Skip to main content

River Pollution

Volume 440: debated on Wednesday 16 July 1947

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed. "That this House do now adjourn."—( Mr. Popplewell.)

11.8 p.m.

I want to take this opportunity to discuss what I regard as an entirely non-political question, but one of great importance to the health, welfare and well-being of this country at the moment. Hon. Members will recall that in another place in March they discussed this issue of river pollution in Britain. The pollution of British rivers has now reached such a stage that it has become a dominant thing in British life. We, as Britishers who love the countryside, should do something ultimately in this House to prevent the continual pollution of rivers in all parts of this island. Continually the consumption of drinking water and the need for clean water for our agriculture are increasing. Ultimately, and in only a few years from now, I hear that in London one will need from 45 to 60 gallons of water per head per day. Millions of pounds of money are spent on large and elaborate water schemes to bring water from the high land, but if rivers were not polluted, water could be drawn from them to serve our crowded towns. The water could be drawn from the rivers which pass through the towns. Nine-tenths of the water that falls on the surface of England is destroyed by river pollution.

There are three main causes of this pollution. The first is the discharge of untreated domestic sewage into streams and rivers. The second is the failure of industrial undertakings to render effluent harmless. The third is a combination of both of these. I believe that since the 1876 Act we have got a lot of power in law to deal with the problem. The position at the present moment so far as pollution is concerned was clearly laid down in the report made by the Joint Advisory Committee on River Pollution in 1937. That committee was appointed with the following terms of reference:
"To consider and from time to time to report on the position with regard to the pollution of rivers and streams and on any legislative, administrative or other measures which appear to them to be desirable for reducing such pollution."
It was believed that the 1937 Public Health (Drainage of Trade Premises) Act gave new powers for the reception of trade effluents. I do not believe that the Act has been implemented. Under the River Pollution Prevention Act, 1876, it is an offence to discharge into any stream (a) solid matter so as to interfere with the due flow of the stream or to cause pollution; (b) sewage; (c) poisonous, noxious or polluting liquid from a factory or manufacturing process or from a mine. There are now 1,605 authorities empowered to deal with river pollution. The 1937 report came to this conclusion:
"It will be seen that there is no lack of administrative authority for enforcing the law. Nevertheless, it is admitted on all hands that many of our rivers are seriously polluted and that the law designed to prevent avoidable contamination is to a large extent not being put into operation."
It is not being put into operation. In the 1876 Act there is an escape clause, as proceedings against an industrial firm under that Act are limited because the local authority or authorities must be satisfied that the proceedings will not injure the industry. The cry was raised on the River Pollution Bill, "What is it to be—trade or trout?"

We must look at it from a much wider point of view today. I believe that more scientific research is needed into this issue of river pollution. I will just mention my own area in North Staffordshire with regard to the Trent catchment area and one or two of the rivers I know. It has been of some concern to all of us interested in the beauty of the countryside to see this. The Trent watershed covers 4,500 square miles. We have 725 miles of that river, yet there is this pollution. One third of river life, plant and fish, is entirely denuded and that denudation is increasing year by year and increased during the war. In the Potteries area itself every day 40 million tons of sewage and "slip"—a term we use for some of the white effluent that goes into the river from the Potteries—goes into this river which has a daily flow of 17 million gallons. In small communities I believe that water can deal effectively with waste products itself, but the problem increases as the population grows.

The River Trent, with the head waters, of Izaak Walton fame, in some of those areas in the northern part of my division and further over to the Stone district, was at one time one of the best trout streams in this country. It was famous as a coarse-fishing river—now it is entirely a sewer. I have seen the map that the Trent Fishery Board published in their excellent pamphlet, showing the the extent of pollution now. I have no time this evening to go into that, but I believe that some of these streams like the Churnet, which starts outside my own town of Leek, is polluted by dye works, and the bed of the river is covered by sewage fungus. At Froghall and Oak-moor effluent from the copperplate works has destroyed all animal life, and for eleven miles beyond that there is no animal or fish life at all in the river. One famous small stream running from Stoke-on-Trent—it may not be euphemistically named; it is called Foulea Brook—is polluted from phenol and tar acids, and the stream is a deep red brown. But probably the worst is the Tame. The effluent from Birmingham Sewage Works is purer than the Tame into which it flows.

