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9 Jan 2008 : Column 79WH—continued

With the backing of the leader of the official Opposition and, I hope, Members on both sides of the House, I call again for detailed planning to ensure that if that sort of disaster is, sadly, thrust upon other communities—of course, I hope that that does not
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happen—a single, high-ranking Minister, perhaps from the Cabinet Office, will be in charge. It is most frustrating for local communities, businesses, authorities and MPs to write to a Minister asking about x and be told that it is nothing to do with him and to ask y, but then be sent to someone else.

Let us consider the effects on my community. I have alluded already to the effects on individuals, some of which were traumatic and difficult to explain to someone who has not had the same experience. If a person’s home is blown away, is completely gone, whether it was a rented local authority home or a property of perhaps £1 million-plus does not matter in real terms—it was their home. So many of my constituents and the constituents of colleagues in the Chamber today have lost so much. It is ludicrous and immoral that, two years on, so many of them have not had the compensation that they deserve.

The oil companies involved are employing some of the most expensive, articulate and, they probably think, brilliant lawyers and barristers in the country to limit their exposure. Of course, much of the compensation will be held back slightly while we wait for a decision from the Health and Safety Executive inquiry and Lord Newton, as its chairman, on whether prosecutions are likely to take place under the relevant Acts. There is no way that I want in any shape or form to jeopardise any such prosecution, but it seems fundamentally wrong and unfair from a simple natural justice point of view that people have lost so much.

People’s lives have been affected so badly, businesses have gone to the wall and thousands of people have lost their jobs. One third of the people who worked in the Maylands business area live in my constituency. The knock-on effect of the difficulty in making decisions about how we go forward is, frankly, wrong, immoral and unfair.

There are court cases. People have had to pull together in consortiums, so that they can afford even to take cases. Some people have been lucky in that their insurance included legal protection. Their cases have progressed, but even some of those are coming to the end their financial period.

Again, I praise my local authority, not only for how it handled the incident and the subsequent evacuation of many thousands of people from their homes, but the cost to it was substantial—just under £80,000. My local community and taxpayers are not able to recoup that. The Bellwin formula has done its bit and other help came, but just in Dacorum—I am not talking about Hertfordshire’s expenses but just Dacorum’s—the costs resulted in nearly 1 per cent. more on the council tax. That is a huge amount of money for a small local authority to bear.

There have been promises. I read the ministerial statement before Christmas from the Department for Communities and Local Government. It was a response to my request of the Leader of the House during business questions. The statement said that, after Bellwin, some £4.4 million of aid had gone to my community. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) will deal with this in a moment. We do not know where the money was coming from or whether it has arrived. I am conscious that it may well be money that was promised for the regeneration of Maylands, the town centre and the community before the Buncefield
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incident even took place. If that is right, it is fundamentally wrong that money that was already coming has been switched from regeneration to help supposedly because of Buncefield.

Planning and planning law is another area in which the unfairness of the system on my local authority and community is obvious. The oil companies are multi-billion pound, multinational companies. They have budgets that most Departments do not have, and they are putting huge pressure on my local authority to reopen parts and, I am sure, eventually all of the Buncefield depot. I could possibly understand such pressure after the inquiry has come to its conclusions, after we know the facts, after we know how safe it is to have a home or business close to a refinery, as alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point a moment ago, but it is being applied now.

BP has asked to open its area of the Buncefield depot, which was only marginally damaged. I understand that some £1 million-worth of damage was done, but anybody who has seen photographs of Buncefield would know that it was quite a small amount of damage. The company has asked to open its part, so that it can supply aviation fuel to terminal 5. Apparently the existing pipeline to terminal 5 is not big enough. The sudden realisation that a bigger pipe is needed makes me wonder what the planners were doing during all the years of planning for terminal 5. BP is negotiating very hard with my local authority, and to be fair, it is quite open about the fact that it wants to use the depot for aviation fuel and not for petrol. I understand that a section 106 agreement is required, and I hope that it is tightly worded, so that we do not get any problems with lawyers later on.

