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Harefield (Refuse Dumping)

Volume 531: debated on Wednesday 27 October 1954

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. Oakshott.]

12.30 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary has already made a successful debut at the Despatch Box, and I am only sorry that his first Adjournment debate has been delayed until this early hour of the morning.

The constituency which I have the honour to represent, although it is so near to London, has within it two delightful villages. In Harefield we have a village green, a duck pond, and some old grass-grown quarries. The villagers often call this area "little Switzerland," and a representative of the National Council for the Preservation of Rural England has referred to it as "the Cheddar Gorge of the Home Counties." It is not without some significance that the hon. Gentleman's Department refers to this same area as "four disused chalk-pits and a derelict brickworks."

It is this area to which I want to refer. The quarries I have mentioned were acquired by a private firm of contractors who sought and were granted by the local planning authority the right to dump in them some inert material. When the permission was granted it was made quite clear that the right was restricted to the dumping of inert material, and the contractors then gave an undertaking that they would not in future seek to use the site for any other than such inert material. Despite this undertaking, they later changed their minds and asked for permission to dump household refuse in the quarries.

That permission was refused. The contractors appealed, and the Minister ordered a public inquiry to consider the appeal. Against the appeal were ranged the Uxbridge Urban District Council—generally regarded as one of the most competent, efficient and responsible of local authorities—Middlesex County Council, the Rickmansworth and Uxbridge Valley Water Company, the Harefield Hospital Management Committee and the representatives of the villagers and the Harefield Society. Opinions were quoted from the Nature Conservancy and the National Council for the Preservation of Rural England.

Against this formidable array of objectors the contractors were able to call in support one mayor of a quite unconnected borough. There was also an expert who said that incineration was a costly process. That might have been true, although how that proved that the alternative was to dump this household refuse within 100 yards of the houses of Harefield I cannot see.

To the amazement of everyone and the complete stupefaction of many people, the Minister solemnly announced in due course that he proposed to fly in the face of all this responsible and competent local opinion and permit this refuse, collected in the Borough of Hammersmith, to be dumped in Harefield. I should like to know the information which was available to the Minister which caused him to go against this weight of evidence. The local feeling generated in the district has been considerable.

I have had scores of very indignant letters; representations have been made to the Minister, and the villagers themselves have organised protest meetings and petitions. There have been petitions to Her Majesty, and a body of Harefield people came up to London, and marched to Downing Street, headed by a piper and drums, and made representations to the Prime Minister. I am sorry and a little surprised that the Prime Minister was not moved to send one of his terse notes to the Department to request that some action should be taken in this matter.

The former Minister has said that nothing can be done, but the matter is now out of his hands, and after what was said in the Pilgrim case could or could not be possibly done, and in view of what was eventually done, one finds it difficult to accept the legal plea. If there were a will I am sure a way could be found, and I ask the Minister to direct his mind to the possibility of a loophole through which the appeal of these people could be heard.

I wonder whether a loophole could be found in the Middlesex County Act, 1944, to which reference is made in the Waters Report on sand and gravel pits, and which has a bearing on this problem. If the present law does inhibit the Minister from taking legal action, I wonder if he could not bring his persuasive powers to bear on the Hammersmith authority and suggest to it that an alternative and less offensive site could be found. The Hammersmith Council has never claimed it was essential that this site should be used. There were other firms that tendered for the contract that had alternative methods of disposing of the refuse.

One of the facts that especially angers my constituents is that the private firm which secured the contract is now making a profit at the expense of the Harefield people. If the local council, responsible to the electors and sensitive to public opinion, were using the site, things might well be different. But no. We have a situation in which the contractor outbid his competitors because he was prepared to use a site acquired for other purposes and which might well not have been considered by his competitors.

