HC Deb 19 January 1977 vol 924 cc317-9
13. Mr. Spriggs

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what consultations he has had with the water authorities, the associated industries and the trade unions, before he instructed the water authorities to stop all new work; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Marks

For obvious reasons there was no question of advance consultation on the matters contained in my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's statement of 15th December. But there have subsequently been detailed discussions with the water authorities, with representatives of trade associations and trade unions concerned, and with individual hon. Members. The six-month moratorium on new construction work will inevitably cause real difficulties in a number of areas, but I am exploring what scope there may be for mitigating some of the more serious effects.

Mr. Spriggs

Is my hon. Friend aware that many participants came away from the meeting with his Department dissatisfied with the answers they were given? In view of that dissatisfaction, will he arrange for meetings to take place with the various trade unions responsible for workers in the industry?

Mr. Marks

That is not a message I have received from either side at the time of the meeting or since. Since that meeting I have issued guidance notes on a moratorium to the regional water authorities and the National Water Council, and I have placed a copy of those notes in the Library.

Mr. Michael Latham

Has the hon. Member seen the published text of a speech made by the President of the House-Builders Federation earlier today, saying that the six-month moratorium could bring work on hundreds of housing sites to a complete stop?

Mr. Marks

That is the kind of difficulty caused by public expenditure cuts. As I recently pointed out to the manufacturers, there have been demands for much larger cuts in public expenditure. We are told that the cuts are too little and too late, and in some instances industry has supported those pleas. The advice we have given to water authorities means that they may pre-order pipes and other materials during the moratorium period. The moratorium relates to contract work. I hope that the notes of guidance will assist industry.

14. Mr. Hardy

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he last met the chairmen of the water authorities.

Mr. Marks

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State saw the chairmen of the regional water authorities on 20th December 1976.

Mr. Hardy

Did the meeting consider the serious problems faced by those who depend on cess-pit drainage? Given the Government's concern over water equalisation charges, does my hon. Friend not agree that there is urgent need to improve that area of operations?

Mr. Marks

I appreciate the difficulties, particularly in rural areas. Incidentally, my right hon. Friend naturally warned the chairmen of the water authorities about the effects of the moratorium rather than about more detailed matters. I appreciate that the cost of cess-pool emptying is heavy, but I have no powers to make any directions to the local authorities or to the water authorities in this respect. As I said previously, we must hope for legislation to do that.

Mr. Arthur Jones

Is the Minister prepared to give an undertaking on behalf of the Government that the moratorium to the water authorities will not affect more housing development or those schemes necessary for the economic revival of the country?

Mr. Marks

We shall look at particular proposals, but in general, where planning permission has been given for housing development, we would expect the water authorities to carry out their statutory requirements. We have asked them to inform us of any such situations.

Mr. Whitehead

Will the Minister impress on the chairmen of the water authorities the need for a prompt response to the public outcry over annoyance, odours and other matters relating to sewage works where the sewage works concerned, as happened at the Megaloughton Works at Spondon in my constituency, have been the subjects of experiments relating to sewage flow and matters of that kind? What is being done about it?

Mr. Marks

I shall certainly take up that matter. It has not been brought to my attention on previous occasions.

Miss Fookes

Did the Minister discuss the possibility of at least charging domestic users on the basis of the amount of water consumed?

Mr. Marks

At the moment we are operating the 1973 Water Act. I have no power to direct the water authorities with regard to the way that they make charges. I may make suggestions and give some guidance, but I have no power to put such proposals before the water authorities. In general the metering of domestic supplies would need a considerable amount of capital expenditure.