§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Sackville.]2.27 am
§ Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)
I recently conducted a tour of primary schools in my constituency. One of the matters that the young people always raise with me is their concern about the environment—about beaches, waterways, CFCs or any other environmental issue that one might care to mention. That is a remarkable tribute to their awareness and, I hope, a sign of the way in which things will move in the future. It is appropriate to mention those children at the beginning of this short debate.
The other matter that is constantly raised on my visits is the workings of Parliament and the peculiarity of a place that debates subjects so late. When I ask them when they think that we finish, they suggest 5 or 6 o'clock in the afternoon. They go on to suggest 8 or 9 o'clock and are surprised when I say that it might not be until half-past 10. They are even more surprised when I suggest that debates continue even later than that into the early hours of the morning.
It is a record for me to start an Adjournment debate at 2.30 am—I do not know about the Minister. I am grateful to him for staying on to take part in the debate at thus hour. When children in my constituency raise environmental issues I shall be able to tell them not only that we debate until the early hours but that I debated precisely the matters that they raised with me.
I requested this Adjournment debate tonight because of my anxieties about the pollution around the coasts of Cornwall. Our county is known worldwide for the beauty of our scenery and the quality of our unique environment. All of that is under threat in several ways. Indeed, all too often the reality is already far from ideal. The water is far from wholesome or pure. Tonight I wish to raise one of the most pressing of those anxieties. It comes as a shock and a surprise to those who encounter it. I refer to the problem of raw, untreated sewage around the Cornwall coast.
In terms of designated bathing beaches, the situation is not as bad as it was. In 1989, 12 out of 70 designated beaches failed EC bathing water standards, but, sad to say, that tells only a small part of the story. More revealing is the fact that surfers around Cornwall recently formed their own campaign for action, Surfers Against Sewage, backed by local doctors, because of their experience of ill-health arising from people spending long periods in polluted water.
The raw sewage that surfers, among others, encounter is the consequence of a system that which is not of the 20th century and which is no longer able to cope even if it did once. The concern felt among surfers is reflected by widespread public anxiety. Throughout the summer months in particular, I receive numerous letters from residents of and visitors to Cornwall giving horrific accounts of sewage strewn across the beaches and in the water, and who unwittingly allowed their children to play in water that was indescribably polluted.
The most immediate concern is to safeguard public health and to alleviate the anxiety that pollution causes, but in a county in which about 15 per cent. of the work force is in the tourist industry, pollution has the potential for making a catastrophic impact on the livelihoods of a large number of local people. I hope that the Minister will 837 respond mainly to the genuine environmental concerns of my constituents, though the issue also has economic implications.
Over the past 10 to 15 years, pollution has grown worse, not least because of population increases that have outstripped the public health infrastructure, compounded by the effects of increased affluence. They include the widespread ownership of dishwashers and washing machines that add to discharges. Sewerage built for the last century is still expected to cope with the demands of the next, even though it already collapses all too often.
The repercussions of pollution go wider than just the sea. Some towns desperate to provide new housing for young people, and to encourage the construction of factories and workshops that will provide jobs, are forbidden to allow such development because the sewerage system would be unable to cope. One example of that is to be found in the Falmouth-Penryn area, just down the road from my constituency. We are told that South West Water cannot afford to act, and it has imposed an embargo on any form of development, even though it is socially desirable for the community.
We ought to be aiming at the best in terms of sewage treatment, not the minimum that we think we can get away with. There are three types of treatments to be considered. Fine screening, or primary treatment, removes the visual evidence of sewage by reducing its size, but has no effect on the material itself, the bacteria it contains, or the contamination of which it is capable. Too often, not even fine screening is available, so the visual evidence of pollution is plainly there to see. However, just screening out the visual impact of pollution is not enough. In some cases it can give the public a false sense of security, as they cannot see for themselves that a problem exists.
Secondary treatment does not kill all bacteria such as hepatitis and salmonella. The most thorough method, tertiary treatment, is the only one to remove all contamination. The resulting sludge residue is inert in terms of harmful bacteria and, if recycled, it can be used on the land or as fuel.
Primary treatment might represent a big step forward to many Cornish beaches, but is not the way ahead. With increased sewage being pumped into the sea, that treatment is not the answer in the 20th century and it is certainly not a building block for the 21st. It disguises the problem and does nothing to solve it.
