HC Deb 01 May 1973 vol 855 cc1025-41


'(1) Nothing in section 14 or section 15 of this Act shall apply or have effect in relation to any functions in so far as they are exercisable at the date of the passing of this Act by the Council of a London borough the Common Council of the City of London, the Greater London Council, or in relation to any functions exercisable by virtue of this section by the council of a district in so far as that district is on 31st March 1974 within the area of the West Kent Main Sewerage Board, and subsections (2) and (3) of section 36 of and Schedule 7 and Schedule 8 to this Act shall have effect accordingly.

(2) It shall be the duty of the council of every London borough, the Common Council of the City of London, the Greater London Council and the council of any such district as aforesaid to furnish the water authority for their area with such information as that water authority may from time to time require with respect to the exercise or any proposed exercise by such council of the functions referred to in subsection (1) above, and that water authority may require the council to consult with them about any matter connected with the exercise or proposed exercise of those functions which is likely to affect the exercise by the water authority of any of their functions.

(3) If within a period of two months beginning with the date on which a requirement under subsection (2) above was sent by the water authority to such a council, the water authority and the council have not reached agreement as to any of the matters to which the notice relates, the water authority shall notify the Secretary of State of that fact and the Secretary of State may give to the council directions as to any such matter.

(4) (a) Subsection (9) of section 35 of the London Government Act 1963 together with the references in subsections (4) and (5) of that section to the said subsection (9) are hereby repealed and on 1st April 1974 the West Kent Main Sewerage Board shall cease to exist and there shall vest—

  1. (i) in the Greater London Council all main sewers and sewage disposal works of that Board; and
  2. (ii) in the council of the London borough or district in which they are situated all public sewers other than main sewers of that Board.

(b) the Secretary of State may by order make such transitional, incidental, supplementary or consequential provisions as he thinks necessary or expedient for giving effect to the purposes of this section'.—[Mr. Spearing.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

It will be convenient to take with new Clause 4, the following new clauses:

New Clause 5—Arrangements for discharge of functions for supply of water in Greater London, etc.

New Clause 7—London Thames Committee.

We shall also take the following amendments:

No. 33, in Clause 14, page 18, line 9, leave out from ' district' to the first' the ' in line 12.

No. 34, in page 18, leave out line 13.

No. 36, in line 16, leave out 'or outer London borough '.

No. 39, in Clause 15, page 18, line 40, leave out ' or the Greater London Council'.

No. 151, in Schedule 8, page 90, column 3, leave out lines 18 to 22.

Mr. Spearing

I hope that, if the Government do not accept new Clause 4, it will be convenient to have a vote on new Clause 5 if it proves necessary to do so. Both new Clauses 4 and 5 hang together in that they refer to the proposed reorganisation of water and sewerage services in the area of the Greater London Council. New Clause 7, which is also concerned with London, is an associated matter with which I shall deal separately a little later. I hope that the Minister in his reply will give his views on whether he finds new Clause 7 acceptable, for I am sure that we can agree on its desirability if not on its exact wording.

It was generally agreed in Committee that the Bill attempts to meet the needs of the technical control of water supply and that local democracy had an important part to play in governing our affairs. Our problem is to find a means whereby the two aims coincide. On that issue there is total agreement on both sides of the House. I believe that there is also total agreement on both sides that a new structure governing water supply and water management is necessary throughout the country.

There has been agreement that there has been leaping demand and therefore a need for proper river basin management. However, there has been disagreement about the form which the structure should take.

These provisions are relevant to the greater London area. Local government in Greater London, unlike the set-up in the rest of the country, was reorganised ten years ago and will not be subject to the great reorganisation which will take place in the rest of the country next year. New Clause 4 seeks to retain the present structure of responsibility in terms of borough and greater London Council sewerage in the greater London area. It seeks to do so in a way that is different from that which was considered in Committee where it was thought that the Greater London Council should be its own original water authority. New Clause 4 does not seek to do this. It recognises that it is necessary for the overall management of water and sewerage in the Thames area, for the Thames Water Authority to have some overall responsibility. It tries to meet the Government's objectives inside the Greater London area by retaining the present structure for sewerage.

