HC Deb 31 July 1953 vol 518 cc1714-32

1.20 p.m.

Mr. W. F. Deedes (Ashford)

I will readily admit, in changing the subject of debate rather abruptly, that a less appropriate day, or indeed a less appropriate season, to press for larger water supplies could hardly be chosen, but it seems about two years since the House had an opportunity of discussing rural water supplies. That may be interpreted as meaning, and perhaps does mean, that all is going very smoothly.

Generally speaking, I would not dispute that. I think we have made and are making good progress in this direction. Indeed, when the Minister comes to answer, I have no doubt that he will be able to produce some very admirable figures to that effect, but they will not—and I am sure he will admit it--tell the whole story of water supplies and the difficulties which are now confronting some of the local authorities.

There are some difficulties; we have encountered them in East Kent, and I have no doubt that other counties have experience of them. I think this is, in many ways, an appropriate time to raise this subject, because in a season of drought all rural water difficulties are naturally emphasised. This, however, has been, if anything, an inclement summer, and therefore the difficulties to which one calls attention are not these due to unnatural causes but, possibly, are more administrative.

In dealing with these difficulties, I have no desire to disparage the progress which has been made, and I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that. The overall figures are certainly impressive. Something like £72 million worth of rural schemes have been submitted, rather more than half of that total amount has been authorised to begin, another £15 million worth has been approved in principle but not authorised, and well over £5 million has actually been paid, with another £10 million to come.

But as was indicated two years ago, when we were discussing the 1951 Act to supplement the provisions of the Act of 1944, the crucial factor is not what has been promised or what has been laid on one side, but what has actually been spent, and in this direction one quite rightly recognises that my hon. Friend does not possess an unfettered discretion. The arbiter here is not his Ministry, but to some extent the Treasury, and I have no way of telling—and I would ask for guidance on that point—how far the capital allowance falls short of what the Ministry itself would like.

The principal water undertaking in my constituency, the Mid-Kent Water Company, was told by the Ministry in relation to one proposal that the capital available was totally inadequate for what they desired to do. That is a comment which has been made by the Ministry and passed on by the local authority, and I think it would be useful if some comment could be made on it. I should like to make the point quite frankly that the capital allocations from the Treasury—or the shortage of them, if they exist—can often be made the excuse for sluggish administration, not only at the centre, but locally as well.

This non-availability of capital can be used as a reason for not doing something which could perfectly well be undertaken administratively. I am well aware that the Treasury can be made the whipping boy for too much, and that too much can be laid at their door in relation to the capital shortage and the reason things are held up on that account. We should therefore like to have an indication as to how big a factor this capital allocation really is.

That brings me to my second point. In counties like mine, very much of the housing expansion programme in which we justifiably take pride comprises development in villages. Very great expansion is taking place there, and great care is taken that sewerage schemes keep pace with local building. No housing scheme, I think I am right in saying, can be passed unless a sewerage scheme goes with it, but the water capacity does not always form as close a part of these plans. It has been and sometimes is neglected, with unfortunate after-effects, and I should like to feel sure that there is no danger of rural water capacity—and, by capacity, I mean trunk mains capable of pushing the water to where it is required—lagging behind the very remarkable expansion in rural housing which has taken place in the last year or two. I think this applies particularly to trunk mains, where certainly the experience of my own county gives me cause for anxiety.

For instance, in the last eight years, the number of houses supplied with water in the 38 parishes of my division has risen from 5,763 to 7,376, which is a rise of about 28 per cent. Meter supplies—that is to say, water going mainly to supply agricultural undertakings—have risen from 1,030 to 1,687, or 65 per cent. It goes without saying that that increase has imposed very heavy demands upon the mains, and my information is that the expansion, replacement and increase in these mains is not proceeding anything like fast enough. A report from the principal water company in my division puts it this way: Most of the agricultural areas are supplied by small diameter mains, and, with the construction of new houses in rural districts, there is no margin at all for additional supplies for agriculture unless these mains are reinforced. This may be purely a local problem, or a wider one and even a national one, but it is a rather disquieting situation, looking some way ahead into the future, and I hope that my hon. Friend may have something to say about it.

