§ Order for consideration, as amended, read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now considered.
§ 8.31 p.m.
§ Mr. John Hall (Wycombe)
I beg to move, to leave out "now considered" and add "recommitted" instead thereof.
As we have gathered from the preceding debate on the Torquay Corporation (Water) Bill, the whole question of water supplies and the proper organisation of water undertakings presents a problem which is becoming increasingly complex and difficult. Indeed, it is probably true that many of the proposals for merger, amalgamation or take-over are bound to meet with strong opposition and disapproval from the undertakings and authorities likely to be affected thereby. It is probably for that reason that the Minister, in his Circular 52/56, of September, 1956, laid down the principle, in effect, that he was prepared to give favourable consideration to regrouping proposals, even where they happened to differ from the recommendations of his inspecting engineers, if those proposals met with general local approval and support.
I oppose the Bill because, first, it does not have local support. Indeed, it is violently opposed by the two major undertakings which it is proposed shall be taken over under the Bill. Secondly, I oppose it because it is unsound from the hydro-geological point of view, in so far as it does not provide an organisation which will ensure the proper use of water supplies. Thirdly, I oppose it because if it goes through as it stands the Bill will impose very considerable additional charges on all my constituents who are now served by either the High Wycombe or the Marlow water undertakings. Lastly, there are certain other objectionable features which I hope to bring out in the course of my speech.
It has been suggested to me that it is rather presumptuous on my part to question the Bill on the Floor of the House after it has received very careful consideration by a Select Committee. It is true that consideration of the Bill, with 321 three others which were taken at the same time, was spread over many months and took about 36 days in hearings. It is true also that many expert witnesses were examined and that the Committee was cluttered up by learned silks of one kind or another who advanced very weighty arguments. All of them, when one read them, sounded extremely convincing until one read the weighty arguments which followed.
Having read all the proceedings, should like to take the opportunity of congratulating—in this I am sure the House will agree with me—the Select Committee responsible under the chairmanship of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) on its fair and scrupulous conduct of the proceedings and the tremendous trouble it took to arrive at the true facts of these very complicated proposals and Bills. I do not envy the Committee its task. It performed it in an extraordinarily admirable way.
Nevertheless, the fact that a Bill has been considered by a Committee upstairs, even a Select Committee, has never been regarded as barring all hon. Members from subjecting that Bill to rigorous scrutiny on the Floor of the House. If one can take precedent from the courts outside the High Court of Parliament, it is often the case that a decision given by a learned judge who may be full of years and experience is not necessarily sacrosanct. One can go on appeal to another court, and it is not infrequently the case that the original decision is reversed.
I am in the position tonight, in speaking on behalf of my constituents who oppose the Bill very strongly, of making my first appeal to the High Court of Parliament. If I fail to convince the House, it will not be because the facts upon which my appeal is based are wrong but due entirely to the failure of my own advocacy. Later we have recourse to appeal by petitioning in the other place. Indeed, I gather that Petitions are already to be laid against the Bill, first by the local authorities in my constituency, secondly by the Metropolitan Water Board, for reasons which I will explain later, and lastly, I am given to understand, by the Buckinghamshire County Council whose original intention it was to petition but which changed its mind.
322 It is necessary to go a little into the previous history of the companies and undertakings in these areas to get some idea of the background against which the problem is set. The history of the attempts by the water undertakings in South Buckinghamshire and South Oxfordshire to meet the Minister's wishes to amalgamate into larger and more efficient units makes very interesting but slightly melancholy reading and goes as far back as 1943.
I will not weary the House with the many abortive attempts to amalgamate which were at one time encouraged or discouraged by the Ministry, but I should like to highlight the three main events in the past history of the companies and undertakings concerned. First, I should like to draw the attention of the House to the negotiations entered into by the Marlow, South Oxfordshire and Henley water companies in 1955 and 1956. They broke down and the Marlow company sought an interview with the Minister in November, 1956. That interview was not granted. But a month earlier the Minister had given an undertaking to the Berkshire County Council and the Reading Corporation not to approve any proposals for a merger which would affect the broad proposals of the Berkshire County Council for the establishment of its own water board.
The Minister at that time did not think it proper or necessary to inform the three companies to which I have previously referred of his undertaking in this respect, although he must have been perfectly aware that discussions had been going on to achieve a merger and amalgamation, and it was not until a month after giving this undertaking to the Berkshire County Council that he was informed that negotiations had broken down between Marlow and the other companies.
The other two incidents affect the High Wycombe Borough Council. In 1949, the High Wycombe Borough Council opposed the taking over of the rural districts water company by the Bucks Water Board but it was not allowed at the public inquiry to submit its alternative proposals. The council at that time protested to the Minister and claimed that it had been prejudiced in its opposition to the Bucks Water Board's proposals by its inability to advance these alternative proposals. The Minister in his reply indicated that 323 nothing need stop the council trying to form a joint water board within the area of the rural districts water company and, taking heart from that, the High Wycombe Borough Council in January, 1951, applied for an order to put its joint water board proposals into effect.
We heard earlier this evening that when an order is applied for, that is a case when a public inquiry can he held. In this case, no public inquiry was held and more than 12 months later the Minister rejected the application, giving among his reasons that there had been a lack of local agreement.
The lack of local agreement in this particular case arose from the withdrawal of the Marlow Urban District Council, representing about 5 per cent. of the water users in the area to be covered by the proposed undertaking, and its objection had nothing to do with the merits of the proposal as such but merely referred to the compensation likely to be paid to the outgoing board, a kind of objection that could be met quite easily by agreement or discussion or by an amendment of the proposed Bill.
That is in direct contrast to the treatment meted out by the Minister in the case of the Bucks Water Board. In its first application, the Minister rejected the application to form a larger water undertaking on the ground that one authority anyhow had not approved it. In this case, the Bucks Water Board Bill is recommended by the Select Committee with, I gather, the approval of the Minister, who would welcome it, I am sure, despite the fact that it attracts the opposition, and very strong opposition, not only of the Marlow and High Wycombe authorities and undertakings, but of the seven authorities that were originally to be grouped together in the other proposals under an alternative Bill which was to be considered at the same time.
§ Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)
The hon. Member mentioned that the Bucks County Council was to petition the House of Lords against this Bill. Can he enlighten us on that matter because, as I understand it, the Bucks County Council was supporting the Bill?
§ Mr. Hall
I propose to come to that later in my speech if the hon. Gentleman 324 will allow me to do so. Despite the setbacks which have been suffered by the various companies in their attempts to amalgamate and to meet the Minister's desires and policy, they decided to frame another Bill, under the name of the South Bucks and Oxfordshire Water Bill, which was to include the High Wycombe Corporation, Henley, Marlow and South Oxfordshire water companies and the water undertakings of the Thames, Bullingdon and Wycombe Rural District Council.
Those proposals had the full support of all the local authorities concerned—with the exception of Wycombe Rural District Council which was neutral in the matter—supported by the Oxford County Council. In bringing this Bill forward, considerable reliance was placed on Circular 52/56, to which I referred earlier, whereby the Minister would approve arrangements entered into voluntarily, which met with considerable local approval and support.
Now I come to the development of the Bucks Water Board Bill itself. Realising what was happening, the Bucks Water Board promoted its own Bill, designed to absorb Marlow High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire and certain of the northern district undertakings. Certainly there was no support among the southern local authorities for this Bill. Originally the Bucks County Council was resolved to petition against it; but, on an understanding reached with the Bucks Water Board that the Board would be prepared to relieve, in part at any rate, the existing liability of the county council to meet any deficiency which arose out of the operation of the water board, the council withdrew its petition and instead petitioned against the South Bucks Bill. A very curious position arose as a result.
§ Sir Spencer Summers (Aylesbury)
Would not my hon. Friend think that this was a good moment to make clear to the House that the reason for the change in the attitude of the Bucks County Council, to which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) referred, is that, whereas the council supported it originally, the petition is now the only way in which it can get permission given to the Bucks Water Board to get rid of its liabilities—something which both sides are anxious to achieve?
§ Mr. Hall
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention which has met my point in much better language than I could use. I hope he will forgive me, however, if I underline and develop it, because there is rather more in it than that.
