HC Deb 02 August 1972 vol 842 cc693-728

10.14 p.m.

Sir Gilbert Longden (Hertfordshire, South-West)

Unlike the debate which has just concluded, the one that I am about to initiate does not concern a desperate human problem, and therefore it probably will be very much shorter, yet it is a matter which affects a much greater number of our fellow citizens, because it concerns their health and welfare.

I have sought to raise this question tonight simply because I have had more letters from my constituents about future rights of navigation on our canals and rivers than about any other single issue. The future of the whale runs a close second. As a lover of tranquillity and of our countryside, I am in strong sympathy with my correspondents.

The Government's objects in making the proposals contained in Circular 92 of last December were described in a later memorandum as being, first, to provide a more "appropriate" structure for our waterways—more appropriate, be it noted, than that provided only four years ago by the Transport Act, 1968—and, secondly, to give local interests a greater say in the operation and development of these facilities.

I think it only right at once to express my great appreciation of the pains taken by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment to consult anyone who has any interest in the matter. He invited over 80 such bodies to a conference on waterways which he arranged on 28th February this year, whose purpose was to examine the effect of the Government's proposals on sport and recreation and on the enhancement of urban and rural amenities as well as the promotion of inland water-borne commerce. My hon. Friend confirmed in answer to a Question on 9th February that the terms of reference of the conference would make it possible for people to advocate the complete separation of the control of navigation from the provision of water."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th February, 1972; Vol. 830, c. 1331.] That is what the dissentients essentially want to happen.

The announcement by my hon. Friend at the conference that Mr. John Humphries was to be appointed adviser to the Government on the leisure use of water space, with particular reference to canals was widely welcomed. There has been some welcome, too, varying in warmth, from some quarters for the proposals in so far as they affect water supply and sewerage. For example, the British Waterways Board fully support the proposals suggested, in so far as they relate to the reorganisation of water and sewage services; as they recognise the urgent need to deal with long-term prospects for water supply in this country and for maintaining and improving the quality of our rivers. There is indeed an urgent need to deal with the long-term prospects of water supply. Ten authorities in the place of 1,400 must be a step in the right direction.

The Board's main cause for dismay is that it is to be wound up with no recognisable national authority to take their place. The four local authority associations also consider that the omission of an effective national body —such as the National Water Authority suggested by the Central Advisory Water Committee— is a fundamental defect in the Government's proposals. Such a body is needed, they consider, to give advice to Ministers and the regional water authorities; to formulate a national plan for water services; and to co-ordinate research. They further consider that the detailed management of the water and sewage services should be carried out by the most appropriate democratically-elected bodies in the country, namely by local government, instead of by what they call remote and undemocratic authorities". They suggest that there should be at least a two-thirds representation from local authorities on the regional water authorities because water and sewerage systems are intimately linked with planning, housing, health and recreation. As the Wheatley Commission said: Few functions seem to belong more self-evidently to local government. These local authority associations evidently do not consider that local interests will have a greater say in these matters under the Government's proposals. In case my hon. Friend should mention consumer councils, may I say that there is an old saying which describes the three most useless things in the world. With the first two I will not sully your ears, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The third was the annual vote of thanks to the staff. Consumer councils are probably competing for the fourth.

I am concerned this evening mainly with the commercial and amenity aspects of our waterways and more especially with the latter. Here it would be true to say that no individual or body of individuals with any intimate knowledge or practical experience of using the waterways has a good word to say for the Government's proposals. It is this fact which must raise doubts in our minds as to their wisdom. On the commercial side, as my hon. Friend knows, or at any rate as his right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries knows, I am increasingly concerned about the dangers to health, life and to the roads themselves caused by the carriage of so much freight by heavy lorries. With more expenditure and encouragement much wider use could be made of alternative methods. It is true that a minimal percentage of goods is now carried by inland water. Even 6½ million tons a year taken off the roads is not to be despised.

The results of the researches of the British Waterways Board might have led to much greater use of the waterways. Now these researches into new means of water transport will presumably be lost. By the amenity side of the question I mean cruising, canoeing, fishing, walking along the towpath and camping. I cannot but agree with the Inland Waterways Association when it wrote in "Waterways Junction"—described by my hon. Friend as a most valuable contribution to the discussion— It is of the greatest importance that the authority in charge of the inland waterways should be keenly interested in developing them for the future. A body which merely maintains the status quo will not be sufficient. And later: There tends to be a basic conflict of interest between those who find pleasure on, or beside, water … and those who extract water, discharge effluent or operate flood controls. We do not believe that these conflicts will be best resolved if one authority is in overall control … particularly as the amenity and trade use will constitute less than 1 per cent. of the new regional water authorities affairs. For the sailor, the cruiser and the fisherman the security of maintenance is essential. I was shocked to read in the memorandum of the British Waterways Board that the Government would apparently view with equanimity that the statutory duty to maintain a waterway could be modified by a Minister if a regional water authority considered it too costly to maintain it for navigation. For these recreational purposes the waterways should surely be under single and separate control. Their day-to-day running requires specialised skills to cover such services as water control, lock repairs and safety, all of which need to be co-ordinated over wide areas to ensure the efficiency of the system as a whole. As "The Facts about the Waterways' wrote: lock-opening times, and lock maintenance stoppages need careful pre-arrangement and publication over a wide area to ensure the minimum of inconvenience, not only to craft but also from the point of view of the maintenance of industrial water supplies. It is true that Sections 104 and 105 of the Transport Act, 1968, will continue to impose on the regional water authorities the duty to maintain the commercial and cruising waterways in suitable navigable condition". But where is the sanction provided—unsatisfactory as it was in many ways, but better than nothing—by Section 106? What, or who, will guarantee the citizen's right of navigation over our canals and rivers as his right of passage over the Queen's highway is now guaranteed?

Although this was not an election pledge in that it was not in our manifesto, it was certainly our declared intention in opposition that there should once again be a public right of navigation; and it is not enough to say that because there do not seem to have been "difficulties in practice" since the 1968 Act no further action is necessary. As the British Waterways Board says in its memorandum: Without a public right of navigation, no one is in a position to complain —for example, against injury or damage, or failure to maintain, or refusal to allow navigation or business loss.

In practice and in law, the duty to repair and the right of navigation are indissoluble. Navigation is essential to prevent the disfigurement of, and to embellish, our countryside and to reduce the risk to public health. Many of the so-called remainder waterways should be reconditioned. As "The Facts about the Waterways" puts it, If only little bits here and there were left open, the situation would become static and the possibilities of growth correspondingly small. If a lot is kept open, it is reasonable to assume that over the years the revenue will significantly increase. I need not detain the House much longer. There are 16 more subjects to be discussed between now and tomorrow morning. I have conveyed to my hon. Friend all the submissions which I have received from my constituents and he has, I know, weighed each of them carefully and has been good enough to say that they have aided counsel.

