HC Deb 17 November 1949 vol 469 cc2339-46

11.0 p.m.

Wing-Commander Millington (Chelmsford)

The matter I wish to raise tonight is considerably more local than the subject of the Debate which has preceded it during the course of this afternoon and evening. I wish to raise the question of water supplies in the county of Essex. I do it not from the completely parochial view that Essex is a dry county, but also because it presents a problem in my county which is common to many other counties in the United Kingdom.

I should like to start with the constituency I have the honour to represent in this House—the borough of Chelmsford. In common with other parts of this country it has progressively altered in the last 10 to 15 years, and has been expanding not only its population and industries, but also its water intake per head of population. Partly because of this expansion and partly because of the policy of His Majesty's Government in seeking to create new standards of housing it has meant that better hygiene, sanitation, and bathing facilities have led to an extra call being made upon the water supplies of the local authority undertaking.

We have reached a stage in the borough where unless there is a new supply of water within the next two or three years it is likely that the projected expansion of the borough will have to be curtailed. Each successive year since 1945 the total amount of water consumed in the borough has been slightly more than 10 per cent. above that of the preceding year, and by the end of 1952, when the current building plans are completed, there will not be enough piped water supplied to make it possible for the local authority to build any further houses. It is also a problem for the water engineer who is now having to advise the council to turn down applications for new industries because he cannot guarantee them the necessary supplies of water.

It is not only in the towns of Essex that this problem is becoming more and more acute. Essex, in addition to being a dry county, is an exceedingly good food producing county; it has some of the best agricultural land in the United Kingdom. Part of that agricultural land is not able to yield to its capacity simply because—and it is not my purpose to make political points—of neglect of agriculture and the amenities of the rural community in the past. The food producing potentialities of the county have not been exploited fully because water is neither available nor can it be made available unless some new water undertakings are installed in the near future to carry out the scheme which all who live in the Essex countryside would like to see implemented.

The authorities responsible for water supplies in the county have been concerned with the problem, which has become acute, and has been so for a considerable time. There are three main schemes which I would like my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health to note, one of which seeks merely to solve the immediate problems in the borough of Chelmsford, while the other two seek to solve the problems of Essex in the forseeable future, problems which include the projected new town at Basildon, where on one estimate there will be a population of 60,000 in 10 to 15 years' time.

The first of these projects is the comparatively simple one of putting a dam in the village of Ingatestone across the River Wid, which drains into the River Chelmer, and then into the sea. The advantage of this scheme is that at the moment the good water of this river is going to waste at the rate of about 800 million gallons a year. The only engineering costs would be the erection of a dam, and the carrying of a road across that dam, to stem it and to impound the water when the river is running in full tide, and to release it when there is a drought and a shortage. It is believed that if this project could be sanctioned and put in train in two years' time, the borough of Chelmsford would have its water problems solved for at least the next 20 years, and it would release it from its present difficulty, which is that it is finding it difficult to plan fresh building and industrial undertakings because it has not yet a guaranteed supply of water.

The second of the schemes is the rather more grandiose one, and it is out of consideration for the second scheme that I have sought to raise the Debate this evening. It is the proposal that the combined Southend and South Essex Water Board should create a new reservoir at Hanningfield. I know that a draft order will be presented within the course of the next few weeks. This order will ask for permission to create a dam which will flood something over a thousand acres of the best arable land in the county of Essex. When the matter is proposed, it will be subject to a local inquiry and there is no doubt that there will be considerable opposition to this proposal, not only from the agricultural interests in the county—those farmers who are to be dispossessed—not only from those who are concerned about the loss of food production, which will ensue through the flooding of this area, but even by the county council, who took the unprecedented step recently of recommending that the whole question be reviewed by the Ministry of Health and that an alternative should be sought before sanction is given to this scheme.

I have felt for a long time—and it has been held by other Members in this House—that the claims of agriculture are not properly considered, particularly by the Ministry of Health and the Defence Ministries, when there is a proposal for a change in the use of agricultural land. I would like to be satisfied that before sanction can be given for a scheme which involves the flooding of a thousand acres of good agricultural land, the consequent loss to the nation in food produced, and loss to the individual farmers and farm workers who will lose their homes and occupations, will be fully considered; and that full consideration will be given to the possibility of finding some alternative source of good water supply to the people in Essex who need it badly.

The third scheme, which has not yet officially been brought to the attention, I believe, of the Ministry of Health, but about which the Parliamentary Secretary will no doubt be aware, is a scheme properly to use the facilities of the existing reservoir at Abberton, near Colchester. This reservoir was built at considerable expense before the war and the first stage was merely the building of the reservoir and the taking into it of water from the River Stour.

Under the 1935 Water Act, sanction has been given for a first extension of the Abberton scheme which is to bring in water from the Blackwater River from a dam at Stratford St. Mary. Even with this new scheme there is reason to believe that the Abberton reservoir will never be more than half full. I would like the Parliamentary Secretary to give his assurance that before any steps are taken which would irrevocably take land out of production, a further extension of the Abberton scheme will be prospected so that this reservoir can be filled to capacity in the flood periods and thus provide water during the periods of drought.

I realise that it is difficult to hold the balance between the various claims upon land, and I realise too that amongst those who will be most hotly resisting the scheme to flood the Hanningfield area are some who are also making claims on the water undertakings for a fresh supply of water. I would like in this little short Debate to have them reassured that when their various schemes are brought to the Minister for final judgment he will have in mind, that although Essex is a dry county, and although it is the declared policy of the Ministry of Health to see that Essex gets a new, clean, better water supply in abundance in the near future, it will not be done at the expense of food production or the agricultural community.

