HC Deb 02 July 1976 vol 914 cc797-808
The Minister for Planning and Local Government (Mr. John Silkin)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement on drought. As I told the House in answer to the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) on Monday 3rd May, there was then already a danger that parts of the country would be facing water shortages this year. Their severity would vary very much from area to area, but on the basis of something like average rainfall, the water authorities hoped to avoid major interruptions over the summer.

Since that time, the special group of senior officials and representatives of the water industry which I established at the end of April has met regularly and I have been kept informed on a weekly basis. During the last week it has become clear that a combination of the underlying water shortage with the abnormally hot and dry summer we have experienced in the southern half of the country this year now faces us with potentially severe problems of water supply in a number of areas—primarily in parts of East Anglia, the East Midlands, the South and West, and South Wales. A great deal will, of course, depend on the weather over the next couple of months and, crucially, on the way in which the public respond to the water authorities' requests to save water, but it would be irresponsible not to recognise that over the late summer and autumn we may in some places have to tackle a series of localised water emergencies.

We have discussed with the water authorities the range of powers available for dealing with this, and have concluded as a result that they are inadequate for what is a quite unprecedented situation. In particular, they have two major defects; they do not allow for progressive limitations on non-essential uses of water in a developing shortage, and they do not enable the water undertakers to impose in an emergency a flexible and equitable water rationing system.

We have accordingly decided to bring forward urgently a short Bill designed to confer on statutory water undertakers new powers of control over use of water in times of shortage. Essentially we shall be building on the powers for drought Orders already contained in the Water Act 1958. The exercise of the new powers will as at present be subject to the approval of the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Secretary of State for Wales, and they will be applied for limited periods in specific areas where the water supply situation warrants it.

I do not want to exaggerate the problems. Over much of the country, water supplies should be adequate to see us through without difficulty until the winter rains come. But groundwater levels and river flows have fallen abnormally low, and it is factors like these which make the future uncertain. The unprecedented weather conditions, which we share with large parts of Northern Europe, continue. In the light of this, it is right that we should arm ourselves well in time against possible difficulties later in the year. I hope, too, that everyone will recognise that this places a heavy responsibility on all of us to make sensible and economic use of our water resources.

Mr. Arthur Jones

The unfortunate necessity for a measure of this character is widely recognised, and I think that in that context the right hon. Gentleman's phrase "until the winter rains come" is not a phrase with which we are very familiar in terms of our own climatic conditions.

Certainly there will be a welcome for the Government proposals in many parts of the country. The availability of water supplies has clearly significantly deteriorated in recent months, particularly since the right hon. Gentleman's statement on 3rd May, when he said: the immediate position is under control."—[Official Report, 3rd May 1976; Vol. 910, c. 837.] Certainly it has become measurably worse since then.

The announcement on 23rd June to the effect that there were 26 drought Orders in 17 counties was an indication then of the serious situation. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman can tell us to what extent drought Orders have been widened since then. There was no mention particularly of food production and national interest in the context of water supply, and I think the House would like an assurance in that respect. I refer to farming, horticulture and, particularly, livestock.

What proposals has the right hon. Gentleman to promote the saving of water consumption, particularly by heavy users in industry? I have in mind the immense quantities used for cooling in the electricity generating industry.

The regional water authorities, of course, are capital intensive, and the high level of water charges is of widespread and increasing concern. Would the right hon. Gentleman reconsider the position with regard to capital borrowings for the industry? This matter was referred to in his review of the water industry in England and Wales, but with fixed interest rates at their present levels over a 60-year period—this is, I know, in his mind—it has been suggested to me that significant savings could be made if regional water authorities were able to borrow within a more flexible framework and not entirely from the National Loans Fund.

I am happy to assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Opposition wish to co-operate in the proposed legislation, in comparison with other legislation that we have before the House, but I hope he will be able to allow a reasonable period in which we may look at the terms of the Bill. Can he give us any idea when it is likely to be available? I am sure that if there is adequate time for reasonable consideration, a favourable wind will be given to his proposals.

Mr. Silkin

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the terms in which he spoke. I know that he appreciates, as I do, that while there must be an opportunity for proper scrutiny of the Bill, we are dealing with a matter that is of great importance, and I am grateful for his undertaking of co-operation in the general principles concerned.