In sum, canal lovers were beginning to feel that their future had never looked brighter. The old railway yoke had gone and the British Waterways Board was doing a good job. Local authorities were at last beginning to take an interest in and to spend a little money on their canals. Volunteer restoration movements were flourishing.

Rightly or wrongly, canal users believe that the new proposals will damp all that down. Canals are not only of local interest. Their users want to get somewhere—and preferably as fast as possible. I was therefore pleased when my hon. Friend wrote to me saying: We attach great importance to obtaining the greatest practicable recreational and amenity use from our water resources; and our plans are designed most specially to promote this". Perhaps he will be able tonight to tell us more as a result of the consultations which he has been having. If so, there will be no lack of interested hearers. If not, I would prefer to wait a little longer for the right answer than to get the wrong one now.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Ronald Russell)

Mr. Stoddart.

10.29 p.m.

Mr. David Stoddart (Swindon)

May I congratulate you, Sir Ronald, on your appointment and say that I deem it an honour to be the first Member called by you in your new rôle?

I was very interested in what the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Sir Gilbert Longden) said about canals. I have been specially interested in one canal and on a couple of occasions I have endeavoured to get the Minister to make a grant to the Kennet and Avon Canal as there are many people doing a great deal of work on this canal with a view to reopening it completely between Bath and London. They will be particularly worried by the Minister's proposals for water and sewerage reorganisation.

It seems to me that, by the doing away with the British Waterways Board, those people who want to restore the Kennet and Avon Canal will not have as much consideration as they are getting now—and they need a lot of consideration, as the Under-Secretary well knows. They need £600,000 to be able to restore the canal for recreational use throughout its whole length. Therefore, I should think the Kennet and Avon Canal Society and the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust will be extremely worried about these proposals, and I hope the Under-Secretary, when he replies, will give some attention to these matters and will let us know—and I have a particular interest in this waterway—exactly how the proposals will affect the people who are trying to restore a very good amenity for the people in its area.

I do not want to dwell too much on canals, and I do not want to detain the House for very long, but I must say that I am very concerned and very worried, as people in the country ought to be worried, about the proposals contained in the circular for reorganisation of water supplies and drainage. It seems to me that control of these services is to be removed from local government, from democratic control, to the control of grey men, administration men who are appointees of the Minister—in other words, the faceless ones, who will not be responsive and not be responsible to public opinion.

Over a long period of time the Government have been removing service after service from the control of local government, from democratic control, from control by elected men. To some degree the local authorities themselves have, perhaps, asked for it, because they have not moved with the times, they have not themselves done what is necessary, even though, to some degree, they have been invited to do so, although not compelled to do so, by successive Ministers. It would have been much better for water supply and conservation if local authorities had been prepared voluntarily to regroup in larger units. Many of them have done this, but all too many have not done it. Nevertheless, this is no case, and there is no case at the present time, for removing particularly distribution from democratic control and handing it over to an appointed body which, to a very large degree, will be under the control of the Minister, through people appointed by him.

Because, like other hon. Members, I have contacts with members of local authorities I know that they are incensed at the proposals, and incensed not only because control is being removed from them but also because of the disparity of treatment meted out to them and to the statutory water companies. They see no reason why the statutory water companies should be allowed to continue on an agency basis when the local authority organisation will ultimately be swept away.

They have also noted that the Minister's proposal is quite inconsistent. He has said that the present system of organisation is inadequate and that there is need to bring the full hydrological cycle under one management, but that is not in keeping with what he intends to do. He intends to take away the management from local authorities, but to leave part of the management within the control of the statutory water companies.

I can only assume that the decision has been taken on a party political basis since it seems to make no reasonable sense in terms of unified management. The Minister will have to do a lot to convince local authorities that he is not discriminating against them and that he does not have some party political motive in allowing the statutory water undertakings to continue.

I was interested to read—and certainly the public will be most interested to hear this—that the idea of charging for water on a metered basis is being recommended by the Department of the Environment. If the proposal is enforced nationwide, it will have far-reaching effects on what the consumer pays and on how he uses water. I am not convinced that it is right to recommend such a course at this point in time.

It must be well known to the Minister and his advisers that to install meters for every consumer will be very expensive. It will cost £500 million to install meters initially, and then there is their maintenance, which will also be an expensive operation.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)

Is the hon. Gentleman ascribing that proposal to the Government? If he is, then he is quite wrong.

Mr. Stoddart

It is contained in paragraph 7 of the consultation paper: The timing of meter installation will be a matter for the judgment of the individual regional water authorities. The installation of meters in particular areas may be justified economically by their effect in reducing peak demands, for example for garden watering, or in making it possible to defer capital investment in new water sources or sewage treatment plant. This is what is proposed in the Government's consultation document.

Mr. Griffiths


Mr. Stoddart

The Minister says "No", but I recommend him to read this document.

Mr. Griffiths

I know the consultation document backwards. What the hon. Gentleman read out confirms my own recollection of it, namely that this is a matter for the judgment of individual water authorities in their own area and in their own circumstances.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

Is the Minister aware that the concluding sentence of paragraph 7 says: It is therefore apparent that universal metering is unlikely to be achieved for a considerable period of years and regional water authorities will be enabled to bring different consumers on to metering at different times."? Taking that sentence with the initial part of the document, will the Minister agree that it envisages some time in the future when there will be universal metering and that that will be the policy of the present Government?

Mr. Griffiths


Mr. Stoddart

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) for his support on that point.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

It is rubbish.

Mr. Stoddart

The hon. Gentleman says that it is rubbish. I do not know whether he has read the document. My reading of it is that there is a distinct invitation to the regional water authorities to change the present basis of charging for supplies to a metered basis. The document goes as far as saying not only that the water supply end should be metered but also that the effluent end should be metered. There is a direct invitation for the proposed regional water authorities to do this.

Mr. Wiggin

The hon. Gentleman is on a very important point but he has hold of the wrong end of the stick. Very many small consumers would strongly welcome the introduction of metering. For a long time many of us have pressed the Government to investigate this matter. The Government are so doing in Malvern, which for many years has had a wholly metered supply. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has received letters from single people who feel that it is quite wrong the rateable value of their premises should be used as the yardstick for the amount of water they consume. This is a very complex matter. To draw the conclusion that it would necessarily be more expensive is wrong.

