HC Deb 18 November 1974 vol 881 cc1063-74

11.33 p.m.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)

If we really had a theme for the debate tonight, it would be that a stench by any other name is still a stench. We are talking about a long-continuing problem which has been experienced by the constituents of myself and those of the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) for a very long time.

I regret to say that neither Conservative nor Labour Ministers come out of this matter very well, largely because they were advised initially by the old Manchester authority and since then by the North West Water Authority. The information that they have received is completely contrary to the knowledge of the hon. Member for Stretford, whom I am pleased to see taking his place in the Chamber. He and I have for some years fought this problem, and fought it bitterly. All that we have had over the years is complacency, evasion and a complete lack of action.

I understand that now, at this late hour, there is an awareness of the problem. Indeed, out of the blue I have been invited—nay, I have been urged—to meet the chairman of the North West Water Authority. I normally accept invitations, and I am willing to meet him. I shall meet him to thank him when he and his authority have solved the problem—but not before.

I do not want any chairman or any bureaucrat to tell me about the smells in this area, and neither does the hon. Member for Stretford. We know about them. Perhaps the order should now go forth from the Department of the Environment saying to the North West Water Authority "Send your senior officials to Davyhulme. They shall reside there until they are satisfied that there is no smell." Throughout the years the hon. Member for Stretford and I have exchanged correspondence and kept each other abreast of Parliamentary Questions from time to time, and we have had continual evasion and complacency under both Governments.

I understand that at last there is a change of heart. At last the authorities have recognised that there is a nuisance in the area. They have been convinced not by their own efficiency but by the number of people who have written to them, the pressure from local authorities and the pressure from Members of Parliament, urging them to consider this problem carefully.

If there is to be a successful outcome to our efforts tonight, money, resources and human endeavours must be completely geared to relieving the suffering of tens of thousands of people. The former authority denied that there was a smell. The trouble was that the people denying it were at least 20 miles upwind. What I can say to my hon. Friend the Minister—and he is my friend, a very real friend—is that I want action tonight and a promise that a firm commitment will be made to resolve this problem. Anyone can talk about masking the problem. Anyone can talk about absorption and the destruction of the odour. We are concerned so much with that as with the prevention of the formation of the odour. That is what we are after.

I have referred to tens of thousands of people. That is a modest estimate. There are people in Davyhulme, Urmston, Eccles, Worsley, Flixton, Salford and Swinton who are complaining bitterly. It is not only from the old Manchester authority that we get the same drivel. On 8th May I received a long report from the Middle Mersey Effluent Treatment Unit which really was absurd. It talked about "allegations of odour". These were not allegations. These were strong smells, about which everybody knew except the people being paid to know. They made sure that they kept a long way off. The report talked about a complaint in 1966 and again in 1967 and said that ASP1 went out of action, and that caused it. I do not know what "ASP1" means; all I know is that there was a smell!

The report continued: At the beginning of October 1969, sludge for marine disposal was received from an outside local authority, in this case Bury"—

Mr. Frank R. White (Bury and Radcliffe)


Mr. Carter-Jones

Yes— as the forerunner of the sludge disposal facilities later to be provided for the local authorities of South East Lancashire forming the Sludge Disposal Consortium". That consortium was encouraged by my hon. Friend's Department—the Department of the Environment. The responsibility rests with the old local authorities, with the Department of the Environment, under both Governments, and with the North West Water Authority.

Perhaps what staggered me most about the document—this is a gem—was the information that In January 1972 the MV 'Gilbert J. Fowler' came into use. Whoever chose that name chose well. The report went on: Previously, loading of the MV 'Mancunian' and the MV 'Percy Dawson' had not been generally visible to the public. A potential source of odour was eliminated by passing air between the cargo tanks of the 'Percy Dawson'"— and so on.

I know that it is laughable, but that is what was said. I find this next bit intolerable, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Stretford will agree: Complaints appear to have been accentuated because the loading facilities are in the direct view of surrounding properties". That is disgraceful.

