I am most grateful for the opportunity to debate the crucial problem in my constituency of land contamination. It has a direct and personal effect on the lives of some of my constituents and wider implications for the Environment Agency and the Government in respect of pollution issues and the Government's brownfield site development strategy.
The contaminated site is a mainly owner-occupied residential area in the village of Littleport, near Ely in east Cambridgeshire. Part of the site was previously a coal-gas works, while the remainder was adjoining school playing fields. Its industrial use ceased in the 1960s and housing, as well as a fire station, was built on the site between 1967 and 1992, with little or no clean-up works being undertaken at any stage. Thirty-one families now live in houses on the site, which they are unable to sell or remortgage, and their children are prohibited from playing in their gardens. Theirs is truly a truly nightmare scenario: they live in fear for their health, but are unable to move on in their lives. In fact, their properties are completely blighted by the discovery of contamination by chemicals that are frequently associated as a by-product of coal-gas production, but the legislation that by rights should be helping them is proving both obstructive and unworkable.
The residents are unable to pin down who is responsible for the contamination, as the two sites in question have changed hands many times, including between private and county council ownership. The Gas Board, later British Gas, never cleaned up its part of the site. The local district council's planning department gave both outline and detailed planning consent for housing on the site. The National Home Builders Registration Council denies any responsibility and the last developer/builder on the site has gone bankrupt.
Although the environmental health department of East Cambridgeshire district council considers that the contamination poses no increased health risk for the majority of residents, potential buyers of the properties are deterred by information revealed in local land charge searches. In fact, that all came to light about three years ago as a result of diligent searches by a prospective purchaser's solicitor. The local council, whose responsibility it is to investigate the contamination at the site, has been endeavouring since the problem was discovered to find a solution that would result in remediation of the site. It maintains that it has been hampered by inadequate guidance from both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency, which has prevented it from resolving the situation.
The main stumbling block is that the contaminating compound found on the site, benzo(a)pyrene, is so widespread at levels exceeding the standard acceptance criteria in the gardens of properties beyond the footprint of the original gasworks—those built on the former school playing field. The council is unable to define accurately the area of land contaminated as a result of the industrial activity, because higher than acceptable readings of the compound were discovered on some properties outside the development site. It seems highly unlikely that the contamination readings outside the site are even associated with the gasworks. They are far more likely to be attributable to the anthropogenic practices of past residents, who spread the ashes from domestic coal fires on the garden areas.
It is firmly believed that further sampling and analysis of soil from properties around the gasworks site would merely extend the area found to contain the contaminant, presumably until the edge of the village and greenfield land was reached. Working within the guidance available could therefore entail remedial work to hundreds of houses in Littleport where levels of the contaminant are present without any conceivable link to the activities of the former gasworks. If we extrapolate from that scale to the national level, we could catch hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of older properties that were in existence when coal was our primary domestic fuel.
The widespread presence of the compound is causing huge problems across the whole contaminated land sector—a sector that is fundamental to achieving the Government's national brownfield redevelopment targets. Benzo(a)pyrene is one of a large group of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons formed by the incomplete combustion of organic materials. Man-made sources include motor vehicle engines, coal and wood fires, refuse incineration, and even cigarette smoke. It is often present in ash. The overall conclusion of a health working group in 1987 was that benzo(a)pyrene was probably carcinogenic to humans. There were no adequate human data then and, to my knowledge, there are still none, but there was
"sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals".
It therefore comes as no surprise that acceptable threshold doses of the compound for both oral and inhalation routes have been set at very low levels indeed.
Benzo(a)pyrene is of paramount importance in the investigation of contamination at the gasworks and the associated site in Littleport. The governing legislation for land contamination of such a nature was first introduced under the Environmental Protection Act 1990—or, more particularly, part IIA of that Act, which finally came into force, after extensive statutory guidance was issued, on
An essential ingredient of that guidance was the role of the Environment Agency and ultimately DEFRA in defining soil guideline values. Those values are designed to answer the question: does the soil concentration of contaminant x pose a risk to human health or the environment? Unfortunately the Environment Agency has yet to issue its soil guideline values for benzo(a)pyrene, and the current rate of production of SGVs—there have been none since December 2004—suggests that it is unlikely to do so in the near future. Perhaps the Minister can say something about when that particular SGV might be published.
In the absence of an SGV for benzo(a)pyrene, local authorities have had to fall back on the contaminated land exposure assessment—CLEA—model, which sets an acceptable level for benzo(a)pyrene of 1 mg per kg of soil. The readings at Littleport of between 6 and 15 mg per kg are unfortunately well in excess of that. However, in a document of April 1986 entitled "Notes on the Redevelopment of Gas Works Sites", the interdepartmental committee on the redevelopment of contaminated land—the precursor to the CLEA—set trigger concentrations for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, including benzo(a)pyrene, at a threshold of 50 mg per kg of soil in domestic gardens, and the trigger for remedial action at a remarkable 500 mg per kg. It is therefore not surprising that among both polluters and the polluted there is considerable confusion about the appropriate levels of risk for benzo(a)pyrene.
In reality, SGVs allow levels of contaminants that under current interpretations represent an acceptable level of risk; they do not signify the level of unacceptable risk. Unlike the Netherlands, the UK does not have an intervention level at which the regulatory authority must intervene and remove the risk presented by the contaminated land. In the absence of other Government guidance, however, the release of SGVs by the Environment Agency has naturally led the regulatory authorities to use those figures as cut-off levels. Any levels that exceed the SGV are considered unacceptable, although that was not the intention. As I have already said, that has the potential to blight huge swathes of pre-second world war housing in this country.
