HC Deb 01 May 1973 vol 855 cc1172-80


Mr. Graham Page

I beg to move Amendment No. 45, in page 20, line 26, at end insert— '(2A) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.'. The amendment corrects an oversight in the drafting of the Bill, and fulfils an undertaking given in Committee.

Amendment agreed to.

12.15 a.m.

Mr. Laurance Reed (Bolton, East)

I beg to move Amendment No. 46, in page 20, line 31, leave out subsection (4) and insert— '(4) For the discharge of their functions relating to the restoration and maintenance of the wholesomeness of marine waters, water authorities shall establish separate committees of theirs in respect of the estuaries and coastal waters in their area, and where an estuary is situated in the areas of two or more water authorities, they shall establish separate joint committees of theirs to discharge such functions'. We are not directly concerned in the Bill with measures to combat water pollution. We have been promised comprehensive anti-pollution legislation in the next Session, and my right hon. and hon. Friends have accepted that all discharges to estuaries and the sea should be regulated. But though we are not concerned here with measures to protect the environment, we are creating an organisation one of whose functions will be to check the contamination of water. It might be said that this is one of the most important of the functions of the regional water authorities since the assumption on which the whole reform is based is that to meet future demands we shall have to husband existing water resources more efficiently. This means greater emphasis on the elimination of waste through re-cycling and reclamation.

In this House, I have frequently heard accusations that the pollution control agencies are too much under the thumb of polluters. The charge in particular has been levelled against present-day polluters in relation to river authorities. Yet in this Bill sewerage—the major source of pollution—and river management will be gathered under a single roof and the regional water authorities will be both the judge and the jury.

This is a departure from principle and practice in pollution control. But in my view the departure is justifiable in terms of fresh water or non-tidal rivers in the interests of integrated management of water resources from the collection point to the final point of disposal.

Clearly if the regional water authorities fall down on their sewage disposal function, they will also fall down on their water supply function. Consequently there will be pressures within the organisation to restore and maintain the wholesomeness of our rivers and water courses. But in respect of salt water-in the Bill we are giving regional water authorities jurisdiction over coastal areas —no such internal pressures will exist.

The sea and the arms of the sea form no part of the flow system created by engineers for water management purposes. It is true that tidal waters form part of nature's hydrological cycle, but we are not concerned with that here. That process is self-cleansing, anyway. It is also true that large quantities of sea water are abstracted by industry for cooling purposes. But this is a simple borrowing and returning process. Not a drop of saline water is fed into the public water supply. In short, estuaries and tidal waters are the sump and not a conduit of the flow system used in water management.

My concern is that, given the growing water shortages in different parts of the country, the regional water authorities will tend to devote all their efforts to cleaning up our non-tidal rivers and to neglect discharges into estuaries and the sea and, what is worse, they will be tempted to relieve the pressure upstream by moving the pollution load downstream, making increasing use of estuaries for waste disposal purposes without proper regard to the interests which could be irrevocably damaged as a result.

Experience in the past 10 years confirms my fears in this respect. During that period we have seen a progressive improvement in the quality of our rivers but a progressive deterioration of our estuaries. The one exception to that is the Thames Estuary and there, interestingly enough, the control of pollution has been exercised by the Port of London Authority, a body independent of the river authorities, though the river authorities are represented on it.

If the regional water authorities had no one but themselves to consider, logically they would tend to encourage the present movement of industry to the coast and away from inland rivers. Since these authorities are to be given responsibility over discharges in marine waters, the pressure on them to clean estuaries will have to come from outside and not from within the controlling agency as presently constituted. Outside pressure, one hopes, will come from the public, from coastal communities and from Parliament and the Government, but I would feel happier if the new organisation were structured in a way that would ensure that marine interests are more effectively represented.

I suggest in the amendment that this could be done by establishing separate committees specifically charged with the task of protecting estuaries and those parts of the territorial sea that fall within the jurisdiction of the new authorities. We could then establish a countervailing influence. Admittedly, under Clause 6, it is open to these authorities to form such committees themselves, but if they had a statutory obligation to do so, the committees would enjoy greater authority and status. Parliament would be signifying its concern for the health of our estuaries, which have been identified by the Royal Commission as being more vulnerable to pollution than any other part of the British environment.

