HC Deb 12 March 1980 vol 980 cc1519-28

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Le Marchant].

1.12 am
Mr. Tony Speller (Devon, North)

The last occasion on which I had the privilege of addressing the House was on the motion of my hon. Friend for Rossendale (Mr. Trippier) on the financial problems of widows. On that occasion, as now, there was not one member of any Opposition party to be seen on the Opposition Benches. Once again, I must become reconciled to addressing the green Benches across the Chamber as I would the green fields of North Devon.

No doubt every hon. Member has a different set of priorities when seeking to describe his or her activities and duties as a Member. There are those who are so community-activated that they are said to send "Get well" cards to cracked paving stones. There are those who are so busy with global activities that they have little time for their own constituencies. For my part, representing the beautiful stretch of land that extends from the Somerset border to the Cornwall border and back into some of the most valuable farmland in the country, I see my job as seeking to provide a framework within which the people of my constituency can work, grow and develop as they wish and not as I or my peers seek to tell them.

The security of law and order and the defence of our land are the duties of this House. The provision of worthwhile utilities and their financing is also properly a duty for the House.

Some months ago, when I was successful in the ballot, I chose as my subject communications—roads, railways and airways—in my constituency. I continue seeking to provide the framework by talking about mains and drains, the works that provide the veins and arteries of a constituency that, with only one mile of dual carriageway in 650 square miles and a tenuous railway link, needs all the help that we can give it in order to retain its pleasant prosperity.

I refer first to the law. The general duty to provide water is to be found in section 11 of the Water Act 1973, which provides: It shall be the duty of a water authority to supply water within their area. The duty to provide drainage is set out in section 14 of the Act, which provides: It shall be the duty of every water authority to provide … such public sewers as may be necessary. The water authorities are obliged to comply with valid requisitions, and when capital expenditure is limited that can be done only at the expense of other schemes. To assist in the proper use of resources, any water authority must maintain a close liaison with planning authorities, since where development requires considerable expenditure and the money is not available there must be embargoes on development—and that is the case throughout North Devon at present.

We have already outgrown our existing capacity for mains drainage and land drainage in our part of the world. As a result, anything more than the standard rainfall, which can be quite heavy in North Devon, becomes a damaging flood. We have had several examples of that even within the past few months.

We are also running out of water. It is an incredible situation that during the winter months we have a great deal of water and during the summer we often have none. It is good for the tourists but bad for the area as a whole, because we must never go back to the standpipes of a few years ago.

Over the 20 years from 1957 to what we call the year of the great drought1976—there was only one year when there was not some form of water restriction or regulation along the North Devon coastline. That is unique in the United Kingdom. It culminated in the standpipes of 1976 and conditions that we thought would never be allowed to exist again. Yet by 1983 we shall be short of water for summer requirements and by 1985 we shall be short for our normal requirements. Of course, in the summer the population at least doubles and the water requirement increases accordingly. A reservoir takes not five minutes but five years to complete and involves planning permissions, consents and purchases.

The Government are responsible for remedial works resulting from flood and similar damage. The local authority has to pay only a fairly small sum, and the cost to the Government is often greater than the loan charges on an amount that would have paid for the remedial works for ever instead of on the present hand-to-mouth basis.

Mr. D. A. Trippier (Rossendale)

Is my hon. Friend aware that water authorities throughout the country own vast tracts of land, some of which could be sold in order to finance the schemes that he is suggesting?

Mr. Speller

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is correct. Many nationalised industries, including water undertakings and the railways, own vast tracts of land. It would be sensible to tell them to finance developments from the sale of assets, as any normal business has to do. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments.

In 1970 a Select Committee decided that an area called Swincombe, on Dartmoor, should not be used as a reservoir site. I believe that this was a mistake, because Swincombe-on-the-Moor was a logical site to cater for the water needs of South-West Devon and, in particular, the city of Plymouth. This is not the area that I refer to now, but because the Select Committee turned Swincombe down it was assumed by the water authority and its successor, the South West water authority, rightly or wrongly—because the Select Committee was not and is not required to give details of the reasons why it disposes—that national parks and moorland were not to be further considered for reservoir sites.

So a site at Roadford was chosen. Roadford was selected out of 39 sites as the best alternative. It is north of Swincombe and would provide water from one source as a reserve both for South Devon—which is not my problem—and for North Devon, which is my problem.

Inevitably, whenever one suggests a site for anything there are many objections. In the case of Roadford the objectors have included the Torridge district council, even though in that area water is at present in shortest supply and development is embargoed. Other objectors included the West Devon district council, the National Farmers Union and the Country Landowners Association. The objections were logical, because the site would use relatively good agricultural land.

I must ask the Minister whether, if we are to say "No" to national parks and moorland and then say "No" to agricultural land in Devon, it rules out the entire county except, perhaps, for the foreshore. That is the problem faced by the water authority. First, it will seek to have the reservoir built at Roadford—I support that—because it is essential that we have water. But there is no chance of completing the reservoir even by 1985.

