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10.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin): The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) put his case forcefully and has obviously taken a long-term interest in the matter. I have listened with care to his arguments.

Let me begin by assuring the hon. Gentleman that the Government aim to achieve the highest possible environmental standards consistent with ensuring value for money. We reversed the policy of the previous Government, which could have allowed sewage to continue being discharged into our coastal waters after receiving only primary treatment. Instead, we told water companies in England and Wales that we would require all significant coastal discharges to receive a minimum of secondary treatment. We asked them to install secondary treatment at relevant discharges, including Margate and Broadstairs, as soon as practicable.

We also have a well-established policy to protect identified bathing waters. We have announced a programme for England and Wales designed to raise consistent compliance with the mandatory standards in the EU bathing waters directive to 97 per cent. by 2005, and to achieve a significant improvement in compliance with guideline standards, particularly at major holiday resorts.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, there are a number of bathing beaches along the Thanet coast, including up to eight beaches, from St. Mildred's Bay to Broadstairs, that are affected by the existing discharges at Margate and Broadstairs.

The policy framework means that wherever the treatment works serving the joint catchment of Margate and Broadstairs is eventually located, the standards of treatment applied will ensure that people living there will have a cleaner, safer environment that protects their beaches and the sea from pollution. That is a substantial gain under all circumstances and we should not lose sight of it.

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The choice of location of a sewage treatment works serving Margate and Broadstairs is not a matter for Government at this stage. It is a matter for the commercial judgment of Southern Water Services, subject to planning controls and regulation by the Environment Agency. Well-established procedures are already in place for public consultation and scrutiny of the proposals.

The processes--obtaining planning permission, compulsory purchase of land, and obtaining a discharge consent--are subject to public consultation and appeal procedures, including, ultimately, the possibility of appeal to the Secretary of State, should the applications be refused. The Government also encourage water companies to engage in full consultation with local communities about any proposals for new development.

The House will appreciate that it would be wrong for me to make any comment at this stage on specific proposals that might ultimately come before the Secretary of State for determination, but it may be helpful if I set out my general appreciation of the current situation. In so doing, I shall attempt to respond to some of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Southern Water's original intention was to upgrade a treatment works at Foreness point to combine the two existing flows from Margate and Broadstairs. In the light of the Government's requirement for higher levels of treatment, Southern Water revised its original proposals. Those will now require more land--although I understand that there will be no permanent loss of public open space--and additional plant and machinery. The company has applied for planning permission on that basis. I understand that Kent county council will shortly consider that planning application.

The scheme that is now proposed at Foreness point will deliver top of the range levels of treatment, including ultra violet disinfection. The Environment Agency predicts that the new levels of treatment will allow bathing waters in the area to comply with guideline standards under the EU bathing waters directive. It is wrong to imply that raw sewage would be discharged from the new works. It is true that storm overflows, which operate during periods of exceptional rainfall, will be retained, but those would be needed for any scheme, irrespective of its location. They will operate to standards specified by the agency that are designed to protect bathing beaches in the area.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that there is a better alternative for treatment and disposal of sewage from Margate and Broadstairs, at Weatherlees. He has asked for the Secretary of State to call in the planning application to explore more fully the relative merits of the two possible locations.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): My hon. Friend has raised a point on which I have common cause with the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale).

Mr. Gale: This is out of order.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. It is not out of order for the Minister to give way to an intervention. If the hon. Member who seeks to intervene had wished to contribute to the debate before the Minister started speaking, the hon. Gentleman would have had to seek permission. He is allowed to intervene and it is up to the Minister whether he gives way.

Dr. Ladyman: I am grateful to you for that advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for North Thanet will

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be aware that I have common cause with him on certain points of this matter and, in fact, it was my influence with Thanet district council, as a district councillor before 1999, that led to its opposition to the original scheme. I have an open mind about the current proposals, but Weatherlees is in my constituency and my key question now is--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps I should add to my earlier remarks the observation that interventions should be extremely brief.

Dr. Ladyman: I shall endeavour to be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Environment Agency tells me that it is an open question as to whether the effluent that would go into Weatherlees would cause any harm, but is certain that the effluent that has been proposed for Foreness point would cause no harm. That is the point on which I require clarification.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The Minister should now respond.

Mr. Mullin: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall come to the question of effluent in a moment. The Secretary of State can call in planning applications if he considers that they raise planning issues of more than local importance, but the question of re-use of waste water, while undoubtedly important, is not a planning issue. The Secretary of State would be acting outside his powers to use the planning system to explore that matter. It is for the water company to decide which proposals to put before the planning authorities and the regulator.

Southern Water has discussed informally with the Environment Agency the alternative option of diverting the flow from Margate and Broadstairs to Weatherlees. The hon. Member for North Thanet has suggested that the Environment Agency is not doing its job, because it has not carried out a formal appraisal of the alternative scheme at Weatherlees. In the absence of a formal application for discharge consent and of the scientific information that would come with that, the Environment Agency cannot make a full assessment of the treatment standards that would have to apply. However, it has made some clear and, I consider, persuasive points about the considerations that would apply.

First, the River Stour already carries a very heavy effluent load arising from other treatment works that discharge into it. The plant at Weatherlees already serves a population equivalent to about 89,000 people. The agency considers that those loads already are close to the maximum that can be carried without a risk of environmental impact. Adding the sewage from Margate and Broadstairs would more than double the existing load at Weatherlees. If true, that would seem to be fatal to the hon. Gentleman's argument.

Secondly, the Stour estuary is an environmentally sensitive area. There is potential for impact on bathing beaches nearby, which Weatherlees was originally constructed to protect.

The treatment standards for a plant at Weatherlees would need to be more stringent than at Foreness Point to achieve the same level of protection for the receiving waters. Even well-treated effluent contains micropollutants which, if not dispersed, can have adverse effects on organisms in the receiving water.

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The Government share the hon. Gentleman's concern to encourage beneficial use of waste water, as does the Environment Agency. In fact, that has already been achieved for several sewage treatment works in the area, but there are difficulties in this case. Water discharged at Weatherlees would add to the volume of fresh water in the estuary but, as I have explained, it would also add to the pollution load there.

If it were to be used for abstraction purposes, the sewage would have to be piped five miles or so up river to be discharged above the abstraction point. That would be in addition to the six miles or so of pipes that would need to be constructed to bring the sewage to Weatherlees

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from Margate and Broadstairs. I readily concede that that is not an impossible task, but it would add to the expense and complexity of the scheme.

As I said, the choice of location rests in the first instance with Southern Water. The company has told me and the Environment Agency that Foreness Point is its preferred option and that it has decided not to pursue the option of Weatherlees. It will be necessary to test the acceptability of these revised proposals, remembering that they will deliver a higher level of treatment.

In my view, the right option--and I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for North Thanet--is to allow this process to run its course without further delay.

Question put and agreed to.

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