HC Deb 17 June 1980 vol 986 cc1528-38

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]

12.33 am
Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Although it is well after midnight, I make no apology for detaining the House for what is a very serious problem in my constituency, namely the water supply to houses at Bircotes, in North Nottinghamshire, near Doncaster. Bircotes is the name of the colliery village for Harworth colliery. It has 1,050 houses which were built by the people who sank the colliery in 1929. There are about 3,000 people living there, and since the pit was sunk it has supplied about 100,000 gallons of domestic water a day.

In 1974 when the water industry was nationalised, this area, which is surrounded by the Severn-Trent and Yorkshire water authorities, came under neither of those authorities. The National Coal Board houses, which had been taken over on nationalisation, belong to the NCB, and it became the water authority for these houses.

There had been spasmodic troubles over some years before the events of spring 1979, when after cleaning of the reservoirs by the NCB, a dry spot occurred and mosquito larvae, worms, bacteria, and all sorts of foul, offensive-smelling bodies got into the water supply, and bred inside the pipes. This made the water discoloured, and turned it into a very offensive liquid that the villagers were expected to drink, bathe in, and use to wash their clothes. Naturally there was a great deal of anger.

The Bassetlaw district council was called in. The public health officer checked the water. He said that by world health standards it was fit to drink, although it was offensive to one's taste. Further, that officer and local doctors said that they would not drink the water and that it was barely fit to use to wash their cars. The world health standards for water ensure only that there it contains no cholera or typhoid. Water straight from the Nile or Ganges may be fit to drink. However, If the troops abroad had had to drink such water from the Nile or Ganges, they would have mutinied.

After the negotiations with the NCB, which produced little result, the miners' wives demonstrated outside the pit and the miners went on strike. The strike lasted several days. The men felt that the board had refused to do anything about the water supply. At the end of May 1979 I was present at negotiations between the Severn-Trent water authority, the local authority, the union and the NCB. As an emergency measure, the Severn-Trent authority agreed to bring in tankers, which stood for several days on the street comers of the village. The board agreed that it would hand over supply to the Severn-Trent authority, having first put the supply system in order, which required the expenditure of perhaps several hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Everything seemed to be going satisfactorily, until May of this year, when we had another hot spell. The water again became foul, offensive and discoloured, with sediment, bacteria and larvae in it. The miners again felt that they had no option but to go on strike. Angry scenes ensued. In the preceding 12 months the NCB claimed that it had spent £5,000 on relining and cleaning out the reservoirs, and a further £26,000 on putting in new filters. The system was still not satisfactory. At this stage, after agreement with the Severn-Trent authority, an outside firm was called in to chlorinate the water heavily. Although the water then became clear, it had a strong smell of TCP or phenol and was still unsatisfactory to drink.

The original contamination probably occurred because the water source comes from underneath some old, disused coke ovens. The board wants to be involved with the water supply only to wash coal. It is not interested in being a water authority. Four years ago the board said that it would prefer to hand over responsibility to the Severn-Trent water authority, and merely use some of the water for washing coal. The source is no good, the system is no good and there needs to be a complete change.

The Severn-Trent authority has examined the position. It agrees that there needs to be a new supply of water to these 1,000 houses. It is test boring holes in Barnby Moor, a few miles away, something it has previously done at various places in the vicinity, including Everton, but that water has not been the right quality or quantity to supply the houses. Even if the Barnby Moor borehole is successful, it will be September 1981 before the authority can supply the houses. In the meantime, from May until the end of August this year and next year the same thing will happen. In August, when the schools go on holiday and industry tends to close for its summer holidays, these houses may be able to have a full supply of Severn-Trent water. From September onwards when the rains come, the pit supply will probably be good enough to keep going.

Obviously the people in the area are angry. They ask why the water authority claims that it cannot supply water or it has insufficient water when new houses are being built, new factories are being built—I opened one within a mile of the village on Friday—and they are immediately supplied with water, while houses that have been there for 50 years have to wait.