Mr. Stoddart

If the hon. Gentleman had allowed me to develop my argument he would have come to realise that I fully appreciate the point he made, and that there probably is a case for a change in the present charging system. But metering is not necessarily the right approach. Metering will be an extremely expensive operation. It will cost £500 million. One way or another, that has to be paid by the consumer. The Department's estimate of £500 million to instal meters initially is contained in the consultation document. The maintenance of these meters is expensive, as the Minister knows. Water meters are not in the same category as electricity or gas meters, and they need much more maintenance. Therefore, it will be an expensive operation. With yet another meter reader calling at every house, costs will escalate considerably. On that basis alone, the Minister is beginning at an early stage to give wrong advice to the regional water authorities.

Sir Gilbert Longden

How does the hon. Gentleman suggest that the rapidly diminishing quantities of water which have to serve a rapidly increasing population shall be rationed unless by meter?

Mr. Stoddart

I am not at all sure that supplies of water are rapidly diminishing. It may well be that they are rapidly being wasted. Undoubtedly there is a need for a water conservation policy and a need for the regional water authorities to be set up for water conservation. I am not quarrelling with that at all. I am quarrelling with the Minister's failure to recognise that it is possible to set up regional water authorities for water conservation and overall general water policy without at the same time doing away with local government's democratic involvement in the supply of water by not allowing it to have a rôle in water distribution and sewerage. Many people, particularly in local authorities, believe that this is possible.

I accept that there is a need for water conservation and ensuring that water gets from one place to another in the most efficient way, reaching the consumers who need and use it. I also accept that there is a need to see that people do not waste water. However, this can probably be done to a large degree by other than the expensive means of installing water meters.

For example, if we wanted another system, we could charge for water on the basis of the number of bedrooms in a house. This would not involve meter charges. In that way we could prevent the country from being saddled with a cost of £500 million which will be borne by the consumers. This is not the only way that water can be charged for while at the same time helping to conserve supplies and to prevent people from wasting water. I sincerely hope that the Minister will have many thoughts on this matter and give it rather more attention than he has done hitherto.

I have been a member of a water board for many years. Some years ago the Thames Valley Water Board considered whether it should charge through meters for water supplies. It came to the conclusion that it would involve its consumers in unjustified expense and that there were other means of charging than installing water meters.

I sincerely hope that the Minister will have a long look at the problem to see whether there are other means of ensuring that water is conserved and that people do not waste water, at the same time saving the country this enormous cost of £500 million and the recurring cost of maintenance, meter reading and billing charges. Industry has too many overhead charges thrust upon it. I believe that this is an overhead charge which we can prevent being thrust on the water supply industry.

I urge the Minister, before the Bill is published, to consider the position of local authorities and their members. I lay great emphasis on democratic control and the participation of elected members of local authorities in this service which, after all, has largely been under their control for a long time. There is a great deal of feeling in the country about this matter. The Minister should listen very closely and act on what is said, because it will be to the benefit not only of himself but of local democracy and of water consumers generally.

10.49 p.m.

Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Derbyshire, West)

I agree with the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. David Stoddart) on one thing—in congratulating you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on taking the Chair. I hope you have a long tenure of office. I also agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need for the reorganisation of our water resources, but that is about as far as I go in agreeing with him.

On the two main points—political interference in the reorganisation of water resources, and the installing of water meters, which is a small point, the hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. I entirely agree with the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) on that matter. The hon. Gentleman is misrepresenting the case. The Government have not put forward the proposal the hon. Gentleman suggests. The hon. Gentleman is deliberately misconstruing what has been said so as to cause trouble.

Mr. David Stoddart


Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Yes he is. So is the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing).

Mr. Spearing rose

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

No, I shall not give way. Let me finish what I am trying to say, otherwise it will not make sense. The hon. Member for Swindon is trying to saddle the Government with a £500 million bill for the installation of water meters, but that is not the Government's suggestion. The Government are giving the option in a consultative document to regional authorities to install meters in future if so required. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there will be many local government representatives on the boards who will be appointed by my right hon. Friend. If it so wishes, a board would be able to install meters over the years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare is right. My postbag also contains a great many letters from people living on their own who are complaining bitterly about the existing system of water rate charges. They would prefer to have a metered supply. In other areas people would prefer not to have meters. But the matter will be decided by the regional authorities. It will be their decision, not the Government's. The Government are giving the option.

As for the suggestion of the hon. Member for Swindon of charging per bedroom, is he going to charge on the acreage of gardens or some other "equitable" system? The whole thing is ridiculously stupid and not worth considering. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene, it will be convenient if he does so now.

Mr. Stoddart

I take it hard that the hon. Gentleman should accuse me of wanting to make trouble and that I quoted figures merely to cause trouble. Why the hon. Gentleman should think that I want to cause trouble for the water consumer or the Minister, I do not know. My concern, which I thought I made plain, was that the water consumer should not be saddled with a charge which is mentioned in the consultative document. In that respect I was trying to make no trouble for the Minister. I was merely asking the Minister to use his good offices to prevent the consumer from being saddled with that sort of charge.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

The hon. Gentleman has deliberately misrepresented the situation, which I have tried to explain. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Acton are trying to cause anxiety amongst the population, not only on the meter issue but by alleging that democratic control, as the hon. Member for Swindon puts it, will be abolished. That is not true. The hon. Gentleman should read the statement which my right hon. Friend made in the House. My right hon. Friend said: 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 he appointed by local government."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd December, 1971; Vol. 827, c. 677–8.] The hon. Gentleman should not pursue his line of attack too far. If he does so, he will act to the detriment of himself and his party. The matter should, as far as is possible, be taken out of the political arena.

Mr. Spearing

Hear, hear.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene, I shall be delighted to give way. If he does not, I suggest that he should not try to intervene from a sedentary position.

Mr. Spearing

I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps he misheard me. I said, "Hear, Hear". I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not appreciate my support of his last statement, which I will enlarge upon later.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

If the hon. Gentleman makes interventions from a seated position, clearly it is difficult to understand whether he is saying "Hear, Hear" or "No, No." I am delighted to hear that he was agreeing with me.

The point made by the hon. Member for Swindon about statutory water authorities is causing great anxiety throughout the country over the question why they are being asked to continue to act in an agency capacity for the regional autho- rities and not the municipal undertakings. I join the congratulations of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Sir Gilbert Longden) on the Minister's long consultations with the various authorities concerned. Nevertheless, anxiety on this issue remains and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to go some way towards resolving it. The position seems somewhat strange.

