HC Deb 02 December 1971 vol 827 cc677-90
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Peter Walker)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about water services reorganisation.

I have to tell the House that the long-term prospects for water supply in this country and for maintaining and improving the quality of our rivers give rise to serious concern. The massive increase in demand coupled with increases in the quantity and range of pollutants face us with a most exacting task. My right hon. Friends and I have reached the conclusion that the way in which responsibilities for managing water are distributed at present imposes a handicap which can no longer be accepted and that a comprehensive reshaping of the machinery is called for.

As the report of the Central Advisory Water Committee made plain, responsibility in this field is fragmented between more than 1,400 different bodies. For many years they have discharged their duties well, but too often their interests conflict and very many of them are far too small. The Government intend to create 10 regional water authorities, including one for Wales, which will be able to deal with water services as a whole, literally from the source to the tap.

The regional water authorities' functions will include the prevention and control of polluting discharges to rivers and estuaries; augmentation of river flows by schemes of storage; treatment of water for public use; and dealing with sewage. At the same time they will have a duty to ensure the full development for amenity and recreation of our rivers, canals and, wherever appropriate, reservoirs.

The new regional water authorities will replace the present joint water boards and joint sewerage boards. They will assume the responsibilities of those water undertakings still owned by local authorities together with the obligations of local authorities for sewage disposal.

Local authorities will continue to have local sewerage functions other than those that are necessary for the authorities' efficient discharge of their duties. In view of the local authorities' clear interest in water supply and pollution control, I have decided that a substantial proportion of the members of each regional water authority will be appointed by local government.

We are proposing to retain statutory water companies, which can continue to play a valuable part within the new system. I expect suitable arrangements to be made for them to supply water as agents of the regional water authorities.

The responsibility exercised by the present river authorities for water conservation, pollution control, navigation and recreation will be assumed by the regional water authorities. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be undertaking consultations with the interested bodies on the future organisation of land drainage and fisheries, which lay outside the terms of reference of the Central Advisory Water Committee's Report. He has asked me to say, however, that the present proposals do not require a review of the responsibilities of internal drainage boards.

As suggested in the Committee's report, the responsibilities of the British Waterways Board for canals and certain rivers will be transferred to the regional water authorities. I am convinced that, in conjunction with local authorities, they can build upon the valuable work the board has done, in particular by adapting the present canal system to one more directly designed for amenity and recreation. Special arrangements will be made for the board's canals in Scotland.

The chairmen of the regional water authorities, together with a chairman and other members chosen by Ministers as having special knowledge of industrial, agricultural, amenity and other matters, will form a National Water Council. This Council, together with the regional water authorities, will continue and develop the valuable work done by the Water Resources Board.

Apart from cases where Exchequer grants may be justified for specific purposes, the revenue to enable the new authorities to discharge these functions should, in principle, come from charges for the services they provide.

I have placed in the Vote Office copies of a circular and a memorandum explaining these proposals which are being sent out today to all the bodies concerned. Accompanying this is a map showing the boundaries we are proposing for regional water authorities.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales is making a separate announcement about reorganisation in Wales, and about the special arrangements that will be made to safeguard both English and Welsh interests in the Anglo-Welsh rivers.

We now propose to hold consultations with the bodies concerned within these broad principles. Our aim will be to introduce legislation to enable the new system to come into operation in April, 1974, concurrently with the new local authorities. Staff interests will be safeguarded, and there will be full consultation on all the arrangements for the transfer and protection of staff.

The time has come when we must stop taking our water resources for granted. Water is too scarce; it costs too much to collect, transport and distribute any longer to be wasted, polluted or fenced off from recreational use. The Government's proposals are, therefore, radical and far-reaching. They are designed to create the conditions and to provide the necessary modern machinery for the cleaning up of our rivers, the improvement of our sewerage and sewage disposal arrangements, and the safeguarding of the nation's water supplies for the remainder of this century. As such, I hope that these proposals will contribute to the Government's general policy of safeguarding our national environment and improving the quality of life.

Mr. Denis Howell

We are obliged to the Minister for this long-delayed statement. I would like to make a comment or two and ask one or two questions on the three main aspects which the policy embraces.

