HC Deb 11 November 1970 vol 806 cc559-70

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Weatherill.]

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Caerwyn E. Roderick (Brecon and Radnor)

I am grateful for this opportunity of bringing this subject before the House. I am also grateful to the Minister for his presence at this late hour, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas) for attending. I hope that the Minister has been authorised by the Secretary of State to make up his mind as a result of this debate and not to prejudge the issue.

As this is the first time that I have addressed the House, I feel privileged in being allowed to raise the kind of problem for which my predecessor became well-known—namely, protection of the rights of his constituents. Hon. Members do not need me to remind them of what Tudor Watkins did here. He left a reputation for conscientiousness, diligence and courage which makes me feel proud to follow him. He fought many a battle in the interests of Brecon and Radnor and of Wales, and it is gratifying to see the affection and respect with which he is remembered here. Twenty-five years as Secretary of the Welsh Parliamentary Labour Party is no mean feat, and for an ex-miner to become the Chairman of the first Select Committee on Agriculture is sufficient indication of his eagerness to study and tackle a new field concerned with his constituency. The respect he has in Brecon and Radnor is even higher: Tudor is a household name there.

In case anyone should think that Brecon and Radnor are two towns, I must make it clear that this constituency covers two whole counties. It is regarded as the biggest in the land, covering an area of 1,200 square miles—or should I say nowadays 3,000 square kilometres? Any similarity in build between Tudor Watkins and myself is not a coincidence. The exercise involved in covering such a territory keeps one's weight down: I can recommend it to anyone with weight problems.

We are grateful to Mr. Michelmore for the free plug he gave us on television when announcing our result in the General Election, when he described it as one of the most beautiful areas in the country and recommended that everyone should visit it at one time or another. That is probably why such a large part of it is included in the Brecon Beacons National Park. Hon. Members will appreciate that the people are very wise, having returned a Member to this side of the House for 25 years, and having now done so again.

Unfortunately, Brecon and Radnor have very serious problems. The coal mining industry has disappeared completely from the south end of the constituency. Public transport is non-existent in a major portion of the area, including the whole of Radnorshire. Employment opportunities are very poor, leading to migration of young people from the rural areas.

But another problem is exercising us at the moment, and that is the purpose of this debate—namely, the loss of good agricultural land for water storage and the consequent disappearance of live, valuable communities which this entails.

We are discussing the proposal of the Usk River Authority to build a reservoir at Senni. I know that the authority will say that it wishes only to investigate and take borings to see whether the land is suitable to build a reservoir. Is it conceivable that it will spend thousands of pounds on borings and then not proceed with a reservoir if the site is suitable? As one farmer put it, "We are for ever doing things like that: we keep digging holes for gateposts without any intention of putting up gateposts."

No, the people of the Senni Valley are resisting the boring because they know that this is the prelude to a reservoir. We have had resistance in Wales for many years over the construction of reservoirs for the benefit of our friends in English towns, but this time the problem is clarified. This time the water is for consumption in another part of Wales, thus focusing attention on the real problem—matching the needs of urban areas with the interests of rural areas.

Resistance in Senni is intense and would appear to the outsider to be fanatical. It would also be difficult for the outsider to comprehend its nature. These good people are a most peace-loving group but now they are defending their homes, their livelihoods and their way of life.

A town dweller might say that one piece of land or one part of the countryside is much like another. On the contrary, the families of these good people have lived there for generations, having spent their lives there building up a warm, close and cultured community. They are defending something which is above mere economics.

We recognise the continuous, growing demand for more water, but we have reached the stage of asking what happens when there are no more valleys to flood. Thus, we feel that the time has come to look urgently for a solution to this problem.

We have a patchwork of water boards and river authorities in Wales, just as we have in other parts of the country. To try to understand the structures and the responsibilities of these bodies is quite a task, and I will not go into detail tonight. We are anxious that a Water Development Authority for Wales should be set up, as recommended by the Welsh Council. We are aware of the fact that this is being considered by the Central Advisory Water Committee.

We are conscious of this need because we have a line of demarcation involved in this area. The Minister will be well aware of the fact that a reservoir, the Brianne, is in process of construction a comparatively short distance away. Incorporated in the design of this reservoir is the proviso that its level can be raised 35 ft. to provide greater storage. How much simpler it would be to raise the level now rather than later.