I hope that the Minister will elaborate upon what the Secretary of State meant when he said that all sewage should be treated in the future. Does he mean the secondary treatment, about which South West Water has recently talked, or tertiary treatment? Is he proposing a solution to the problem, or is he merely offering a step towards that long-term solution?
I am concerned that current plans fall far short of a final solution to the problem. The biggest current project in Cornwall is the Gwithian outfall and it is a good example of how the proposals for dealing with the sewage are not adequate to deal with the mounting problem.
The Secretary of State has required the provision of primary treatment that reduces the solids in the effluent to no more than 150 mg per litre. The treatment process—sedimentation tanks—would cause 60 per cent. of the sewage to be deposited and the remaining 40 per cent. 838 would still go out through the Gwithian outfall. That process might meet the Secretary of State's requirement, but it means that 10 per cent. of the original bacterial content would still be discharged into the sea. It represents an inadequate level of treatment.
If the tides of the sea bring effluent on to the beaches—there are good reasons to think that that may happen—the risk of contaminated beaches remains. If Camborne, Redruth and Portreath are eventually connected to the system, 40 per cent. of the double total flow would bring the total amount of faecal solids discharged close to what the original scheme—that at Penwith, which offered no treatment—would have discharged. Therefore, we would be back to the situation that the Secretary of State now judges to be inadequate.
All the reports by South West Water's consultants, John Taylor and Sons, on the 1986–87 work were, after some pressure, made available for the public. The original scheme for a single outfall on the north coast was based on the fact that Mounts bay is unsuitable for the discharge of raw sewage. When the St. Ives bay sewage action committee asked the director of engineering services for the newly privatised South West Water whether there had been a further study of the possibility of having separate works for the north and south coasts, given that raw sewage will not be discharged, he said that the consultants—now called Acer John Taylor—had reviewed the matter and still recommended the Gwithian scheme.
When that committee asked for the latest reports, on the basis that it had seen the previous reports, it was told that that was no longer possible now that the water company is privatised because of commercial confidentiality. That was confirmed by the managing director of South West Water at a meeting on 28 June.
I do not want to concentrate on Gwithian and the outfall proposed there, but we seem to be ending up with a system that the Secretary of State has, in effect, said is inadequate, despite a multi-million pound investment. That must raise concern about the general provision for tackling the sewage problem in the county. Surely it is deplorable that, as a result of privatisation, public access to information is reduced, which limits our capacity to comment upon such issues. That hardly demonstrates the responsiveness to the consumer in which privatisation was supposed to result.
When sewerage schemes are proposed, I hope that it is accepted that they are matters of public interest and that the basis on which those schemes are introduced should be subject to public scrutiny. Such schemes should not be regarded as matters to be covered by commercial confidentiality. If schemes are regarded as such, something in the system has gone wrong.
Just before the North sea conference, the Secretary of State said that, from 1998, no more untreated sewage or sewage sludge would be pumped into the sea. South West Water faces a massive task in Cornwall if it is to meet the Government's requirements. There are currently 58 raw sewage outfalls in Cornwall, 26 to sea, 32 to estuaries. As I go around my constituency, from Gorran Haven, Carlyon bay, Mevagissey, Truro, Perranporth and St. Agnes, the list of complaints about sewage pollution in the water is almost endless. If we are to tackle that problem and reduce it to the levels I mentioned earlier, it will take enormous sums of money.
South West Water says that it has a £435 million investment programme over 10 years in bringing bathing 839 waters up to EC standards. The north coast of Cornwall, from Gwithian to Portreath, currently has 2 million gallons of raw sewage a day discharged on to the shoreline in an area popular with tourists. That means that beaches such as Portreath, Porthtowan and Chapel Porth are often filthy. I understand that a child recently stood on a syringe needle on Perranporth beach. Yet South West Water, through the Gwithian outfall, plans to add 20 million gallons more effluent per day. That must have continuing serious implications for health, fishing and tourism. There must be serious doubts about whether the South West Water programme comes anywhere near meeting the need to clear that up over a reasonable period.