When the Bill was submitted to the Select Committee in the first place, it did not have the Clauses in it which would relieve the Bucks County Council of its existing liability, so application was made by the Bucks Water Board to the Standing Orders Committee for permission to make amendments altering the liability of the county council. What it was seeking to do was to make Amendments which, if they had not been conceded by the Board, would have led the Bucks County Council to petition against the Bucks Water Board Bill. It was also seeking to transfer liability from itself as a county council to the other constituent authorities, which included the authorities which were fighting against it to promote their own Bill, the South Bucks Bill.
The application was properly rejected by the Standing Orders Committee. Since the inception of the Bucks Water Board, the county council has contributed, I am informed, £137,877 towards the deficiencies of the Board. We can understand, therefore, the anxiety to rid itself of at least a part of that liability, even if its tactics in trying to do so were perhaps a little curious.
Now we have a situation where the Bill has emerged from the Committee, unchanged as regards the liability of the county council, and so it is forced into the position of doing what it intended to do originally, and that is to petition against the Bill in the House of Lords. We find, therefore, that the Bucks Water Board Bill is left without any local authority support worth talking about.
§ Mr. Ede (South Shields)
Will the petition in the second House, if this Bill reaches it, lead it to reject the Bill or make the Amendments which have been described?
§ Mr. Hall
I understand that for technical reasons it is not possible to amend the Bill and therefore the county council must petition to reject the Bill entirely.
I now turn to the hydro-geological considerations. It is not denied that, from the point of view of the proper use of water 326 supplies, the Bill is not the proper answer. As originally constituted, the Bucks Water Board was almost wholly within the catchment area of the River Great Ouse. It spread into the Thames catchment area and now it is proposed that it should spread still further, despite the admitted—and I stress the word "admitted"—desirability of keeping a dividing line between catchment areas, particularly that of the Thames.
The water which would have been taken by consumers under the South Bucks Bill in an area which is in a natural catchment area would have been returned to that area in the form of treated effluent. A substantial part of the water which will be taken by the Bucks Water Board under this Bill will be lost to the Thames area altogether. Both the Metropolitan Water Board and the Thames Conservancy are very alarmed by the increasingly heavy demands which are being made on the Thames catchment area and are opposed to the transfer of water from one catchment area to another, as in this case.
No one would deny that it is necessary to find adequate supplies of water for the northern areas of Bucks where, from time to time, water has been scarce, but there are alternative sources. It is possible to develop the Great Ouse area, and reports have been prepared and there are recommendations which have been largely accepted to show that it is perfectly feasible to develop the Great Ouse catchment area to a point where it would supply the needs of the northern areas. It is agreed that that would take some little time, a period of anything up to 10 years, but in that interim period the South Bucks Board would be ready to enter into an agreement to provide the water that might be required by the Bucks Water Board to satisfy the needs of the northern areas until such time as they had developed their own alternative sources.
That proposal is supported by both the Metropolitan Water Board and the Thames Conservancy. It might be proper at this point to point out that the Metropolitan Water Board is under an obligation to let 170 million gallons of water a day go over Teddington Weir, whereas in many cases that amount has fallen to as little as 50 million gallons of water a day. This drain of water out of the Thames catchment area is a matter of 327 increasing anxiety and constitutes a very difficult problem.
If the Bill is passed without statutory restrictions on the export of water from one catchment area to another, it must create a most unfortunate precedent. Indeed, it is contrary to a principle set out by the Minister himself in a letter sent from his Department to the Gloucestershire County Council and dated 5th September, 1958. In the second paragraph of that letter it is stated that the Minister had regard to the desirability of keeping a dividing line between the Severn and Thames catchment areas, and the necessity, therefore, of keeping catchment areas divided as far as possible. The proposals enshrined in the Bucks Water Board Bill do violence to that idea.
The financial considerations have undoubtedly played a great part in the minds of those responsible for the Bucks Water Board Bill. The Board says that it needs an additional rateable value m order the better to equalise the charges between the sparsely populated rural areas of the north and the urban areas, and that is very understandable and acceptable. The alternative Bill of the South Bucks and Oxfordshire Boards provided exactly the same mixture of rural and urban areas and would have provided the same spread of charges as that which the Bucks Water Board seeks to provide in its area.
One of the reasons for the financial problems of the Bucks Water Board is that the Board undertook liability for the supply of bulk water to certain districts in the north, including some areas in the County of Northamptonshire, on terms against the advice of its own financial expert. That has landed the Board into considerable financial difficulty and it is one reason why the Board wants to lay its hands on the more profitable rateable areas of Marlow and High Wycombe.
Even if the Board continues to make losses, it does not go out of business, which is a very happy position to be in. Its losses are carried by the county council and by the constituent local authorities and eventually are passed down in turn to boroughs such as High Wycombe and local authorities such as Marlow. The deficiencies are made up, but whereas the deficiencies on the operations of 328 the Bucks Water Board in Buckinghamshire would have to be met by Buckinghamshire ratepayers, the supply of water to the areas in Northamptonshire which comes from the Bucks Water Board does not impose a similar liability on the Northamptonshire County Council. That will mean that Bucks ratepayers will be carrying part of the water supply losses, if they arise, on water supplied to those ratepayers living in Northamptonshire. That seems to me to be a very undesirable feature of the Bill.
I turn to the effect on my constituency. The effect of the Bill will be to increase the water charges by about 50 per cent. The proposals for charges and differentials are rather complicated and will be the subject, I understand, of a petition in the other place. I do not want to go into them in detail here, but one interesting fact comes out of them.
I understand that the High Wycombe and Marlow undertakings were quite willing to discuss with the Bucks Water Board the problem of the differential as it appears in the Bill as drafted, but that they were held at arm's length and could not discuss this problem because it was inferred that I was objecting to the Bill. The Board would discuss the question of the differential only if I, as the Member of Parliament for Wycombe, withdrew my objections.
I must confess that that seems to me to be the most extraordinary tactics to adopt. Although I am always reluctant to raise the plea of Privilege, I am not at all sure that it is not almost a breach of Privilege that indirect pressure should be brought to bear through a third party to persuade a Member of Parliament to withdraw his objection to a Bill before a body is prepared to enter into negotiations on a point with some of the Member's constituents.
I do not want to stress that, however, but I want to point out that the increase in charges likely to be suffered by my constituents as a result of the Bill is by no means the main reason for our opposition. The main reasons can be summarised very briefly. They are, first, that the Bill has been forced through in the teeth of the strongest local opposition; secondly, that it does not make proper use of the water supply; and thirdly, that acute resentment is felt by many people who are engaged in water undertakings in my constituency at what they 329 feel to have been Ministry bias, for which there is considerable supporting evidence.
The Select Committee itself had reason to question one Ministry action. Rightly or wrongly, these people believe that over the past history, from 1943 onwards, there has been a cavalier disregard of the proposals which they have made. They feel that an understanding has been entered into with other organisations and undertakings behind their backs and that they have suffered from a consistent hostility on the part of the Ministry.
I have described to the House the feelings expressed by my constituents which I have endeavoured to check as well as possible from proceedings at the Select Committee and from documents and exchanges of letters with the Ministry and water undertakings over a period of years. It seems to me from the evidence produced that there is, at any rate, some sign of a lack of flexibility of mind in the Department of the Ministry in accepting certain proposals from the various companies in the area we are discussing.
Again, we are opposed to the Bill because it appears to be against the principle laid down in the Ministry circular. It is a less efficient way of providing what is recognised to be a much needed supply of water for the north, because the southern areas are prepared to supply the necessary water for as long as may be required.
I come finally to the question of cost. These four Bills, only one of which we are now considering, were all taken together, as the House knows, and because of the length and complexity of the proceedings, the legal costs were very high. I wonder whether the House realises quite how high. The total cost is estimated at about £75,000 and the promoters of the Bill in which I was interested originally, the South Bucks Bill, will be called on to foot a bill for legal charges of about £25,000. One can measure the strong feelings of my constituents about this matter from the fact that they were prepared to accept—it may be reluctantly—:his heavy burden of cost in order to further the promotion of the Bill they thought right, and how resentful they feel at having imposed on them the Bucks Water Bill which they think embodies all the wrong principles.