But this reservoir is being built to cater for the needs of the West Glamorgan Water Board. It would be possible to transfer excess water from this reservoir to the Usk, but, of course, the Usk River Authority would be responsible for the extra costs. The river authority says that no official request has been made to it to negotiate on this scheme. That is the authority's case. I am asking the Secretary of State to make such a request. In the absence of a Water Development Authority for Wales, he is the person responsible to ensure that that is done. In fact, the Welsh Council, in its "Report on Water in Wales", published in June this year, said: We acknowledge control over the development of water resources in Wales is now the responsibility of a Welsh Minister. No one can now build a reservoir anywhere in Wales without the approval of the Secretary of State for Wales. If the Secretary of State is not responsible for water resources, who else can make an official request to this river authority to get on with negotiations?

When the previous Secretary of State gave permission for borings to take place, he also made it a condition that alternative sources should be examined. Would the present Secretary of State ensure that the extension of the Brianne Dam is properly considered? By "properly considered", I mean that he should be involved in the negotiations, not stand idly by while the negotiators fail to agree on a price. If the cost is a little higher than building a new reservoir at Senni, that must be weighed against the cost to the community of unnecessary flooding of valleys.

I am anxious that the Minister should become involved because we have a breakdown in other negotiations on our hands at the moment. Negotiations have been pursued for the transfer of water from the Cray and Usk reservoirs—incidentally, these are in the catchment area of the Usk River Authority but are owned by the West Glamorgan Board—but, as one newspaper put it, Senni are the victims of a sordid cash squabble". The board and the river authority could not agree a price. Would the Secretary of State please become involved here, too?

There are other areas in the Upper Towy Valley, I am given to understand, which are largely uninhabited and could be investigated, but the Usk River Authority cannot go into them as they are outside its area. That is one reason why we look forward to a Water Development Authority for Wales which would eliminate these demarcation disputes—something which I understood was very dear to the heart of the Minister's party. Serious consideration should also be given to increasing the capacity of the Talybont Reservoir.

I have made these suggestions because they would ensure adequate supplies for many years to come and avoid flooding the Senni Valley unnecessarily. We cannot be sure at this stage what part underground storage and desalination will play in the near future. I recognise that underground storage will supply only a fraction of future needs, but if it avoids building just one reservoir it will be worth while. We shall soon find good agricultural land so scarce that future generations will not thank us for our shortsightedness. With a reservoir, that land is lost for ever.

Desalination is said to be expensive. So was television when it started, but sets have become cheaper as the techniques have been developed and more sets have been built. As fuel demands became greater we started on nuclear power stations—expensive though they were. Some day, I am convinced, we shall need desalination in a big way: we ought to be pressing on with the programme.

An article in the Sunday Telegraph last Sunday said that local authorities … have been advised that because the general demand for water is gradually overtaking the supply in reservoirs and rivers they should reconsider building three desalination plants—in the North-East, South-West, and South-East. Building such plants would be far quicker than going through the long process of turning more mountain valleys into gigantic reservoirs. British authorities have so far refrained from doing more than consider the possibilities of desalination, though British companies produce most of the distillation plant on the market. Twenty countries now depend on desalination for the greater part of their water. Americans take 100 million gallons of sea water and turn it into drinking water each day, using more than 500 plants. We expect a Water Resources Board report on Wales in a matter of months. Why do we not await the report before setting the wheels in motion to drown another valley?

In the course of my travels in the constituency I frequently pass the delightful home of the Minister. It is set in a beautiful valley. I do not know whether it is feasible to consider a reservoir there: we never know—someone might get the bright idea. I assure him that I shall do all I can to help him defend his home if that day comes, because the Minister is a constituent of mine, and I will do all I can for him, as I shall for the Senni people. I ask him to use all his influence now with his colleague the Secretary of State to consider the plight of the people of Senni when they see their homes needlessly destroyed. Will he now exercise the same compassion in this matter as he would expect were it his own home that was in danger?

To sum up, I ask the Secretary of State to press the Usk River Authority to commence negotiations with the West Glamorgan Board for an extension of the Brianne Reservoir—it is not that it is unwilling to do so but only that it is waiting for someone to ask it to do so—and to conclude negotiations over the use of the Usk and Cray water. We can no longer leave it to the river authority, because it is understandable that the authority will simply seek the cheapest and easiest way out. I sincerely hope that the Secretary of State will not allow himself to be completely imprisoned by legalistic and economic considerations.