Groups such as the South West Environmental Protection Agency call for all children who swim in the sea to be vaccinated against hepatitis B and say that signs should go up on beaches warning people that the beaches are contaminated.
If we apply the Department of the Environment edict that all significant discharges of sewage should receive treatment to Cornwall, we begin to see that there is an immensely expensive and practical task to be taken on. If, as I believe, "significant" is defined by the Department of the Environment as being a discharge of more than 1,500 cu m of sewage in 24 hours, official figures for Portreath outfall alone show that it discharges 4,000 cu m every 24 hours, and the North Cliffs outfall discharges 4,280 cu m. A cubic metre is equal to 220 gallons. Both those outfalls discharge sewage that is totally raw and not even screened. There are many similar examples around the coast. However, South West Water is apparently unable to improve either of them in the next decade, despite the significant levels of sewage discharge there, and promises, before privatisation, that action would be taken—promises which it appears to have partly reneged on.
South West Water is now telling Kerrier district council that it will have to contribute, through the poll tax, to the provision of basic screening at the Portreath outfall. It seems remarkable that something that we were originally told, pre-privatisation, would be effected now apparently hinges on the poll tax payer being prepared to contribute towards the cost of a privatised company.
About 1.5 million people live in the South West Water district, and at times up to 500,000 tourists supplement that number. It is unreasonable to expect local people to pay for the infrastructure to support a heavy influx of tourists. It illustrates that it is a problem for the nation and not just for individual local communities, particularly those in one of the poorest parts of England and an area of many beautiful small towns and villages.
The problem with such small towns and villages is that a low density population with a huge coastline means that the cost per person of sorting out the sewage problem is greater than almost anywhere else. It is unrealistic to expect the individual consumer, through the water rate, to pay for that problem to be sorted out.
The reason for the problem is that successive Governments, Conservative and Labour, failed to invest properly in the water industry and proper sewage systems before privatisation. I accept that it is an horrendous problem for the present Government or privatised companies to tackle, but Ministers should take the opportunity to crack it now, meet the environmental demands of the century as we approach the next, and be prepared to invest.
840 My firm view is that the appalling under-investment in our sewerage system over the years means that Government, not just private company, investment is needed now. Without that, the Secretary of State's statement or promise will seem just hollow rhetoric. The urgency of the problem requires an immediate response. The Government estimate that it will cost £1.5 billion to end the pumping of untreated sewage into the sea, but I fear that that is a gross underestimate. I suspect that that will be the cost of primary treatment, and I hope that the Minister will clarify that point. I understand that the cost of the full treatment that I advocate could be four or five times as much. Will the Government contribute anything to that, and what treatment is the Secretary of State promising for sewage outfalls?
Moreover, why does there seem to be such a difference in the figures that are being published compared with those prior to privatisation? It seems that people were sold a false prospectus, even allowing for the fact that the EC is upgrading the requirements that it will place on the Government.
To show how powerful that problem is, South West Water has been unable to provide me with a figure for the cost of introducing secondary or tertiary treatment for sewage outfalls in Cornwall. It says that the implications of the Secretary of State's announcement are still being assessed, but will the Minister clarify that? By how much, and when, does he foresee charges rising to tackle these problems? Massive investment is needed. For such a policy to be introduced on the back of water ratepayers, pensioners and others who are struggling to pay their bills is unacceptable and the Government must seek an alternative route.
South West Water recently announced profits up from £38 million to £45 million for the 12 months to 31 March. Those profits are all very well for shareholders, but they achieve nothing for anyone in the south-west unless they are spent on cleaning up the beaches. In part, South West Water says that it will reinvest that money, but in part it will be shareholders' reward for buying shares. The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale), who is a loyal member of the Government and who voted for water privatisation, reacted by saying that those profits needed to be spent on water improvement in the region.
Proper treatment of sewage cannot be left any longer. The problem around Cornwall, for geographic and historic reasons, is exceptional and should be tackled. I fear that the cost of that will be high, but I hope that the Minister will elaborate on it. Given all the sources of finance available to the Government, they must make available the money to meet those costs.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)
This is the latest hour at which I have taken part in an Adjournment debate, but nevertheless I am pleased to do so because the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) has chosen his subject well. It gives me an opportunity to put on record the Government's concern to improve the quality of our coastal waters and the treatment of our waste water generally.