I have been worried about water resources for several years, having moved into an area of scarcity compared with the situation of the West Country where I used to be. In Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Sheffield—indeed, in Yorkshire—where we are great consumers of water, we are in some difficulty. Although there is a certain amount of reservoir capacity in the Pennines and the Peak park area, it is not and will not be sufficient for the coming years. I do not think there will be an actual shortage of water, but there is without doubt considerable anxiety in that part of the East Midlands that in years to come—and not so far ahead—there will be difficulty and, indeed, even rationing of water, unless something is done. This is why I welcome the reorganisation of our water resources.

Last session, I introduced a private Member's Bill concerning the need to set up an authority in Wales which would sell water to the English authorities, the money to be used for the benefit of the people of Wales. I am delighted now to see that there is to be a Welsh authority and I hope that the idea which I outlined in that Bill will be adopted. The basic need is to be able to switch water from west to east over the Pennines. It is a vital necessity for the East Midlands and, indeed, the West Midlands. I once held ministerial responsibility for this and it amazed me even in the early 1960s that we did not have arrangements for the allocation of money to meet such need. I hope that under the new set-up as soon as possible money will be allocated for the establishment of a national grid or network.

Mr. Wiggin

Will my hon. Friend reconsider his statement about the selling of Welsh water? This has been a matter of political dispute in Wales for many years. It is an argument which can be carried to an absurd degree. If we allow the new regional water authority in Wales to contemplate selling Welsh water to the rest of the United Kingdom, all sorts of other implications could follow. It would be very dangerous.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I accept that there is that anxiety. When I introduced my Bill, the situation was different, however. The new authorities had not then been announced. I cannot, therefore, go all along with my hon. Friend. I understand that once one institutes the selling of water by one authority to another, there is no point at which one can say, "Stop. We shall not sell water to Humberside or from the dales of Yorkshire", for example. The Government and the new authorities will have to deal with the situation and to think carefully before coming to a decision. It is not for me to make a decisive judgment. Obviously, what my hon. Friend said must be borne carefully in mind. We go on from there to the situation in the Peak National Park and other national parks throughout the country where there are many reservoirs and enormous trouble is caused by the number of reservoirs being set up or intended, and their use of agricultural land.

I shall not labour the point, but this is an extremely difficult issue and I do not think we can go much further on the line of taking good land for reservoirs when there is, or should be, sufficient water in Wales or the West Country where rainfall is much higher. If there were proper conservation, and if switching facilities existed, there should be no need for extra reservoir facilities on the spine of England or in the eastern part of the country. I am glad that the amenity use of reservoirs is highlighted in the document issued by my right hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend is aware that there are anxieties. The hon. Member for Swindon and others have underlined that there are anxieties. Local authorities and others have anxieties about the proposed new set up. The NFU is also particularly anxious and the issue of inland drainage authorities is causing extreme anxiety to those authorities and to the people who live in those areas. I shall not dwell on that tonight because my hon. Friend is well seized of it. There must be further consultation on those points, but nobody is satisfied with them at present.

My final point on organisation concerns the areas which have been decided. My right hon. Friend has decided there should be 10 areas in Great Britain, and accomplishing this means that one area is to be joined with another to include Severn and Trent. This is a huge area, stretching from the Severn and Wales in the west to the east coast of Lincolnshire.

I should warn my hon. Friend that I have talked to nobody in my part of the world in the East Midlands—I underline, in my part of the world—whether it be the farming community, the local authority or the ordinary citizen, my constituent, who believes that this will be a Rood amalgamation or that it is a reasonable and proper area or one which can be reasonably controlled or can give reasonable access to my constituents within the area. It is an enormous area including Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, running right across to the Severn basin and catchment area.

I understand the need for administrative tidiness but in this case my right hon. Friend has taken it one stage too far. These are separate catchment areas, with a line drawn between them, and purely on the question of moving from 10 to 11 areas, my right hon. Friend should have more consultations and negotiations with those concerned. If he does that he will learn the strength of feeling of which I have heard and will come to a new conclusion.

I am certain, however, that what is done in principle is right. I do not believe that the political implications are such that democratic control will not work adequately and well.

There are many matters and many minor issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West mentioned that of waterways and canals. There will be others later, such as inland drainage, but unless we are to be short of water in some areas we shall be in the greatest difficulty if action is not backed by adequate finance.

11.5 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

I think that the whole House is grateful to the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Sir Gilbert Longden) for winning fifth place in the ballot for this series of debates—not only the House, but the public as a whole. Although there have been two major reports and a whole series of consultation papers on water reorganisation, this is the first time that the House has been given an opportunity to debate it without a time limit, although we all know that other important debates are to follow.

I cannot agree that consultation in this matter has been sufficient or necessarily good. Although it has its place, the spoken word at a conference is not necessarily better than a properly written document properly circulated to the customary authorities together with Green and White Papers, and we have not had the last two.

I, too, have considerable misgivings about the breaking up of the Water Resources Board, and I agree that the proposed National Water Council is no substitute. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. David Stoddart) that these proposals amount to a substitution of Whitehall autocracy for local democracy. Despite what the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) said about the need for a national organisation, the end of the Water Resources Board is the ending of a fine national organisation serving the ends of which he spoke.

I am interested in this subject as a member of the Inland Waterways Association, as a vice-chairman of the River Thames Society and as a user of water in many aspects which are under discussion. I know that the Under-Secretary has many responsibilities, but I hope that if tonight he is unable to answer all the questions that I intend to put, he will endeavour to do so in correspondence, for there are many people who want to know the answers to many questions.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, West spoke about party controversy. In the House there is a fairly clear distinction between matters of public importance generally that are not matters of party political difference, res publica, public affairs, where there is general agreement about criteria, and matters where there is a difference of party interest. I should have thought that water supply was a matter that everybody would agree was apart from party attitudes.

I should have thought that we could all agree about public accountability in this respect, believing that there was an obligation on any Government properly to explain their proposals, especially when one would not expect party controversy. I should have thought that water supply was a good candidate for this class of subject. There is a wide measure of agreement about it and many of the Acts about it have been non-party measures. The first Standing Committee on which I served had a wide measure of agreement on this subject.

There is a great national feeling for the environment and about pollution. Water supplies, the inspection of water, ownership and navigation rights and so on are mainly in the hands of public authorities, many of them local authorities. With all that in mind, one would have thought that we could have a non-party debate.

Unfortunately, that does not seem to be so. There have been a number of illogicalities in the Government's proposals which some people have rather naughtily suggested—perhaps not naughtily but with some justification—to be the result of the Government making party political twists. I am not necessarily making that charge, but prima facie there is a case for it, as I hope the House will see as I proceed.

