HC Deb 04 March 1965 vol 707 cc1673-9

10.28 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles (Winchester)

I beg to move, That the South and West Dorset Water Order, 1964, a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th January, be annulled. The whole House knows, I think, that the procedure in which we are indulging at the moment is truly extraordinary. It has in the past been described as collusion, and even as political adultery. However, if I am to engage in a combined operation, I am glad to do so in collusion with my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King).

I know South Dorset and love it. It is fair to say, however, that I know more about the salt water of Dorset than about the fresh, and I do not claim to know in full detail all the pros and cons of the South and West Dorset Water Order. My position is rather like that of William IV when confronted by a deputation, who said, "If my affection for you was equal to my ignorance of what you are about it would be wide indeed." However, if the local authorities feel strongly enough about this Water Order to present a petition about it, I back to the hilt their right to be heard. I know from my own constituency the zeal with which the local authorities pursue their duties in all matters and the dedicated way in which they look after the areas, be they urban or rural, for which they are responsible. This House should at all times do everything it can to support local authorities, those unpaid men and women who constitute our local councils, and their staffs, for these people do a great deal of our dirty work for us.

With this acknowledgment, I ask for this Order to be annulled.

10.31 p.m.

Mr. Evelyn King (Dorset, South)

I beg to move, in line 1, to leave out from "the" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: Petition of General Objection of Dorchester and Weymouth and Melcombe Regis Corporations, Portland Urban District Council and Dorchester Rural District Council against the South and West Dorset Water Order 1964, be referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses". I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles) for clearing the ground for us. It is inevitable, in the nature of the subject that we are about to discuss, that the four Dorset Members cannot have a unanimous view on such Orders, and therefore we thought it right, as it were, to steal over the border into Hampshire and get my hon. and gallant Friend to set the ground for us for the friendly discussion which I am sure will follow.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page), who has a right to the time of the House at this moment, in so far as he has yielded to the demands from Dorset for this debate, and I am in honour bound to be as brief as possible, having regard to comprehensibility, in the hope that his Prayer may follow this one.

Water is vital. It is scarce and expensive. It is particularly expensive if it is dragged out of the ground in half pints. Therefore, every argument which we shall use tonight will flow from the Ministerial circular issued in September, 1956, which urged that water boards should be reduced in number and increased in strength. To that I think we would all assent.

Dorset loyally obeyed that advice. In September, 1958, there was formed the West Dorset Water Board, and in 1959 the Poole and East Dorset Water Board. That left the area around Dorchester and the area around Weymouth, urban and rural, under the control of the Weymouth Waterworks Company. The Minister rightly sought to complete the job that he began by urging that company and those interested in water in that area to amalgamate with the other boards. We were willing to do that, but we were urged in particular to amalgamate with the West Dorset Water Board.

Negotiations followed. Those negotiations were not successful. Ultimately there was a public inquiry. No agreement was reached. There was a letter of decision from the Minister. That letter sought to compel an unnatural union, so it seemed to us, between Central and South Dorset and West Dorset—unnatural because that was the most expensive way of doing the job. All unnatural unions are traditionally expensive; it is prohibitively expensive, and almost the whole of that expense will fall upon my constituents. We in South and Central Dorset seek to co-operate, but we seek a larger union than is now proposed.

I pray in aid of the argument the Minister's own letter in which he says: But for the prior establishment of Poole and East Dorset Water Board, there would be more advantage in trying to secure one Board for the whole area. The Minister went on to concede that the proposal he was putting forward would cost my constituents 20 per cent. more than would otherwise be paid by them.

But that is the immediate effect. What is far worse is that in 1975—and the figures I shall quote are accepted by all sides—whereas had the Weymouth Water Board continued the rate would have been 8.7d., if it is amalgamated with the Central and West Dorset Board the rate will become 20.6d. and under what we want, the amalgamation of the whole of Dorset, it would drop to 15s. The proposal which I seek to oppose would add to our costs about 135 per cent., or, to put it another way and make it crystal clear, the ratepayer in Weymouth who now pays £2 15s. 4d. for his water will be asked to pay £7 17s. 6d., about two and a half times as much. It would cost Weymouth an extra £75,000, and it would also make Weymouth, the area to which I owe my duty, one of the most expensive places in the country for water rates.

That is the gist of the case, and I have put it as briefly as I could in the circumstances which I have outlined. I do not ask the House to accept the figures or the case I have put forward, but I hope that I have made out a sufficient case for asking hon. Members to agree that this is a case which ought to go before an expert committee for further consideration. It cannot be wholly irrelevant that in the last 48 hours the ordinary rate in Weymouth has gone up by 10d. I must not dwell on that or I shall be out of order, but while rates are high all along the South Coast, in Weymouth they are becoming intolerable.

I therefore ask the House to receive this Petition, which I have in my hand, praying the honourable Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain to intervene in the form suggested. I ask the House to grant that Prayer.

10.38 p.m.

Mr. Simon Wingfield Digby (Dorset, West)

I am sorry that we have had to promise to be very brief this evening, because many of my constituents are very much affected by this Order and I am in the dilemma that their interests and their views are divided into two groups which are diametrically opposed. On the one hand, we have the Borough of Dorchester and the Dorchester Urban District, who take the view put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King), and on the other hand we have the area of the West Dorset Water Board around Bridport taking an entirely different view.

