Previous Section Home Page

Column 1154

against exaggerated or baseless scares is a well-informed public, able to make their own judgments about the real risks that we face. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford made much of the problems of litter, and that theme was picked up by other hon. Members. I agree that a littered high street or locality is not just an eyesore, but a health hazard. A littered area also invites disrespect. To put it more positively, if we can improve our neighbourhoods and keep them clean and litter free, that will invite respect. It is a commonly observed phenomenon that people are more likely to throw litter on to an area that is already littered.

The Environmental Protection Act puts in place many new measures and policies to clean up the country. It is a double approach. We must prevent people from dropping litter, but, recognising that some people will always do so, we have improved the means and the duty to collect it. From 1 April next year, local authorities can employ litter wardens, based on the so- called Westminster model. No doubt they will concentrate mainly on getting people to sweep up their litter, and on asking them not to drop it. However, they will also have the power to hand out fixed penalty notices in appropriate cases. I remind the House that the maximum fine for dropping litter has been increased from £400 to £1,000.

Local authorities will be under a duty to keep their public areas clean. They will need to have regard to a code of practice that is currently before the House. The code has been developed with the aid of an advisory group. containing representatives from local authorities and industry. We have also had advice from the Tidy Britain Group. The main change that the code heralds is a switch from input-related to performance-related cleaning standards. Of course, we understand that, in some cases, that will require more expenditure by local authorities. We therefore commissioned a study by Coopers Lybrand Deloitte to estimate, in a sample of 20 authorities, how much extra funding would be required to comply with the new code. As a result of its findings, an additional £50 million has been taken into account in the revenue support grant settlement for 1991-92. In addition, the public will be given new enforcement opportunities. They can apply to a magistrates' court for a litter abatement order to require their local authorities to keep their areas litter and refuse-free. We are mobilising public enthusiasm in the right direction.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham) : If a member of the public has obtained a litter abatement order, will it be mandatory for local councils to comply with it, or will they have discretion? I hope that it will be compulsory for local authorities to take action, as some of them are laggardly in dealing with litter.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : I reassure my hon. Friend that local authorities will have to comply with a court order. If they do not, they will be in breach of it. I hope that most local authorities will comply in advance, when it is drawn to their attention that they are apparently in breach of their duties, and will send someone round to do the necessary work. If a local authority fails to do that, the court will be able to require that it honours its obligation, and will have regard to the code of practice in assessing the standard of street and area cleanliness required.


Column 1155

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) is unable to be in his place at this stage in the debate, but courteously gave me advance notice of his absence. He introduced into the debate the subject of roads and traffic, which was taken up also by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham made the good point that occasionally more roads and bypasses are needed and that they can improve the local environment and save lives, by taking traffic away from congested urban areas. In my view a policy of outright opposition to all roads would be irresponsible. My hon. Friend also made the point that the switch from leaded to unleaded petrol is far from complete, but that change is a good example of a market mechanism delivering an environmental result. Successive Budgets produced a duty differential between leaded and unleaded petrol that has made it financially and environmentally worthwhile for motorists to switch to unleaded fuel. My hon. Friend was right to say that many cars being driven today could use unleaded fuel, and I hope that their owners are not being put off by misleading claims that their vehicles would suffer a significant reduction in performance if they changed.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey occasionally exhibits a lack of liberalism. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham that some of the administrative traffic controls that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey suggested would be complex and difficult to enforce. However, hon. Members in all parts of the House acknowledge that we must civilise the car. We should also make provision for a higher volume of traffic, because all the projections that I have seen for this country and others point to increased vehicle usage. That does not mean that we will be driving the same sorts of vehicles in the same way.

No doubt great advances will be made in types of fuel, and the electric car could have a part to play--although, on the face of it, electric vehicles would simply move the pollution from the roads to the power stations, and there is a problem with dragging round heavy batteries that work against fuel efficiency. Doubtless, science and technology will rise to the occasion and we will see in the future different cars, driven in different ways, at different speeds, powered by different fuels, and manufactured from different materials. I am glad that manufacturers are giving greater thought and attention to recycling cars at the end of their lives. Instead of old cars being scrapped, more attention should be paid to how they can be taken to pieces and their useful plastic and metal materials reused.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey also mentioned parish councils. That is well outside my responsibilities. However, he will have noticed that two of the Ministers of State in the Department represent London seats and may be interested in the arguments, if not in the conclusions, about the need for parish councils in the London area.

The right hon. Member for Swanage, West made some interesting remarks.