There are at least nine major functions which water fulfils and in which it plays a fundamental part. There is domestic water and domestic effluent. There is industrial water supply, some of which needs to be potable and some of it not; and there is industrial effluent. There is land drainage, flood prevention and the supply of water for electricity generation cooling. There is the recreational aspect of water, including in particular angling. There is also lazing by the water, and walking by the water. There is navigation, recreational and commercial. There are fisheries, as distinct from angling—because of the commercial nature of the activity—and in certain parts of the country there is use of water for the supply of power.

We have nine major functions for water courses, and two minor ones. I should have thought that it was clear that trying to isolate each of these functions and applying the conventional "account book business style administration" was virtually impossible. If one were to try to calculate to a nicety the exact amount of costs which are applicable to one function or the other, one would soon end up in an accountant's nightmare. The obvious thing is to say that water plays a vital function. We require pure water rather more frequently than we require food to keep us alive. The whole organism of a city like London depends basically on good water and good drainage. There are certain functions which are essential to public and industrial life, and if we pay for these as a basic fundamental service and we can get something else for it as well, let us use that extra facility.

The Thames Conservancy has worked on this basis for over a century, and it is a pity that the Thames Conservancy is nearing the end of its days. Consider the locks. If there were no navigation for recreation on the Thames, the locks would still be necessary. The Thames Conservancy would have to maintain its weirs and it would still have to dredge. It would need heads of water. It would need the locks for its own traffic. They are there as an essential part of the equipment. It may be that there is an additional cost involved when the locks are used for other purposes, but it is basically a marginal affair.

Water is a fundamental feature of our landscape and our public life, and I should have thought that we ought to consider it in that way. But the Government in their Circular do not look at it in that way.

Another thing which the Government have not done and which one might have expected in their water reorganisation proposals is to follow the past practice of securing the participation of this House in considering these proposals. The Central Advisory Water Committee in its report of February, 1971, recommended that there be a Green Paper on this complex and important subject. We have had no Green Paper. I have asked the Secretary of State for the Environment, who has more or less discovered the environment and talks a lot about it and about rivers, whether we shall have a White Paper setting out the Government's intentions in this matter after their consultations. Alas, in an answer to a Written Question and in a later supplementary reply, no such undertaking has been given.

How is it possible to have consultation unless one knows what the Government are going to do? How is it possible to have in this House proper scrutiny of a Bill, which is a highly technical legal document, unless the objectives in the Bill are set out properly in a White Paper? I should have thought that on an important matter like this, just as we had a health services White Paper yesterday, we should be told where the Government are going. But it does not look as though we shall get a White Paper. This is a major breakdown in the democratic process, and it is a comment on the way in which the Government view this House and its Members. The Government's attitude is reflected in the way in which they have gone about this whole matter.

As I said, the Central Advisory Water Committee reported in December, 1971, but its terms of reference did not include navigation and did not include the canals. The terms of reference were to consider … how the functions relating to water conservation, management of water resources, water supply, sewerage, sewage disposal and the prevention of pollution now exercised by local authorities, public water undertakings and sewerage and sewage disposal authorities can best he organised; and to make recommendations". Nothing about navigation, and nothing about the British Waterways Board or any of the other matters which have been brought into the re-organisation proposals.

On 2nd December, we had an Appendix to the circular—not a Green Paper—and a statement in the House by the Secretary of State in which he said that the canals will be brought in. He said that this was as a result of a suggestion in the CAWC Report. I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell us where it is, because I cannot find it. It may, perhaps, have been in a footnote. But how the Secretary of State could justify that statement in his circular when it was not within the terms of reference of the CAWC Report, using that as his excuse when, in fact, it was not there, is beyond my understanding, and a lot of other people's, too.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon mentioned the apparent anomaly of allowing the water companies to remain, whereas the municipal undertakings are, in effect, nationalised. This also is an illogicality There is a strong case for leaving both as agencies for administration and management. In my view, there could in addition be proper control of the catchment area river basin concept by a highly specialised team with teeth. This is quite possible, and I find it surprising that it has not been looked into in greater detail.

The announcements, when they came in December, 1971, were a bombshell and did not seem to have any reasoning behind them. We did not have the Green Paper which was expected.

The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West referred to the appointment, as adviser to the Government on inland waterways, of Mr. John Humphries, for whom I have every respect as, I believe, has everyone who has met him. But is it not unusual for the Government to appoint the chairman of the Inland Waterways Association, one of their greatest amenity critics, to advise them on canal matters, after they have decided what to do with the canals—or so they say? Either it means that they did not know much about canals when they issued their circular, or they have discovered now that they know less than they thought and they need more advice. They cannot have it both ways.

In reply to an Adjournment debate on the commercial use of waterways on 3rd March, the Under-Secretary of State used this phrase: There is no question of breaking up the waterways."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd March, 1972; Vol. 832, c. 995.] If there is no question of breaking up the waterways, why all the letters going to the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West? I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell us that the phrase means that he has accepted in essence proposals made by the Inland Waterways Association in its excellent memorandum, "Waterways Junction". It is possible to retain a unified canal network for management purposes while still not trespassing on the important functions of each regional water authority. I should have thought that there was a way round the problem, as the Inland Waterways Association has already suggested, and I hope that the Minister will give us some clue tonight whether that is a possibility.

Now, the question of finance, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon referred. We are often told at Question Time that more money will be available for waterways, more than the £2 million which the Exchequer gives to the British Waterways Board at the moment. This sum could easily be shown to be worthwhile in the land drainage function alone, for which not very much is given.

The financial consultation paper to which my hon. Friend referred is commercial in the extreme. It shows clearly that the regional water authorities will be run with a scrupulous eye on efficiency in the account book sense. This, no doubt, is why the suggestion of metering was brought in.

There will be cost allocations and performance comparisons, and all the sort of jargon that we get nowadays from firms which are selling relatively simple commodities such as chocolate. That may be all right for chocolate or biscuits, or if a firm is trying to sell a new produce to the housewife, but it is not necessarily the right way to run the accounts of multi-purpose regional water authorities. One cannot compare the "performance" of different regional water authorities with their different natural inheritances and different organisations which they have taken over, at least for accounting purposes. I do not believe that it can be done.

It is right to have one bill for water services which includes fresh water and disposal when it is contaminated, and if there is to be metering the relative cost will be halved because it will be metering sewage as well as water, but I hope that when the Minister replies he will assure us that this is not the only way in which the Government will look upon the charging of water.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, West poured scorn upon my hon. Friend for suggesting the number of bedrooms in the house as a possible method for charging, but the number of bedrooms in a house does not often change. Once that is fixed as a ratio, it goes on for as long as the building remains the same. If there is metering, one has to bill for each period and do all these calculations.