I do, therefore, seriously ask the Parliamentary Secretary to reconsider this problem, to see what he can do. If he cannot set aside or get around the decision, would he at least tighten the restrictions? Under this decision the contractor can dump up to within 100 yards of the homes of the Harefield people. Can it really be maintained that that is a reasonable standard? The Parliamentary Secretary has an interest in countryside matters. I put to him the simple, straightforward question: does he really think it is a reasonable thing to permit this dumping of this refuse within 100 yards of the residences of people? I know that tipping is to be controlled, but even when there is controlled tipping it is quite impossible to keep down the smells and other offensive characteristics of these refuse dumps.

Also, within 500 yards of this proposed site is the Harefield Hospital, a tuberculosis hospital. I cannot believe that the Minister is not really concerned at this proposal that a centre of pollution should be created within 500 yards of a tuberculosis hospital that was built there for the very reason that the atmosphere was good and clean.

I should like to go into the question of the hazards created by the transport of this material, but my time is limited. I must say that the facts on this matter seem to have been brushed aside on the ground that it had been previously agreed that 12 lorries should go to the quarries within one hour for the dumping of the inert material. I do not really see that that is a reason why 12 bigger vehicles should carry this other refuse up to the proposed site.

I cannot believe that the inspector or the Minister really knew the local situation. The lorries have to go up a narrow hill that is dangerous. There have been protests already because of the danger to children who have to climb this narrow hill to school. Now they have to dodge these other large vehicles.

Finally, if the Minister is unable to give way on this matter, I hope that he will be able to say that he will do something; that he will at least publish the report of the public inquiry so that we can see the basis upon which the Minister has made his decision? What are the overriding facts which have made the Minister fly in the face of all the evidence given at that inquiry and of the weight of responsible local public opinion?

Many people claim that it should be established procedure for the reports of these public inquiries to be published, and the Parliamentary Secretary may recall that at the conference of the National Association of Parish Councils there was a resolution on this same point and which was passed unanimously. Of course, there are arguments against it; for example, it is said that a communication between a civil servant and his Minister cannot be published. But an inspector at a public inquiry should not be looked upon merely as a civil servant: such an inquiry, the public is led to believe, is an impartial and independent body. In the earlier Housing Acts—in that of 1909. I understand—it was specifically stated that inspectors at these public inquiries should not be civil servants.

If we cannot go back to that situation, then at least if the report was published it would ensure to some extent the independence of the inspector. In some respects the report is similar to the summing-up of a judge, and the Minister is in the position of the jury which gives the ultimate verdict. If a judge's summing-up is unfair, and can be shown to be unfair, then that alone, under the law of this country, can be made the basis of an appeal to the courts; and, in my view, an incomplete or prejudiced report should also leave the way open for an appeal to the courts.

In this particular case of Harefield, unless the Parliamentary Secretary can show us reasons for the Minister's decision or give facts which have not been made public, there are citizens in my constituency, and elsewhere, for the case has attracted wide interest, who will think that the report did not adequately and fairly reflect the opinions given or record fairly the evidence which was submitted. I make no suggestion at all myself, that the inspector was anything but conscientious and a civil servant who showed the utmost efficiency and sense of responsibility. But, on the basis of the facts disclosed, the Parliamentary Secretary will appreciate why there is great disquiet. I therefore ask again, can the Minister set aside the decision, or get round it or restrict it in some way? But, in any event, if he stil declares himself to be powerless to do any of these things, well he publish the report upon the basis of which he takes up his rigid and incomprehensible stand?

12.44 a.m.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick) has very clearly expressed the doubts of those who are his constituents as well as those of others of us who are concerned about this Ministry decision. I should like to support him as one who is not resident in Harefield, but a frequent visitor to it, and to say that many of us have felt extremely disturbed about the decision.

I should like to ask whether the Minister's decision is really irrevocable or whether, on one ground or another, he might agree to look at the matter again. At any rate, for those of us who are here. it would be a very special pleasure to hear the Parliamentary Secretary replying to his first debate on the Adjournment. We congratulate him on his appointment and we may well learn to fear his voice as much as we fear his pen: The hon. Member for Uxbridge has very clearly stated the whole case, and, against the advantages to the commercial concerns he has set what, in the long run, must be the more important factors—the grievances of those who live in and around this village.