The last letter I received on this matter came from the vicar of Peel Green, Rev. Richard Hatch, who lives two miles from the site and could not possibly see it. He and his parishioners, thousands of people, two miles on our side of the border, could not see the vessel but were complaining about the pervasive stench entering their homes, permeating clothing, and the rest.

Mr. Churchill (Stretford)

I can confirm what the hon. Gentleman says, from the other direction. My flat is 1½ miles from the works, to the south. The hon. Gentleman has just referred to residents to the north. The stench is quite unbelievable even a mile and a half or two miles to the south of the works and, as he rightly says, it affects tens of thousands of people.

Mr. Carter-Jones

I am grateful for that intervention. The report from the officials, the technologists, the men who are supposed to know, says that the problem arises because of slippage on the slipway. This is the biggest slippage of all time, and the Department must do something about it.

So far we have talked in lighthearted terms. But tens of thousands of people are affected. The Department has denied the smell. The local authorities have denied the smell. The water authority has denied the smell. Now, tonight, is the time for a firm commitment from the Department that it will give urgent priority in manpower, in technology and in financial resources to relieve a substantial number of ordinary people of a grave abuse and nuisance. I hope that the Minister will act.

11.43 p.m.

Mr. Churchill (Stretford)

At the outset I express my appreciation to the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones)perhaps on this non-political occasion I may call him my honourable friend from across the Ship Canal—for kindly inviting me to share his time tonight. This is a matter of grave concern not only to his constituency but to mine, where the works actually are.

We greatly appreciated it when the Minister took time this summer to visit the works in person. Indeed some of us were rather alarmed, looking at the pictures in the local newspaper, because he seemed almost about to fall into the primary digester tank. We appreciate his coming, but we are not convinced, and the local residents are not convinced, that the Minister and his Department are sufficiently seized of the gravity of the problem and of the large number of people who are affected by it.

This must be one of the largest works in the United Kingdom. It takes all the sewage from the Greater Manchester area. That is the effluent of more than 1 million people, including a great deal of industrial effluent as well. On top of that, as the hon. Gentleman said, there are road tankers coming in, several each hour, from Bury and other parts of South Lancashire, and now from parts of North Cheshire. The tankers are unmarked, and one can readily understand that. I hope that no one has an accident with one of them on the Barton high level bridge, because it would be very unpleasant.

These tankers come in loaded with raw sewage, and it is then loaded into the primary digester tank. That is one source of smell. Another major source, I think the major source, of smell is where the sludge comes to be loaded on the four vessels which are continually doing the round trip down to the Mersey Bar and dumping their sludge at sea. They return to load up, and the loading arm is within 200 ft. of people's homes. This causes a great deal of nuisance and an outrageous level of smell not only to immediate residents but to those living one, two or even three miles away. The nuisance depends on which way the wind is blowing. Sometimes the people living in the Eccles constituency get the smell.

Very often my constituents suffer. The smell affects tens of thousands of homes.

There is an active residents' committee. I have arranged two meetings on site with them this year when we have been able to suggest minor improvements which have been effected on the loading arm. A skirt was put round it so that less spray would fly up and give rise to less smell. On another occasion we managed to get a cover put on the top of the primary digester tank. These are minor improvements. The people employed at the works have been enormously co-operative and do all they can to help.

We believe, however, that the time has come for a radical new look to be taken at the whole operation. Will the Minister undertake that his Department will give a great deal more consideration to providing some alternative system? As a layman I have but two suggestions, and they are no doubt not the right ones. They could be considered just the same.

The first suggestion would be a pipeline which would take the sewage and sludge down the Ship Canal straight to the Mersey Bar. That would be costly but it would save the cost of at least four ships and their crews which involve a major operation. Most important, however, it would stop the smell that arises from the loading of the sludge. The second would be a shorter pipeline to take the sewage away from the residential area so that either a new loading area could be established further down the river or, alternatively, an incinerator could be located at that point to dispose of household rubbish and the sludge.

Does the Minister believe that it is right that houses should have been built within 200 ft. of one of the largest sewage works in the country? What compensation is available to residents who are most affected by this smell? The situation has deteriorated markedly since most of them moved to the area. The road tankers have been coming only since 1969 and the vessels have been increased from one to two, and then to four, so that the volume is now much greater than it was.