Mr. Alan Williams : It is Swansea.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : I apologise. The right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) seemed to be


Column 1156

under the misapprehension that Singapore is a socialist society. In fact, it is a testament to the success of free enterprise. To see how a socialist society deals with the environment, he should look at eastern Europe, from which he would draw very different conclusions. Forty years of state socialism behind the iron curtain have left those countries in a state of environmental catastrophe. It will require at least the next 40 years to clean them up, and to undo the ravages of too great a reliance upon central command and control planning.

The right hon. Member for Swansea, West alleged that the presumption in favour of development was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley). That is not the case as that principle has underlined the modern planning system since 1949, when it was put forward in a circular issued by the Labour Government.

The principle simply means that a local authority must demonstrate good reason for refusing development. I cannot comment upon individual planning cases, especially as the ones concerned are in the Principality. However, those responsible will doubtless read the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

I cannot let a debate like this end without mentioning dogs--not because I think that that subject has not been adequately debated in the past, but because the lack of control of dogs has a most unfortunate impact on the local environment. I am glad that we finally have in place a system which promises to deal directly with the problem of stray dogs, and to enforce the requirement that a dog in a public place must wear a collar and identification tag. The duty of enforcement will be discharged by district councils, which are in a much better position to do so than the county councils or the police.

The Home Office has also made available a greater range of strengthened byelaws to deal with stray dogs. Officials in my Department are holding a series of meetings with people interested in dogs, and the problems that they cause, to work out details of what could be called the dogs package for introduction by April 1992. Once that is in place, it will be a big step forward, will introduce a greater sense of responsibility for dog owners, and will help to deal with the undoubted environmental problems that result from irresponsible dog ownership.

My hon. Friend's motion also mentions recycling. I pay tribute to the wide range of local authorities, and voluntary and industrial groups, which are implementing our policy to improve our recycling performance. We have a target of recycling half of the household waste that it is possible to recycle by the end of the century. That requires partnership between all concerned.

Increasingly, facilities are being provided for the recycling of materials such as glass, aluminium, steel, paper and textiles. I am glad that supermarkets are beginning to provide facilities for recycling plastic shopping bags. We must never forget the need not simply to collect recyclable materials, but to ensure that there is a demand for them. In other words, we must balance the supply and demand for those materials. Considerable damage was done to the cause of recycling by the temporary glut of low-grade waste paper caused by the tremendous enthusiasm to collect newspapers without the corresponding adequate means of using them to provide new paper. I am glad that it looks as though at least one


Column 1157

new large newsprint mill will come on stream soon, making use of this paper and bringing about the balance that is required. Everyone has a part to play in stimulating demand for recycled goods. My Department uses 100 per cent. recycled paper in all its correspondence. I do not believe that the House of Commons does that yet, so I hope that hon. Members will follow the lead of my Department in using recycled materials whenever possible.

Mr. Tony Banks : There is some available.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : I look forward to receiving the hon. Gentleman's letters on recycled paper.

Mr. Simon Hughes : Will the Minister clarify a point? Last year, I asked one of his colleagues about this and was given to understand that the Department uses offcuts rather than properly recycled paper. Is that still the case, and if so, will the Department soon have properly recycled paper?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : The use of offcuts is legitimate, because it is paper that would otherwise have been wasted. However, the hon. Gentleman puts his finger on an issue--the problem of defining exactly what recycled paper is. Another problem is that a different percentage of recycled fibres is used in making paper. That is one reason why it is unwise to use fiscal measures to promote the use of recycled paper. In deciding, for example, to relieve recycled paper of VAT, one would have to decide what constitutes recycled paper and in so doing make a number of difficult and arbitrary decisions. The best way forward is to promote the use of recycled paper wherever we can. I agree that post-consumer recycled paper is preferable, but the use of offcuts is also valid.

We need to mobilise public enthusiasm more generally in pursuit of environmental aims, not just by increasing public access to information but by improved labelling. Every day, customers and consumers making purchasers in shops make millions of environmental decisions. We want those decisions to be better informed, so we are working out a scheme for labelling products with environmental information. We should like to take this forward with our partner countries in Europe, in the interests of free trade. If that does not prove possible, or if matters become too delayed, we shall consider a national scheme. Those environmental labels will be awarded on the basis of a number of criteria, including the use of recycled materials in the product, the potential for recycling the materials, and the packaging of the product.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romford spoke with authority about air pollution, which he emphasised was, in his experience, of central importance if we are to improve the quality of our urban environment. He will recognise that the types of pollution with which we have to deal are different from that which afflicted us when he first entered Parliament. That was in the last days of the smog problem, which was effectively resolved by earlier legislation. That problem has now been replaced by greater concern about different kinds of gases--sulphur compounds, oxides of nitrogen and low-level ozone. I assure him that these concerns were very much to the fore when we drew up the White Paper on the environment and during the passage of the Environmental Protection Act.

