity as natural clean water.
§ I am not suggesting that all waste water ought to be purified, regardless of expense, to a point where it is good enough for human consumption; but I do say that there should not be discharged into any of our rivers any effluent which is grossly noxious and poisonous. All polluted water, therefore, can be purified, and it is a matter for consideration in each case how far it is economic and wise to carry out that purification.
§ Why is the condition of the Thames satisfactory and that of other rivers, especially those in the North of England, so unsatisfactory? It was as a result of a number of epidemics of cholera that Parliament, by the Act of 1876, set up the Thames Conservancy. That body soon established itself as a model river authority, and it remains in that position to-day. At the present time two-thirds of London's water supply is derived from the Thames; 180 million gallons per day of that water supply is sewage effluent, 46 million gallons is trade effluent, and approximately 15 per cent. of the London water supply has actually come through sewage works. The Thames Conservancy is able to lay down that nothing more than the Royal Commission's standard shall be discharged into the Thames; and in suitable cases it exacts a higher standard than that.
§ In the North of England conditions were different. Whereas when the Thames Conservancy was set up the only industrial town on the banks of the Thames was London itself, in the North the Industrial Revolution had established industry along the banks of the rivers before pollution control was started. Pollution of the rivers was accepted by public opinion as inevitable. Indeed, I am not sure that in some places it was not welcomed, on the principle that 633 "where there's muck, there's money". When there were epidemics the measures taken were simply to tap the river high up, before it came into built-up areas and was polluted, and at considerable expense. The water supply of the towns lower down the river was provided by water drawn from the uplands and transported at considerable expense through water mains; and public opinion and local authorities were content that the lower reaches of those rivers should remain open sewers.
§ Is existing legislation adequate for dealing with this problem? Parliament certainly intended that it should be. In two Acts, passed in 1951 and 1961, it provided that river authorities could prohibit the discharge of any water into their rivers unless they gave their consent, and to that consent could be attached conditions requiring that that discharge should be up to a certain standard. Why then, your Lordships may be inclined to ask, is polluted water still being poured in vast quantities into British rivers? I have been given by an expert a figure that 3,000 million gallons are lost daily, half of it effluent and the other half the pure water which that effluent pollutes. The river authorities find that this legislation is difficult to apply in practice. The first obstacle is that if a local authority lays down conditions and establishes a standard, the sewerage authority may appeal to the Minister of Housing and Local Government on the ground that this standard is not reasonable. Successive Ministers have been disposed to say that a standard was unreasonable if it required large expenditure by a sewerage authority.
The last statement of Ministerial intention on this subject is to be found in Circular 64/68 issued on December 4, 1968. The Ministers draw the attention of river authorities to
the need for river authorities to be prepared to justify all standards laid down for industrial effluents whether the standards are unusually stringent or not.
§ The arbitrator between the river authorities and the sewerage authorities is there indicating what his bias is; is indicating that the whole burden of proof is going to be put on the river authority. Even if the standard is not "unusually stringent", that particular river authority has to justify the standard laid down. So 634 the first obstacle which the river authorities have to overcome is the right of appeal of the sewerage authorities to the Minister that their standard, even if only a usual standard, is not reasonable having regard to all the circumstances of the case. The Thames Conservancy, on the other hand, never allow a discharge which is worse than the Royal Commission standard. That was the standard laid down in 1915, which should not be regarded as unreasonably high for 1969.
§ The second obstacle which the river authorities have to overcome is that they have no right of inspection of what goes on in sewage works, or further back than the sewage works. Ninety per cent. of the country's industrial effluent is poured into public sewers. As I have indicated in connection with detergents, the task of purifying an effluent is immensely simplified if those concerned can be told what are the chemicals and materials that are put into the manufacturing process, and in what proportions. The river authorities have no right of inspection, nor indeed have they any right to take action against an industrial concern which is pouring a noxious effluent into public sewers. De-spite the requirement of consent, 60 per cent. of the effluent poured into the rivers is, as was stated by the Institute of Borough Treasurers in 1966, failing to comply with the standards laid down by the river authorities and to which the Minister of Housing and Local Government has, of course, tacitly or positively, given his approval.