The area of West Dorset is an area of small villages where piped water supplies came late. Therefore, when the West Dorset Water Board was set up, there was a tremendous amount of very expensive work to do and, although all the economy possible was exercised, it was necessary to raise a very heavy rate burden, a burden which is still a cause of anxiety in Bridport and the surrounding district.

Consequently, it is not surprising that in the West Dorset Water Board area there is anxiety that nothing should happen to delay the coming into force of a wider area and a wider board. For that reason, the people in that area do not wish to see any pause while a larger area is considered. My constituents in the Dorchester area, on the other hand, would be willing to see the area extended, because they do not feel that time is running against them to the same degree as it is against those of my constituents who live in the area of Bridport.

In the circumstances, when these two groups of my constituents are so equally divided, I do not feel that I should be right to pronounce for one or the other of them. My concern is that as many as possible of my constituents should have a decent piped water supply at the earliest possible moment and at the most reasonable possible price. I would not, therefore, go for the one or the other. The one thing, however, of which I am quite certain is that the matter is very urgent and that whichever type of board is set up, over however wide an area, no time should be lost.

10.41 p.m.

Mr. Oscar Murton (Poole)

My concern in this matter is to protect the interests of the Poole and East Dorset Water Board, the local authorities whose members comprise that body and the ratepayers in the area covered by the Board's undertakings. The Poole and East Dorset Water Board came into being in 1960. Its constituent authorities came together by voluntary agreement in conformity with the policy laid down by Parliament. Its formation was an example of democracy at its best.

Since its inception, the Poole and East Dorset Water Board has been ably run. It has carried out a satisfactory capital programme over the past five years. It has no deficit on capital account. It has maintained the water charges for six years without any increase. Finally, even in times of drought, not only has the supply never failed, but there has been no need for any severely restrictive rationing measures.

By contrast, the existing West Dorset Water Board has had an unhappy history. Indeed, one might even say that it was a failure. It is both small and financially weak. A scheme of amalgamation similar to that in East Dorset was as unsuccessful as that of East Dorset was to the contrary. In spite of failure to enlist the support of some of the larger authorities in its area, and with a population of only 22,000, it embarked upon capital projects approximating to £1 million. With a continuous and progressive programme of main-laying, the West Dorset Board has incurred a deficit on capital account of £90,000, of which the Dorset County Council has to bear half. The intention of the objection now before this House is to endeavour, contrary to the Minister's ruling, to force an amalgamation and thus to spread the load of its present and future deficits over the whole of Dorset.

As the Borough of Poole, which I have the honour to represent, contains 26 per cent. of the population of Dorset, the ratepayers of Poole would, in due course, have to face increased water charges. These hard-pressed ratepayers—

Mr. Evelyn King

Would not my hon. Friend admit that if it is done as we propose, the increase in water rate to Poole and to all of us will be a mere 3d., whereas if it is left alone the increase to South Dorset will be Is.? Would not the constituency which my hon. Friend so ably represents be generous enough to take the view that it should be spread over the whole County of Dorset?

Mr. Murton

I am interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) has to say. I do not know the source of his figures, but they are certainly not the figures which have been given to me, because I understand that there would be a materially greater effect upon Poole and the other authorities in East Dorset, bearing in mind—although I must be careful not to step outside my terms of reference—that we also, in Poole, have an increase of 10d. in the rate. When the hard-pressed ratepayers are already saddled with 36 per cent. of the county precept, it is a serious problem for them.

To some extent, the position at Swan-age and Wareham would be similar. My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South, who represents those two towns in this House, should consider that aspect, too. As I am a former member of the Poole and East Dorset Water Board, I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that those towns would be faced with a similar increase, and I am in a position to know that.

Finally, may I draw the attention of the House to another very serious situation? Should this objection succeed, and the matter be referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses, the Poole and East Dorset Water Board, Poole Borough Council, Wareham and Swanage, and the other constituent authorities served by the Board will have no standing and will not be entitled to express any views, whatever the petitioners may say, and no matter how outrageous the petitioners' arguments.

This would be poor thanks to the constituent authorities of the Poole and East Dorset Water Board, formed voluntarily in 1960, and now faced with being forced against its will into amalgamation with another Board, on terms which would cast aside the carefully negotiated basis on which each constituent authority agreed to join.

The Ministry's inspector was satisfied with the composition of the Poole and East Dorset Water Board. He recommended that it should remain a separate entity. The Minister accepted this view, and made a compulsory order on the existing West Dorset Water Board, while adding to its limits of operation. I urge hon. Members to reject the Prayer and the Amendment, and to let the Order take effect as now contrived.

10.46 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. James MacColl)

A short time ago the House gave a Second Reading to a new Special Procedure Bill which will render these proceedings unnecessary, because it will provide automatically for a petition of general objection to go to a Committee of both Houses.

I think that the proper procedure is for the Amendment to be carried and for this matter to go to the Joint Committee, where the evidence can be heard and where a fair decision can be reached. I would therefore advise the House to accept the Amendment.

Question, That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question, put and negatived.

Proposed words there added.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.

Ordered, That the Petition of General Objection of Dorchester and Weymouth and Melcombe Regis Corporations, Portland Urban District Council and Dorchester Rural District Council against the South and West Dorset Water Order 1964 be referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses.

Message to the Lords to acquaint them therewith.

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