HC Deb 16 November 1976 vol 919 cc1112-7
The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Mr. Denis Ho well)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on water resources, in response to an invitation to do so by the Opposition.

As the House will appreciate, the very heavy rainfall of the last two months has greatly improved water supplies. Rationing has stopped, and most water authorities have been able to relax or lift restrictions on non-essential water uses.

The fact that we were able to survive the worst drought since records began 250 years ago with no significant effect on industry and employment, though with hardship to some domestic consumers and some effect on food prices, is a reasonably satisfactory outcome to what seemed in the summer to be an extremely threatening situation. That we did survive this difficult period is largely due to three major factors—the programme of emergency works carried out by the water authorities, involving improved inter-linkages within regions; the response by the public and by industry to our appeal for economy in water use; and the wide use made of the new powers conferred on water authorities by the Drought Act.

It is worth noting that since the Act became law in early August—[HON. MEMBERS: "There has been rain."]—I think the standard of humour is not quite up to what we expect, Mr. Speaker—there have been some 150 orders granted under the Act, 110 of them for augmentation of resources and 40 for limitations on water use, and the implementation of the Act proved to be crucial.

The National Water Council was commissioned by the Government to present proposals for a winter programme to ensure supplies next year. I am grateful to the NWC for its report, which I consider to be soundly based. It has reported that work to the total value of £187 million is in hand or commissioned; and this includes £66 million worth of additional work as a result of studies put in hand during the late summer. The NWC concludes, on this basis, that even if we have another dry winter followed by a dry summer comparable to this year's experience there would be sufficient supplies available next year to maintain industrial production and employment and to meet almost all domestic requirements.

The cost of the new works can be broadly contained within the industry's capital investment ceiling and will not make further demands on public expenditure. I must stress, however, that the study's conclusion rests on the assumption that we shall continue to make economies in our use of water. Ground-water sources are still seriously depleted and will take many months to recover.

There are a number of lessons to be learned as a result of this year's experience. I am asking the National Water Council, in collaboration with my Department, to carry out a detailed study of the relative merits of different forms of water rationing by standpipe and by rota cuts; of contingency plans for such action; of the operation of the Drought Act procedures; and—as part of the preparation of a long-term strategy—of the criteria on which water supply planning is based.

So far as the future structure of the industry is concerned, the Government believe that the drought abundantly confirms the validity of the proposals set out in the Consultation Document issued last March. Water services have to be organised within hydrological boundaries. But it is essential to establish a strong national water authority capable of developing a national strategy and with responsibility for national planning.

We therefore intend to publish a White Paper early next year setting out detailed proposals for the implementation of these conclusions, and upon other matters, with a view to presenting legislation to Parliament as soon as is practicable.

Mr. Arthur Jones

This is a real success story for the Minister, although he does not actually claim to have influenced the weather. Nevertheless, I understand that in some parts of the country he has changed the pseudonym by which he was previously known and is now called "The Minister of Flood".

May I remind the Minister that the House has had no opportunity to debate the issues raised in his statement? I am sure that both sides of the House hope that an opportunity to do so will occur early in the next Session.

What information is now available in respect of the long-term climatic trends? I understand that the Minister has set in hand an inquiry through a climatology unit based on the University of East Anglia. Can an interim report on this study be expected? Does the Minister recognise the important part played by the private water companies during the emergency? We had some news of the Minister's plans in that respect, but is he not prepared to recognise that those companies played an important part and will have to do so in the future, too?

In the context of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about the National Water Council and the support being given by that authority, I join the Minister in the tribute he paid to all concerned in the recent operations. Does not that experience show the validity and soundness of the present arrangements for the regional water authorities?

Mr. Howell

As the House knows, we have commissioned studies on climatology, through both the Meteorological Office and the University of East Anglia. We have not yet received any reports. When I have such reports, I shall inform the House.

The response of the water companies was mixed. Some authorities had to be brought sharply to the point of understanding that the nation's water resources must be taken as a whole and harnessed and managed as a whole. I suggest that that has been the principal lesson taught by the drought. We cannot divide off the supply of water in one part of the country. We are interdependent. In respect of private water companies, it is interesting to note, when people fight a battle to keep them in existence, that there are no private sewerage companies.

