HC Deb 01 May 1973 vol 855 cc1155-61


11.30 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Jones

I beg to move Amendment No. 25, in page 13, line 9, after 'so', insert: 'by the local authority, by a parish or community council or'. This amendment relates to subsection (4), which provides that If any question arises under subsection (2) above whether or not a supply in pipes or a public supply can be provided at a reasonable cost in the area of a local authority … a request shall be considered by the Secretary of State if it is supported by 10 or more local government electors in the local authority area.

The purpose of the amendment is to provide similar grounds for the Secretary of State on representations from a district council, a parish or a community council.

Mr. Graham Page

I do not intend to gild the lily. My hon. Friend has ex- plained the purpose of the amendment and I ask the House to accept it.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Neil Marten (Banbury)

I beg to move Amendment No. 26, in page 13, line 12, at end insert: '() Where a community is served by spring water and the water authority proposes to supply that community with its water, the Secretary of State shall, if requested to do so by ten or more local government electors from that community who object to the proposal of the water authority, refer the proposal to an independent inquiry, the report of which shall be considered by the Minister before he determines the issue and instructs the water authority how to proceed'. I shall not speak for long, because the whole history of this matter was deployed in an Adjournment debate on 9th June last year, but I must briefly explain the background, otherwise the amendment will not make sense as an addendum. The question concerns the village of Chadlington, in my constituency. It is in a hilly area, and for many decades it has had the most beautiful spring water to drink. I have lived in the village and I can confirm that. But at the top of the village, at the top of the hill, a few houses had no adequate water pressure, and under the Act the water board had a duty to see that sufficient pressure reached the topmost room of the topmost house. This did not happen, so the board decided to put Chadlington on the mains, with water that had been distilled and filtered. Naturally, the villagers objected, and proposed a solution that would have worked, to get the pressure up to the topmost houses while remaining on the spring water supply.

But at that point, when that proposal looked as if it could have solved the whole problem, the water board said, "Your water from the spring, which has been with you and which the village has drunk for decades, is not pure". This looked like a secondary argument, so the village formed a committee and obtained samples of the water, and had great experts to examine it, and those experts said that the water was pure and fit to be drunk, but the experts for the water board said that it was not. There were two entirely opposite points of view, both sincerely held.

There was a slight suspicion—I do not say that the suspicion was rightly held— that the water board was using this as a means to get mains water laid on under pressure to the topmost houses. I was brought into the matter and I approached the Minister—the Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry—and said, "There is this division of opinion. I wonder whether you could appoint an inspector to hear both sides of the argument and come to a conclusion and advise you, the Minister. You can then say whether Chadlington should go on the water mains". To my surprise—and, I suspect, rather to the surprise of the Minister— it was found that under the legislation the Minister had no power to intervene in the matter. In the event, Chadlington was put on the water main but the village remained somewhat suspicious about whether the impurity of the water which was the reason given, was the real reason for that being done.

The purpose of the amendment is to cover cases such as that. I am sure that there will not be many such cases but, nevertheless, in the interests of people who live in villages such as Chadlington —and, after all, this is largely about water for people—the amendment should be accepted. Its purpose is largely to satisfy public opinion that the evidence has been properly heard, properly sifted and properly weighed and pronounced upon. It is not enough to say that there was a representative of Chadlington on the local water board, because under the new arrangements the representative on the water authority may come from nowhere near the village.

Secondly, I want to give people the right to have their say in a matter such as this. It is their lives and their water, and if they have for a long time drunk this excellent and beautiful water I do not see why they should not continue to do so.

Thirdly, I do not want the decision to be made by a water authority which would be judge in its own court in a case like this. I want the matter to be subjected to an inquiry by an inspector who will report to the Minister, and the Minister, having read all the evidence and the inspector's recommendations, will pronounce upon the matter. The people of a village such as Chadlington would be happy to accept the finding provided that the whole thing had been looked at fairly.

I have put in the amendment that if 10 or more local government electors from a community object to the proposal of the water authority the proposal should be referred to an independent inquiry and the report should then be considered by the Minister.

That is all that I have to say about the amendment. At this late hour I do not wish to detain the House any longer. I am proposing a simple thing. I do not think that it would do any harm if it were added to the clause, because I cannot believe that there are many more cases like this one. As one who has an interest in the rights of people, and particularly in their right to enjoy the water they like, I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to accept this simple and harmless amendment. I think that he would be wise to accept it.