330 I draw attention to the penultimate paragraph of the now familiar—I almost said notorious—letter which emanated from the Ministry, dated 17th October, 1958, to which considerable objection was taken, not only by the promoters of the Bills concerned, but by the Select Committee. The paragraph reads as follows: "He"—
that is, the Minister—is also acutely aware of the difficulties and complexities of the tasks facing both the Committee and the promoters of the several Bills. This letter sets out his considered view of the best way in which the difficulties can he resolved. He appreciates, of course, that his view may not he accepted, or may not be accepted entirely, in that event, and since in any case there seems to be some hope of a satisfactory outcome in the southern part of the area covered by the Bills, he would wish to emphasise again to the Committee his anxiety about problems in the northern part, and to suggest that, if they consider that no satisfactory long-term solution can be devised until more definite information is available about future supplies in the area, and possibly also about reorganisation in neighbouring areas, it would be best to leave open for further consideration, when the information thought to be necessary is available, the proper grouping of the undertakings in the areas covered by the South Bucks and Oxfordshire Water Bill and by the Bucks Water Board Bill.That springs from the fact that there are still available water supplies yet to be developed. It springs from the fact that if we were starting again, the Bucks Water Board would never have been formed. It springs from the fact that in a matter of a few years, probably, there will have to be a further reorganisation of the water undertakings in this area, and it lays stress on the point that if we cannot come to a real and satisfactory agreement by the Bill before the House, we should leave matters as they are until much more investigation has been carried out and there is a full and comprehensive report on which a proper organisation could be based.
In my constituency in the Chiltern Hills there is growing resentment as the facts about this Bill are becoming known. A storm is stirring which can best he summed up in the last four lines of Chesterton's poem, which will be known to many hon. Members, entitled, "A Ballade of the First Rain".Prince, Prince Elective on the modern plan,Fulfilling such a lot of peoples' wills,You take the Chiltern Hundreds while you can—A storm is coming on the Chiltern Hills".
§ 9.10 p.m.
§ Major Sir Frank Markham (Buckingham)
I beg to second the Motion.
I am sure the House will understand my position when I say that, in seconding this Motion, I am not familiar with the position in High Wycombe or in Marlow; but it is by seconding a Motion of this kind that I have the right to put forward my point of view on the Bill generally and to ask questions. If I get satisfactory answers to my questions, my opposition to the Bill, mild as it is at the moment, may well evaporate. I doubt whether the Minister will be able to give me answers to my questions, and I do not know who can do so, but I hope I shall get them.
My questions deal with the future of my constituency, which is in the northern part of Buckinghamshire and has the River Ouse running through it. This is probably the slowest and most thoroughgoing river in England. It is nearly always in flood in the winter, and it runs very low in the summer. We have consistently suffered from alternate flooding and water shortages at various points in the constituency ever since I have been connected with it, and that goes back over half a century, since I was born there. Even as recently as a year or two ago we have had very severe water shortages at Calverton and Shenley. Even now, the Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs, whom we are glad to see with us tonight, knows full well that the development of Bletchley and of Linslade has been not only severely curtailed but put into a straitjacket because of the uncertainties of their future water supplies.
The first question I must ask on the Bill is whether we, in North Buckinghamshire will have adequate water supplies not only for our present consumption but for our modest development in the future?
§ Sir F. Markham
I have not sought it from the promoters of the Bill, but in other directions. I know that assurances have been given that existing requirements will be met for the present, but no one can give me the assurance that there will be enough for developments over the next few years, and it is that in which I 332 am interested. If my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers), who is spokesman for the promoters of the Bill, can give me that assurance I will welcome it. I hope that he will get a chance to speak and will be able to tell me categorically whether the promoters will give us adequate water supplies, not only for immediate demands but for our developing demands over a decade. If he can give me those assurances he will undermine my lukewarmness to the Bill.
My second point is that while we have these difficulties about knowing what our future supplies of water will be, we have also the difficulty of knowing what our financial position will be in the North. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall), in his very moderate and earnest speech, mentioned that there might be a great increase in the water rate in the High Wycombe and Marlow area. I hope that none of my constituents will feel that there is probability that the water rate in North Buckinghamshire will go down, because of that; on the other hand, that it is pretty certain that the water rate in the North Buckinghamshire area will go up in the near future.
I will welcome it if anybody, speaking for the promoters of the Bill, will tell me that there is any guarantee that the whole of the water rate will not go up in North Buckinghamshire under the water board proposed in the Bill, irrespective of whether we get adequate development water supplies or whether we do not. I think those are two very fair questions. On the answers to those questions my attitude to the Bill will rest.
I wish to go a little further. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe has mentioned some of the curious tactics of Bucks Water Board. I am not one who comes to this House with quarrels about the way I am treated by outside authorities, but the House will remember that only a second or two ago my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury asked if I had approached the promoters of the Bill. Let me come back with the reverse side of the picture.
The promoters of the Bill have not written to me about the Bill at all. They have not even informed me of their attitude. What they have done—I think it very questionable tactics—has been to 333 ring up and telegraph to certain local authorities almost putting the fear of God into them. The result was that over the weekend I had some hectic, frantic telephone calls from representatives of local authorities who had been almost scared out of their wits by things said to them on behalf of Bucks Water Board. I do not like those tactics. I do not think they are proper. If the members of Bucks Water Board did not like me seconding this Motion they should have had the courage to come to me about it.
The average Member of Parliament today is one of the most accessible creatures in the world. He is accessible to organisations outside his constituency. I say to Bucks Water Board Members that if they have anything to say about my attitude which they do not like let them have the courage to come to me. I promise that I shall not gobble them up.
The mover of this Motion mentioned the fact that whatever solution we may arrive at by this Bill and other Bills which may follow it is bound to be temporary and stop-gap simply because they will not conform with hydro-geological factors. I for one had hoped there would be sufficient time for the Select Committee to consider setting up a Great Ouse Water Board that would cover the whole area from Brackley to Cambridge. Obviously that will have to come. That is the way in which water supplies should be controlled and managed. Although the Select Committee went into this matter to a certain extent on the 26th day, I gather the reason it could not go further with it was that its instructions did not empower it to go outside the range of existing water board territories. Obviously development along hydro-geological lines has to come. I agree with the mover of the Motion that this Bill and others which will undoubtedly follow are merely stop-gaps in view of the fact that sooner or later this country must get down to utilising and developing its water supplies within catchment areas so that each area is self-contained.
Finally, I refer to another point which has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe, and that is the fantastic punishment there has been of public authorities by the present method of promoting Private Bills. My hon. Friend has said that the legal costs connected with the Bucks Water Board Bill 334 and the other Bills have amounted to something like £75,000. That seems a very large sum in order to get reasonable debate of matters of public importance. The cost to the very small borough of Buckingham, with a population of less than 5,000, was more than £1,125 to put up its case.
These punitive legal charges on public authorities ought not to be so high. I suggest to the Minister of Housing and Local Government, whom we are so happy to see here tonight, or to the Attorney-General, whom we are equally pleased to see, that while we have all the talents in the Ministry it is obvious that the genius of the Ministry has not yet been directed to find a way by which these debates can take place and changes can come without such inflictions on the ratepayers.
In seconding the Motion, I hope I shall get some answers to my main questions; first, whether this Bill guarantees the future of water supplies to North Buckinghamshire as a developing area; and, second, whether there is any guarantee that there will not be a considerable increase in the water rates in the not too distant future. May I add, finally, that I agree with everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said about unnecessary inflictions on the Bucks County Council in favour of Northamptonshire. We are paying for Northamptonshire, and if my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is to intervene in the debate, I hope he will realise how generous we always are where Northamptonshire is concerned.
§ 9.22 p.m.
§ Sir Spencer Summers (Aylesbury)
I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Buckingham (Sir F. Markham) will permit me to deal with the points he raised after commenting on some of those raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall).