Mr. Thorpe

May I, coming from an area which suffered not only from drought but from standpipes and extreme hardship, ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is aware that the water authority in that area did not bother to meet at all between June and September this year? Is he further aware that the area most affected, namely, North Devon, does not even have a representative on that water authority board? Will the Minister see that that matter is put right with the powers of appointment which I understand he will be able to exercise in the near future? Further, could we, preferably, have members elected to these boards?

Secondly and finally, is it not somewhat illogical that, when the Almighty is over-generous and we have floods, that qualifies for Exchequer grant, but when the Almighty is parsimonious and we have drought there is no assistance except that it is put on the rates? Will the equalisation grant help this, and would it not be good theology to look at this again?

Mr. Howell

The right hon. Gentle* man is not quite accurate. Water charges are independent of rates at the moment, although they are often collected by rating authorities as a matter of convenience. I think that it is the policy of both sides of the House that the water industry should be financially independent and not subject to Exchequer grants of any sort. I think that that is the right policy.

I am concerned about the relationships in the South-West between the water authority and local authorities. I think that there is not the standard of collaboration that one would expect between two sets of public bodies, and I am investigating that.

On the question of election, more than half the members of each regional water authority are appointed by the local authorities, as the right hon. Gentleman will understand. But when I have the opportunity to introduce my legislation into the House, or perhaps in the debate on the White Paper early next year, we may discuss some of the issues involved in those considerations.

Mr. Lipton

Has it been established whether standpipes work under water?

Mr. Howell

I do not think that they have been tried.

Mr. Michael Morris

Will the Minister tell us now, first, why there was such a delay in bringing forward the Drought Bill and, secondly, why there was such a delay before the regional water authorities implemented action following that legislation? Will he publish for the benefit of the House details of how the water companies in fact coped? Finally, will he comment on the National Water Council's handling of the drought and its latest proposals for yet a third year of substantial increases in water charges?

Mr. Howell

I think that the hon. Gentleman raised all the questions about the timing of the Drought Act when the Bill was before the House in August. I therefore do not think that there would be any advantage in replaying that match now.

Most of the 150 orders made under the Drought Act were confirmed within a matter of three or four days. I think that the general feeling of the House, as the Bill contained such Draconian measures, was that the House would not have passed those measures had the emergency not been seen to justify such exceptional legislation.

Several Hon. Membersrose

Mr. Speaker

I will allow one more question from each side on this.

Mr. Noble

May I turn my right hon. Friend's attention to the long-term planning which he mentioned in his statement? Is he aware that the foremost outdoor participant sport is angling? In any long-term planning, particularly related to water linkages between systems, will he consider the effect on migratory fish and consult angling interests to ensure that these are not damaged?

Mr. Ho well

The needs of 3½ million anglers are ever present in my mind. I certainly give my hon. Friend that undertaking. We are constantly in touch with the National Water Council and would certainly seek its advice on any matters arising from long-term reorganisation of water supplies.

Mr. Rost

Would the Minister now please blow his whistle again before we are all drowned?

Mr. Howell

The hon. Gentleman's comment, like much of the laughter earlier in my statement, fails to appreciate that at the moment we are in fact having slightly under average rainfall for November. Fortunately, we had double the amount of rainfall in September and October, which got us out of the difficulty. But I am bound to say that if we had a cold winter after Christmas and then a dry summer we should need all the economies for which I have asked in my statement.

Mr. loan Evans

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the fact that the drought had a serious effect on Welsh constituencies where many people had their supplies cut off for 13 hours, would you allow a question from a Welsh Member?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I should declare my own interest. The water supply was cut in my own constituency. However, I have drawn those questions to a close now.

Mr. Bidwell

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Your not calling me has put me in serious difficulties. Am I to advise my constituents to stop praying for rain?

Mr. Speaker

If the hon. Gentleman will see me privately, I will advise him.

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