HC Deb 01 May 1973 vol 855 cc1041-54


' In addition to the functions exercisable by the Water Resources Board by virtue of section 12 of the Water Resources Act 1963, it shall be the duty of the Board to prepare a plan as to action to be taken (whether by way of executing works or securing execution of works by other persons or otherwise) for the purpose of securing more efficient management of water in any area including meeting all future demands for water, and the use of water and restoring or maintaining the wholesomeness of rivers and other inland or coastal waters, and to implement such plans in the following circumstances, that is to say:—
(a) where more than one water authority is involved, whether as receiver or supplier of water, and the work will not, in the opinion of the Board, be executed by the water authorities involved; or
(b) at the request of and with the agreement of those water authorities '.—[Mr. Fan.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It will be convenient to discuss at the same time the following amendments:

No. 15, in page 6, line 17, leave out Clause 4.

No. 75, in Clause 29, page 32, leave out line 24.

No. 87, in Schedule 3, page 50, line 12, leave out Part II.

Mr. Farr

Taken together, the new clause and the amendments seek to restore the Water Resources Board to the Bill and to remove those provisions setting up a National Water Council. They would not only restore the board in its present state but would provide it with additional powers, which are outlined in detail in new Clause 8. The

hon. Gentleman, want. What he now does with his new clause is a matter for him.

Mr. Spearing

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has made himself clear and I am sorry if I misunderstood. The clause is certainly relevant because we are assured that a similar provision will be inserted at a later stage. Therefore, it merited better treatment from the Minister. In view of what I have said about time, I will not press it to a Division, but the Minister and some of his hon. Friends have shown less than courtesy in a place where one expects it. If nothing else, I hope that the Government will either move a similar provision in another place or accept it with alacrity if one is moved by someone else.

Question put and negatived.

new clause seeks to build on the undoubted success of the Water Resources Board.

The board has had a strong independent voice which it has used effectively for a number of years. It has had responsibility for planning at national level. As the Bill is now drafted, the planning and initiative which has been part of the board's work will now rent with the Department of the Environment, the Welsh Office and the Ministry of Agriculture.

In "A Background to Water Reorganisation in England and Wales". we were told: They will establish within the Government service a central water planning unit which will absorb the planning division of the Water Resources Board.

This unit will advise Government Departments, regional water authorities and the National Water Council. I and some of my hon. Friends do not think that this is enough. We feel that we need a strong, completely independent body like the Water Resources Board.

The board has played a valuable rôle in our affairs in recent years. In the Department of the Environment Report I have mentioned, which was published this year, pages 12 and 13 contain numerous references to the work of the board.

On page 12 it gives an inkling of the beard's participation and forward rôle on reservoir projects. In paragraph 32 on page 12 there is a reference to its thinking and its investigation into the rôle of additional underground sources of water supply. On page 13 in paragraph 36 there is a reference to the valuable work it has done on estuarial storage. It refers to the WRB report on water resources in the North in paragraph 36 on page 13.

We do not have to go back far in the annals of HANSARD before we find a record of numerous interventions and at least one Adjournment debate on the subject of desalination and the wonderful work done by the WRB on this subject which culminated in its booklet published in 1972 and entitled "Desalination", a masterly project. It summarised desalina-ation by saying that the system did not appear to have any suitable or attractive financial prospects at the moment but it indicated that the equation could change and that before very long we might have to consider desalination more seriously. It is this sort of independent and forward thinking which the nation needs on water and which I am fearful we shall not retain if we adopt the proposals set out in the Bill.

Another area in which the Water Resources Board has been active has been in the artificial recharge of aquifers. It is also engaged in the Wash feasibility study and it has been, is and, as far as I can see, will continue to be deeply involved in this vital matter. What will happen when the Bill is enacted and the board disappears I do not know, but a considerable amount of Government money has been allocated to the WRB.

In May 1968 money was provided for a desk study. Later, in March 1971 the Secretary of State for the Environment authorised a full feasibilty study for the Wash project, including the construction of trial embankments at a cost of about £2.6 millions over six years. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Minister will know who is to take over this work, but whoever it is I doubt whether they will exceed the energy, zeal and enthusiasm that the WRB has put into the project.

