§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Campbell.]
§ 10.21 p.m.
§ Mr. Sydney Irving (Dartford)
In my constituency and, I believe, in this House, I have some reputation for moderation, but, despite this, I think it very difficult to find strong enough words to express the exasperation, the resentment and anger that my constituents and many people in North-West Kent feel about the appalling fall-out of cement dust which they have experienced on at least five occasions in the last twelve months.
In conveying my constituents' very strong feelings, I say two things to the Parliamentary Secretary. There is an ever-increasing demand for action and a feeling that we want no further excuses in this matter. Secondly, there is an increasing demand in many quarters that if Parliamentary action fails to bring this nuisance under control, more unorthodox methods of calling attention to this appalling problem must be devised.
In June, the Minister's predecessor met a deputation from the Thames-side Joint Committee for the Abatement of Atmospheric Pollution, led by myself. That Committee is a joint committee consisting of the twelve local authorities in North-West Kent whose areas are affected by cement dust. You, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, may have seen by a Question on the Order Paper this afternoon, asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew), that the pollution of the atmosphere caused by cement dust extends even further than the areas of the local authorities which are members of the joint committee.
While protesting most strongly about the serious deterioration last winter, the deputation made eight recommendations to the Minister. The first was that a plan should be formulated whereby within a prescribed period all kilns should be provided with modern precipitators. The second was that no works should be operated without effective electrostatic precipitators, and the third that all precipitators should be provided with auto- 340 matic "continuity of operation" recording apparatus. The fourth recommendation was that the Committee should be in a position to know that continuous attention to maintenance and supervision is being provided.
The fifth recommendation—and this is very important—was that throughput should be related to precipitator efficiency. The sixth recommendation was that if legislation did not provide this at the moment, then new legislation should be introduced as soon as possible to provide it. The seventh recommendation was that an experiment should be undertaken with automatic equipment for recording the burden of flue gases. Finally, it was recommended that a project should be undertaken on Thames-side by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research on the lines of that undertaken in Scotland at the request of the Department of Health for Scotland. The terms of reference were to be—to find out what total emission is to be expected from day to day from a variety of industrial processes and what scope there is for improvement.I and my constituents would like to know tonight what progress has been made in implementing the recommendations put forward by that deputation when they met the Minister in June. The Minister gave the deputation some assurances. He announced that planning permission had been granted for the use of Essex clay in place of the Cliffe clay which was undoubtedly a major factor in the deterioration which took place last winter. Since that time we have had another very heavy fallout.
Will the Minister say tonight what progress has been made in securing supplies of Essex clay and how long it will be before enough is available for all the Thames-side works which require it? Will he also say what progress has been made in securing the installation of special recording equipment? It was felt that it was wrong for the inspectorate to have to rely on combines for information so that they could supervise the process for which they were responsible.
One firm, Evans Electroselenium Ltd., which has had experience in work for 341 the Central Electricity Authority, was prepared at its own expense to install equipment for monitoring flue gases for an experimental period of three months. Will the Minister say what advantage has been taken of this offer? If expense is the difficulty, may I draw attention to a simple, cheap and efficient method of sampling the flue gases which is described in an article in the Institute of Fuel Journal of February, 1960, by Mr. B. Lees.
Having said this, I would point out that the Alkali &c. Works Act, 1906, lays upon the Minister a clear obligation to ensure that the best practicable means are employed to prevent this nuisance. In my view, the public are entitled to a clear statement from the Minister whether the best practicable means are being employed by the cement manufacturers to prevent this nuisance. If the Minister is insisting on improvements in the dust arrestment equipment, the public are entitled to know, first of all, what these are, and secondly, the timetable which he has set for these improvements. Thirdly, if for any reason this time-table cannot be carried out, they should have a clear indication of the reasons why.
So far we have had no such statement, and in its absence it is not surprising that local people feel that all they get from the Ministry are excuses and think, in view of the high profits which the manufacturers are making, that they are proceeding without proper care for the health, welfare and amenity of people living in the area.