During the discussions on the Bill, all sides agreed that a decisive step forward must be taken by introducing


Column 1158

tighter regulation over emissions, not just to the air but to land and water. That takes the form of our system of integrated pollution control which will extend and clarify the controls that are now exercised by Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution. In future, we shall require the use of best available techniques not entailing excessive cost to maximise our control over pollution and to render emissions to the air and other media harmless and inoffensive. We are determined to require new plant and equipment in Britain to use the very best control techniques available anywhere in the world. Under the system of integrated pollution control, authorisations will be required before certain industrial processes can begin. Again, the public will be able to take action in the courts for contravention of any condition. For the first time the public will be given full details of the proposed pollution controls and will be invited to comment on them. Furthermore, they will have access to local authority offices in which will be held the details of the control conditions imposed on those industries and the monitoring data, showing how well they are complying with them. Similar controls will be enforced by local authorities over the so-called part B processes--the less potentially polluting processes and industries. My hon. Friend wisely coupled his remarks about air pollution with the cost implications. We must never forget that higher environmental standards do not come cheap. We are, therefore, putting in place by means of the Environmental Protection Act a cost recovery system, which is the embodiment of the "polluter pays" principle. It will enable Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution and local authorities to recover the cost of administration, enforcement and regulation direct from the industries. That will be a new source of revenue for the regulators, which will ensure that the costs are not simply thrown on to the general taxpayer and chargepayer.

In the water industry, too, the principle is being carried forward of the separation of the regulator from the operator. The cost of the regulator will increasingly fall on the regulated--again, the "polluter pays" principle. The public are rightly requiring ever-higher standards of water purity and treatment. It is only right, therefore, that they should see those higher standards coming through in the form of higher costs, which ultimately must be borne by us all. A virtue of the Water Act 1989 is that it brings transparency to the system of enforcement and cost.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romford said that drinking water quality is generally high and gave his own water company as an example. I confirm and endorse his remarks. The new regime established by the Water Act will ensure, for the first time, an effective system of regulating drinking water quality for which there are appropriate back-up powers. It sets out precise standards for drinking water that must be attained and specifies in detail the monitoring that must be carried out. Again, the results are publicly available. The new drinking water inspectorate that was set up in my Department at the start of this year ensures that water companies comply with the new statutory duties. Local authorities, too, have a significant part to play, and the Water Act places a duty on them to keep themselves informed about the quality and sufficiency of water supplies in their areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romford mentioned the need for unpolluted beaches and inshore waters. He has an inland constituency, whereas my constituency has several miles of beach. I, too, am anxious to improve the


Column 1159

quality of our inshore waters. The controls on litter have an important role, and they will apply in those areas. We must recognise that much litter comes not from people dropping it on beaches but by its being washed up from other sources ; some of it originates from ships. It is not only unsightly but is a health hazard to marine life such as seals and sea birds.

There is an international agreement to prohibit the dumping of all plastics and most forms of garbage close to the coast. The Government have introduced regulations that make it an offence for any yacht or commercial vessel to dispose of such waste in the sea.

That is reinforced by a public information and publicity campaign undertaken by the Department of Transport.

Mr. Tony Banks : It is highly desirable that dumping inshore and on the high seas should be made illegal. It is one thing to pass a measure saying that it is illegal but another to enforce it. Will the Minister say- -I accept that it is not his direct departmental responsibility--what enhanced enforcement powers are being taken to ensure that irresponsible people do not continue to pollute our coastal waters?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point : regulation is one thing, but enforcement is important. It is difficult to know what is happening on board a ship many miles off the coast. I invite members of the public on shore or on vessels to report breaches of the regulations. The regional offices of the Department of Transport rely on information from the public and from crew members to help to enforce the regulations.

I reassure the hon. Member for Newham, North-West that port authorities are paying attention to the regulations. Recently, I visited Bristol port authority, where I saw facilities and provision for receiving waste from ships when they dock. Ships and boats of all sizes have no excuse for tipping their rubbish overboard rather than taking it into harbour and disposing of it responsibly.

Mr. Neubert : My hon. Friend has responded to a series of points made in the debate, but he omitted to refer to graffiti, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot). I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that the defacing of buildings, walls and bridges by graffiti is as much a detraction from amenities as are litter and refuse. The code of practice does not appear to mention it, but will there be any action to deal with that modern phenomenon?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : Graffiti was not overlooked in our discussions about litter during the passage of the Environmental Protection Bill or when we drew up the code of practice. We reached the conclusion, however, that it is a different sort of problem. It would not be altogether fair to require the victims of graffiti to keep their buildings free of it. To place an expensive obligation on the victim approaches the problem in the wrong way.