There should be metering or some alternative charge other than a flat rate where consumption goes up, but not necessarily the blanket formula as implied in this financial consultation paper.

The most important thing from the point of view of the public, apart from the charge, is the question where the extra money is to come from for amenity and navigation. We have heard time and again that more money will be available, but I cannot see anything in the consultation paper about where it will come from.

The next matter to which I wish to refer is the constitution of the regional water authorities. This has already been touched on by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West, who rightly said that local authority nominees will be a substantial proportion of the regional water authorities. But they will not be a majority, and it is made clear in this document that the number will be very small—about 15 to 20. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, West disagrees. I think that that will be so, and perhaps the Minister will confirm it.

It means that the share of each lower-tier authority will be very small. The Minister gets over this by saying that there is a consultative council—and I shall come to that in a moment—but the people who will be on these regional water authorities will be cast in somewhat of a commercial mould. Paragraph 7, which is entitled "Constitution" says that the members will therefore have to be selected on their capacity for providing management of the requisite calibre". They are not necessarily going to be the managers in detail. I think that the detail managers will be the professional operators, not the lay members. These members will be appointed part time by the Minister, with possibly a full-time or semi full-time chairman, and I should not have thought that that was necessarily the sort of member that we have always had. There is a parallel here with the health authority situation about which the House was unhappy. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us that it will not necessarily be the case that these members will be drawn predominantly from the private sector of industry, as they will have greater expertise in the type of management he has written into this document.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman talked about a model form of constitution for each of these regional water authorities. A model form implies that it is to be copied irrespective of the geographical nature of the regional water authorities. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, West rightly said that one of these proposals is for the joint Severn and Trent catchment area authority. That sort of area authority need a fundamentally different sort of constitution from that for an authority such as the Thames Valley authority which is relatively small and at least based on large existing organisations. The concept of a model constition for a regional water authority is not realistic. The different geographical centres of the river basins and the historic nature of the groups and organisations to be taken over suggest that, far from having a model structure, we need a tailor-made structure for each case. I hope that the Minister will be able to give assurances on that.

I come to the vexed matter of the advisory councils. We are told that each regional water authority will have an advisory council. There was a water reorganisation consultation paper on that subject, but it said that recreation and transport were omitted because we had not had the consultation papers on the British Waterways Board. That is a most unfortunate omission.

Is it suggested in the document that the advisory councils shall be appointed by the local authorities and the recreational interests concerned? No. The suggestion is that they shall be appointed by the Minister. Thus, we have not only the majority of members of the authorities appointed by the Minister but also the people who are checking them on behalf of the public.

I have no doubt that the Minister will look to the sports councils or the nature conservancy groups and so on to nominate people. But if a person owes his position on a committee to appointment by the Minister—though it cannot be done by the Minister personally; it is a system of patronage and nomination—that inevitably has an effect on what he says and how he goes about his job. If he says something that the Minister does not like, he may not be reappointed, and if he is not reappointed, how can he properly represent on a consumer council the views of the people at the receiving end? Not only are we getting away from local government, but the people who are to check these new management giants are nominated by the Minister. Many people will laugh at this view of public participation by ministerial appointment.

I asked Questions about the circulation of the consultation paper on public participation, and the Minister was kind enough on 25th April in Written Answers to give me the list of non-statutory organsations to which it had been sent. They included my own society, the River Thames Society, but the secretary had had to ring up the Department to get it. I had assumed that the Sports Council would be among the statutory organisations, because it plays an important part in recreation. Each of the regional sports councils has a water recreation sub-committee drawn from all the people in the area concerned with water recreation.

On 19th July I asked the hon. Gentleman what replies he had received from these sports councils, and he replied that only the Yorkshire and Humberside Sports Council had submitted comments. I am not surprised, because my information is that the sports councils did not receive the document. They are among the major bodies we might expect to receive it. I had assumed that they would, because I had assumed that the Sports Council was a statutory body. Perhaps it is not. Something has gone seriously wrong. The Greater London and South-East Sports Council had not seen the paper until very recently, when I drew it to its attention.

Far from there having been the sort of consultation that we have heard about, I should say that consultation, even on the public participation paper, has gone somewhat adrift—an ironic situation.

There is another consultation paper on safeguards for the staff. I shall not go into it in detail, because it is a professional matter. Safeguards for the staff of the organisations that are to disappear or be amalgamated with other organisations are very important. At least the future of those engaged in activities connected with water and sewerage is secure, because those activities will still be with us. But that is true only up to a point because the nature of the private empires or vast organisations into which they will go is not yet known. There is the matter of seniority and prospects and all the rest.

However, there are two important public bodies which will disappear, the British Waterways Board and the Water Resources Board. We have had no consultation paper issued yet about the future of either of these important bodies. I do not have to tell the House that if a man hears in December, 1971, that an organisation is to disappear, this has an effect on his attitude to his work. Many of these employees, nearly all of them, working for these important national bodies which have been operating with conspicuous success in the last five years or so, know that their future is no longer with the organisations.

They have not yet been told what will happen to the functions of these organisations because we have not had a consultation paper. I asked when we would have such a paper about the Water Resources Board on 21st April and I received a reply saying that such a paper would be issued shortly. I asked again on 26th July and again was told "shortly." Here we are, nearly at 3rd August, and we still have not had it. The effect upon the staff, of course, is serious. I suggest that if any private organisation looked upon its staff like this there would no doubt be industrial trouble. For the life of me I cannot think why the hon. Gentleman or his right hon. Friend have been so dilatory in dealing with this. I will not talk about that now because these matters have been covered by the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West.

I want to deal with the Water Resources Board. Time and again hon. Members have emphasised that water is a national property, and so it is. The Board has worked with conspicuous success over the last few years. It may well have set a pattern for the world. It has brought together a great deal of technical expertise, it has had a balance of advice and powers with teeth and it has gained a great reputation. Now it is to disappear. Its functions are to be taken over in each area by the regional water authorities. When they try to work out the national plan, to whom do they turn? I suppose only to the Department of the Environment and only to the Minister who acts as a referee, among all his many other duties. I know that the hon. Gentleman will know what I mean when I say that he has to deal with four or five problems simultaneously. I do not believe that the Minister or any Ministry is suited to this rôle.

To break up the Board in an age when, world wide, we talk about pollution and the conservation of resources seems to be an act of indescribable folly. Even if it is not technical folly, it seems to be political folly. There has been no explanation, no consultation paper. If the hon. Gentleman reads the previous annual reports of the board he will realise that his proposal will bring condemnation from scientists from all over the world, if not in this country. All politicians will be tarred with the same brush and accused of arrogance and ignorance in an area about which the British public and the public throughout the world is particularly sensitive.