§ The river authorities can complain to the sewerage authorities and call upon them to deal with the matter and take action against industries that are pouring in this effluent; but being able to say to the sewerage authority, "Go and take action against the industry" is a very different matter from being able to take action themselves. A large number of sewerage authorities, if they do not positively decline, are at any rate very lethargic about taking action. The grounds are, first, that it is difficult to find out what has gone wrong; secondly, that it is expensive for them to take action; and, thirdly, that the excessive pollution was probably only temporary and due to some accident which in due course would no doubt be rectified. I feel sure Parliament, when it passed those two Acts, overlooked the fact that, having laid down the principle, it had not provided an 635 effective legal sanction for putting it into operation.
§ My Lords, in the third place you may say, as I did when I was making inquiries, "But surely the river authority can either prosecute the sewerage authority, or sue it for an injunction or a mandamus". In dealing with these matters of vast expenditure the fines provided in Section 2 of the Act of 1951, based on an idea of a fine of £100, are hopelessly inadequate to have any deter-rent effect. What is really required is that the fine should be multiplied at least tenfold. Secondly, the High Court would be, I am sure, reluctant to grant an injunction when to make it effective would involve the expenditure of several millions of pounds. It also would be widely considered by public opinion a scandal if two public bodies, spending the rate-payers' money, indulged in a quarrel by litigating in the courts. Finally, a majority of one on each of the river boards is appointed by the local authorities, who are concerned to prevent their being obliged to increase their expenditure.
These, then, are the three main obstacles which have prevented what would appear to be effective legislation from being in fact effective. I do not want to be unfair to sewerage authorities, some of whom are willingly taking active measures and should be regarded as an example to others. The Upper Tame Drainage Authority, who have perhaps the most polluted river in the Kingdom, are at present engaged in works costing £25 million and are studying further works which will cost at least another £25 million. But authorities of that kind have been seriously discouraged by Circular 64/68 issued in 1968 by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. I have already quoted from it to indicate that the Minister has a bias in favour of sewerage authorities as against river authorities. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, pointed out when I raised this matter in a debate on one of the Water Bills this year, this circular was issued at a time of severe financial stringency. I feel some confidence, there-fore, in view of the happy improvement in the financial situation of the country that has been brought about by the activities of the present Administration, that they will follow up this improvement
by withdrawing a circular which could be justified only by the most extreme requirements of economy. The Ministers say in paragraph 3:
Schemes of sewerage and sewage disposal which are not urgently needed for housing or industry or for reasons of public health will have to be deferred.
§ I do not believe that there was ever any real justification for a circular of that kind, and I hope there will now be a change in the Government's attitude.
§ While I am on the subject of circulars I should also like to point out to the Parliamentary Secretary who is to reply that it seems strange that in the circular of October 31, 1969, setting out for the information of all authorities concerned what were their powers and responsibilities, when setting out the duties and responsibilities of the river authorities no mention was made of dealing with pollution. The effect of the first circular has been entirely deplorable, but your Lordships may wish to ask: Are conditions in our rivers at the present time getting worse or better? My Lords, we do not know. Probably the worst rivers are being improved, but there is a good deal of evidence that some of the best rivers, rivers that were not polluted at all at an earlier stage, are now getting worse.
§ I have criticised the Ministry of Housing and Local Government with regard to two circulars, but I should like to say how glad I am that the Ministry have taken the initiative in starting a river pollution survey in co-operation with the river authorities, the sewerage authorities and the Confederation of British Industry. When this is published, probably later this year or early next year, it will be possible to make a comparison with a survey that was made by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in 1958, when it was found that 73 per cent. of the mileage of our rivers was un-polluted, 15 per cent. was doubtful and in need of treatment, 6 per cent. was of very poor quality, and another 6 per cent. was grossly polluted. I would say to the Parliamentary Secretary that there is no need to await the publication of the results of the new survey, because there is much that needs to be done—and no-body disputes that it needs to be done— and these improvements take time. When the London County Council cleared up the lower reaches of the Thames after the 637 bombing during the war, the cost was over £40 million, and it took 17 years to put the scheme fully into operation. Nor need the Government await the opportunity of passing further legislation. There are about three administrative actions the Government could take that would automatically alter the whole tempo and scope of river purification.