I hope the House will not take exception to the procedure here adopted for challenging the findings of a Select Committee if hon. Members have good reason to doubt the advice tendered. Having said that, they must, I think, accept the judgment of the House that that attempt to challenge the recommendations must be justified by arguments advanced here. I hope to be able to show that the 335 arguments brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe should not be accepted by this House.
My hon. Friend sought to sustain his argument by saying that this proposition did not have local support and that such local authorities as took a different view were, in his own words, not worth talking about. That is a grossly misleading description of what, in fact, is the position. There is no doubt that High Wycombe Corporation, Marlow Urban District Council and Buckingham Corporation formerly opposed this Bill. Without wearying the House with a long list of names, may I say that I have here a list of no less than seven local authorities in Buckinghamshire, one in Hertfordshire, and three local authorities in Northamptonshire—
§ Mr. John Hall
I think my hon. Friend is unwittingly misquoting me. I said that it had no support from the southern local authorities.
§ Sir S. Summers
It may be that the hon. Gentleman seeks to turn the searchlight of opinion on to the southern end of this proposition, but this is a Bill which deals with a far greater area than merely that which he represents and the neighbouring parts of Buckinghamshire. It relates to a very large part of central Buckinghamshire, to my constituency, and to north Buckinghamshire, which is represented in part by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham. Therefore, it is quite misleading for people to imagine that this proposition does not have the support of a very large number of influential and important local authorities. I think it is only right that that should be made plain.
It was sought to suggest that by what appears at first sight to be a change of front by the Buckinghamshire County Council there might be some catch in this—that whereas it sought to support it in the first instance it had had second thoughts. In an intervention, I took the opportunity of bringing out the fact that this is the only technical opportunity open to the Buckinghamshire County Council to register its wish, which is supported by the promoters of the Bill, to be relieved of its financial liabilities. It is suggested that that is something which should be looked upon with a certain 336 amount of alarm, and, indeed, I will make further comment on that in a moment. When it is noted that the product of a 4d. rate was originally £8,000 and that under the terms of the Bill, with all the partners in the scheme taken into account, the product of a 4d. rate is £50,000, the prospect of having to fall back on the Bucks County Council for the financing of the deficit is, in the new circumstances, a very different story indeed from what it was in the past.
When reference was made to the discharge of its responsibilities by the Bucks. Water Board, it was implied that there was something wrong if, in the past, the Board had had to fall back on the Bucks County Council for a sum of, I think, £140,000 over a period of years—
§ Sir S. Summers
It must be recognised that the Bucks. Water Board could not operate at all unless it could rely on the local authority to deal with any potential deficit that would, or might, arise from the water arrangements in the rural areas. It is rather a distortion to describe this falling back on the county council to pay a deficit as an instance of efficiency. Rather, it is the use of the inevitable assistance of the county council—
§ Mr. Hall
For the sake of the record, my hon. Friend should bear in mind that he is misquoting me again. I was not criticising the Bucks. County Council for having paid £137,000 to meet the board's deficiencies. I was merely saying that as a result one could understand the county council's anxiety to rid itself of that liability in future.
§ Sir S. Summers
On the financial position, both my hon. Friends have contrasted the position of the Northamptonshire County Council with that of the Buckinghamshire County Council. What neither made clear is that there is no provision for representation of the Northants County Council on the council of the Bucks Water Board. If, therefore, the county council were put in a position of having to finance any deficit, it would, in this context, be ineffective. It would be taxation without representation.
Moreover, that part of Northants with which we are here concerned is a very 337 small part indeed of the area covered by the North ants County Council's activities. There is no need to find some skeleton in the cupboard by contrasting the position of the Northants. County Council to that of the Bucks County Council.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe asked, in effect: why must we have this arrangement? Why cannot the willingness of the High Wycombe and the Marlow undertakings to supply water to the north be given effect to without a permanent arrangement such as is inherent in the Bill? My understanding is that for such an arrangement to be fulfilled for a period of more than ten years a very elaborate Parliamentary procedure is required. The Thames Conservancy and the Thames Water Board would not tolerate an arrangement suitable for North Bucks for supplying water over the border for a period longer than that—
§ Sir S. Summers
I can only say that that is the constitutional position. It came to light only towards the latter part of the Select Committee's proceedings that the position in which the Board was placed by its original document did not permit it to supply water outside its area, if objection was taken, for a period longer than ten years—
§ Sir S. Summers
I have a number of points to make and, without wishing in any way to evade the point, I think that the answer to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe would come with very much more conviction from my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke). If he succeeds in catching your eye, Mr. Speaker, I feel sure that he will think it relevant to comment on that aspect.
338 My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Buckingham surprised me very much. He seemed to tell us that he had come here and had used the opportunity of this procedure almost exclusively to obtain certain information which was vital to his constituents and to his interests in North Bucks, information which he had not at that time managed to secure. There must have been any number of opportunities open to him in the course of the last few months to ascertain whether the effect of the regrouping of undertakings will enable adequate water supplies to be forthcoming for Bletchley and elsewhere. Since he has not availed himself of those opportunities—
§ Sir S. Summers
I am only saying that there were opportunities of which, for some reason which I have not grasped, my hon. and gallant Friend has not availed himself. Since he has not done so, he remains in ignorance of the effect of the Bill on places like Bletchley. I can only tell him that there is no doubt in my mind that one of the objects of the Bill is to ensure that there will be, through the agency of the Bucks Water Board, adequate supplies for Bletchley and North Bucks, not merely for their immediate requirements, but for all reasonably foreseeable developments over the years.
§ Mr. Hall rose—
§ Sir S. Summers
I am dealing with the point raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Buckingham. I think that I should confine myself to one point at a time.
Although I am not a member of the Bucks Water Board—nor can I offer guarantees—I can tell my hon. and gallant Friend in all sincerity that that is my clear understanding of the effect of the Bill.
Then my hon. and gallant Friend raised the question of the effect on the water rates. I imagine that he is right in saying that the cost of the procedure on the various local authorities will ultimately be reflected in some form or another on water rates. That is no reason for rejecting the advice of the Select Committee. The prospects of obtaining not 339 merely a cheap source of water from the south but being in partnership with a rich Authority are just the two elements best devised to ensure that there shall not be an unreasonable increase in the water rates in that part of Bucks with which be is concerned.
I have dealt as best I can with the various points raised in the two speeches of my hon. Friends. There is a danger, were I to stop there, of the House failing to grasp what underlies the Bill and the fundamental consideration to be taken into account in judging the Motion.
The real reason why support should be given to the recommendations of the Select Committee—and I echo most enthusiastically the commendation and praise already accorded to it—is that, in terms of the Minister's requirements throughout the country, this is a proposition for marrying, in effect, a rich area with a poor area, a wet area with a dry area. In intelligent grouping to ensure that the water supplies of the country are deployed to the best advantage of the people of this country it is essential that there should be an element of marrying between those who are rich in water and rich in rateable value and those who are poor in water and poor in rateable value. It is precisely to accomplish this very end that the Bill and the recommendation of the Select Committee, as I understand it, have been brought forward.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe says, "Look at the terrible effect on the water rates of my constituents", I can only reply to him that, if there is to be grouping between areas rich in water and rateable value and areas poor in water and rateable value, those who are better off are inevitably obliged, over a period—I shall come to that—to make some sacrifice in the interests of those who are poorer in water and rateable value. One cannot have it both ways.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe alluded to the fact that, as a consequence of the Bill, the water rates would double for the ratepayers of High Wycombe. I think it would have been fairer if he had told the House that that would not happen for ten years, that for the first five years there will be a 40 per cent. discount off the rates which would 340 otherwise be charged, and for the succeeding five years there would be a 20 per cent. discount off the rates charged.
§ Mr. John Hall
I had no misunderstanding about the period of five years when there was to be a higher differential than in the later period, but I can assure by hon. Friend that, even taking that into account, the first impact of the additional water rates plus the meter rates and charges will, in many cases, impose a 50 per cent. increased charge upon my constituents.