It is not only a future problem, but a present one. For instance, several parishes in one part of my constituency—the Tenterden district—suffer from inadequate pressure through the supply main being too small. Two of these villages—Stone and Wittersham—have to have their water supply supplemented by pumping, for which the rural district council is responsible. The pumping is done from old sources which had been abandoned, and it is carried out at the cost of the equivalent to a 4.2d. rate in the district.

To sum up this part of the problem, a healthy water supply in the rural areas must depend a good deal on maintaining healthy arteries, and I have the impression that in some local areas trunk mains are beginning to disclose the fact that very little was done to them during the war, and that they are now suffering from a kind of arterio-sclerosis. It is, however, difficult to ascertain what is the limiting factor in going ahead with these schemes, whether it is capital or pipes, I suspect that there is difficulty over the supply of pipes, particularly the larger diameter pipes. I am not an expert in these matters, but I mean the pipes required for the larger mains.

I shall be glad if the hon. Gentleman can tell us who is responsible for the production of these pipes, what is the supply situation, what is the prospect, and how things are coming along. I think I am right in saying that the eight and nine-inch mains are very difficult to get. In correspondence earlier this year between his Ministry and the West Ashford Rural District Council on the nine-inch main projected between Charing and Bethersden, a delay of two years was mentioned in the supply of pipes. Is that an inaccurate figure? I know that certain local authorities have cut down the delay very appreciably. It would be helpful to know what the truth is there, because I would say of pipes what I said of capital, that a shortage of them can be made the reason for a certain amount of unreasonable delay.

I now come to the question of grants. In my experience—and I think the hon. Member will have to bear me oat in this—very considerable delays sometimes occur in the trinity comprised by the county council, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the rural district council, particularly regarding grants in aid. The terms of the Act on this are clear enough, but the implementing of them, on which there is still doubt, has filled a large number of pending baskets, and not only the pending baskets of the local authorities.

The truth is that the cost of these schemes is really appallingly high, and rural district councils, who have to think in terms of rates, require solid assurances in terms of £.s.d. before they go ahead on sometimes even the smallest schemes. Is the hon. Gentleman sure that the machinery for settling these grant schemes is moving as smoothly and as swiftly as it should?

These schemes require the approval of the county councils. Generally speaking, the county councils tend to favour domestic supply schemes, and I am not happy that the right ratio is being maintained between the county housing estate water schemes and the individual agricultural schemes. If the hon. Gentleman could say a word about the liaison between his Ministry and the Ministry of Agriculture on the joint effort they have to make in these rural water schemes, I think that would be a help. Are we quite sure that those two Ministries are marching in step or that one of them is not getting too large a share of what is available?

There is one outstanding matter for which the hon. Gentleman is not responsible, but it is indicative of what can happen, and I feel constrained to mention it. One of the most afflicted of my villages is a village called Egerton where the shortage of water causes very serious inconvenience to the farmers. In February, the Mid-Kent Water Company wrote to the Board of Trade asking for permission to link a new main to a main attached to a factory controlled by the Board in that district.

I have received copies of the correspondence which has been running splendidly from February up to the beginning of this month, and in which have now become involved the Ministry of Materials and the Ministry of Works, and as yet there is no settlement and Egerton still waits for its water scheme. That kind of correspondence—although I stress again that it is not the responsibility of the hon. Gentleman—does not assist the rapid development of water supplies in the rural areas.

My county council has recently produced a report on the re-organisation of water supplies in the county, mainly concerned with the re-grouping of companies, certain authorities, and so on. I must not dwell upon it, because it may involve private legislation in the future, but the report underlines the very rapid growth of the population in the rural, as well as the urban, areas, and the need to look a very long way ahead in respect of problems which are possibly coming up in the future.

Whatever may be said of the scheme which they propose—and I have not yet really studied it—the Kent County Council have at least shown their willingness to look well ahead at the county's problem. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree with me when I say that there is a need for the Ministry to do this, too, and not only to administer the Act as it is, but also to look some way ahead and to examine this question of the capacity of mains and some of the bigger problems that are bound to arise out of the very rapid expansion of rural housing.

