HC Deb 26 November 1965 vol 721 cc912-52

Order for Second Reading read.

11.5 a.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is some time since we had a Bill on the problem of financial assistance given to rural water and sewerage. It so happens that now the plans which were anticipated in 1955 when the last Bill in this field was before the House, have virtually been completed, and it is necessary to have some more money available for another period. Therefore, we are asking the House to approve the voting of more money for grant assistance in these two fields.

To take a look at water, first of all, the grant aid has produced schemes costing in aggregate about £97 million. According to the 1961 census, which was the last anchor point at which one can look, 94 per cent. of all households in rural districts either had a piped water supply exclusively for their own use or were sharing one. Grants have been given where no piped supply existed, and most of the country now is getting a piped water supply, and by the time the money which we are now asking the House to vote has been expended it looks as if about 98 per cent. will have been covered. Between now and 1969 the undertakings expect to spend another £25 million, and after that another £4 million. So that I think one can say so far as water goes this country has reached a standard about which we can feel some satisfaction. There are still some areas which have to be covered, mainly the more sparsely populated areas in the North and, to some extent, in Wales, but, generally speaking, the programme has gone on very satisfactorily.

Now for sewerage. This must follow water; it is a natural feature of it, because unless we have waterborne sanitation there is nothing to sewer. So, although we have subsidised some £157 million of rural sewerage schemes, there is nearly as much again on which grant will be sought before the planned programmes are completed sometime in the nineteen-seventies.

It looks, therefore, as if in about 10 years from now, if all goes well, and local authorities are able to do all they hope to do, the bulk of the practical sewerage programme will either have been completed or be due for early completion. I suppose there are likely always to be some places in isolated parts of the country where a cesspool or septic tank is likely to remain a good long time, if not permanently. In the villages where modern drainage is really important it should be provided and, under these schemes, will be provided, because the schemes which we grant aid allow cesspools, septic tanks and leaky old drains discharging untreated sewage into streams and ditches to be replaced by properly engineered modern drains connecting to satisfactory sewage treatment works. To support all this work in water supply and sewerage, we are paying grant at a standard rate of 35 per cent. of the capital cost of mains and sewers.

However, because the completion date of the sewerage programme is very distant and it is not easy to be accurate in anticipating the speed with which it will be done, we are not seeking authority to cover all the work that it is hoped to do. The present Bill authorises a further allotment of £30 million, which is the same as in 1951 and 1955, in addition to the original authorisation of £15 million. Our present authority is set at £75 million, and out of that we have formally undertaken to pay grants to the capital value of £71 million at 30th September, 1965, of which £29 million is for water supply and £42 million is for sewerage.

That points to a shift of emphasis which is natural in view of what I have said about the progress of the service. Whereas in the earlier days of the operation the emphasis was on water, more money is now spent on sewerage. The Bill authorises an increased total of £105 million in all, and we expect that that should be sufficient for a further five years.

There is only one other point to which perhaps I might draw the attention of the House, particularly as the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) is interested in these recondite matters.

The form of the Bill is rather different from what it has been in previous Bills. The 1955 Bill, for example, merely provided for adding the amount which was provided under the further Bill and the Bill amending the further Bill. What is happening now is that we are cutting out the extra accretions and amending the basic Act by putting into it the total amount which has been authorised. I am advised that that makes no difference. The practical effect is a cleaner drafting job which I hope will commend itself to the House.

I think that everyone will agree on the desirability of the work. On the whole, it has worked well and produced good results. There is still need for further progress, and therefore I hope that all hon. Members will give the Bill their support.

11.13 a.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

It might be a little cruel of me, but I want to quote from a previous Second Reading debate on a very similar Bill brought forward in 1955, when the right hon. Gentleman who was then the hon. Member for Belper (Mr. George Brown) remarked: Whenever a Parliamentary Secretary is put up by himself both to advocate a Bill and to answer the debate, we may be pretty sure that there is something rotten about the Measure, otherwise he would not be given the job. Were it something to boast about, the Minister would do it and not the Parliamentary Secretary."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd February, 1955; Vol. 537, c. 1192.] The boasting about the Bill and the system which is represented in it can rightly come from this side. When my right hon. Friends were in Government they made a real success of the grant system for water supply and sewerage. It was started as long ago as 1944, with the parent Act, the Rural Water Supplies and Sewerage Act, 1944, which, with the Water Act, 1945, created a system whereby rural district councils had the obligation to bring in piped water and piped sewerage to every part of their areas where there were houses or schools, provided that it could be done at a reasonable cost; and at the same time, Exchequer grant and county council financial assistance were made available to the rural district councils and to the water undertakings towards the cost of those rural water or sewerage schemes.

For that partnership between the Government, the county councils, the rural district councils and the water undertakings, in the parent Act of 1944, the Government were to contribute £15 million for England and Wales. That partnership has worked very well over the 20 years since 1945.

Although it is not apparent in the Bill, I understand that it is the eventual intention of the Government to "do a Clore" on water undertakings, that is to say, a take-over to convert them into a national body.

The Labour Party manifesto at the time of the last General Election said: The Water Supply industry, most of which is already owned by the community, will be reorganised under full public ownership". In presenting the Bill to the House today, the hon. Gentleman said that, generally speaking, the system is going along very satisfactorily. If that is the case, why the proposal for nationalisation? If it is to be nationalised, what is the point of bringing forward the Bill at the present time?

If this Bill delays nationalisation, there is some point in it and it has my support, because I am confident that my right hon. Friends will be in power before the present water supply partnership system can be dismantled by the present Government. With its Amendments and improvements over the years since 1944 in the Acts of 1951, 1955 and 1961, the system has produced the goods, or perhaps I should say that it has produced the services—what I would call "the washing and flushing services", which might have been a better title for the Bill than the rather cumbersome one of the Rural Water Supplies and Sewerage Bill.

The present title gives one the idea of muddy trenches along the verges of roads, pipes lying about in fields, sewage farms and all the rest of the paraphernalia, when what we are really talking about is taps and a plug in a country cottage. That is what the 1944 Act and its amendments created in hundreds of thousands of homes during the 13 fruitful years of Conservative government, and if it is the intention of the present Administration to take over our water undertakings and form them into a nationalised water supply, it is quite certain that there will be an increase in water charges and a decrease in the rate of water connections.

The amendments to the 1944 system over the years have been that in 1951 the £15 million was increased to £45 million, in 1955 it was increased to £75 million, and now it is to be £105 million. There was an alteration in the system in 1955 in that the amounts were to be given in grant by instalments rather than in a lump sum form, so that although it was not immediately reflected in the amount of Exchequer grants given from time to time, there was an increased volume of work put in between 1955 and the present time, because it was only necessary to meet instalments and not the whole of the capital sum when the grant was made.

In 1958, when the pattern of local government changed and the general grant replaced the grants in aid, the grant for rural water supplies and sewerage remained one of the exceptions. Nevertheless, it was affected by the introduction of the rate deficiency grant at that time, and as the rateable resources of all local authorities were brought up to the national level—at any rate, the intention was to bring them up to the national level—by the rate deficiency grant, it seemed logical to direct rural grants to the excess over the cost of urban water supplies. This is made clear in Circular No. 15 of 1961 from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Paragraph 2 reads: The changes made by the Local Government Act, 1958, assure every area, whether urban or rural, of financial resources up to the average. It is therefore reasonable that specific grants should in future be directed towards meeting the higher cost of rural water and sewerage schemes when compared with costs of such schemes in the urban areas. The Circular went on to explain that in future—after April, 1961—the calculation of the grant would disregard the headworks and the sewage disposal work because they were common to both types of scheme, both rural and urban. My first question to the Parliamentary Secretary arises out of that. Clearly, this was the scheme laid down in 1961 for the payment of grants, and it has been adopted since—that one disregards the capital expenditure on headworks and on sewage disposal works. Does he think that this is still correct? Has it worked out satisfactorily in practice? Is there any evidence that the dispersal of headworks in rural areas is not sufficiently recognised in the grant? He knows that there have been complaints from water undertakings in rural areas that had their scheme been within an urban area it could have been run by perhaps one source, whereas, spread over a country area, they may need four or five head sources in a similar scheme. Has this worked out satisfactorily in practice, or should it be looked at again to see whether we are starving some of the rural areas of the proper grants?