In considering the merits of this proposal, I hope that my right hon. Friend will remember that coastal communities are economically and socially dependent on the cleanliness of their seaboard to a degree that no inland community is in relation to a river. In the one, fish and amenity are a sport and pleasure. In the other, they are the means of earning a livelihood.

The second part of the amendment seeks to implement the Royal Commission's third report. One of the arguments against giving regional water authorities control over estuaries and the coastal sea is that their boundaries, naturally enough, are often drawn to coincide with major rivers and their tributaries, with the result that the seaboard within the area of each authority does not coincide with conditions existing offshore, a factor that we must take into account in considering marine pollution.

On the eastern seaboard of the Irish Sea, for example, there are now to be two regional water authorities, although hydrographically the area between Walnsy Island near Barrow and Point Lynas in Anglesey form a single unit. Interfaces have to be drawn somewhere, but it is particularly important that they should not be drawn in estuaries. I know that my hon. Friends appreciate this point and that they have done their best, in drawing the boundaries of the regional water authorities, to avoid dividing up the estuaries, but even so, the Thames, the Humber and the Severn will be subject to multiple jurisdiction.

As the Clause stands, the Secretary of State will have the power to direct the authorities to form joint committees in cases like this. But surely it would be preferable to place a clear duty on them to do so. The Royal Commission was categorical on this point: … the problems of pollution in estuaries, which are important centres for industry, must be dealt with by one authority—if necessary an ad hoc one for a particular estuary— which has more than consultative status. In recommending unified control, the Commission did not mean just control over discharges managed by the water authorities but a single authority to coordinate the work of all bodies concerned with pollution in estuaries, dumping of waste from ships, dredging, spoil, spillage from tankers, as well as effluent discharges from pipes and drains. In fact, the Royal Commission believed that our estuaries must be managed as a single entity and that waste disposal is only one part of marine resource management.

In the long run, I am convinced that we shall have to establish much more comprehensive marine planning organisation in the coastal zone. I hope that the Government have noted that the Americans have recently created a series of coastal sea authorities to manage their own coastal zone—a proposal that I have been urging on the Government for the past 18 months. In the meantime, I hope that they will feel able to accept the moderate proposal in the Amendment. They have, after all, endorsed the concept of an integrated approach to inland waters. How is it possible then to accept anything less than a total approach to the blue belt around our shores?

Mr. Oakes

The House is indebted to the hon. Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Laurance Reed), not only for the Amendment but for the very able and cogent way in which he has moved it. He and I share two things. One is an affection for the town of Bolton, where he represents the other half than that which I used to represent, and the other is a keen interest in oceanology and the things affecting our shores and our ocean waters, particularly around the British Isles.

The hon. Member rightly said that some of the areas of joint jurisdiction— the Severn, the Humber and so on—are danger points, and that there should be a statutory duty for these estuarial committees to be set up and not left as a discretion. There is also a great deal of validity in what he said about our marine waters and the dangers inherent in some of these new authorities getting rid of their responsibilities to avoid polluting the rivers by dumping out to sea.

I know that the Government intend— I hope that they do this next year—in accordance with a United Nations resolution, to bring in legislation with regard to sea dumping. It is particularly relevant to our part of the world, Liverpool and off Lancashire, because we have been very alarmed at proposals that up to six times the present amount of sludge could be dumped in Liverpool Bay, not far from the coastal resorts of North Wales, the Mersey Estuary, the Wirral Peninsula and the coastal resorts of Lancashire. There was a report to the effect that this would be quite harmless, but that was based on one brief study and the long-term ecological results of such things as trace elements in the sewage could not be discovered in the period of that report. There could be a risk of water authorities disposing of their sewage either as sludge or by pumping it out into coastal waters. The hon. Member rightly suggests that there should be separate estuarial committees in these matters, but particularly where there is effluent from different authorities in one estuary.

I hope that the Government consider the Amendment seriously. It is very similar in purpose, if not in wording, to one moved from this side of the House in Standing Committee. If the Government cannot accept the exact wording I hope that the Minister will make some sympathetic noises to the effect that they will, in another place, look at what the hon. Member is proposing in this useful amendment.