The Greater London Council has powers under the London Government Act 1963 in respect of main drainage. It looks after the major trunk sewers in London which were the responsibility of the LCC. It undertakes sewerage works, it is responsible for the sludge vessels which put out to sea, and it undertakes flood control and land drainage work inside the Greater London area. The London boroughs look after smaller sewers which discharge into the trunk mains.

Over the last ten years there has grown up a happy relationship between the boroughs and the GLC in respect of these services. Unlike other aspects of Govment, such as the planning of motorways and all the rest of it, this particular scheme works well. It works so well that, despite the fact that both sides on the GLC have recently been locked in electoral combat, they have joined in opposing the Government's concept in this respect because the Government propose to take away from the Greater London Council responsibility for main drainage and sewerage works and to hand it over to the large new Thames Water Authority—an authority which will stretch from Cirencester to London. In doing so they do not wholly take over the borough councils' responsibility for tributary sewers, but they say to them "You will have control functions for looking after the smaller sewers on our behalf."

The Greater London Council and the London Boroughs Association believe that this is not the right way to go about the reorganisation of water services in the London area. In Committee the Greater London Council used Members on both sides of the Committee to table amendments to enable the Greater London Council to become its own water authority. Those amendments were lost by only one vote and they were advocated by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. A Government defeat was avoided only by an apparent concession to which I shall come later. I say "apparent" because many of us thought that this apparent concession would have come about anyway. Nevertheless, the Greater London Council's proposals were beaten.

5.0 p.m.

The scheme outlined in new Clause 4 will retain the status quo. It will leave the GLC in control of its main sewers and sewage works and leave the boroughs in control of their tributary sewers.

There are many reasons why this should be so. I will not bore the House by going over old ground because this matter was debated at length, as reported at cols. 77 to 187 in Committee. Alas, the proceedings are not yet printed in a bound volume because of the Government's speed in trying to rush the Bill through the House. Any hon. Member who reads what happened in Committee will see that there is an overwhelming argument for the GLC to maintain control of its main sewers and sewage works.

The Central Advisory Water Committee, to which the Minister referred in the last debate, made some proposals about finance. It also made proposals about a possible structure which has been followed by new Clause 4. Scheme B, advocated by the Central Advisory Water Committee on page 65 of its memorandum, is virtually what is proposed by the London Boroughs Association. The London boroughs value co-operation with the GLC. They value the fact that they can go to County Hall and see officials who deal with the local sewers. If, under the Government's proposals, they have to deal with a larger, more remote, water authority, the efficiency and adequacy of the service can be put in jeopardy.

The Minister may say, "Why is it that at this late stage there is now open warfare between the London Borough Association"—this is nothing to do with party interests—"and the Government on this issue? Surely there have been representations, debates and arguments with the Government." Indeed, there have been, because the London Boroughs Association, together with the Association of Municipal Corporations, the Rural District Councils Association and the Urban District Councils Association, sent a memorandum to the Minister proposing what has been called the two-tier structure which is incorporated in the new clauses and the amendments.

The Minister would not listen to the opinion of local government interests. Some of his answers to the memorandum do not stand the test of scrutiny. For instance, the Secretary of State wrote to the local government associations, in particular to the GLC and the clerk to the Rural District Councils Association, who is acting as a co-ordinator, saying that the Government's objectives, in my considered judgment, can only be met by a system which is able to tackle the management of clean and dirty water without delays, lack of co-ordination, and conflicts of interest which are, as the CAWC said, inherent in the present fragmented system. As I have shown, that is not true of London. Indeed, London is a special case—first, because there has already been local government reorganisation, secondly, because the system works well, and, thirdly, because the Government have already recognised that, whilst they are proposing that the GLC will lose its sewers, they are leaving it with the responsibility for land drainage and the natural water courses in the outer London areas. I am pleased that the Government have conceded that London is a special case. They nearly lost the day in Committee. These new clauses and amendments, particularly new Clause 4, do not go as far as the amendments which were proposed in Committee. They merely retain the status quo with regard to sewerage.