About the same time as the rate deficiency grant was introduced, there was a drive for the grouping of water undertakings. Here again we see the great success of the Conservative Government, particularly since the drive got under way in 1956. Back in 1945 there had been as many as 1,200 water undertakings in England and Wales, and there were still 1,000 in 1956. These have been rapidly reduced in number by amalgamations and groupings, and the figure is now, I think, under 400. This made it necessary in 1961 to amend the 1944 Act so that the county councils might be able to contribute to undertakings which did not strictly come within the county council's area. Where there was a grouping, for example, with a county borough, there had been difficulty under the 1944 Act for the county council to make its contribution.

That is the administrative side of the grant system, run now by viable undertakings locally administered—undertakings which, I think, are large enough to be viable and not so large as to be remote. I am therefore glad that the Bill does not, at least at this stage, seek to carry out the pledge given by the Government at the General Election that they would nationalise water supply. I am glad that it does not seek to replace these successful undertakings by a National Water Supply and Sewerage Board, or some such nationalised body. When we look at what the partnership system between Government, county councils, rural districts and water undertakings has Achieved over 13 years of Conservative Government, we see that the progress which has been made is quite phenomenal. In 1951, 21 per cent. of rural dwellings had no piped water supply. By 1964 this was down to 4 per cent.—indeed, perhaps, a little less, because that figure is probably based on the census figures of 1961. This meant that in 1961 only 200,000 dwellings were left without piped water—about half a million of the population. Unless the Government mess this up by nationalisation, that will be halved, I imagine, by 1968–69. I am speaking of the percentage as applied to rural dwellings.

If we take the percentage over all dwellings, then in 1951, 5 per cent. of all the dwellings in England and Wales had no piped water supply, and by 1964 that was down to 1 per cent. In other words, only 1 per cent. of the dwellings in England and Wales are without a piped water supply. Of course, in some of the rural areas the percentages are higher; one may find a percentage of 10 per cent. or 20 per cent. in a particular rural area. In the last five years of Conservative government 200,000 rural homes were connected to main drainage, which is 40,000 a year. In those 13 years the money spent on water supply and sewerage amounted to £773 million—£417 million spent on sewerage schemese and £356 million spent on water schemes. That is a vast amount spent on removing the two major disadvantages to living in the country, lack of piped water and lack of piped sewage.

I can sum up the achievements of the Conservative Government over 13 years by saying that England and Wales now have the most comprehensive piped water supply system in the world. No other country has anywhere near so low a figure as that 1 per cent. hard core of dwellings which are left without a main supply. Of course, it would be quite uneconomical for some of the dwellings in this 1 per cent. to install a supply, for it would cost more to install than the value of the house. Is there any future policy in that respect? Are we to regard some of these dwellings as completely written off from this point of view? That 1 per cent. is the hard core, the hardest nut to crack, the most difficult problem.

I should therefore like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary one or two questions about the working of the system now that we have got down to this figure of 1 per cent. to see whether there are any improvements which we can make in the system of grants. This is a system which, in the Bill before us, we are underwriting by a further £30 million and we should see whether it needs any changes for this final assault on the last few dwellings left without a piped supply.

The characteristic of the 1944 system was its flexibility. No amount of grant was fixed in the 1944 Act. This continued until 1961, when a certain formula for grants was adopted. I think that this is the first opportunity which the House has had of considering this change from a flexible system of grant to a formula system laid down in 1961.

It is worth considering now whether it is operating well or whether there can be any improvements. The formula system is set out fairly well in Circular 15 of 1961. The cost of a scheme for a water supply is divided by the number of properties which will be newly connected to the scheme, and if the quotient is £300 or less, the Minister's grant will be 35 per cent. of the sum so ascertained. In the case of a sewerage scheme, £400 is substituted for £300. These figures are assumed to be the maximum cost of providing each property with a supply.

I know that this system gives the water undertakings a chance to estimate in advance the grant they will receive. But does not this need looking at again, to see whether, over the period since 1961, £300 and £400 have proved to be the right figures? I do not think that we ought to return to the completely flexible system, but it is worth consideration to see whether the present system of formula grant is too rigid. If it is to be retained, are the limits of £300 and £400 too low?

In some cases, as the Parliamentary Secretary will know, water undertakings have said that their average figure goes up to as much as £600 per property for fairly reasonable and modest schemes. Furthermore, we should consider that figure again in the light of the threat of something new in present-day taxation—the development levy. It may not have occurred to the Ministry that the Exchequer may get back some of this money by way of the development levy on property which has been improved by the grants. That might be taken into account and, perhaps, future grants may be a little more generous.

That sort of question may, I suppose, be answered by an analysis of the answers to the questionnaire sent out to local authorities in March, 1964 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) when he was Minister of Housing. The purpose of the questionnaire was to ascertain what local authorities' future schemes would be and what troubles they foresaw with them. Have those questions been analysed now? If not, how is the analysis going on and when will we hear its results? It may well answer some of the points which I am now discussing.

I mentioned earlier that this is a partnership between the Government, the county councils, the rural district councils and the water undertakings. Are the county councils playing the game in this respect and paying their third of the cost? This is what I understood was the intention of the Minister in making a 35 per cent. grant. The county councils give about a third and the undertakings and the rural councils stand the rest.

However, I believe, from information which I have been given, that some county councils produce some sort of formula which whittles down their liability After all, they are getting the benefit of the rate deficiency grant, yet some of them are not contributing their full share to the rural water schemes. In that connection, I wonder if the Parliamentary Secretary could say whether the Minister could hurry up some of the counties in looking at the rural water schemes put up to them by the water undertakings.

Paragraph 8 of Circular 15 of 1961 says: Attention is drawn to the need for undertakers to consult the county council at an early stage where it is expected that a scheme will attract grant. Some of the water undertakings have certainly found it necessary to consult the county council at a very early stage, because of the delay in getting approval from the county council. This delay can amount to between six and twelve months. It would be a help if the Minister could do something with the counties on that point.

In many rural areas, the use of water per person has doubled in the 13 years of Conservative government. I am not sure of the moral to draw from that—whether Conservative government makes people cleaner or soberer—but that is the position after this comparatively short period. My experience, not directly connected with rural water supplies but in, for example, the hospital service, shows how phenomenally the use of water has in-increased over the past 10 to 15 years. This is a major point in connection with the Bill.

This system allows the Minister a discretion. He has used this discretion in restricting grants to those for schemes for first-time connection and the circular implies that he is bound by Statute to do that. In paragraph 7, we are told: The Minister has no power to pay a grant for any work of replacement whether in water or sewerage schemes. Further work which simply augments supplies of water from mains will be ineligible except insofar as the augmentation is incidental to the scheme for making first-time provision. In calculating grant in cases where supplies are augmented, regard will be had only to the number of houses receiving a supply of water from mains for the first time … But when the water demand is increasing, even if only at the official rate of 4 per cent. per annum—in many cases I believe, it is nearer 15 per cent.—that means that over 20 years the demand for water has increased and will increase by 100 per cent.

Yet there is no grant for improving and augmenting an existing supply arising from modern equipment, increased standards of hygiene, increased agricultural demand, irrigation of the land and so on. This increased demand has been very substantial and must continue to be so. There is a similar problem with link mains. When, for example, a water undertaking is taking over a village or an estate private water supply, there is no grant for linking the main supply of the water undertaking to that private supply.

There is, as the Circular says, a relaxation of this in some cases when the private supply is so unsatisfactory as to be incapable of incorporation in the modern system. Then a grant is allowed, but not for linking the private supply when that supply is satisfactory in itself. Before 1961 some of the improvement schemes, in fact, got a grant; there is no doubt about it. Whatever later Ministers may say about being statutorily restricted, when the Minister did not disclose the method of assessment, undertakings got some contribution towards the improvements. This ought to be looked at again. It may, indeed, be a point for amendment of the present Bill, depending perhaps on the Money Resolution.