Will the Minister give an assurance that money is to be spent in modernising the Eccles sewage works, which is the outdated works on the other side of the canal and which is a major source of smell? Finally, will he give an assurance that his Department is willing to join with the North West Water Authority in a study of a potential alternative to the present process?

11.49 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Gordon Oakes)

I have listened with close attention to what my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) and the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) have said about the problem of smell from the sewage treatment works at Davyhulme. They have both taken a keen interest in the situation for a considerable time. I am glad to have this opportunity to explain what is being done to improve matters.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the problem has existed for a long time. He has complained that for a long time he has met with evasion, a complete lack of action and complacency. I assure the House that I do not regard the matter with any complacency. I visited the works, partly as a result of my hon. Friend's letters and the Questions asked by the hon. Gentleman. When I answered a Question from the hon. Gentleman which met with a great deal of mirth from hon. Members, I told the House that it was not a matter for mirth for those who had the misfortune to live within the odour distance of a sewage works.

I was able to visit Davyhulme only a couple of months ago at the invitation of the North West Water Authority, which is now responsible for running the works. This gave me a welcome opportunity to see things for myself and to have a most valuable discussion about the problem with the chairman and officers of the authority.

Although people who are not within the Chamber must be invisible, may I say that this is the first time I have ever dealt with an Adjournment debate when the chairman of an authority has taken the trouble to travel from the North-West specifically to listen to the debate. This demonstrates the interest being shown by the new North West Water Authority in a problem which, I agree with both my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman, has existed with Manchester for many years.

Mr. Carter-Jones

I accept my hon. Friend's point, but I want to stress that some of my quotations were from the North West Water Authority, not from a Minister or a local authority. Therefore, the authority must accept the responsibility for the rubbishy answer I was given. It came not from the Manchester authority but from the water authority.

Mr. Oakes

My hon. Friend will not receive a rubbishy answer from me, because, like him, I represent an industrial constituency in the North-West and I am aware of the problems of which he and the hon. Gentleman have spoken.

It is common ground between everyone concerned that a problem exists at Davyhulme which must be solved. Davyhulme is not, of course, the only source of smells in the area. Other treatment works and local industry are involved as well. It would be unrealistic to expect sewage treatment to be carried out without any whiff of a smell. Nevertheless, let me make it quite clear that I am on the side of the people living near Davyhulme in seeking by every possible means to reduce both the frequency and strength of the smells given off by the works. Far more important, I can assure the House that so is the new North West Water Authority.

Before I describe the action which the authority has already taken and is proposing to take, it might be helpful for me to sketch in a little of the background to show how the problem has arisen. The first sewage treatment works at Davyhulme was completed as long ago as 1894. It has expanded steadily since then in response to increases in population and the growing quantities of waste generated by industrial development and higher standards of living. It has also been used to treat sewage which was previously discharged raw, and this has brought about a very considerable improvement in the condition of the Manchester Ship Canal and the River Mersey. Today, Davyhulme is one of the largest treatment works in the country with a high standard of operating efficiency. However, it is not just a very large treatment works; it has also developed over the years as a sub-regional terminal for the disposal of sewage sludge from districts other than Manchester.

The works receives domestic sewage from a population approaching 1 million in Manchester and neighbouring areas.

This domestic sewage constitutes about two-thirds of the dry-weather flow. The other one-third comprises industrial effluents. In terms of load on the works, however, the proportions are roughly reversed with the industrial effluents representing about twice the pollution load of the domestic sewage, The treatment of the liquid part of sewage gives rise to smell. The problem at Davyhulme derives largely from the storage and handling of sludge.

It has been the practice since 1897 for the sludge produced at Davyhulme to be dumped in deep water in the Irish Sea. In the early days, the sludge produced at other treatment works in the Manchester area was disposed of inland. With the growth of Greater Manchester and of improved sewage treatment methods, however, the load of sludge generated throughout the area has steadily increased. In recent years it became more difficult to find suitable sites for the disposal of sludge on land. There are now four vessels operating from Davyhulme and a fifth from Salford. In all, they handle about 1.3 million tons of sludge a year.