We hear a good deal about the need for more electricity—in fact I myself said something on the subject recently—and on the need for more rural telephones. Both are very important, but neither of them, in my opinion, is as important as water in the effort to keep the rural population in the countryside. A woman may be prepared to forgo the telephone, but no woman is prepared to forgo water. I do not wish to exaggerate the position, but the fact is that the lack of water is still sterilising a large number of good agricultural areas.

Whatever the Minister may say in response to this, I can inform him that the debate has paid a small dividend, because, by a remarkable coincidence, soon after it was projected, four of my local schemes, three in East Ashford and one in the Cranbrook Rural District area, were approved. I am not sure that they got the right ones in East Ashford, because neither of the two they picked was supported by the county council. But no doubt the intention was good. I am not looking a gift horse in the mouth, "but wish to express my gratitude here and now for what has been done.

I conclude by paying a tribute to what has been achieved, and I hope that what I have said does not suggest that there has been any considerable failure. I only ask the Minister to accept the fact that there are aspects of the problem which still need serious attention, and possibly a fresh approach, and I shall be glad to have the assurance that they will receive it.

1.37 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Gough (Horsham)

When I saw the list of subjects which had been chosen for discussion today, I counted myself fortunate in that there were certainly two in which I was particularly interested. In my constituency we have, perhaps, more than our fair share of retired officers, and considerably less than our fair share of piped water supplies. Therefore, I was all the more disappointed that I was unable to catch Mr. Speaker's eye in the previous debate, particularly as I was able to draw his attention, on a point of order, to the fact that he might be prepared to extend the debate on the subject of retired officers.

Perhaps I may say, in passing, that I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government will be able in his watery reply to lay some of the dust of the useless platitudes to which we had to listen from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, and perhaps he might tell our hon. Friend, as I was unable to do, that I entirely support my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Miss Ward)——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hopkin Morris)


Mr. Gough

I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and I will now address myself to the subject under discussion.

This problem, which has been so ably put to the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes), is really one of a hydro-geological nature, and it obviously varies in different parts of the country. In North-West Sussex, which I have the honour to represent in the constituency of Horsham, there is an enormous area—I have here the actual geological survey on which can be seen a very large patch coloured grey, on the scale of one inch to the mile—which covers almost seven-eighths of my constituency, and which is an expanse of weald consisting of plain, solid clay. It goes down to a depth of from 600 feet to 1,000 feet, and below that, I understand, there are a further 300 feet of clay. On the fringe around Midhurst and the Sussex Downs there is an area of green-sand which runs to chalk, but the vast majority of my constituents must depend for their water supply on piped water and nothing else.

That problem has existed for many years, yet large areas of the constituency are only a matter of 40 or 50 miles from this House. Nevertheless, as far as water supply is concerned, they are living in the Stone Age. What is even more disturbing is that many parts of my constituency depend entirely on shallow wells. They have nothing else on which to depend. Yet as fast as my hon. Friend's Department are trying to improve the situation by approving schemes for piped water, so the Ministry of Health are pulling in the opposite direction by quite rightly condemning very many of these wells as unsuitable for human use.

I do not want to bring party issues into the matter, but I must say that the hopes of people like my constituents were raised by the 1945 Act. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) is not in his place—I know he is to enter the debate a little later—for I must say quite frankly that it is a great pity that when right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite were in power they utilised so much public money in schemes for agriculture in East and West Africa when, if they had implemented the 1945 Act more fully, there would today be far greater possibilities of increasing the food supplies in this country.

There are three requisites to growing food. The first is the soil, the second is sunshine, and the third is water. Fortunately, in these islands we have the finest soil in the world. My hon. Friend has already referred to our climate, and perhaps the least said about sunshine the better at the moment, but the strange thing is that we seem to get our sunshine. There is, of course, nothing that can be done on the Front Bench here to increase the supply of that most important element.

I therefore come to the third requisite—water; and here I want to pursue the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford by pointing out that even in such a summer as this we have a most astounding paradox. We are just seeing out the month of July. Tomorrow is 1st August. I venture to suggest that if our climate turned one of the somersaults for which it is so notorious, and if we awoke tomorrow and found the sun shining—and let us hope that, with Bank Holiday in front of us, that will be the case—and if the sun were to shine for another three or four weeks, then in some areas of this country, particularly in the weald in my constituency, a drought would be proclaimed and there would be a most serious situation in which people would be cajoled to cut down their use of water. That is the paradoxical situation in which we find ourselves.