If the 1 per cent. hard core of water connections that remain to be carried out in the next few years, it is renewal and enlargement which will become the vital job of the water undertakings. The Parliamentary Secretary was very pessimistic when he said that it will take 10 years to get rid of the 1 per cent. hard core.

Mr. MacColl

I was referring only to sewerage.

Mr. Page

It is the same. We are down to a basic hard core in the case of sewerage as well.

Mr. MacColl

I do not think the hon. Gentleman listened to me with his usual courtesy and care. I was explaining that progress in sewerage was behind progress in water. Whereas water is now more or less in sight of completion, apart from the hard core, sewerage has a good way to go.

Mr. Page

I did not misunderstand the Parliamentary Secretary when he spoke of a period of 10 years being necessary to complete whatever he was talking of completing. I understand now that he was referring to the sewerage schemes and not to the water supply schemes. I certainly hope that the water supply schemes will be completed in a much shorter time. Indeed, I would have thought that he was being pessimistic over the sewerage schemes when so much progress was made with those over the past 10 to 15 years.

I think we should look again at the question of grant towards improvements, towards augmentation of the supply, because the problem—and, indeed, it will be a problem in sewerage and not only in water supply—will be that the increased use of water will make it necessary to enlarge the supplies. To what extent that will increase the water charges to the consumers depends on the extent to which the Government are prepared to increase the grants.

There is, of course, this problem of the highly-rated rural water supplies and the lowly-rated urban water supplies, but I do not think this is any excuse for nationalisation. It is reason, perhaps, for looking again at the possibility of equalising these charges in some way by some sort of equalisation levy or deficiency grant.

I think the difference between the charges in one area and another will increase as the development goes on, and it might well be worth while looking to see whether we might at this stage provide for some sort of equalisation levy over the several systems. But that does not mean that the system itself as operated in this partnership between the Government, the county councils, the rural district councils and water undertakers is unsuccessful. In fact, it has worked very successfully over the past years, and I think the record of the institution of piped water supply and piped sewerage over the past 10 to 15 years is one of which we can be proud.

11.46 a.m.

Mr. Jasper More (Ludlow)

Before welcoming the Bill I should like to ask the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to turn round and register the degree of support there is for it among the Members of his own party. The recent arrival of the Home Secretary into the Chamber, I think, has been the occasion of reducing the all-time record of the Liberal Party which is better represented in the Chamber than the Labour Party. I make these comments in all seriousness. It seems appalling that so little interest is shown by the Government party in a matter which is of the utmost concern to those of us who are responsible for rural areas.

Nevertheless, I welcome this Bill. I do not entirely share the optimism and the sense of bland assurance with which the Parliamentary Secretary read his Departmental brief. He stressed the figure of 94 per cent. I can only say that I do not know of any constituent of mine who is 94 per cent. satisfied with his water supply. Some are 100 per cent. satisfied and others are nil per cent. satisfied.

In my area in the last hard winter some of my constituents had to forge their way through the snow and dig a matter of 100 yards to the stand-pipe which is the only source of supply for a considerable community. In my con- stituency the water supply for a considerable-sized village consists of a rubber pipe lying in the bed of a small stream, fed from high up the stream, on the principle that the water which comes from the top of the stream is likely to be purer than the water lower down.

In the last 20 years one of my constituents has twice resigned from his rural district council as a protest against the failure to produce a water supply for his own village. I should like to know whether the Parliamentary Secretary is satisfied that under the present arrangements which my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) has outlined, there is really the machinery that provides the necessary drive for these things.

I am a member of my own county council and I attended its quarterly meeting not long ago. Once a year we have presented to us a document of some 100 pages of close print, prepared by our county medical officer of health. It covers a large number of subjects. In the middle there is a rather sinister heading, "The Sanitary Circumstances of the County", which, if one reads it carefully, is found to be full of grisly details, such as the percentage of bacilla in the various discharges from sewage, the number of houses which have no water supply, and other respects in which we are substandard.

This matter came up on the agenda at the county council meeting. We discussed with interest whether we should spend £650,000 on the new police station, the road expenditure cuts imposed by the Minister of Transport which are likely to be disastrous, and similar matters. Then we came to the report of the county medical officer of health and I was interested to notice that not one of our 70 councillors present said a single word. It suggests to me that the present arrangements, however perfect they may be from a financial angle, are not perfect when applied to getting the necessary degree of drive and urgency which are needed to complete the great work of water supply and sewerage.

I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to bring this fact to the notice of his Minister who we know is so interested in the question of local government reorganisation, and ascertain whether there is not some better way of imposing the liabilities in this field. There was a time when in rural areas the responsibility for the water supply appeared to be with the rural district council. But we now have the further complication that we have the water boards, and my constituent who has twice in the last 20 years resigned from the rural district council is now embarking on a third term of office because it has been proved to him that from now on the rural district council can no longer be blamed.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will accept these criticisms. They are made in no carping spirit. It is nice that we have these additional allocations of grants for this necessary purpose, but I would ask the hon. Gentleman to direct his attention and that of his Minister to means by which these additional funds could be used more quickly and usefully to complete this necessary work.

11.50 a.m.

Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)

I echo the view of the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) that many rural dwellers have had and are still having a raw deal in the matter of water supplies and sewerage systems. It was in 1934 that this House established that there was a case for special Exchequer assistance to meet the costs of rural water supplies and sewerage schemes. In the countryside we have higher costs for works and long pipe lengths and sewers to serve comparatively few properties. These factors, together with the sparsity of population, establish the need for special assistance.

I draw the attention of the House to the fact that rural areas, such as my own in Mid-Wales, supply a great deal of water for the country generally. In Mid-Wales we supply Liverpool, Birmingham and the Midlands conurbation and many other towns in industrial England; yet many of the villages in Montgomeryshire and other parts of Mid-Wales still have no water supply and when the water is brought to the villages it is an extremely expensive process. What saddens us even more is that schemes put forward for some of our remoter villages are sometimes turned down for grant because the cost per dwelling is too high.

I should like to take the House with me on this point. Liverpool, for example, has obtained its water from Lake Vyrnwy for the last 80 years. The water is sold in Liverpool at a considerable profit to the city. The water rate there is very much less than 2s. in the £, but if one disregards the precept the water rate in Montgomeryshire area is already the equivalent of 6s. in the £ and is likely to increase as he cost of bringing water to these villages increases. There is something basically wrong and unjust about this fact when this area is the source of the water and yet it is other parts of the country that profit from it. I do not put this argument on any nationalistic ground. It applies equally to the Lake District or other rural areas which supply water to the large industrial areas.

It is time that the rural areas had more tangible benefits from the fact that they supply the water to some of our larger cities. At the last election the party opposite was advocating a Welsh Water Board, among other water boards for the country. It would control and develop water resources more equitably and make the more tangible benefits available to the source counties. Since the election nothing more has been heard of these proposals, to the great regret of the vast majority of people, certainly in the Principality of Wales. Why is this?

I plead for a far more generous distribution of grants. The grant formula needs urgent revision, if there should be a formula at all. I do not see why it should not be a matter of discretion in each case. In any event, the limits under the present formula are far too low to deal realistically with the problems of rural areas such as my own.

The upper limit for grant purposes in terms of cost per property, for example, is now £300 for water, whereas I submit that it should be about £650. I should like to cite an example where recently the chairman of the Montgomeryshire Water Board came to see me and the Secretary of State for Wales. The latter had recommended turning down an application for a scheme in Montgomeryshire to bring water to the relatively small village of Llanfihangel. The cost there was £800 per property and might rise even to £1,000. People may raise their hands in horror and say that this is extremely high, but what is one to do? Are we to leave these villages without a water supply?