I now turn to the other side of the matter—clean water. The structure of clean water supply in London is not at the moment very coherent. There are a number of water bodies—in particular, the Metropolitan Water Board, which is one of the largest water supplying agencies in the country. The Metropolitan Water Board has been run with conspicuous success over 50 years. In effect, it is a local government co-operative. The local authorities, the London boroughs and previously the Metropolitan boroughs, together with the GLC, put representatives on that board to supervise the running of a substantial proportion of London's water supply.

Under the Government's proposals the Metropolitan Water Board will disappear and go into the Thames Water Authority, but the private water companies which supply other parts of London, particularly in the South-West areas, will remain. In their memorandum the local government associations put it to the Minister that, as private water companies can be retained, so equally can local authorities and joint boards. It is illogical, on the one hand, to say that the Metropolitan Water Board and the Croydon Corporation Water Department shall be absorbed into a vast new regional body and, on the other hand, that the South-West Surburban Water Company, the Sutton Water Company, or whatever it may be, shall be retained and allowed to continue. This is what the Government are saying. Nowhere in the replies that I have seen did they meet the points made by the local authorities in their memorandum.

New Clause 5 proposes that in London the position shall remain much as it is now, but that the Metropolitan Water Board be vested in a Committee of the GLC, which would be logical for London regional government. It will amount to much the same situation because it will be a co-operative venture between the existing local authorities, the London boroughs and the GLC. In other words, new clauses Nos. 4 and 5 seek to retain the successful pattern of water management that obtains inside the Greater London Council area without, I stress, in any way derogating from the overall responsibility of the Thames Regional Water Authority. Specific lines written into the new clauses make it possible and necessary for proper consultation to take place and for the regional water authority to operate and use its powers properly in pursuit of overall water management for the whole of the River Thames area.

It will be for the Minister to explain why this system will not work. I shall try, as it were, to pre-empt some of the points that he may make. The first matter concerns boundaries. There are likely to be certain boundary considerations, but there are none at the moment. The GLC sewerage area is not entirely inside the Greater London area. In some cases it goes beyond it. The difficulty of the North-West Kent drainage area is met in the new clause by the GLC taking over that area of main drainage. That would ameliorate the present boundary situation. The Minister may say that there are others. I grant that there are, but there are now and things work perfectly well in this respect.

The Minister may object to new Clause 5 because it gives the GLC future power to acquire and take over private water companies inside its area. If he wishes to have another look at the new clause and perhaps to withdraw that power if it particularly annoys him, I should be glad to agree to that. On the other hand, the right hon. Gentleman has said, and everybody throughout the country has agreed, that a certain amount of rationalisation of water undertakings is right and proper. Indeed, under both this Government and the Labour Government private companies absorbed many local authority undertakings throughout the country. So why should not a local authority take over some of the smaller water companies in the London area? What was done under the previous legislation in terms of rationalisation can be done under this Bill. This illustrates the extent to which this has not been a matter for party politics. Even the Labour Government did not object unduly to the takeover of certain municipal organisations by private enterprise. Therefore, the Minister can hardly object to the reverse happening with the GLC.

I hope that the Minister will accept new Clauses 4 and 5, or certainly one of them. He may find that there is a stronger case for one than for the other. If so, I hope that he will make it clear.

New Clause 7 was tabled in the full expectation that a comprehensive new Clause would be tabled by the Government or the hon. Member for Northants, South (Mr. Arthur Jones). After a long debate in Committee on London matters, the GLC amendments which would have made the GLC its own water authority were lost by only one vote. It was rather a pity that the GLC did not adopt the strategy of the London Borough Association and go for something less comprehensive.

To retain the adherence of some of the Government's supporters, the Undersecretary made what I have called an apparent concession. He said that London's pride had been touched and that it would be right for the Greater London Council to have executive responsibility for the river amenity and recreation as regards the Greater London Council area. He added: it would be right for the Greater London Council and not the PLA to be the managing authority for the surface of the River Thames within the GLC area. In practice, that will mean the length upstream from the tidal barrier, when it is completed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 1st March 1973; c. 177–178.] That was the Under-Secretary's concession. He said that advice would have to be obtained on the legislative provisions, but undertook to table an amendment that would incorporate the concession in the Bill.