§ Sir S. Summers
I cannot tell whether there is any individual whose circumstances can be cited as an illustration of the very severe effect of the Bill as described by my hon. Friend, but my information is this. The revenue from the High Wycombe area in present conditions is £57,500 a year. Under the new conditions, it would be £107,000, but subject to a 40 per cent. discount, bringing it to £65,000. The difference is not all that great at any rate, it is not more than about 15 per cent. at the most between the rate paid now and the rate which would prevail. In the case of Marlow, the figures are £46,000 in present conditions and £50,000 in the new conditions, a difference of about 10 per cent.
In considering this matter, it is very important that the House should bear in mind the broader considerations of linking the rich with the poor in both senses. It is an inevitable consequence of that that sacrifices will be called for, but I believe that after all the consideration has been given to this matter that is the right course to take. I do not for one moment think that any argument which has been advanced tonight has not already been considered fully by the Committee which dealt with this matter. While I do not at all complain about the procedure which is adopted, I hope that on reflection, particularly after hearing the Minister, my hon. Friends will not seek to press the matter to a Division. I believe that the House would do right to accept the advice of the Select Committee.
§ Mr. Hall
My hon. Friend has referred to me on several occasions and suggested that I was not completely fair in my presentation of the case to the House. Would he not agree that, in the first place, I did point out that the alternative proposals under the South Bucks scheme also provided for a mixture of rich and poor 341 areas only by a method which made a much more efficient and economic use of the water resources than the Bucks Water Board does. That is one of the principal reasons for our objection. Secondly, I pointed out that the increased charges to our constituents formed by no means the main reason for our objection. We appreciate that there may be circum- stances in which we might have to pay increased charges. We object to paying them in this case because we think that the proposed organisation is inefficient and inadequate.
§ Sir S. Summers
I think that that was an interjection, and I may, perhaps, say another word or two. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for enabling me to make one further comment arising out of that topic which I should otherwise have omitted, namely, that, whatever may have been the effect or intention of previous attempts at grouping, the House can do no more than take the position as it is at this moment in judging whether to accept the advice of the Select Committee. The South Oxfordshire Water Company and the Henley-on-Thames Water Company are already taken care of in the South Oxfordshire scheme approved by Parliament. We are, therefore, left only with the High Wycombe and Marlow undertakings in relation to the need to marry the poorer areas. Other plans are things of the past. Therefore, in the light of current conditions, whatever merit there may have been in the arguments which my hon. Friend would have advanced, they are not relevant at the moment because Parliament has approved the other scheme.
§ 9.41 p.m.
§ Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)
I think that I am the only Member representing a constituency in Buckinghamshire who sits on this side of the House. I acknowledge immediately that the Borough of Slough and the urban district area of Eton do not come within the provisions of the Bill. Nevertheless, I venture to speak because both Slough and Eton are in the area of the Buckinghamshire County Council and because we feel very closely our sense of unity with the other parts of the county to which we belong.
The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) said that if his view was not carried in the House it would be due to 342 some failure in his advocacy. I should like to say, without presumption, that he should not feel that at all. I thought that he put his argument extraordinarily convincingly, and at one moment he almost convinced me. I should also like to say to him that I do not think that any hon. Member will complain because, after consideration of the Bill by a Select Committee, a Member of the House objects to the decision reached by the Select Committee. I hope that that right will always be maintained by Members of the House of Commons.
There was quite unusual discussion and consideration of this Bill in the Select Committee. If I am informed correctly, it was considered at greater length than any Private Bill in a Select Committee since the year 1898. Thirty-six days were devoted to a full consideration of the details, and, therefore, while one does not object to the hon. Member making the proposal which he has made, I think that the House should bear in mind the thorough discussion of the Bill which took place in the Select Committee. I think that those who come from the authorities which were represented on that Select Committee will also have in mind the very heavy cost when Private Bills are before such Committees. The hon. Member for Wycombe said that the legal costs of the Bill have already reached £75,000. If the Bill is recommitted, I cannot see an end to the costs which are likely to fall upon the local authorities concerned.
I say to the hon. and gallant Member for Buckingham (Sir W. Markham)—I almost called him my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, because in a personal sense I have that feeling very strongly—that I will come to his arguments later. If I do not now deal with the points which he raised it is not out of absence of consideration for the points which he put to the House.
As I understand it, there is no disagreement among hon. Members as to the need for the regrouping of water authorities. It is accepted by the Government, and I believe that it is accepted in principle even by the Buckinghamshire authorities who are opposing the Bill. I hope that there is no opposition to the Bill on the ground that it would hand over the undertaking to a public board. There has been a good deal of criticism of some of the Board's activities, but I 343 would draw the House's attention to the Minister's Report on the Bill. Paragraph 2 (e) refers to:No discrimination between publicly owned and company undertakings in considering appropriate groups and the type of organisation most appropriate for the new unit".The Water Board is the largest water undertaking in Buckinghamshire, and that is a formidable reason for suggesting that if there has to be a co-ordination of water supplies it should be under the Board.
I do not want to prejudice the case that I am putting forward, but every time I listen to debates on the question of water supplies I come to the conclusion that we shall reach a final solution of the problem only by nationalisation of water supplies on the broadest scale.
I have said that the hon. Member for Wycombe almost convinced me at one point. It was when he suggested that the Buckingham County Council, which had originally supported the Bill, had withdrawn its support and was petitioning another place against the Bill. As I understand it, however, the county council remains in favour of the Bill, and is adopting the technical method of a petition to another place only in order to raise the financial issue referred to by the hon. Member. I hope that the hon. Member for Wycombe did not create the same impression among other hon. Members as he did temporarily upon me by suggesting that the county council was now opposed to the Bill.
Not merely is the county council a supporter of the Bill; with the exception of the High Wycombe Council and the Marlow Urban District Council, which are against it, and the Wycombe Rural District Council which is neutral, all seventeen local authorities in Buckinghamshire are in favour of the Bill.
§ Sir F. Markham
Surely the hon. Member remembers the intense opposition of the Buckingham Corporation, and the Linslade Corporation, and the complete neutrality of Wolverton, all of which authorities are in one area.
§ Mr. Brockway
I do not want to misrepresent the position, particularly in the southern part of Buckinghamshire, but as I understand it at present, and from the discussions which took place in the 344 Select Committee, the line-up of local authorities is as I have described.
I want to refer particularly to the position of the hon. and gallant Member for Buckingham. I was surprised to hear him second the Motion, even for the purpose of seeking information. I cannot imagine any water Measure which would be of more value to the area that he represents that that which is before the House this evening. I have on other occasions pleaded that the richer countries of the world should give to the poorer and undeveloped territories of the earth. That same principle is the main principle of the Bill.
§ Mr. Brockway
It is that the richer areas of Buckinghamshire should serve the poorer areas of our county. The hon. and gallant Member for Buckingham, who seconded the Motion, comes from the part of Buckinghamshire which should be most fully served by the Bill if it came into operation.
I know our county. I have had deputations from our school teachers, from schools where there is no water supply, from schools in the hon. and gallant Member's constituency where there are no water closets and no drains.
§ Sir F. Markham
The hon. Member could not have been up in the Buckinghamshire division since the war if he thinks that that is the truth.
§ Mr. Brockway
There are still schools in Buckinghamshire which are in that position. If in North Buckinghamshire that evil has now been removed, I congratulate the hon. Member, particularly because the difficulties are greatest in the area which he represents.
§ Mr. John Hall
I fully appreciate the need of water in the northern area of Buckinghamshire and nobody denies it. It was never proposed to deny the right of water to that area. It is quite possible for the undertakings of Marlow and High Wycombe to supply to the northern area all the water that it requires.
345 Indeed, under the Bill, they will still have to draw it from the Thames catchment area, from which it would have been supplied by the other undertakings.
§ Mr. Brockway
Four Bills were considered by the Select Committee. After its thorough discussion, the Select Committee came to the conclusion that the most effective service to the County of Buckingham as a whole, and particularly its poorer areas, would be under the Bill that we are discussing this evening. It is the principle of service to the poor areas by the richer areas of the county which I am particularly pleading tonight.
I make that plea even though I appreciate that as the organisation of water supplies extends to broader areas, the Borough of Slough would probably have to sacrifice more than is asked of the Borough of High Wycombe under the Bill. Usually, when this House discusses these Bills, there is a conflict between the county and the borough, but those who represent boroughs—richer areas—have the duty of speaking and voting in this House in a way that will enable the less-developed areas to receive adequate services.