12.30 a.m.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I am most anxious to make sympathetic noises in the hope of pleasing the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes). I agree that the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Laurance Reed) has a good deal to be said for it. It was moved most cogently and convincingly. The amendment would impose two requirements on the water authorities. First, they would have to establish separate committees, and secondly, where an estuary was situated partly in the area of one authority and partly in the area of another, they would have to establish separate joint committees to discharge these functions.

I have difficulty in accepting the proposition as it stands. This is, first, because the water authorities will have complete power, under the Bill, to set up whatever committees they choose. It would be wrong for Parliament to lay down a particular form of administration or structure of management. I can tell my hon. Friend that at the moment there is a working party considering the management structure of the new authorities, sitting under the chairmanship of the town clerk of Manchester.

This committee will be offering advice to the new regional water authorities. I am sure that it will take account of the points my hon. Friend has made. I will ensure that Mr. George Ogden is made aware of his suggestions. I am bound to tell my hon. Friend that in some respects this proposal would be a little premature because as things stand, under the Bill and existing legislation, the water authorities do not have control over all discharges to marine waters. I wish they had.

As we originally intended to bring the Bill before the House it would have contained those pollution clauses I have mentioned frequently in Committee. Unfortunately, because of the exigencies of parliamentary time we have had to reduce the scope of the Bill and to leave them out. I have given the undertaking that my right hon. and learned Friend expects to bring forward, if possible next session, an environmental protection Bill which will include these clauses and provide the new powers which my hon. Friend and the House generally wish to see. It would be difficult to require all the new regional water authorities to have a particular committee to deal with this problem when we have not yet given them the powers to do the job. But I will draw to the attention of the committee dealing with the management structure the points that have been made and it may well be that it will take these matters into consideration and will recommend the establishment of such committees.

The other point concerns estuaries. I at once accept, and the Government have accepted, the conclusions of the Royal Commission when it says that the problems of pollution in estuaries must be dealt with by one authority. We have sought to try to bring the estuaries under one authority wherever possible. We have not always succeeded. There are cases, including the Severn, the Humber and the Thames, where we have not achieved this purpose.

But I would advise the House not to insist that a joint committee should necessarily be set up in each case. I have some experience in this because, like the Royal Commission, I have visited most of our estuaries and I have been able in most cases to bring them together and to create joint committees. But I have also found—and I think it is the experience of the water industry—that in some cases it may be better, rather than establishing a joint committee, for one water authority to be asked to discharge the functions for the whole of the estuary on behalf of another authority. Sometimes an agreement of this kind is effective and it works very well in a number of cases.

Mr. Reed

As I understand it, the Government have accepted the recommendation of the Royal Commission on this point. But the Royal Commission made it clear that when it talked about unified control of pollution in estuaries it was not just talking about discharges from drains and pollution that would fall under the control of the regional water authorities but all sources of pollution, thus concerning perhaps the Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We have accepted this integral approach for inland waters. How is it possible to maintain fragmentation in an estuary or in coastal waters?

Mr. Griffiths

No one is trying to maintain fragmentation. It is simply that in the Bill we do not deal with all the additional pollution aspects that I know many hon. Members would have liked to deal with. It is, perhaps unfortunately, only a machinery Bill.

It does not deal with these other matters, but I have given the assurance to the Committee—and I repeat it to my hon. Friend—that it is the Governments intention, in the course of our environmental protection legislation, to bring in the necessary additional powers to achieve my hon. Friend's purpose, including the bringing of piped discharges to estuaries and coastal waters under full control. This would involve the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, with its special expertise in this field.

All that I can tell my hon. Friend is that I have listened carefully to what he said and that I will consider it. If we can go some way towards meeting him in another place we shall do so, but I must ask him to be a little patient, in the light of the fact that my right hon. Friend has undertaken that the environmental protection legislation, which we hope to bring in, will deal with this point.

Mr. Reed

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said in this matter. I emphasise, however, that I was expressly concerned not with the measures to be adopted but with the type of organisation that would apply those measures. That was the crux of my argument— that the structure of the organisation is wrong, in that the primary concern of the regional water authority will be with inland waters rather than with the need to tackle the problems of the coastal belt, and that there will inevitably be a tendency for it to devote all its priorities to efforts inland, with the clear danger that it will neglect its reponsibilities in the coastal areas.

Nevertheless, in view of what my hon. Friend said and in the hope that he will bear in mind my few additional comments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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