Obviously the people in those houses ask why the water authority cannot ration the water so that, perhaps, for one afternoon a week the water is switched off for everybody or there is a ban on hosepipes. They ask why new houses can immediately be put on to the water supply while existing houses have to put up with an unsatisfactory supply.

When I put those questions to the water authority, it blithely replied that the new developments were its customers and it had to give them priority and would continue to supply them, but the existing houses were NCB customers and the water authority had no responsibility for them.

The NCB would like to hand over the system to the water authority lock, stock and barrel and let it supply water to the village. But the authority says that the system that has existed since 1929 is not good enough and it refuses to accept it. It says that the standpipes to the houses in this colliery village are often behind or to the side of the houses when they should go to the front. The authority says that each house should be on a separate standpipe, but that would cause problems, because although the NCB inherited the houses as rented properties on nationalisation, many have been bought recently by miners working at the pit and they would not be happy at having to find several hundred pounds to alter the water supply. The water authority claims that existing pipes are often responsible for the larvae breeding and that the chemical smell is caused by the extensive amount of chlorine that has had to be put into the pipes to try to kill the larvae.

We have the crazy situation of two nationalised industries telling different stories and giving a different version of events, while the villagers suffer, and will continue to suffer at least until September next year. There is at least one road in the village, Colliery Road, where the villagers have been unable to drink the water from their taps for more than 12 months. There is a water tank on the pavement outside the houses and the women have to take a bucket to it every day when they want fresh water. That system has not existed elsewhere in this country in this century.

There is a continual wrangle. The NCB says that it is willing to hand over the supply, but the water authority will not take it over because of the state of the system. The authority admits that it could supply water if the houses were its customers or if it rationed water throughout the district and cut back on the supply to new developments.

I have taken the matter up with the Minister for at least a year since the first occurrences. In a letter to the Bassetlaw district council on 4 March, Mr. Ritchie of the Department of the Environment said : I must again point out that unless and until the Department receives evidence that the Council and the Authority are in dispute as to whether the present supply to these houses or the area generally is insufficient or unwholesome or causes a danger to health, the Secretary of State cannot take any action under section 11(4) of the Water Act 1973. He has no locus in this matter. In other words, the Secretary of State says that he can do nothing unless the local council and the water authority are in dispute. The council says that it cannot rule that the water is unfit to drink because, although it looks and smells bad, it is, by world health standards, fit to drink—even though no one would drink it. The water authority will not take this matter up because it cannot supply the water. The National Coal Board cannot supply it because its supply system is no good, coming from those ancient sources beneath the coke ovens. The argument goes round and round between the two nationalised industries, the Minister and local government.

If the Ombudsman were able to officiate on this sort of thing I would have called him in long ago. But he cannot come in because it is a dispute between two nationalised industries. Already there have been two justifiable strikes. This year alone, 12,000 tons of coal were lost, costing the board £360,000. I do not blame the men for going on strike. It is sheer anger and pent-up frustration. They have tried negotiating with their employers, they have tried going to the council. I have raised the matter with the Department.

It seems that this is bureaucracy gone mad. There is a continual buck-passing exercise between nationalised industries, Government Departments and local councils. These 3,000 people are expected to suffer. The board has massive expansion plans for Harworth colliery. It is a "super pit". It has many years of life in it and the board is to recruit men to work there. Yet it is losing production because of this dispute.

I ask the Minister to step in and adjudicate. If he has no powers, perhaps he can bang a few heads together in the two nationalised industries and get them to come together and reach agreement. It may be that the Severn-Trent water authority is asking for far too much in the way of replacement before it will take over the system. Perhaps the NCB wants to spend too little. Perhaps the local medical officer of health is being a bit too rigid in his application of world health standards. This is for the Minister to investigate and decide. This situation, in 1980, is intolerable for my constituents and, rightly, they have asked me to protest on their behalf.