§ The first, as I have said, is to withdraw Circular 64 of 1968 and replace it by another circular urging the importance of dealing with river pollution as soon as possible, on social, economic and amenity grounds. Secondly, the Minister should indicate that his decisions as to what will be reasonable in the matter of standards of effluent will be different from what they have been in the past; that there will no longer be need, as there was under the earlier circular, to justify in each case even standards which were quite usual. Thirdly, he must indicate that where necessary and desirable works are planned and authority is asked to borrow money to carry them out, he will grant the authority to do so. I have mentioned that in the case of the Tame the total cost of urgently needed improvement may be as much as £50 million, and I understand that £23 million may be needed for cleaning the Tees. Fourthly, the Minister should indicate to planning authorities that they should not authorise new housing estates unless the sewerage from those housing estates will be at least up to the Royal Commission's standard of 1915. To insist in 1970 that new estates shall not be built unless the effluent which they produce is up to a standard regarded as reasonable in 1915 is not an unreasonable step if we recognise the urgency of the problem.
§ The cast of purification is probably running at the rate of about £100 million a year, and it may be necessary to take it up to £300 million a year. Can we afford it? I am one of those who think that expenditure is already too high, but this may well be done by transferring from other subjects, like housing, roads and so on, to sewerage. And what is the sense of building houses if reasonable sewerage to deal with the effluent has not already been provided? Aneurin Bevan used to say that all socialism is a matter of priorities. I would say that all good administration is a matter of priorities. Here, undoubtedly, one of the 638 priorities is to ensure that our water is conserved and purified and made available before we either indulge in great additional building of houses, or spend subsidies in order to bring industry to certain parts of the country.
§ The purification of all this effluent will go a long way to providing the additional water that will be required by the end of this century. It is estimated that the demand for water will double during that time. In the case of the Calderdale Water Bill an economy will be effected because on Second Reading the House of Commons threw out the Bill to build a new reservoir after it had with some difficulty got through a Select Committee of this House. All those concerned can take warning that, if nothing effective is done to purify the Trent and thereby make vast quantities of pure water available all down the banks of that long river, there will be the most bitter and sustained opposition all the way to the submerging of additional areas in the High Peak of Derbyshire, to provide in a most expensive way the water which ought to be derived from a purified River Trent.
§ I hope for something more from the Parliamentary Secretary when he replies than theoretical agreement. The Prime Minister has appointed a Secretary of State for Regional Planning and Environment, and I think that: the choice of Mr. Crosland was an excellent one to make. Long before he became a Minister, he wrote a book about the environment. If it had not been entitled The Conservative Enemy, I think it might have had a wider circulation and a greater influence. He has now set up, or is going to set up, a Royal Commission on Pollution, which I am sure is a step in the right direction.
§ I understand that the Prime Minister and the new Secretary of State recently visited the Water Pollution Research Station. All this augurs very well indeed for the future. Mr. Greenwood, during all the time that he has been Minister of Housing and Local Government, has shown a keen and enlightened interest in amenity; and the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has been exemplary in his concern for a civilised way of life. The noble Lord and the Secretary of State will be going to Strasbourg next week for the 639 Conference to inaugurate European Conservation Year. I think that a favourable reply on the matters that I have raised this afternoon would indicate that the Government are interested in this matter and would show that Great Britain intends to make a constructive approach to European Conservation Year. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.41 p.m.
§ LORD KENNET
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, has suggested to me that he and I should change places in the firing order, and I am quite agreeable to that. When the noble Lord, Lord Molson, said in this House last November that he hoped to raise the problem of river pollution I said that I should welcome a general debate on the subject, and I do so. As he himself has said, it is fitting that we should have this debate in European Conservation Year, and at a time when the index of public interest in pollution has taken a dramatically sharp turn upwards. Disasters such as the hideous fish kill in the Rhine last year have highlighted the need to protect our own natural water resources. The Committee on Environmental Conservation— COENCO—which Lord Molson himself has helped to set up, will sustain the upsurge of public interest in conservation, and I am glad that this Committee is to cover, among all its other concerns, the amenities and recreational uses of rivers.
