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Clean Air Bill

Volume 757: debated on Friday 2 February 1968

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Order for Second Reading read.

3.37 p.m.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Before commending the Bill to the House, I should like to thank those right hon. and hon. Members of all parties who have lent their names as sponsors to this, in principle, uncontroversial and urgently needed Measure. I should also like to thank the Government for the assistance they have given me in bringing the Bill to this stage. I should like also to give a brief background introduction to the Clean Air Act, 1956.

The father and inspirer of the Clean Air Act was the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro). He originally introduced it as a Private Member's Bill. The right Gentleman the Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys), then Minister of Housing and Local Government, and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes), then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry, took over the Bill and introduced it as a Government-sponsored Measure in the spring of 1955.

The Bill got as far as the Committee stage but then the 1955 General Election intervened. However, it was reintroduced afterwards and seen through all its stages—I am happy to say, unopposed. My hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl), now Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, together with Dr. Edith Summerskill, as she then was, speaking for the Opposition, handled the passage of the Act on a non-party basis and, I believe, contributed to improving it and getting it on to the Statute Book. In 1965, my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston (Mr. Robert Edwards) had the rather sad experience of introducing the Clean Air (Further Provisions) Bill, which, regrettably, could not be taken owing to lack of Parliamentary time. This Bill has been prepared in the light of over ten years' experience in the working of the 1956 Act.

In moving the Second Reading of the Bill, I suggest that much of what it contains are matters of common sense in the present context and likely to be agreed in their intention by all concerned. Some of its provisions were the subject of discussion in Committee some 12 years ago, and it is natural that some points which were then not thought to be so important now seem to be valuable improvements in order to make that Act fully workable and applied. The Bill is necessary. It is not simply a bit of administrative tidying up. The coal merchants, the C.B.I., the National Coal Board and many other interested organisations have given the Bill a ready understanding and in general are in agreement that it is not a harassing Bill. Least of all is it meant to be a harassing Bill for industry, which has done so much to implement the previous Act. It is from the domestic chimney that four-fifths of all the smoke in Britain comes, and much of this need not be.

I understand from an hon. Member that the building industry may feel somewhat concerned about some of the provisions of the Bill. I give an undertaking that in Committee we would meet any of their reasonable objections or changes that they have in mind. I am not bringing the Bill forward on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

I should like to put the Bill in its proper context of 1968. As populations increase, as densities in this crowded Island increase, as we look forward to the age dealt with in the Buchanan Report, and above all as the scientific exploitation of the world's resources continues, the care with which we treat our atmosphere and environment becomes more and more vital. I should like to quote from an editorial of the New Scientist which deals with that very problem. It stated that at the last annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a leading American scientist, Professor Cole, of Cornell University,
"challenged the comfortable assumption that the world's supply of oxygen is permanent and inexhaustible. He pointed out that…oxygen 'would quickly disappear from the atmosphere if all the green plants should be killed'. And that, said Dr. Cole, is exactly what man is now engaged in doing…' Grassland is being paved at about a rate of one million acres a year, thus removing oxygen from the air that would otherwise have been put into the atmosphere by photosynthesising green plants'. A point could be reached where the rate of consumption exceeds the rate of photosynthesis, and the oxygen content of the atmosphere would then decrease. 'Indeed' said Dr. Cole, 'there is evidence that it may already be declining around our largest cities like New York and Philadelphia'."
The Bill has had a good Press from responsible journals watching these matters. They are aware that we still have a long way to go and that only 43 per cent. of the black areas are covered by Clean Air Orders.

I should like to give a few examples of the excellent work which has been achieved by the Clean Air Act, 1956, for instance on smoke reduction. The following are figures for smoke emission in Great Britain in 1956 and 1965, I am talking about the smoke emitted in millions of tons. In 1956 the figure for domestic smoke was 1·27 and in 1965 it was 0-90—a reduction of 30 per cent. On the industrial side, 730,000 tons of ·smoke were emitted in 1956, but only 190,000 tons in 1965—a remarkable reduction of 74 per cent. which probably accounts for the London smog from which we have suffered in the past being much less seen.

