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Atmospheric Pollution, Stockton

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 29 July 1964

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1.26 a.m.

If I may follow the analogy used by the Minister of State for Education and Science at one stage, I hope that in the next half hour I shall help to lower the averages for the evening, or at least increase the rate of scoring.

I do not intend to speak for very long, but I wish to raise a matter of great importance to my constituents, and I am grateful for the opportunity of being able to do so at what is virtually the end of this Parliament. It is a problem which has concerned me during the last 2¼ years while I have been a Member of this House, and one which concerned my predecessor for a long time before that.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government—and I am grateful that he is here this evening—will understand that I am not talking about atmospheric pollution in general, nor for that matter am I discussing the broad general question of industrial pollution. I am concerned with a specific kind of industrial pollution—with which he is familiar—in Stockton, and which is of a very specific origin.

At one time there was something which was known as the "cat smell" on Tees-side. That appears to have been substantially dispersed, and what I am discussing is what is popularly known as the "fish smell". I cannot say that this smell emanates in such a way as to pass into my constituency alone and into no one else's. This I would regard as a rather single-minded exercise on the part of I.C.I. I think that at times it affects the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, West (Dr. Bray) and also that of my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Slater), and I am sorry that it originates in his constituency, although I do not hold him responsible for it. There are times, also, when it is traceable as far away as Darlington.

The fact of the matter is that Stockton suffers mainly from it because of the direction of the wind at certain times, because of the sea fret, and, on occasion, because of temperature inversion which makes what would be an unpleasant smell quickly dispersed something which persists and hangs over the town for a considerable time.

There is no single issue which has been a source of such persistent complaint and correspondence to me, during the last 2¼ years. It is a matter of grave concern to my constituents. The hon. Gentleman is both at an advantage and a disadvantage in this respect. The advantage is that he has never suffered from being in Stockton on these occa- sions. The disadvantage is that he speaks in a sense from ignorance, or only at secondhand. I hope that he will take my word for it that it is exceedingly unpleasant, and more unpleasant than any other industrial smell that I have known.

I was born and brought up windward of a gasworks in Liverpool and I think that anybody who has grown up in an industrial town, certainly a quarter of a century ago, when clean air regulations were less severe, is well acquainted with the smells and fumes which taint the air. I can only say, allowing for them and many other smells, too, that this is something very peculiar and unpleasant.

I do not wish to bore the House with long quotations from correspondence, but I should like briefly to quote from several letters to give an example of the sort of experience that my constituents have. One states:
'"We have just had what might have been two beautiful days completely ruined by haze and stinks, which have been particularly bad over Portrack, where I teach. I have had the misfortune to be developing a catarrhal cold and the discomforts of this have been greatly increased by the pollution of the air."
Another writes:
"I would like to know how much longer the people in Stockton-on-Tees will have to suffer the horrible smell that comes over from I.C.I. I work in a nursery school and the only nice days of this year are spoiled for the children."
From a third:
"My two childrens' health is suffering, as they have had terrible coughs for the past three or four months. The doctor cannot do anything about it as it is the fumes getting on their chests."
Another constituent states that conditions have forced him to take the decision to move out of the area. These are examples, of which I could give many more, but they are simply an indication that it is not one person or a small group of people who find the smell unpleasant, but virtually everybody who lives in Stockton-on-Tees.

One of the bodies which has been fighting hard and commendably to draw attention, not to the fact, of which everybody is aware, but to the need and the possibility of doing something about it, is the Northern Echo. Recently, it carried a full-page feature in which it dealt in detail with the experience of Stockton. I do not propose, even if I were allowed to do so, to read the full page, but one of the features of this account is what is called a diary, from which I should like to quote. Unfortunately, economising in time means that I cannot quote the diary in full, and it is far more effective in full than in the extracts which I will give, but if the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has another debate which requires his presence later in the night he might like to read the Northern Echo of Thursday, 18th June, a copy of which, no doubt, will be available in the Library.