Unfortunately, we do not yet have the amendment. That is a measure of the speed with which the Government are pushing through the Bill. The concession was made on 1st March, so there should have been reasonable time for the amendment to be drafted. I have heard from the Minister that he is undertaking that it will be made in another place. But, as I had expected it to be moved now, my new Clause 7 is left somewhat in the air.

My new clause proposes a London Thames Committee. The GLC could if it wished—the provision is purely optional— give to a properly constituted statutory committee control of matters concerning the river Thames that it thought appropriate. That kind of provision would make realistic management of London's river possible, perhaps for the first time. Everyone knows, particularly those with concern for the Thames, that much more might be made of the river if only management of the surface and banks, town planning, control of craft and so on could be brought under a single controlling authority.

If the GLC is to be given those powers which the Minister and the Government say they will give it, it would be only right for it to be able effectively to bring together all the agencies and the many varied bodies and persons concerned, statutory and otherwise, to obtain the best advice and for the management to be conducted properly and responsibly. That is what the clause would achieve.

In the expectation that some other powers will be given to the GLC, I hope that, whatever the Minister may say about new Clauses 4 and 5, he will accept new Clause 7, because at least on this subject I think we can all agree.

Mr. Arthur Jones

The hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) and I found ourselves in a certain accord in Committee. The hon. Gentleman has referred to it, in less generous terms than I would wish. He accused me of perhaps letting the side down a bit in not putting down amendments.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield (Nuneaton)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Jones

I hear one of the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends echoing that criticism, but it was made clear in Committee that there must be a tremendous amount of negotiation with the authorities concerned in the involved question of the use of the surface of the Thames as it flows through the GLC area.

Mr. Spearing

I was not referring to the hon. Gentleman. I was referring to the Government's delay in tabling a new clause. It was a Government responsibility, although the hon. Gentleman tabled an amendment in Committee.

Mr. Jones

There has not been enough time yet to deal with what is a difficult and involved question. I understand that the Government have been engaged in a series of discussions with the GLC, the Port of London Authority and the Common Council of the City of London, and that there has been acceptance of the principle that the GLC should be responsible for recreation and amenity on the Thames. I understand that the maximum co-operation has been forthcoming from all those bodies, so I share the hon. Gentleman's high hopes that we shall ultimately see arrangements that he and I wish to ensure. I am not critical of the delay; I think that it is explained by the circumstances to which I have referred.

5.15 p.m.

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

I shall deal as briefly as possible with new Clauses 4, 5 and 7 and the related amendments.

New Clause 4 takes us back to our many debates in Committee, in that it proposes to create, in the London area at least, a two-tier system of organisation. We debated the matter in some detail, and the Committee came to the conclusion that it was necessary to have all-purpose authorities so that the hydrological cycle as a whole could be managed as one integrated service. Therefore, to the point of principle I need only reply that a two-tier system, such as the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) proposes, has been considered by the Central Advisory Water Committee, the Government and the Standing Committee, and it has been concluded, at least by the Government side, that such a system would be cumbersome, ineffectual and inadequate.

That is more than illustrated by the difficulties the hon. Gentleman would get into with the West Kent Main Sewerage Board. The geographical, hydrological and administrative arrangements of London overlap one with the other; they are in no sense co-terminous. The new clause would abolish the West Kent Main Sewerage Board and simply take it into the Greater London Council. My advice is that the West Kent authority would strongly resist that.

The subject of new Clause 4 has been debated in Committee, and I can only advise hon. Members once again to reject the proposal.

In new Clause 5 the hon. Gentleman proposes that there should be a split in the supply of water to the public, that the sources should be controlled by the regional water authority but that the supply and distribution should become a matter for the local authority. That proposal falls down rather badly on technical grounds. For example, treatment works are normally linked direct to particular sources of water. Certainly, they have to be managed in conjunction with the relevant water source. Under the new clause, in at least some cases and possibly in most, there would be within a single building pumps which were the water authority's responsibility while the treatment plant was the responsibility of the local authority. That does not make good technical sense. Moreover, a clear line cannot be drawn between the source works and treatment on the one hand and distribution on the other.

