HC Deb 19 December 1980 vol 996 cc694-701 12.30 pm
Mr. Donald Thompson (Sowerby)

I thank the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) for curtailing his debate, after the important statement today, to enable me to raise this matter. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton). We all know how difficult it is to make shorter speeches. I also thank the fates for giving me the luck to draw a place for this debate. It would have been wrong for me to go home for the Christmas holidays without bringing this important matter before the House. An Adjournment debate is perhaps the best means of outlining our problems and, we hope, of getting some answers from the Government.

Many hon. Members are dissatisfied with their water authorities. One water authority has been taken to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The authorities are like the giant ships, such as the "Great Eastern", or the giant aeroplane the Brabazon. They were constructed at the end of an era and never really took off, because everything changed almost the moment they were constructed.

The water authorities have lurched from crisis to crisis. Whatever their newer duties, their prime job must still be to provide pure and wholesome water—in this case for my constituents. Their second job is to provide water for industry to a standard which has been set over many generations. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) in the Chamber. I hope that she will be able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and expand on that aspect.

The water authorities do not seem to think that it is right that they should provide water for industry. Mr. Barraclough, the chief environmental health officer of my local authority, Calderdale, has said: The Yorkshire Water Authority seem to be of the opinion that is not their duty to provide waters tailored to the needs of industrial users. Sowerby is in the middle of the Pennines. It has been renowned for its pure water for hundreds of years; hence, the wool textile industry is based there. The water is more important than the sheep. Better wool comes from other areas, but the industry grew up because of the purity of its water.

The water has always been pure. In the mid–1970s, when I was chairman of the local education authority, I asked the Yorkshire water authority to use one of its reservoirs for water sport for the children. That use was denied. The water authority said that the water was too pure, so the filtration system was not and need not be rigorous.

The Yorkshire water authority inherited a good system, but it has gone downhill since then. It now has a deficiency of delivery. In the delivery of pure water, the water authority has woefully and complacently—that is the worst part of it—failed in its duty.

I shall not bore the House with the vast array of documents I have setting out every detail of the Yorkshire water authority's complacency over the years. It started in 1974, when a Mr. Goulden, the divisional public health inspector, in a letter to Mr. R. H. Wood, the chief environmental health officer, said: You will appreciate that apart from passing complaints on to the Yorkshire Water Authority, which do not always receive attention, there is very little the department can do. I feel it is time the Yorkshire Water Authority 'came out of hiding' and issued some statement regarding their water supplies, as I understand that complaints are not only confined to this division, but also other areas of their distribution service. More and more complaints have followed. Fear has been allowed to breed in people's minds. Whenever people have complained—whether they be old ladies living alone and frightened by press reports and by black water coming from their taps, whether they be firms or parish councils, which in my area are very active and useful in monitoring local difficulties—they have been met with complacency.

This year, a crisis was reached. Apart from industry being crippled, more importantly, after years of complaining, the quality of the water has twice been found unacceptable to the World Health Authority. An analysis was taken in July in Mytholmroyd, a village in my constituency. The analyst said: The above sample is completely unacceptable for mains water due to a very heavy deposit of manganese, associated with smaller quantities of iron and traces of lead and copper. The recommended WHA limits were exceeded for all four metals. That is not acceptable, and it was not an isolated instance. In October 1980, another sample was taken at Scarbottom House Cragg Road, Mytholmroyd. The analyst's report concluded: The levels of iron and manganese found are likely to give rise to complaints regarding taste, discolouration, deposits and turbidity. In my opinion, since the manganese exceeds the internationally set maximum permissible limit, the source is undesirable for domestic use. Had a manufacturer of food been the subject of two such damning reports over those months, he would have been put out of business.

However, we have again received complacent answers from the water authority. Speaking of Mytholmroyd, it said: Although the supply can be very discoloured, it does not follow that the water is bacteriologically unsafe. The bacteriological quality of the water is checked regularly and frequently. The basic problem in the Mytholmroyd area is in fact typical of many areas. If it is typical, the authority should be doing more about it. The problem of impure water is not a problem for the citizens but a problem for the Yorkshire water authority. The citizens are the victims.

However, amazingly, since I announced in the local press that I was seeking this debate, the water authority has said that it has found some cash to proceed in two years' time. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is in some difficulty, but I should like to know whether that money will be available sooner and whether we still have any reason to trust the Yorkshire water authority. Can he give my citizens—children, old people, those going about their daily business, who must rely on this supply of water—any further assurances as to its safety?

12.39 pm
Dr. Shirley Summerskill (Halifax)

I thank the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Thompson) for allowing me briefly to intervene in his debate. I strongly support and confirm everything he said.

We want to impress upon the Minister the fact that the water in our constituencies should satisfy two criteria: it should be safe to drink and it should be clean for domestic and industrial purposes. This is a long-standing problem and has not just cropped up in the past few months or weeks. Our constituents have beets extremely patient. There is every evidence that the problem has become worse in the past few months, with complaints regarding colour, taste, deposits and turbidity.