11.43 p.m.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. David Gibson-Watt)

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Roderick) has raised a subject which is certainly of very great concern to his constituency. As he says, I live in his constituency, and I am grateful to him for the remarks he has made about me personally. As an individual I am equally concerned about this problem, and have been for a number of years, not only in the period of this Government but in that of the previous Government.

As Minister of State, Welsh Office, my job this evening is, first, to commend the very excellent maiden speech which the hon. Gentleman has just made. I was sorry that it took so long for the lawyers to get through their arguments and that his speech came on rather late at night; otherwise the House would have been full to listen to what he had to say. The hon. Gentleman's speech not only sounded well, but I believe that it will read well. It showed his deep concern for a local problem, and it is always of interest to the House to hear a speech on a subject with which an hon. Gentleman is clearly conversant.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about his predecessor who enjoyed campaigns with me over a period of time and, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, over what is geographically the largest constituency in either England or Wales. We all look forward to hearing further speeches from the hon. Gentleman.

Equally as Minister of State I must tell the hon. Gentleman from the start of my speech that I can give him no news about the Senni Valley which is not known already. There is at present no proposal before my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State to build a reservoir in the Senni Valley. The subject of the debate is therefore hypothetical. For me to express any views on such a project could be held to be prejudging a matter which may arise under some statutory procedure at a later date. This would be equally unfair for the promoters of any scheme and potential objectors.

Let me now get the record straight and let us understand exactly what we are discussing and what has taken place.

The Usk River Authority applied in 1968 to the then Secretary of State the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas) for compulsory powers to enter on to certain land in the Senni Valley for the purpose of establishing the feasibility of the site for the construction of a reservoir. That was in 1968. On 22nd August, 1969, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Cardiff, West gave his assent on the clear understanding that this in no way pre-judged consideration of any proposal that might be made thereafter to build a reservoir. On 15th September, 1969, the order was made, and it came into operation on 22nd September, 1969.

I stress that since then the matter has rested with the Usk River Authority, which has the legal right to go on to this land.

I would stress that it does not lie with my right hon. and learned Friend to make an official approach to the Usk River Authority, which the hon. Gentleman asked for tonight and which we were told in yesterday's South Wales Echo the hon. Gentleman would be calling on my right hon. and learned Friend to do.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the Usk River Authority was not looking for sources of water elsewhere. I will seek to put the hon. Gentleman right on this point. The clerk of the authority said this in a Press release: The possibility of augmenting the throughput of the existing Usk Reservoir by water abstracted from the River Towy in conjunction with the Brianne Reservoir scheme, now under construction by the West Glamorgan Water Board, is also being examined. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman did not read that report, or he would not have raised that point in this debate.

Mr. Roderick

I said that the authority was not looking at all the alternatives. That is why I pressed my point that the authority should be looking at this most feasible alternative upon which all engineers are agreed. The authority is considering some alternatives, but I hope that the Minister will persuade the authority to look at all the alternatives, as it has an obligation to do.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

The whole point of what I am saying is that it is not possible for my right hon. and learned Friend in the present legal position to make the official approach for which the hon. Gentleman asks. It is open to the hon. Gentleman himself to tell the authority of any other point which he thinks should be investigated.

Mr. Roderick

The authority will not listen.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

Has the hon. Gentleman put to the authority the suggestions that he has made in the debate tonight?

My right hon. and learned Friend is in no position to do anything about this matter, as things stand. I repeat that the right hon. Member for Cardiff, West made a compulsory Order on 15th September, 1969, and that remains. My right hon. and learned Friend cannot revoke it and he cannot make an official approach to the Usk River Authority in the way I have been asked to urge him to do.

By virtue of Section 4 of the Water Resources Act, 1963, it is the statutory duty of each river authority to take such action as it considers necessary for the purpose of conserving, redistributing or otherwise augmenting water resources in its area.

It is well known that the Usk River Authority, in carrying out its duties to find additional water supplies to meet the shortage to which the hon. Gentleman referred and which is soon expected in South East Wales, is also examining other possible alternatives. The shortfall is expected to be 110 million gallons a day by the year 2001.