I should like it widely understood how, for many years before the subject of pollution became fashionable, people have been conscientiously labouring to prevent river pollution by research and study, by the application of the results of that, by the sometimes unpleasant day-to-day work at sewage and trade effluent treatment plants and by the administration of the considerable statutory powers of control. We are all much, and rightly, concerned about keeping our rivers in a fit state for water supply, for irrigation of farm land, for fishing, for boating and for swimming. In a densely populated country like this, these uses are becoming increasingly important, with increases in both water consumption and leisure for recreation. But the more water we use the more dirty water there is to be got rid of. Our rivers already receive the domestic and trade 640 effluent from about 40 million people. The average domestic sewage discharged into the sewers daily varies, from area to area, between 25 and 50 gallons per person.
Industrial discharges are even greater in volume. The production of a pint of beer takes 18 pints of water; a ton of steel requires 45 tons of water to make; a ton of paper, 90 tons of water; and a ton of chemicals, anything up to 450 tons of water. At certain seasons the proportion of effluent in the flow of some rivers is more than half. In dry weather some rivers would dry up without it; that is to say, it is the whole of the flow in the river. It is therefore crying for the moon to yearn after the quick restoration of all our rivers to their pristine purity. I hesitated over that because, after all, the Americans have reached the moon, but in fact the phrase is apt. We might attain our moon—pure rivers —if we could afford to spend proportionately about as much as the Americans spent on getting to their one. Some of the desalination processes have considerable promise for the production of entirely pure water from sewage effluent, but they are vastly expensive. Travel to the moon may one day be commonplace, and perhaps one day pure rivers in an industrial society will also be commonplace; and if it is in this country that that is first achieved, I know that every-body here will rejoice.
In their lower reaches these same water courses are the source of a third of our public water supply. Their water is also used in vast quantities by power stations, for cooling, and by industry and agriculture. And while the rivers which flow through our most densely populated and industrial areas are most susceptible to pollution they are also the most accessible inland waters for the increasingly popular water sports; so that is all very inconvenient. As the noble Lord has said, Parliament has often noted the need to conserve our rivers and check their pollution, but the job has been organised methodically only in the last two decades. The 1951 Act gave the river boards power to attach consent conditions to all new or altered discharges from that date; and by the 1961 Act this system of control was extended backwards to pre-1951 discharges, so that now the composition and the temperature of all discharges are fully under control.
641 The 1963 Act created 29 river authorities which took over these controls, as well as their other functions, from the old river boards, and they were given the new function of water conservation as such. This gave us, for the first time in this country, executive authorities with a direct responsibility for river use and control. But it was only a first step, and I do not think that the distribution of powers and duties among river authorities, local authorities and water under-takers will much longer be appropriate. My right honourable friends the Minister of Housing and the Secretaries of State have asked the Central Advisory Water Committee to advise on that in the light of the Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government in England. This they are doing, and they are looking, I am satisfied, at the full range of possibilities. This is an unblinkered examination.
Nearly all the significantly polluting discharges are now controlled by river authority consents. I say "nearly all" because there are still 29 appeals out-standing with respect to consents for pre-1951 discharges. Dischargers and river authorities are negotiating, and we have been asked to take no action on them in the meantime. Until the appeals are settled, discharges which comply with the application, as opposed to the pro-posed consent, are not illegal; and under the Acts the controls do not apply tothe discharge of water raised or drained from any underground part of a mine.With those two exceptions, everything else is controllable. There have been some notable technical achievements in reducing and averting river pollution. For example, the upper River Lee has been preserved as a source of domestic water for 600,000 people in North and Central London because the dischargers have met the stringent standards required by the Lee Conservancy Catchment Board. The upper Lee receives daily 11 million gallons of sewage and industrial effluent that makes up half the normal river flow, but it is so purified that the river can be used for water supply.