Our major concern is the health aspect. Samples of water have been shown to contain a level of iron that is well above the level set as the permissible level by the World Health Organisation. Will the Minister give a categoric assurance that the water being consumed by the citizens of Calderdale is completely safe to drink and that it does not constitute a danger to health?

This problem affects an important industry in my constituency called Reliance Hosiery. The managing director first complained to the Yorkshire water authority three years ago. For four years, he has experienced a steady deterioration in the quality of water supplied to his dye house. Since June 1980 it has proved impossible to dye any white socks in Halifax because of the severe greenish-yellow discoloration of the water. He now has to send 15,000 pairs of socks a week to outside companies in the Midlands. The dyeing of all socks is affected, and the managing director has to put additional chemicals into the water. The authority's analysis shows that an increase in iron, aluminium and manganese has taken place over the past two years. It has caused increased production costs, including several thousand pounds on filtration equipment.

Times are hard enough for manufacturing industry. The water authority has not offered a satisfactory solution. Presumably, the deterioration will continue unless the present trend is stopped. I have referred to one of Halifax's most successful companies. However, it represents only one example of the way in which industry is being hit.

We are told by the Yorkshire water authority that work to improve Calderdale's water will begin in 1982, which is the year after next. It says that the work might not be completed until 1985. I shall pause to let that sink in. That is a long time for anybody to tolerate such a situation and to remain patient until something is done.

Yesterday, on the eve of this debate, I received a card from the Yorkshire water authority which wished me a happy Christmas. My Christmas, and that of my constituents, would be a lot happier if the Minister were to give us an assurance that the water is completely safe. My constituents will have to drink that water until the end of 1985. We should also be happier if he would give us an assurance that the condition of the water will not deteriorate further before 1985 and that the work will start before 1982 and end well before 1985.

12.43 pm
Mr. Gary Waller (Brighouse and Spenborough)

My hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Thompson) has established a reputation as one of the most dedicated attenders of debates. It is typical of the attention that he devotes to his constituents' concerns that he has managed to raise this important issue at a time when many hon. Members have already departed for the Christmas Recess.

The anxieties expressed about the purity of the water supply in Calderdale have mostly emanated from the upper valley in my hon. Friend's constituency. Recently I have also received complaints, particularly about the situation in Hipperholme and Clifton in my constituency. At best, the discoloured water proves an embarrassment and an inconvenience. My constituents bathe in water that probably leaves them dirtier when they get out than when they got in and they have a just cause for complaint. One can imagine that washing clothes is impossible. An undesirable flavour is given to tea that is brewed with it.

At other times, the water is quite clean and apparently pure. However, the situation can change rapidly and is apparently unpredictable. At worst, my constituents might naturally, rightly or wrongly, fear for their health. Reassuring statements from the Yorkshire water authority are out of accord with those from such people as Calderdale's deputy chief environmental health officer, who is reported to have said: We think the situation quite appalling and the committee was amazed by the findings. The county analyst, when referring to a sample that was taken from a home in my constituency, said that he found it completely unacceptable for mains water due to a heavy deposit of manganese. The World Health Organisation's recommended limits were exceeded for lead, manganese, iron and copper. Even if the amount of lead is below the maximum permitted level, it is still very much higher than the maximum desirable level. A sample taken in Brighouse in my constituency had five times the desired level of iron although it was still within the maximum permissible level.

I can only repeat what the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby have said—namely, that it is vital for the situation to be clarified as soon as possible. The water authority must take steps to ensure that it supplies clean water to those who work and live in Calderdale and pay high water rates for the privilege.

12.47 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg)

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Sowerby (Mr. Thompson) and for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Waller) and the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) for bringing this important issue to the attention of the House. They are three diverse Members. The only connecting link must be that they are all dyed in the wool in that part of the world. The fact that they have all contributed to the debate indicates that there is a real concern. I am grateful to my hon. Friends and the hon. Lady for giving me a chance to renew the acquaintance that I used to have with the textile industry in Halifax, Linthwaite and Wibsey, and I know some of the problems to which my hon. Friends have referred.

The House will recall that when the regional water authorities were set up in 1974 they took over from about 1,400 public bodies. During the past six years they have been grappling with many inherited problems. Discoloured water supplies are not peculiar to the Yorkshire area but they are particularly difficult there, especially in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby and in that of the hon. Lady.

The problems derive from an inheritance of many upland reservoir sources of soft peaty water with inadequate provision of treatment facilities to remove colour. This problem has been exacerbated in some areas by a large proportion of unlined iron mains in the associated distribution systems. These old mains are encrusted with iron and manganese deposits built up over many years of service. Such deposits can be stirred up by fluctuations in the rate of flow in the mains and can reach consumers' taps on occasions in larger than usual concentrations.

I am advised that concentrations of iron and manganese in the Calderdale supplies are high. However, I am advised—I must choose my words as carefully as I can—that they are not such as to be hazardous to health and consumers should have no fear on that account. However, in the light of what my hon. Friend has said about World Health Organisation reports, I shall draw the particular attention of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment who has responsibility for water to what has been said and ask him to write to my hon. Friend when he has had proper investigations carried out on his behalf.