I make my next point to the hon. Member for Wycombe. The Bill is generous to the consuming public of Wycombe. They are the most fortunate. Because they are now rich in water, however, and because their water rate is low, the Bill establishes a differential for the consumers of Wycombe compared with the other parts of the county. In the first five years, the water consumers in Wycombe will pay 40 per cent. less than the standard charges. After those five years, they will pay 20 per cent. less. At the end of the 10 years, there will still be a right of appeal to the Minister if the population of Wycombe feels that the charges are too high.
One might remark to the hon. Member for Wycombe that under the South Bucks and Oxfordshire Bill, which has been supported by the Corporation of Wycombe, the charges would have been little different for several years from the charges which are to be made under this Bill.
When it was shown that the charges would be increased 50 per cent., reference was made to the cost of meters, but it should be remembered that the Bill is 346 much more generous to the consumer on meter than would have been the Bill covering the South Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire scheme? Under the present Bill, the differential will apply to consumers on meters. Under the other Bill, it would not have applied in that way. The difference in the charge in the case of Marlow is so little that it was felt unnecessary to apply a differential at all.
I conclude by emphasising that, while we have discussed other matters tonight, the real issue is that it is the duty of those who are better off to come to the aid of those who, for geographical reasons, cannot obtain water so easily. It may not be a principle which will appeal to hon. Members opposite, but I believe that essentially in the Bill there is the Socialist principle that there should be the fullest equality in the ability to receive what nature can supply, and that where people are in an area in which water is costly and limited they should be served from areas which are better off in that respect.
§ 9.57 p.m.
§ Major H. Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)
I am rather sorry that the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) should have finished his speech on a slightly party political note because, having been Chairman of the Select Committee which considered the four Bills, I should like to make clear that the four of us who sat on the Committee—two from either side of the House—can all honestly say that at no single stage at any time throughout the thirty-six days' hearings did party political considerations come into our thoughts at all.
I do not believe that it is the duty of a Chairman of a Select Committee of this kind at this stage of the proceedings to go too far into the merits one way or another of a Bill under consideration. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) said that he was appealing on behalf of his constituents to a certain part of the High Court of Parliament. Having presided in a quasi-judicial position, as we all do when we sit on these Committees, it would be hardly appropriate if the quasi-judicial Member then proceeded to plead one case or the other in the higher Court. Therefore, I propose to confine my remarks to some fairly general observations about the four Bills and then to speak 347 to the main Motion before the House, that the Bill, as amended, be considered, so that some notice may be taken of the Report from the Select Committee which was printed on 9th February.
As to the general considerations, whatever may have happened that should not have happened in the past, whether the agent in making it happen was the Ministry, a board, a company, a local authority or anyone else, the fact remains that when we are dealing with problems of water supplies we have to deal with the situation as it now is and as it is likely to develop in the future.
There may have been mistakes in the past and I have no doubt whatsoever that, in the light of experience gained over the years, if everyone were able to start all over again, a great many things would happen which would result in something entirely different from the situation with which we now find ourselves confronted. In no particular area is that more true than in the suburban development westwards of London.
One of the important things which has come out of the consideration of the two Buckinghamshire Bills has been the fact that the local authorities over the years have decided to allow their housing and other development to go ahead all too often without any consideration whatsoever having been given to the problem of water supply and particularly to the hydro-geology of it. Of all the witnesses who appeared before the Committee of which I was Chairman, I would say that none was more impressive than Dr. Buchan, who is the head of the Water Department of the Geological Survey. He was a most authoritative witness. No doubt if local authorities do not wake up to the fact that if they go on developing their areas without regard to what the water situation is underground they will have only themselves to blame if they run into great water shortages. We drew attention to that in our Report and I hope to hear from the Minister tonight that he will consider the possibility of implementing what we recommend there, namely:The Committee would strongly urge upon the Minister the desirability of all local authorities taking full advantage of the valuable sources of information before embarking on developments which could involve problems of water supply348 There is a first-class witness there for any water authority or water undertaking that likes to consult him and I feel that it is a great pity that more advantage has not been taken of this in the past.
We must face up to certain realities of the day and in doing so may have to go absolutely contrary to what hydro-geological arguments might dictate. The situation on the surface of the earth—the hydro-geography as opposed to the hydro-geology—sometimes means that we cannot allow hydro-geology to predominate. The position of rivers and the populations along them—all these things come in, and as fast as one thinks that one has solved one problem one finds another cropping up and a different list of criteria has to be borne in mind while considering it.
Any hon. Member who has followed the proceedings will know that early on I did my best as Chairman to try to obtain an agreed set of criteria against which all four Bills might be judged, but the longer one went on the clearer it became that every promoter and petitioner was going to use precisely the criteria which best suited his own argument and disregard the others.
I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe that I would not for one moment suggest that he should have done anything other than he has done tonight. I know that in his position I should do my best to speak up for my constituents in a matter of this kind. I hope whoever the people were who suggested to him that he ought not to have done it, be did not in his mind include me, because I would certainly say that it was almost his duty to raise this matter if he felt that there was any dissatisfaction with the decision which the Committee came to.
I should like to draw attention to another matter which I think answers the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers). In our Report we have specifically stated that we do not wish to limit the period during which water could be extracted from the Thames catchment area and discharged into that of the Great Ouse. But we did say that we assumed it would be only marginal amounts that were so transferred, and we said in our Report that the water authorities in other areas 349 should make strenuous efforts to develop their own water resources.
I have no doubt that the day will come, some years ahead, when the Great Ouse scheme is completed and even if we knew today that the first stage could be completed, I am quite certain we could not know today where that water ought to be transferred. It may be that in the years to come it will go to the Bucks Water Board area and southern Northamptonshire, but it may be that the demands of other areas further east will be even greater and I do not believe that it would be possible—and this is one of the great difficulties which the Committee had to face—to say today which it ought to be.
If, as I would agree with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Buckingham (Sir F. Markham), there has been an excessive cost to the promoters, I would say that of all the promoters who are most responsible—if promoters have any responsibility for these costs—none is more so than the South Bucks and Oxfordshire promoters, because it was they who asked us to look at the possibility of the development of the Great Ouse scheme, and that at once added ten days to the proceedings.
Therefore, although in the Chair I was conscious all the time of the immense cost these matters involve, I hope that it will be appreciated that it is not only Parliament that is responsible for the length of time these proceedings have taken, but that others also have their part in this. I hope that in years to come we may rest assured that never again, under the water regrouping measures desired by Parliament, will a situation arise in which four Bills have to be considered simultaneously by the same Committee.
It is important that real frankness should be adopted from the word "go" when considering water regrouping. Dealings which are not open lead in the end to bitterness, misunderstanding and, as we have seen, immense cost. If there had been complete openness by all parties from the beginning and throughout these transactions—and I absolve no one completely of some dilatoriness in this respect—I believe we could have got a solution much more easily because four Bills would not have had to be presented to Parliament simultaneously.
350 Those are very general observations and I want to come to two particular matters in the Report that we have agreed on this Bill. It was drawn to our attention in the course of proceedings that there is a difference in the rate of compensation to local authority employees if the procedure for regrouping is done by means of a Water Order instead of by means of a Water Bill. I should have thought that it must be palpably absurd that there should be a difference in the two scales. We have drawn attention to this and it has been drawn to the attention of the House before. It has been felt by Committees in the past, as it was felt by this Committee, that it would be wrong for any one Committee to attempt to lay down a principle for everybody to follow in the future. It is a matter which ought to be decided by Parliament. It was for that reason that we drew attention to it in our special Report.
The same thing applies also to the number of years' compensation for loss of office to directors under water companies regrouping. The practice in the past has nearly always been seven years' compensation unless some other figure has been agreed by all parties. In this instance an attempt was made to make it five years. Again the Committee felt it would he wrong to attempt to lay down a new principle to be followed for all time. Again the Committee thought it was a matter which the House ought to be asked to consider if any changes were required.