Mr. Bing (Hornchurch)

As a representative of one of those areas whose unrestricted and unplanned growth has been one of the great tragedies of development in Essex in the inter-war years I would just like to say how glad I am that we have been able at any rate to have had a Debate on this subject. I do not know whether I agree with everything my hon. and gallant Friend has said, but it is at least a most important problem, and one that we ought to discuss in this House. I am only sorry that of the Essex Members it should be left to those of us on this side of the House exclusively to deal with the problem.

The hon. Baronet the Member for Harwich (Sir S. Holmes)—and after all his constituency is one of the principal ones affected—was so good as to suggest that it might be a good thing to curtail the salaries of Members of Parliament. When one looks across and sees the extent of his interest in this matter perhaps it would be a good thing to pay Members by attendance, because if there is one Member who should be here it is the hon. Baronet. I can only suppose that his commercial experience being based on the theory that one should keep one's powder dry, he has lost all interest in the supply of pure water. I am equally sorry that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler) is not here because his constituency, like that of my hon. and gallant Friend, is particularly affected.

Finally, although it is not generally known, one of the water problems of Essex is the county borough of Southend. Not only do we have the problem on the London side, but we have it on the Southend side. From a water point of view these two areas are like leeches attached to the main body of the county. I hope that it will be possible that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to show that the Ministry are studying what is a very difficult problem.

Oddly enough, Essex was the first area which ever had an organised water development. The Lea River Company, which was set up in the time of Charles I—and under a Tory Administration, my hon. Friend points out—was the first reservoir scheme to provide a regular and modern water supply in any country in the world. In thanks for what Essex did for it 300 years ago, London might look with some favour at least on the difficult problems we have now and which are the result of Essex dealing with the over-spill of London's population.

11.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Blenkinsop)

Let me start by saying that I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Wing-Commander Millington) for the way in which he has introduced this subject to the House tonight and to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) for the way in which he has given it his support. I had thought that my hon. and gallant Friend would be thinking exclusively of the position of his own constituency of Chelmsford.

Brigadier Mackeson (Hythe)

The remarks of the hon. Member for Horn-church (Mr. Bing) amount to cheap political dirt.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Had I known the hon. and gallant Member was going to make that interruption, I doubt if I should have given him an opportunity of making it. My hon. and gallant Friend not only raised the problem of Chelmsford, but he has realised that this is a matter which affects the whole of Essex, and particularly the area of South Essex covered by the South Essex Water Company and the Southend Water Company.

Wing-Commander Millington

I forgive my hon. Friend his ignorance, but may I point out that my constituency consists not only of Chelmsford itself, but also of the rural district of Chelmsford, the rural district of Ongar and the urban district of Brentwood, which form a considerable part of Essex.

Mr. Blenkinsop

I am glad that my hon. and gallant Friend did not confine himself to that particular area. He said this was a problem affecting Essex as a whole and that we cannot regard the position of one township and its surrounding rural area on its own apart from the general problem.

I think my hon. and gallant Friend will realise that I am not in a position tonight to express opinions about some of the individual schemes he mentioned, for the reason that they will probably be the subject of public inquiries very shortly. Therefore, it would not be proper that I should give any view upon them at this time. But I would assure my hon. and gallant Friend that we are conscious of the need of this area and there will certainly be full opportunity for the expression of all points of view upon the schemes that are being put forward.

My hon. and gallant Friend mentioned a scheme which is likely to be put forward before long in the form of a draft order—namely, the South Essex Water Company jointly with the Southend Water Company. That order will be open to objection, and if objection is made, a public inquiry will be held. At that inquiry there will be the fullest opportunity for all interests, both local and national, to put forward their points of view and any alternative schemes they may have in mind. I believe that the farming interests have alternative proposals of their own which they wish to suggest. It will be open to them to put these proposals forward when the public local inquiry is held. Indeed, that will be the case, too, in other proposals which, I believe, are being considered.

Our interest as a Ministry is to try to ensure that the most economical and valuable schemes are proceeded with. For example, we want to ensure, as far as we can, that we can meet the needs of the whole area in the widest possible sense with the most economy of material and manpower, and with proper regard for all the different interests which are involved. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chelmsford has particularly mentioned the problem of agricultural interests. As he pointed out there are, in fact, two agricultural interests. There is the interest of the agriculturalist in ensuring that valuable land is not flooded, and the interest of the agriculturalist in seeing that a good, full, and plentiful supply of fresh water is provided.

As my hon. and gallant Friend has pointed out, it is sometimes a matter of the greatest difficulty to get a proper balance between what are often two competing interests. There is also the wider industrial and social interest to be considered. I would give this assurance to my hon. and gallant Friend that in any scheme of this kind we do take the greatest pains to consult with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Town and Country Planning, to make sure, as far as we can, that all these very important and proper interests are fully considered and are given full weight.

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

Is my hon. Friend quite satisfied that the consultation to which he has referred always takes place early enough in the proceedings.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Yes. It is obvious that the attitude of the different interests is bound to depend to a very large extent upon the detail of the schemes which are being proposed, and not upon the schemes in their initial stages. A great deal depends upon the areas involved, which very often are matters of detail rather than of general principle. I can assure my hon. Friend that both in the earlier stages, when plans are being formulated, and in the later stages as they are being given fuller consideration by my Department, and at the public inquiries, if such inquiries are held, the interests of agriculture and of industry, and social interests, are given very careful consideration. Indeed it is for that very reason that schemes often take a long time to develop.

We have had on several occasions suggestions made by hon. Members on both sides of the House that there has been too much delay over certain schemes. That delay has been occasioned by this very proper demand for full consideration of all the interests which are involved. So while I appreciate the fears of agricultural interests lest their particular points of view should be forgotten, I can give them this firm assurance that they will have every opportunity to put forward their case, and that we shall be most interested to consider any alternative schemes which are put forward.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-four Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.