HC Deb 05 December 1972 vol 847 cc380-4W
Sir S. McAdden

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will make a statement on the Third Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Pollution in Certain Estuarial and Coastal Waters.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

My right hon. and learned Friend welcomes the report, bringing together as it does the evidence on which we could decide how to clean up and protect our estuaries and costal waters. I agree with the Royal Commission that both urgent administrative action and legislation are needed. Together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, I had a most useful discussion of the report with the Royal Commission and with its permission I set out below a copy of a letter which I have written to the Chairman, Sir Eric Ashby, summarising our conclusions:

Letter from Mr. Eldon Griffiths to Sir Eric Ashby.

30th November 1972.

The Secretary of State has asked me to write to you about the recommendations made in the Royal Commission's Third Report. Peter Walker and I discussed this with yourself and members of the Royal Commission at the meeting on 20th October and I have reported to Mr. Rippon who endorses the broad conclusions we then reached.

Mr. Rippon has now asked me to place on record his full acceptance of the large majority of the recommendations and conclusions falling within this Department's field of responsibility. These deal with the following matters:

the need for better and more continuous monitoring of estuaries (paragraph 17 of the Report);

the control of estuarial pollution to be part of a national integrated policy for waste disposal (paragraph 20);

the maximum practical abatement, before the discharge of effluents, of persistent, harmful pollutants (paragraph 21);

one authority, with more than consultative status, for each estuary (paragraph 22);

local authorities to seek information from industry about discharges through public sewers to estuaries or sea (paragraph 24(d));

river authorities to assume responsibility for monitoring critical pollutants in industrial estuaries (paragraph 24(e));

planning authorities to consider river authorities before approving any plan which would increase the pollution of an estuary (paragraph 24(g));

industrial and sewage effluent discharges to "controlled waters" to be brought under full control (paragraph 27(a));

all discharges to sewers to be controlled; industry to be charged the full cost of disposing of its wastes; authorities to be empowered to take samples from private sewers from trade premises (paragraph 27(d));

river authorities to apply to the Secretary of State for tidal water orders bringing estuaries at risk under full control (paragraph 29);

the proposed regional water authorities to control all discharges into rivers, estuaries and coastal waters (paragraph 30);

the Government to take the lead in international arrangements to publish data on monitoring etc. (paragraph 36–37);

biological monitoring of indicator species of animals and plants to be undertaken in addition to chemical monitoring;

proposed regional water authorities to monitor discharges to estuarine and coastal waters (paragraph 40);

the priorities on research (paragraph 41), subject to the comment below on paragraph 41(b);

sewerage authorities to have the right to refuse particular constituents in effluents (paragraph 123);

the protection of underground water to be strengthened (paragraph 128).

In addition we accept the majority recommendation on the question of charges for discharges of industrial effluents into rivers and estuaries (paragraph 42(b)). The case for adopting such a system is already under consideration.

There are many other recommendations which we accept with only minor reservations. These are:

River authorities to warn industry that better standards will be required at a future date (paragraph 24(a)).

Our concern is that too little may yet be known, for example, about the peculiar characteristics of particular estuaries for river authorities to give any very clear indication of the improvements which will be required of particular discharges and of their timing, though we agree entirely with the desirability of giving as long notice of improvements as practicable.

The period of notice of the operation of the proposed changes of law should be no more than 12 months from the commencement of the amending legislation or from July 1974, whichever is the earlier (paragraph 27(b)).

We are proposing, as you know, to provide in the same legislation for both existing and new discharges to estuaries and coastal waters to be brought under control. The provision in the 1961 Act bringing pre-1951 discharges to non-tidal rivers under control did not become effective until 1st June, 1963, and we are concerned to ensure that we do not ask the impossible of the river authorities, the proposed regional water authorities or, indeed, the dischargers by fixing an unrealistically early operative date for the new legislation. Subject to that, however, we share the Commission's desire to make rapid progress in this area.

More financial resources should be devoted to the development of effective mathematical models of estuaries so as to provide a scientific basis for taking action to reduce pollution (paragraph 41 (b)).

This was discussed at our meeting when it was agreed that the limiting factor was the number of people with the special skills needed for work of this kind, and that their dilution would be undesirable. The Water Pollution Research Laboratory, by which most of this work has so far been done, are of course attempting to cover more ground by developing the methodology and by using others to collect the data which form the basis for such models.