Therefore, I hope that whatever may have been the faults of this Committee —and I am certainly not trying to absolve myself of any faults there may have been —I would say that we tried to deal with this matter completely dispassionately. We tried to deal with the matter on the evidence put before us. We gave every opportunity for additional evidence to be adduced, if we were so requested. We gave every opportunity for investigations to be made into possible alternative schemes, and at the end we came down decisively in favour of the Bill.
Nothing that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe or my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Buckingham said has made me wish to change my mind in any way. Other hon. Members of the Committee are entitled to 351 take whatever view they like, but in my opinion nothing has been said tonight which should make us change our minds.
§ 10.10 p.m.
§ The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs (Mr. Henry Brooke)
There are two things on which I suspect that the House is unanimous. The first is that the matters with which we have been dealing are exceedingly intricate. The second is that by common consent the House owes a deep debt of gratitude to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) and his three colleagues, from both sides of the House, who sat for no fewer than thirty-six days on these four Bills. If I say that it would be the general desire that there should never be another occasion when four Bills have to be examined collectively and comprehensively over a period of thirty-six days, I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend and his colleagues will not take that amiss. I am expressing sympathy and appreciation.
As he would endorse, I believe, I have taken a close personal interest in these complicated matters, and I say at once that if any criticism is voiced anywhere against my Department I accept that as criticism of me, because my Department has been working in this, as in all else, under my direct instructions. I have no wish to take up the time of the House by seeking to defend myself against any such criticisms, which tend here to cancel one another out. I could do so, but I want to mention only one, the allegation that I or my Department have in some way a prejudice against water companies and in favour of local authorities or joint boards.
If the House had before it a comprehensive list of all the regrouping efforts which are now going on, that alone would invalidate the criticism, because it would be seen that I am giving my encouragement in a number of cases where the nucleus or centre of regrouping would be a company rather than a local authority or a joint board. That is one piece of evidence which I can give; but in this connection I should also like to read a sentence from a circular which I sent out on 23rd July, 1958. I said:There are some areas where the most efficient regrouping would be achieved by 352 water companies taking over the undertakings of neighbouring local authorities; and elsewhere there are companies which ought to be bought out by joint boards of local authorities. The Minister will consider proposals affecting companies on their merits as they affect the efficient supply of water in the areaThat is a correct and comprehensive statement of my attitude towards the matter, and if I were in fact playing a biased game I would hardly have sent out a circular incorporating a paragraph of that character as recently as last July.
There is another point on which I have been criticised in connection with this group of Bills. Indeed, the Committee is also made the target of criticism. This is to the effect that there was a project for a voluntary amalgamation in South Bucks, and Oxfordshire and that that ought to have been put through, because regrouping by voluntary action is superior to regrouping by compulsion. To that last general proposition I assent, but clearly one has to look at every one of these cases on its merits and in its context.
I should have welcomed the possibility of encouraging and endorsing a voluntary amalgamation here, had it not been that that voluntary amalgamation would have left completely unsolved the water problems of an area to the north. I will come to that in a moment.
It troubled me that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) said that some people had suggested that it was rather presumptuous of him to intervene at this stage. Certainly nothing could be further from my thoughts. Surely every one of us, sent to represent his constituency in the House, must claim and assert the right to speak for that constituency on an occasion like this. Whether he persuades the House to agree with him is another matter, but while the House should clearly show respect for the views which have been expressed by a Committee reporting back to it, nevertheless every one of us must retain his responsibilities to his constituency. If I may say so, I thought that my hon. Friend put his case on behalf of his constituents with great cogency, and obviously as a result of considerable research.
I agreed very much with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely—to whose work I have just paid tribute—when he said that when we are 353 examining any of these water questions through a Committee of the House, we must have regard to the situation as it now exists. One may have all kinds of regrets about the past. One may wish that the situation did not exist. But the fact remains that it does exist, and one has to grasp that situation, and often to grasp it speedily, because one has to make provision years ahead if an area of the country which is relatively waterless is to have in time the water which it needs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Sir F. Markham) spoke of the high cost of Private Bills. The question of legal expenses is not one for me. Had there been a way without promoting Bills and without prolonged examination before the Committee of solving the complex conundrum which was presented by the aspirations of the Promoters, certainly that would have been a good thing; but the Promoters deemed that to be impossible, and one cannot take away from them the right of access to Parliament.
In this case, as I see it, the South Bucks and Oxfordshire undertakers promoted a Private Bill because they wanted to form an entirely new company, and that they could not do by Water Order. They wanted to go further than the taking-over of the other undertakings by one central undertaking. The proposed formation of an entirely new company required a Private Bill. Thereafter, as I understand it, the Bucks Water Board found that it would have no status to petition against that Private Bill unless it promoted a Bill of its own. That was how the clash arose.
I do not want to enter into party political matters, but I hope that I may be allowed to say that one can solve all these questions without the drastic step of nationalising the whole water supply system, which is a subject which I think might be discussed on another occasion and in a wider context. In fact, in considering regrouping, it is possible to proceed very much more cheaply by means of a Water Order; but if the House were to say that that should always be done—and it is a matter for the House—it would be denying a right of access to Parliament which at present exists. Suppose that such a case as this intricate one were to arise again elsewhere. It certainly seems to me that to see whether 354 there was any chance of agreement, it would be well worth while for all the parties concerned to impose on themselves a self-denying ordinance not to promote any one Bill—because the promotion of one Bill often stimulates the promotion of others—and to investigate whether there was any conceivable possibility of achieving the desired result, or maybe a compromise result, by means of one or more Water Orders. But in this case those concerned felt it was essential to promote Bills, and the heavy and unavoidable expense flowed from that.
In the debate on the previous Bill, I reminded the Committee of the statutory responsibility upon me regarding the conservation of water, and, if I may put it broadly in this way, of trying to see that everyone in the country is able to get the water he needs. The point which stuck out above all others in the whole complex problem before the Committee was the urgent need for water in the northern part of the area of the Bucks Water Board. Frankly, it would not have concerned me much whatever recommendations to the House the Committee might have chosen to make regarding other parts of the very large area covered by these four Bills. But if by any chance the Committee had brought the Bill back to the House in a form which did not seem to me effectively to solve the need for water in that northern part of the area of the Board, I say to the House frankly that it would have been incumbent on me during the Third Reading debate to point out that, were the Bill passed in that form, it would seem to me that Parliament would be making it impossible for me to fulfil my statutory duty under Section 1 of the Water Act. Fortunately nothing of that kind has occurred.
I would not for one moment presume to say that I have managed to give as detailed a study to the whole complex position as did the Committee. But I have addressed myself to it with the duties placed upon me by the Water Act in mind, and I can say in all honesty to the House that this Bill appears to me to be acceptable by the tests which the Water Act requires me to apply. I am not saying that the Bill has been reported back to the House in a form which attains perfection. But certainly I am not going to take exception to anything which my hon. Friend 355 and his Committee have recommended here. By the essential tests it is perfectly acceptable.
This Bill solves the problem of the area which is acutely short of water. That is my answer to the first question asked by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Buckingham (Sir F. Markham). No one can prophesy what will happen if the demand develops in some totally unexpected way. Nevertheless, so far as one can anticipate the demand in that area—which is of such great concern to me—the Bill will solve the problem, and I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend that I can see no other way in which it could have been solved. On reading the proceedings and its findings, it would seem that the Committee itself ultimately took the same view.
My hon. and gallant Friend asked for an assurance about charges, and whether I can assure him that if this Bill goes through it will not lead to a material increase in the water charges imposed on his constituents by the Bucks Water Board. It is always dangerous to prophesy about these financial matters, but I see no reason why the provisions of this Bill should bring about any material change in the water rates which his constituents have to pay. It may be that one day the area of which we are speaking will be supplied from the Great Ouse. I know that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) considers that a strong possibility.
I cannot see how such a supply could conceivably have been organised in time to meet the present urgent need, and I am happy that the Committee took the same view. Any such scheme of supply from the Great Ouse would, in my view, be costly. It certainly would have been a very much more expensive way of meeting the demands of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham than the method which the Bill proposes. It might possibly be the right way on the water facts of the situation to meet the demand of that area one day, but I would not venture to predict that. I am sure that the possibility of supply from the Great Ouse deserves to be thoroughly investigated.
