HC Deb 08 December 1982 vol 33 cc845-6
20. Mr. Marks

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will seek to amend the Water Act 1973 to enable central Government to make grants to the water authorities for the specific purpose of cleaning rivers in their areas.

Mr. Heseltine

This question raises wide issues and would require legislative changes, which could not be accommodated in the present programme.

Mr. Marks

Although the Secretary of State has stated in his press release "Cleaning up the Mersey" that the Mersey is an environmental disaster and that he is taking steps to allocate a substantial increase to the North-West water authority investment programme, is it not the case that he has no intention of contributing any Government money and that the cost will be borne entirely by North-West water authority ratepayers?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman will realise that the financial investment programmes of water authorities are financed locally. That is the system that applies in this country. It was not changed by the Labour Government. I have no plans for any such change but we shall listen to all points of view during the consultative process taking place to bring about the single biggest environmental improvement ever attempted to the Mersey.

Mr. Oakes

Is the Secretary of State aware that while those in the North-West welcome his programme for cleaning up the Mersey, the real answer is not a conference next spring but the allocation of money and resources? Is he aware that this is a national rather than a North-West problem? Will he find time in the legislative programme to provide Government money and assistance to a hard-pressed regional water authority?

Mr. Heseltine

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for those observations. If we can achieve the programme to clean up the Mersey, it will represent the conlusion of one of the most significant and long overdue decisions. However, the right hon. Gentleman may be pleased to note that I have already announced very substantial increases in expenditure through the North-West water authority. The remaining question is whether the Exchequer should contribute towards that expenditure. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that that was not the practice for the other reclamation programmes, when rivers were cleaned up. If we were to change the practice for the Mersey we should be treating that river differently from the other programmes that have been undertaken locally by other regional water authorities.