I want to draw my hon. Friend's attention to some correspondence which we have recently had about a water scheme in my constituency—the Lodsworth scheme. Lodsworth is a small village to the west of my constituency. This scheme is part and parcel of a bigger scheme. The point I want to put to my hon. Friend is this: the scheme at Lodsworth has been turned down because in the opinion of the Ministry of Agriculture, there are not sufficient and weighty grounds in respect of agricultural claims. Nevertheless, it is part of three other schemes which I understand have been approved.

On behalf of my constituents in the neighbourhood of Lodsworth and the neighbouring village of Lurgashall, I want to ask my hon. Friend whether he can give any indication whether the starting date of this scheme will be this year, next year—and I will not go on to say "some time or never." There are in the area, whatever the Ministry of Agriculture may say, people who are making most serious attempts to help the Government by increasing the food production of the country. They have no other way of doing this except by the provision of a piped supply of water.

It is not my wish to detain the House unduly long, but one of the difficulties which arises in my part of the world arises under the Act itself. Under the conditions of the Act, if any person wants to bore a water hole to provide water for his own personal use, he cannot do so without first of all making application to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Under the Act the Ministry have to satisfy themselves as to whether or not there are any objections to that course being adopted. I understand that there is an exception in the case of domestic users who wish to bore for less than 50 feet, but normally if any user finds himself on the edge of green-sand country and wants to get a better water supply for himself, he has to apply to the Ministry who, in turn, have to find out whether there are any objections.

I understand that in practice the water companies always object on principle, although I think we all recognise that, with the best will in the world, the regional scheme itself, the main water supply scheme for the whole country, cannot possibly be completed before at least another 10 or 20 years. I do not know whether I am in order in pursuing this point on this subject, but I want to ask my hon. Friend whether some representations could be made to those water companies to think again before they object to such schemes and, furthermore, whether under the Act some encouragement could be given to farmers on a co-operative basis to bore water holes in these greensand and chalky areas and so supply themselves with water which at a later date could be incorporated in the general water supply scheme when it is completed.

The reference which I have made to this strange paradox of at one stage in a summer having too much water, and then, within a few weeks, having too little water, suggests that even when we have a general piped supply it would still be very greatly to our advantage to have some such bore holes which could be used in those circumstances to boost the water supply in the few weeks when, through entirely local reasons, there is a shortage of water.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford for raising this matter, because it affects a large number of my constituents in what is largely an agricultural constituency. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will give me a helpful answer on the specific point I raised in connection with the Lodsworth water supply, and I look forward to the day when areas such as mine, which cannot of their own volition obtain water in any other way than through a piped supply, will, in this 20th Century, be able to receive a plentiful supply of what is erroneously considered to be one of the free elements.

1.50 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Ernest Marples)

I am sure that the House will be most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) for raising this subject on the last day before we go on our holidays. I should like to thank him for his courtesy in giving me full notice of the points that he wished to raise. I hope to answer most, if not all, of them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Gough) seemed to think that the relationship of the number of retired officers in his constituency to the gallonage of water available was not what it might be. My impression of officers, at any rate of those who are not retired, is that their interest in liquid is mainly concentrated upon liquid more exciting and exhilarating than that which is in short supply at Horsham. My hon. Friend referred to Midhurst District Council. We have not yet agreed that they should proceed with the rest of the scheme which he mentioned. The reason for the refusal is the very heavy capital cost of £300 for each property served.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford said, with the limited resources that are available it is up to the Government to see that as many people as possible benefit from a scheme in relation to its cost. It is obvious that when we proceed with schemes we must choose those which will benefit most people in relation to an agreed sum of money. If the Ministry of Agriculture advise us that expenditure on the scheme mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham will be justified in terms of increased food production it might—and I underline "might "—be authorised, perhaps in 1954 or later as part of the extra £1 million capital investment which has been made available for agricultural schemes. It would be necessary to convince the Minister of Agriculture or his Parliamentary Secretary that increased food production would flow from more water supplies. As I am not an expert in agriculture, we in the Department would always accept the advice of the Ministry of Agriculture on that point. Whether it would be convenient or acceptable to my hon. Friend or not, we should be forced to accept it.