Iconoclasm in any form may be both fashionable and profitable, but surely it becomes a serious matter when a small, ancient and attractive village can become the dumping ground for Metropolitan rubbish. What also concerns some of us is this apparent refusal to publish the inspector's report. We can perhaps hardly ask whether the Minister of Housing at the time saw it. We cannot recall him from the Ministry of Defence to defend, but if the county planning authorities refused this permission to dump, on what did the Minister's advisers base their advice?

Why can we not see the inspector's report resulting from what, after all, was a much—publicised public inquiry? If this is denied—and I very much hope that it will not be—then nobody can be blamed if they feel something of the chill wind which blew over Crichel Down.

We have already heard of Alderman Patrick Barry marching at the head of the villagers down Whitehall. It was one of the happier moments of our Summer Recess. They presented their case to the Prime Minister. The hon. Member for Uxbridge has already referred to that. We all agree in the House that that is the inalienable right of all Englishmen and, it would seem, of some Irishmen, too, but apart from this brave local spirit which he and others associated with him showed, I plead with the Parliamentary Secretary to give the House an undertaking that at least he will look into the matter again and see whether he can find some reprieve for what looks like being a depressed area.

12.47 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government
(Mr. W. F. Deedes)

May I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick) for the full note of this matter which he gave me in advance, and for the moderate way in which he so persuasively put his case?

I should like to start with a word on the general problem of which this is part. London disposes of about one million tons of refuse every year, of which 33,000 tons comes from Hammersmith. Three boroughs dispose of refuse by incineration, which is not without its disadvantages in London, and 18 boroughs use barges down the river and tip on land at the estuary. The borough of Hammersmith was unable to get a tender for a contract to dispose of refuse by barge or rail, and so had to use the road and find an accessible site. That is what leads us to the subject of the debate.

I have every sympathy with the feelings—so well expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Turner)—which are likely to be aroused, and which clearly have been aroused, in the village at the prospect of what is regarded as a rubbish dump being started on the outskirts of the village. Locally there are, I have no doubt at all, visions of one of those eyesores and affronts to other senses which are all too familiar in many parts of the country—old kettles, broken bicycles and worse, food tins and the like, open, visible and stinking. I think that is the kind of picture which many people have conjured up about this proposal.

In this instance, I think, that picture is quite illusory. I want to enter into some detail to show why that is so, and I think it is convenient for me to deal with the matter under four heads, all of which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Uxbridge—water, health, transit and amenity.

In the first place, dealing with the question of water and the suggestion that the water supply might be polluted by the seepage of effluent from these pits, that was a major issue at the inquiry and it was not skimped. When the hon. Member asks what kind of evidence came out of the inquiry which caused the Minister to uphold the decision, this is the kind of thing which I have in mind: the chief geologist of the Water Division of the Geological Survey, Dr.Buchan, sat as assessor with the inspector and he gave the proposal a clean bill in respect of water, subject to conditions to which I will refer in a moment, and there was no opposition by the water undertaking.

On the question of health, I know that the hon. Member has been making measurements on large-scale maps. So have I. The fact is that there is no statutory limit about the proximity to dwellinghouses of rubbish heaps, but there are strict conditions for a tip of this kind which are designed to cover all health considerations, including those which have been mentioned, and the proximity of a tuberculosis hospital. The hospital is, I think, at a minimum of 500 yards from any one of the sites.

It is to these conditions that I want to turn next. Let me go over some of them. First, there has to be insulation of the pits before rubbish goes in with three feet of soil as a safeguard against water seepage; layers of rubbish are not to exceed six feet in depth, and not to be uncovered at any time for more than 72 hours; each six-foot layer is to be covered by nine inches of earth or inert material; a screen of trees is to be erected between houses which look upon the prospect of this proposal; and, finally, the last layer put on the pit, the sealing layer, must be fertile so that things may be grown when the scheme closes, leaving a level site, which is an important consideration to the local authority concerned.

