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28 Jun 2005 : Column 403WH—continued


1.30 pm

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss asbestos-related issues in an Adjournment debate. I shall refer to a particular site in my constituency, the former Turner and Newall site in the Spodden valley, although the issues range much wider.

I am grateful to hon. Members, such as the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), for their work on the issue of asbestos pollution. I want to build on that work by examining in particular how asbestos pollution applies to the development and regeneration of former asbestos factory sites.

I shall talk in particular about the lack of scientifically authoritative environment and health standards on asbestos in soil, rubble and the air, to which the developer and local planning authorities can work and which they can use to make risk assessments. I shall also talk about the problems with the detection limits of current analysis methods for asbestos in soil, and about the long latency period of between 10 and 50 years before mesothelioma is developed as a result of exposure, which means that we will not know whether any site has been developed safely for many years.

I shall also discuss the fact that the onus is placed on the developer of any proposed development to furnish evidence and for the local authority to challenge and check that evidence. That can present opportunities for unscrupulous developers to downplay the problems. That has happened with the Turner and Newall site, as I shall demonstrate. Finally, I shall also talk about the lack of clarity surrounding the jurisdiction of enforcement agencies.

Current guidance for dealing with contaminated land sites is covered in part II of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, and in planning policy statement 23, which states that local planning authorities

I concur, provided that some of the concerns that I have mentioned can be addressed.

The Turner and Newall site in my constituency is currently the subject of a planning application. The Turner and Newall factory was the world's first and largest asbestos factory; it had 72 acres and was the headquarters of the entire multinational conglomerate until 1948. Production began in 1879 and ceased in 1996. Incredibly large quantities of waste dust were dumped on the site and in surrounding areas. Some of it is still present. For example, a 1957 Turner Brothers Asbestos document confirms that 300 tonnes a year of filtered air dust was collected.

The potential sources of asbestos contamination in the Spodden valley site are as follows: asbestos waste dumped throughout the site; the demolition of the asbestos factory buildings—some have been demolished, but others are still present; disturbing soil on the site, which might be affected by decades of asbestos fallout; and the contamination of controlled waters, especially from flooded mine working.

MMC and Countryside Properties have submitted an application to build 650 houses on the site. The application is currently the subject of an independent review commissioned by Rochdale metropolitan borough council.
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I should like to show how the five issues that I mentioned at the start of my speech can have an impact on decisions taken at this site and others. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has published soil guideline values for some common contaminants in soil, but it states in contaminated land report 8 that SGVs are not currently envisaged for asbestos. Why not? If any asbestos waste contains 0.1 per cent. by weight, it is classified as special waste, which must be disposed of accordingly. Guidance note 64/85 from the inter-departmental committee on the redevelopment of contaminated land states:

At the request of residents, the Health and Safety Commission recently tested rubble from parts of the factory buildings on the site. Of the eight samples tested, three confirmed the existence of asbestos of up to 1 per cent., which is 10 times higher than the proportion ensuring that waste is classed as special waste. Yet in his planning submission, the developer stated:

and in a meeting with local councillors earlier this year, he and his expert witness said that the tests on the rubble had all been negative. For the past 10 months, open wagons have been transporting that rubble around the borough to unknown places, and subject to no control. That brings me to my second point about the testing regime. The guidance suggests the use of polarised light microscopy, but that can detect levels of contamination only at 1 per cent.; it does not deal with contamination of 0.1 per cent. or 0.01 per cent. If we are to assess the level of contamination accurately at such sites, we urgently need guidance that sets safe levels and uses a different method of detection, such as electron microscopy.

The third point is the long latency period. We will not know for between 10 and 50 years whether the decisions made now are right. The Cape asbestos factory in Barking is a good example. It was demolished in the 1970s to make way for the Hart Lane estate, but we are now hearing of deaths caused by mesothelioma among residents. My source for that information was the 2003 ITV documentary, "Toil of Death".

The stakes are high in any planning application. This case involves a development costing up to £100 million for which the developer has so far paid Rochdale council a £5,500 planning application fee. For that, the council is expected to carry out all the checks and controls to ensure that the developer is acting honourably. Again, I refer to the fact that the developer said:

That is simply not accepted by local residents, many of whom have lived, worked and played in the area all their lives. We know that asbestos has been dumped on the site; we know that it pervades some of the buildings; and we know that if the site is to be developed safely, as everyone wants, proper planning controls and guidance must be given. The lack of guidance on safe levels of
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asbestos in the soil and air, and on the methods of testing, is hindering the development of this and future sites.

Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): As one of the Rochdale Members of Parliament, I too live close to that site. I have lived there for more than 30 years, so I am aware of its chequered past. I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and I put it to him to that the former Turner and Newall site has highlighted a massive deficit in health and safety regulations that is specific to the removal of asbestos. I am well aware that the local authority is involved in an independent investigation, but it is also part of the planning process. Before any houses are built or the site is used for any other community purpose, development of the site should be postponed until a genuinely independent and reliable group of experts deems it to be safe.

Paul Rowen : I concur. Clear guidance is lacking on what are classed as safe levels and which methods of testing should be used to prove those levels, and it urgently needs to be issued.

That brings me to my final point: the role of the various agencies in dealing with such sites, including the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency, the public health inspector, the primary care trust and the local authority. Until May, I was involved as leader of Rochdale council, and my experience is that there is a lack of co-ordination and clear policies—indeed, there is a lack of time for some officers—for dealing with a developer who is clearly ducking and diving and being less than honest about the problems on that site.

A local authority officer who expressed his concerns about the development of the site told me that the main way in which such developers can act is through gaps between HSE powers when works are undertaken and the local authority's powers through the planning system. Between the two, there is a black hole of dealing with the problems at the TBA site. He said that there is limited guidance on the health implications, and enforcement under the enduring power of attorney could have significant financial implications for the local authority. What can happen when that goes wrong was shown at the Chatham naval dockyards. Failure to    assess the quantities of contaminated material accurately resulted in expenditure of £680 million, compared with the original estimate of £23 million.

We owe it to the thousands of people who have already died from asbestos-related diseases, through ignorance of the risks of past levels, to ensure that any future developments on such sites proceed with clear standards and a clear understanding of the safety implications. We support the Government's policy of developing brownfield sites, but it should be done safely. That can happen only when the statutory authorities issue guidance, so that the developers can have a clear understanding of their responsibilities and the local authorities can enforce them adequately.

1.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) on securing this debate on such an important
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issue. He raised a number of important points, to which I shall try to respond. However, as I am sure he will understand, I must make it clear from the outset that I cannot discuss the merits of the case in detail, for reasons of propriety surrounding the possibility of its coming before the First Secretary of State for decision. I shall first set out the national framework on contaminated land and then consider the local issue.

A new regime, known as part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, came into force in England in April 2000 to address contaminated land, including land contaminated or potentially contaminated by the manufacture and use of asbestos. The legislation places a duty on local authorities to identify contaminated land in their areas, and to ensure that appropriate remedial action is taken. Full details of the regime, including statutory guidance, can be found in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions circular 02/2000 "Contaminated Land".

The part IIA regime recognises that a remediation of contaminated land through the planning system is appropriate in certain cases. Development can bring with it a means to pay for that remediation, which might otherwise not take place for some time if a site has to be tackled through the mechanisms provided in part IIA.

To help enable the planning system to make an effective contribution to dealing with contaminated land, the Government published planning policy statement 23, "Planning and Pollution Control", in November 2004. Annexe 2 of the PPS "Development on Land Affected by Contamination", explains for local authorities, developers and other stakeholders how the key principles and concepts in DEFRA's statutory contaminated land regime and in part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 can and should be applied in considering proposals for the development of contaminated land.

The annexe shows how the process of development can remediate contaminated land. The planning system can impose planning conditions on any development where contamination has been identified to ensure that human health and other risks are addressed and that development, if approved, is suitable for its new use.

As dictated by PPS23, extreme caution must be exercised by the local planning authority in the granting of outline planning permission, unless it is satisfied that it has received enough information from the applicant about the condition of the land, its remediation and the full range of environmental impacts arising from the proposals to be able to grant permission in full at a later stage. Having considered the information available about any site contamination and the proposed remediation measures and standards, the local planning authority, if satisfied that the development is appropriate, has the powers to grant planning permission subject to any conditions requiring such further investigations and remediation, including verification, as is necessary, reasonable and practicable. At the same time, if, on the basis of the information provided by the applicant and that available from other sources—including the responses of those consulted—the local planning authority is dissatisfied, it would have the right to refuse permission.