We prefer to draw to the attention of the enforcement authorities and the courts the means that already exist to take action against that form of vandalism. For example, section 1 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 makes it an offence, punishable by up to 10 years' imprisonment, to damage, recklessly or intentionally, any property belonging to another. Under section 3 of the Act it is an


Column 1160

offence to possess anything with the intent to destroy or damage property. The law is already extremely tough when dealing with that nuisance and vandalism.

It is also important to emphasise the need to incorporate in designs the means of preventing or reducing graffiti damage. I have seen new materials and new types of surface that are available to those designing shopping or town centres that are resistant to spray paint or make it easier to remove. A small investment in anti-graffiti measures can bring a considerable return in terms of the environment. A graffiti-free part of town generally stays that way, whereas when a potential vandal sees a place already covered in graffiti it almost invites him to append his signature to it. I assure my hon. Friends that the omission of graffiti from the code of practice does not mean that we are insensible to that form of environmental irresponsibility.

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have spoken. I am not, of course, formally replying to the debate, but contributing to it. If, during the remainder of the debate, other points are made which are my responsibility, I shall ensure that they are considered and responded to where appropriate.

1.32 pm

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) : I, too, should like to express my congratulations to the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) on his success in coming first in the ballot and on presenting a wide-ranging motion that enables us to discuss not just the local environment but that of the world. When John Wesley undertook his search for souls in the 18th century, he said :

"I look upon all the world as my parish."

That applies even more so today as we grapple with problems to ensure that our local communities are decent places in which to live.

The motion gives us the opportunity to deal with all matters from the stratosphere to the street. It is however, a sad commentary on eleven and a half years of Tory government that a Tory Member has had to introduce a motion that pleads for advances in the quality of life. It covers just about everything. In that sense, it is a commentary on what J. K. Galbraith so long ago described as the presence of "private opulence" with "public squalor". In the 1980s, that public squalor has become worse because the Government have not given the local environment the priority that it deserves. Mr. Neubert indicated dissent.

Mr. Griffiths : The hon. Member for Romford shakes his head in disagreement. However, we are debating his motion today and it pleads for advances in the quality of life.

Mr. Neubert : I deliberately tabled a motion that did not rise to the stratosphere as I wanted to emphasise the local environment. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) has made political points about the motion. It is the local authorities that have received the most grant from the Government in recent years which have made street cleaning their lowest priority.

Mr. Griffiths : The hon. Gentleman says that the motion deals not with the stratosphere but with the local


Column 1161

environment. However, the hon. Gentleman's plea for clean air involves issues that, if they were discussed in one debate, would not have been dealt with in every aspect.

One of the Government's problems in the past decade is illustrated by a tautology in the motion. It calls on the Government to act "through the necessary minimum regulation".

Any good English teacher would say that the phrase "necessary regulation" is sufficient and that there is no need to use the word "minimum" as well. The wording shows the state of mind of the hon. Member for Romford and of his party. The Government do not want to become closely involved, which contrasts with the attitude taken in other countries. The United States is a good example. If the capitalist economy has worked fully and freely anywhere, it is in the United States, yet there are strict regulatory controls there on all aspects not only of industrial production but of the conduct of commerce and of high finance. We do not need adjectives such as "minimum" to govern our approach to the local environment. As other hon. Members have already stressed, the local environment is important to individuals. People write to us at far greater length and on many more aspects of the local environment than on the matters of great moment that we often discuss here.

Clean air is not merely relevant to a debate on the local environment. When we discuss the air that we breathe, whether in the House of Commons, in London or in our constituencies, why is it important to consider the international implications? A few simply examples will show that it is important to take international considerations into account. Chernobyl showed just how important it is that we should have an international dimension to our thoughts about clean air and a decent environment. In some parts of England and Wales, the farmland is still so contaminated that the livestock cannot be sold in the marketplace.

Let us think for a moment that acid rain. We have heard this morning about the failure of the Soviet-type system to produce a clean industrial environment and regulate pollution. Incidentally, the Labour party has never claimed that it wants to ape the Soviet system, so comparisons are wholly unnecessary. Britain is often described as the dirty man of Europe because of the acid rain that we caused to fall on Scandinavian countries but sometimes wind and weather change, and when that happens, we have our own problems. The hon. Member for Romford described how when he was a younger man, new to the House, great success was achieved in dealing with the problem of smog. That was good, but it was perhaps easier to tackle smog because one could see it--or, rather, one could not see beyond one's nose when one was in it. Many of the threats to clean air today are not so easily seen. That is why it is crucial that we should focus on the problems of acid rain and low-level ozone which are the more insidious because they cannot be seen.