There can be no doubt about the seriousness of the nuisance. In parts of my constituency the dust falls at the rate of 100 tons a square mile per month, and the gauge readings last winter showed the highest deposits of dust since readings were commenced in 1954. But one does not need to take a gauge to measure the dust in North-West Kent. Those people who have lived there for at least a quarter of a century say that conditions are worse now than they have ever experienced in that long period.
Local doctors believe that it aggravates bronchitic and asthmatic conditions. Farmers and growers have protested to the Minister about the effects it has for them. Only last month the 342 North-West Kent Growers' Branch of the National Farmers' Union passed this Resolution:That this North-West Kent Growers' Branch of the National Farmers' Union views with grave concern the ever increasing quantity of cement residue covering their glasshouses and crops, causing considerable financial loss and expense, and threatening the members' very livelihood, and requests the Minister and all concerned to take some urgent positive action to alleviate the nuisance.Private individuals have shown their disgust in the thousands of cards which have showered on the Minister's desk in the last few weeks. The figure he gave me on 24th October was 13,500 cards. The figure has probably risen since then. Perhaps he will give me some more up-to-date information. If I read a paragraph from a letter which two housewives enclosed with a petition recently, after they had visited many houses, it will sum up the nuisance effectively. They say this:The cement dust comes over in billowing grey clouds, descends like a fog, coating pavements and cars and smothering gardens and fields. We have heard the same story, not only from housewives, but also from the staff of four local hospitals, shopkeepers, café and public house proprietors, who all complain bitterly about the unceasing struggle to keep food and premises free from cement dust. It creeps into food and crockery cupboards, smothers vegetables, flowers and trees in the gardens, ruins paintwork and soft furnishings, fills gutters and clogs the drains, and spoils the housewives' family wash. It is accompanied by a vile sulphurous smell, and at night windows have to be kept closed—but still the dust and smell penetrate.Will the Minister therefore give us a clear assurance tonight that the best practical means are being employed? Will he publish a plan of the improvements he is insisting upon? Above all, will he give us a categorical assurance that at all times the throughput of gases will be related to the efficiency of the precipitators?
In my view, the worst of this nuisance could be remedied if the Minister was willing to act resolutely enough. The new precipitators fitted recently at Bevan works are capable, according to the manufacturers, Messrs. Lodge Cotterell, of a working efficiency of 99.9 per cent. If plant of this standard of efficiency with proper provision for maintenance while giving continuity of performance were to be installed, the dust nuisance could be virtually overcome. No one wants to interfere with 343 the manufacture of cement in which the industry is undoubtedly doing a valuable job, but I am certain that the public wants to know and is entitled to know that proper steps are being taken to prevent this nuisance.
The members of the Thames-side Joint Committee are meeting next on Friday evening of this week. I am certain that they will once again wish to come and see the Minister. I hope that, if they do, the Minister will agree to see them at the earliest possible moment.
Finally, if the Minister cannot give the assurances for which I have asked tonight and there is another heavy fall of dust, these twelve authorities will be justified, in my view, in making an application to him for his consent under Section 92 (1, d) of the Public Health Act, 1936, to take action in the courts to secure an abatement notice. I must warn the Minister that in the present state of public feeling they are very likely to decide to do just that, as well as also considering other forms of legal action. In this modern age when we are concentrating on smokeless zones and clean air, it is incredible that this pollution of the atmosphere should be allowed to continue. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some hope of an early improvement.
§ 10.35 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. F. V. Corfield)
I should like to say at once that my right hon. Friend fully accepts as justified this public complaint about the heavy fall of dust last month in North-West Kent, and I can assure the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Sydney Irving) that emergency measures have been taken which should prevent the same thing happening again. I appreciate the hon. Member's feelings in the matter, and I appreciate his moderation, even though he was not, perhaps, quite as moderate as usual tonight. The hon. Member suggested that he was certain that this matter could be met by really resolute action on the part of my right hon. Friend. I can assure him that my right hon. Friend is taking that action, and I hope that by the time I have finished I shall have been able to give him the assurance he seeks.