To deal with it briefly, the diary states that on 3rd May, 1962, the fish smell superseded the cat smell. I.C.I., Billingham, accepted responsibility, explaining that it resulted from occasional leakages from the methylamine plant, but new plant was being prepared which would cut the possibility of leakage to a minimum.

On 4th May and 16th June of the same year, there were entries of further trouble. On 25th July, the smell and haze covered 60 square miles between Tees-side and Darlington and were strong in Stockton and Sedgefield. I.C.I. admitted a "small leakage". Various other entries included the fact that a Middlesbrough man who, apparently, worked in the area, had written a song called "The fume de Tees", celebrating the unpleasantness which people had to experience.

In 1963, according to an entry dated 22nd March, I.C.I. explained that the dismantling of the old plant could be the cause of further trouble. On 24th April, the entry stated that there was a really terrible smell and I.C.I. admitted a leak. On 12th June, evil-smelling fumes were noted, on 14th June new plant at I.C.I. had been closed down for modification, and so on and so forth. It is a very long story and, from the point of view of everybody involved, a most unpleasant one.

The Stockton Borough Council has been very concerned with it over the years and the chairman of the health committee states that for many years the council has complained and has received complaints. He doubts whether there is another authority which has more persistently approached I.C.I. on the subject. He also says:
"On every occasion when the atmosphere is heavy and the wind is in the north-east quarter we get it."
That is the sum total of the matter: when the wind is in the north-east quarter and there is the right level of humidity, one gets this in Stockton.

This has gone on a very long time. Some weeks ago I sent the Joint Parliamentary Secretary a letter from 39 consultants and general practitioners in Stockton in which they drew attention to the fact that industrial pollution of any kind is an irritant to the respiratory system, and where there is existing respiratory disease—that is, chronic bronchitis—air pollution will cause further trouble. They are not saying—I do not want the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to misunderstand them or me—that it causes disease; they are saying that it is an irritant; and all the evidence, not only from my correspondence but of people whom I have seen, shows that this is so, that if one is already suffering from this sort of trouble the one place that one should not go to is Stockton, though in very many other respects it is much the best town of its size in England, and Scotland as well.

I will deal with the area of agreement which exists between me and the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. We agree that much has been done. I hope very much that he has this in mind. There is nothing between us on that point. About a year ago I had a most helpful discussion with the district alkali inspector and toured Tees-side and was almost certainly better informed as a result. Secondly, to make clear what the area of agreement is I would say that it is virtually impossible to turn the atmosphere of an industrial town into the atmosphere which one would enjoy, for example, on the Yorkshire moors only a short distance away. It would be unrealistic to imagine that we could get an industrial atmosphere quite as pure as we should expect in a rural area. That is an area of agreement over which we need not go again.

But in this case there are one or two factors of first importance. First, we can isolate the cause of the smell. There is no disagreement about it; the record is here in the Annual Report of the Alkali Inspectorate. Secondly, we know its origin. The time is long since when I.C.I. denied that it knew the source. It admits it occasionally. Perhaps it sometimes gets tired of complaints and will not admit it, but generally it is willing to say that this is the cause of the trouble.

Thirdly, it is most important to make clear that this is specifically unpleasant. It is not simply like riding down into an industrial town where one is hit by the rise in smoke. It may be that some of us perforce like industrial towns, dirty posters peeling off the blackened walls on the banks of canals, and the whole of the industrial landscape, and perhaps even associate with it certain smells and for a moment find them congenial if it is our good fortune not to live in them. But here there is something specific and exceedingly unpleasant. If I could release a little of the amine here, I can hardly say that the Chamber would be less full, because I think that the Parliamentary Secretary and I would stick it out, but it would certainly be exceedingly unpleasant. For these three reasons, this is something I regard as exceptional.

I am raising this tonight because I think that there has been a very considerable complacency. If it does not exist in the Department it exists in its communications with me. There is a total lack of urgency. I can exonerate the Parliamentary Secretary a little. We had an amicable and informative correspondence last year. It came to a standstill because, when I thought that it would be in the interests of all parties to have a public meeting which the alkali inspector could attend—believing, as I do, that these things are better done in the open than by secret diplomacy—the hon. Gentleman said that it would be improper for an Opposition Member to provide a platform for a Government official. This is surely new constitutional doctrine.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government
(Mr. F. V. Corfield)

There was no question of the word "Opposition" coming into it.

