HC Deb 10 March 1970 vol 797 cc1257-66

10.17 p.m.

Mr. Turton

I beg to move: That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Bill to amend Clauses 43 to 46 so as to provide that the cost of the construction of Farndale Reservoir and its ancillary works be financed solely by contributions from those directly benefiting from the resulting supply of water. —in other words the people who will benefit. We heard previously that Hull and Sheffield could pay for the cost of the scheme and not my constituents or those of other hon. Members who are to get no benefit at all.

I would shortly recite the history of this. In 1961 Sheffield had a water order which allowed it to abstract 15 million gallons a day. The works were paid for entirely by Sheffield.

In 1962 we had a White Paper on Water Conservation, (Cmnd. 1693) which said: Where conservation works benefit only one or two abstractors, it would be right that those abstractors should meet the whole cost. But in many cases a variety of small works will be carried out to help meet a general growth of demand from absractors … and benefit will not be precisely apportionable. The cost of such works would have to be spread over all abstractors. After that Sheffield got its second water Order in 1964 and an additional 10 million gallons a day. Again the cost of the works was entirely paid by Sheffield.

The history of this Bill is as follows. On 31st October, 1967, Sheffield and Hull met together to decide who should promote a Water Bill. As there was an argument and Sheffield and Hull at that time could not decide who would pay for the Bill and Farndale reservoir, the river authority came in and it was sug- gested by Sheffield and Hull that the river authority should build it. On 27th March, 1968, the river authority undertook to build the sluices and the reservoir and adopted a recommendation that the financing of the scheme should be by contributions by those directly benefiting—Sheffield and Hull.

There was a public local inquiry on 14th May, 1968, into the charging scheme on this basis. At the inquiry the river authority said, "Support this scheme because Sheffield and Hull will pay the whole of the capital cost".

On 16th August, 1968, the Minister directed that any cost to be defrayed by the scheme should be a charge on abstractors generally. On 27th November, 1968, having been so directed by the Minister—who, as we have seen, is now pressing for this Bill to get a Second Reading—the river authority meekly rescinded the March resolution on which the public local inquiry had been held and said that the cost of constructing the reservoir and sluices was to be borne generally.

I regard this as an important matter of principle. My constituents have sunk boreholes into the natural lake, which in the last debate I was told was impossible and have got water from there. Our capital expenditure is a great deal higher than that of other water authorities. We pay a domestic water rate of 2s. 8d. in the whereas Sheffield pay is. 6d. in the £ for water and Hull is about to pay Is. 6d. in the £. It is quite wrong that these two authorities, who may be described as being like the Foolish Virgins in the Bible story, should get their water at so much lower a price than my constituents who have taken the precaution of seeing that their lamps were lit and have this burden of 2s. 8d. placed upon them.

This is a very dangerous precedent. Sitting in front of me on the Liberal Bench is a very prominent hon. and learned Member representing a Welsh constituency. We have to consider what might happen in future. Suppose Birmingham wants water and goes to Wales and builds a great new reservoir in Wales. Will the Welsh have to contribute to Birmingham's water undertaking? If so, I think Birmingham will find it rather difficult to extract the money from Wales, and even the Minister will find that difficult.

I ask the House to pass this Instruction. I believe a mistake was made. I believe Hull and Sheffield do not want to penalise my constituents with reference to water which is for their benefit. There are financial ways to arrange this so that a proportion of the capital cost is levied on each authority as an annual contribution in respect of the amount of benefit. There is no difficulty about such a financial arrangement. I hope, Mr. Speaker, that I have spoken as briefly as I promised earlier. This is an entirely simple point and I hope that the House will accept the Instruction. We have had a little disagreement, but I hope that now both sides of the House will see the absolute justice of this proposal.

10.25 p.m.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

Because of what you have said, Mr. Speaker. I do not intend to take up very much time.

I feel that the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) spoke as a foolish virgin rather than as a wise one. He made a short but passionate plea for his constituents, which is something that I understand. I want to make a plea not only for my constituents, but also for his. Under the Water Resources Act we established a policy which I think will have had the support of all hon. Members, that in future no part of an area should have a selfish interest, a right to pre-empt water resources to the detriment to the rest of the country or its area, that the use of resources should be shared among the various people within an area and between particular interests.

The essential thing about the Bill is that both directly and indirectly the right hon. Gentleman's constituents would benefit from developments within industry and from the added amenity value in Yorkshire as a whole resulting from having this very important system of water supply. It will spread the load and cost equally, and I urge the House to reject the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion. The additional cost works out at a third of a penny per thousand gallons to the consumer, which is very little indeed.

At the same time, I concede that the water board has come back with the creation of a far more equitable scheme than the original scheme.

10.27 p.m.