Dealing with his individual points, with regard to agriculture and industry, we are very concerned about agriculture. We are giving this full weight, and the regional water authorities themselves have the matter very much in hand. As for industry, what we are trying to do by the measures that we are proposing to take is to ensure that it will be able to go ahead with as little interruption as possible. That is why the sort of powers that we are seeking are for dealing with the more non-essential uses of water.

I have found during the past few weeks a tremendous amount of co-operation and ingenuity on the part of the regional water authorities. They have been well aware of the situation in their areas. I have, however, recommended to them that there should be local advisory service committees, which will be able to deal with questions that will inevitably arise area by area and locality by locality.

As for the long-term situation and the hon. Gentleman's reference to the borrowing powers of regional water authorities as this is rather of longer term, it will be considered in the later consultations.

Sir G. de Freitas

Does my right hon Friend realise that although, in the Mid lands in particular, we welcome these urgent steps to meet the immediate problem, we are very much concerned about the longer-term problem? It is not only a question of borrowing. For over 20 years many of us concerned with the Midlands have suggested the establishment of water grids to bring water to the dry counties from the wet regions, and the storage, for use inland, of water from the four rivers that pour into the Wash. Successive Governments have brushed that proposal aside. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to treat the longer-term problem seriously?

Mr. Silkin

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. We really have to consider the long-term problem, and we may have to give it more consideration than we have done in the past. Nobody can be a weather prophet, but it may be that there is a small climatic change in our country. One simply does not know.

In reply to my right hon. Friend's question, this is one of the factors with which a stronger national water authority than perhaps exists at the moment might very well have to deal.

Mr. Freud

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that we on the Liberal Bench welcome the move that he has announced, and pledge our support? However, it is fair to say that any action that has been taken has been cosmetic rather than fundamental. It seems to us that the right hon. Gentleman should have considered the fact that although the present water shortage may well be unprecedented, it was pretty similar last year, and the pipeline that was built to bring gas from the North Sea could easily have been accompanied by an adjacent pipeline to carry water.

May I put three points to the right hon. Gentleman? First, instead of pouring money into regional water authorities, which are overstaffed and in many cases inefficient—indeed, many private water companies are much more efficient than the regional water authorities—would he consider a grant to farming communities to enable them to build reservoirs for this sort of emergency?

Second, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that, electorally unpopular though it may be to say so, the domestic sector is much better able to do without water than is industry or agriculture?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman consider, in particular, some of the abuses of water? I remind him, for example, of what happens at racecourses such as Ascot and Newbury, which use millions of gallons of water. Such vast use in land husbandry would produce an entirely different result. Is it not essential, overall, to preserve local discrimination regarding what to do with the water that we have?

Mr. Silkin

I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said. As to the distinction that he draws between private water companies and regional water authorities, I can only say that Nature does not make that distinction. Nature is dry or rainy, according to how it feels.

In responding to the hon. Gentleman's last point, about racecourses, I suppose that I should declare an interest, in that I am president of a golf club. I accept that activities such as the sprinkling of greens in areas of water shortage are not only wrong in themselves but are a positive disincentive to ordinary law-abiding citizens to save water. That leads me on to the point that, as I am sure we all accept, we must give preference to agricultural production and to our industrial programme. There can be no doubt about that.

In his opening observation, the hon. Gentleman commented on the powers. We are dealing here with a drought of greater dimensions and greater severity than any records have shown over the past 250 years—not all over the country, but certainly in the southern part of England. It is not that there are no powers. Powers were given under the 1958 Act, and in 1973 the Conservative Government, when introducing the Water Bill, did not think that there would be any need to intensify those powers—rightly, in my view. They were more than adequate for what was shown by any records we had over the past 250 years.

It is the change that has occurred in this year, which may or may not continue, that has caused us to believe—this is on the advice and request of the water authorities themselves—that we ought to tackle the matter in a rather stronger way.

Mr. Michael Morris

Will the right hon. Gentleman take it that people outside the House will greatly welcome the fact that the Government are now taking the drought very seriously? As the matter is urgent, perhaps he will explain why the Bill is not ready today. Second, may we have an assurance that counties such as Northamptonshire and the others affected will not be left to fend for themselves, and that directives will go out to those with adequate water supplies, such as the London area, to supply water where at all possible to the counties suffering shortage? Finally, is it not about time that we considered a national "Save it" campaign for water?