Under Section 14 of the Water Act, 1948, certain areas are protected against bore holes to the extent that fresh underground abstractions are only allowed by licence. The reason is that we do not want to dissipate our water supplies. We in the Ministry get the advice of the Geological Survey and we give weight to the opinion of their technical experts in deciding whether or not boring should be permitted.

Mr. Gough

If I put a specific case to my hon. Friend, will he look into it? It was brought to my notice but is really outside my constituency. My hon. Friend will appreciate that these water supply problems cannot always be confined to a constituency. In this case it is submitted that the water company have objected frivolously.

Mr. Marples

Certainly. Perhaps my hon. Friend will consult the hon. Member for the constituency concerned. I will look into the matter very carefully and will either write or speak to him personally about it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ash-ford started by saying that all is going very smoothly by and large, but having been a junior Minister in a democracy where pressure on a Ministry is relentless and never ceasing, I assure him that on the day when I find that things are going smoothly I shall be so astonished that I shall pass away and go to another land altogether. The Government do not yield to anybody in their appreciation of the importance of rural water supplies as well as other services which are essential to rural life. It is not my job to deal with transport, roads and electricity. It is up to me to concentrate on water.

In these islands as a whole we are pretty well off for piped water supplies. It is true to say that about 95 per cent. of our population have a piped supply in their houses or a stand pipe supply not far away. That figure would be hard to beat anywhere else in the world. That is the percentage of the population as a whole. At the same time, in rural areas only the percentage of families with a piped supply is a good deal higher than 5 per cent. It may be about 18 or 20 per cent.

The basic reason for the difference in the figure for rural areas is that the population in the rural areas is much more thinly spread over the ground and it is more expensive and more difficult to take water to them. Long lengths of pipes have to be laid to serve comparatively few properties and often to earn a comparatively small revenue. That is one of the basic considerations which can never be ignored when looking at this problem. That is the reason, to a large extent, why the scheme mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham has been turned down so far.

Another fundamental fact is that a scheme to improve water supplies demands just the same kinds of materials and labour as are needed for other kinds of work. Certain building materials which are required for water supply purposes are needed for other forms of building. Cement is used, and we are short of cement in various parts of the country. There is just about the right supply for the volume of building work, and only just. Cast-iron pipes which are so essential in this work are just as important to the gas industry. If a reservoir is constructed it may need steel or concrete and labour which are required for the erection of power stations and so on.

" Restriction of capital investment" is often thought by some people to be a phrase devised to give esoteric pleasure to backroom boys, but it is a question of assessing the total amount of resources available in terms of material and manpower, and then to allocate them to the schemes which the Government consider ought to be undertaken in order of priority. If too many jobs are started it does not mean that more will be finished. It means that prices will be increased and the completion time will be longer. That is the difficulty with some local authorities in the case of housing. Some plan to have under construction two and a half times more houses than they can complete in a year. They should finish the houses they have in hand first by concentrating labour and materials, and then come back for more.

The cost of rural water supply work is getting a shade alarming. It was nearly doubled between 1939 and 1946, and since 1946 it has nearly doubled itself again. But I think that we have grounds for thinking—and I will say no more—that this rise in prices has now been arrested. One of the things that can help in the matter of cost is to see that a scheme is well vetted technically and consideration given to it by a civil engineering consultant or a water supply specialist.

In a recent debate on small water supply companies, I said that the service of a consultant civil engineer was desirable, but by plucking one sentence out of its content it was possible to interpret my remark as meaning that all water companies should use the services of a consultant civil engineer. I am afraid that some engineers did so interpret my remark and were grieved in consequence. I am afraid that that interpretation wounded the delicate susceptibilities of some civil engineers, mainly, I think, those whose chief interest was in water schemes. But one cannot compare the Metropolitan Water Board, for instance, with a small rural water company. The Metropolitan Water Board would clearly have engineers of the highest standard because of the magnitude of the works that they undertake, but the small rural council have neither the resources nor the amount of work available to employ a full-time civil engineer and they should go to a consultant. My aim in considering these schemes is to see that technically they have received the benefit of the advice of the people who are best qualified to know how efficiently and economically schemes can be carried out.