Sir Harry Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

I rise to speak only because of my great concern about the results of the Instruction being passed that might follow for every river authority in the country.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) has every entitlement to feel passionately about the Bill and to do everything he can to protect the interests of his constituents. None of us will complain of him doing that. He cited the White Paper which preceded the 1963 Act, but I hope that he has also read Sections 58, 59 and 60 of the Act. He will find that nowhere in them is there embodied the sentence from the White Paper which he quoted. When Ministers introduce White Papers, they know as well as every hon. Member that, whatever they may say in debate on the White Paper, what matters is in the Statute, and there is nothing in the Act to oblige river authorities to relate their charge strictly to the beneficiaries.

Mr. Turton

I am sure that my hon. Friend does not want to do me an injustice. This is being done under Section 81 of the Act, which lays down in subsection (3) that: An agreement under this section may contain such incidental and consequential provisions (including provisions of a financial character) …". That is to cover the very points in the White Paper.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

If I have my right hon. Friend right, it is a permissive matter, not obligatory. Having been chairman of a number of Bills dealing with water supplies, I know what appalling embarrassment can be caused to a Committee dealing with an opposed Private Member's Bill if it has instructions from the House. The House may have arrived at them in good faith, but it could not possibly have known all the facts. I recollect being on the Committee dealing with the Kennet and Avon Canal. On that occasion we were told that the lock gates in the canal must be left in exactly the state that they were taken over. As half were rotting it was a pretty preposterous condition. If we give this Instruction to the Committee we ought to make up our minds whether we know who will be the sole beneficiaries. The more I look at the Bill and listen to the debate the more convinced I become that no one can know accurately who the beneficiaries are.

To give this Instruction would put the Select Committee in an intolerable position and would establish a principle which would throw river authorities into a state of chaos. It is opening the flood gates, in another sense, which will result in practically every general charge being challenged when imposed by river authorities. My right hon. Friend seemed to suggest that river authority engineers tended to indulge in extravaganzas if they are not watched. There are no more dedicated public servants than these men. Those who serve on river authorities do not indulge in unfair treatment of those affected by the work of the authority. It is a very unenviable task. I am convinced that there is plenty of scope within the Statute without any special instruction being given to enable this authority to take account of the differing benefits, if they can be determined, and to vary its charge if need be, should it be shown that unless charges are varied unfairness will take place.

Hon. Members should ask themselves: is it fair that a regional scheme such as this should be spread over the whole body of extractors? It is significant that some of the main contributors to the cost of the work, not least the Central Electricity Generating Board, together with industries in the area, have accepted this method of financing.

I hope that the House will reject this Instruction for two reasons. It will put the Select Committee in an intolerable position and, secondly, if it was upheld it would be virtually impossible to implement in the way intended.

Mr. Houghton

I hope that the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) will not press this Motion. I am sure that the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) is right. This is a complicated matter and it is far better to let it go to the Select Committee. There are three phases, there are complexities of capital expenditure, problems of identifying beneficiaries. Those of us who opposed the Bill have had to swallow the camel and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not strain at the gnat. This is a minor issue compared with the importance of the scheme as a whole. It is better to let the Bill go to the Select Committee unfettered, without Instruction. Let it then come back to the House for debate.

10.35 p.m.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland)

I will speak briefly in support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton). I went into the opposite Lobby to him in the previous Division; I supported the Bill. I must begin by declaring an interest, in that I live in and pay rates in the area of the water board which is an abstractor in this region and which would suffer, but it is not from that point of view that I make my contribution.

May I follow up what my right hon. Friend said about areas of the country which are heavy exporters of water? I represent an area in the Lake District which is a very heavy exporter of water, and the proposal would put an iniquitous burden on my area. The right hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) said that this is a minor matter. So it may be for people living in urban conurbations, but it is of vital importance to people who live in the sparsely populated areas which are in general large-scale water exporters.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) said that water resources should be shared, and I do not argue with this, but he skirted round the problem of who should pay. I cannot see why the cost of these works should not be borne by those who benefit from them. He quoted a figure of one-third of a penny per thousand gallons. This may appear to be a small amount in North Yorkshire, where the rainfall tends to be low and where the total volume of exportable water also tends to be low, but I shudder to think how heavy this burden would be to my constituency.

In the recent report of the Water Resources Board on page 40 three projects for investigation by 1972 in my constituency are mentioned—the Killington reservoir near Kendal, the Barrowbeck reservoir near Tebay and the Hawes Water enlargement. If the principle which we are debating were extended to an area like my constituency an intolerable and unfair burden would be placed on us.

Mr. John M. Temple (City of Chester)

Would my hon. Friend agree that, if this principle were pursued, it would prejudice the Morecambe Bay barrage scheme, which will be financed on the water charges account, and will therefore be impracticable unless there is a proper precept on the water charging scheme?