Then I understand that there would have been the same refusal to allow a Government official to communicate with the public through an hon. Member supporting the Government. This is unfortunate. I am in favour of things being done in the open and not behind closed doors.

If a lot of people are upset, what could be better than to enable them to gather together, express their worries and then have a responsible, authoritative person explain the situation to them? A lot of my constituents, except for the efforts of their Member of Parliament, have been kept in the dark. I regret very much that, in this respect, the Parliamentary Secretary was being obstructive.

I come to the hon. Gentleman's "other half," if that is the right description, with whom I have since had correspondence. It was a letter from the "other half" that made me more angry, because it was, to me, the best example of Bumbledom I have come across for a long time. It was not only, in terms of language, cliché-ridden, but in tone—even more important—it was also cliché-ridden. Again, I shall not read the whole letter, but will quote one or two examples which will enable hon. Members quickly to realise the overall tone.

After quoting the hon. Gentleman, his "other half," to the effect that it was more rewarding
"… to concentrate on getting rid of the pollution or at least minimising it,"
Lord Hastings said:
"That is still our view. I should expect it to commend itself to the doctors who wrote to you. They point to public health dangers which they consider are real and they want something done. That is just our attitude… I once more go on the record as saying on the Minister's behalf that no time will be lost and no effort will be spared by the Inspectorate."
Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, West (Dr. Bray) is whispering to me, there are at least two other clichés which do not appear in that letter. I very much regret that apparently stones are still being left unturned and avenues are not being fully explored.

The House will agree that this is not the sort of letter which sends one happily to bed, but is apt to make one waste a lot of energy in unnecessary anger. It was a very foolish letter and certainly gave no sense of dynamic movement in the Department or of a sense of urgency. It may be that there is a security blockage. Perhaps a great deal is being done. Perhaps the Department is unable to write a more informative letter. In that case, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will let us have a little more detailed information tonight.

One of the problems is engineering. Leakages may occur. I hope that there are means by which the plant itself may be improved. Whether that is within the inspectorate's power, I am not clear. The Alkali Inspectorate's Report mentions circumstances in which breakdowns occur and in which there are accidents, or where units operate erratically and relief valves have to be opened. If the whole thing is so geared that if something goes wrong the poor inhabitants of Stockton-on-Tees suffer, this is surely a case for very careful examination and for further steps than have been taken so far.

I should also like more detailed information about the timetable. Is there a timetable during which improvements may occur, or would the Parliamentary Secretary like me now to reconcile myself to a long period as Member for Stockton-on-Tees during which a large part of my correspondence will be concerned with this problem? I am capable of reconciling myself to many things and perhaps this is something about which it would be better for the hon. Gentleman to be frank now. At least I would be grateful, even if my constituents would regard it with alarm and in such a way that there would be a considerable population redistribution in Stockton-on-Tees in the next 10 years.

Last year, the Alkali Inspectorate brought amines under control. This was a very good way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Alkali Act. The Parliamentary Secretary may explain that the inspectorate has not had time to do the job fully. If I am given a timetable to see when the job is likely to be completed, I shall be satisfied, but I am worried about a phrase which I understand to be current in the terminology of the Alkali Inspectorate. This is a very interesting phrase, because it can be used in almost any context. It is "prudent tolerance".

I understand that prudent tolerance is the principle upon which the inspectorate works. I gather that it is the point at which one balances the needs of industry with the protection of the public. If this is the case, and if it is the Parliamentary Secretary's view that the balance must be struck where it it is being struck now, this is a very serious matter. Prudent tolerance involves preventing this smell from continuing by dealing with the problem of the amines, even if the cost is considerable.

I do not hold I.C.I. responsible for this nuisance. It is its job to manufacture and sell, but it is the job of the Ministry to control and not expect that its simple moral authority will require a large private firm to do what might be in the best public interest.