12.47 am
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Marcus Fox)

I am sure that the people of Bircotes will be grateful to the hon. Member for Basset-law (Mr. Ashton) for the forceful way in which he has spoken on their behalf this evening. I do understand the hardships and suffering he has described.

Hon. Members will find it surprising that, in this day and age, a whole village, such as the hon. Member has described, should be without a public supply of pure drinking water. We tend to take it for granted that the entire population—give or take a few isolated farmhouses and cottages—is on mains supplies. We are almost right in doing so. It is estimated that 99 per cent. of people in this country receive a public water supply in pipes. That record cannot be criticised. To my knowledge there is only one other country in the world that can claim such success—the Netherlands. A similar proportion of the population receives a public supply in that country.

For the efficient maintenance of this enormous system and for the absolute reliance we can put on the purity and wholesomeness of the water available on tap 24 hours of the day, 365 days of the year—and it is an enormous project—we all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the hard-working and dedicated men and women of the water industry. It is right that at this time, when they have been the subject of considerable criticism in certain respects, I should pay this tribute. I would not like to let the opportunity pass without saying that.

The village of Bircotes, as the hon. Member has pointed out, is a mining village—and this is part of the problem—of 1,050 houses built in the 1920s specificially to house workers at Harworth pit. At the time the village was built—and this was not an uncommon occurrence—the owners decided that it was cheapest to supply the village with water from the same source which supplied the mine itself at Harworth. This was a local underground source. This had an advantage of cheapness; as a private supply, there could be no question of paying any charges to a statutory water undertaker. At a later stage, following nationalisation of the coal industry, an agreement between the National Coal Board and the central Nottinghamshire water board provided that the NCB would maintain its own private supply in the area.

No doubt for as long as the supply of clean water to the village was adequate there were no problems. But, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, last year the villagers began to notice that their water tasted abnormal and that there were dirt particles and worm-like creatures in the water. I do not think that any commu- nity would accept that situation without complaint. It is a cause of regret that, as the hon. Gentleman has described, strikes have taken place because of this situation. The people complained to the Bassetlaw district council, which carried out tests and found that the abnormal taste was attributable to the presence of chlorophenols in the water, and that the worms were, in fact, chironomus midges. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands this. If he understands it as well as I do, he is doing well.

I understand that these are a gill-breathing immature form of widespread, usually non-biting, midges, which may gain entry into water mains via treatment works filters or open supply reservoirs. They are, however, believed not be a hazard to the health of consumers of the water, although they are aesthetically objectionable. That sounds like a Civil Service explanation. I am sure that anyone who found creatures if this sort in water would take the same view as the people of Bircotes.

The district council took the matter up with the Severn-Trent water authority, which arranged to supply the village on the emergency basis that the hon. Gentleman has described. It did this by pumping water from its own sources into the village distribution system. At the time, however, it made clear that its own supplies in the area were stretched more or less to the limit in supplying the properties for which it was responsible. It could not guarantee to maintain supply to Bircotes through the summer months when resources were low.

Nevertheless, it was the intention of the authority to augment its resources. It hoped that it would be possible to provide a permanent public supply to the village within about two years, or about 18 months from now.

Meanwhile, with technical advice and assistance from Severn-Trent, the National Coal Board set about improving the purity of its own supply. Severn-Trent extended the periods of its emergency supply to 20 May this year, to enable remedial work to be completed, and on that date the NCB resumed responsibility for supplying the village. It quickly became clear, however, that the supply was still unsatisfactory. Problems of discolouration and taste persisted, largely, I understand, because a chlorine dioxide plant that had been recommended by Severn-Trent had not been installed. I know that the hon. Gentleman has described other factors.

Severn-Trent again arranged an emergency supply and the new plant was installed. For a few days, all went well, but then this sad story took another twist when the plant broke down and again the supply reverted to its original condition.