It seems fundamentally unjust to my community that a small local authority must make planning decisions that involve national infrastructure and safety when an inquiry has not finished and when it has asked for help. I understand that the local planning committee referred some of the questions up to regional level. They were bounced back with the comment that the decision was the local authority’s, but the local authority is not qualified to make such decisions. A Department must take responsibility and decide on the way forward. The local authority has fantastic staff and officers, but the decision cannot be left in their hands, because it is not part of their job.

Just to give an example of the sort of pressure that oil companies are applying and their blatant disregard for the laws of this land, just before Christmas, Total, one of the other oil companies that operated from Buncefield, indicated to the local authority that it would connect through a valve system the pipeline from its refinery to the Heathrow spur pipeline. My local authority said, “You need planning consent.” It has the experts, so we would think. Naturally, their word should be taken. I understand that the authority sought advice and was told, quite rightly, in an opinion from the Departments involved, that planning was required. The response from Total was, “No, we do not agree with you and we are going to do it,” and it did. No planning exists. I understand that the Environment Agency and the HSE were present on site while the work was done to ensure that safety was paramount and that there was no risk to the environment.

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Why was the work not stopped? How can a company just ignore planning law and go ahead? I asked that of my local authority’s chief executive, who said, “Mr. Penning, what can we do? We have one opinion that says yes, but the big oil company says no. We put in an order to stop the work and we have to pay the costs. We are only a small authority, and we cannot risk that burden on our local taxpayers.” The matter should have been taken out of the hands of my local authority. Such decisions should be made by experts and senior Ministers. It seems absolutely ludicrous that fear of the costs of challenging a company like Total on this sort of decision should preclude the enforcement of planning law.

I ask the Minister to ensure that that situation is highlighted. I hope he will indicate that we will have meetings with the relevant Ministers, and I hope that common sense will prevail and the laws of this land will not be ignored simply because a local authority does not have the financial clout to proceed. That is what is happening. The fear of litigation and of incurring costs is preventing local authorities from being allowed to protect their local community.

An interim report from Lord Newton’s inquiry contained a very interesting statement. In short, it stated that Dacorum—my local authority—should be granted special status. That includes parts of the constituencies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) and of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main). My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans, whose constituents were greatly affected by the fire, sends her apologies for not being here today. As she is in Bangladesh at the moment, I accept her reasons for not being able to make it here in time this morning.

What does “special status” mean? I have had meetings and made calls and found that it means something similar to the status that was granted to Carlisle when a disaster took place. I understand—I stand to be corrected—that an enterprise zone was created there, so that the community could benefit from tax breaks to regenerate the area. As I understand it, the official interpretation is that one can apply for things that are available to everybody and one might possibly be granted some special status. Frankly, to put that in layman’s terms, “Do not hold your breath.”

We are holding our breath, because if we do not receive help in this significant regional hub, the effects on my community and on the whole region will be devastating. We have had many visits from the Deputy Prime Minister and the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. We have had visits from the then Leader of the House, who, shockingly in my opinion, did not visit Buncefield or any of the affected residents or businesses. He also did not visit my hospital, which is closing. We had a visit from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Although he is responsible for the inquiry, he did not go to the Buncefield site and meet the residents and businesses that have been so badly affected. As I understand it, he did not even meet the chief executive of my council who has been worried about the future and the long-term effects of the disaster.

We have had forums and meetings. Officials from myriad Departments have given us promises and undertakings, and nods and winks to indicate that help is coming. We do not need any more nods and winks;
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we need help. My community has suffered so badly from an industrial disaster that was not its fault, from a plant that is owned by multi-billion pound companies that are burying their heads in the sand when it comes to their responsibilities to the community. My community needs help from the Government, and I hope that the Minister will respond positively.

10.13 am

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words, and I shall endeavour to be brief. First, I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) for his role in this matter. There is something providential about the fact that the worst fire in western Europe since the second world war should occur in a constituency represented by a fireman. It was undoubtedly in the interests of all his constituents and mine to have someone so knowledgeable, as well as so vigorous in their response, to represent their interests. I pay tribute to him for securing this debate and for his contribution today. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) who, with her customary vigour, upheld the interests of our constituents vis- -vis the local authority and its dilatory response early on. I also pay tribute to the emergency workers who responded with speed, efficiency and courage to the original fire.