As in so many matters, the quarrel between the Opposition and the Government centres on urgency and on the pace of change. We believe that we should espouse the precautionary principle. If there is an element of doubt about the harmful effects of a practice or substance, we should immediately take steps to investigate it. If it is proved that there is no cause for consternation, the practice can be resumed or the substance deemed safe. That is better than ruling out action on the grounds that


Column 1162

there is not sufficient evidence. If one waits for evidence to appear, it may be too late to act. It is better to take an urgent look at what is happening if there are doubts about it.

The two major causes of air pollution are the production of energy and the vehicles on our roads. We could make tremendous progress if only we would undertake a full flue gas desulphurisation programme instead of relying on the possible use of low-sulphur coal. Supplies of low-sulphur coal are not necessarily guaranteed. Most of it will have to be imported and the price could prove prohibitive. In a short time, gas desulphurisation could look like a cheap option. The Labour Government of the 1990s will set up an energy efficiency agency charged with dealing with precisely those matters. We could then reduce significantly our carbon dioxide emissions, a third of which come from power stations. We could also reduce significantly our sulphur dioxide emissions, 70 per cent. of which come from power stations, and one third of our nitrogen oxide emissions, which also come from power stations. All that would help to contribute towards clean air in this country. Combined heat and power schemes, especially those that utilise waste, must also be considered and promoted with the utmost vigour.

I do not want to dwell for too long on transport because many hon. Members have underlined the problem of air pollution and also the danger from cars and lorries on our overcrowded roads, particularly in city centres. However, large lorries can be just as dangerous on narrow rural roads.

Eighteen per cent. of our carbon dioxide, amounting to 28 million tonnes, comes from vehicle pollution. The more that we can do to introduce an effective public transport network in which buses, railways and underground systems are all considered together, the better. Unfortunately transport deregulation has not helped. Large cities now find it difficult to plan large integrated transport systems. For example, since deregulation in Newcastle it has proved difficult for transport schemes like the Metro to link up with the bus services. The result is that huge traffic jams involving minibuses are blocking bridges across the River Tyne. We must pay more attention to public transport investment and to our rail services. We must get the long distance lorries off our roads. We must promote intermodal freight so that containers can be moved off trains straight on to lorries so that the lorries make only local journeys.

Although we need roads where they will provide a direct benefit to the community, some of our plans for the 1,500 miles of motorway and trunk roads must be reconsidered to discover whether they are really necessary. Reference has already been made to the controversy over Oxleas woods. There is a united approach among the local hon. Members concerned about how that problem should be tackled to stop the desecration of that ancient woodland. However, there are similar examples of concern around the country. People are up in arms about the impact on their local environment. That is why it is important to have a proper assessment of the environmental impact of road schemes. It is estimated that 162 sites of special scientific interest would be damaged if all those schemes went ahead. On that basis alone, we should reconsider what we are doing in that massive programme.


Column 1163

Another major factor that produces much justifiable local outcry is the use of inefficient incinerators. It has been a problem in trying to get efficient combined heat and power systems that incinerate waste to work successfully. Emissions from inefficient incinerators have been bad for local communities. We now have European Community standards, but none of the 35 incinerators yet complies with those standards. They have until 1996 to do so. I hope that the Government will give those who run such incinerators--often local authorities--extra financial help to meet the standards before 1996. From the end of this month new incinerators will have to meet those standards. That is good news for members of the public who have often been bedevilled by incineration.

Hon. Members have referred to noise pollution. Hon. Members are often plunged into neighbourhood disputes, particularly when flats are involved. There are several lessons to be learnt. In addition to moves that are already being made to improve heat and noise insulation--the two often go together--there is still more to be done in respect of new houses and the renovation of old properties. We need new standards and proper Government implementation of them. We need also the financial carrot to help people, in particular those who are less well off, to afford to implement the new standards that will benefit everybody.

We also need environmental health officers to implement the law. At the moment, a noise dispute between neighbours can be settled only by the complainant going to court. Neither the police nor environmental health officers can become directly involved. Also, there are difficulties in placing proper monitoring equipment at the right time of day. Noise often happens at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning. One will not get environmental health officers at that time because of local authorities' difficulties in financing their budgets. The Government should give environmental health officers the power to intervene in neighbourhood noise disputes.