I should like to give a few figures for the country as a whole. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford wondered whether the proportion of resources going to rural areas was sufficient. That is a fair question to ask. So far, the demands of new housing, industry and public health have got to be met, but we are spending more in the countryside than we are in the urban districts. We have been more generous to the rural areas. Only one-fifth of the population of England and Wales lives in rural districts. For the want of a better line of demarcation, I refer to the areas under the jurisdiction of rural district councils—a line which is rather blurred, but it is the best I can take in the circumstances.

Bearing in mind that the population in the rural districts is only one-fifth of the total, the House might like to know that one-third of the water supply work authorised during the last year or so has been for rural districts. They have a fifth of the population, and a third of the work authorised has gone to them, which is not an unfair proportion. During 1951–52, £18 million worth of water supply work was authorised, and £6 million worth of that was in rural districts. In 1952–53 the total was £21 million, of which just under £7 million worth was in the rural districts.

I am aware that a large number of schemes have not yet been authorised, and there are many schemes in the queue. It falls to my right hon. Friend to have the unenviable task of having to decide on the order of priority. When pressure comes from local authorities, urban districts, rural districts, water companies and interested consumers, it is not always easy to give an answer which satisfies them all. We try to do our best. We try to be as fair and dispassionate as possible in every case.

It reminds me of Louis XIV when he was presenting a medal to a successful archer out of 13 contestants. In the course of the presentation he sighed. Asked why he sighed, he said, "By doing it I have made one man ungrateful and 12 men discontented." The position is rather like that when we at the Ministry have to decide. We never please everybody, and perhaps there are times when we never please anybody. Demands of new housing and of public health must come first. It is obviously no good building houses if they are going to stand empty for lack of water. I do not think there has been any general failure in this respect. By and large, the overwhelming majority of houses have got water. The difficulty is that in some cases it is not only a question of the extension of existing supplies but of getting a new supply of water, and that is where it becomes difficult because it is a longer process to find a new supply than merely to extend existing supplies. There is then a time-lag before the supply catches up with the demand.

That does not apply only to the countryside. It applies also to industry in certain parts of the country. Demands for water are steadily increasing. Some industries require immense quantities of water—sometimes staggering and frightening quantities. In addition, I suppose that as a nation we are getting cleaner and we are using baths more than we used to.

I now wish to say a word about water for agriculture. I shall come later to the question of cast-iron pipes and other points raised by my hon. Friend. Most water supply schemes in rural areas bring piped supplies within reach of the farms. In some cases only a few farms may require the supplies, but in others the farms may outnumber the houses. It is not possible to draw a clear-cut distinction between proposals to serve domestic needs only, and proposals to serve domestic needs and farms. What we try to do is to keep in touch with the Ministry of Agriculture.

Local authorities have been asked to consult and keep in close touch with the county agricultural executive committees, and when designing new schemes I hope hon. Members who are interested will see that their local authorities take the advice of their local committees. We always seek the advice of the Ministry of Agriculture on the effect that particular schemes will have on the ability of local farms to increase food production.

During this year and next year we intend to authorise an extra £500,000 worth of water supply work each year, over and above the capital investment programme originally contemplated. This additional work will be devoted entirely to schemes where agricultural interests predominate and where water is wanted by farms or is particularly urgent. Some schemes have already been authorised, and others will follow. On the selection of those schemes we must be guided entirely by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture.

My hon. Friend referred to the question of grants. The matter was fully ventilated about two years ago, but probably not since then. The basis on which grants are awarded is fairly well understood. There is no rigid formula, but each grant is related to the burden which will fall on the rates in a district when the work is carried out. Grants also take into account the burden which ratepayers in one district are carrying in respect of other parts of the county. Areas where the district rate is high are treated more generously than areas where the district rate is lower.

My hon. Friend asked whether the machinery for grants-in-aid is moving as swiftly and efficiently as it should. I would say that it is moving as swiftly and efficiently as it possibly can, taking into account the rather complicated method which we have to use in order to assess the merits of a particular grant. It is not moving as swiftly or efficiently as we would like; the complication of the assessment of the grant is the chief cause of the delay.