It is instructive to remember that when the Montgomeryshire Water Board was introduced into the county all the village and district schemes for water supplies were scrapped on the recommendations of principle of the central government. The Montgomeryshire authority was told to concentrate on two or three main sources of supply. This the authority has done, but the result is that the piping cost is enormous. Whereas a small village like the one I have mentioned could be supplied perhaps not with an ideal supply but with an adequate supply for its purpose for £10,000 10 years ago, now the piping cost alone to bring the water runs to tens of thousands of pounds.

I quote a small village near Machynlleth which drew up a scheme of water supply many years ago. The total cost plus distribution was said to be £8,000. This scheme was not approved by the Ministry at the time and when the water board took over it scrapped the scheme and said that it would be very much better for the village to have a piped water supply from the main. The village lies four or five miles from the town of Machynlleth in difficult terrain and the cost of bringing the water by a main to the village would now be astronomic. The result is that this village, having been denied not an ideal but an adequate supply, is now faced with the prospect of having no supply at all in the foreseeable future.

There is a case for a much more flexible approach by the Ministry and by the water boards to these problems. The boards should be allowed to disregard the directions given to them initially by the central authority, because there are villages where a spring water supply can be obtained and distributed at a relatively modest cost whereas if these villages wait for an ideal main supply they will never get it because the scheme will not receive grant aid from the Ministry.

Similarly with sewerage schemes. The upper limit at present is £400 per house. In another small village in the Newtown rural district a scheme was drawn up recently which again has been turned down for grant aid because the cost was £650 per property. Yet it is impossible to get a scheme in areas like this for less than this cost per dwelling. There are great and increasing difficulties in the rural areas. There are not only the rising costs but also the difficulties in obtaining specialised contractors for this kind of work. Often the job has to be given to a contractor who does not have the necessary specialised machinery. People do not tender for these jobs, and there is also the sparse working population.

I stress upon the Parliamentary Secretary the importance of urging upon the Minister and the Secretary of State for Wales the need to raise the limit sharply and substantially, otherwise many villages in Wales and other parts of the country will never be provided with water or sewerage facilities. There was a promise in the circular published on 4th April, 1961, that the formula would be reviewed when it had been in operation for three years. That period expired in April, 1964. Why has there been no review so far, and what is the reason for the delay?

It is generally agreed that the average cost exceeds the limits introduced in the formula in 1961. I am told that the average cost of sewerage per property in Wales in 1964 was £397, but is higher than this in Montgomeryshire. The average cost per dwelling of bringing water supplies to Wales is between £419 and £594. There is now no excuse for not raising the upper limits introduced in the formula in 1961.

I will give yet another example—and I make no apology for citing cases from my own constituency, because it is a very large one with a sparse population and represents the extreme difficulties encountered in rural areas. The Machynlleth Rural District Council has drawn up five schemes for sewerage for 13 villages at an estimated cost of £300,000. Disregarding grants the total annual charges would amount to £21,721 which, translated into a rate, is 15.11d. in the £—for sewerage schemes alone. Similarly, in the eastern part of the country, near the border, there is Forden rural district, in which only 25 per cent. of the houses have a piped water supply. They have no sewerage scheme at all because of the absence of the water.

I urge the Minister to give far more generous grants, and to agree that distribution should be on a far more generous scale than hitherto envisaged, otherwise some of the remoter villages will be left without water or sewerage at all. I know that the circular states that the Minister has power to consider individual cases outside the formula, yet this power does not seem to be exercised in Wales. Schemes that cannot be Cheapened are being disapproved of by the Secretary of State. This matter needs very careful investigation.

I also draw attention to the plight of urban districts and boroughs in predominantly rural areas. The Borough of Welshpool is an example. With a population of between 6,000 and 7,000 it is the second largest borough in England and Wales. The largest is the borough of Birmingham. Comparing the two populations, one can appreciate that a great deal of the Borough of Welshpool is countryside, but the local authority does not benefit from grants under these Acts. Surely there is a case for allowing virtually rural boroughs like this, or urban district in such rural areas, to gain some benefits under this scheme. Although they might not have from the central Government the 35 per cent. grant that the rural districts get, they might be given some percentage to assist them in their work. It is unfair that boroughs like Welshpool and Newtown should not benefit, because although they are described as boroughs many of their problems are exactly the same as those encountered in rural districts.

I echo the plea made by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) that there should be grants for relaying old mains and replacing ageing service pipes; and that the grant should be extended to the head works for water and to sewerage works generally. These are very expensive items in rural communities where the rateable value is so small. It would be of very great benefit if, for example, small towns and villages that are replacing their sewerage works or constructing new water head works were grant aided.

I have already mentioned the Liverpool water rate, about which we in Wales feel very strongly. Liverpool makes a great profit out of our water, and we have no benefit from it at all. The water rate in Liverpool is very much less than 2s. in the £, while in Montgomeryshire it is the equivalent of 6s. in the £. In the light of this, it is right that the central Government should give the utmost aid to the bringing of water supplies to the rural areas of Wales. If it is said to be right that areas of rural Wales should be drowned to supply water, not only to England but to the industrial areas of Wales—and I have said that I do not put this case on nationalistic grounds—it is equally right that the central Government should provide much more generous funds to enable the small villages in rural Wales, as well as in rural England, to have their own proper water supplies and sewerage schemes.

It is quite wrong to dismiss the rugged hard core of people as though they really do not matter very much. They are reduced to a percentage—5 or 6 per cent. of the whole rural population—but they still represent a considerable proportion of rural dwellers. I do not know whether any hon. Members have experience of living in conditions without piped water or any kind of proper sewerage. It is a disgrace to a modern community that such conditions should have to be tolerated. I should like to see the Government themselves introduce a note of far greater urgency, and make sure that that note is transmitted to all local authorities.

12.7 p.m.

Mr. Evelyn King (Dorset, South)

I welcome this Bill in much the same sense as a man accepts 5s. instead of the £ he wanted—5s. is better than nothing. I must confess that, in company with my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) I am puzzled to read the Labour Party manifesto prior to the election. It stated: The water supply industry … will be reorganised under full public ownership. We may look on election manifestoes with some degree of cynicism, but even as late as 20th May, which was long after the Parliamentary Secretary's party was returned to office, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources went even further and indicated that further national plans would be defined and further radical measures would take place.

I therefore thought that instead of this little debate this morning we should have had some grand Parliamentary occasion ending at ten o'clock at night with the Prime Minister, with crowded tiers behind him, introducing a measure of nationalisation. Instead of that, we get this miserable little piece of green paper which does nothing but carry on the Conservative policy which was so criticised by the party opposite in 1955.

The Bill's chief critic then was he who is now Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, at that time wearing his hat as hon. Member for Belper. He practically condemned the whole Bill, made references to money lenders and said: A good deal of this £30 million is not going to increase … the supply of water … but to fertilise … the City of London where … money is found."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th October. 1955; Vol. 545, c. 110.] Above all, he criticised the fact that this money would be borrowed at an abnormal Bank Rate of 5½, per cent. What, then, does he now say when the rate is 7 per cent.? I hope that when the Parliamentary Secretary next meets the First Secretary of State he will ask him that question. The hon. Member for Belper went on to say on that occasion, after being defeated in debate—and this jewel is worth preserving— I am not good at figures."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th October 1955; Vol. 545, c. 144.] Of that, Mr. Speaker, we have had recent evidence. I turn to the major issues. We hear a great deal these days about the technological age. This is brought home to one most vividly in my constituency, which contains the atomic station of Winfrith. One has only to cross the lovely Dorset skyline to see outlined what any artist would depict as a monument to the technological age, the most modern thing in Britain, upon which hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent. Yet a mile and a half away near the villages of Winfrith, Newburgh and Moreton one cannot turn on a tap. There is an extraordinary contrast here which is not justified.

A point which so far no hon. Member has brought forward is not only the influences brought to bear on the domestic side, not only the additional comfort within the house resulting from the provision of a water supply, but the economic value that attaches to the agricultural side of rural constituencies where water is brought in. I take issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby, who said that there must be many houses in the countryside where the provision of water would equal the value of the property. At first sight that may seem to be a valid argument, but one must take into account the fact the more remote the house is the further the water pipe has to go, and no water can get to the house without crossing miles of good agricultural land.