In the long-term, the possible alternatives will, no doubt, be laid before my right hon. and learned Friend, with the economic and social comparisons that apply to each project, and he will have to judge. That is the job of the Secretary of State of the day. It will then be for him to decide the matter, in the light of all the evidence and this would, of course, be subject to the public inquiry procedure.

While I recognise the motives which caused the hon. Gentleman to raise this matter tonight and while I sympathise with his feelings and those of his constituents on the subject, the fact remains that the legal position as it now stands makes it impossible for my right hon. and learned Friend to take the action which the hon. Gentleman wants him to take.

11.53 p.m.

Mr. Gwynoro Jones (Carmarthen)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Roderick) on his excellent maiden speech and on raising this matter and, thereby, enabling me to intervene briefly.

While I accept what the Minister said about the Usk River Authority having a clear duty to accommodate the needs of its consumers, is he aware of the woeful lack of co-operation and co-ordination between river authorities and water boards in Wales?

We are a small country. Already a great deal of land is taken for reservoirs, national parks and the rest. Our resources are being taken from us, and it is time that we seriously considered the possibility, indeed the desirability, of having greater co-ordination.

Regarding the possibility of increasing the level of the Brianne, as an alternative to Senni, the alternative suggestions should not be left to the last moment but should be settled at the outset. May we have an assurance not only that there will be greater co-ordination in these matters but that the hon. Gentleman will examine the desirability of initiating a water development board for Wales?

Something along these lines must be done because the situation cannot be allowed to develop for much longer. The day must come when the people of Wales will say, "No more. We cannot accept any longer the drowning of our valleys, inhabited or not."

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

I rise to join the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Gwynoro Jones) in offering to my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Roderick) warm and sincere congratulations on his clear and cogent maiden speech. The House by long tradition takes a great interest in the maiden speakers as they come before us. My hon. Friend paid high tribute to my old friend and colleague Tudor Watkins, who served in the House as a close colleague of ours for a quarter of a century.

In congratulating my hon. Friend, may I tell the Minister that, whilst legal channels may not be open to him, when I was Secretary of State for Wales I had the warmest unofficial contacts with the river board. I remember meeting the board and having lunch with its members. The Secretary of State can find various ways of indicating the wish of my hon. Friends that at least the board should look at all possible sources. I hope that he will convey to his right hon. and learned Friend our strong feeling on the question.

11.55 p.m.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

With the leave of the House, I should like to speak again.

I am interested to hear what the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Gwynoro Jones) says about the matter, and what his right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas) has to say. There are two points that I would make. First, both the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Roderick), who opened the debate, and his hon. Friend spoke in favour of a Welsh water board. But I wonder whether either of them read an article in the Liverpool Daily Post by their right right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West on 8th September. It has been described by some as his political obituary. The headline was: It is just nonsense to talk of a Welsh water board". The article goes on to say a good deal about it. The right hon. Gentleman has shot down his hon. Friends.

As to what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, is he honestly saying, now that he has vacated the seat of the Secretary of State, that by having a nice little unofficial lunch with the water board the matter can all be sorted out? If so, he is being less than frank with the House.

Mr. George Thomas

I did not want in any way to mislead the Minister or the House. The Minister must not get excited. What I was suggesting in a most reasonable frame of mind was that the Secretary of State should convey to the river board the opinions expressed by my hon. Friend tonight. That is not asking too much.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

If that is so, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could tell the House why he did not do that between 15th September, 1969, and 18th June, when his party left office.

Mr. George Thomas

I am sorry that this is becoming a duet. But the Minister of State must realise that my hon. Friend has put various new proposals before us tonight, including, although the Minister tried to twist it around, a very different proposal from the one with which I dealt in the article to which he referred. If the Minister was honest with the House, as we expect him to be, he would acknowledge that what I was dealing with there is not at all the same as what my hon. Friends have been talking about tonight.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

For the last time I rise because I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman's arguments hold a great deal of water. His views on a water board are well known, and, of course, his views on the duties of the Secretary of State should be very well known to him.

Mr. Gwynoro Jones


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

Order. It would be in order for the hon. Gentleman to ask the leave of the House to speak again.

Mr. Jones

With the leave of the House, may I say that what my hon. Friend and I were emphasising was not a water board but a development board or co-ordinating board, which is a vastly different matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twelve midnight.