Mr. Jopling

I hope that a scheme as large as the Morecambe Bay scheme, part of which is in my constituency, would be financed on a national basis, and that an unfair burden would not be put on my constituents just because they happen to be abstractors in the same area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) said that this Instruction would open the floodgates. If this Instruction is passed, it will put an intolerable burden on the sparsely populated parts of the country where there happens to be a great deal of water to export.

10.39 p.m.

Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)

I happen to represent a water exporting area, in that we have one of the largest artificial lakes in the United Kingdom at Graffham Water in my constituency. I have always felt that it was tough on my constituents to have to pay the same flat rate charge for water supplied to them from Graffham Water as others pay. One contrasts it in one's mind with the principle that applies in the supply of coal.

Those hon. Members who represent coal-mining constituencies will recollect that people living in those areas expect to get their coal more cheaply than those who live in areas to which coal has to be sent. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] They get it cheaper. It is a well known principle which is not contested on either side of the House. [An HON. MEMBER: "But it is."] By analogy one would expect that those who live in areas that export water would get their water marginally more cheaply. Therefore, one's instinct is to support my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton).

In trying to guess what is likely to happen tonight, it would appear that the issue is likely to be left open. I hope that those with responsibility in this matter, whether on the Select Committee of this House or on river authorities, will bear in mind that there is a quite sound analogy in the supply of coal and in the supply of other commodities, an analogy which should fairly be applied to those areas from which the water comes.

10.42 p.m.

Mr. Denis Howell

This has been an interesting little debate, but I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) when he says that the principle which the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) and his right hon. and hon. Friends are trying to invoke is a serious one and would have serious repercussions.

The Water Resources Board in its 5th Annual Report for the year ended 30th September, 1968, said: We estimate that the quantities consumed for the public supply, for industry, for power stations and for agriculture will need to be doubled by the end of the century. That means that the amount of public works to be carried out in respect of the water industry in the next thirty years will be equal to all of that which has been undertaken in the last 100 years. With that factor in mind, one understands the magnitude and significance of what the right hon. Gentleman is proposing.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the imposition on his constituents and one would, of course, expect him to do so. I was going on to make the point that his constituents would get rateable value from these works being undertaken in his constituency. I am advised, however, that in the case of reservoirs erected by river authorities there appears to be a deficiency in the Act, but I am glad to take the opportunity to say that the Government intend to take the opportunity to put that matter right so that the financial burden on his constituents, which he has properly drawn to our attention, will be less arduous than he possibly thinks.

Whatever may be thought about the principle of the sharing of water resources, this was properly decided when the matter came before the House in the Water Resources Bill, which is now an Act. I sat on the Committee which considered that measure and the whole principle related to the sharing of costs in the supply of such a major commodity as water. That is what that legislation was all about.

I had hoped from my researches to have produced the interesting piece of information that both the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton and his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) voted for that Bill on Second Reading. Alas, I have to tell the House that such was the unanimity over that Bill that there was no vote. The Second Reading was given by general agreement. At least they were not able, no doubt because they were both members of the Government at that time, to come to the House and argue against that legislation. [Interruption.] If they were not members of the Government, that removes the excuse for their not coming and making a fuss in the House.

Sir D. Renton

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman wishes to get this right. In what he has said about the sharing of financial responsibility having been decided, he may have overlooked Section 81(3) of the 1963 Act, under which it is clear that it is open to those concerned to make flexible financial arrangements if they wish, and that that could involve a departure from the strict principle of sharing.

Mr. Howell

I remember the subsection very well. We spent hours on it in Committee. However, I do not think that the flexibility involved in it can be interpreted in the way that the right hon. and learned Gentleman seeks to interpret it.

I come back to the point made by the hon. and gallant Member for Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke). If this Instruction were passed, it would be impossible for any Select Committee to devise a form of words in law to make sense of it.

The right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton was extremely parochial in his attitude to the general principle and did not get it entirely right. The beneficiaries are not confined to Sheffield, Barnsley, Rotherham and Hull, and it is from those people that the right hon. Gentleman would seek to get more money. The Bill empowers the river authority to run a pipeline northwards from the reservoir to discharge water into the River Esk in order that it shall be available, if needed, for a new potash industry and for Scarborough. It is impossible to assess that at the moment. Another important feature is that the water delivered to Sheffield, Barnsley and Rotherham will be discharged as treated effluent into the catchment area of the Don, where it will sustain increased demands for industrial purposes from that river. How can any Select Committee work that through?

The proposition before the House is one which on principle has previously been decided against and, in practice, would be impossible to administer.

10.48 p.m.

Mr. Turton

I have been very influenced not by what the Minister of State has said but by what my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) has said. He pointed out that, if we pass this Instruction, we are restricting the discretion of the Select Committee. On his assurance that the Committee will have power so to alter the charging scheme as to make it fair for my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling), I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.