DEFRA has warned councils that determinations based on a simple exceeding of SGV levels will not necessarily satisfy a legal challenge. The test is how far above the published level the concentration of soil contaminant would have to be to meet the definition of "unacceptable". DEFRA guidance published by the Environment Agency is silent on that issue. That worst-case scenario may be appropriate for brownfield, undeveloped sites, but for existing sites—not redevelopment sites—it is not practical, because the levels are very low and are often exceeded by background, naturally occurring contamination across the United Kingdom. Those whom the figures should help—regulators, developers, private companies and the general public—do not find them particularly useful and their investigations may be significantly hindered by them.
The first requirement is that the contaminated land sector be given a full complement of SGVs for all contaminants of concern; currently only about half have been determined. Secondly, some indication is needed of what level above the SGVs would be considered acceptable. Perhaps two levels need to be set for each compound—a target level and an intervention level—like the Dutch do. If it is decided that that approach cannot or will not be adopted, some more comprehensive and practical guidance on how to use the existing SGVs must be issued to provide a clear steer to investigating authorities. Until clear advice and support is available, local authorities have to proceed without all the necessary SGVs, which in their present form are of limited use anyway.
The regulators are in a very difficult position as they struggle to approve site-specific reports prepared using figures borrowed from various sources, including the Dutch, the now defunct interdepartmental committee on the redevelopment of contaminated land—ICRCL—recommendations, various American studies, and the out-of-date CLEA model. The reports may then be disputed by the Environment Agency, which inevitably is reluctant to approve standards that vary from those that it has published as guidance. The system is incomplete and already out of date, which puts a huge strain on the resources of local authorities and the Environment Agency and means that basic investigations do not always reach a conclusion, because the system is not sufficiently structured. As a result, developers, councils and council tax payers end up paying more for investigations.
Recently the rate at which remediation notices are issued has dramatically decreased nationally, as many councils choose to wait for more substantive guidance before proceeding with determinations. However, in the case of the Littleport site, the financial implications for the residents living there are too severe to delay progress to the determination of this site. Under the regime of part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act, local authorities and the Environment Agency have increased responsibilities to investigate contaminated land, but the programme is often driven by their own resources. To increase the efficiency of that process and make the implementation of the regime less onerous, the determination of contaminated land issues needs to be evaluated according to a more structured set of values for any site. The rate at which councils are tackling sites is extremely slow, partly as a result of the strain on resources that the process puts on individual authorities. If the demands placed on local authorities are considered too great, the answer might be to place more emphasis on the Environment Agency to deal with more sites, particularly the more complicated ones. However, if that were done, the Environment Agency's resources in this sector would need to be significantly bolstered, as it is grossly understaffed in certain regions.
The current position on benzo(a)pyrene is untenable. Multiple local authorities, and the Environment Agency in the case of special sites, are pursuing site-specific solutions. To increase efficiency, it is essential that a solution be put in place to allow more joined-up working between the different tiers of authorities. Sites could be assessed much more quickly with less strain put on resources if a partnership approach was advocated by all levels of government. That would help ensure that the silo mentality was eliminated and that all parties were committed to reaching agreement on the best practical solution in each case. It is therefore vital that the Health Protection Agency and the Environment Agency support local efforts to reach practical solutions and adopt an approach that recognises the need for local public accountability in each case.
The interests of members of the public affected by the contaminated land legacy should be paramount, yet on the one hand, given the presence of contaminants above the published thresholds, residents find their properties defined as contaminated and therefore blighted, and on the other, even if a subsequent, site-specific risk assessment finds that the contamination presents no additional risk to their health, the residents will still not be able to sell their homes. That has been the situation for nearly three years at the Littleport site, as the local authority struggles to make sense of the regime in the face of understandable public concern. If the process of investigation does not proceed to determination, the perception of health risk will continue to blight the properties; if determination proceeds, a legal challenge may arise. I trust that the Minister agrees that that is a totally unacceptable situation, not least from the point of view of my constituents, who are now desperate for a solution that will release them from that living hell.
It is simply not good enough to tell the residents to take the matter to the courts, because universal standards for contamination have not been produced and the residents do not have the financial resources to fight a protracted case. Their plight is not of their making and it behoves legislators to rescue them from their nightmare. I look forward to a positive response from the Minister.
I asked a question at Prime Minister's questions last week on
Many people in Rochdale, including local people who had never worked at the factory but were exposed to its environment, have died as a result of the asbestos produced; asbestos was produced on the site from the 1870s until the 1990s. As we know, asbestos is now outlawed throughout the European Union. The factory site produced high levels of asbestos dust, including asbestos fall-out that escaped from the factory buildings and settled on the factory and the surrounding land. The surrounding land included disused coal mines and was used for dumping large amounts—potentially tens of thousands of tonnes—of asbestos waste on the site.
The entire Spodden valley, which is approximately 72 acres, was sold by the administrators of Turner and Newall in April 2004 to property developers MMC Estates Ltd. An offshore company, Rathbone Jersey Ltd., which is a subsidiary of Countryside Properties plc, entered into an option agreement at the same time. In May 2004, contractors working for the developers began destruction of the woodland to the north and south of the site, but felling was halted by the intervention of the Forestry Commission and the local council because of their concerns. A reaction to the woodland destruction and concern about disturbance of soil that could be contaminated with asbestos was the formation of a local group, Save Spodden Valley. In December 2004, Countryside Properties (Northern) Ltd., Rathbone Jersey Ltd. and MMC Developments Ltd. submitted an outline planning application for demolition of all the buildings on the site and replacement with more than 600 homes and community facilities, including a children's nursery. That is when the problems started.
The planning application was put on hold by the local authority pending an environmental impact assessment commissioned by the authority. I understand that the results of that assessment were due this month. Throughout 2005, there has been a continuous series of BBC reports and Private Eye articles. Although the developers denied that there was asbestos on or around the site, it has been reported that they knew about exposed asbestos since at least September 2004 and about a 2003 site-contamination drawing suggesting contamination throughout the site. Those are the concerns of the local community.