A large proportion of London's water comes from underground sources, and the operation of those sources is a critical factor in the overall management of water supplies. But it would not make sense to separate the responsibility for the underground sources from the responsibility for the distribution system in which they are embedded.

Even if the split were technically feasible, there are many strong arguments against it. I need not weary the House by identifying them all. I simply say that it would raise difficulties over the control of the quality of water. To take just one example, if one source provided water of more than a given degree of acidity and the distribution system, controlied by someone else, contained lead pipes, the acidity would need to be neutralised in the course of treatment but it would be less than clear where the responsibility for that would lie.

There is the second difficulty that a split responsibility here would militate strongly against economy in the use of water. An authority which was responsible only for distribution would not have any incentive to achieve an optimum level of distribution losses, taking into account the costs of obtaining extra water. On grounds both of water quality and economy in the use of water, new Clause 5 is not a practical proposal.

In new Clause 7 the hon. Member for Acton had the valuable support of my hon. Friend the Member for Northants, South (Mr. Arthur Jones). I can say this about it. My right hon. Friend and I would have wished to move a new clause or a suitable alternative amendment on Report in order to honour the assurance that I was able to give the Committee, namely that executive responsibility for the recreational and amenity aspects of the river within the London area should be provided to the GLC.

What has happened is that my Department has been engaged in extensive consultations with the Greater London Council and the Port of London Authority, and obviously we brought in as well the London Boroughs Association and the Common Council of the City of London. All of them have a considerable interest in what happens on the Thames and all of them would wish, as the House does, to see the opportunities for recreation and amenity on this great river in the capital city promoted in every respect.

I am happy to say that all these bodies are agreeable to the principle that the GLC should be responsible for recreation and amenity on the Thames. That is a useful step forward. But it has become clear from the discussions which my Department has had that many important matters need to be discussed in much greater detail before we can arrive at a satisfactory conclusion to recommend to Parliament. I think that everyone is convinced that here is an opportunity which must not be missed. It is an opportunity to ensure that the Thames will take its rightful place as a great asset for recreation and amenity not only for Londoners but for all those who visit the City. Therefore it is important to get the details right, and it is on that that we are now engaged.

It is our intention to seek to impose on the Thames Water Authority a statutory duty to prepare, within a given time, a scheme for the transfer of the recreation and amenity functions from the Thames Water Authority to the GLC. The Thames Water Authority will be required to do so in consultation with the GLC, the PLA and the other associated bodies. This scheme which will be made, as I have said, on a specified time scale, will be put into effect by means of an order made by the Secretary of State. My right hon. Friend will be putting forward an amendment in another place to achieve this.

I should perhaps mention navigation and make it clear that any such scheme would not involve the transfer of the PLA's powers and duties relating to navigation and conservancy, though it would not rule out arrangements about matters relating to recreation and amenity made by agreement between the two bodies.

I hope that the hon. Member for Acton and my hon. Friend the Member for Northants, South will agree that this is a sensible way to achieve what we all want. I believe that the other bodies involved will give every assistance in achieving such a scheme. I would have liked to bring forward an appropriate amendment today. However I hope that it is accepted that it is better to get it right and to put it forward in another place.

Mr. Denis Howell

I listened to the debate with interest. We are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) for raising these important questions. The Minister will know that there is a little history about the way that this proposal from the Government was hatched up in the dead of night between two sittings of the Standing Committee.

In the first place, in any Bill to reorganise the country's water supplies it is an extraordinary proposal to take away from one regional authority, the Greater London Council, its control over its water supplies, drainage and sewerage. I am glad to welcome the presence of the Secretary of State. He knows the authority extremely well. His appearance on the Treasury Bench enables me to tell him that I am staggered that this should happen under his patronage, although I could have understood it if it had occurred under his predecessor's. The GLC has done an excellent job over many years.

In the course of the argument that we had in Committee we came to realise that the Government were more than a little embarrassed. Many of their supporters on the Government back benches and their friends who then controlled County Hall were righteously indignant about the proposals in the Bill and their effect on London.

Involved in all this is the position of the river Thames. Since London gets so much of its water from the Thames it seemed to us unthinkable that the Greater London Council should not have control not only of its water supplies but of the River Thames which is the source of most of them. We lost the battle in Committee. As a result the GLC is to lose its powers for the supply of water and for the disposal of water and sewage.