If we establish a grid of water pipes throughout the countryside, the benefit to agriculture and to the country through increased food production will be considerable and must not be disregarded. My farm went on to main water some nine years ago. The amount of stock that the farm could carry immediately went up, and the value of the water supply was quickly returned. That is true throughout the country. It is not only a matter of agricultural production. The improvement brought about in relation to the farm worker's cottage and the additional prosperity brought to the countryside resulting from the provision of water extends far beyond the immediate amenity of having water in a single house.

The countryside never gets anything like the fair deal that the townsman gets. There is a reflection of that in the House to which my hon. Friend drew attention. It is not the first time that this has happened. Whenever we debate the countryside or agriculture there is not a single hon. Member on the other side of the House to listen.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government is attempting to solve the housing problem in London. I think he will never do so. Just as quickly as he builds houses in London, so will more and more people pour into London. So he has what is an insoluble and certainly a self-defeating programme. The only solution is to take people out of London. This is where we come back to water supplies, because people will not move out until they are assured of civilised conditions.

To return again to Dorset, the establishment of the atomic station at Winfrith has brought into the countryside many scientists and graduates, persons of a type totally different from the villagers who used to live there. The countryside has been enriched by those persons. There is a cross-fertilisation of every kind of talent. Also, one finds in the Dorset villages today very many commuters to Poole, Bristol and other places. They are bringing with them very much higher standards and demanding things which tie villagers of long ago might have been content to go without.

I turn now to the contrast between water and sewage. I listened with great care to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. I observed that the amount spent on sewage was roughly four times that spent on water. I thought at one point that his figures were wrong, because that has been true for the last 10 years. At all events, I am by no means convinced of the wisdom of the present balance. I receive a fair percentage of complaints from the countryside, through which I go carefully, and I do not find that I get this complaint. I have lived all my life in a house which exists happily with a cesspit. There is nothing particularly wrong with cesspits. I accept that if they become grouped closely together they can do harm. But I am sure that sewerage is not the first requirement of the countryside. The first requirement is water and I cannot emphasise that too much. I wonder whether the Ministry has not got its priorities slightly wrong in giving more priority to sewerage than water.

Mr. McColl

I explained in my speech that one has first to have water before one can have any sewage to dispose of. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not hear me.

Mr. King

I grasped that and I accept what tile hon. Gentleman says. That does not alter the fact that we are spending four times as much on sewerage as on water, and have been doing so for the last ten years. I remind the Joint Parliamentary Secretary of his Department's Circular No. 15 of 1961, dated 4th April, 1961, paragraph 18 of which reads: The new rules for assessing grants will apply to all schemes for which tenders are submitted to the Minister on or after 1st April, 1961. It is the Minister's intention that the scheme should operate in this form for three years from that date. It will then be reviewed, though the Minister will be willing to consider an earlier review should anything occur to affect seriously the factors in the formulae. I wonder whether that has slipped the hon. Gentleman's memory. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us whether that review is to take place, and whether he adheres to the words in the Circular?

Despite all the criticisms made and likely to be made, some tribute ought to be paid to what has happened during the last 13 years. It is true that today Britain compares favourably with any other country in Europe, and that is a proud boast. It is also true that during the 13 years expenditure rose from £5 million to £21 million a year. If I may reflect on the national figures and achievements in local terms, I take great pride in what has been done by the Dorset County Council. The public health engineer of Dorset is a Mr. King, no relation of mine, who has done a very great deal for the county. The county has spent £7,500,000 since the war—which is a great deal for a poor county. We admit in Dorset to poverty but to no other defect. What the county has done is a considerable achievement but it throws upon the ratepayers a burden which is very hard to bear. There is still a great deal to be done.

I wonder whether the Joint Parliamentary Secretary appreciates just how much there is to be done. In Wareham and Purbeck we are in the midst of an £812,000 scheme. Does the hon. Gentleman grasp just how great a strain that scheme is on county funds? There are still 2,000 to 3,000 unsewered houses in that area. The Parliamentary Secretary said that about 1 per cent. of the houses are still without a water supply. Translate that 1 per cent. into local terms and it means that 3,000 to 4,000 houses in Dorset have no tapwater, and in this year of grace I should have thought that this is something that should be rapidly dealt with.

I am sure that hon. Members do not always understand just how strong local feelings are on this matter. I recall that soon after being adopted as candidate for the area I was at Osmington. I intended to make what I regarded as a powerful speech about economic, foreign and party policy. I was not allowed to do so. I found that the meeting wanted to talk about practically nothing but water. Party differences were forgotten. Indeed, the parties came together on this issue and all the voters were interested in was whether the person they intended to elect to represent them would produce the water they needed. The subject of water overrode all other interests.

Today we are merely enabling the Minister to spend money, but the whole point at issue is how much will be spent. The Bill lays down nothing about how much he will actually spend in a single year and I wonder if we will here follow the dismal procession of restrictions which have already restricted housing, hospitals, roads and almost every form of capital development in Dorset. How far is the iron hand of the Chancellor of the Exchequer going to influence what I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary seeks to do? The test by which the Minister will be judged is not how much money we vote to him to spend but how much he actually spends. The need is urgent.

12.22 p.m.

Mr. Brian Harrison (Maldon)

I have been somewhat alarmed by the complacency of both Front Benches in to-days debate. The Opposition Front Bench was concerned with the achievements of the 13 years about which we hear so much—and I in no way want to belittle those achievements—while from the Government Front Bench we heard nothing but what is being done and how everything, the maximum possible, would be done. When these things are all said and done, we cannot get away from the fact that in many areas much remains to be done while in some areas virtually nothing has been done.

Consider an area like the South-East, with the tremendous influx of population. The amount of money spent so far on the important services which we are discussing has been increasing, but certainly not at a faster rate than the increase in population. It is interesting to look back to past debates in the House and to note that when the Rural Water Supplies and Sewerage Act, 1944, was introduced by the then Minister, Mr. Willink, a measure of what was hoped would be achieved by that Measure can be seen from the concluding words of the then Minister, who said: It will give handsome dividends in terms of human welfare, and we can properly claim, I think, that the enactment of the Bill will be the start of a great forward step in the health and happiness of our countryside and of our country people."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th May, 1944; Vol. 400, c. 372.] That may have been the case at that time, but I agree with my hon. Friends that the hopes expressed on that occasion have by no means been achieved universally and that benefit to the country people has not come about generally, because there is still a serious hard core of people who have neither water nor sewerage. As the years go by it becomes increasingly expensive to provide them with either, because primarily they live in the remoter areas.

May we be given information about the plans which are being made to deal with what one might call the small pockets of development in rural areas? With the influx of commuters into parishes which were previously able to look after the requirements of the population with cesspools, great difficulties must now be faced. On heavy land, because there is now piped water in many of these areas, there is often a total failure of the sewerage service because of the greatly increased amount of effluent and sewerage which seems to find its way out of the cesspools. As the populations of these areas increase, unless adequate sewerage services are provided the problem of emptying the cesspools becomes almost insoluble. Bearing these problems in mind, may I ask whether any work has been done on what one might call a prefabricated, small, compact sewerage system to deal with a dozen or so houses? In any case, will the Minister consider utilising grants to encourage this sort of technical improvement?

How many hon. Members are aware that we are currently voting about £1½million to be spent not far from this place, just a little way down Victoria Street? I say that because a percentage of the money made available by Measures of this sort go to the consulting engineers who draw up these schemes. If the Minister is as keen on modernisation as one would believe, there is a strong case for looking at the way in which the fees paid to the various consulting firms and other professional bodies with which local authorities must deal are calculated. At present they are calculated on a percentage of the costs of the schemes. In other words, the more expensive the scheme the bigger the fee.