I am directly involved because it was recently decided to move some of the 3,000 tonnes of rubble, which is a huge amount. Discovering the extent of the contamination of that rubble by asbestos is difficult; it seems to be a secret. I am not sure whether the agencies are allowed to publicise the results of tests, but the local community is finding it difficult to obtain the information.
The issue for me is the transfer of that rubble through the constituency of the hon. Member for Rochdale and the length of my constituency, and its eventual dumping in the Viridor landfill site in the constituency of Mr. Chaytor. There is a hazardous waste cell on that landfill site that can take some of the rubble, but I do not know how much. The issue for me is: how safe is it to transfer that rubble by road through two constituencies and into a third? Assurances were given in the Prime Minister's letter that all checks have been carried out, but the local community is not convinced and tried to have an injunction put on the transfer of the rubble last week and the week before but failed to achieve that. A public meeting will be held in the town tonight because of people's concerns. They have experienced the problems caused by asbestos for a very long time.
I hope that the Minister will look at the matter in the light of what I have said. I am sure that if the hon. Member for Rochdale is allowed to speak he will support what I have said.
I thank Mr. Moss for initiating this debate. It is timely, not least because if the Government's targets for house building are to be achieved, it will be necessary to use more brownfield sites. It is important that the guidance given by Government Departments is clear and deals with some of the complicated issues to which the hon. Member referred and which cause concern when sites are proposed for development. As Jim Dobbin said, I am particularly concerned about that because a site in my constituency had the world's largest asbestos factory.
Hon. Members may be aware that I had an Adjournment debate on the issue earlier this year. It is interesting that a Minister from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was put up to answer at that time, but today we have a Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The ODPM, DEFRA and the Department for Work and Pensions, and four Government bodies—the local authority, the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and the Health Protection Agency—are involved in dealing with sites of this nature. It is clear that there is a lack of co-ordination and guidance in dealing with sites as complex as the Spodden valley, and that considerably hinders development of them.
We must be clear about the issues, to which the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire referred. Like the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton, I would like to discuss the effects on the Spodden valley. DEFRA has not yet issued clear guidance on safe levels of asbestos in the ground. As we speak, the rubble that he referred to is being moved from Rochdale through Heywood and Middleton to Bury. Unlike the first time rubble was moved, there has been a good deal of co-ordination between the Environment Agency and the HSE this time, but it has been voluntary.
I am pleased to say that this time there has also been co-operation from the developer. The method statement that he produced has not been released. When I spoke to him, he said that he was willing for it to be released, but neither the HSE nor the local authority are prepared to release it. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 applies to Government agencies, but it seems not to apply in this case. As the hon. Gentleman said, there is a great deal of concern about what is going on, given the past actions of the developer. If brownfield sites such as this one in Rochdale are to be developed safely, we need clear guidance from the relevant Departments.
I understand that the Environment Agency has prepared guidance, but it is up to the ODPM and DEFRA to issue it. When one is dealing with a site as big as this one—as the hon. Gentleman said, up to 650 houses, a nursery and industrial premises are planned for it—the lack of guidance is extremely serious. Can we have some co-ordination between Departments?
Guidance must be issued on safe levels of contamination and even on how levels of asbestos are to be tested on the site. Then there must be clear guidance on the stages of remediation. Such guidance is not given at present, and that causes great concern. No one has said that they do not wish the Spodden valley site to be developed. However, the development should be done carefully and with transparency, and that is not happening.
As has been said, the local authority paid for the environmental impact statement in this case. The developer paid £2,500 to submit his planning application, yet the local authority will have spent £70,000 to carry out the survey. Clearly, the old maxim that the polluter pays does not apply in this case. I hope that the Minister will respond to some of these concerns so that not just the Spodden valley site but other sites can be developed safely. We all wish to see that.
I, too, congratulate Mr. Moss on securing this important debate. I know that the issue has affected a number of his constituents and he appears to have uncovered a flaw in the system for dealing with contaminated land. It is only right that we should seek to pursue a "polluter pays" policy on contaminated land, but in this case the principle appears not to have been enforced in the way that was intended.
I want to broaden the discussion slightly and praise the Government for their endeavours in bringing brownfield sites back into use. That is a worthwhile policy and the Government are making some progress. It is clear that there are a large number of reasons why we should not let the kinds of difficulties that we have heard about undermine what my party believes is a crucial aim. Given the finite amount of land resources available to us in Britain, brownfield development is an obvious and correct policy. That is why I am interested to know how seriously the Government take proposals put forward by my party, and supported by a number of respected and independent bodies, to alter the VAT regime so that we can do away with the frankly ludicrous situation in which it is often more expensive to repair an old house than to build a new one. It is still cheaper to build new houses than to convert the estimated 1 million dwellings that could be brought into use which are located above shops, the conversion of which would go a long way towards filling the black hole in housing provision. I would be interested to know whether the Government intend to publish the report by Grant Thornton, which I understand effectively sounded the death knell for revitalising over-the-shop living. It would make interesting reading.
It is also my belief that the tax regime does not provide the incentives that we need to encourage development on brownfield sites in the first place. Despite some of the problems that can be encountered when dealing with brownfield sites, we simply cannot ignore the fact that that is the only game in town if we are serious about meeting the housing challenge at the same time as protecting our natural heritage. Are the Government still considering proposals for a planning gain supplement, as proposed by the Barker report, or a planning tariff to encourage brownfield over greenfield development?
On development on contaminated land, all the evidence of which I am aware suggests that we are dealing with a hopeless lack of knowledge about the precise location of the land involved. That lack of knowledge has led to the type of unfortunate situation that we heard about this morning. In my constituency, a planning application on the site of a disused landfill site has caused much local controversy. It is my view, and it was the view of my predecessor in Cheadle, that the local authority lacks detailed knowledge of what went into the tip when it was in use. We should not allow a major development on the site without far more details on the level of contamination.