Removal work involving particular types of asbestos is required to be notified in advance to the enforcing authority, for example the Health and Safety Executive.
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Notification includes the provision of an appropriate risk assessment and safe method of work. Those are considered by an inspector, to ensure that they are appropriate in controlling and minimising any spread of asbestos from the proposed work. Where necessary, the company may be required to amend its proposed work method. All persons carrying out such work with asbestos are required to undertake regular training—on an annual basis—about their knowledge and use of personal protective equipment. In addition, in various circumstances, the remediation of land and buildings can involve waste management operations, which may fall to the Environment Agency to regulate under, for example, part II—as distinct from part IIA—of the 1990 Act.

On local issues, I turn to the matters that prompted the debate: the proposal for the development of the former Federal-Mogul site that is approximately three quarters of a mile from Rochdale town centre, which was referred to by the hon. Gentleman as Spodden valley. The proposal takes the form of an outline planning application being considered by Rochdale borough council for 650 dwellings, together with office and light industrial development and community facilities including a neighbourhood centre and a convenience store.

The Environmental Protection Act 1990 offers the possibility of direct action by the local authority to remediate the contamination, but planning policy statement 23 states that local planning authorities

That is what is proposed at Spodden valley.

The planning policy statement also states that local planning authorities

That is what the council has done in its replacement unitary development plan designation. In line with PPS23, it is considered that the appropriate courses of action leading to the remediation of the site can be achieved through the planning process.

At present, the planning application is with Rochdale. In the first place, it is for the council to come to a view about the application. The application was supported by an environmental impact assessment under the terms of the environmental impact assessment regulations. The council has employed consultants to assess the proposals and provide technical advice in respect of the site's contamination and its remediation.

The consultants have been employed to review the information submitted with the planning application and to report on the adequacy of the submission. They are required to advise on the adequacy of the assessment and description of the site in its current state and investigations undertaken, including the adequacy of sampling and analytical techniques used; the adequacy of the assessment of current risks to human health and the environment; the adequacy of the assessment of risks during development and of proposals to control those risks; and the adequacy of the remedial proposals for all areas of the site and the final risk assessment for human health and environment.

The review is well under way. It has been agreed with the applicant that no further investigation or sampling works will be undertaken by or on behalf of the applicant until the assessment has been completed by the consultants. Officials in the Government office for the north-west are aware that the application has aroused strong feelings and they have been in contact with the council over the past few months, while work to assess the implications has been taking place. They will continue to monitor matters closely and I have asked them to keep me up to date.

Paul Rowen : Will the Minister consider my point about the need for DEFRA and the Environment Agency to issue detailed guidance that would enable the council and the developer to reach a better understanding of the development of the site, and similar sites?

Jim Fitzpatrick : The hon. Gentleman anticipates my very next point. He raised two points that I was not in a position to answer before the debate, but on which I have sought advice. As to inadequate guidance on safe soil contamination values, I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's comments are carefully examined by my colleagues who are responsible for those matters in the Department for Work and Pensions and DEFRA. I shall also ensure that the points of jurisdiction that the hon. Gentleman wanted to have examined will be taken up by my colleagues in the DWP, for the Health and Safety Executive, and in DEFRA, for the Environment Agency. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not being able to respond directly today, I shall ensure that he will be written to in due course.

I am aware that the proposal has given rise to a large number of local objections. I fully understand the reason for the concern of the hon. Gentleman's constituents. However, it is clear that all parties who are involved in the development and remediation process have acted, and continue to act, in accordance with current legislation and guidance. Clearly, the scheme is of great importance to Rochdale, and everyone involved in it shares the concern of the hon. Gentleman about the overriding need for safety in seeking to bring about a package of development that could significantly boost the regeneration of the town.

In conclusion, I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns and agree that we need to guarantee absolute safety in dealing with land contaminated by asbestos. I assure him that the Government are doing all that they can to ensure that legislation and guidance is followed, so that the Spodden valley site in Rochdale can be made completely safe for those who work on it, and those who might occupy the dwellings, offices and community facilities that are envisaged under the present proposals. I assure the hon. Gentleman that planning permission will not be granted for the scheme unless all those involved in determining the application are completely satisfied about all aspects of the proposal, including the safety, human health and environmental issues that it raises.

Question put and agreed to.

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