344 The House will certainly want to know what went wrong, and what has been done to prevent it going wrong again, and I am glad to have the opportunity of explaining. I must apologise particularly to those hon. Members who are concerned, and they include my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal, all of whom have been naturally worried about the effect of this dust fall-out on their constituencies.
As the hon. Member has stated, the most effective device for trapping dust from cement manufacture is the electrical precipitator. Incidentally, this is a device that has been pioneered in this country in large-scale use in cement factories. Under ordinary circumstances, and I think that the hon. Member agrees with me here, it is a remarkably efficient device and traps a very high proportion of the dust in the flue gases. The works which caused last month's troubles are fitted with these devices, but they were not working properly. I will tell the House why, though here I have to be a little technical.
As the hon. Member no doubt knows, chalk and clay are the two basic raw materials from which cement is made in this area. The clay pits from which the two companies concerned—The Associated Portland Cement Manufacturers and the British Portland Cement Manufacturers—have been drawing their supplies for many years for their south bank works, are very near to exhaustion, and these works not long ago started to use a very considerably increasing amount of clay from the Cliffe marshes, which the hon. Member mentioned.
The reason why this clay is so unsatisfactory is that it has been affected by salt water from the big floods in the early 'fifties. That was not realised at the time the decision was taken to use this material, and I must say that I think that, looking hack, nobody can be blamed either for that lack of realisation or for the failure to anticipate the effects. As a result of this flooding, the alkali content of the clay is much higher than could have been reasonably anticipated, and its use has resulted in a very substantial increase in the dust content of the waste gases which, in turn, has caused blockages and erratic operation and failure of the precipitators. This dust, as I am sure the hon. Member is 345 aware. is very light and, in some cases, resembles fluff more than dust as it is generally understood.
As soon as the unsuitability of the clay was appreciated, I can assure the House that the companies took energetic measures to find an alternative source of supply. Such a source was found across the estuary in Essex, planning permission has been obtained, and orders placed for the necessary excavating machinery.
There was a further serious failure of the precipitators in two works in October while this high-alkali clay was still being used, at a time when the weather was foggy and prevented the rise and dispersal of the chimney gases. This was the direct cause of the recent particularly heavy fall to which the hon. Member has referred. I am afraid that it will be about twelve months before the Essex clay can be worked and brought across the river in sufficient quantity to supply all the works where it is needed. But the Chief Alkali Inspector of my Department has impressed on the companies the extreme importance of cutting out any avoidable delays, and I can assure hon. Members that he will keep the closest watch on the progress being made. He has made it clear to the companies that any avoidable delays in getting this new clay to the works cannot be tolerated.
The excavating machinery cannot, I understand, be delivered for some time, and it cannot be much less than a year, as I have indicated, before full-scale delivery of the clay is possible. Meanwhile, other measures have been taken to keep the use of this high-alkali clay to a minimum until the Essex clay becomes available.
One of the works most concerned is already back on suitable clay, and I am told that reversion to high-alkali clay is unlikely. A second works is back on its old source of clay, but here the clay may possibly not last out the full twelve months. I am afraid that, at this stage, I cannot go beyond a firm assurance that the barrel really will be scraped before there is a change over to the tse of high-alkali clay. At a third works, three of the four kilns are likely to have to stay on the high-alkali 346 clay for the present, but here a new chimney has recently been commissioned and the Chief Inspector's preliminary view is that if the utmost care is exercised—and he will make it his business to see that it is—the dust lust emission can be kept low enough to avoid grounds for complaint. At the fourth works there has been little, if any, use of high-alkali clay and its clay pit should be adequate until Essex supplies are available.
That is the position with regard to the recent troubles. It is undeniable that in recent months there has been a regrettable tendency towards increased dust emission from three of the four works on the south bank, culminating in a major fall of dust last month. I should like, on behalf of myself and my right hon. Friend, to express my sympathy to everyone who was inconvenienced, and I can give them an assurance that he is keeping this matter under the closest possible scrutiny.