Following detailed work at the end of last year, my hon. Friend Norman Baker found that local authorities across the country had uncovered only the tip of the iceberg when it came to identifying contaminated land in their localities. The problems can be traced back to the mid-1990s, when a certain Environment Minister, Mr. Howard, cancelled plans to develop a toxic land register. With greater vision from a previous Government, we might have avoided many of the problems that an increasingly large number of hon. Members will face over the coming years.
I would be interested to learn of the progress that has been made by local authorities on inspections under part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which was referred to by my hon. Friend Paul Rowen. I understand that the first round should be completed by 2006. It would be interesting to hear the latest progress report and to know the scale of the problem. It seems that this is yet another case of extra burdens being placed on councils with a complete lack of resources to back up the requirements. We cannot forget the danger that some of the chemicals that we are talking about pose to human health. After all, that is the most important aspect of the problem. In many cases, such chemicals can cause terrible damage.
In conclusion, a lack of knowledge has caused the problem to arise and it is imperative that we have clarity about its scale so that other residents do not suffer as some already have. More importantly, people need to know more about the location of contaminated sites to protect the health of current and future generations. That does not appear to be happening at present.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Moss on securing the debate. He spoke with great feeling about his constituents in Littleport near Ely and the difficulties that they face because their houses are built on the site of an old gasworks. It is extremely difficult for people who are unable to sell their homes and who live in fear for their health. They are unable to escape such health hazards, and, through scientific developments, by-products from coal and gas production will become easier to identify as time goes by.
My hon. Friend asked who was responsible and made it clear that the responsibility was historic. It was difficult to pin down one group who should or could foot the bill for clean-up. It is a great shame that the guidance from DEFRA and the Environment Agency is so confused. Although we all have benzo(a)pyrene in fires in our homes, in the right concentration it can be extremely dangerous. He did an extremely good job in identifying the problems involved and I have a great deal of sympathy for those poor people in Littleport. I hope that the Minister will tell us who will help them.
The hon. Members for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin), for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) and for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) spoke with great feeling about their constituency cases, although I have to take issue with one minor point of the hon. Member for Cheadle. He said that the burden could fall very heavily on local councils. That is incompatible with his party's policy on local income tax, given that local councils with the worst contamination have constituents with some of the lowest incomes. I am sure that he will forgive me for saying that.
The debate provides us with a valuable opportunity to discuss the brownfield situation in England and the Government's disjointed strategy. The development of brownfield sites, contaminated or not, can play an important role in reducing the housing shortage and preserving our environment. Current Government estimates suggest that 3.8 million new homes will be needed in England by 2021, and if we are determined to preserve the green belt, we will have to develop brownfield sites.
In 1998, the then Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions set a target for 60 per cent. of new dwellings to be built on previously developed land, often referred to as brownfield land, by 2008. The real test is whether we can achieve that target. I believe and hope that we are likely to reach it, but to do so it will be necessary to build on contaminated land. I am concerned about the effectiveness of current Government policy towards contaminated brownfield sites.
The national land database, which is co-ordinated through the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, estimates that 64,130 hectares of brownfield sites are unused or may be available for development, of which only 28,650 have been deemed suitable for housing. In some localities in England, brownfield sites constitute a significant proportion of land use. For example, in Wolverhampton, about a third of the area in the Short Heath and Wednesfield South wards has been classified as brownfield. Overall, brownfield density in parts of Wolverhampton is nearly 15 per cent., in parts of Sunderland it is 11 per cent. and in parts of Bradford it is 9 per cent. Nevertheless, given the industrial past of many of those sites, the Government do not keep accurate central records on the number of sites that are contaminated. Records are only collated at local government level. Moreover, details of developments and remediation for contaminated sites are dealt with through a variety of Government organisations, including the Rural Development Service and the Environment Agency, as well as local government. To clarify the situation, we must have records from central and local levels.
We must also know which Department is overseeing the remediation of contaminated brownfield sites. Is it DEFRA, with a responsibility for the environment, the ODPM, with its responsibility for planning matters, or even the Treasury? The Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions were also mentioned. One of those Departments at least must take the lead.
It is hardly surprising that with all those different organisations, authorities and Whitehall Departments managing brownfield sites and their remediation, local authorities have failed to make full use of funds available for investigation and contamination clean-up. Although the Environment Agency estimates that there are between 5,000 and 20,000 contaminated brownfield sites in the UK, not all are brownfield. We must know from the Government exactly how many there are.
In a report published in 2000 which surveyed eight locations throughout England, the national brownfield sites project found:
"The highest remediation cost is attributable to those sites that are categorized as contaminated and/or derelict."
Additionally, the Environment Agency has stated that the cost of developing brownfield land is more expensive than greenfield. It stated also:
"The regulatory complexities of reclaiming some brownfield land may . . . be a barrier to new development."
Contamination is a major problem environmentally and economically. It must be redressed so that development can take place. We must know the costs, and only the Government in Whitehall can provide us with that information. I hope that the Minister will ensure that those figures are produced. Once the costs are known, effective action can be taken. We should like to know when it will take place.
The Government could make progress on cleaning up and developing contaminated brownfield sites by adopting policies, such as tax incentives, that are designed to encourage private investment, especially in areas where the economic costs of clean-up deter investment. Some 55 per cent. of brownfield land is privately owned and 28 per cent. is publicly owned.
If land is to be developed and, if contaminated, cleaned up, the Government must use a range of economic instruments to promote such activity, particularly in the private sector. If they were to promote clean-up and development of privately owned brownfield sites, the stability that it would offer would provide private developers with the confidence to invest.