I was amazed to find in this excellent little booklet of the British Field Sports Society that in the Tame area 300 million gallons of entirely untreated sewage per day were going into the river. As the tide runs at two miles an hour this mass of filth cannot get away on a single tide, but moves up and down the estuary taking several tides to clear. Here is something we ought not to allow to remain in this beautiful land of ours. I do not wish to elaborate because there are one or two other hon. Members who I know want to speak.

We are engaged in this country on the creation of atomic energy plant. Are the Government fully aware of the possible effect of effluent into our modern rivers from atomic energy factories. I do not know the answer myself, but I do know what took place in Texas. This is an important issue, and I believe the countryside must have protection. I believe these factories should be taken much nearer to the sea.

Finally, as to the fisherman in my area. According to Lord Strabolgi there are 87,000 licences in the Trent district In the war years we had 73,000. Angling is not the sport only of the wealthy. In this age of speed, we want to give the opportunity to all classes who go to the peace of the countryside, to have clean rivers, and we want our fishermen—fishing for the sake of food as well as for the sake of sport—to have the opportunity of fishing in clean rivers. It is the bounden duty of this House which has neglected this problem since 1876, to look into the pollution of British rivers and to see that really and truly, our rivers are worthy of the country in which we live.

11.21 p.m.

The horrible story my hon. Friend the Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies) told about the rivers of the Potteries could be duplicated in the case of the rivers of every town in this country. I only want to add one example. The Fishery Board Report for the River Lune in 1945 said that from Liverpool and Barrow, and 150 miles around, into this river is discharged a minimum of 260,000 gallons of crude sewage every mile every 24 hours This, says the report, is the cesspool that thousands of people bathe in—including many from my own constituency—during the hot summer months. This is where shrimps and prawn live and feed. It is a common thing to find fish floating dead with their surface fins burned by acid or their eyes rotting out. It is a very common thing for these dead fish to be taken from the river and sold for human consumption. It is really no wonder that folk are getting poisoned.

The pollution of rivers in this country is a menace to health, a menace to food supplies, a menace to pleasure. I have been around the streams of the West Riding; I have seen where they start, walked on the moor where the water is clear. I have followed those streams down past mills where sewage and effluents from the factories poured in. I have seen the lovely fresh water of the streams transformed into sluggishly moving rivers, which go their way shamefacedly through the towns. These rivers ought to be the centre around which the life of the town hinges. We have powers to deal with this abuse of the natural amenities of our country. The Ministry of Health has the power; the Ministry of Agriculture has the power. I beg and pray them to make use of it in time.

11.24 p.m.

I endorse every word spoken from the other side. This is a frightfully important question, one worthy of a full day's Debate, and I hope the Government will make it possible for us to have one. I am from the West Country, where some of our rivers are still not polluted. But the Wye, which is famous for its fishing, is polluted from the sewage of Hereford. Not only should we consider saving rivers partially polluted; we should also resuscitate some of the rivers which are now blackened streams but which can be saved by turning away factory effluents into one stream instead of two or three. Many lovely streams in South Wales have been polluted. A little hard work would make them safe and would enable miners to enjoy their Sunday fishing. I hope the Government will give us an opportunity of discussing this matter further and will take action to try to save the rivers of England.

11.25 p.m.

I would like briefly to support the plea that my hon. and gallant Friend has made. The rate at which we are destroying the fresh water fish of this country at the present moment is alarming. It means that a valuable source of food is being neglected. This problem has many aspects in addition to this aspect of the pleasure denied to the many keen fishermen throughout this country. Only a few days ago, I was reading a report prepared for a local authority on sewage disposal—a very small local authority—and owing to the fact that their plant had been designed some 40 years before, it was necessary to discharge very large quantities of untreated sewage into a river. This is happening all over the country, and it is essential that steps should be taken at an early date to do something about it. I know there are difficulties, and that, for example, it takes time to set up the new plant, especially at a moment when there are shortages of labour and materials. But sooner or later the Ministry of Health must get down to this matter. As my hon. and gallant Friend has said, we must stop this rot for it is growing worse. I had recently an example in Warwickshire. In addition to that it is essential to try to re-claim some of these rivers to which so much damage has already been done.