Mr. Silkin

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he put the matter. As I said in my statement, he raised the question on 3rd May, and we had already set up the joint working committee at that time. I remember that he welcomed the setting up of that committee, and he was right to do so, because it has given us an early-warning system. After all, what we are talking about now is an extreme situation, which may or may not arise—but in prudence we want to guard against it—in, say, early September.

I know about the hon. Gentleman's own area. Indeed, with his permission, I hope to visit it on Monday to see for myself. I understand his concern for that area—a concern which, quite rightly, is felt by every hon. Member for his own area. But the difficulty in which the hon. Gentleman puts me is this: any system by means of which one achieves large-scale movement of water from areas of plenty to areas which might suffer drought are extremely expensive and in any case long-term. One cannot solve the immediate problem by those long-term measures, but I agree that that ought not only to be kept in mind but moved forward. I assure the hon. Gentleman that everything possible will be done to help his own area and all other drought-affected areas.

Mr. Roderick

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the present situation has highlighted the need for a national water grid system, instead of the piecemeal movement of water from one area to another, so that we have a system similar to that used for electricity and gas supplies? Will my right hon. Friend take it also that people in my constituency have for long been thoroughly tired of having to pay inflated charges for water while at the same time supplying so much water to other areas? Is it not time for an immediate concerted effort to install a national water grid, with a national charging system?

Mr. Silkin

I appreciate what my hon. Friend says. The trouble is that that would not get us out of the immediate difficulties. I know that my hon. Friend has studied the consultative document with care, and I believe that all these questions will naturally emerge as we continue the consultation process on which we have already started.

Sir David Renton

As my large farming constituency is one of the worst affected, I reinforce the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Jones) with regard to food production. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in many cases the normal sources of water for spray irrigation no longer exist, and that from day to day onwards, now, crops will fail unless there is rain or spray irrigation? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider this as a separate and special matter of urgency, quite apart from the Bill, the introduction of which we welcome?

Mr. Silkin

I know about the area that the right hon. and learned Gentleman represents, and, of course, he is quite right. I wish to reinforce the absolute necessity of safeguarding agriculture in every way we possibly can. The point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman makes about spray irrigation is well in hand, not only in the water authorities but in the joint group that I set up in April.

Mr. Spearing

I commend my right hon. Friend on the setting up of the monitoring group to which he referred as long ago as last April, but will he answer two questions? First, what consideration has been given to the terminal report of the Water Resources Board, which went into the matter raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Roderick), that is, what is popularly called a water grid? Has this been considered by the Central Water Planning Unit or the National Water Council? Can my right hon. Friend confirm that consultations have taken place, and, if so, tell us when the outcome will be available?

Second, will my right hon. Friend ask the National Water Council to investigate, perhaps with the National Farmers' Union, the possibilities of maximising water percolation next autumn and winter, so that we may have maximum recharging of groundwater resources, perhaps on a small scale on each land holding? This might avoid the possibility of shortage next year if we get only a moderate rainfall this winter.

Mr. Silkin

I confess that I am not technician enough to be able to answer my hon. Friend's second question, but I shall pass it on to the National Water Council and ensure that the council is aware of it. In response to my hon. Friend's first point, I can tell him that the council has looked at the report and has submitted a number of recommendations upon it to the Government. We are at present studying that matter in detail.

Mr. Michael Hamilton

Would it not have been more impressive if the Minister had acknowledged that, sooner or later, supplies of water must be metered, as are electricity and gas supplies, and if he had brought with him a programme—spread over 10 or 20 years if need be, because of limited resources—starting with the largest users, to implement such a plan, since only thus can we achieve fair and reasonable control over the water supplies which are needed year by year in greater quantities?

Mr. Silkin

With respect, I cannot see how that would have helped in the immediate situation, whether it be right or wrong, and my task today was not to be impressive but to see that we do not run into an unnecessary water crisis.

Mr. William Hamilton

When will the legislation be ready, and will it apply to Scotland, since there are shortages also in Scotland in certain areas? Meanwhile, what short-term measures are there for encouraging water authorities throughout the United Kingdom to co-operate, since there are some still with water surpluses while others suffer shortage?