I have a few questions that arise from the fire. In particular, I want to know why it has taken so long to complete the inquiry. I am a simple person, and it does not seem to me that it should take two years or more to carry out an inquiry into this sort of event. I have every confidence in my right hon. former colleague who is in charge of the inquiry, but I cannot help feeling that with a tighter timetable and suitable resources, it would have been possible to finish the inquiry earlier to everybody’s advantage.

I want to raise the planning implications of the fire. Again, I take a simple approach. When the Buncefield site was built, it was some way from residential areas. Over time, residential and industrial areas have built up closer to it and consequently were affected when the fire occurred. It seems to me, and to most of my constituents, that the obvious next step is to replace Buncefield with a site that is further away from any built-up area. It will still supply the fuels that we recognise are necessary for our lives and for aviation and so on, but it will do so away from the existing site and release it for house building.

We are under huge pressure to build houses. Most of us think that the pressure is excessive and results from mistaken Government policies. However, if that house building is to take place, the Buncefield site is a sensible place to choose if the depot is moved elsewhere. Why cannot that simple decision be taken? If the reverse decision has been taken—to retain Buncefield where it is—may we have an explanation for that?

I have only a limited number of constituents affected by the fire. The border of my constituency is the M1, and Buncefield is a few hundred yards to the left of the M1. Actually, the Buncefield site is the boundary of my constituency and a few residences there are among the
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closest to the fire. It was traumatic for all those residents, not least for one of my constituents, Ian Silverstein, who lived in a wonderful Lutyens house, which was one of the nearest to the fire. He was at home at the time and he said that he felt as if a plane had crashed upon his house. He managed to escape, but the front door was blown right through to the back of the house. That beautiful residence is now potentially ruined. My constituent’s traumatic experience was made worse by the fact that the property, though boarded up, was thrice looted in the ensuing days, which raises questions about the effectiveness of the security and police response to prevent such action. Looking forward now, he raises some questions which he has asked me to put to the Minister on his behalf.

First, why, some two years on, is my constituent still not in receipt of any compensation? His life is in ruins. Everything is on hold pending the HSE report and any potential prosecution. Why has there not been a speedier response? He is also worried that the report itself is being funded by the oil companies. That seems to him to introduce a degree of collusion and undermines the integrity of the report. Will the Minister explain the nature of that funding and reassure him on that point?

My constituent Ian Silverstein wants to know why the Government are not taking action against the oil companies responsible and why they have not created a disaster or recovery fund to compensate the people who have been directly affected. Only a small number of people have been directly and seriously affected by the fire. I hope that we will receive answers to those questions and I hope that we will learn the lessons of this whole experience. The two lessons that seem to be paramount, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead pointed out, are that when this sort of disaster occurs, a whole range of Departments and local authorities are affected, so it is crucial that one person be put in charge. One Minister should be the focal point to clear all queries, to supervise, co-ordinate and ensure that there is a joined-up response. Can systems be put in place to ensure that that is the immediate response in the event of another disaster?

The other lesson to be learned is that we must respond more rapidly. Lengthy inquiries that go on for ever cannot be necessary. The facts, although complicated, do not require two years to sort out. Can we therefore have a speedier approach to inquiries and the resolution of the issues involved?

If those lessons can be learned, some gain will at least have been made in the event of future problems. We all recognise that there will be different problems in different places in future and we would like the constituents of other Members of Parliament at least to benefit from the failures that took place in this case.

10.20 am

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time since the 2006 Finance Bill, Mr O’Hara, although I hope that this will be a slightly quicker and less draining experience for us both. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on the way in which he has articulated the views of the people of Hemel Hempstead since the Buncefield explosion on 11 December 2005. Once
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again, he has demonstrated his passion and thoroughness, as well as his concern for Hemel Hempstead, and he articulated his case very well.

The implications and consequences of the explosion have affected a much wider area than just Hemel Hempstead, including my constituency, and that is not just because the vast majority of my constituents were woken at 6 o’clock in the morning on 11 December. On that day, I attended a function in Tring, which is not far from Hemel Hempstead, and spoke to a constituent who worked on the Maylands estate. He was deeply concerned that he had, in essence, lost his job that very morning.