Out of the debate in Committee there came one piece of new thinking from the Government as a result of which some of their hon. Friends were persuaded to withdraw their opposition to the main proposals for London's water. It was that the GLC should be given powers over the recreational aspects of the River Thames. I do not wish to be uncharitable. We welcome that as far as it goes. I accept what the Minister said which was that having persuaded the Committee that this was the right course of action in terms of recreational interests he then had very properly to consult all the interested parties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Acton asked why it was that since this proposal was made on 1st March we had not seen any amendment. The answer is that it was proposed in the dead of night as part of an arrangement to deal with the whole of London's water and, having announced it in principle, the Secretary of State then had to engage in consultations with the other authorities which he ought to have held before announcing the proposal in Committee.

We appreciate the difficulties of Ministers when they are engaged in manoeuvres of this kind. It is very proper that the Under-Secretary should get it right and that the other authorities, especially the PLA, should have their wishes taken into account and be properly consulted. As a result, if the amendment says what we believe it will when it is proposed in another place, we shall welcome it.

We very much regret the Government's decision on the main question of London's water, drainage and sewerage. But that is not a battle that we can fight again now since it was disposed of on an earlier occasion.

For the technical reasons that the Under-Secretary has given about new Clauses 4 and 5, probably my hon. Friend the Member for Acton will be well advised not to press them at this stage but to rely in respect of new Clause 7, which has been drafted with a great deal of ingenuity, on the undertaking given by the hon. Gentleman that the main point of principle will be met when the Bill comes back from another place.

5.30 p.m.

Mr. Spearing

May I reply, with leave of the House? Despite the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Dennis Howell), I am not convinced by the Minister's technical arguments. He said that we did not want to create a two-tier system in London, but we already have one, so far as new Clause 4 is concerned. He feared that it would be cumbersome, ineffective and inadequate, but the GLC and the LBA believe that the present system works well. There would be some anomalies, but so there would in the Minister's plan. Even the Southern Water Authority will be made responsible for flood defences in parts of the lower Thames in the area of the Thames Water Authority. History will show, I believe, that the technical arguments do not outweigh mine.

The Minister misunderstood new Clause 5. It would provide not that distribution through pipes rather than treatment works and the supply of river intakes should be with the GLC but that the lot should be, that the GLC should be responsible for the Metropolitan Water Board functions, including pumping stations, filter beds and treatment equipment. I suspect that the Minister knew that but used a quasi-technical argument to rebut the clause.

But there is another reason that I should not press this to a Division. Although I am not convinced by the arguments any more than people in London will be, in due deference to my hon. Friends who want to raise other matters, for which the Government have given us precious little time, I will not waste 12 minutes in pressing it to a Division.

On new Clause 7, I am worried about something that the Minister did not say. I am glad that these consultations are taking place, but the new clause was not an ingenious device to fill a gap. It was something that I hoped the Government would seriously consider and possibly accept in another place.

The Minister dwelt on what he is doing in this respect, but did not say much about the new clause. I hope that he will now tell us the Government's attitude to the new clause. Hon. Members do not carefully work out new clauses which, as the hon. Member for Northants, South (Mr. Arthur Jones) was kind enough to say, fit the mood of the House, for Ministers completely to ignore their substance. It is parliamentary bad manners if nothing else. If the Minister does not comment, it means that a new clause has been selected for debate but that the Government have failed to give their views on it.

I do not understand that, and in view of the Government's attitude to the whole Bill, I do not feel inclined to let it go. I hope that the Minister will say now whether the Government will accept something like this clause in another place. If he does not give the Government's view, what has been said today and in Committee will be lost.

The fact that the Minister makes no attempt to rise is not only parliamentary bad manners but inexplicable. Perhaps I could raise it as a point of order in my own speech—[Laughter.] This is not a matter for humour. I had understood that our procedures allowed for proper debate. It is no laughing matter when a Minister completely ignores a new clause which has been selected for debate.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

The new clause has been described rather well as having been left in the air. I have said that, in another place, the Government will move a suitable amendment or new clause to achieve the purposes which both sides of the House, including the

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