On 5th April the WRB initiated a public meeting in King's Lynn attended by 350 people and designed to keep the public up to date on the Wash feasibility study. The WRB was kind enough to send some hon. Members a report of how it is getting on with its work. I shall not trouble the House with the details, suffice it to say that considerable work is being undertaken. Hydraulic models are being prepared at Wallingford which when approved, probably in September this year, the board expects will be able to start assessing the effect of the four alternative reservoirs that it has in mind for the Wash. This is another aspect of the valuable work which the WRB has been doing.

5.45 p.m.

I fear that if the board is allowed to disappear as proposed in the Bill a similar amount of energy and enthusiasm will not be displayed by any central water planning authority earmarked to succeed the WRB. Other organisations and persons with a close knowledge of water conservation, supply and drainage acknowledge that in the relatively short period it has been in existence the WRB has functioned admirably. The board's three principal merits have been that it is independent of both Government and river authorities, that it has combined all authority under one unified control, and that it has built up a first-class staff of dedicated experts which I fear would be fragmented if the Bill is enacted.

The board's independence has been of considerable advantage to the public and had it not been for pressure from it, it is unlikely, for example, that the investigation of estuarial storage of water would have proceeded as far as it has. The proposed National Water Council is expected to be comprised principally of the chairmen of the regional water authorities plus nominees of the Secretary of State, and its functions are not to be purely advisory. It is clear from Clause 4(9)(b) that if it attempts to advise the Secretary of State on issues unacceptable to him the council could be required to discontinue such activities. The council will thus be very much a creature of the Government. The water authorities and the Bill therefore have very limited powers to produce an overall water policy, to iron out differences or to arbitrate between authorities in the event of disagreement over any project which extends beyond RWA boundaries.

It is imperative that the national body for water should continue to be the Water Resources Board and that it should be completely independent both of the Government and of the regional water authorities. It has been one of the principle assets of the WRB that it has been independent and has thus been able to act in the interests of the nation as a whole. Officials of the Department of the Environment, admirable though they all are, could hardly be expected to be the best judges of what overall water policy should be in the national interest. There are also considerable merits in having the responsibility for planning and research under the control of an independent body.

I am greatly encouraged by the remarks made by my hon. and right hon. Friends the Ministers during Second Reading when a succession of speakers on both sides paid tribute to the WRB. Hon. Members welcomed the Bill but often with the proviso that the board should be retained. My confidence is restored by my clear recollection of the Minister saying that it was his intention that if there were a strong expression of opinion from the House as a whole on the subject he would clearly reconsider the matter. As it is in the national interest to retain the WRB and its expertise under one umbrella, it is clearly desirable that the Government shoud accept the clause and the amendments.

Mr. Gordon Oakes (Widnes)

There is a great deal of good sense in everything said by the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) and in his new clause. It is true that tributes were paid on both sides of the House to the Water Resources Board, first because of its independence —something which we shall lose with the National Water Authority—and secondly because of its distinguished record of service. Clause 4 sets up the National Water Council which is a very different animal from the Water Resources Board. In Committee we attempted to do what the hon. Gentleman is now attempting, although we tried to do it in another way. We tried to do it by grafting on to the powers of the National Water Council many of the powers, duties and functions of the old Water Resources Board.

It is true that much of its independence would have gone, but neverthless the spirit of forward-looking planning that characterised the Water Resources Board would, we hoped, still be evident in the National Water Council. I am convinced that major schemes such as barrages, which even a regional water authority would be hesitant to undertake because of their size, cost and complication, would be ideally suited to the Water Resources Board, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, or the National Water Council following our suggestion involving Clause 4.

During the Second Reading debate the Minister stressed the elementary but important geographical fact that most of our water resources are in the west and north whereas most of the demand is in the east of the country. We hope that this Bill will effect an efficient interchange between the regions so that water can be transmitted more easily and effectively. Although there is some responsibility in Clause 4 for this function it is not nearly enough. Not enough power is given to the National Water Council to effect important future schemes for transferring water.