None the less, if we had the Roadford site—and the inquiry ended more than two years ago—at least the water authority could go ahead with its plans. If the Government say that we cannot have that site, that is fair enough. I would regret it, but, having said that, at least, again, the authority could seek, plan and suggest alternatives. It would mean one site for the north and one for the south. The Roadford site would be between those areas.

The essence of this problem is the uncertainty, and I appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister to tell us what we may expect by way of an answer, or, rather when we may expect an answer. I do not wish to see standpipes back in North Devon in a few years' time and to have to tell people that the Government have been making their minds up for a long time. Successive Governments have taken two years over this.

I turn from water supply to the problem of land drainage. This is the other and equally important side of the same coin.

In the last few months we have had floods at Bideford, Barnstaple and Ilfracombe. That is because the existing land drains cannot take away the water that falls so bountifully in the season when the tourists are not with us. That is no satisfaction to us. It is incredible that after so long a time we have no way of storing the precious commodity that falls to us from Heaven.

The South West water authority—a good authority—had planned to spend money on three areas in particular, Bideford-Northam, Colliford and Ilfracombe. Because of floods, some of these funds had to be used elsewhere. I do not blame the authority, and I respect it for the speed with which it was able to switch resources. We must protect the coast, and the same authority must use the same money whether to provide water or to protect the coast.

We seek tonight not an affirmative answer but the certainty of an answer, "Yea" or "Nay", fairly soon. Without it, we shall not be able to store the vital water that comes from Heaven.

When I entered the House not many months ago, I was told of the great success and prosperity of North Devon in the past 20 years. That has a hollow ring when I see an area with bad roads, poor and tenuous rail communications, a shortage of water at one time of the year and no way of coping with it at other times. I look to the Minister to reassure us and to indicate how we may make everything better for the next 20 years.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller) for raising this matter. Even though the green Opposition Benches are somewhat empty, he has the consolation of knowing that he has an hon. Friend behind him. I was not present on the last occasion on which he addressed the House, so I am not sure whether that is a 50 per cent. improvement on the attendance.

Regional water authorities were set up in 1974 to be strong, semi-autonomous bodies, with boundaries corresponding to river catchments. They were charged with the duty to manage the water resources in their areas, to supply water and to provide drainage, sewage treatment and all other matters, including control of pollution arising from the control of the water cycle. My hon. Friend is right to say that the problems have existed for many years.

About 1,400 public bodies had the responsibility before 1974. In the last six years we have made some progress in welding the previously fragmented units into effective bodies. Had the water authorities not existed, I am convinced that the effects of the 1976 drought—which was particularly serious in my hon. Friend's constituency— would have been much more severe.

In 1974 the South West water authority inherited particularly acute problems of insufficient water resources which had been recognised by its predecessors, who had taken steps to deal with them but which had not reached fruition. For example, in the 1969–70 Session a scheme was promoted to build a reservoir at Swincombe, on Dartmoor. The Private Bill that gave rise to environmental objections was considered by a Select Committee. Prior to that, the House voted in favour of it. Subsequently the Select Committee concluded that the promoters had not made out their case. I take note of my hon. Friend's views on that.

Since 1974 the South West water authority has completed its Wimbleball reservoir, which now provides a direct supply to the neighbouring Wessex water authority and regulates the River Exe, thereby ensuring reliable supplies to the Tiverton and Exeter areas. All necessary powers have been granted to permit the construction of a reservoir at Colliford, which, when completed by the middle of the 1980s, will make secure supplies to the whole of Cornwall.

My hon. Friend referred to the South West water authority scheme for a reservoir at Roadford, at a site located between Okehampton and Launceston. The scheme is designed to augment water supplies over an extensive area of Devon, which includes my hon. Friend's constituency and the city of Plymouth. The scheme was subject to a public local inquiry, which was substantially completed in April 1978 but was reopened in September 1978 to deal with questions on the possibility of reservoir-induced earthquakes.

There were many objections to the water authority's proposals. The inquiry dealt with them and related matters, including appeals by the South West water authority against the refusal of the West Devon and Torridge district councils to grant planning permission for the reservoir and ancillary works.

The proposal raises a number of difficult issues. My hon. Friend will know that there are strong objections, particularly on agricultural grounds. He, of all people, will know that these are not matters to be dismissed lightly, particularly in a county like Devon.

I have been considering the case for some time now. As my hon. Friend will know from my answer to his question last week, we hope to issue a decision very shortly. I can assure him that we are considering every aspect of the case most carefully, but as the matter is still sub judice he will understand that I can make no comment on the scheme now.

My hon. Friend is right in thinking that the South West water authority has a particular problem, common to some others but probably the most acute of all —the requirement to cater for large influxes of summer visitors, who, of course, impact heavily on demands for water supplies and drainage facilities. At the height of the season they are estimated to reach at least 500,000—an addition of nearly 40 per cent. to the resident population. About 70,000 of them go to the water authority's North Devon area, which includes the Devon, North constituency and parts of the Devon, West, Cornwall, North and Tiverton constituencies.