I was worried by a remark made in the Northern Echo survey. The Northern Echo reporter visited the wife of one executive of I.C.I. who said:
"They seem to think it is inevitable—that the products would be priced off the market if you didn't have it."
Is this the view of the Ministry? Is it the case that if we change the point of prudent tolerance for amines, amines will be priced off the market, with very serious consequences for Britain's industrial output? Put in that way, we can decide whether the present point of prudent tolerance is right.

For 100 years, Stockton-on-Tees helped to pioneer the Industrial Revolution. The predecessors of my constituents pushed through the railway to the constituency of the hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Bourne-Arton) and they did a very good job. We in Stockholm have experience of the nature of industry and the price which has to be paid. Equally, we realise—and this has been agreed on both sides of the House during the last few years—the need to rehabilitate areas which pioneered the Industrial Revolution and now find themselves in circumstances of difficulty for which they are not responsible. We are agreed that we want to rehabilitate.

Bearing in mind our contribution of the past, if the Parliamentary Secretary wants to help to rehabilitate Tees-side and Stockton-on-Tees in particular, he will deal with the very acute and most unpleasant problem of this specific atmospheric pollution which my constituents suffer.

Before my hon. Friend sits down, can he give the House any information about the value of the product per annum from this plant? Can we have some indication what area of magnitude of loss to the country or to I.C.I. would result if production were to cease?

I cannot give my hon. Friend this information. I have not been led to believe that a very great deal is at stake, but perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary can disabuse us of this view?

1.50 a.m.

I hope that the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. W. T. Rodgers) will forgive me if I intervene in his dispute with the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, even at this late hour. I did have the pleasure of contesting Stockton-on-Tees in the 1955 election, and that pleasure was diminished by the fact that on several days I was going round in a terrible haze and smell. I would assure my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that the hon. Member is in no way exaggerating when he says that summer days are spoilt by the haze and that the smell is appalling.

Even 10 years ago, when this smell was still prevalent, it is fair to point out that I.C.I. was at that stage doing its best to diminish it. It continues to do so, but it seems to be an extraordinarily difficult problem. It seems that there was a will to overcome this smell, but without the means of doing so. I myself remember that the I.C.I. and the Ministry were doing their best. I only hope that a "boffin" will come across the answer to this problem sometime, because I do agree with the hon. Member that it does make life in Stockton very unpleasant at many times during the year.

1.54 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government
(Mr. F. V. Corfield)

I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. W. T. Rodgers) has raised this subject. I can assure him that we very much appreciate that this is a very unpleasant smell, and that, coupled with the mist that is so very common in that part of the British Isles, it does cause a very considerable problem and nuisance in his constituency. The hon. Member did himself say that this was one of the processes which only came into the alkali inspector's sphere in 1963, and I can assure him that we believe that we have made considerable progress since.

I understand that late in the summer of 1962 I.C.I. started installing a new manufacturing unit which, it was thought, would produce a very great improvement. Indeed, I think that once the teething troubles of the new apparatus had been gone through it has produced an improvement. I hope that that is so. I am not for one moment claiming that it has cured the problem, but although the hon. Gentleman produced his diary he did stop reading at a date about the time that the new plant was coming into operation. I had hoped to hear that the complaints were getting a little more spread out. If they were not, this depresses me.

As the hon. Gentleman has asked, for reasons of economy I did not go on from the end of 1962. But at a quick count there are as many examples after the 1963 Alkali Act came into operation as there were before, and it is really this that worries me.

I understood that an improvement had already been effected, and that although there had been teething troubles in the plant, it had been working recently without any obvious faults that could be put right immediately.

I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that we have reached the stage technically at which we can guarantee that there will be no more fish smell, but I can tell him that the Alkali Inspectorate is making every effort to discover ways and means of improving the methods of prevention and will, we hope, eventually eliminate the smell altogether. But it would be wrong for me to say that after the next year or two years there will be no fish smell in Stockton. We cannot tell that at the moment.