On noise pollution that is caused by industrial activities, the "polluter pays" principle should be applied, again under Government regulation so that the rules are clear. Factories or rail shunting yards that cause noise problems should be responsible for providing the noise insulation that neighbours require.

Much has been said about pollution of our rivers and beaches, and reference has been made to the standard of our tap water. There is a certain complacency among Conservative Members. Modern pollution problems are more insidious and are often more difficult to track than the old ones were. The lead problem was known for years and lead piping has been progressively replaced. We now know the possible links between aluminium and pre-senile dementia. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are linked to cancer, are to be found in the coal tar lining of many of the older water supply pipes. Pesticide residues are raising problems in relation to the quality of our drinking water and because of the nitrates that pollute them. We must deal with the many problems relating to the intensification methods used in agriculture. The Government are taking steps to deal with the nitrate- sensitive problems, but once again they are acting too slowly, not enough of the difficulties have been


Column 1164

identified and the measures taken have not been severe enough to ensure that there is no abuse through the use of nitrate fertilisers.

Problems relating to the proper disposal of sewage waste have not been adequately tackled. Far too many discharge variations are being allowed, and more than one in five sewage works are unable to stay within the dispensations they have been given. It is no wonder that we have problems with the cryptosporidium parasite, which causes gastroenteritis. Some large scale outbreaks have been detected, but one wonders about incidences where the outbreaks have not been so serious and consequently the problem has not been identified. As the Minister mentioned, there is a drinking water inspectorate in the Department of the Environment, but it is hard pressed and has only sufficient staff to check the water companies' own monitoring results. The Opposition believe there is a case for creating a totally independent drinking water inspectorate, within a wider environmental protection executive, which would be properly staffed and able to pursue those matters much more freely. Whatever might be said about the quality of our water, people are worried about it.

Mr. Arbuthnot : As we tot up the cost of the next Labour party manifesto, it would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman said how much that scheme would cost and whether there is a Labour party commitment to spend money on it.

Mr. Griffiths : If we were to adopt the "polluter pays" principle-- the Minister referred to examples of the Government introducing such systems--many of those measures would be self-financing. One of the great failings in the past has been that we have let industry get away with polluting our environment. An article in today's Western Mail, which serves a substantial part of Wales, spoke of a Kent company called, I think, "Clean Drain", operating in south Wales, which dumped 3,000 tonnes of waste directly through a drain into the River Taff. The pollution killed the river's total fish stock of over 12,000. I am pleased to say that the court fined the company £70,000. A scheme involving the "polluter pays" principle would finance many of the schemes to which the hon. Member refers. Many of the issues are governed by European Community regulations, which means that other countries have obligations similar to ours. It should be our duty to ensure, through our elected Members of the European Parliament and through direct Government representations to the Commission, that the regulations are properly monitored in the other countries. There need be no disadvantage to our country. While an element of cost is bound to be involved, both for the Government and for local authorities, much of it will be recouped by using the "polluter pays" principle.

I wish now to refer to our beaches and inshore waters. One in four of our designated beaches do not meet the European Community standards for pollution by bacteria from sewage. I have to admit that both Labour and Conservative Governments have dragged their feet on this issue. However, the Conservative Government are much more culpable because the bathing water directive was approved in 1976, to come fully into operation in 1986.

When the Labour Government left power, the Department of the Environment had prepared a paper on the criteria to govern beaches in the United Kingdom. When this Government came to power, I understand that


Column 1165

they designated only 27 beaches in England and Scotland, and none in Northern Ireland and Wales, as coming within the terms of the directive. The Minister will no doubt correct me if that is wrong. There was uproar in the European Community and among the directly elected British Members of the European Parliament, of which I was one. The Government were threatened with being taken before the European Court of Justice, and in the 1980s they produced a revised list of almost 400 beaches that came within the terms of the directive. Although 1986 was the date on which the directive's terms should have been fully met, it was only in that year that the Government finally made a proper designation of beaches.

Britain is currently before the European Court of Justice because the Government envisage the directive being met in about 1995, in most cases. It is possible that the European Court will decide that, given the original 10-year time scale for the directive, the Government will have to speed up the process. Legally, compliance is the Government's responsibility, although in practice the water companies will have to ensure that the standards in the directive are met.

The Department recently appealed to the private individual to report examples of ships dumping waste or sewage at sea. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said, more than that is needed, and in particular there should be a proper inspectorate. One of the great failings of the Government has been a lack of the proper inspection to ensure compliance with existing regulations. For example, the issue of street parking was raised by a number of hon. Members including the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley). Every week in my constituency I receive complaints about motorists parking illegally. I contact the police, the traffic wardens, and the local authority, but they all say that although they are trying their best, they do not have sufficient staff to enforce the parking restrictions and to ensure that motorists are aware that if they park illegally they will be fined. If there are proper inspections and the law is enforced, and if people know that if they do not respect the law it is more than likely they will be caught, that will help to improve the local environment.