The hon. Member spoke mainly of Cornwall, the subject of his debate, but I shall spend one or two minutes on more general matters and remind the House of this 841 country's good record. A high percentage of our households—some 96 per cent.—are connected to sewage systems. This bears comparison with any country in Europe. A study in 1987 showed that 95 per cent. of river length in this country was of good or fair quality, compared with 75 per cent. in the European Community generally. No other member state bettered our position.
I agree with the hon. Member that the problem lies with the discharges of untreated sewage into coastal waters. Successive Governments received environmental advice that that was, in many cases, the best environmental option. That advice was tendered by the Jeger report of 1959, and endorsed in 1984 by the Royal Commission on environmental pollution.
It is commonly recognised that some environmental cost is associated with any type of sewage treatment and disposal. Not everyone wants sewage treatment works near where they live, and considerable planning problems are involved in the establishment of sewage treatment. Moreover, treatment results in sewage sludge, which must be disposed of—by spreading on land, by incineration or by landfilling. Each of those options produces its own environmental problems.
The Government accept that it is now time to take a further big step forward, and to improve our standards of sewage disposal. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment announced on 5 March that in future all substantial discharges of sewage would be treated: most would receive secondary treatment, but primary treatment would be more appropriate for coastal discharges where there would be no adverse effect on the environment. I remind the hon. Gentleman that even secondary treatment does not remove all the bacteria and viruses in sewage.
Since that announcement, we have moved quickly to implement the new policy, and the National Rivers Authority is now applying it to all new applications for sewage discharge consents. It will indeed be an expensive undertaking, and complex engineering and planning issues lie ahead; but we are consulting actively with the sewerage undertakers and the various regulatory bodies to put our ambitious programme in train.
We estimate that the cost of improving our bathing waters and treating all coastal sewage discharges will be around £3 billion, and a fair share of that will be spent in Cornwall. I have a list of some 10 long sea outfalls that were planned for Cornwall by South West Water; the total expenditure amounts to nearly £50 million. All of them will now receive a form of treatment.
§ Mr. Matthew Taylor
The nature of the county means an almost inevitable series of discharges. People are afraid that we shall receive only primary treatment—that there will be screening, but that nothing will really be done to treat the problem. The fear is that, because of the county's geography, we shall end up with a second-rate sewerage system.
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
There is no hard and fast rule relating to the distinction between primary and secondary treatment. Secondary treatment will be carried out where it is required for the environment, and the type of the receiving water will also be taken into account. The hon. Gentleman is wrong, however, to suggest that primary treatment is simply a screening exercise; it settles out and removes a high percentage of the solid matter which then forms sewage sludge and needs to be disposed of separately. The water fraction is then discharged into the sea by means of an outfall.
Secondary treatment removes some of the bacteria and viruses, which remain behind in the sewage sludge. I repeat, however, that neither form of treatment renders the sewage sterile, unless a process of disinfection is undertaken; that has its own drawbacks for the environment, especially the marine life in the receiving water.
I was stressing that South West Water has its share of this ambitious national investment programme. Over the next 10 years it expects to spend about £240 million on improvements to sewage treatment works. That is in addition to about £300 million on the sewerage network. I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that over past decades Governments of all parties have paid too little attention to problems of the sort that he has presented to the House. The structure that we have set up separates the regulator from the operator and places the operator in the private sector with access to private capital. That structure and administrative system will give effect to the improvements that we know are necessary.
§ Mr. Matthew Taylor
The Minister says that we are taking a big step in the context of what is required for sewerage outfall systems. He says that that involves considerable extra investment. Do the Government intend to contribute to that investment or will it be wholly funded by increases in charges to the consumer in areas such as that covered by South West Water?
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
The weakness in past systems was that such investment programmes relied on the Treasury for money. When the last Labour Government encountered financial problems, the first cut that they made was investment in sewage treatment. It is much better for private companies to raise money from charges to customers. The Government apply that system generally, and Cornwall will be no exception. The advantage of that system is that it establishes a clear link between the customer who wants higher water standards and payment for those standards. A further advantage is that companies are able to raise all the necessary finance on the capital markets. The limiting factor—
§ The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, 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 to Three o'clock.