Hon. Members who have read the model clauses and model forms of agreement will have seen that every possible contingency is covered. Even if the engineers make a mistake they receive an extra percentage. To quote a hypothetical case, if in a water scheme a bore hole is drilled below the floodline of a river and it is realised before the work is completed, and a further bore hole must be drilled above the floodline, the additional fees required for drawing up the plan to do this extra work are covered tinder the model terms of agreement and an extra 5 per cent. to 6 per cent. is added to the consulting engineer's fees.

To give another example, not a completely hypothetical one, concerning a public works scheme or building initially estimated to cost about £4 million. If eventually it is discovered that, because of a mistake, the price will escalate to, say, £8 million, the consulting engineers take their fees based on the top figure. If ever something should be referred to to the First Secretary's Prices and Incomes Board it is the way in which fees are calculated by professional bodies employed by local authorities in receipt of Government grants under this type of Bill. I hope that there will be some for of investigation. I will not bore the House with the details of how these fees are calculated, but no doubt the Parliamentary Secretary is familiar with them. They cannot be touched by the Monopolies Commission, because professional fees are excluded, but there is a strong case, when so much money is being made available from Government funds for public works, for the way in which these fees are calculated to be carefully considered.

Having said that, I must admit that I welcome the Bill. I hope that it will enable local authorities in rural areas to fulfil their obligations—and they have sweeping obligations—to provide both water and sewerage in those areas where they are not now provided, in the more remote villages and especially in areas where development is going on and where there are small pockets of development which are causing great problems which are a definite threat to public health in the countryside.

12.31 p.m.

Mr. Timothy Kitson (Richmond, Yorks)

I do not want to detain the House for very long because many of the points which I had intended to raise have already been discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) and other hon. Members on this side of the House. As I am in the process of selling a quarter of an acre of land to a local council for a sewerage plant, I ought at this stage to declare an interest, although it is only a very small one in the Bill.

I welcome the increase of £30 million from the Exchequer towards expenditure on rural water supplies and sewerage. There is no doubt that there is still a need for special Exchequer assistance towards meeting costly water supply and sewerage schemes, as many hon. Members have said. In many rural areas there is still a great deal of work to be done. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) explained the great problems of his constituency, but I can assure him that my constituency is rather larger than his and I have been confronted by many of the difficulties which he mentioned.

I was astonished when I looked at the figures in the Journal of the British Waterworks Association of January, 1965——and these figures have been mentioned today—suggesting that there are still about 200.000 dwellings in England and Wales without a tap. That is about 1 per cent. of the total number of dwellings in England and Wales.

There is no doubt that the momentum of improvement in recent years has been greater as the impact of amalgamations and the regrouping of water undertakings has become more marked. There is also no doubt that as each year goes by the provision of sewerage and water supplies becomes a more costly operation, not only because labour and other costs are rising, but also because, as local authorities have given priority to areas of a higher density of population, they increasingly have the more sparsely populated areas to deal with. As they are reaching the end of their programmes, a great deal of this money will have to be used to pay for the more expensive schemes. It is estimated that the supply of water for the next 50,000 properties will cost about £15 million. I do not know whether that is the Parliamentary Secretary's figure, but it shows that even the sum of £30 million will still leave a good deal of ground to be covered.

I associate myself with the plea which the Rural District Councils Association has been making to the Ministry for a review or reconsideration of the amount of grant which can be paid for each property being brought into a scheme for grant aid for sewerage and water supplies. I understand that the average cost per property for sewerage works, based on 1964 prices, is £375 and that for water it is between £217 and £367. These are the estimated costs for work up to 1969. The Ministry is in the process of reviewing the position and I understand that the Association is suggesting that the figures should be increased from about £400 to £600 for sewerage schemes and from about £300 to £500 for water schemes because of the considerable increases in prices.

When he comes to distributing this further £30 million, will the Minister consider providing substantially increased financial assistance to water boards established in areas such as my own, the Northallerton and Dales Water Board? The Parliamentary Secretary knows only too well some of the problems with which that Board has been confronted. I am grateful for all the time and consideration—and it must have been a great deal of time—which he has given to this problem, although he has not been able to give us the financial assistance for which we had hoped.

The position in the Northallerton and Dales Water Board is that because of the cost of providing water, water rates rose so substantially that there were protest meetings which attracted an attendance of 25 to 35 per cent. of the ratepayers from a town of 6,000 people. The local councils had to take more than 100 people to court in order to get them to pay their water rates. There was a public inquiry and the Minister altered the maximum charges. As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, two of the seven councils now have before the Minister an application, under Section 40 of the Water Act, 1945, for the abolition of differentials and a further reduction of maximum rates and charges contained in the Northallerton and Dales Water Board area, an application which will result in yet another public inquiry.

I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery that it is extremely annoying when a large quantity of water is taken out of an area like this, which supplies Leeds—a good deal of water is taken from the hon. and learned Gentleman's area to supply Liverpool—in the receiving areas water rates and charges are one-third or one-quarter of those paid by the people in the area from which the water is taken.

The Explanatory and Financial Memorandum says: Part of the cost of implementing schemes which are grant-aided under the provision of the Bill will fall on the rates. This will probably lead to an increase in the rate deficiency grant (in Scotland, Exchequer equalisation grant), but the amount of this increase cannot be estimated. Does this mean that the Minister will take steps to give practical effect to these sentiments? Can this not be done if he does not persist in fixing maximum rates and charges which must operate before precepting can take place? I should like some clarification on that.

On more than one occasion, I have been in conflict with other members of the Conservative Party for advocating that there would be some good in water nationalisation. We would have fewer difficulties in my own area. This might be the only last resort. When the water board in my area was formed—and this has been the case in many areas—it covered an area with a small rateable value and the capital expenditure and the capital works with which it is now confronted are almost impossible for it to undertake in the next 10 years. I felt, and I still feel, although I have no love for nationalisation, that some benefits may come from it, although the overhead costs of administering such a policy would probably outweigh those benefits in the long term. Water boards should be made of a rather more substantial size than the one which we have formed in my own area. Whilst supporting this Bill I feel that the Minister ought to look at the points raised by the hon. Member for Crosby about installation of new supplies.

In some of the villages in my area, the bacteriological condition of the water is extremely bad. A complete new water supply is required. The water board is considering a river extraction scheme that will cost £250,000. But because the villages which will receive water from this new scheme have a water supply present, none of this money can be grant-aided. It is an extremely serious state of affairs and I hope that, as a result of the Government producing this £30 million, we shall succeed in doing away with privies on earth before we have a man on the moon.

12.40 p.m.

Dr. David Kerr (Wandsworth, Central)

I suppose that it reflects the unhappy fact that hon. Members on this side of the House tend to represent urban areas rather than rural areas that it falls to me to be the first Member on this side of the House to welcome this modest Measure. I do so with the greatest of pleasure but it would perhaps be more appropriate if the task had fallen to someone who did not represent a constituency whose only claim to anything rural is the inclusion within its bounds of a fairly large common.

I perhaps ought not to apologise for undertaking this task, because I am sure that this Measure is recognised, on both sides of the House, as an extending one, which has been going on for 20 years, and which, interestingly enough, was introduced during the wartime Government in 1944. The original Act imposed this authority on the Minister of Health, not, as now, on the Minister of Housing and Local Government. I should like to draw the attention of the House to some aspects of water supply which seem to fall outside the consideration of the Minister of Housing and Local Government and which still ought to be the interest of the health department. The original Act related grants for sewerage and sewage disposal to the grant for water supplies. In other words, the original Act did not envisage the necessity for making sewerage grants unless there was simultaneously a grant for providing water supplies.

It is also significant that the original sum under the 1944 Act, amounted in aggregate to only £15 million. Today we are discussing a Measure which will extend that aggregate to £105 million, seven times as much. I wonder how much this is a reflection of rising costs and how much a reflection of improved standards of water supply. It is a matter of some irony that many people going to Paris or Vienna nervously ask whether the water supply is safe to drink, yet 50 miles up the road there may be a rural water supply which is very much more suspect than any Continental city's supply. Under the original Act, and this has not been amended by subsequent Acts, the Minister responsible … may withhold, or reduce the amount of, a contribution which he has undertaken to make … if it appears to him … that any of the works are being executed in an unsatisfactory manner. There are other matters which allow him to withhold a sum, particularly if the effectiveness of any of the works is substantially less than the original proposals.