Dr. Summerskill

What is the source of the hon. Gentleman's advice? Who has advised him that the supply is not hazardous to health?

Mr. Finsberg

No doubt the hon. Lady has replied to several Adjournment debates. I can say only that I am conveying the best advice that is available to me within the Department. If I am able to let my hon. Friends and the hon. Lady know of a more exact source, I shall undertake to write to them.

Water authorities with discoloured water problem areas are working continuously, albeit perhaps slowly, towads an elimination of the factors which give rise to such conditions. Long-term programmes of mains relining and renewal are in progress, but the scale of the work to be done is such that many years will be required before all unsatisfactory systems have been cured.

I understand that in Yorkshire there are some 20 existing treatment plants with raw water colour problems and an associated 4,000 kilometres of unlined iron mains adding to the difficulties. Although the problem is recognised, it clearly cannot be solved overnight.

In the Calderdale area, the water authority plans to reconstruct the Thrum Hall water treatment works by 1985 at a cost of nearly £5 million, and this, I understand, should enable colour to be removed from the raw water before reaching supply. Renovation of the associated unlined distribution mains is estimated to require the expenditure of some £20 million, and no target date for completion of this work has yet been forecast.

Discoloured water is not the only problem which has faced the Yorkshire water authority since reorganisation in 1974. The great drought of 1975–76 highlighted the region's lack of adequate source works and hon. Members will know that great strides have been made since then in the construction of the Yorkshire grid to strengthen the availability of reliable water supplies to consumers. New intakes have been constructed at Barmby on the river Derwent, at Niddsmouth on the river Ouse and at Lobwood on the river Wharfe to feed to an interconnected system of supply to the larger urban areas of West and South Yorkshire. A new regulating reservoir is under construction at Grimwith to support abstractions from the Wharfe, and the existing intake and treatment works at Elvington on the river Derwent has been extended to increase supplies.

While Yorkshire does not appear to have sewerage problems as serious as those which are apparent on the other side of the Pennines, there is still a great deal being done to improve and upgrade the inherited systems. In Sheffield the Don Valley sewer scheme is under construction at a cost of over £25 million, new sea outfalls are planned at Bridlington and Scarborough to clean up the beaches there and major sewage works and reconstruction projects are under way on the rivers Calder, Aire, Don and Wharfe to improve the quality of their waters.

Because of the heavy concentration of urban development on the slopes of the Pennines, the main Yorkshire rivers downstream have been of relatively low quality for many years, and much capital expenditure will be necessary over an extended period before they can be improved to a more satisfactory condition, capable of supporting some fish life and providing areas of recreation and amenity for enjoyment by the public.

While all this work is in progress, the authority must ensure that existing water and drainage facilities are extended and enlarged to service new development for industry and housing, as well as coping with known areas of low capacity where water pressures are low or inadequate sewers cause flooding.

The Yorkshire water authority is spending this year about £71 million on new water and sewerage capital works and plans to continue at roughly this rate for the next five years or so, subject to the availability of national resources.

Of that total, some £24 million would be spent on water supply works, including replacement and renovation of treatment plant and distribution mains as well as new source works. Of the remainder, about half would be spent on improvements to the sewerage system and half on reconstruction of sewage treatment works.

Much more information on the past performance of the water authorities is contained in their annual report and information about their future proposals is given in their annual corporate plans. These plans set out their proposed capital expenditure programmes, which form an input to the annual public expenditure survey and are discussed in more detail with officials of my Department.

In drawing up these plans and programmes, the authorities are given central guidance and are expected to have regard to Government policies and priorities. They are additionally required to consult local planning authorities with regard to structure and local plans. Within this framework they are relatively free to assess their own individual priorities in relation to local and regional circumstances.

This Government's determination to control and then reduce the rise in the public sector borrowing requirement and general public expenditure has an effect on the way in which water authorities prepare their annual plans. Their annual spending on capital works is constrained within the available national resources which can be allocated to them, and, in addition, tight cash limits have been imposed on their external financing. Internally, the authorities are constrained also in the rate at which they can finance improvements by the levels of charges which they consider their consumers can reasonably be asked to bear.

In short, it is not physically possible to do at once everything which is needed, and individual authorities will arrange their priorities for work, within their limited resources, according to local circumstances. This detailed assessment is something only they are equipped to do, and the Government do not interfere in this type of day-to-day management decision.

The views of my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Halifax will be conveyed rapidly to the Yorkshire water authority so that it knows the strength of feeling that has persuaded three hon. Members on the last day before the Christmas Recess to raise this important matter in the House. I shall ask my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Fox), who has the responsibility in the Department for this matter, to look into it.

In respect of the aggregate level of capital spending by the water authority, I assure the House that I have been told by the National Water Council that Government priorities for the maintenance of public health and the servicing of new developments are in general being met. In our current economic circumstances, it would be folly to expect to do more.

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