First, the Minister is a most remarkable animal because, judging by this statement, he is capable of walking in opposite directions at the same time. We welcome what he has to say about water resources as being half a step in the right direction, but in respect of control and ownership of the canals we can only regard the proposals as a step in the wrong direction. We have considerable misgivings about the effective ness of what he proposes, judged against the national need to double the water supply of this country within 10 years, with all that that means in terms of surveying, parliamentary powers, ownership, construction and so on. The logic of the Minister's proposals is that of national ownership of the water resources and the waterways of this country. The Minister seems to have drawn back from the brink of that situation, no doubt because of the doctrinaire loyalty which his statement shows towards the privately owned water companies of the country, which is complete nonsense.

I turn now to the three areas on which I wish to ask questions. The first is the establishment of a National Water Council. What will be the powers of the Council? Will it own the national water resources of the country and have overall responsibility for the transportation of water to the 10 regional authorities? The only way that we can judge the effectiveness of the proposals is by getting an answer to that question.

Secondly, I refer to the proposal for the new regional water authorities. This seems to us at first glance to be an argument in favour of the Redcliffe-Maud proposals for democratic provincial or regional government. We are bound to ask, in the light of the Local Government Bill now going through the House, whether it is proposed to establish 10 regional authorities not democratic in content and not entirely responsible to the local authorities in the region? This seems to be a great argument for regional government. On the canal system—[Interruption]—it is no good the Minister turning up his nose—we feel that every proposal that he brings before us is for the establishment of regional arms of Whitehall, without democratic responsibility, and that this is a further step in that direction.

As to the canal system, the Minister proposes to dissolve or demolish the British Waterways Board. Who, therefore, will assume the national ownership and control of the canal system, and, in particular, who will provide the £3 million subvention which the British Waterways Board has at present? It seems that this is yet another proposal to transfer the responsibility of that £3 million from the taxpayer to the backs of the ratepayer albeit at regional level.

Mr. Walker

First of all, as far as a "doctrinaire" approach is concerned, I regard as surprising the suggestion that we should not take advantage of £250 million of private capital on fixed interest, under complete control with an agency arrangement with the new regional water authorities. In the view of the Labour Party the ratepayer should pay £250 million for doctrinaire reasons.

Secondly, the National Water Council will be of an advisory nature and have responsibility for research work. It will be clear, when the hon. Gentleman has given a little attention to this problem that there is on record a large number of members of his party who have advocated the solution that I suggest. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the regional authorities that I have suggested will be strong enough to carry out their functions and have adequate provision to do so. As regards his suggestion that this should be the basis for provincial government, he should look at the map. The rivers do not conform to the regions appropriate for regional government. When dealing with water and sewage disposal, we are dealing with rivers and waterways, not with political boundaries. These boundaries are not appropriate for regional government but are appropriate for handling in an objective way the water resources of this country.

As regards canal ownership, my Department has had discussions with the British Waterways Board, and I am convinced from the way that this will be handled that the amenity aspects will be substantially improved as a result of the proposals.

Mr. Spearing

Will the Secretary of State understand that there will be deep forebodings among those who use the waterways at his announcement about the canals. Could he tell us whether, as far as finance is concerned, the proposed regional water authorities will depend entirely for rate precept on the areas which they cover, and if the majority are also nominated members of the authority, does not that suggest that they will be reluctant to spend sufficient money in keeping the rivers in good order? Will he tell the regional water authorities the standards of cleanliness and purity for which they are responsible?

Mr. Walker

My statement makes clear that in future the charges will be made direct on people who use water and the rivers; it will not be done on a rate precept basis. This will result in the authorities charging those who use the river system, the appropriate amounts. It will result in river authorities having a considerable vested interest in doing the maximum to clean up the rivers. This comes out clearly from the Advisory Committee's Report as being a positive approach to cleaning up our rivers.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Will my right hon. Friend appreciate that the statement that he has made today is one of enormous importance and that those of us who have studied matters concerning water, land drainage and pollution will wish to congratulate him on the imaginative way in which he has approached this vital problem? May I thank him for the consideration given to requests to ensure that land drainage can continue to be associated primarily with agriculture rather than with anything else.

Mr. Walker

I am grateful to my hon Friend.