I am certain that the Government will not accept the hon. Gentleman's clause and I do not know whether it would be the best way of achieving his purpose, in the context of the Bill, which is to leave the Water Resources Board where it is. The hon. Gentleman wants to omit Clause 4 and to dispense with the National Water Council. I am not sure that it would be wise to do it in that way. The spirit of what the hon. Gentleman said is very much in line with what we said on Second Reading and in Committee. Perhaps the Minister can give us some hope that some of the powers of the Water Resources Board and its valuable research will not be lost for ever but that some amendment will be made to Clause 4 on the lines that we have suggested which will accommodate the wishes of ourselves and the hon. Member for Harborough.

Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)

I tend to agree with what the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) said about there being a doubt whether the clause of my hon. Friend the Member for Har-borough (Mr. Farr) is the best way of dealing with the Water Resources Board. I would not go along with him in leaving out the whole of Clause 4. I have great sympathy with Amendment No. 75 which would preserve that board. During Second Reading I was one of those who made what I thought at the time was a rather strong plea for the preservation of the Water Resources Board.

It is interesting to note that Clause 29 was not discussed at all in Committee. Despite its tremendous implications it went through on the nod. I realise that that was during the 19th Sitting of the Committee and perhaps hon. Members were getting a little impatient and wanted the proceedings to come to an end rapidly. That places us under an even greater obligation to consider the matter more carefully now. The Government's intention appears to be to set up the Central Water Planning Unit within the Government service in place of the Water Resources Board. The board comes to an end with effect from April next, I take it. It will then still be engaged in an extremely important feasibility study on the Wash Barrage.

That work is being carried out by this body of independent experts. It is being well done and good progress is being made. Before his present incarnation my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, whose attention I would welcome at this moment, shared with me a suspicion about the attitude of the former Ministry of Housing and Local Government towards these important questions of water development. It was not until— with his help and the help of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke)—a few of us managed to get the Water Resources Board to take note of the feasibility of the Wash Barrage that the project got under way.

It took us several years to get this done. Now my hon. Friend is to sweep this away. The reasons he gave in his reply to the Second Reading debate do not add up to a row of beans. I say that with great respect because I greatly admire the way in which he performs his many duties. He said: The need for the Water Resources Board arose from there being about 200 statutory water undertakers and 29 river authorities. Reorganisation will reduce their number to a much smaller group of all-purpose authorities. With great respect, I do not consider that to be an argument in favour of abolition. We might just as well say that because we are establishing rather powerful water authorities which will act together through a National Water Council there is a greater need for completely independent expert advice. It does not seem that my hon. Friend will get this. He went on to say: What we intend to achieve is that the planning side —I wonder whether he can define that— of the Water Resources Board will be kept, along with other planning agencies, as an independent source of advice to the Secretary of State and the National Water Council."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th February 1973; Vol. 850, c. 156.] Let us hear his definition of "planning side." It presumably excludes the carrying out of experiments, feasibility studies and operational work such as the Water Resources Board is doing in connection with the Wash Barrage. Presumably it excludes that. It is the planning side of the Water Resources Board which has so far been independent, but which is to become part of the central water planning unit within the Department.

This is too vague. It leaves us in a state of uncertainty as to what the important work of the Water Resources Board is to become in future. We are not told in any way who is to carry on that same sort of work, and we ought to be told before we agree to the abolition of the Water Resources Board. I find it surprising that it should reach Report stage without having had greater clarification of this important matter. Frankly, I think that before this debate ends we should be told with clarity, thoroughness and great precision what is to happen to the various tasks at present performed by these independent advisory and functional bodies.

Therefore, although I would find it perhaps difficult to support my hon. Friend on his new Clause, and not feasible to support him on his proposal to abolish Clause 4. I do go along with him in his suggestion that the Water Resources Board should be retained, and that therefore the amendment to Clause 29 should be made, unless and until we have the kind of explanations from the Front Bench which I hope will be forthcoming.

Mr. Graham Page

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) puts me in some difficulty because I had hoped I had explained all this—I hope not at tedious length—during Committee stage. There are columns and columns of it which I have in front of me in which I tried to explain it in some detail. If I am asked to go over all that again I shall detain the House far too long. I will try to deal with some of the points he raised.