One or two things have occurred since the original 1944 Act which prompt me to ask the Minister to look at this situation and to consult with his colleague the Minister of Health to see whether these considerations are entirely applicable. I have two measures in mind. One is the question of local amenity, namely, whether in considering the estimates submitted to him the Minister will take into account the plans as they affect the local aspects of the rural areas concerned. We are assiduous in our campaigns not to have great electricity pylons marching across the Sussex Downs. I hope that we will be similarly concerned about the way in which we provide sewerage works in local settings. We ought to make sure, not merely that new water provisions will not spoil the countryside, but that the provision of reservoirs and water supplies is used to enhance local amenities, if this is possible.

The other matter to which I hope the Minister will pay particular attention is the possibility, at some future date, for a local water undertaking to make provision in its capital expenditure for the fluoridation of its water supplies. Will he also, when looking under Section 1(4,b) of the original Act, dealing with the effectiveness of any works, include some consideration for the local water undertaking to make provision for future fluoridation, if it has not already opted to include fluoride, where the water has been shown to be deficient in that constituent?

I urge that this is the extension of an Act which is only a holding Measure. In other words, we have still to consider the provision of a water grid which would remove the difficulties of these small local authorities, about which we have heard. We ought to think in very much larger terms, of a water grid including nationalisation of all water undertakings, whether private or local authority. Above all, we should think of this in the context of the question of regional planning of water undertakings, so that we do not have large expenses falling upon low rate-funded authorities, and so that we can provide water on a much wider scale than that referred to by hon. Members opposite.

This is certainly a Measure which we on this side of the House welcome and I hope that, when we discuss it in Committee, some of the smaller points to which I have referred will be given due consideration.

12.50 p.m.

Mr. Stan Newens (Epping)

I shall not detain the House for more than a couple of minutes. This is a very important and non-controversial Measure, and I suggest that that is the reason why there has not been a large attendance in the House this morning.

I have no wish to detract from the problems of remote rural areas. I am very conscious of those problems, but the Bill is also important in areas which may not be so remote from urban development, areas in particular where large-scale development is taking place. My constituency of Epping is in what I might describe as the outer Metropolitan London belt. It is an area into which much of the drift to the South-East, about which we hear so much, is going. Accordingly, the problem of water supplies and sewage disposal is very acute indeed in that part of the country. Problems which apply in my constituency apply in many others which have a similar geographical position.

The problem of water supplies in the County of Essex is becoming particularly acute. It is one to which we have to give serious consideration if development is to continue in such parts of the country as Essex. Sewerage schemes are often very important but they can become a heavy burden for the rates. I remind hon. Members that within 25 miles of this building, in my constituency, there are still houses which are without main drains. There are still houses which have to rely upon bucket emptying services provided by local authorities.

In those areas, not very remote from London, the problem remains important. There is a tendency to take water supplies and sewage disposal schemes for granted because we do not often think of the problem which presents itself to people in areas where such schemes do not exist. This is a grave and important issue to people living not far away from here. The issue also arises when new roads are made and new housing schemes are proposed.

I am a supporter of the notion of public ownership of water. That is very important if we are to tackle the problems which arise, particularly in areas where large-scale development takes place. It will become increasingly important to tackle the question of taking water into public ownership. I welcome the Bill, which is not only important for people in remote areas but also for those where development is taking place on a large scale.

12.54 p.m.

Mr. David Mitchell (Basingstoke)

I do not intend to take up much time of the House but I hope that, in replying to the debate, the Minister will resist the temptation to which he has been put by his two hon. Friends the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central (Dr. David Kerr) and the hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Newens). I hope that he will resist any temptation to advocate nationalisation of water supplies. Costs have gone up far enough already.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have allowed passing reference to nationalisation, but we cannot debate the merits. We must find another occasion to do that.

Mr. Mitchell

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The suggestion has been made that grants under the Bill should be withheld if companies and undertakings do not make arrangements for fluoridation. This is what has brought me to my feet. I hope very much that the Minister will not allow himself to be put into a position in which the Government will override local opinion on this matter.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot even debate that second issue which the hon. Member has raised. It has not been raised so far in the form he thought it had.

12.55 p.m.

Mr. MacColl

I speak again by leave of the House in order to reply to an interesting debate.

I do not think that even the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) would think that the doubling of parts by a Parliamentary Secretary in this case indicates that it has been at all a waste of time or a form of charade. We have had a very valuable discussion of the problems of rural water supply and sewerage. One of the fascinating things about my job in which I never cease to revel is the tremendous variety of the work it touches. It is perfectly correct, as the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) said, that, having been wrestling with the difficult problems of compensation for slum clearance, one moves effortlessly next day to look at the extraordinarily complicated and difficult question of providing this health service in rural areas.

If I may congratulate myself, I think I have avoided the obvious trap of ducking responsibility for the difficulties we have to face by saying that the Act was not one for which my Government were in any way responsible. I did not want to do that; I accepted it and we are anxious to work it, and work it to the full. The hon. Member for Crosby, I thought, rather overdid the party stuff by boasting that the Act had been a great marvel of a Conservative Government. I have only two comments to make on that. If he were as old as I am, he would know that in 1944 there was a Coalition Government, not a Conservative Government.

Mr. Graham Page

I think I am as old as the Parliamentary Secretary. I referred to what had been done since 1944 in the 13 years of Conservative Government, not even what had happened by 1950. I was talking about the period 1951–1964.

Mr. MacColl

The hon. Member quoted two dates, 1944 and 1945 and at neither time was there a Conservative Government. Having heard of the rough treatment the Act has had from hon. Members opposite, I am not sure that I want to make those points or whether I ought to allow that point to go.

The hon. Member and others have done their best to provide us with a fascinating variety of diversions on the subject of future nationalisation of the undertakings, even on a future Land Bill, and various other points which are not relevant to this Bill. We accept what has been said, not only by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Newens), whom I might suspect of some vague sympathies towards nationalisation as a principle, but also the ardent support of the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Kitson), who pointed out very fairly that we have not reached a final solution to these difficulties. He, being a fair-minded man, is prepared to look at future solutions which might arise. I think that is the approach to make to this very difficult problem.

If I may, I shall go through the points which have been raised in the debate. The hon. Member for Crosby first made a point, which has been taken up by others, about why we disregard capital expenditure on head works. I think the principle behind that is something which has been inherited. It is that head works are normally in rural areas, whether they are for rural or urban supplies, and normally there is not necessarily a difference in costs whether the supply ends in a rural area or an urban area. In general there is not a case for making special grants for them. The object of this instrument is to provide special grants for special difficulties, but again this is something which may have to be looked at.

The hon. Gentleman then asked what was to happen to the hard core of cases for which at present there was no mains supply, and I think that the rest of the debate to some extent turned on this point. I was rebuked for complacency in giving the figures which, so far as I know, are correct of the number of rural households which are covered by mains supply. The hon. Member for Crosby rubbed them in and underlined them and pointed out how good they were. Other hon. Members said that they thought they were phoney figures. It would be easy to say that they are phoney figures, that they were probably hatched up by the last Government and supported by hon. Gentlemen opposite, but I do not want to do that. So far as I can tell, looking at this dispassionately, this is a correct assessment of the position. Under existing programmes, and programmes likely to take place under the Bill, we should cover 98 per cent. of rural households.

I agree that there are awkward cases. I do not know whether we will reach the stage where homes which are permanently isolated from any possible adequate water supplies should remain as homes at any cost. After all, this is a matter of cost. We could cover the whole country with some kind of piped water supply at unlimited cost. The problem is to balance the cost against the amenity which is provided. As far as I can see, the position with regard to water supplies is moving to a fairly satisfactory conclusion, but the position with regard to sewerage is lagging somewhat, and this will require a good deal more expenditure and thought.