The London smog in 1952 killed an estimated 4,000 people: that of 1956 killed 1,000 people. In December 1962, in conditions identical to those of 1952, the estimated number of deaths was 750. There has not been any serious smog in London since 1962, which is undoubtedly due to the effect of the excellent 1956 Act

What about smoke control? Up to 31st December, 1967, a total of 3½ million premises in England had been covered by smoke control Orders. Such Orders now control 43 per cent. of premises in "black" areas. In London, the figure is 65 per cent.—a remarkable achievement.

What about grit and dust? The 1956 Act required that grit and dust from existing solid-fuel-fired industrial furnaces should be minimised, and that new furnaces of this kind should be fitted with arresters. Dispersion of grit and dust is dependent on weather conditions, which vary from one year to another, but there has been a definite underlying downward trend since 1957. According to the Warren Spring Laboratory of the Ministry of Technology, there was a decrease in pollution by grit and dust at industrial sites from an average of 310 microgrammes per cubic metre in 1957 to 230 micrograms in 1964–65—a net reduction of 26 per cent.

Before explaining briefly what the 1956 Act did and what the new Bill would do, I should like to give the House a brief background. The Industrial Revolution, amongst its other effects, gave rise to increasing problems of air pollution, not only from industrial works but from the houses of a greatly increased town dwelling population. The Victorians became used to urban fogs, especially in winter, and there are many contemporary references to the so-called London "particular"—as, for example, in "Bleak House" and the "Forsyte Saga". Those fogs were due to dirty air caused largely by the domestic chimney as well as by industry. Industrial pollution was first tackled in 1862 by the original Alkali Act, which had several successors.

Between the two world wars, one or two cities created smokeless zones under local Acts, but it was not until the disastrous smog in London in 1952—which, as will be remembered, lasted for about four days—that general legislation for clean air was considered. The Beaver Committee, set up as a consequence of the 1952 smog, reported in 1954, and on its Report was based the Clean Air Act of 1956. I believe that the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) would agree that the Beaver Committee did a great deal of useful work.

The Clean Air Act, 1956, gave local authorities control over emissions of smoke, grit and dust by industry. It also conferred power to deal with domestic smoke. There can be no doubt that the 1956 Act has made a great deal of difference on a national scale to the cleanliness of the air and to the improvement of the environment in the conurbations generally. Industrial smoke has been reduced by 75 per cent. and domestic smoke, although it now constitutes 80 per cent. of the smoke emission over the country, has also been appreciably reduced. Some 43 per cent. of premises in black areas—industrial areas and conurbations scheduled as having a particularly heavy incidence of air pollution—has at present been covered by smoke control orders. Although progress has not been so fast as the Beaver Committee hoped and expected anyone who is old enough to remember conditions 20 years ago has only to look around in London or to visit a city such as Sheffield to see the change.

We have had more than 10 years' experience of operating the 1956 Act. It is a good Act but it could be better. It could fling a wider net and cover certain things it does not cover and confer wider powers on local authorities and the Minister. Also during the last 10 years techniques of controlling air pollution have advanced. The time is ripe to take a step forward and also to take the opportunity to tidy up the 1956 Act and remove one or two minor anomalies. The main objects of the Bill, on the industrial side, are to empower the Minister to prescribe limits on the level of grit, dust and fumes to be emitted. This is covered in Clause 2 Secondly it should extend to a range of furnaces wider than is caught by the 1956 Act, the obligation to install plant to arrest grit, dust and fumes. That is dealt with in Clause 3.

The hon. Member knows that I have indicated some trouble about this Bill, although I accept it in principle. Will he say a word about Clause 1? I have some hesitation about Clause 1 and the definition of premises. What is the definition where a contractor is burning asphalt on the road? Is that excluded from the Bill?

That is excluded, most definitely. I am not putting forward the Bill on the basis of take it or leave it. There is an enormous amount of room to improve it in Committee, but I am glad that the hon. Member accepts it in principle.