11.26 p.m.

The hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies) has drawn the attention of the House to a problem of the greatest social significance, and those who followed him have given examples, which may be multiplied, of the dreadful state of many of our rivers. We know the danger to water supplies and the destruction of fisheries, and I do not want to attempt to tone down anything anyone has said about the state of the rivers. I would assure the House that the Government share to the full, the concern that has been expressed tonight, that there should be widespread improvement in the present condition of the rivers of England and Wales as soon as possible. There was a time when the problem of the angler was a purely technical problem of how to catch the fish. It now, all too often, occurs that the angler has to find a place where there are fish.

Times have changed since Isaak Walton wrote of "Trent, so-called from the thirty kinds of fishes found in it." The problem is not, however, a new one. It is one of the prices that we have to pay for our industrialisation. The first world war saw a great deterioration in the state of our rivers, and the recent world war showed a further deterioration, though not, I am glad to say, to anything like the same scale as in the first war. But it was bad enough in all conscience and occurred in circumstances that one could not very well control. We had the additional burden of sewage disposal works at a time when it was quite impossible to provide labour or materials for the necessary expansions or improvements. It would be difficult to say that anyone is to blame, but it has made matters worse. I would agree with what I thought to be the submission of my hon. Friend the Member for Leek. The overriding difficulty at the moment does not lie in the lack of powers. Doubtless there are ways in which the powers could be improved, but I think he was right in drawing attention to the fact that the real trouble is that we have not got a system of authoriy which makes possible the effective use of the powers that are in existence.

I am quite certain that, without any change in powers, it would be possible, if these powers were properly used, to effect a very great improvement in the state of rivers. It is the authorities which are wrong. There is, to use the well-worn words of Lord Goschen, "a chaos as regards authorities"—borough councils, urban district councils, rural district councils, county councils with over-lapping functions, and fishery boards where they exist. Therefore, as I imagine is common knowledge, the Government stand by the recommendations of the Milne Committee to the effect that we do need a single authority, an all-purpose authority, covering a river in all its aspects, sufficiently big, sufficiently strong, to be able to use the powers which exist at the present time. It is interesting to note in passing that where there is a body of this kind, as for example, the Thames Conservancy Board, we see very considerable improvement. I may also refer to the West Riding Rivers' Board in which I imagine my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Mallalieu) would be particularly interested. The West Riding rivers have, at what has been a trifling cost spread over the whole of the West Riding, improved the state of the rivers very considerably. I am satisfied that the really important thing to appreciate is that we must have a single authority in charge of a river and then, I believe, we may succeed in having some progress.

We have, of course, to consider improvement of sewerage schemes. Every new sewerage scheme improves the condition of a river. Often the effluent from a modern sewerage plant is purer than the streams into which it is flowing. We must regard as most important the improvement of our existing systems of sewage disposal, particularly in industrial areas where trade wastes have to be dealt with. The war was responsible for some deterioration, but there are many large schemes now in an advanced stage of planning, together with a number of smaller schemes which we are actually putting through at the present time. I believe that when labour and materials are available, these schemes will improve the position, perhaps particularly in the urban districts, but also in rural districts as well. However, these schemes will take time and at the present, with the urgent need for electricity stations and gas plants, for fuel and power needs of one kind or another and the transport connected with them, and for housing, what we can in fact expend in terms of labour and material on work of this kind is limited.

I want to say a word or two about the industrial aspects of this matter. There are, throughout the country, a number of public-spirited industrialists who recognise their responsibility to endeavour to neutralise industrial waste, and who are ready to work with research organisations in this field, and I give credit to them. But it is unfortunately true that there are all too many industrialists which appear to be completely irresponsible, which are indifferent and unwilling to co-operate and often seek refuge in some old privilege, sometimes one which keeps them within the law, rather than face their clear social responsibility to deal with waste products of their particular trade.

I would say, in conclusion, that there really is no short-term remedy. The neglect of a century cannot be overcome quickly. But we do view this matter with the greatest concern. We are spending a good deal of time, and I myself am spending a good deal of time, planning and preparing for the time when we have, on the one hand, the materials and labour necessary for this job and, on the other hand, authorities large enough and powerful enough to enforce the law without fear or favour.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-five minutes to Twelve o'clock.