When there are plans afoot to develop brownfield sites, currently developers must make provisions for the investigation of contamination and the clean-up of those sites. The Government could help by making the planning process easier and by performing their own studies to ensure that contaminated land is cleaned up effectively. The Environment Agency advocates that, favouring economic incentives such as corporation tax relief and landfill tax exemption. Developers can qualify for tax incentives from the Treasury, such as a 50 per cent. relief for "qualifying land remediation expenditure." None the less, the Government could do more, including offering VAT relief for new developments. Such incentives would be particularly constructive in promoting developments in the north-east, where many developers are deterred because the high costs of clean-up and red tape do not always make projects economically viable. Those incentives could also be repeated to support the remediation of publicly owned brownfield sites.
I understand that the business regulation team has formed a taskforce to consider the possibility of granting a single remediation permit for brownfield developers, and I hope that it will cut through the red tape and bureaucracy that restrains development. None the less, I am concerned about the implications of the decision in the European Court of Justice to classify contaminated soil as landfill. It opens up a new set of red tape and bureaucracy that may serve only to replace any savings made by the business regulation team. I hope that the Government ensure that the decision of the Court does not damage the prospects for brownfield development. I should be interested to know from the Minister how the Government have responded to its decision.
We want to continue to develop brownfield sites, making them available for residential and business use. We must ensure that the Government can facilitate the clean-up of such sites, so that they become available for development. We know how much land is brownfield, but we need to know from the Government the cost of clean-up. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire and the hon. Members for Heywood and Middleton, for Rochdale and for Cheadle spoke with great expertise and with dismay at the situations in their constituencies. I hope that the Minister will turn his energy and his efforts to assisting the existing situation and the future of brownfield development.
I congratulate Mr. Moss on his grasp of a complex subject. I understand the pressures on his constituents, which he ably articulated, and the problems identified by my hon. Friend Jim Dobbin and the hon. Members for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) and for Leominster (Bill Wiggin). I will try to deal with the issues raised.
I welcome the general support that has been expressed for the Government's policy of utilising brownfield sites. Like the hon. Member for Cheadle, I think that it is important because it takes pressure off greenfield sites and releases land that is essential to housing development to meet the needs of communities in England. We have made good progress, having exceeded our target of 60 per cent. of new build on brownfield sites—the current figure is about 66 per cent. That will change as more and more houses come on stream, but it is welcome that those figures are being achieved.
Tackling problems associated with brownfield sites is therefore important. Some perfectly reasonable points have been raised in the debate. It is always worth examining mechanisms that can be used to encourage developments on brownfield sites and a range of measures are available. It would be reasonable to develop a single permit for remediation to ensure that there is not undue bureaucracy in dealing with brownfield sites, particularly their remediation.
I will try to deal with some of the detailed technical points that were raised. I disagree that there is confusion between Departments and a lack of clarity. Part of the problem is that local authorities, not unreasonably, want a simple system with a threshold figure over which there is contamination and under which there is not. That would be nice, but sadly the situation is a bit more complicated than that. The problem with having a single number above which action would be taken relates to the concentrations of any substance. We have been talking about benzo(a)pyrene—or BAP, which is an easy abbreviation and which I shall use from now on. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire made the fair point, which the Government accept, that the substance is widespread, so the fact that the substance is being detected does not necessarily mean that the land is contaminated to an unacceptable degree. I understand why he asks what the unacceptable figure is, but that is the point at which things become quite complicated. That does not mean, however, that we should not examine the situation.
The concentration of any substance that might give rise to unacceptable risk varies according to a range of factors and from site to site. Such factors include the exact form of the contaminant, the way in which the land is used—or is proposed to be used—the depth at which the substance is present, the nature of the soil, how the substance might get into the body and whether there is a pathway by which a source of harm might reach a vulnerable receptor and thereby cause harm. Each site must be examined individually and there must be a risk-based approach on each individual site. That is where the problem emerges. It is not appropriate to have one figure that can be applied to every contaminated or brownfield site in the country. There needs to be a more sophisticated approach than that.
Guideline values are needed, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said. They have to be devised for human health risk assessment. The present values are generic, whereas all the sites and their circumstances need to be considered. Soil guideline values are not binding; they are indicative—a tool to be used in assessments. Some local authorities fail to understand that, and it might be useful to try to make the guidance a bit clearer for them. The mere presence of contaminants does not mean that a risk—let alone an unacceptable risk—is present.
The Minister has just identified what he thinks the problem is, but I have been imagining what it must be like to live in Littleport. What the Minister says is not right. I agree that when it is determined that there are bad things in the soil in different places, there will be different levels of those bad things and they will have a different impact in each place. However, I disagree with him on this point. What is the point in having guidelines on what that may or may not be harmful to people's health that might not be understood properly or might be used in such a way that they have a negative impact on people's sense of well-being or the value of their property—which in this country is probably the most significant investment that anyone can make?
It is certainly true that there can be an impact on the value of property, which is why I have a great deal of sympathy for the constituents of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire. However, I understand that the former National Rivers Authority advised his local authority that the site was contaminated. Why the proper examination and site impacts were not done at that time is an issue, but that is in the past, so it does not help the people who are living there now.
To clear up that point, the then NRA advised looking at water movement, but there was no problem with water on the site, so that does not feed through to the present problem, which lies in the upper metre of soil. It is suspected—there is only anecdotal evidence—that material from the school playing field was mixed with contaminant from the adjoining gasworks site and then respread into the gardens of the houses that were built in the 1990s. The groundwater issue was looked at, but there is no groundwater problem.
I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but it would not be appropriate for me to go into the background of the case. How we do these kinds of assessment is the issue that I am trying to address. I am also trying to answer the questions that have been asked and comment on the Rochdale case to which my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton spoke.
As I was saying, the mere presence of contaminants does not mean that risk—let alone unacceptable risk—is present. That can be determined only through detailed investigations on site and the risk assessments that are made. That can be a complicated and painstaking process, but getting it right can save unnecessary remediation and disruption. That is relevant to a point made by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire. That work has to be done for individual sites.
