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13 Feb 2002 : Column 130WH

Cattedown Sewage Treatment Works

1.30 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): The lives of some 4,000 Plymouth, Sutton constituents have been blighted by potent "bad egg" sewage smells for more than four years. Cattedown and Prince Rock residents are those most affected. However, when the wind blows in a certain direction, residents of Oreston in the constituency of the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) are also affected.

Cattedown, Prince Rock and Coxside are part of the £18 million regeneration east end renewal project area. For several years, the residents have been working hard on their plans for regenerating the area, which focus around a healthy living project. It is ironic that the blight on the area, represented by the Cattedown pong, should be something that makes people feel sick. It is absolutely essential to the success of the project that a final solution is found to the Cattedown pong.

The residents and I know that South West Water has an action plan, but I am afraid we have heard this before. Plymouth city council had powers under the Environment Protection Act 1990 to issue an abatement notice, which could insist that a time scale be attached to such action. However, that reassurance seems, like the proverbial rug, to have been pulled from under our feet.

The plant was built in 1998, and 4 km of tunnels, 25 m beneath the streets of Plymouth, were constructed to carry sewage from more then 70,000 homes to the Cattedown treatment works. The project, which brought to an end decades of raw sewage being discharged into Plymouth Sound, was a key part of South West Water's on-going £1 billion clean-sweep programme to improve water quality standards around the south-west coast.

Residents raised many questions at the time of the proposal. After all, a sewage treatment works—or waste water treatment works, as it is more properly known—is not what one would choose in the neighbourhood. Reassurances were given that it was a state-of-the-art treatment works, so there would be none of the smells that people traditionally associate with such works. Assurances were given to residents and their representatives, including Councillor Jean Nelder. I am indebted to her for her helpful recollections, based on her diligent work in representing residents' interests.

In supporting residents in their battle to end the pong, I was approached by people operating businesses and leisure pursuits from the Cattedown wharf, including Ian Sleep, who operates a boat storage and maintenance business called Shore Store. The two problems are related, because they raise issues about the original design of the treatment works. I shall deal with each issue in turn.

Apart from the unpleasant nature of the pong, people worry that the smell is contaminating washing lines, decreasing property values and may result in ill health. As one of the residents told me,

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The bad egg odour is, of course, hydrogen sulphide gas, which is a natural product of decay. While high levels of hydrogen sulphide can be harmful, even deadly, it can be detected by the nose at an extremely low level—at concentrations of one 400th of the threshold for harmful human health effects. Apparently, the levels of H2S at Cattedown are lower, and I am advised that they do not represent a health risk per se. However, as anyone who has experienced the bad egg smell will know, the unpleasant, putrid odour can make people feel sick, to the extent, sometimes, that they become sick. It affects the quality of life in a way that could lead to or compound depression.

Plymouth city councillors and officers and I have received complaints from members of the public since 1998. They increased and became so frequent that the council officers met representatives of the water company in March 2001 and obtained commitments to a series of improvements. Following the initial meeting, complaints continued and the council officers, having experienced the odours on several occasions, concluded that a statutory nuisance existed. In July 2001, it served an abatement notice under section 80 of the Environmental Protection Act, which required South West Water to manage the waste water treatment works to ensure that any odours emanating beyond the boundary of the area did not amount to a statutory nuisance.

The company was given three months to comply. Subsequently, South West Water confirmed that urgent action was being taken at all three sites to secure improvements. There is also a problem at Camel's Head and Ernesettle in the neighbouring constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson). The company asked for six months rather than three to do the work, and the council agreed to extend the notices, but not to the full six-month period. South West Water appealed against the notices and concurrently continued with the programme of works at each site.

Early last year, I had the first in a series of meetings with representatives of residents associations and learned that complaints made directly to the water company were not handled to the high standards that we expect of a modern utility. I could see that Plymouth city council were taking appropriate enforcement action, but I felt that residents deserved better information about what was happening. A polite response to my letter to the chief executive of South West Water informed me that the matter would be attended to. However, after a bad pong episode several months later, residents told me that things had not improved, and we decided to call a public meeting and invite all the parties to come and explain what was happening.