Mr. Jessel : The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting and important speech, and of course he has the right to continue. However, he may forgive me if I point out that he has already been speaking longer than the Minister, and three other hon. Members hope to catch Mr. Deputy Speaker's eye.

Mr. Griffiths : I do not want to get into a dispute with the hon. Gentleman, but I have been on my feet for 32 minutes, and the Minister spoke for 38 minutes. It was my intention to conclude in six minutes' time, at 10 minutes past 2 o'clock at the latest--and perhaps earlier.

A number of hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), pointed out that a Government Department often plays more than one role, which may be seen by the public to prejudice a particular planning application which could have a significant impact on a locality and which is the subject of almost unanimous local opposition.

Hon. Members may have noticed that I excused myself from the debate for a few minutes this morning, during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West. I was asked to go to the phone to speak to a


Column 1166

lady calling from Huntingdon who had hoped to speak to the Prime Minister, thinking that he might be participating in this debate. She had read about it in The Independent, thought that it was extremely important, and, as it was at the behest of a Conservative Member, imagined that the Prime Minister would be taking part.

The issue that the lady wanted to raise was a planning application for 111 houses on Spring common. Apparently, Baroness Blatch, who is a trustee of that common, was recently elevated to the position of Under-Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment. The Prime Minister's predecessor as the Member for Huntingdon, Lord Renton, who held the seat for 45 years, has written to Baroness Blatch to seek an undertaking about the way in which the application will be dealt with. The lady hoped that the Prime Minister, whose view she has not yet been able to ascertain, will support those campaigning to save Spring common. It seems likely from the remarks of the hon. Member for Eltham that Baroness Blatch will withdraw from any consideration by her Department of the Spring common application, but there should surely be a review of the way in which the Department of the Environment, Welsh Office and Scottish Office handle planning applications.

Over the past few years, we have seen an increase in opencast mining, much to the consternation of people living near the sites of that activity. Labour is committed to maintaining strict control of it and to implementing the Flowers report, which will limit extractions to 3 million tonnes less than the current figure. That subject has not arisen in the debate, so I wanted to mention it now. I did not get around to mentioning either the question of waste from heat, which, with recycling, is an important way of dealing with domestic refuse, and should be costed properly by comparison with keeping and managing landfill sites.

When the Companies Bill was going through the House, the Government rejected environmental audits. In the United States, companies such as Procter and Gamble produce a company policy, entitled "In Partnership With Our Environment", and they take significant steps to reduce the amount of packaging and to ensure that it can be either re-used or recycled. That is a positive company strategy. We need a similar strategy in Britain. We need the Government to encourage stronger action and more urgency and less of the voluntary or persuasive approach which, frankly, is not good enough.

2.10 pm

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham) : I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) for his courtesy, as it was apparent from the impressive pile of notes in front of him that he could have continued. His speech was especially interesting on the important subjects of water and air. I remind him that since the Clean Air Acts were introduced under successive Governments there have been great improvements in the quality of air in London. I remember the smog which used to pollute us in the old days. We no longer see that. I join in warmly congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) on introducing the debate and giving us this opportunity. I wish that I could have been present throughout the debate, but I had a previous engagement with my dentist--I should much


Column 1167

rather have been here so that I could have heard the whole of the debate. I look forward to reading the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Romford.

I hope that when my hon. Friend refers in his motion to "reduced noise levels" he does not mean the noise made by military bands, which are trained in my constituency at the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, with which he had some association with last year, when he was a Minister with responsibility for the Army. As a musician, he will know that the noise that they produce is splendid, and that their high standard of excellence is the envy of the entire world. They contribute to the quality of life, to which he also referred in his motion.

The River Thames loops around my constituency and two-thirds of my constituents live within one mile of the river. They greatly treasure the Thames as an amenity, and as a facet of their lives. They are well aware that it is not only important to people in Twickenham, Teddington, the Hamptons, and Wickham, but to greater London as a whole.

