HC Deb 29 July 1974 vol 878 cc8-11
7. Mr. Ioan Evans

asked the Secretary of State for Wales what representations he has received from local authorities and organisations in Wales on the operation of the Water Act 1973 and its effect in increasing the water rate by the Welsh Water Authority; and what action he proposes to take.

Mr. Rowlands

We have received a large number of representations. Substantial relief has already been given to domestic consumers to cushion the effect of the increases this year and my right hon. and learned Friend and I shall be meeting the Chairman of the Welsh National Water Development Authority later this week to discuss future charging policy among other matters.

Mr. Evans

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Welsh Office has had more representations on water rates than on the Kilbrandon proposals and that there is deep feeling throughout the Principality? Will he also confirm that the Water Act 1973 is not working at all satisfactorily, and particularly that the insistence in the Act that water and sewerage services are to be financed entirely from water charges is causing deep concern? Will he and his colleagues when they meet Lord Brecon express forcibly that the whole House recognises that the Water Act is disastrous and that it should be removed from the statute book?

Mr. Rowlands

I have to agree that many of the forecasts we made about the meaning of the Act have come true and that the philosophy behind the Act has created considerable problems for many consumers.

Sir A. Meyer

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that if there are to be any refunds to ratepayers in Wales as a result of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's statement they will be available to ratepayers before polling day?

Mr. Rowlands

Without the nasty cynicism of the hon. Gentleman, may I say that the aim of the measures of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, plus those introduced in March, was to give millions of pounds more than was given by the Opposition to ratepayers in Wales, and this will be given as speedily as possible to hard-hit ratepayers. I ask all authorities to do what I gather Anglesey is trying to do—that is, to get refunds out with the maximum possible speed.

Mr. Hooson

Can the hon. Gentleman explain—this puzzles many people in Wales—why Wales, which is so well endowed with water resources, pays so much higher a rate for water than the rest of the United Kingdom? I have no complaint about my constituency, which happens to have been left in the Severn-Trent Authority and therefore pays a much lower rate than its neighbours in Radnorshire, Cardiganshire and even parts of England across the border.

Mr. Rowlands

I have explained several times at length and in detail the reasons why the charges are higher. They are a mixture of historical accident, high loan charges on recent works and the fact that we are trying to serve a wider community. It costs more to produce water for rual areas. But the situation has shown a certain inequity and capriciousness in the system.

Mr. Wigley

When the hon. Gentleman meets Lord Brecon, will he consider putting to him the possibility of wiping out the capital debt which has landed such a millstone around the neck of the Welsh National Water Development Authority in terms of interest payments? Will he also consider averaging the cost of water throughout Wales so that at least the hardest-hit areas are brought down to the average?

Mr. Rowlands

We have been giving urgent consideration to both those points, particularly the second. It is a matter for the water authority itself, which was given powers under the 1973 Act, to make those decisions. Few people except ourselves opposed the Act. I think that Lord Brecon is more than conscious of the impact of loan charges on the cost of water in Wales.

Mr. Alec Jones

Does not my hon. Friend agree that if we are talking of equalisation of water rates it is more logical to talk of equalisation of these charges throughout the United Kingdom and not merely confine the proposal to the borders of Wales?

Mr. Rowlands

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There are two stages. The first, which could be done rapidly if one wished, would be to equalise charges throughout Wales within the authority of the Welsh National Water Development Authority. The second is to consider the broader question of the whole basis of water charges not only within Wales but within the whole of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Wyn Roberts

Will the Minister confirm that both he and the water authority have extensive powers under the Act? In view of the meeting which is shortly due to take place with the water authority, what proposals has he for equalising the incidence of water charges in Wales?

Mr. Rowlands

As I have said, this is a matter first for the water authority, which has been given statutory responsibility for fixing and arranging charges. The Secretary of State has reserve powers, but what I notice more than anything else is the straitjacket in which we have been put by the previous administration's Water Act.

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