The meeting was held on 25 September 2001 in Prince Rock primary school. More than 60 people attended, as well as officers of the council, South West Water, the Environment Agency and the secretary of the Ofwat consumer committee. The company outlined its action plan in some detail. It is fair to say that, at long last, people felt that some commitment and resources would be applied to tackle the problem.

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However, South West Water continued its appeal against the time scale attached to the abatement order. At a hearing on 29 November, the solicitors acting for South West Water requested an adjournment until 20 December 2001. At that point, people were still confident that the action plan would result in an end to the problem within a reasonable time. To that end, we have monthly meetings of the relevant parties to keep the spotlight on the issue and to ensure that residents have an opportunity to contact directly the company and the people who have the power to resolve the issue.

The appeal hearing on 20 December was adjourned, it having emerged that recent case law might have a bearing on the proceedings. To our dismay, that turned out to be the case: East Riding of Yorkshire council v. Yorkshire Water Services Ltd. in 2000 made it likely that a court would not regard the treatment works as premises under part 3 of the 1990 Act. Based on legal counsel's opinion, the local authority felt that it had no option but to withdraw the notices. Officers remain convinced that the 1990 Act was intended to include sewage treatment works among the premises that come under its control and are now considering alternative action, which may include common-law litigation.

How can local residents have confidence in a provider who is prepared to exploit legal loopholes to escape regulation? The Yorkshire case seems to have involved a sewer pipe to one cottage. It is regrettable that South West Water chose to seek its application to a whole treatment works that blights 4,000-plus households—a rather different kettle of fish. Residents received a slap in the face from that legal loophole. The company used it to avoid the notice, particularly the time scale attached. My constituents feel let down, and once again unsure that a light—or, more appropriately, fresh air—is at the end of the tunnel.

Our local paper, the Evening Herald, is fully behind the residents in their campaign. I ask, as did its recent editorial, whether the situation would be different if South West Water executives lived in the pong areas. Perhaps any review of enforcement powers should stipulate that after, say, three months of the uncontrolled nuisance, company executives should have an order placed on them to reside in the area.

Any court faced with the issue is likely to hold that the waste water treatment works are not premises on which an abatement notice may be served pursuant to section 79 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. When the Act was introduced, water authorities, which took over from local authorities in 1972, were replaced by sewerage undertakers following privatisation. However, Parliament seems to have continued to use the word "premises" without redefining it to accommodate that change. The long title of the 1990 Act refers to the intention to

but there is no material redefinition of the word "premises."

Consideration can be given to the bringing of proceedings for an injunction to restrain common law public nuisance, but that is much less easy to prosecute

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than an offence defined in specific legislation. Local authorities the length and breadth of the country are left in a position far less clear than that envisaged by legislators and enforcement officers.

I turn now to problems that have been encountered, over which the Environment Agency has enforcement powers. In May 2001, Ian Sleep of Shore Store wrote to me:

The letter was accompanied by photos and a daily record of the sewage and the foul smell from the treatment works from April 2000 to May 2001. They showed that sewage was observed on 171 days, and the smell was present on 66. I visited the business with officers from the Environment Agency. A report from the agency following the meeting confirmed that the operation of the treatment works fell far short of the consents order. On 28 June 1998, the agency had granted a combined sewer overflow consent in respect of the treatment works to South West Water. It was granted for the Plymouth Hoe east and west bathing waters to achieve compliance with the mandatory bathing water standards, required under the European Community bathing water directives, and to address aesthetic impacts from the discharge. The consent specified an operation that should have been better than the agency's bathing water policy requirements, and a 6 mm screening requirement to remove sewage-related debris on the discharge.

In a letter of 31 August, the agency confirmed:

An action plan has been developed and should bring overflows from the treatment works back in line with the original consents order by the end of this year. The agency is monitoring the effect of recent works to increase capacity through new plant and engineering, although I understand that a combination of additional storage for storm flows and separation of infiltration water from the sewerage system will still be necessary.