May I correct him on one point whilst it is fresh in my mind. There is no question of the Central Water Planning Unit being within the Department or being in Marsham Street. I hope we shall retain the premises at Reading and that the staff of the Water Resources Board will join the new structure, which I hope I can explain further to him.

Sir David Renton

It may be that I owe my right hon. Friend an apology for not having read these columns and columns of speeches, but when I turn to the Committee proceedings I find that there was an extensive debate on an amendment to Clause 4 moved by the Opposition and I find there was no discussion whatever on Clause 29, and, therefore in relation to that, no discussion of the abolition of the Water Resources Board. I must confess that I have not so far come across any explanation as to what this planning function is and how exactly the other functions of the Water Resources Board are to be carried out.

Mr. Graham Page

Perhaps I can refer my right hon. Friend to the report of the Standing Committee on 27th March, columns 552 and onwards, where I tried to describe the three units which were to be set up to undertake—certainly the first two to undertake—the work of the Water Resources Board.

May I now address myself in a little more order to the points which have been put forward. First, may I say at once that I join wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) and others who have paid compli- ments and tributes to the Water Resources Board for all the very efficient work it has done. The country is greatly indebted to it. We are not abandoning that work or abandoning the carrying out of the kind of work which the Water Resources Board has undertaken. There is no question of that being lost for ever— which was one phrase used in the debate.

The Water Resources Board, however, is the wrong structure for the reorganised system. If I may use the phrase, it will be "the King is dead, long live the King". We hope that this work, which has been carried out by the Water Resources Board, will be intensified by the two bodies which we shall be setting up. The new clause of my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough refers to the planning functions of the Water Resources Board, but there will be another unit which will take over the resources side of the Water Resources Board.

In dealing with the new clause and the amendments to it, I ought to deal with the planning side because that is what the new clause refere to. As I understand it. The purpose seems to be to retain the Water Resources Board in its present form but to give it some different powers from those which it has at present, in particular to secure co-ordinated planning and the execution of works by the Water Resources Board itself, where more than one water authority is involved, thereby putting a second tier over the regional water authorities. The amendment grouped with this new clause would achieve the additional functions of the board by omitting the clause which establishes the National Water Council—that is Clause 4—by deleting the Water Resources Board from Clause 29 which lists the bodies to be abolished, and consequently by leaving out Part II of Schedule 3 which deals with the administration of the National Water Council.

In all those purposes, the new clause and its grouped amendments would run counter to our proposals for the central structure which I set out in Standing Committee. By retaining the Water Resources Board, the amendments would give it concurrent powers with water authorities to carry out works where the works involved more than one water authority—for example, the estuarial storage or major water transfer schemes. There is power within Clause 4 as it stands now within the Bill for advice on works of that sort and the carrying out of works which will be the responsibility of the Secretary of State if it covers a matter of national policy.

In one direction, the amendments go too far in that they attempt to set up a strong central controlling body, whereas the Government's view is that with ten large and powerful regional water authorities there is no room for such a body between the Secretary of State and Ministers and the authorities, and that in any event as much responsibility as is practicable should be devolved from the centre. But, in another direction, the amendments do not cover as much ground as the Government's proposals because they make no provision corresponding to that in Clause 25(2) and Clause 26(3) for consultation between the Government and the National Water Council on the rate of return to be achieved by the water authorities and the criteria, and so on, for fixing their charges.

The situation under the new structure of regional water authorities will be quite different from that which we had to face at the time of the Water Resources Act 1963 when the Water Resources Board was set up. In the first place, water conservation was then a rather new function. Now its nature is well understood, and the Water Resources Board's own conspicuous success in organising regional and national water conservation planning means that the new water authorities will not be starting from scratch as were the river authorities a decade ago in 1963.

Secondly, the regional water authorities will cover a much larger area, and much of the Water Resources Board's work in co-ordinating water resources planning and development work of two or more river authorities now becomes a matter for the regional water authorities and an internal matter for the large authorities.

Thirdly, all aspects of water quality control will be united, within the management of water resources in terms of quantity, in one authority for each area, so that the need for co-ordination from the centre will to that extent be diminished.