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

Order. I must draw the hon. Member's attention to the fact that Mr. Speaker has made repeated appeals for hon. Members to keep their speeches within bounds which will permit discussion for no fewer than 12 debates which are to follow this one. If an hon. Member occupies the Floor for half an hour or more it is obviously not possible for other important subjects to be debated.

Mr. Spearing

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for mentioning something of which I was not aware, because I was not here when Mr. Speaker mentioned this.

I will put my final question to the hon. Gentleman. When he replies, will he mention what has happened to the recommendations of the Second Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution concerning Section 12 of the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act 1961? He has issued a consultation paper related to this but that does not make it clear whether the Government are accepting the recommendations of the Royal Commission. I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker and to the House for apparently taking up rather more time than is generally necessary in this sort of debate. In one sense, however, I make no apology. This debate should not have been necessary. Every point I have made on the consultation papers had to be made, and if the Government had gone about the matter in the right way this debate would not have been necessary.

I apologise to the House for the length of my speech, but I hope that it realises why it was necessary. I am sure that many people will read the reports of this debate with great interest.

11.35 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)

The debate has been characterised by two types of speech. First, we had the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Sir Gilbert Longden), who devoted himself mainly to one subject, and covered it well and succinctly. During the last half hour we have been treated to a speech by the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) which was full of knowledge, I concede, but which attempted to cover the whole of the water front, making it impossible for me to deal with all the points which the hon. Gentleman raised and which it would be, in my judgment, selfish of me to try to answer since many other hon. Members wish to deal with other subjects. I will gladly write to the hon. Gentleman and deal with many of the points that he properly raised, but I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not follow him into all the highways and byways or, should I say, lagoons and tributaries up which he sought to take us.

The debate is about the reorganisation of water and sewerage services, but my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West dealt primarily with the canals. However, I am sure that he will accept that I must deal with some of the other points raised, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins).

May I first say why the Government felt it right to introduce these radical and extensive proposals for the reorganisation of water and sewerage services? First, we are in the process of the reorganisation of local government, and in 1974 many local authorities which now administer water and sewerage services will either cease to exist or will be amalgamated with others. It is therefore necessary to decide how those services at present rendered by those authorities shall be managed in future. It was for that reason that the last Government, quite rightly, set up the Central Advisory Water Committee to offer advice on the future. Its report was published last year, and our proposals for reorganisation of the water services are, in large part, the Government's response to the recommendations it made in the light of local government reform.

But the second and much more important reason why we are putting forward our proposals is that something not far short of a water resources crisis could arise unless we take urgent action to prevent it. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West, who speaks with great knowledge on this subject, is fully aware of that. For far too long we have taken our water for granted, as something which just happens whenever we turn on the tap. We are also inclined to take sewage disposal for granted, despite the fact that getting rid of our wastes, industrial and domestic, is becoming steadily more difficult and expensive.

The essential point requiring reorganisation is that the demand for water is growing very fast. We consume approximately 50 gallons per head per day. Within 30 years or less, we shall need 100 gallons per head per day. Yet our water resources are limited. As a small and densely populated island, we have fewer untapped water supplies in proportion to our numbers than any country in Europe save only Malta and Holland. It therefore follows that we must use and re-use our limited water supplies much more efficiently. We need to go in, as my hon. Friend said, for more water transfer. We need to develop new sources of ground water, perhaps desalination if that should prove feasible. We need, above all, to clean our rivers so that we may drink much more of the water which already has been used before.

When we look at the water resources of this country I think we must accept that re-use of water will be more and more essential if our people are to have enough to drink. Already there are a number of water undertakings in this country where demand from consumers exceeds the reliable yield from their present sources—East Anglia is one example—and at any time, even in a wet summer like this, there is risk that a long dry spell could lead to water shortages in those areas, producing restrictions on industry, and, ultimately, hazards to health. Indeed, by 1980, on present resources, and given present-day trends in demand, these risks could exist not merely in certain areas but over large parts of the country. I think it only right that I should give the House fair warning of that possibility.

It is to meet this situation of demand outstripping supply that the Government have developed a comprehensive new water strategy which, essentially, has four main elements. One of them is money. In England alone the Government are committed to a quite massive injection of capital expenditure in water services—no less than £1,450 million over the next five years—and this vast expenditure represents at constant prices an increase of nearly 50 per cent. over that of the previous five years.

The second element is pollution. We hope—indeed, we expect—to be able to clean up our main rivers by the early 1980s, and we are already making good progress. The first volume of the Pollution of Rivers Survey recorded great and, I think, gratifying progress. There has been a substantial reduction in the mileage of grossly polluted rivers and a welcome increase in the lengths of clean rivers. I need refer only to the River Thames, where the return of fish is one demonstration of the progress which is being made. Volume II of the Pollution Survey, which will be published later in the year, shows that this progress is being more than maintained and that some of our dirtiest rivers, for example the Trent and the Tame, are responding well to the heavy investment which is being made in new sewerage works, but if we are to obtain potable water from our rivers we need now to go further and faster.

That is why over recent months we have set out our proposals for further action against pollution of our watercourses. We expect to bring under full control the discharge of effluents to the sea and tidal estuaries and to introduce sterner control of all activities which may pollute underground water, and new precautions against accidental pollution of ground and surface water such as happened a few days ago in the Stour River. We are also now committed to bringing all discharges of trade effluents to sewers under full control.

Money is, therefore, available and so are our proposals to protect the quality of the water in our rivers, but that is not enough. We also need better organisation, and that is the third dimension of our policy.

The crucial point is that all the interlocking problems of water and sewerage services need to be looked at together over extensive areas. Perhaps I may give one small personal example. One of the tasks I was set by the Secretary of State was to seek ways and means of assisting the Mersey and Weaver River Authority to clean up the great Mersey Estuary. I went to Liverpool and called a meeting of all those local authorities which put effluent and domestic sewage into the estuary. We needed Liverpool Town Hall to accommodate them. There were more than 100 separate local authorities which attended that meeting, all of which had separate priorities and different approaches to the sewerage problems of the Mersey. One authority would say that it would clean up its effluent only after the next-door authority had cleaned up its effluent.

What is apparent from dealing with this problem is that in attempting to clean a river system or estuary, it is necessary to have a comprehensive plan on which all concerned, both on the sewerage and on the water supply side, will work together to a common theme. That is the rationale of the water reorganisation proposals we put forward.