The hon. Gentleman then asked about the review which was outlined in the Circular, and this was referred to by other hon. Members as well. I think that so far the formula has operated fairly well, and that the limits which have been given in it of £300 and £400 have shown themselves to be adequate, but prices have risen since they were fixed, and discussions are shortly to start with the local authority associations about what future ceilings should be provided. When these discussions are complete, I hope that it will be possible to look at the position again.

In reply to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson), I should like to mention that in special circumstances high cost schemes are allowed, and the upper limit is raised. This was done in the case of the Severn Valley scheme, and I think that this again shows that our approach is a flexible one. We are looking at the general level, and we have always been willing to meet specially difficult cases.

The hon. Member for Crosby also asked whether county councils were playing the game. The position is that county councils consider these schemes and decide whether or not they want to support them. If they are satisfied with them, they make a grant aid, and then normally the one-third, one-third, one-third system as between central Government, county precept and water under- taking works fairly well. If they are not happy, or do not want to give a full grant, we have no power to compel them to do so, but the undertaking can appeal to my right hon. Friend if it does not like the support it is getting.

The general answer to the question is, "Yes, county councils have on the whole been aware of their responsibilities and have helped adequately". If there has been some hesitancy, I think it has probably been in cases where larger water boards have been created. There has been a feeling that there is not quite the same pressing urgency for the county to help because the larger boards have larger areas from which to draw their resources and they ought to be able to carry out the schemes, but, in general, the partnership is working very well.

The hon. Gentleman then threw out the suggestion that as an alternative to nationalisation there should be an equalisation levy. The future organisation is something at which we are not looking under this Bill, but we are grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his suggestion, and I am sure that we will take it into account.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) quoted a very harrowing case in his constituency. As he mentioned, the responsibility is now with the boards, and they should now have more resources available to enable them to take the initiative in putting schemes forward.

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery also raised questions about the schemes which had been turned down on the ground of cost. One scheme was turned down where the cost of the property worked out at £1,000. This is obviously very much greater than the present ceiling, which, as I said, is under review. It does not necessarily follow that that was the best scheme, or that it was unreasonable for the Secretary of State to want to have another look at it before approving it for grant. It does not necessarily follow, either, that the scheme should be dismissed altogether. One has to look at these things in the light of the urgency of the need, and whether, in fact, the proposed method is the only way in which the supply can be found. In that case an alternative method of a more localised scheme was put forward, and, as far as I know, this is now under discussion.

Mr. More

The difficulty which faces hon. Members who represent areas like that of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) and mine is that now that the water boards have taken over there has been a large-scale reassessment, which in itself has brought a lot of existing schemes to a halt. Another difficulty is that there is no responsibility at all on the county council or, indeed, on the Ministry to push these schemes Forward. They are both in a sense brakes rather than spurs to effective action. What I was appealing for in the final stages of this important work was some reorganisation which would combine all efforts in the sense of getting things done.

Mr. MacColl

It is a sad feature of local government that when it is required to get a move on the urge is always towards getting the central Government, or even the despised county council, to take he initiative in banging people's heads together and getting things done, but when it comes to a local government review, or a compulsory merging of water boards, there is never quite the same enthusiasm for it. This is local democracy, but these things are under discussion at the three levels—the Exchequer level, the county precept level and at the level of either the district council or the water board.

The case which the hon. Gentleman mentioned of his constituent is an example of the ordinary workings of democracy. He feels something ought to be done about it. I have never had the feeling that local government and rural life are dead, and I should have thought the answer was for the hon. Member's constituent to create a row and get something done about his case. It i3 a matter of getting much more drive to get something done. At the moment we are working a system which allows a balance between the three different agencies, the Government, local government and the undertakings.

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery also raised the question of Welshpool and whether, because it is a borough, it could not hope to get any help. The answer is that that does not depend on what the local government status is but on what the area is actually like. If it is a rural and not an urban locality it would not be excluded from the grant.

The hon. Member for Dorset, North——

Mr. Evelyn King


Mr. William Hamling (Woolwich, West)

And that was a miracle.

Mr. Speaker


Mr. MacColl

The hon. Member for Dorset, South raised the same problem about his own county. Here again, one of the difficulties is that the attempt to produce a new joint board in Dorset broke down. It now looks as if some agreement is being reached, and we hope that some agreed proposals will be put forward. The difficulty, I think is that unless there is this reorganisation, on the assumption that the present legislation is going on, it is highly desirable that the people and the different interests in rural counties should be able to work out what they think is the best scheme. I think that when that is done some of the problems in Dorset will disappear.

The hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Brian Harrison) got back to sewerage. I was happy to see that, because the balance of the debate had been rather on water supplies, although it is sewerage which is, administratively, the more worrying problem. The hon. Member raised the question about what happens in areas in which people move, in which there are particular forms of overspill or other forms of development, with the consequent problems of providing sewerage for them. The particular suggestions he was discussing were forms of sewerage plant which are particularly economical. Of course, if they are economical, then there is a financial case for having them, and, probably, there is no need to give a grant, but, in general, where there is an organised movement of population—and this I may say also to the hon. Member for Dorset, South who mentioned overspill—where there is an agreed system of overspill the provision of sewerage is one of the matters which can be included in the scheme according to the particular agreement operating. The exporting area and the receiving area can make their own contributions towards the costs. I think that this is something which can be done.

As to the very interesting point made about consultants' fees, I would only suggest that that is rather hard to put to a Parliamentary Secretary on a Friday afternoon and that if the hon. Member would put down a Question to my right hon. Friend the First Secretary about a reference to the Prices and Incomes Board I think my right hon. Friend would be very interested to answer it.

Now I come to the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks. I sympathise with him, as he knows, because of the constituency problems which the hon. Member has. I am afraid that, as always when he raises these matters, I have to say there is a new inquiry about to take place and that therefore the matter is sub judice. I am aware that this is an irritating answer, but it happens to be the correct one. I think that what the hon. Member said is something which the hon. Member for Crosby might meditate on, because it does show all the problems which have been created where amalgamations and agreed groupings have not been a success. I am not making an objective criticism but simply saying that when people do not think those agreements are working very well that creates a series of problems the whole time and, as the hon. Member said, there are obvious deductions to be made upon that. Most of the hon. Member's points are not relevant to this Bill and I, therefore, do not want to go into detail on them, but, in general, I am afraid that the truth is again, and I repeat it, that unless in county areas people do work together there are bound to be delays in getting schemes forward, bound to be delays in getting them to the Department. If they go forward and then there is delay I am quite certain that my right hon. Friend will be very happy to tick me off, if it is my fault that we have not taken quick decisions, because we are anxious to have quick decisions. We do not like having things held up.

Then my hon. Friend the Member for Wandsworth, Central (Dr. David Kerr) raised the question about amenities and whether that was taken into account. The answer is "Yes"; but planning permission normally will have to be given to any scheme. Of course, one of the problems is the best way of providing supplies with minimum danger of interference with amenities. I would certainly like to take up the point he made about the use of water resources, but, again, I do not think that has got a great deal to do with the narrow field of this Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epping again pointed to the really deplorable problems of primitive sewerage arrangements. They still exist, and, as I have said all through, I recognise that these are difficult problems and we want to push ahead with sewerage provisions.

Then came the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Mitchell), and it was certainly alarming that an Opposition Whip should leap to his feet to prevent any further discussion of Government policy on the nationalisation of industry. Whether this was in order to keen the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks in the fold, or possibly preventing too many party points being scored on this side, I do not know, but I shall certainly take the advice which Mr. Speaker gave and not go off on to those matters.

As I say, this is a complicated field because the real answer does not depend on figures but on manifold different problems arising in a number of extremely different areas, each different problem a source of great irritation. The success of our policy depends on the way we are able to meet these special cases. I can only assure the House that as far as my right hon. Friend is concerned we are anxious to do all we can to see a speedy improvement, and to see that the money which the House, I hope, is going to vote by this Bill will be spent wisely and economically in order to produce the best results.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Grey.]

Committee upon Monday next.