The Department has many important environmental issues on its plate, and I have not lightly used the opportunity of my second debate on water-related matters in the past three months to bring the Minister to

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the Chamber. Will he let me have his observations on the legal powers available to local authorities to deal with odour problems around sewage treatment works, and will he review those powers? Will he take an interest in the work that local Environment Agency officers are doing to deal with the apparent breach of the combined sewer outflow consent? Will he also take an interest in my approaches to the director-general of Ofwat and the south-west customer service committee to ensure that the cost of this expensive nightmare is met by the shareholder, not the consumer?

Finally, does my right hon. Friend agree that the patient people of Prince Rock, Cattedown and the other affected areas merit special consideration by South West Water for the four years of pong, pollution and misery that they have endured? I ask that in particular because, as my right hon. Friend well knows, we have the highest water bills in the country, and charges for sewage treatment form the largest part of them.

1.46 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) on her success in securing a debate about the problems at the Cattedown sewage treatment works in Plymouth and on the succinct way in which she dealt with them. I have visited Plymouth several times, and I know how assiduously she tackles issues that affect her constituents and how connected she is with the local communities.

I have considerable sympathy with local residents who have had to endure the offensive odour problems around Cattedown and with those who have experienced similar problems around the works at Camel's Head and Ernesettle. In many ways, these are classic constituency problems, which most of us have encountered at one time or another. One of the strengths of this place is that we can bring our experience to bear on such matters, and when I first examined the problems at Cattedown I was reminded of problems that had arisen in my constituency when odours from a tip caused intense misery to many people in the area.

My hon. Friend is right to identify real and perceived problems and to ask whether issues are a nuisance or a threat to health. When an odour is offensive, however, the worry is genuine and palpable in the local community. I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend when she talks about the relationship with the healthy living centre. There are two such centres in my constituency, and I have seen the positive influence that they can bring to bear on the health and confidence of the local community. When problems arise, they can undermine the work of such centres.

I understand that the route for resolving statutory nuisances such as odour problems around sewage treatment works, through the Environmental Protection Act 1990, does not apply, and I shall return to that in a moment. Today, I read a letter dated yesterday from the chief executive of South West Water. It sets out the efforts that the company has made and intends to make to solve the problems to the satisfaction of local residents and businesses. I shall provide my hon. Friend with a copy of the letter after the debate, and she will see that the company expresses its commitment to solving the odour problems at Cattedown by April 2002.

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Furthermore, the letter sets out the action that the company will take to reduce the spill frequency of the storm water overflow from the works by the end of this year. Officials at the Environment Agency are working closely with South West Water to ensure that that deadline is met, and I have asked my officials to keep me informed of progress. I would be happy to join my hon. Friend in keeping in touch with those developments and keeping an eye on them, especially in view of her points about previous timetables. It is hoped that this and other improvement works will achieve more regular compliance with the standards of the bathing waters directive, and limit pollution of the River Plym.

My hon. Friend expressed concern about who would have to meet the costs of necessary measures. I can assure her that the people of Plymouth will not be asked to pay for putting right any mistakes made by South West Water. The price limits set by the Director-General of Water Services in 1999 and revised last December limit the bills that the company can charge its customers. Those price limits already provide for the standards and consents set by the Environment Agency, including the cost of Operation Clean Sweep. If the company finds that it costs it more, that is its risk, not that of its customers.

The water company would be able to ask the Office of Water Services—Ofwat—to look at its price limits only if it were asked to undertake measures that were not on the table in 1999 when its price limits were set. Both my Department and Ofwat have always made it clear that the control of odours and other nuisances is something that a sewerage company should be doing as a part of its day-to-day running costs, not something that requires extra funding.

I am told that the Ofwat customer services committee for the south-west, which is the statutory champion of water customers, has been energetic in pressing South West Water to solve the odour problem quickly.

Linda Gilroy : It is interesting that none of my constituents approached Ofwat. The regulator's title causes problems. It relates to water and people do not perceive that consumer committee as being able to deal with sewage issues. We should draw further attention to Ofwat's powers in that area.