It has been suggested that the question of transport was brushed aside. It has not been brushed aside by me. I asked to see, and did see, today, pictures of the lorries to be used by Messrs. Drinkwater. They are modern and large, and they are closed. They are closed at, the sides, with lids on the roof. These lids will be closed during transit. That goes some way to meet the suggestion that stinking garbage is to be carried through the streets, causing offence to householders.

Regarding amenity, these chalk, pits have been compared with the Cheddar Gorge. They are said to have contained rare flora and fauna, and, more important, to have given pleasure and enjoyment to local people. It must, however, be said that the Uxbridge Urban District Council had given permission. on behalf of the Middlesex County Council, in 1952, for the pits to be filled with inert matter. That permission is still there. There is, of course, a question whether inert matter would cover household refuse, but that permission has not been rescinded. There was no hint of objection at the time the permission was given. It is fair perhaps to say that it was not known that permission had been given. Nor was there any proposal by the local authority or the planning authority to acquire the pits as a public open space. That, I think, bears upon the immediate question.

I want to mention publication of the report, which is perhaps the most difficult point. I have read this report. It is fair to mention the background that there is to publication of such reports which goes a little further than what has been said by hon. Members. Confidence between Ministers and officials is essential. To help a Minister to make up his mind important communications such as these must be full and frank. If the reports are published there is a natural temptation for the inspector to produce confidential postscripts, whereon there would he the same objection as has been raised to non-publication of a report in a case of this kind. That is the overwhelming reason for non-publication of these reports, which in this case, I assure the hon. Member, I have read.

I want now to come to an assurance, which I hope will go some way to meeting the fears of the hon. Member. The main point I wish to make is that this proposal will not involve what so many of the inhabitants fear. Much—indeed, everything—depends upon how this operation is to be carried out. The hon. Member has done a very useful service in underlining that aspect.

The hon. Member is entitled to ask what will happen if the operation falls short of the conditions laid down, which, rather than the question of proximity, is, I repeat, the real safeguard. There are two remedies. First, the local authority can take enforcement action under the Town and Country Planning Act. Secondly, the local authority may withdraw consent given under the Middlesex County Council Act, 1944. In the first case, there would be an appeal to the courts. In the second case, there would be an appeal to the Minister, who, obviously, cannot anticipate his attitude at this stage.

My right hon. Friend can, however, say that he recognises that vigilance is required and that he expects the contractor to take care to observe fully the conditions laid down. He will be very much alive to any complaints brought to him in future about the operation of this tip. I hope that the hon. Member will consider this assurance not unreasonable in the circumstances, and that it will equally bring reassurance to the village of Harefield, of whose fears we certainly do not lack appreciation.

12.57 a.m.

I think it is right that before we conclude this debate tonight a word should be said at this stage from this side of the House that we are not content with at least one assurance which my hon. Friend the new Parliamentary Secretary has given in this matter. The question of the disclosure of inspectors' reports is a matter which will come before this House and the country in the future.

We would make it clear tonight that this must be so, for the suggestion that it is merely a question of confidence between the civil servant and the Minister is no answer whatever to the fact that justice in the future must not only be done but must be seen by the people to be done. It is for that reason that a number of us on this side of the House are here tonight for this debate that the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick) has opened.

The Minister comes to this matter tonight with a fresh and clear mind. I ask him to look at this problem, which cannot be brushed aside. It is one of the greatest constitutional importance to this country. We must have the opportunity to get at the facts upon which an inspector bases his inquiry and to judge for ourselves whether his report is in accordance with the weight of the evidence and not in accordance with the private opinion of that man or any other man. It is on that basis that we shall build up an administrative code of justice which will rank with any other code of justice in this country.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at

One Minute to One o'clock a.m.