The House should remember that water conservation must also be a factor in considering any future policies. In my hon. Friend's constituency, water supplies have long been derived from several small impounding reservoirs, and these have now been augmented from Meldon reservoir, further south, and by some lesser, more local works. But, generally, resources are not adequate, as my hon. Friend said, to meet summer demands without restrictions.

I understand that in the water authority's North Devon operations area there have been only four years between 1957 and 1979 when it has not imposed local bans on the use of private hosepipes. The authority is about to bring into service a small new intake on the River Torridge, which, in normal years, will allow some conservation of water in impounding reservoirs against summer demands.

In the 1976 drought year there was a complete ban throughout the region on the use of water for non-essential purposes, and at the height of the drought the authority obtained five orders under section 2 of the Drought Act 1976, which empowered it to supply water through standpipes. As is well known, and as my hon. Friend reminded the House, standpipes were erected throughout the North Devon and Torridge district coun- cil areas and were in use in some parts for a short period. But this is not a new phenomenon in the area. That points to the particularly serious problem.

I fear that the water authority inherited many sewerage systems and sewage disposal works that were inadequate and overloaded. I shall deal with restrictions on development in a moment.

A particular problem area in my hon. Friend's constituency is that of BidefordAppeldore-Northam and Westward Ho!, from which sewage is discharged direct to the Taw-Torridge estuary. The water authority's predecessors were not successful in obtaining powers to construct a long sea outfall. The water authority now plans, as a first stage of a substitute scheme, to re-sewer parts of Bideford and to treat the sewage by primary settlement only for discharge to the estuary. Even this part-scheme is estimated to cost £4 million and is not expected to be commissioned until 1995.

The expressions of the water authorities' immediate past activities are contained in their annual reports and their future proposals in their annual corporate plans, which are central to the relationship between the Government and the authorities. These plans incorporate their capital expenditure proposals, which are the subject of discussion with officials of my Department and the totals of which form an input to the annual public expenditure survey.

In drawing up these plans, authorities are expected to pay regard to Govern- ment guidance and policies. Government priorities include the protection of public health and the provision of infrastructure for new housing and industrial development. Additionally, water authorities are required to have regard to structure and local plans and to consult local planning authorities. But there are severe constraints. Not only is it not physically impossible to do everything at once; the House will be well aware of this Government's determination to control and reduce the public sector borrowing requirement and public expenditure in general. To this end, the capital expenditure that each authority is permitted to incur is constrained and, in addition, tight cash limits have been imposed on their external financing. The authorities' internal constraints relate to the levels of charges that they consider their consumers can reasonably be asked to bear and to manpower levels, about which this Government are particularly concerned in the public sector.

Thus, in the assembly of programmes of work, the determination of needs and relative priorities is vital if the greatest benefit is to be derived from the expenditure of the limited funds available.

I confirm what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale that it is important that all water authorities, not only the South West authority, should be aware of any assets, especially in the shape of land, that are not necessary for their own use, that they should be disposed of, and that the financial resources created should be used in other ways.

The assessment of relative priorities and the compilation of a capital programme are matters that only the water authority can determine, and it is the authority's responsibility to do so.

At the current levels of expenditure, I am assured by the National Water Council that, in general, Government priorities are being met. In particular areas, however, that may not be possible. That is undoubtedly so in the South-West, where the water authority has in some places advised the local planning authorities that water and drainage services have insufficient capacity to cater for additional development. I ask my hon. Friend to recognise the constraints under which the authority is working in its attempts to reconcile these competing claims for limited resources.

In his constituency, except for the Bideford-Northam area, where, however, the water authority encourages temporary drainage arrangements, and parts of Barnstaple and South Molton, I believe that it is in villages and hamlets that new housing is constrained because of inadequate main drainage, and, these being in rural areas, it is probable that private drainage arrangements would be acceptable. Moreover, in the towns that I have mentioned and in the constituency generally, there are 300 or 400 acres with planning permission on which, as far as water services are concerned, housing could go ahead.

Industrial development is more difficult. Here the water authority's general advice to the planning authorities is that what are known as dry industries should be encouraged. In using the word "dry" I am not referring to non-brewing activities; I am referring to industries that use a restricted amount of water.

Mr. Speller

It is worth bearing in mind that the growth of fire regulations in factories has created a dangerous position in the Ilfracombe area of North Devon, where there is a shortage of water and a dry industry but one that requires a sprinkler system. The industry may be doing the right things, but it is not able to meet the required fire precautions.

Mr. Fox

I take my hon. Friend's point. In terms of fire precaution, that is a serious matter. As soon as it is possible to meet those needs we shall be happy to do so, not only in the South-West but throughout the country.

My advice to my hon. Friend and to prospective developers is to consult the authority closely and at an early stage. I am sure that it will give the sort of advice necessary.

In the Government we shall continue to exercise close control over the expenditure of the water authorities and to encourage measures to increase efficiency, leaving the day-to-day management to the authorities, which are the best qualified and able to do so.

In conclusion, I return to the central point raised by my hon. Friend. The answer that he requested from me about Roadford will be given at the earliest possible opportunity.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Two o'clock.