That point also applies to the site in Rochdale. There has to be an environmental impact assessment, which I understand the local authority is doing; that is a sensible and responsible move. There are strict regulations about on-site remediation. Regardless of whether BAP or asbestos is involved, hazardous material has to be disposed of in a licensed site in a separate cell. In terms of lorry and other vehicle movements, there will be a role for both the Environment Agency in relation to waste licensing, and perhaps for the Health and Safety Executive in making sure that the vehicles are properly sheeted and there is proper dust control. A range of regulations exist to protect our constituents. Sadly, clearance of major sites involves a lot of lorry movements—not much can be done about that. The question is whether we want derelict sites to be left derelict as an eyesore for many years, or whether we want them to be developed and accept short-term disruption, which is inevitable in any site remediation or management. I believe that all of us as Members of Parliament experience that from time to time.
No one disagrees that a site must be cleared up, but sometimes developers are prepared to exploit loopholes and the lack of manpower in the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency. We have talked about moving rubble. Why is the rubble being moved when the environmental impact assessment has not been completed or the planning application approved? At present there is little that the local authority can do, short of taking out an injunction to stop it happening.
I agree that remediation will vary from site to site, but there must be a clear set of guidelines setting out the process to be followed if brownfield sites are to be developed, otherwise developers will exploit the loopholes and the gaps between Government agencies and Departments.
I would not condone any attempt to exploit loopholes in the law and regulations or to find shortcuts. However, I emphasise that there are clear regulations relating to site management and clearance.
Our policy is to encourage remediation of brownfield sites on site and the reuse of rubble, which can be used as hardcore for roads or as building material; increasingly, it is graded. It is for the developer to choose how remediation is carried out, but with landfill tax and the new regulations on hazardous waste, transporting rubble to a licensed hazardous waste site is an expensive option for the developer. I should have thought it would be worth the developer's while to consider the option of on-site remediation and the reuse of building waste. The circumstances vary from site to site, but DEFRA goes to great lengths to encourage on-site remediation. We are seeing major changes in the way in which sites are now remediated on site, as opposed to the dig and dump of the past, and I welcome that.
It is important to get the assessments right and to ensure that necessary action is taken. We are arguing about thresholds and about what is acceptable and what is not as it relates to the impact on house prices and the costs of remediation, but we must ensure as part of the evaluation that no shortcuts are taken that cause risks to human health. I know that the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire will agree.
I accept that the individual characteristics of a site such as the geology and the soil should be taken on board. If there is a CLEA model that says that the acceptable level of benzo(a)pyrene, which the Minister acknowledges is widespread, is only 1 mg per kg of soil and the compound is known to be carcinogenic, surely someone living in a house and garden where the reading is 15 mg per kg will panic. The matter is now in the public domain, so nobody will buy such houses unless somebody somewhere says—this is where the Government must take responsibility—that the risks to health arise at a level well above 15 mg per kg. The government must say that the figure is a tolerance level—that people can live there quite easily—and that with remediation, the problem goes away. That is the comfort zone that my constituents need, and I hope that the Minister can give me some idea of how he and his Department intend to satisfy that need.
I will do my best. I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. As he fairly pointed out, there are some sites where the values are way above the scale and where there is no argument about the level of contamination. To be more precise, the argument comes when one is within a band. As I mentioned, the situation will differ from site to site because of the factors that I outlined.
Let me explain to the House the procedure for risk assessment. Both part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act and planning policy take a risk-based approach to deciding when action needs to be taken in relation to contaminated land. On some sites, the risk to human health arising from exposure to contaminants is clearly an issue, particularly when the level of those contaminants is way above the scale. That is the most important factor in judging potential consequences for human health, so we have to assess the risk. To help with that, DEFRA and the Environment Agency have jointly published a series of technical guidance documents specifically about contaminated land assessment. That guidance relates to the CLEA framework and reports linked to it.
Sometimes the criticism is made that the risks have been overstated and that is when we get problems. Clearly, there has to be an element of precaution in our approach. The guidance documents take into account the views and knowledge of many expert Government bodies—notably the various UK committees on toxicology—as well as various EU committees, the World Health Organisation and work done in other countries. That is where the Health Protection Agency comes in. There is no confusion in terms of the number of agencies involved—there is a number of agencies, but they have specific responsibilities. The Health Protection Agency is an expert body on health risk, and we need its input. The Environment Agency is the expert body in relation to site management and regulation; that is what it is for. The Health and Safety Executive advises on risks to workers on site and people in the adjacent neighbourhood.
The technical materials have to be understood and used properly, because we are talking about a complex scientific area involving human toxicology, the science of soil, how substances behave in soil, how substances can reach humans to do them harm, and, of course, what the site is being used for. It is a fact that, for a carcinogen such as BAP, there is no risk-free level. As we acknowledged, that substance and many others are widely present, sometimes in areas where there is no particular industrial history, as the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire pointed out. We cannot deal with every site that contains these substances; we have to use judgment, practicality and a degree of realism in dealing with the issue.
Soil guideline values are a key element. They go to the crux of what the hon. Gentleman said about how we can give better guidance to local authorities. I come back to the point that published SGVs are generic values. They can help to simplify risk assessment, but they cannot reflect all the factors on a site. In broad terms, exceedance of a properly applied value will indicate to an expert risk assessor that further investigation and remediation may be needed, but it does not mean that it is automatically needed, as is often assumed. That is the part that guidance plays in the risk assessment. I repeat: exceedance does not mean that land must automatically be remediated. SGVs are not legally binding numbers. They are not intended to be limits that must be met. Local authorities often think that they are absolute figures and limits—that is a fairly common misconception—but I emphasise that they are not. They are a tool to help to deal with the issues on site.