The present position, I am informed, is that the manufacturers of the equipment, the NCB and Severn-Trent have been trying to repair the equipment, and that, meanwhile, Severn-Trent yet again introduced an emergency supply on Friday 6 June.

That is the background. Although I understand that there have been difficulties between the NCB and Severn-Trent on this case, it seems that both bodies are now co-operating urgently to solve the only problem that matters—that a satisfactory supply be assured to the village as soon as possible. In the long term—this is apparently recognised by both bodies—the solution must lie in having a supply provided by Severn-Trent. I think that is what the hon. Gentleman was asking me to say.

The NCB is not a water undertaker. It has, I am sure, enough technical problems of its own to worry about without adding the running of a water undertaking. Today, in the House, we have been discussing some of those other problems.

Severn-Trent has agreed to provide a permanent, piped supply as soon it can. Meanwhile, it has made an emergency supply available on several occasions, and has provided technical and scientific assistance to the NCB. For its part, the NCB has, I understand, agreed to lay a new water distribution system in the village to Severn-Trent's standards, to replace the present wholly inadequate system. This enables the new water supply, when it is available, to be delivered adequately to every house.

Perhaps, I should, at this point, explain briefly what are the statutory obligations of Severn-Trent. Section 11 of the Water Act 1973 imposes a general duty on water authorities to supply water within their area, but, as I have explained to the hon. Member in writing, this is not a duty to provide a supply to every property or group of properties within that area. There are and will always remain, areas where, because of the distance from any source of supply, or the sparseness of the population, it would be prohibitively expensive to lay mains.

Our water supply legislation, as it effects existing dwellings, is on the basis that it is the responsibility of owners or occupiers to pay for bringing water into their area for the first time, although it is possible for local authorities to provide help. Thus, owners and occupiers of houses without mains water have a power to requisition a supply from a water undertaker, as provided in section 29 of the third schedule to the Water Act 1945. They may do so, and the undertakers must comply with the requisition if the amount of water charges payable annually once the mains are laid will be not less than one-eighth of the cost, and if they agree to take a supply of water for at least three years.

Where the charges payable do not cover one-eighth of the cost of providing the mains, it is possible for the district council to undertake to pay the difference between those two amounts. It must agree to do this until the charges payable meet the amount which would have enabled a requisition to be made by the owners or occupiers, or for 12 years, whichever period is the least. If the local authority take this course, the water authority is obliged to lay the mains. It is also possible, in that case, that the work will qualify for a grant from the Department towards the cost of laying the mains under the rural water supplies and sewerage Acts.

As I understand it, the NCB has considered the possibilities which the legislation offers, and has concluded that the water authority's offer to bring water to the village at its own expense—provided that the NCB lays the new distribution system—is a better option.

Mr. Ashton

What if there is a dispute about the quality of the system for which the NCB agrees to pay? That is the crux of the matter. If there is a dispute between the NCB and the Severn-Trent about how much should be spent, who adjudicates in the dispute?

Mr. Fox

Water standards are the responsibility of the water authority and, ultimately, of my Department. The hon. Member has raised an important point. I understand that the differences are being resolved. I shall look carefully at whether the question of quality is causing the delays. Severn-Trent is doing what it is required to do by law.

The hon. Member asks the Secretary of State to send an inspector to mediate. I can understand his concern. It is not open to me to do that. We have no powers to send an inspector to the area. I have given an assurance which I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept.

Although the Secretary of State has devolved powers under section 13 of the Water Act 1945, they come into play only if a water authority is in breach of its duties. There is no evidence of that in the present case. I do not think that anything that an inspector could do would help the present situation, the urgency of which does not seem to have been lost on any of the parties.

I take note of what the hon. Gentleman has said, particularly of his comment about bureaucracy going mad. He asked me to bang a few heads together. We all want to see the matter remedied as quickly as possible. I would ask only that all concerned show a little patience while remedial measures are carried out. I shall certainly do my best to bring a satisfactory conclusion at the earliest possible moment to this most difficult problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to One o'clock.