Mr. Roderick

While I will not go into the merits or demerits of the statement, may I ask what form the separate Welsh statement will take? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that some of us are suspicious that a Written Answer in reply to Question No. 86 on the Order Paper in the name of the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Nicholas Edwards) will be used to make this statement? Does that mean that we have to ask that hon. Member for the loan of his correspondence? When shall we have an opportunity of questioning the Secretary of State for Wales?

Mr. Walker

That is a matter for the Secretary of State for Wales, but the information will, of course, be made available.

Mr. Ridsdale

While congratulating my right hon. Friend for once again showing himself to be a progressive and reforming Minister, may I tell him that in certain parts of the country where there have been very high increases in water rates this reform will be judged on whether it is able to bring about some equalisation of water rates in the country?

Mr. Walker

What we have endeavoured to do is to see that the nine major river systems of England form the basis of the new organisation. In the past the large number of authorities concerned meant that certain authorities had to meet high costs sometimes due to pollution created in the river further upstream.

Dr. David Owen

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in areas such as the South-West, where there is an acute water shortage, these proposals will be thought to be nowhere near radical enough? Can he tell the House how the legislation to provide for adequate water will be placed before the House? Is this to be the responsibility of the regional authority or the national Government? I think the right hon. Gentleman and the House will agree that what is needed is national leadership with the responsibility for legislation undertaken by the Government. Turning to waterways, will he take it from me that many who have given a great deal to the waterways, quite voluntarily over the years, will be very disheartened by this major change?

Mr. Walker

On the first point, the legislation will be introduced by the Government. The chairmen of the authorities will be appointed by the Secretary of State, and there will, therefore, be considerable Government impact upon the total problem. As to the point about the waterways, hon. Members who query this are doing so on the basis that they feel, quite rightly, that the existing Waterways Board has done important work in providing amenity on the canals. I agree, and I want to continue that work, to enhance and improve it. I would not have brought these proposals forward unless I was convinced that they would mean better amenity use of the canals.

Mr. Tom King

Can my right hon. Friend clarify exactly what the future position will be of river authorities? Did I understand that they will have delegated powers from the regional board?

Mr. Walker

There will be nine water authorities which will take over the functions of the existing sewerage boards and river authorities, so that in future there will be nine major water authorities in England covering the nine major river systems.

Dr. Marshall

What are the reasons why the reconstitution of internal drainage districts is not included in these proposals?

Mr. Walker

Because it was not considered necessary for the main strategy.

Mr. Arthur Jones

The circular refers in paragraph 42 to the proportion and appointment of elected members in local government after reorganisation. Is my right hon. Friend able to say whether members at area council level and district council level will be eligible?

Mr. Walker

I wish to discuss with the local authority associations ways in which local government can have the power to appoint substantial numbers of members to these authorities. I want them to appoint people who will make a real managerial contribution to the development of what is a considerable problem involving a massive investment programme—a £300 million capital investment a year programme in the coming years. Local government should prove as good as central Government in appointing people to do this task. I shall be discussing with all the local authority associations how best this can be obtained.

Mrs. Castle

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he really has not answered any of the questions put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen), particularly in relation to the canals? If the National Water Council is to be purely advisory, who will own the waterways? Who will be financially responsible for keeping open the national network of cruise-ways which we created, to say nothing of a national commercial network, which, however reduced, we tried to sustain and expand? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House categorically whether he intends to maintain the Exchequer grant of £3 million which has been vital in providing recreational facilities and bringing happiness to millions of people?

Mr. Walker

I know the right hon. Lady's interest in this subject, and I can assure her that the total support to the whole of this system in various ways by various central Government agencies viii in my view be an increasing, not a diminishing, factor. As to the responsibility and ownership, the responsibility will be with the new water authorities but there will be a statutory obligation on them to keep open various navigation ways which cross the frontiers of these authorities and which are laid down at present.

Mrs. Castle

I am sorry but I asked the right hon. Gentleman to answer some of our questions. Will he tell us (a) who owns the canals and (b) whether he intends to maintain the Exchequer grant of £3 million for our amenity network?

Mr. Walker

I answered quite clearly. I said that the new regional authorities will own the canals. As to the Exchequer grant, an Exchequer grant can be paid through a number of agencies, such as the Countryside Commission or the Sports Council. It can be paid through the rate support grant in various ways. In total there will be increasing expenditure.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a total building blight across a very wide band of the Winchester constituency? Can he assure the House that the proposed regional water authorities will not be an excuse for the delaying of administrative decisions which are urgently needed? Can he tell the House what steps his Department has carried out to deal with the use of salt water for industrial and sewerage purposes, certainly in coastal areas?