I am listening carefully to the Minister. Local authorities that are tasked under current legislation to look at site contamination accept that SGVs—if they are published; only half are—are to be used as guidelines and are not necessarily threshold levels. However, for gardens in which BAP is present, as it is in Littleport, there is a CLEA level of 1 mg per kg of soil and an earlier ICRCL recommendation of 50 mg per kg as an upper limit before any action needs to be taken. That is a huge difference and that is why confusion is arising.
Someone associated with the Government—whether at the Health Protection Agency or the Environment Agency—should say that in that particular soil type, at a depth of up to 1 m, a particular concentration of BAP is not hazardous to health. I am sorry that this intervention is long, but this is important, Mr. Cummings. The Minister said that there is no acceptable level of BAP because it is carcinogenic. If it is present, it is a problem. However, the risk assessment for health needs to be made—
I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, and I shall try to address what he says. The issue is complex and I am trying to go through the points methodically for him.
The legal test in contaminated land legislation comes under part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act. It is based on the notion of an unacceptable intake of a substance. If the calculations are properly applied, as I said, exceeding the SGV will not automatically equal unacceptable intake, because there is a judgment to be made about what is unacceptable. That judgment would be easy in the case of a huge exceedance, but in many cases it is difficult to make. A judgment has to be made on the level of risk and therefore of contamination, and the SGVs are a tool to use when doing that. The question raised, not unreasonably, by the hon. Gentleman is how to make the issue clearer to local authorities. I accept that we need to give more help to assessors, who generally work for the local authority, to decide whether a concentration in soil will give rise to an unacceptable intake under the legislation. The debate is about definitions and risks.
I think that I can answer the hon. Gentleman's question. The issue is being worked on as part of the new draft of SGVs also deals with BAP. The publication of the draft, which looks at all SGVs, has been held up because of the widespread nature of BAP, which we have to take into account. However, it is intended to publish the revision when the issues have been properly addressed in further guidance that the SGV taskforce is expected to recommend on that point. The Environment Agency recognises that an SGV for asbestos is a high priority and that we need to produce it as quickly as possible. The unreleased document that the hon. Gentleman mentioned in relation to the Environment Agency is not an SGV, but, pending the revised SGVs it has been made available to local authorities that have had asbestos cases to deal with. The document is an attempt by the Environment Agency to help local authorities deal with their present pressures. However, a new SGV is being developed for asbestos and BAP. Although I do not have an exact date for its publication, I understand that the intention is to get that done as quickly as possible.
That work is part of our efforts to ensure that we have clear SGVs and give local authorities the best information possible. The SGV taskforce was originally set up to advise on how guidance could be framed to assist assessors to make their judgment on a scientific and authoritative basis. Ideas are being developed by taskforce members—the HPA in particular has a big input—and they will be considered by the taskforce collectively in the near future. We hope that the taskforce will make some specific recommendations for the Government to consider.
I will ensure that, if appropriate, we put work in hand to develop and produce further guidance without delay. Following this debate, I will ask for an update on progress on the various work streams and on time scales to ensure that there are no undue delays. These are important issues and those who have spoken in this debate have made a persuasive case about why we need that revised information as quickly as possible.
Because benzo(a)pyrene is so widespread and because the existing threshold figures are so low—I repeat the 1 mg per kg figure—if we did trial testing in half the gardens in this country, we would probably get readings above that level. If benzo(a)pyrene is a carcinogen people in those properties will be worried, and if word gets out those properties will be blighted. Because benzo(a)pyrene is so widespread can the Minister not make it a priority to consider this compound above all others, to ensure that we do not blight huge swathes of the country because we have got our figures on this compound far too low?
I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. If benzo(a)pyrene is widespread, as seems to be the case, and if its presence in low levels in gardens at different depths is not likely to present any risk to people, we should take great care that we do not blight large areas of the country. That would not be in any of our interests and it is certainly not the Government's intention to do that.
The hon. Gentleman returns to the point about an appropriate level. All I can do is repeat the point that I made. There will be different risks in relation to different levels. That is why it will be difficult to have an absolute number and say that one point below that things are okay and one point above it they are not. I am speculating in advance of the report, but there may well be a band relating to where greater care has to be taken. The SGVs give some indication—
There is guidance now and the SGVs are being updated to make them more sophisticated because it is recognised that that is a particular problem. The SGV taskforce has addressed risk levels, which the hon. Gentleman talked about. The taskforce considers that there are two clear and urgent needs in relation to SGVs. First, there is a need to restate the basis on which SGVs are derived and presented. That is because of the perception of a degree of confusion among users about the relationship of SGVs and the health criteria values, which relate to toxicology to the relevant legal test in the part IIA regime, which is the test of the unacceptable intake in table B of chapter A of the statutory guidance. That is one of the points that the hon. Gentleman has been making and the taskforce clearly recognises it as one of the priorities for it to address. Secondly, the taskforce is exploring the production of additional technical material that will enable assessors to address more directly the legal test of deciding whether an intake is unacceptable. Those are complex issues legally, in relation to the definition of terms, and technically, in relation to toxicology.
Our discussion illustrates why this country has a legacy of brownfield sites that have been left undeveloped for many years. Until recently there was no guidance on brownfield sites. We are having a fairly complicated technical discussion about the present guidance, so hon. Members will understand the difficulties that arose in the past, when there was no guidance at all. A step forward has been taken but I accept that some issues need to be addressed.
I would tell the hon. Gentleman's constituents that the Government have given financial assistance to their local authority to do some of the technical work relating to the site. He mentioned the original developer and we would expect it to be liable because the polluter-pays principle applies. It is the developer's responsibility to ensure that the site is suitable for building; if there is a problem, it is the developer's responsibility to rectify it. In many cases, the developers are no longer around, which appears to be the case in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.