Alun Michael : My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. The purposes for which that committee was established and its remit are clear, but I agree, from my own experience, that public knowledge and understanding of it are comparatively limited at local level. There are several issues surrounding the work of the committee that my hon. Friend may wish to explore further, along with the subject of price controls. I invite her to contact the Director-General of Water Services, Philip Fletcher, who would be happy to discuss those issues with her. We should investigate ways of making people more aware of what Ofwat is there to do on their behalf.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of statutory nuisance legislation. I am assured that there is no flaw in that legislation in terms of enabling local authorities to deal with odour nuisance from sewage treatment works. The

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definition of "premises" under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and its predecessors clearly does not include sewers or sewage treatment works; nor did Parliament intend it to do so. If one examines the history of the definition, one finds that statutory nuisance provisions do not apply to public sewers and sewage treatment works and that that was established by 19th-century case law. It is not a recent development or the result of a lacuna in the recent legislation to which my hon. Friend referred. The courts held that Parliament could not have intended that magistrates, through enforcing local abatement notices, should direct how those constructing and operating such works should go about it. If that were the case, the establishment and running of a system for the benefit of a broader society could be undermined.

That is quite logical, but ensuring that there are ways of dealing with local nuisances is also important. There is no obstruction in the current situation. There is nothing to stop local authorities and water undertakings working closely together to identify problems and find solutions without having to resort to legal action. There is at the end of the day, as my hon. Friend said, the possibility of taking action through common law, although that may be more of a backstop than an approach that leads to immediate action. I would be happy to look at the history of this case to discover whether there are any lessons that should be learned. However, in the short term, we must deal with the matter.

We are committed to meeting our obligations under the urban waste water treatment and bathing water directives and, as a result, the Cattedown works have been built to treat sewage from Plymouth to the required standards of the directives. The provision of secondary treatment and ultra-violet disinfection since 1998 has had a positive effect on the quality of bathing waters at Plymouth Hoe east and west. For example, in 1999 and 2000, bathing waters in both areas passed the mandatory standard, and Plymouth west again passed in 2001. Unfortunately, Plymouth east was a marginal failure that year.

I commend my hon. Friend for the commitment and support that she has given her constituents in solving these problems. For example, she organised public meetings involving the relevant parties to ensure that everyone knew of the problems and of what was being done to solve them. I understand her concern that the problem appears to have taken longer to deal with than was desirable and than was suggested at an earlier stage. The letter that I received from South West Water, which I shall pass to her, gives assurances in that regard.

Linda Gilroy : During the procedures that Plymouth city council has followed on behalf of the residents of Cattedown, it has taken legal advice and received legal counsel's opinion. I am surprised to hear the Minister say that no powers exist under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 with regard to serving abatement notices. Will he meet the environmental protection officer to discuss that further, as it is perceived to be an issue not only by the local environmental health officer but by others?

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Alun Michael : My hon. Friend goes slightly beyond what I said. I referred to the definition of "premises" under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, and the fact that that is clearly based on earlier case law. Rather than pretend that I am an expert on the law, I shall happily consider any advice provided to my hon. Friend, whether by the local authority or anyone else, and ask my officials and those in the Environment Agency to consider that advice and respond to any points that arise.

I shall share with her the letter that I received from Mr. Robert Baty, the chief executive of South West Water, which was written only yesterday and is probably the most up-to-date communication on these matters. In addition, I shall look into the matter with her, to ensure that the timetable that has been given is adhered to, so as to end the nuisance to her constituents. At the end of the day, it is most important to ensure that her constituents enjoy a pleasant environment.

Linda Gilroy : I thank the Minister for that, and acknowledge that he is a frequent visitor to the far south-west. I hope that those visits will not cease and

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that he will visit the area—and, perhaps, our healthy living centre—without having to experience the pong. I am sure that his words will be greatly appreciated by my constituents.

Alun Michael : I share my hon. Friend's desire that I should visit her area in safety, rather than find that it has a continuing problem. As I said, the important thing is that the problem should be overcome. Clearly, that cannot be done overnight and, clearly, it has gone on longer than was originally promised, and longer than is desirable.

I hope that what I have said today will give cause for optimism about ridding my hon. Friend's constituency of this nuisance. I hope, too, that everyone engaged in the matter—from the company to the Environment Agency, and to officials in my Department—will consider what can be done to accelerate the process and to learn lessons for the future, so that constituents elsewhere find that such matters are dealt with more speedily.

Question put and agreed to.

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