Mr. Walker

There are a number of existing water authorities in which certainly by the end of this decade, unless a change is made along the lines proposed, there will be desperate shortages of water which will create planning blight. These proposals are designed to eliminate that position. As to the use of sea water, we agreed to go ahead with the one major desalination proposal put to us, and provided a substantial amount of public expenditure for that purpose. I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend that in looking at barrage schemes and the possibilities of desalination we are anxious to make progress and will give these schemes every possible encouragement.

Mr. Thorpe

Since the absence of adequate water supplies has enabled or prompted the local water board in my constituency to oppose all planning applications, thereby preventing improvement and causing very great hardship, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that anything which conserves and increases water supplies is to be welcomed? Is he further aware that, in common with many of my constituents served only by septic tank, I would welcome improvements in domestic sewerage arrangements? Speaking as one who thinks that the case for nationalisation is unanswerable, and accepting that this is a first step in that direction, what is to be the relationship between the continuing statutory bodies and the 10 authorities? Are the former to be strictly the agents of the latter? Secondly, who is to have general oversight of policies such as the siting of reservoirs, desalination and barrage schemes?

Mr. Walker

The new authorities will have all the main powers concerned with this, and the statutory companies will be on an agency agreement. All the controls which are operated at present over these statutory councils—which are considerable—will be exercised in future by the regional water authorities concerned. To talk about it as nationalisation or denationalisation or keeping free enterprise is gross exaggeration of the realities of the situation. The right hon. Gentleman knows that the charges and the payment of interest on shares are restricted by central Government. What we have is an injection of £250 million of private capital which will certainly be useful. We have a number of companies which achieve high standards of efficiency, and I decided that it was in the best interests of water supply to continue these on an agency basis under the new authorities.

As for the early remarks of the right hon. Gentleman, I am well aware of the problems in his constituency. Unless a major step of this type is taken, those problems will greatly increase in scale over the next decade.

Dame Joan Vickers

What powers will the river and water authorities have to review schemes such as the Swincombe scheme, which have been turned down?

Mr. Walker

I cannot comment on any individual scheme, but the regional water authorities will be responsible for seeing that water and sewage disposal are organised in the most efficient way in the areas concerned.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Will the right hon. Gentleman lay before the House a White Paper on the linking together of water and sewage disposal which has been pressed for for so long? I ask him not to rule out a link between his regional proposal and the new local government structure which is being created, and to bear in mind the considerable provincial developments and the possibility of a link with industrial development in the areas concerned.

Mr. Walker

On the first point, if the hon. Gentleman will obtain from the Vote Office a copy of the explanatory memorandum which I am providing, he will find that it will give him a great deal more detailed information. I am grateful to him for stressing the importance of at last combining responsibility for water and sewage disposal. It was a mistake not to have done so, and the new arrangements will make a considerable improvement to the total position.

I am well aware of the need for improving regional activity, but the hon. Gentleman will see from the memorandum to which I have referred and from the map that the river networks do not coincide with the political networks.

Sir R. Thompson

Will my right hon. Friend say more about desalinisation? Is it not clear that the demand for water has no limit and, if natural sources are relied upon to make up the deficiency, we shall soon have no worthwhile environment at all? This will put paid to the recreational aspects with which he is rightly concerned. Have not experiments shown that there is a solution, although it may be initially costly?

Mr. Walker

There are two types of scheme. One is the barrage scheme, and where major schemes have been brought forward I have readily provided additional expenditure, and those schemes are proceeding. One major desalinisation scheme was put to me, and once again I came forward with public money and supported it. Whether that scheme or any other experiment will be successful is uncertain. I assure my hon. Friend that no one would be more pleased than I if a delightful way of turning sea water into fresh water could be produced. I am giving all the help I can.

Mr. John

Will the Secretary of State explain the absence of a Welsh Minister to make an oral statement about the Welsh Water Authority? Does he not regard it as unsatisfactory that the Secretary of State for Wales is not to make a statement? There has been no indication when he will do so. The right hon. Gentleman has been courteous enough to come to the House and submit himself to questions. Will he not try to ensure that his right hon. and learned Friend does the same?