The cost of remedial capital works based on the expected requirements of river authorities by 1980 as indicated in the River Pollution Survey is small by comparison with total national investment or total wage costs (paragraph 42(a)).

Although we foresee no difficulty in authorising the public capital investment in remedial measures envisaged by the Survey as required by 1980, you agreed that the many demands on the national resources have to be recognised so that the cost of achieving the objective of cleaning up the rivers and estuaries ought not to be considered in isolation.

The Secretary of State should consider whether there is need for some form of control over waste water from mines and solid waste accidentally reaching rivers from tips (paragraph 111).

We had already proposed control over all waste water from working mines but would have liked some evidence of the need for special controls over solid wastes from mine or quarry tips.

The discussions at the meeting were particularly valuable because you were able to clarify one or two points in your report on which we had not fully understood the Commission's intentions. We were able to establish that there was no fundamental disagreement between the Commission and the Department on a number of points:

The biological criteria suggested by the Commission as the aim, where practicable, of pollution control (paragraph 23).

You recognised that the cost of improving an estauary beyond the stage where it would support a mixed population of coarse fish to the state of the second criterion—"ability to allow the passage of migratory fish at all states of the tide"—might be very substantial indeed; and that there might be no commensurate gain from the high level of expenditure. We realise that you suggested the criteria as an ideal, perhaps to be reached ultimately. We would of course subscribe to the criteria on that basis, since we recognise the need for early action to improve the estuaries. But we feel obliged to point out that there could well be tasks on the freshwater rivers which are more urgent and could provide greater benefits for the community at large than achievement of the ultimate quality for estuaries.

DOE to persuade industry to agree to publication of information about discharges including discharges to estuaries (paragraph 24(b) and (c)).

We shared the view expressed by the Royal Commission in their Second Report that it would be unreasonable to expect individual firms to act unilaterally in disclosing the nature of their wastes and we had concluded that disclosure, with appropriate safeguards, should be made mandatory.

Pollution budgets with 10-year plans to be produced by committees of river authorities (or their successors), local authorities and industry (paragraph 24(f)).

You explained that the Commission envisaged the determination, for a period ahead and as the basis for the control of discharges, of the capacity of an estuary to receive liquid wastes while yet achieving a planned improvement. We expect planning of this kind to be part of the arrangements of the proposed regional water authorities for the management of the rivers. My series of visits over the past 18 months, undertaken with this object in mind, have, I am glad to say, already prompted the establishment by river authorities of consultative committees for the major estuaries.

All discharges from vessels to "controlled waters" to be under control (paragraph 27 (c)).

"Controlled waters" include such areas as the Solent and the Wash. You recognised that it was only practicable to control discharges from seagoing ships in waters like these within the framework of international agreement. The subject is to be discussed in the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organisation's Conference next year. We had however already proposed that powers should be available to control discharges from vessels in places where pleasure craft are concentrated, as in marinas.

Statutory obligation for planning authorities to consult RWAs before giving planning permission for development substantially increasing effluent load on estuaries (paragraph 30, second part).

It was agreed that what was a "substantial" increase would depend very much on the size and characteristics of the estuary, as well as on the volume and nature of the effluent, so that there would be great difficulty in framing a suitable general statutory requirement. We have, as you know, already issued advice to local planning authorities about the importance of consulting river authorities about particular kinds of development which could entail special pollution risks, and my Department is discussing with the relevant associations the issue of a directive making such consultation mandatory. For the rest, the Secretary of State feels that we must rely on administrative arrangements.

Government to repeat directives to Crown property to comply with requirements of river and sewerage authorities (despite Crown exemption) (paragraph 126).

The Government certainly expects all those who administer Crown property to observe the conditions required by river and sewerage authorities of similar premises occupied by local authorities or industry. As we said following a similar recommendation in the report of the Working Party on Sewage Disposal, if there is any evidence that Crown property is not observing these conditions, the Secretary of State will take action to see that the requirements are met.

At the end of our meeting we agreed that the Secretary of State should inform Parliament of our conclusions by publishing a copy of this letter in HANSARD. He and the Secretary of State for Wales will also be issuing shortly a circular to local authorities and river authorities drawing their attention to the relevant recommendations of the Royal Commission on administrative action.