Mr. Graham Page

This is a fascinating case, and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) has put it in the most interesting way. I suppose one might brush this aside by saying that when the boards have become merged in the regional water authorities such efficient bodies will they be that this sort of thing will not happen, but one should not brush the matter aside like that.

The position is that subsection (1) places on the new water authorities the duty to supply water, which at present rests on the statutory water undertakers, including the joint water boards. As part of that duty the statutory undertakers have certain obligations towards their consumers placed on them by the Water Act 1945, one of which is to provide a potable supply of water for domestic purposes constantly and at sufficient pressure. Water undertakers are under no obligation to supply any particular area or group of consumers from any particular source, and that is where the trouble occurs in this case.

A water undertaker would be in default of its statutory duty if it failed to rectify low pressure to some consumers. The decision as to the manner in which a water undertaker should remedy deficiencies in supply is entirely for it to take, and as the law now stands the Secretary of State has no jurisdiction, although he has powers under Section 13 of the Water Act 1945, to hold an inquiry into any complaint that a water undertaker has failed to carry out its statutory duties. That, of course, was not at issue in the Chadlington case, which concerned the way the duties were carried out.

The effect of the amendment would be to empower the Secretary of State to intervene as to the method by which an authority was carrying out the statutory duty to supply water. My difficulty is that it is our aim in the Bill to devolve responsibility as much as possible from the centre to the regional authorities and to let them carry on their business as commercial undertakings and to supply the water by the method they think is economical and efficient and to provide wholesome water.

To that extent, I must admit that the authorities are judges of their own actions. But, of course, this is also to a great extent true of anyone supplying some consumable service or goods. In this case, the county councillor and the representative of the district council, both of them being members of the Oxford and District Joint Water Board, played an active part in the discussions with the villagers of Chadlington. I think we want to retain that channel of communication if we can.

It can be said, as my hon. Friend did say, that this is less likely to happen when there are comparatively few local authority representatives on the regional water authorities when one compares the number of joint bodies and the number of local representatives on these boards. But I repeat that under Clause 6 the regional water authorities can set up local advisory committees, and I intend to give some advice to regional water authorities on the setting up of those committees.

Local authority members may well have a rôle to play in these circumstances as a medium of communication between the consumers and the regional water authorities. That the county council and district council representatives were not successful in this case is irrelevant to my point. I do not want to destroy that sort of communication but to build it up as much as possible in the future.

I ask my hon. Friend to consider the point that we can retain a channel of communication between consumers and the regional water authorities by means of local committees. If he replies, "This will not do; we want something more". I am quite prepared to look at it again, although without giving any assurances or undertakings. I am a little reluctant to set up any new forms of inquiry for the Secretary of State to undertake. It seems to be rather like taking a sledge hammer to swat a gnat—and I say that without any intention of being rude to Chadlington—to have public inquiries over matters like that.

Mr. Simeons

My right hon. Friend has mentioned the question of pressure. There may be a minimum pressure which the statutory undertakers are compelled to supply, but they are not compelled to notify considerable changes in pressure. If one bears in mind the fire loss that can be involved, will my right hon. Friend look into this question with regard to responsibilities of regional water authorities?

Mr. Page

I think the same applies again. It would be fatal to the whole structure of the Bill if we allowed everyone to run to the Secretary of State on all the duties of a regional water authority about the precise way in which these were being carried out. We must leave it to the authorities to carry on their business and I am sure that they will do it in the proper way without an appeal court in Marsham Street. We want to leave them to do their job.

I am prepared to look at this again. I have a sort of horror that if a regional water authority got away with it in future in a Chadlington type case, we might have no Harrogate Spas or Leamington Spas where the beautiful water is drunk— I do not know. I suppose that it is taken by licence from the river authorities. This needs a little more examination. If my hon. Friend feels that the local advisory committees are no good, I ask him to come to me again, and we will see what we can think out.

Mr. Marten

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that comment, and I will certainly follow it up. In any advice that he might give to such a body I hope that he will emphasise that a dispute between two sincerely held views should be referred to an independent body to give an independent view as to which is right. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

11.45 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page

I beg to move Amendment No. 27, in page 13, line 14, after 'undertakers', insert 'as such'.

This is a drafting amendment. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley (Mr. Hunt) will wish to have recorded in the annals of the House that he sponsored an amendment to insert after "undertakers" the words "as such", but I am grateful to him for drawing our attention to this. The amendment fulfils an undertaking which I gave my hon. Friend in Committee.

Amendment agreed to.

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