Mr. Walker

I am sure that there will be plenty of opportunity for the proposals of my right hon. and learned Friend on this topic to be debated in the Welsh Committee.

Mr. Maddan

Will the regional water authorities under the proposed scheme be self-sufficient in water, or will a national grid be necessary? Secondly, will the regional water authorities cover the coastal discharge of sewage?

Mr. Walker

On the latter point, the regional water authorities will be responsible for the sewage disposal arrangements throughout the whole of their area, including coastal areas. In reply to my hon. Friend's first point, in some cases it will be necessary to transfer water from one authority to another, and this will be organised through the National Water Council. In the main the new authorities will be self-sufficient.

Mr. Biffen

In view of the considerable importance of the exploitation of the amenity and recreational potential provided by our waterways, will my right hon. Friend as he is in a reforming mood, say whether or not the regional water authorities will be encouraged and enabled to take into partnership private risk capital?

Mr. Walker

Certainly in the exploitation of amenity factors private enterprise will have the freedom to do so. In our canal, reservoir and river systems there is considerable potentiality for the private enterprise sector and the public sector to provide far more amenity resources.

Mr. Jessel

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the quality of the water in the River Thames in the western London area has for some years been steadily improving, so much so that freshwater fish have been found as far downstream as Chelsea? This has been due to effective co-operation between existing authorities, the Thames Conservancy, the Greater London Council and the Port of London Authority. Are the new authorities so constituted as to have a built-in tendency to seek further improvement in the quality of the water in our rivers?

Mr. Walker

Yes, Sir, and the new authorities will bring into being in every part of the country the best methods of collaboration and co-operation between the sewerage authorities and river authorities that have existed in the past. They will also have a much greater ability to make the capital investments throughout the whole river system which are required.

Miss Quennell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we shall never succeed in satisfying the demands for water unless we encourage people to conserve water and to economise in the use of it? Will the new authorities have power to encourage the economical use of water?

Mr. Walker

Yes, the new authorities will have power to do everything they consider right in terms of the conservation of the water resources of this country.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

I propose to allow one more question from each side.

Mr. Simeons

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on hitting the nail on the head in terms of the greatest existing weaknesses. Those whom I see in the water cycle tell me that the proposal will help to conserve water and will, for the first time, advance the sewerage system without any political strings being attached, because there are no votes in sewerage. Secondly, they believe that technical resources will be concentrated. Instead of qualified people being scattered round the country in different authorities, some of which oppose each other, they will for the first time all be working for the same end. It will also remove the anomaly whereby the Upper Thame Sewerage Authority has to wear the hat of the authority concerned before action can be taken against anyone. Thirdly, the proposals also provide an extra career structure. There are no graduates in sewerage, and I hope that there will be. Lastly, the area structure will enable areas to work on different bases according to the needs of the rivers. I hope my right hon. Friend will bear in mind the water pollution research laboratories, which might be given the rôle of laying down the parameters of research so that there will be no overlapping as there is now.

Mr. Walker

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I agree that the proposals mean that resources will be much better employed in future. One of the most important aspects of my proposal is that it will underline to a much greater extent the principle that he who causes the pollution will pay the cost.

Mr. Denis Howell

The right hon. Gentleman's answers to supplementary questions confirm all our worst fears in respect of the canal system. He is wilfully destroying the British Waterways Board and setting up nothing in its place that will keep the canal system as a national entity. None of the measures he suggested for financing our canals will work to give a national network of canals. As for the water industry and its great need to double the supply of water for the people in 10 years, we regard the proposals and the right hon. Gentleman's answers today as an irrelevance. The Opposition cannot accept the proposals as a right or permanent solution.

Mr. Walker

From a purely party political point of view, I am delighted, first, that the hon. Gentleman was put up to speak on this topic, and, second, that he spoke as he did, because he will be judged by those who know anything about the matter to have spoken in pure, rather low-grade, party political terms. As to the canal system, I am perfectly willing to be judged by those who use the canals for amenity purposes on the improvements that take place.

Mr. Howell


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We should leave this subject now.

Mr. Howell

I think I am entitled to ask the Secretary of State whether he is aware that the views I expressed on the subject of water are those of most people in the British Waterworks Association, of a non-political character. The right hon. Gentleman's reply is not only inaccurate but unworthy of him.