The big question before the House is whether in some way the needs of these areas in North Bucks could have been 356 met by any different or less drastic solution than the Bill in the form in which it has emerged from the Committee and has come back to us. That is a question to which I would like to address myself for a moment. One of the possibilities—I think it is one that appeals to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe—was that the Bucks Water Board might have accepted a bulk supply from Wycombe and Marlow, and that there was no necessity, on that reasoning, for the Bucks Water Board to extend its area and to take in those territories which will still come under it, if the Bill goes through.
I and my predecessors have been inclined to look with disfavour on bulk supply arrangements unless they were inevitable. Sometimes they are necessary, but my experience generally is that they lack the flexibility that is needed to enable the best use to be made of water resources. Placing the resources upon which an undertaking depends under a single control as far as possible enables the rate of pumping to be varied or the individual sources to be rested, as required, without what might be difficult or fruitless negotiations. Furthermore, bulk supply arrangements usually involve large reservations by the supplying undertaker against maximum ultimate needs. Every undertaking looks after itself first. That is human nature, and it is as normal to water undertakings as it is to other people and bodies.
That reservation against maximum needs tends to prevent a source of water being used to the full, and it might advance unnecessarily the development of new sources. In other words, by bulk supply arrangements we do not, in the normal case, get the most economic development and use of water. That is something which both Minister and House of Commons have to keep in mind, because it is likely to be many years before we have unlimited capital resources for investment in the development of water sources. For that reason we cannot afford to waste, and to put more money, more capital, into water development than the situation really requires. It is for these reasons that when the water industry is being reorganised, as it is at present, it does not seem satisfactory that undertakings should be deliberately regrouped in such a way that major bulk supplies are made necessary if 357 there is the possibility, as this Bill shows there can be, of placing sources of supply and distribution in the same hands.
There was a further point of difficulty. I think it was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers), and he suggested it was not for him to answer it, but perhaps for the Chairman of the Committee. I shall, if I may, go into detail for a moment, because unless this argument is dealt with in the House it might be felt that a material point had been overlooked. The question is whether, despite what I have said in general against bulk supply being a suitable solution, in this case the circumstances were so special that the general argument ought to have been overruled. What we have to bear in mind is that it is not in the power of the High Wycombe Corporation nor of the Marlow Water Company to give unconditional bulk supplies. There are Acts of Parliament on the Statute Book which prohibit them from exporting water from the Thames catchment area. Any bulk supply agreement which they were to enter into in spite of that prohibition would be subject to special Parliamentary procedure if the Thames Conservancy objected. There is every reason to think that the Thames Conservancy would object.
It is known that the Thames Conservancy would agree to the export of water from the catchment area for a period of ten years. The Bucks Water Board would not regard that as adequate security for the very expensive scheme which would be required to put the water into supply. Moreover, what is to happen at the end of the ten years? One is gambling on the Great Ouse supply being available, and here, as Minister of Housing and Local Government, I must express to the House the deep concern I should feel if we were to be adopting this device for a ten year period with no certainty of a supply of water to the constituents of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Buckingham at the end of those ten years. So the House can see—I am sure it recognised it before my speech began—that every aspect of this matter has been probed bath by the Committee and, I hope, by myself.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely asked one or two questions arising out of the Special Report of 358 the Committee. I hope I shall be allowed briefly to refer to that, because the Special Report is a document which I read with the greatest interest. That Report said:In the course of the Committee's proceedings, it became clear that only two authorities responsible for water undertakings covered by the Bills had consulted officers of the Geological Survey regarding their future water supplies. The Committee would strongly urge upon the Minister of Housing and Local Government the desirability of all local authorities taking full advantage of this valuable source of information before embarking on developments which could involve problems of water supply.I accept all the Committee said. It surprises me that only two of the authorities had consulted the Geological Survey. Certainly my information is that water undertakers normally consult the Geological Survey. I shall investigate this further and take note of what has been said. If after further investigation it seems that the value of the Geological Survey and consulting it are not fully appreciated, I shall see what further steps I can take to that end.
The Special Report also referred to compensation, and my hon. and gallant Friend asked me to make some reference to it. The position is, as he said, that if regrouping is effected by an Order under the Water Act, 1945, the code of compensation that is laid down in the Local Government Act of 1933 applies. If, on the other hand, the regrouping is effected by Private Bill, it has been the practice of the Government to ask Parliament to provide for a more up-to-date code similar to that which was established under the Local Government Act, 1948.
I agree with the Committee that it is time that the general water code was brought into line with modern ideas on compensation, particularly as more and more Orders under the 1945 Act can be expected with the gathering momentum of regrouping. The Government have, accordingly, decided that legislation should be introduced at an early date to repeal the provisions in the 1945 Act which apply the pre-war code of compensation to Orders made under that Act; and to substitute for it a power to enable me to make regulations governing compensation, which would follow a post-war pattern.
I would add that although further amalgamations in Scotland are much less likely than on this side of the 359 Border, and the point is, therefore, of much less practical importance there, the legal position is virtually the same, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has asked me to say that it is proposed that the provision the Government have in mind shall extend to Scotland also.
That is all I have to say. I trust that the House will not refer the Bill back to the Committee, but will, in due course, give it a Third Reading, and send it on to another place. It is in another place, I would submit, that some of the detailed financial provisions to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe referred, may well need to be examined further.
I am sure that he will forgive me if I do not say anything more in detail about the effect of water charges on his constituents in High Wycombe. Under the provisions of the Bill, an appeal might be made to me at some stage, and, quite clearly, when the full facts are not before me, the Bill not yet having reached the Statute Book, I would not wish to prejudge the decision I might have to take then. For that reason, I beg to be excused from going into detail.
Let me say at once that I appreciate that the water charges falling on my hon. Friend's constituents in Wycombe will go up. I do not see any way of carrying out regrouping, and at the same time guaranteeing that nobody will pay more anywhere. If the fundamental task that we are assuming in regrouping is to secure that there is an adequate supply of water throughout the country, it can be done only on a share system. In the end, some people may have to pay rather more, and others may be lucky enough to pay rather less—
§ Mr. Brooke
This is the way I am seeking to administer the Water Act, and I trust that we shall not have too much Socialism brought into it, because nationalisation is really quite irrelevant to what we are discussing.
§ Mr. Brockway
The Minister has made a rather important statement on Government policy, and has made it at the end of a discussion upon a Private Bill, when, 360 I imagine, nobody would expect a pronouncement of that character to be made to the House. Would he give an opportunity later for consideration of that statement?
§ Mr. Brooke
I was certainly not wishing to rush the House, or to impede it in any way. The statement is one that simply cannot be implemented without legislation. What I am indicating is that, as I said, at an early date legislation should be introduced. Clearly, I cannot say what that date will be, but I know that it was a matter of some concern to the Committee that the situation seemed, shall I say, somewhat chaotic. The Committee brought this matter to the attention of the House, and the Government have taken note of it. They have said that they will, on the earliest available occasion, bring forward proposals to rectify it. I trust that I am in no way acting contrary to the traditions of the House in making that statement this evening.
Having said that, and having expressed my sympathy with all those who may be adversely affected in some way or another by the Bill, I must end by saying that, for all the work which I have done on it and for all the work the Committee has done on it, neither the Committee nor I have been able to discover any possible way of solving the water problem of the North Bucks area except on the basis of the provisions of this Bill.
§ Sir F. Markham
I should like, if I may, to thank the Minister and say how grateful we shall be in the Buckingham division for the assurances he has given this evening.
§ Mr. John Hall
While I thank my right hon. Friend very much indeed for the very clear and concise way in which he has answered the debate, may I say I am sure that he will not expect me to accept in their entirety all the arguments and views which he put forward. Indeed, he will not be surprised to learn that I still hold the view that the alternative Bill which did not come out of the Committee met all the requirements which he as Minister would like to see in a Bill of that kind, even including a supply of water to the northern area.
However, in view of my right hon. Friend's concluding remarks, when he 361 pointed out that there was still opportunity to consider the matter in more detail in another place, by petition or by other means, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Main Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill considered accordingly; to be read the Third time.