The hon. Gentleman will know that there are funds available through the ODPM for dealing with remediation of contaminated land. It depends on the circumstances, but his local authority can make a bid for the remediation work once it knows the extent of the problem and the steps that need to be taken. To offer encouragement to the hon. Gentleman's constituents, I would say that support is available once the nature of the problem has been identified. It is necessary to identify and understand the nature of the problem and that work is currently under way.
The work has to be done properly because we do not want a long-term legacy for people who live in houses on brownfield land. If there is to be remediation—it sounds as if there may well have to be—it should be carried out properly so that there is a permanent solution. The hon. Gentleman's case is not unique; there are similar sites throughout the country and we are keen to ensure that they are dealt with and that we identify and remove unacceptable risks to human health and the environment. We seek to bring damaged land back into beneficial use and to ensure that cost burdens faced by individuals, companies and society as a whole are proportionate, manageable and economically sustainable.
I doubt that many constituencies do not have sites with similar problems. On the edge of my constituency in the former borough of Glanford, there was an enormous contaminated site on the site of an old fertiliser factory. The site was not only contaminated with a range of chemicals but had the added piquancy of anthrax. The former council thought that it had struck a very good deal with ICI, the former owner, by buying the site for £1. It was very pleased with the deal because it wanted to develop the land for housing. In return for that £1, however, the local authority took on all the liabilities for the site. As I pointed out, it was perhaps not such a bargain after all. Indeed, that turned out to be the case, because a lot of the site was so heavily contaminated that it could never be used for housing. However, it has been turned into a fantastic nature reserve, so I am pleased with that. I thought that it was quite a good outcome, although there was one problem. Glanford was merged into North Lincolnshire unitary authority, which then took over the liabilities. The site was leaching pollutants into the River Humber, and as North Lincolnshire council now had responsibility, it faced prosecution from the Environment Agency because of the contamination coming off the site. There are all sorts of problems with these sites, as I know, and I have a great deal of sympathy with the points that hon. Members have made.
I wish to put a couple of points on the record. I think that the Minister said that my local authority, East Cambridgeshire district council, could apply for money from ODPM or DEFRA funds for the full remediation of the site. Secondly, after remediation, there must be some kind of scientific comfort zone, whether in the form of threshold levels or SGVs, which we still have not had for BAP. Otherwise, the blight will continue, because it will be common knowledge that the site had a problem. We must be able to say that it now has a clean sheet and is no longer a health risk.
On the first point, I confirm that funds are available from ODPM—not from DEFRA. There is a fund that local authorities can apply to. How much they get and for what depends on the individual circumstances and the basis of the application, and is a matter for the local authority and ODPM.
I can give the hon. Gentleman some longer-term comfort. DEFRA and the Environment Agency have published the contaminated land exposure assessment, the CLEA, which I think he mentioned. That is a methodology—a series of reports—of which the SGVs are just one part. It provides a scientifically-based framework for the assessment of land contamination and the risk to human health. That technical guidance also applies when we are considering regulatory action of proposals for development of the land.
Under the CLEA methodology a wide range of guidance is available, not just from the Government but from external experts. The SGV taskforce is also considering the most recent guidance, contaminated land advice note 2/05, which addresses the short-term points, and a development team is working on additional technical guidance. It remains to be seen what will emerge from that work. However, as the CLAN indicates, it is recognised that we need something to bridge the gap between a tox value and an SGV properly applied. It also suggests how that will inform the assessor and what the legal test demands where part IIA of the Act is applied to an area of land. That should deal with the point about the long-term assessment in relation to the risks.
As I mentioned, a number of sites fall into the category mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, many of them in the north-east because of its industrial legacy. In the majority of those cases, I am not aware of any long-term problems following remediation in the majority of those cases. There may well be cases of which I am unaware, but once action has been taken to deal with remediation, there should be no reason for long-term blight. It is uncertainty and doubt which tend to cause blight on people's houses. As we have seen in the debate, the doubts that can blight property values include questions about what figures mean and whether they mean that is contaminated or not. It can be difficult, but when those questions have been resolved and the contamination level and therefore what needs to be done have been clearly assessed, and when remedial action has been taken, the sites do not just technically comply with requirements in relation to contaminated land, but they legally comply with them as well. Post-remediation, there really should be no problem with the long-term future of those properties. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman and his constituents.
Apart from applications for grants relating to the land, funding is available to help local authorities with their investigation, as well as the remedial costs. DEFRA has some funds available under the contaminated land capital projects programme. I am reluctant to make them public, but the hon. Gentleman has dragged the existence of that money out of me. About £17 million is available to local authorities for carrying out their duties to investigate contaminated land in their area and seeing to its remediation. The Government's revenue support grant helps to cover local authorities' revenue expenditure. An element for that work was added to the RSG in 1997 to support the introduction and implementation of the regime. However, the local government finance system means that the RSG is not ring-fenced to particular functions; it is distributed on a generalised formula.
The hon. Gentleman may like to know that East Cambridgeshire district council bid in 2004 for the Littleport site and received £17,000 for the investigation. A further bid was made in 2005–06 for just over £17,000, which was also approved. Those sums of money are for investigations to help the council to decide whether the land presents an unacceptable risk, and therefore needs to be formally determined as contaminated land under part 2A of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.
DEFRA has issued a letter of intent for a successful bid. Once expenditure takes place on site, a sum is added to the Government's RSG settlement. Support is based on the notional cost of borrowing money and of paying it back over 20 years, and distributed in accordance with the RSG formula. The relevance of this, as I mentioned, is significant harm. So I can tell the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire that there are guidelines, and that they are being revised. Some of the points raised in the debate are being addressed through the taskforce. There is financial help to assist councils in addressing those issues, and providing the reassurance and security that his constituents, and those of other hon. Members, clearly want.