The root cause of the new trouble has been discovered, and it should be permanently cured within twelve months. Meanwhile, there are good grounds for hoping that the emergency measures agreed with the companies will prevent another dust fall such as we have had recently. Up to the last few months the record of complaints had been improving greatly. Something like 4 million tons of cement are made annually in an area of eight square miles—probably the greatest concentration in the world—and I am afraid that we must face the facts and accept that this concentration rules out the possibility of ever being able to give a complete guarantee of entire freedom from dust nuisance in this area.
However, an enormous amount has been done since the war. The installation of an electrical precipitator at today's prices costs about £100,000, and no fewer than eleven new precipitators have been installed since 1948 while, at the same time, as many of the pre-war precipitators have received a major overhaul or have been rebuilt in the same period. In addition, there has been the new 350 ft. chimney stack at the Bevan works in 1960 and the 400 ft. chimney at the Swanscombe works completed this year. This is the one to which I referred and which is in use.
347 I am glad to have had this opportunity of making it clear that the Alkali Inspectorate does not merely sit back and do nothing. Our inspectorate has been active and has found the industry co-operative, and there is no doubt that the industry has expended considerable sums of money in trying to overcome the difficulty we have been discussing.
I can definitely say that the standards which the Inspectorate set are second to none in the world, and the companies have, as I have said, met the requirements and spent a very large sum of money on these installations. However, even apart from the recent particularly bad outbreak, there is no doubt that there was too much dust in this area and some of these measures were necessary in any case. I believe that they will lead to a very substantial improvement as soon as we have a complete return to the proper raw material.
At this stage, because there have been references to health hazards, I should explain that the dust is not really cement dust in the true sense. It is a dust arising from the dried raw materials, namely, chalk and clay. I am assured that there is no health hazard, though this is not to deny for a moment that there is a nuisance.
The hon. Gentleman asked about instruments for measuring the dust fallout. I am advised that instruments for steady measurement of the flue gases are still very much in the development stage, but I will look into the matter further.
The hon. Gentleman said that he had accompanied a deputation which discussed this nuisance with my right hon. Friend's predecessor, and he referred to the assurances which he was given. I assure him again that my right hon. Friend stands absolutely four-square by those undertakings and assurances. Our Chief Alkali Inspector's objective is to agree with the companies a firm programme for ensuring that all the Thames-side kilns are fitted with precipitators of the highest efficiency. With this end in view, we are arranging for further tests to be carried out on the performance of the devices which are now in use. As soon as these tests are completed, he will discuss with the industry 348 what further steps he considers necessary. Meanwhile, immediate steps are in hand to order a modern type of precipitator for the only kiln now working which is without one. Perhaps I should explain why this kiln is without a precipitator. It was expected to close. Now that its future is assured, it will be brought up to the required standards and provided with the most modern type of precipitator.
As the hon. Gentleman fully realises, the contribution which the industry makes to our economy is essential, and no one would suggest action which would lessen that contribution. On Thames-side there is this concentration. It could, I think, with truth be regarded as the birth-place of the cement industry in this country, if not in the world. It was there well before the First World War, and some of it goes back, I am told, even to the 1820's when the process was first thought of. That development preceded the development of the modern cleaning devices we have been discussing. I think it should be borne in mind also that it, no doubt, preceded a great deal of the present residential development in the area, though I do not for a moment suggest that that means that we should tolerate a nuisance which can be avoided.
My right hon. Friend is determined that all the practical steps which can be taken shall be taken, and he is confident that in this he will continue to have the willing co-operation of the industry. I stress again that neither he nor I are in any way lacking in sympathy for the nuisance which has been suffered by the local residents in the constituencies of the hon. Member for Dartford and other hon. Members.
I have been into this matter with a good deal of care, and I feel that I can honestly give the assurance for which the hon. Gentleman asks, namely, that everything reasonably possible is being done to ameliorate the nuisance. We shall definitely continue to keep the position under review and do everything possible to expedite the various measures to which I have referred.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Eleven o'clock.