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley)--a neighbouring constituency--made a major contribution when he campaigned in the mid-1980s against the lead weights used by fishermen, which endangered swans. A large number of swans have now come back to the River Thames. Opposite Hampton, in my constituency, they are now to be seen in large numbers every day in the park, where they are fed by children and others who live in the neighbourhood. I am worried about the quality of water in the River Thames because of two new factors. First, recent hot summers and low rainfall have led to drought, so that most of the water in the river has to be taken out upstream to provide enough for the water supply, which means that there is not enough water flowing downstream. To maintain a reasonably quantity of water in the river, the lock at Teddington has to be closed, which turns the River Thames above the lock into a stagnant pond. The improvement that we have seen in the river in recent years, which means that salmon have been found as far upstream as Molesey lock, is thus being jeopardised. At the end of his speech, my hon. Friend the Minister said that if points were made in the debate to which he could not reply, he would take account of them, so I ask him to look into both that and at the toxicity of the River Thames.

I am glad to see that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has come into the Chamber, not only because he was a Minister at the Department of the Environment but because of his undoubted concern for rivers in Wales. Too much poisonous matter is still going into our rivers. At Hampton Court, one sometimes sees bubbles in the water coming out of the River Mole, a tributary of the Thames. I suspect that that comes from a car wash a little upstream. Will the Government look most carefully at the issue of discharges from car washes into rivers? In drought conditions, we are told to save water and forbidden to water shrubs and plants in our gardens because of the water shortage. Yet car washes seem to go on without any constraint. It is wrong, and nonsense, that just because they are commercial activities and part of trade, they can continue to use copious quantities of water, mixed with


Column 1168

pollutants which then go into rivers. The water companies are given too much autonomy in deciding where to apply curbs.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister make inquiries of the Department to see what can be done in drought conditions, if we have fine summers like those in the recent past, to curb the use of car washes so that preference can be given to allowing people to water plants and shrubs in their gardens?

2.16 pm

Mr. David Bellotti (Eastbourne) : I thank the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) for raising this important issue. I have a number of concerns. The first is pollution of the beaches and the position of my constituency which I guess is similar to that of other seaside towns. We were awarded a blue flag after the water was tested, but some groups suggested that the tests were not taken along the whole length of the beach. That leaves us with the worst of all worlds. If our beaches are polluted, we should like to take action because we are a tourist area, and for the good of our economy must attract people. However, if the beaches are not polluted, we need a clear statement so that fringe groups cannot make difficulties for the local economy. The Government must take an interest in this matter and ensure that testing for pollution on our beaches is clear and respected by all, so that the results are understood. We need a great deal more activity and more truth.

Our local environment has a particular problem about which I hope the Minister will talk to his colleagues in the Department of Transport. One of the greatest irritation is the pollution caused by the inability to move traffic from one part of the constituency to another. There is a solution to the problem, the Hampden Park relief road. Unfortunately, local government does not have the financial capacity to introduce this relief road. Because we have the busiest level crossing in the whole of Europe queues of people have to wait for hours on end to get across the constituency. This causes costs for local industry and causes concern to local people. Furthermore, it pollutes the environment because traffic sits there disgorging fumes. Unless the Department of Transport encourages local government to spend more money, that problem will not be resolved.

The hon. Member for Romford referred to graffiti. The Department of Transport, as part of its expenditure on main roads in my constituency, has built an underpass. Unfortunately, it did not use the material--to which the Minister referred--that deters people from spraying graffiti on the walls. The underpass at Willingdon is regularly redecorated, but the materials used by the Department of Transport have no effect on the problem. I hope that the Minister will encourage other Departments to think carefully about using materials that would lead to less graffiti in our towns and villages.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) referred to complaints about noise from people who come to his surgeries. A number of people who have come to my surgery at Eastbourne have complained about noise. I took up their complaint with the local authority's environmental health department. It is clear that it does not have the financial resources to employ staff to deal


Column 1169

with the matter. Furthermore, the legislation does not help the authority as much as it should. I hope that the Minister will consider what he can do about the problem.

Eastbourne park is an area of considerable beauty, but the pressure to develop it is considerable. The Minister and the Government should consider whether they favour the developers or the preservation of the local environment. One always has to perform a balancing act, but we want Eastbourne park to be preserved. We hope that in that case, and in similar areas throughout the United Kingdom, the Minister will always favour the preservation of the environment.

Many of my constituents are concerned about the pollution caused by the development of the Crumbles in Eastbourne. The developers were not required --because it was felt that it would not be successful--to provide alternative access from the main highways. Some of my constituents have to put up with large numbers of lorries going down their residential roads to reach the site. The Government must make it clear that when developers cause pollution, whether it be noise pollution or other forms, they must put it right. If the Government believe in the "polluter pays" principle, they should ensure that developers do not allow pollution to be caused by their developments.

The motion is about quality of life. Many of my constituents believe that the quality of life has not improved in recent years. They have sent me here to give the message to the Government that they must do something to improve it.

2.22 pm


Next Section

  Home Page