I should like to answer the first point put to me by the hon. Member for Stretford. There are some difficulties with pipelines in that the Pipe-Lines Act does not relate to the disposal of sludge, nor does the Public Health Act. But there is a more practical difficulty since a pipeline must terminate somewhere. The practice in the North-West area—the correct practice—is to dispose of the sludge not immediately in inshore waters but far out to sea, so that at some point a ship must be involved. Therefore, a pipeline would not be an economic possibility to take the sludge away out into the Irish Sea as far as we wish to dispose of it.

Mr. Churchill

I have observed these vessels from the air, and they discharge about five miles off Liverpool at the Mersey Bar. Therefore, it would not require a vessel and it could involve a pipeline.

Mr. Oakes

That would involve a five-mile pipeline under the Irish Sea, which would create some difficult technological problems as to positioning.

This was the situation which the Water Authority inherited in April this year and in the comparatively short time since then it has shown quite clearly that it means business. It quickly formed the view that the disposal of sewage sludge from a wide area of the Manchester conurbation was one of the most serious and urgent of the operational problems which it had to solve. Its approach to the problem has been twofold: to take whatever immediate action is possible to alleviate the nuisance at Davyhulme and to study the problem of sludge disposal generally with a view to evolving a satisfactory long-term solution for the Manchester conurbation as a whole.

I have also been pleased to see that the authority has been in close touch right from the start with local residents. Two meetings have been held, and this is something new for the residents in my hon. Friend's constituency. The responsible authority has taken an interest in complaints and has been prepared to meet them—[Interruption.] I repeat that it was prepared to meet the residents.

Let me say a word about the immediate measures which the authority has taken or has in hand. There are three stages in the process of handling and storing sludge which can lead to smells—namely, when the sludge is unloaded from road tankers, when it is loaded into the ships and while it is being stored in sludge consolidation tanks. Improvements have been made at each stage.

A tower which is used for receiving sludge from the road tankers has been covered and vented through activated carbon filters. The shipping capacity has been more intensively used to reduce the time during which the sludge is stored. The deodorant sprays used to mask smells from the sludge consolidation tanks—I agree that this is no long-term solution—have been uprated to give better results in certain weather conditions. The authority is also planning to fit improved activated carbon filters to the sludge disposal ships where this will be of benefit.

Those measures should help to relieve the problem in the short term, but the long-term solution must lie in the wider studies which the authority has already put in hand. One of the first things it did—

Mr. Carter-Jones


Mr. Oakes

I am sorry, I do not have time to give way as well as give my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Stretford the reply they deserve.

One of the first things that was done by the authority was to set up an internal planning group of senior officers to study the problems of sludge disposal. It had a remit to give urgent attention to the situation in the Manchester conurbation. Consultants have now been commissioned to carry out an urgent investigation into alternative ways of disposing of sludge from sewage works in the conurbation. Their terms of reference require them to have regard to the need to reduce the smell nuisance at Davyhulme and to avoid a similar nuisance arising anywhere else in the area. They have also been asked to provide for full sludge digestion in every scheme in the belief that this could be a major factor in reducing smells. The authority has asked for the consultants' report to reach it in the New Year—in fact, in January—so that it will be able to decide on the most suitable scheme and prepare the Private Bill which it expects to need in time for deposit in November 1975.

It would be wrong to underestimate the size of the problem with which the authority has to deal. There is no quick or cheap solution. A water authority has a statutory duty to deal with the sewage produced in its area and the quantity of sewage from both domestic and industrial sources is bound to go on increasing. Any comprehensive solution to the problem of sludge disposal will be expensive and the financing of major schemes is unlikely to get any easier in the near future.

I hope I have said enough to assure my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman that the North West Water Authority is tackling the situation at Davyhulme with a clue sense of urgency, that it has already taken what action is open to it the short term and that it is vigorously pursuing a lasting solution to the problem at Davyhulme in the wider context of the needs of the conurbation as a whole. Having said that—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at three minutes past Twelve o'clock.