Mr. Silkin

It is always difficult to make people understand why there should be water shortages in some parts of an island that has surpluses of water in other parts. We have tried to ensure that the water authorities come together and work together—and they have. If the present possible crisis has taught them anything, it has taught them to come together to share their problems.

The situation in Scotland is different from that in England. In Scotland the matter is under control, but in the South of England we are dealing with something that has not happened for 250 years—in living memory. The question of what papers are necessary for Scotland is the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

I fully support the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Jones) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton), but I have two questions to ask. First, will the Minister consider advising the regional water authorities to alter the present charging system to industry, because it does not encourage them to conserve water supplies? Secondly—and I have written to the Minister about this on several occasions—will he encourage water authorities to put less money into personnel and more into capital projects to utilise and conserve the vast quantities of water that are pouring into the sea. That matter was referred to by the right hon. Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas).

Mr. Silkin

I was referring to your own mortality, Mr. Speaker when I inferred earlier that living memory was 250 years. Let us say that the present water situation is one that has not been recorded for 250 years.

The hon. Gentleman's suggestions are for the long term, not for the immediate possible crisis. But he must not think that any point made will be ignored, whatever the answer is. The present water authorities have been in existence for two years and we already have the consultation programme that we promised after two years.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams

Is the Minister aware that the lack of rainwater coming down the Thames Valley causes a particular pollution problem? Will he appeal to all users of the River Thames, particularly those using pleasure boats who are throwing an unprecedented number of beer cans into the river, to exercise special restraint?

Mr. Silkin

My first task must be to give those powers to the water authorities that they will require if the crisis arises. How they deal with their own area must be a matter for them individually. If I made an appeal it would be that people should listen to what their regional water authorities tell them in each locality and follow their instructions.

Mr. Lawrence

Is the Minister aware that in the areas covered by the South Staffordshire Water Board there is at present no problem because of good planning over the years and the geographical position of the area? Will he give urgent attention to the possibility of such boards giving assistance to hard-pressed areas? Is he aware that his assurances on giving farming priority will be welcomed in my constituency, as will his assurances about industry, particularly if it includes the production of beer, which will also receive widespread national approval? Will he also tackle the problem of the time it takes to apply for and be granted drought Orders?

Mr. Silkin

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. His last question will undoubtedly come up at the Committee stage of the proposed Bill. Let us look at that then. Some form of immediacy is necessary.

Mr. Goodhart

The drought has clearly taken the Meteorological Office by surprise. Are there any plans to increase the resources and capacity of the office, or to increase the resources that we make available to the international meteorological organisation?

Mr. Silkin

That is not my responsibility. The Meteorological Office generally is doing a very good job. It has been working very well with us and the water authorities, and I am very satisfied with its performance.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

Is my hon. Friend aware that his statement will be welcomed generally? I brought the matter to his attention during Question Time some weeks ago, and he informed me that the matter was local rather than national. Is he aware of the irresponsible attitude by the public in the indiscriminate use of water? For example, a golf course in Sussex was recently excessively watered. Can something be done by massive advertising to convince the public? Will he make it obligatory to place a large brick in the cistern of each lavatory? That would make a tremendous difference if it were repeated millions of times.

Mr. Silkin

These are matters to be left to the regional authorities. There is a massive controversy throughout the country—a greater controversy than that which exists in the House—about whether one should put a brick in the cistern. As I understand it, the germ of the tremendous controversy is that the size of cisterns differ and one might have to flush twice in certain areas. There is no national crisis, but we face the possibility that, with the present type of weather that we have been having, there will be very bad local conditions. We therefore want to give powers to the water authorities.

Mr. Moate

Is the Minister aware that in some areas householders with cesspits are alarmed about flushing at all? Will he examine the possibility of adding a clause to his Bill providing for the water authorities to apportion treatment costs equally between all households, because the high costs are of critical importance to 900,000 householders? That idea has already won the approval of certain of his colleagues.

Mr. Silkin

I understand the hon. Gentleman, but he must consider the problem from my point of view. We are dealing with a possible series of emergencies, and it is right that we should act to deal with them as swiftly and as efficiently as possible. I do not want to complicate it, even though there are a number of good points I was grateful for the assurance by the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Jones) that the Opposition will be with us on the general principles of the Bill. It is important to get it through as quickly as possible.