There are also, unfortunately, as the noble Lord, Lord Molson, said, a large proportion of discharges which fail to meet the liver authorities' consent conditions. In the seven years since the river authorities came into existence, they have 642 been trying, mainly by persuasion, to get dischargers to comply with their consent conditions. When dischargers are genuinely trying to co-operate, persuasion is preferable to prosecution. Moreover, as Lord Molson said, the penalties on summary conviction often appear by present standards quite derisory: and it may well be that some dischargers consider it—and rightly—cheaper to risk even the larger fine that is now possible than to spend the substantial sums needed to achieve the standards which the river authorities demand. I am inclined to agree with the view that the penalties need to be brought to a more realistic level, and we are looking into this. Recent statistics—I think the noble Lord, Lord Molson, quoted them, too—in-dicated that about three out of every five were producing effluents which did not meet consent conditions. There are no comparable figures for dischargers other than local authority sewage works. We do not know about industry. The over-loading of sewers and sewage works, with the consequent of discharge of in-adequately treated sewage, have been mentioned as one reason for this— obviously outdated works.
A local authority is under no duty to provide drainage until there are properties there to be drained—I touch on another point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Molson about new housing. Some tend to defer the provision of drainage as long as they can. If the developer is prepared to make a contribution towards the cost, the authority may be more obliging. But he in turn is under no obligation to do so. This is another of those vicious circles that we need to find means of breaking; and we shall. There are many other improvements that we are considering. Accidental oil spillages are becoming too frequent a cause of river pollution. We are considering whether precautions to prevent accidental escapes should be required—precautions such as bund walls round oil installations and mechanical safely devices on oil tanks. We are also thinking whether special precautions need to be applied to dams and lagoons which retain and store substances which could pollute a river if they escaped.
It has been suggested to us that there should be regulation and inspection of the storage of polluting substances actually in industrial premises so that 643 there is no risk of river pollution from there. In our review of penalties for river pollution we are going to attend to the suggestion which has been made by some river authorities that pollution of rivers should be an absolute offence, whether caused knowingly or not. River authorities are also worried about the difficulty of ensuring that small, so-called package sewage treatment plants are properly operated and maintained. It may be that there should be a positive power to direct precisely where effluent discharges could be made into rivers.
The noble Lord blamed the Government for contributing to the delay in improvement by recommending the deferment of new schemes. The number of schemes deferred at present is quite tiny. They are virtually all in the rural sector where there is no ascertainable health hazard. It is very unpleasant indeed for the unfortunate people concerned; but if there is a declared health hazard then they are no longer deferred. In the last years the Government have had to keep a balance between all the demands on public expenditure; and the economic situation has made it necessary to re-strain growth by general advice—not by positive deferment but by general advice. The annual rate of expenditure on sewerage and sewage disposal has nevertheless increased in real terms by no less than 40 per cent. in the last five years since this Government came in. It is now running at £120 million a year in England and Wales, capital expenditure.
My Lords, we are largely bedevilled by ignorance. We do not really know how dirty our rivers are, as Lord Molson admitted. The 1961 Act was described by its sponsor in the House of Commons as "an essay in gradualness". One of my predecessors, Lord Jellicoe, repeated that description. The Government have therefore decided that the time has now come to end our ignorance and to take stock of the effects of that essay over the past ten years or so. This is the river pollution survey which Lord Molson has already mentioned. Every stretch of every river is being classified, by chemical and biological criteria, into one of four categories according to its cleanliness or the opposite. Classification will be made for the whole of England and Wales for each river and for each river authority area separately. We hope to 644 have some preliminary national figures by June from which we shall be able to get some idea of the changes in the condition of the rivers since 1958. The full results of the current survey will come in towards the end of this year. They will be published and will be the basis of future efforts and decisions of Government, both central and local, and of industry. Until then it is impossible either to substantiate or to refute charges that our rivers are getting worse. I repeat that: we are still ignorant; and action taken before ignorance is dispelled will be capricious action.