We plan large, all-purpose regional water authorities. This follows the unanimous recommendation of the Central Advisory Water Committee, whose 27 members represented all the various interests involved in the water industry. The regional water authorities will combine functions which are at present exercised by river authorities, by statutory water undertakers and by local authorities in their capacity as sewerage authorities. I confirm that a substantial proportion of the membership of each authority will be drawn from local government; the remainder will represent industry, agriculture, amenities, recreation and, of course, consumer interests.

At the same time we recognise that while the regional authorities would have to take over responsibility for sewage disposal, local authorities ought to retain local sewerage functions other than those which the regional water authorities need for the efficient discharge of their duties.

The hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. David Stoddart) had much to say about local authorities and the consultation documents in respect of possible charging for water. He rightly said that the consultation document refers, among other things, to the possibility of metering. But what the consultation document is bound to do is to set out the options. Metering was one of the options for consideration by future water authorities, to put in in their own areas if in all the circumstances they judge it to be appropriate. But the hon. Gentleman was wrong to suggest—and in so doing was misleading the House—that the Government had made up their minds on this matter and were seeking to impose metering on water authorities, the public or anybody else. A consultation document, by definition, sets out the options, and we are interested to learn the opinions of those who have read it—not least the opinion of the hon. Gentleman, whose views I have gladly noted.

Mr. David Stoddart

Do I take it that the hon. Gentleman is giving the assurance that the Government are not giving a lead, or trying to give a lead in any way to the regional water authority to insist on charging? Since the document apparently contained only suggestions, why did it not contain other suggestions as well—because that which I put forward was a perfectly legitimate one, despite the opinion which was expressed by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins).

Mr. Griffiths

The hon. Gentleman will know that a whole range of considerations about finance and the economics of the future regional water authorities is set out in great detail. The matter requires the fullest consideration. One of the whole series of options is metering, and it is proper, and indeed necessary, that the opinions of the water industry should be sought. We have taken note of their opinions and we shall take note of others. Indeed, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have taken careful note of the opinions he has expressed in this debate this evening.

There have been comments about the private statutory water companies and suggestions that the Government were inconsistent in their treatment of them. I do not accept that. The essential reasons why the private statutory water companies are to be retained are not only that they do a good job but that they are prepared to work more or less as agents of the new regional water authorities under effective arrangements made with them; and secondly, it would have been necessary to compensate those who own them and who, over the years, have invested in those companies a large sum of money. I can see no possible reason why the taxpayer should be asked to provide a very large sum, running into hundreds of millions of £s, to compensate the expropriation of statutory water companies which are doing a perfectly good job. It is entirely right that they should remain doing that job.

The municipal water companies are already in the public sector. There is no question of coining money in order to take them over. There is another essential difference in that the statutory water companies are perfectly prepared to act as agents of the regional water authorities where proper; but it is a very different thing to ask elective local authorities to serve only as agents of executive bodies arising in large part from the Secretary of State's appointment. Constitutionally, there is all the difference in the world in those two things.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West was concerned about canals. I shall quickly deal with the various important points he made. The Government have now committed themselves to making the widest possible use of not only our canals but all our water space—not merely for water supply, sewerage and drainage but as an environmental amenity and recreational asset. We have long since recognised the need to plan the use of our land. The time has now come to adopt a similar approach to our water space. We can do this by opening up much more widely the rivers, canals and reservoirs for the public's use and enjoyment. We can do it by developing all this water space, whenever it is appropriate, as a thing of amenity and beauty in town and country alike. It is also right that we should use our water space, wherever appropriate, as we have used our mountains and forests—as reserves of calm and quiet, where the wildlife of these islands is given the chance to survive.

This is what I would describe as the fourth dimension of our national water policy. The Government intend that far better use should be made of the rivers, canals, reservoirs and lakes, for the benefit of sport and recreation, conservation and amenity and, wherever appropriate, commerce. To help meet the tremendous demand for water recreation, it is our intention to make this a statutory duty upon the new water authorities. We shall shortly be circulating a further consultation paper describing how we intend this new policy to be applied.

Mr. Barry Jones (Flint, East)

Do I understand from the Minister's remarks that his Department intends to construct, for instance, a barrage across the Dee estuary?

Mr. Griffiths

If the hon. Gentleman can construe that from my remarks, he is a very good construer indeed.

The House will forgive me if tonight I simply indicate some of the specific points in the consultation paper.

First, under the aegis of the National Water Council there will be a new national body, the Water Space Amenity Commission, closely linked not only with the Regional Water Authorities but with the Sports Council and the Countryside Commission. This new body will promote the development of all forms of water space for amenity, recreation and navigation. One of its particular concerns will be the needs of pleasure cruising on the rivers and canals.

Secondly, whilst the regional water authorities will normally be expected to be financially self-supporting, we accept that there is a national interest involved in the general improvement of water amenities, and in particular in the preservation and development of waterways for navigational purposes. We therefore intend that substantially increased Government funds should be made available for these purposes.

Thirdly, the existing statutory classification of the waterways will be left intact. The regional water authorities will therefore have the same duties as the British Waterways Board now has to maintain them for commercial and cruising craft.

Fourthly, there is navigation. My hon. Friend, who dealt with navigation in some detail, knows as well as I that it would be possible for us to cross swords about all the complex legal issues. I hope he will simply accept from me now that it is the Government's intention that the forthcoming legislation shall contain clear rights for the public, in suitable craft and in a suitable manner, to navigate all those waterways classified as "commercial" and "cruising", and further that the regional water authorities shall, with safeguards made necessary by the practical limitations on the continuous maintenance of absolute standards, become responsible for maintaining the ability for these rights to be exercised. These rights will supplement the powers of enforcement provided by Section 106 of the 1968 Act which will be maintained with some minor adaptations.

I hope my hon. Friend will accept that there is a good deal of progress there and that it reflects the process of consultation we have been having with the interested parties—not least with the Inland Waterways Association. I am also conscious of the need to safeguard the interests of the staff, and they will be properly protected.

I should emphasise to the hon. Member for Acton that the canal system will not be fragmented. The canal classification system will he preserved and the duties associated with it will be imposed upon the regional water authorities. Freight carrying on the waterways will be developed wherever it makes sense to do it.

In conclusion, I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West for raising this important issue. My hon. Friend will understand that it is not possible in a short debate at night to deal with all the matters that have been raised. However, I assure him that I would not be a party to the policy that my Department has put forward and that my right hon. Friend is recommending to the House if I were not firmly convinced that it will mean a better deal for all those who cruise and enjoy sport and recreation on the waterways.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

Order. Before calling the hon. Member for Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones), I should draw to the attention of the House the fact that Mr Speaker has made an appeal for short speeches. I repeat that appeal in the interests of the 12 subjects which have still to be debated.