Fourthly, the regional water authorities will be much larger and stronger in resources and expertise than any of the predecessor authorities, and therefore there will be much less need than there was in 1963 to interpose a strong national body between the regional water authorities and the Government. What we are contemplating under the Bill, which we hope will become an Act, is quite different from that with which we were faced when the Water Resources Board was brought into being in 1963.

As regards national planning, the Water Resources Board is just completing its national strategy, and when it is completed there will be a reduction in that type of work. We shall have, as it were, a blueprint for national planning for many years, and the main problems in planning and action will then be concerned with the improvement of water quality.

Investment in that respect is already twice that in water conservation and supply. Quality problems are necessarily a part of the regional water authorities' responsibilities—that is to say, they have to be tackled river by river, so that action and planning is far more the internal work of the regions, and for the next few years we shall not need so much to develop the national strategy. It will be there for us, having been produced by the Water Resources Board, and consequently central water planning will be concerned with a different range of action than heretofore.

For the purpose of concentrating on the type of planning that we need for the future the Government's view is that the efficient way of taking over that part of the work of the Water Resources Board is to set up this Central Water Planning Unit at a national level. Its function will be to identify and study the main strategic options and thus enable the national strategy to be developed.

The unit's programme will be determined and monitored by a steering committee, the chairman of which will be the Chairman of the National Water Council. For the purpose of management services, the unit will be within the Civil Service, but, after all, the staff of the Water Resources Board are within the Civil Service and they have managed to remain independent. We wish the Central Water Planning Unit to have the same type of independence.

The steering committee will be charged with ensuring the freedom of the unit to publish its reports and to maintain its independent professional assessments. The scope of the unit will be broader than that of the planning divisions of the Water Resources Board, in that it will cover all aspects of national water planning, with particular reference to issues affecting more than one regional water authority.

6.15 p.m.

That is one of the points which my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough covers in his new clause. This is what we want to deal with under the Central Water Planning Unit. It would be required to identify problems likely to arise in connection with possible long-term developments and to carry out or promote such studies as might be agreed by the Steering committee. The director of the unit will be responsible for the contents of its reports, and all reports will be submitted to the Secretary of State, the National Water Council and the regional water authorities, and will be published. The Secretary of State, with factual reports from this unit, will then seek the advice of the National Water Council in carrying out the national water policy for which he is responsible under Clause 1.

The Government recognise the importance attached to the independence and impartiality of past reports issued by the Water Resources Board, and we agree that this independence must be preserved in the new structure. The proposals for the Central Water Planning unit are designed to ensure that it forms and publishes its assessments independently of both the Government and the water industry. The unit will give factual advice, leaving debate on the wider political implications to be discussed between the Government, the National Water Council and all others affected by and interested in the national water strategy.

I have not dealt with the other two units—the research and data units— because the clause deals particularly with the planning side of the Water Resources Board. I do not think that I can accept the invitation of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire to define exactly what I mean by the planning side, but I should have thought that it was obvious from the work done by the Water Resources Board. The board has its own planning side and its own planning department, which can be distinguished from its research department. We shall ask those who take over the Central Water Planning Unit to go a little further in planning than was done by the Water Resources Board in many respects. The position in the next decade should be different from what it was in the past one.

We sincerely hope that the staff of the Water Resources Board will accept the invitation to form the staff of the Central Water Planning Unit so that we retain their expertise, and I hope that we can add to it as the work of the unit, guided by the Steering committee, increases.

On that basis I must ask the House to reject the clause, but not to reject the principles on which my hon. Friend put it forward. My hon. Friend wants an independent expert body. We are providing this, spread over, perhaps, the National Water Council, the regional water authorities and the Central Water Planning Unit, but basically the unit will have the expertise for planning and will give independent and fearless advice.

Mr. Farr

I listened with considerable interest to my right hon. Friend's reply. I was disappointed that he made no direct, reference to the future of the Wash feasibility study, or to desalination, but I assume from what he said that the staff of the new Central Water Planning Unit will consist of those who are on the staff of the existing Water Resources Board and that their responsibilities will be transferred in a similar way. I cannot say that I am satisfied with my right hon. Friend's reply, but so that the House can get on with its business I beg to ask leave to withdraw the proposed new clause.

Motion, and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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