The river pollution survey will also tell us about the capital investment needed over the next ten years on local authority sewage works. It will also tell us a great deal about industry, because the C.B.I. are co-operating excellently in getting firms to fill up returns of details of their own effluent. I acknowledge that co-operation and thank the C.B.I. for it. We are still waiting for a few important returns from large industrial companies, and if any noble Lords opposite happen to be directors of such, I hope that they will personally check that their people are getting on with filling these forms up. No details of identifiable discharges will be published.
I should also like to express my appreciation of the huge effort which the river authorities are putting into this survey. This survey means that there is going to be for the first time in this country a complete Domesday Book of our rivers by the end of this year. I say "for the first time ever"; and that is not only for the first time in this country but also, I am informed, the first time ever for any country in the world that such a survey has been carried out. Before Easter we hope to receive the report of the Working Party on Sewage Disposal under the chairmanship of my honourable friend Mrs. Lena Jeger.
Yet another body, an expert body, has been dealing with problems of solid and semi-solid toxic waste which might endanger water sources. That, too, expects to finish its job within the next few weeks and to be ready for publication in the summer. I would say at this point that in a way it is a matter of regret to me that the noble Lord was not able to meet my request to put off this debate until we had some of these Reports in 645 hand; because at that time I should not only have been able to speak in a more informed way but might have been in a position to give some decisions which the Government would have been able to reach on the basis of the information we should then have available. But we take things as they are.
We have recently fundamentally changed the emphasis in the work of the branch headed by my Department's chief engineer. This used to be a very formal matter. Local authorities and water undertakings prepared schemes which they then submitted for approval to the Minister who judged them in a semi-judical way on the advice of his inspectors and engineers; and if they were wrong they had to start again. We are now changing all that so that the engineers and inspectors, on a regional basis, will be in on the preparation of schemes from the beginning, so that when they come to the Minister for decision, all the questions that we used to have to ask will already have been answered; and answered in the right way. And, of course, we are looking after the purity of the judicial process by ensuring that the inspector who takes the inquiry will not be the one who has been helping in the formulation of the scheme. There is also going to be a central unit for research and co-ordination of research on these matters in my Department's engineering branch and about this a full announcement will be made later.
Lord Molson mentioned the history of foaming detergents. This is really a text book example of co-operation between Government and industry, as he stated. After the Jephcott Report, the C.B.I. undertook that none of the "bad old stuff" would be used after 1964—and this is what happened, except for two minor infringements both of which were rectified by the C.B.I. itself without Government intervention. This country was the first to sign the Council of Europe agreement to ban the sale of synthetic detergents which are not at least 80 per cent. biodegradable. I think it a special achievement that we were able to comply early with this international convention on the basis of voluntary co-operation between Government and industry. The Standing Technical Committee is continuing its work. Its eleventh Report is now in preparation.
646 After reading reports of the dreadful state of Lake Erie many people in this country may have been alarmed that the same fate might overtake our own inland waters. Our advisers have been watching this since 1958 and before. That was when we made the first study of the process known as "eutrophication"; that is, the artificial stimulation of growth of algae by nutrients and salts in the water. There has been an increase in British rivers in nitrates from agricultural run-off, but we think: his may now have reached its peak and be going down. As British rivers are comparatively short and free-flowing we do not get the difficulties that the Americans get with their enormous slow rivers There are certain nutrification difficulties in reservoirs— there always has been algae growth there, a factor of the ageing of all lakes, and long pre-dating modern agricultural and industrial methods. We cannot see any lake in this country getting into the state of Lake Erie. This is because we have been working on pollution for 50 years and the Americans have only recently woken up to it.
At this stage, my Lords, I should like to digress and tell the House that three months ago I went to Washington to attend a conference called by the American Secretary for the Interior, Mr. Hickel, on water pollution. He gathered together the presidents of all the great industrial corporations in America, and, not to put too fine a point upon it, he told them what they could expect in the way of Federal Government control and measures for the future. It was pretty tough. I think he is in for a rough time with American industry, because on this matter there is no history of co-operation, and very little history of research and control, in the United States of America. We in this country are singularly fortunate in that we have a system of environmental pollution control which goes back for 107 years—it was the first Act on this subject passed in Parliament—and we have a tradition of co-operation between industry and Government which it is very much the purpose of this Government to maintain and upon which we intend to build.