The impact has also been felt by Dacorum borough council, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and, more widely, by Hertfordshire county council and the Hertfordshire police authority, all of which have had to pick up some of the bill in dealing with the consequences of the explosion. For example, Dacorum borough council is about £78,000 out of pocket even after we take account of the sums that it will have received under the Bellwin formula. The figure for the Hertfordshire police authority is about £300,000 and that for Hertfordshire county council is about £2.5 million. Those are substantial sums for organisations that are not necessarily very large. I do not intend to set out a general case to show that Hertfordshire is often hard done by, although we have learned in the past few days of concerns that Hertfordshire council tax payers may have to pick up some of the cost of the Olympics. That aside, however, the costs involved in dealing with Buncefield are significant and are having an impact on council tax payers and council services, and we should not ignore that.

There are also the costs involved in trying to rebuild the Maylands estate, which was devastated by the Buncefield explosion. That brings me to the statement made by the Minister for Local Government on 17 December 2007, which my hon. Friend mentioned. As the Minister said, the East of England Development Agency had by then provided £4.4 million of financial assistance, and my hon. Friend mentioned that. However, my understanding—I could be wrong, and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) may correct me—is that about £2 million of that money had already been promised to Dacorum and Hemel Hempstead before the Buncefield explosion, so it is not necessarily new money.

There is a wider issue, and we clearly need to look at the financial implications of the way in which we respond to disasters. I am sure that the matter is close to the Under-Secretary’s heart, given that he represents Gloucester, which suffered terrible flooding in the summer. Following the summer flooding, money was made available in addition to the funds provided through the Bellwin formula. Even so, there is concern that support has been somewhat slow to reach the areas that were flooded, and local communities are having to pick up the cost of that major disaster. That is a concern in the Dacorum area, which covers not only my hon. Friend’s constituency, but much of mine, too.

This is not the first Adjournment debate that we have had on Buncefield; we had one on 19 July 2006. On that occasion, I focused on PFOS, which my hon. Friend mentioned. Subsequently, we received a lengthy and thorough letter from the then Minister for the Environment. The letter was informative and raised a
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number of points —I counted nearly 40 typographical errors, but that is by the bye. I have a number of questions relating to it, although the Under-Secretary will not be able to respond to them all today. As my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, it is in the nature of such issues that they cut across several Departments, which is why it would be helpful if one Department took responsibility for the issue.

The environmental issues raised by the incident are important. The letter, which was dated 4 August 2006, referred to the Government seeking an EU ban on PFOS, and I would be grateful to know whether any progress has been made on that. There was also talk of the fire and rescue services implementing a voluntary ban on the use of PFOS, and it would be helpful to have an update on that.

The letter also referred to two evaluations of PFOS, one by the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment, which was carried out on behalf of the Health Protection Agency, and the other by the drinking water inspectorate. I would be grateful to know whether any progress has been made on the evaluation of PFOS and what assessment has been made of its dangers or otherwise.

In our earlier debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and I mentioned concerns about a leak of 800,000 litres of firewater at the Blackbird Lees sewage treatment plant near Radlett. At the time of the then Minister’s letter of August 2006, no damage to the aquatic environment had been found, and I would be grateful if Ministers could confirm at some point that that remains the case.

Another issue is of particular relevance not to the Dacorum area, but to the other end of my constituency. Following the Buncefield explosion, much of the firewater was stored at the Maple Lodge sewage plant. In his letter, the then Minister for the Environment said that he shared concerns about the 26 million litres of firewater still being stored seven months after the incident. Indeed, that firewater was not dealt with until June 2007—18 months after the explosion. I followed the issue quite closely, staying in contact with the Environment Agency and Thames Water and visiting the site. My understanding is that much of the blame lies with the oil companies, and there are clearly lessons to be learned about the way in which we should deal with firewater, should we ever be unfortunate enough to face a similar incident again. Clearly, 18 months is too long, and by the end of the process, several of my constituents were complaining about the dreadful smell that the water was causing.

I want, however, to end on a positive note. The way in which the people of the Dacorum and Hemel Hempstead area—whether local authorities, voluntary organisations or individuals—have rallied around has been hugely impressive. They have demonstrated a real sense of community, and I congratulate them on that. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead on all the work that he and they have done collectively to ensure that Hemel Hempstead rallies round and recovers from that dreadful explosion.

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