Throughout the Alkali Inspectorate's experience with these great chemical works at Billingham and Wilton, the I.C.I. has been very co-operative and has spent enormous sums of money on this problem. There is no question of having reached a point at which one says, "It is not economic to go further". It is not a question of saying, "We know what we can do to reach perfection, but it is not worth spending the money". It is a question of not knowing the technical answer at this stage.

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to say that a good deal of progress had been made over the general field of pollution. He mentioned a cat smell. It involved an interesting bit of chemical detective work in finding out what produced it, and I believe that it has been entirely eliminated as a result of the work of the Alkali Inspectorate, together with the local people involved, and I am not unhopeful that we shall eventually find an answer to the fish smell, too. But it would be wrong to give a guarantee at the moment.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman realises, as do most people, that the problem is greatly complicated by the tendency to mists. The mist tends to trap a lot of emissions so that they do not get away as they would in clearer air, and the emissions, in turn, tend to slow down the dispersal of the mist. They operate one against the other. Although in most cases in the Tees-side area the standard reached in preventing these emissions is very high, there is such a vast concentration of industry that small emissions from a large number of plants, especially when they are held in the mist, add up to a considerable degree of pollution.

The question of how to get over the problem of the mist and the pollution interacting on each other to make the position worse is the subject of research by D.S.I.R. There is no complacency in the Department administratively or technically—by which I refer to the Inspectorate. It has done a great deal. Nobody is more enthusiastic than the Chief Alkali Inspector, who incidentally, is about to retire. His staff have worked very hard on this and they have had the utmost co-operation from the various industrialists in the area.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned domestic smoke control. There is no doubt that even in an area where industry is predominant and there is a lot of pollution from industry, domestic smoke contributes a great deal to the problem. In this particular area where, on the whole, the emissions from any one industry have been reduced very considerably it is important that the minimum should be emitted by everybody. I would hope, therefore, that Stockton-on-Tees would press on with smoke control, because the mere fact that there is a power station or steel works or chemical works somewhere near which appears to be making smoke, or grit, or whatever it may be, should not make other people feel that it is not worth while trying to relieve the conditions by reducing the amount of smoke from other sources, and, of course, from domestic sources in particular. I would hope that a local smoke control programme will be implemented as soon as practicable and over as wide an area as possible.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the measure of agreement with which we started, that a lot has been done, and that he has had help from the inspectorate. I was sorry about the meeting, because I fully sympathised with what he wanted to do, to talk to people locally with the backing of a technical expert who obviously knows more about it than the hon. Member or I do. I was not being pedantic; I hope I was not. But the House will appreciate it is not appropriate to have civil servants on what, in many quarters, would automatically be construed as a political platform.

If the smoke control advisory people or the borough council can convene a meeting, of course there would be no objection at all to the local inspector being present and giving his advice, and certainly no personal objection to his sitting on the same platform as the hon. Gentleman. It was merely that I thought it not fair that at what would be regarded as a political meeting the chief spokesman should be a civil servant. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not think I was being particularly unreasonable. On similar occasions when something like that has happened there has been a good deal of criticism both in the Press and, indeed, on both sides of the House. I think that it is the right policy, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not think that I was unduly pedantic.

Is there any prospect, so far as the hon. Gentleman can judge, of a solution being found to the specific engineering problem of being able to take care of the discharge from the amine plant when something goes wrong internally? This is really the crux of the matter, whether something can be done to avoid that happening in future.

On the straight engineering problem I am sure that in time that could be got over, but I understand that it is not the whole story as we see it at the moment. That is why I am anxious not to give a guarantee or a time scale. I feel sure that as far as the straight engineering problem goes we shall overcome any defect which arises, but I understand that a lot of it is inherent in the ancillary products which come about as a result of this particular process.

There are by-products. I am not a chemist, and not a very good engineer, but I understand that there is a good deal more to it than straight engineering, and that is why it would be very rash to give a guarantee. But I can assure the hon. Gentleman that every effort is being made, and that if and when any breakthrough appears we will certainly see that he is one of the first to be informed. Indeed, I think that the local Press would be on the doorstep to find out about it.