My Lords, countless other research problems are going on. There is the Trent River Study which will explore every possible way of purifying that 647 river. There are about eight ways of doing it, and those are going to be fed into a mathematical model on a computer, after which we shall get the right economic and amenity answer. Much of that Study will be applicable to other rivers. That will be finished by the end of 1971; it is a huge programme of re-search. Within the next week or two we shall have the report of the Committee on Storm Overflows and the Disposal of Storm Sewage—yet another study. In June or July I hope that we shall publish the Report of the Technical Committee on the Disposal of Solid and Semi-Solid Toxic Wastes, which I have mentioned. In August a revised handbook on The Chemical Analysis of Raw, Potable and Waste Waters should be available, and the Report of the Committee on Sewage Disposal within the next few weeks. The Eleventh Progress Report on synthetic detergents should be printed by May and the full Report of the River Pollution Survey should be ready at the end of the year. The first Annual Report of the Steering Committee on Water Quality should be ready in December of this year and, as a great umbrella over the whole thing, the Report of the Central Advisory Water Committee itself on the entire future structure of the industry should be available later this year.
Your Lordships will see that in European Conservation Year we are concentrating the publication of a great deal of material which will enable us to know where we are and to decide where to go. Vast projects remain, running into £120 million a year. The horror headlines catch the Press; progress stories do not. Consider the huge plan for cleaning up the Tyne, about £30 million expenditure, which under planning law goes to public inquiry next month. I am glad to be in a position to tell the House that central Government will place no financial difficulties in the way of what is proposed.
My Lords, in conclusion I want to make very clear the difference between the financial and legal regimes which apply to domestic sewage deposited into rivers and, on the other hand, to industrial effluent. Domestic sewage must be treated to the standard laid down by the river authorities. If a river authority lays down, or wants to lay down, a standard higher than the present one. the sewerage 648 authority must then spend public money from rates and taxes on building a new or improved sewage plant. If, on the other hand, the river authority lays down, or wants to lay down, a higher standard for industrial effluent, the company concerned must spend its own money on constructing new or improved effluent treatment plant. There is no subsidy except normal investment grants and there is no tax remission. There is also a middle class of effluent; that is, industrial effluent treated in local authority sewage works. The industrial company pays the local authority for this service. So it is easy to see that the limiting factor in the improvement of domestic sewage effluent is public money. At present, as I have told the House, that programme is running at £120 million a year capital expenditure, and £120 million a year current expenditure. The limiting factor in the improvement of industrial effluent is the industrial price structure and industrial competition.
The noble Lord, Lord Molson, has quoted a circular which, to our intense regret, we had to send out at the depth of the freeze. He quoted the bit urging restraint. I think he might, in fairness, have gone on to say that it continued:… the Ministers are advised that, because of the long Titles of those Acts, river authorities may neither exercise nor refrain from exercising their powers … in such a way as to permit any river to become materially less wholesome than it is.So it is perfectly clear that they are not allowed to do that. All we are talking about is the possible rate of advance. The Government will look at that circular again, when we have all the data that I have mentioned in my speech, to see whether it is not time to unleash the dogs.
The need for management in respect of our rivers as a whole is something that is recognised and achieved. The standards we demand of discharges are higher, I believe, than those in any other country. The sewage from 75 per cent. of our people receives biological and chemical treatment. The sewage from 15 per cent. is dealt with without sewers at all; that is, in septic tanks and so on, in the countryside. The remainder goes into estuaries and into the sea, and, a very small amount, into rivers without any treatment at all. That achievement is a very great deal higher than anything 649 that exists to my knowledge in any other country in the world. Many European countries have not begun to provide sewage treatment, even into rivers. My Lords, I accept the need to which this Motion calls attention. I also welcome the opportunity to have said what is being done and what investigations are in hand for the future. Above all, I pay tribute to the large number of workers, from research scientists, through elected representatives and pollution preventive staff of river authorities to the managers and employees of sewage works, who already succeed, often with quite inadequate equipment and resources, in keeping a very large proportion of the total length of our rivers clean, and in safeguarding these sources of so much of our drinking water.