If the hon. Member will raise them, I shall be glad to give way.

The Bill would substitute for the present unsatisfactory system a new system of control by local authorities over industrial and other chimney heights. There is power to prohibit emission of dark smoke from industrial or trade premises ouberwise than from a chimney. Emission from a chimney is already controlled in Clause 1.

On the domestic side——

Would the hon. Member be prepared in Committee to accept phraseology providing particularly that horticultural glasshouse chimneys be excluded?

I see no reason in principle why not.

The Bill would give the Minister power to direct local authorities to submit programmes of smoke control and require them to carry them out. This would be used for cases where the Minister was satisfied that an authority had not been exercising powers of smoke control sufficiently in spite of grave local need as specified in Clause 6. It will make it an offence to deliver or buy solid smoke-producing fuel for consumption on premises subject to a smoke control order as in Clause 7. Other minor provisions are dealt with in detail.

Possible objections to proposals embodied in the Bill have been discussed, among others, with the local authority associations, the Confederation of British Industry, the National Coal Board and the Coal Merchants' Federation. They have received the approval of the Clean Air Council. It is thought that there is unlikely to be opposition to the principles of the Bill from those or any other influential quarters. However, if there should be I wish to make clear that no one is forced to take or leave the Bill as it stands on Second Reading. Reasoned Amendments to improve it in any respect will be welcomed and will be treated on their merits. As time is gettting short, I will gladly give way to the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) if he wishes to raise any other points.

There is one other outstanding point which causes me some concern. Would the hon. Gentleman explain why he is giving the Minister power to alter these Regulations further? Surely, after 10 years of experiment with the first Act it should not be necessary to give this power to the Minister? We on this side of the House object to having legislation from outside Parliament. Will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that he will have this Clause removed?

I should not like to give such an assurance. I should like to explain why the Clause will be valuable. If the Minister did not have these powers we might be forcing local authorities to implement the Measure at a time when it was inopportune or when the local authorities did not have the means to do so. I certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that if he fears that the Minister is likely to use these powers in any way detrimentally, my understanding from discussions that I have had with the Minister is that these powers would be used only as a last resort. I wonder whether the Minister would like to say anything on this point by way of intervention?

3.57 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government
(Mr. James MacColl)

I warmly welcome the Bill. As my hon. Friend has said, we can consider at leisure in Committee any point which may be raised, and I am sure come to a fair and dispassionate decision upon it.

I should like to raise a point on Clause 7 and the powers which are vested in the Minister thereby. May I point out that it has been quite impossible to create a smokeless zone in some areas?

I am quite sure that my right hon. Friend has no intention of using these powers unreasonably. I would certainly use whatever influence I have to ensure that the Bill is so worded that the Minister cannot use his power in an unreasonable way.

May I draw attention to a point on Clause 5? It provides for the control of chimney heights and gives powers to local authorities. May I point out that a very important element in the control of atmospheric pollution is the fuel which is burned at the base of the chimneys. Will my hon. Friend take that into account in the Committee stage so that some control is given over the nature of the fuel which it is proposed to use?

I certainly give the assurance that that matter will be taken into account in Committee.

There is a new principle in this Bill on planning which I hope will commend itself. In the case of a planning application which does not receive approval because the local authority takes a long time considering it, when chimney heights are involved, I am proposing to put in the Bill a provision whereby if the local authority does not deal with the application within 60 days the application is automatically granted.

I should now like to commend the Bill to the House.

As I explained earlier, I do not think this Bill has had sufficient time for debate. I told the hon. Gentleman that I support the Bill in principle and I should like to see it become law. There is, however, a fundamental disagreement on the rights of the Minister and I should like to give the Minister an opportunity to intervene on this point.

As the author of the original legislation, I should like to add a sentence. This Bill is very welcome and, at a distance of 12 years, we have learned a great deal about smoke legislation and the control of fumes. I give the Bill my utmost support.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the assurance he has given about horticultural chimneys. I do, however, have a certain slight doubt about a Private ember's Bill——

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday next.