When assessing grants one has to take into account revenue as well as outgoings, and it is not always easy to get sound estimates. It is not always easy to arrive at the true financial assessment of a particular local authority, and one requires that information before making the grant. We do our best to avoid delays, and if there is a case which my hon. Friend has in mind we will see whether the matter can be expedited.

I ought to mention that while local authorities are under a statutory duty to see that water is available in houses and schools in their districts, they have no absolute duty to provide water for non-domestic purposes, including agricultural requirements. We are bound to look at any proposals and ascertain whether there is likely to be any reasonable return on the expenditure, which, after all, is just as much a part of the farmer's expenditure on equipment as, say, a tractor or a barn.

In many cases farmers will be substantial beneficiaries from the work carried out at the ratepayers' expense, and it is only asking for a reasonable guarantee when one requires that there should be a proper return on their expenditure and that when water is brought to the farms local authorities should be assured of obtaining their share of the benefit. The same thing applies in industry. If an industrial concern wants to install a large factory and requires to be supplied with water, the burden of meeting the expense of providing that water should fall on the firm and not on the general ratepayers in the district.

Reference was made to the proposal of the Kent County Council for merging some of their 40 water undertakings. They have considered the possibility of improving their efficiency by reducing the number to about half the present number. A Private Bill has been drafted, and I think the council have made up their minds to present it to Parliament. Therefore, as it affects the whole county and not just the rural parts, it would be inappropriate for me to discuss the matter any further at this moment.

My hon. Friend mentioned the question of the water supplies to Egerton. He stated that he did not blame my right hon. Friend or the particular Ministry which I represent, but he did say that many Government Departments had been concerned and that there had been a lamentable lack of swiftness and speediness in arriving at a conclusion. I think he is right in that, but it is a complicated case. The Board of Trade own a flax factory and it is managed by the Ministry of Materials. It is so complicated that I shall not weary the House with the details of it.

I will tell my hon. Friend this: I will write personally to my colleagues in the Government and give them the facts. I shall impress upon them the necessity of moving a little faster in these negotiations. I shall also ask them whether they will be good enough to let me have some idea when they can bring the negotiations, which I agree are essential, to a successful conclusion so that this matter can be settled.

I should like to finish on this point. The most grievous limitation in the past few years has not been so much because of capital investment but through lack of suitable materials, especially the supply of cast-iron pipes. There is no doubt that in building works of any description it is generally found that the high cost of building and slowness in completion is due generally—I do not say in every instance—to a lack of a smooth and even flow of materials. That is one of the reasons for the extensive nature of the delays we have had in rural water supplies.

The demand for cast-iron pipes is greatly in excess of the supply. Purchasers have sometimes, as my hon. Friend said, to wait two years or more for their orders to be fulfilled. The shortage of pipes has not been created to fob off people in rural areas, but there is a real shortage and we have adopted various expedients to get round it. However, the situation is very much easier. Pipes can be obtained at much shorter notice, and the simple explanation of all that is that more pipes are being made. During the first five months of 1953 deliveries were 12 per cent. more than in the same period last year, and increased production was particularly in the smaller diameter pipes which are so much in demand for water supplies.

I should tell my hon. Friend why this increase in production has come about. It has largely been because we have been able by Government exhortation and consultation to get the manufacturers to work double shifts. I should like, in passing, to make this one observation; the key to what we need in building in this country is a great deal more building materials, and that is one of our basic industries in which I hope some considerable expansion will take place.

Now that we are getting these pipes in greater numbers and quicker, I hope it will be possible to forge ahead with more rural schemes. Having said that one-fifth of the population in the rural areas is receiving one-third of the capital investment for water supplies, I hope my hon. Friend will feel satisfied that his efforts in raising this Adjournment debate have been successful. I can assure him and the House that if there is any particular point about any particular scheme which they would like the Ministry to look into. I shall do my best to deal with it as quickly as possible, and I think I can say the same for my right hon. Friend. I think the House ought to be grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this debate. This subject has not been ventilated for a number of years, and I hope now that he has got two additional schemes for his constituency he will feel that honour is partially satisfied.

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