HC Deb 09 July 1984 vol 63 cc697-702 3.31 pm
Mr. Rob Hayward (Kingswood)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the rapidly deteriorating water supplies.

The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Ian Gow)

Over the past three months rainfall in the United Kingdom has been substantially below average and in some parts, notably Wales and the south-west, it has been less than half the normal amount. Reservoirs in Wales, the south-west and Cumbria are low, and the 30-day forecast is for warm, dry weather in all parts of the country.

Since the drought of 1976, water resources have been augmented in many places and distribution systems improved, but demand has risen—in particular, the peak summer demand.

To conserve supplies in the areas of shortage water authorities have prohibited the use of hosepipes, and these bans now affect some 9 million people. The Government have also made 18 orders under the Drought Act 1976, authorising water authorities and companies to augment supplies by reducing river levels. During a meeting with the chairman of the South West water authority on 23 May I confirmed that the Government expected water authorities to take early action to safeguard supplies. This advice was repeated to all water authorities on 6 June so as to avert the need for more drastic steps later on, such as rota cuts or supplies only from standpipes.

We shall as necessary make orders authorising water authorities and companies to prohibit other inessential uses of water. My Department will keep in close touch with all water authorities and companies, and I am asking those bodies to report to me on a weekly basis.

I urge everyone to use water responsibly. The water authorities and companies are best able to judge what economies are needed in their areas. I stress how important it is to comply with their advice and with the terms of any statutory limitions in force from time to time.

Mr. Hayward

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the advice that he has been given, in the light of the fact that on 1 May this year I was told in a written parliamentary answer that water supplies were in good shape except for some small reservoirs in the northwest".—[Official Report, 1 May 1984; Vol. 59, c. 112.] and yet restrictions now apply to 9 million people?

If orders are to be made under the 1976 Act, will the cuts be applied first to industries, or to individual consumers?

Mr. Gow

I have looked at the question to which my hon. Friend referred. The truth is there has been no rain since 1 May and that makes a difference.

It is the policy of the Government, the water authorities and the water companies that priority should be given to keeping supplies open to industry, and of course to agriculture. If it is necessary to impose further restrictions, I believe that the House and the country will think it right that the inessential use of water should be restricted.

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

The Minister might be aware that the Opposition will neither blame him nor give him credit for the fine weather. The fact remains that 9 million people are now subject to some form of restriction in the use of water and, for many of them, water rationing cannot be far away.

Although the Government are not responsible for the weather, they are responsible for the financing and organisation of the water industry. How much longer must we tell people in the south-west, the north-west and Wales —it is always the same areas—that they must suffer such restrictions? Why is there poor planning in the water industry, Government cuts in development plans for water supply and imposition of external financing limits by the Government on the water industry in the face of so much evidence that the contrary should be the case? Much more investment is needed in the water supply industry.

Should not the Government consider the development of a national water grid? How did the Water Act 1982 help, as it barred the press and the public from consideration of these issues, deprived consumers of a proper role in the planning of the industry and discussion of its problems and abolished the Water Council?

Mr. Gow

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his question. It was the view of the Labour Government, and it is certainly the view of the present Government, that the capital expenditure required for a national water grid could not possibly be justified.

Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, Small Heath)

indicated dissent.

Mr. Gow

I am giving the Government's view. If the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell), who is muttering from a sedentary position, says that he favoured a national water grid, he should remember that he was not able to implement one when he was at the Department of the Environment.

With regard to the reforms resulting from the Water Acts of 1973 and 1983, both of which were passed by Conservative Governments, we now have much more streamlined water authorities, which I believe are far better able to cope than was possible under the previous arrangements. I believe that the exclusion of the press from meetings of water auhorities was a wise move which has improved the administration of the water industry.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)

Is my hon. Friend aware that reservoir levels in Devon and Cornwall are already significantly lower than they were in June 1976? Will he confirm that more than 24 per cent. of Britain's potential water supply is lost between the reservoir and the user? Does he agree that that points to the need for a major investment programme to update our out-of-date infrastructure in this respect?

Mr. Gow

Yes, but I must remind my hon. Friend that investment in the water industry, as elsewhere, must be conducted within the necessary restraints on public expenditure. We believe that we are better placed today than we were in 1976 to deal with the serious problem that exists in the area that my hon. Friend represents.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I am forced to observe that if the result of streamlining the water industry is our continuing to have times during which there is no water, the result of streamlining the cities might well be no services. Is the Minister willing to instruct his officials to come up with a costed and public proposal to see whether a national water grid should be a matter for Government policy, to be implemented as soon as possible, rather than merely to say no to the idea?

Mr. Gow

I have already said that the cost of a national grid would not be justified.

Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green)

In past years the lowering of water levels in rivers has led to an increase in the concentration of nitrates in the water supply in the Thames and Lea valleys to an extent considered unacceptable by the World Health Organisation. Can my hon. Friend assure me that there are measures in hand to prevent that sort of danger from arising?

Mr. Gow

I give my hon. Friend the assurance for which he asks.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Is the Minister aware that water rate payers in Wales are sick and tired of paying through their noses for water and finding that water supplies are not available? Is he further aware that for weeks there have been restrictions on water usage in Wales, whereas cities which get their water from reservoirs in Wales have not suffered the same restrictions? Is it right that the Welsh water authority has asked for even more draconian powers to cut water supplies in Wales?

Mr. Gow

I should not use the word "draconian". I have no responsibility for Wales, but my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts), is sitting next to me and I know that he will write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Stefan Terlezki (Cardiff, West)

I come from a part of the United Kingdom from which, as the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) said, water is pumped. As he also said, the Welsh people are sick and tired of being told after a few weeks of dry weather that they must not use any water. Does my hon. Friend accept that it is high time the Government reviewed the issue and, if need be, invested more capital in the water industry?

Mr. Gow

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales will be writing also to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Denis Howell

Is the Minister aware that he has been misinformed and wrongly advised? The great lesson of the 1976 drought was that we should have a water grid to which each of the 11 authorities would be linked. There is no shortage of water even now, but difficulties have arisen because we are not transferring water from north to south and from west to east, which could be done by using the rivers. The previous Labour Government decided that capital works to provide that type of grid should be undertaken, and much work was done in preparing such a scheme. That work was in hand when the Labour Government went out of office. Why is it that our people are suffering deprivation only three months after we were told that there was no water shortage? Will the Minister consider the establishment of a system of water transfers from areas of plenty to areas of shortage?

Mr. Gow

I shall listen carefully to the right hon. Gentleman's advice. However, the Government have no plans to construct a national water grid.

Mr. Peter Rost (Erewash)

Does my hon. Friend accept that there would be no water shortage, despite the drought, if water were not lost between the reservoir and the consumer? Is it not time to review the water authorities' investment programme? Much of the investment would be highly cost-effective, as the processing and cleaning of the water that is being wasted has been paid for.

Mr. Gow

My hon. Friend is right, because there is a loss of water from the reservoir to the consumer. It is to that problem that a significant part of the investment in the water industry in recent years has been devoted. There is scope for further improvement.

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)

Is the Minister aware that the feeling of anger is especially bitter in Wales following the promise after the 1976 drought that there would never be shortages again? How can he justify the present shortage, when water is being sold by the Welsh water authority to the Severn-Trent authority? We have been promised increased water rate bills next year and we are not even getting the water that we have paid for this year. At what stage in the drought will the Minister consider introducing a rebate for those who have been deprived of water for the past six weeks or so, and who face a long and dry summer?

Mr. Gow

As the hon. Gentleman knows, where a hosepipe is charged for separately by an authority or company and a ban is imposed, the authority or the company is required to give a reasonable rebate.

I shall refer the hon. Gentleman's question on the wider issue to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales.

Mr. Gerrard Neale (Cornwall, North)

Is my hon. Friend aware that in the west country there were two months prior to 1 April during which there was a dramatic drop in the rainfall, and that anyone locally could have told him that even the slighest drought would have induced the problems that we are now seeing?

Will my right hon. Friend comment on reports that the South West water authority is to acquire water from the north-east, perhaps in substitution for those tanker ships taking it out to the middle east?

Mr. Gow

With regard to the possibility of the South-West water authority buying water from the Northumbrian water authority, my hon. Friend may know that the Northumbrian water authority has indeed entered into a contract to sell water to Gibraltar. It would be possible, if the South West water authority decided to do so, for a similar purchase to be made by that authority from Northumbria, but that is a matter for the chairman of the South West water authority to consider.

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

Is the Minister aware that an increasing source of complaint is the standing charge that water consumers pay? When hon. Members take up the question with chairmen of water authorities, they are always told that the purpose of the standing charge is to improve supplies and general services. When will that money be used to provide the services about which many hon. Members on both sides of the House are complaining?

Mr. Gow

If the standing charges were abolished, the price of water would have to be increased.

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

What advice is my hon. Friend giving local authorities about fire hazards, which are obviously inherent in a long period of drought?

Mr. Gow

My hon. Friend is right to suggest that there is an increased risk of fire. The Forestry Commission and the fire authorities—the county councils—will continue to give such advice as is appropriate, as will the Central Office of Information.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

As the Minister has confirmed that one water authority is exporting water while others are in desperate need, will he consider the possibility of sending emergency supplies from areas of surplus to areas of need? If he will not embrace the idea of a water grid, will he at least put pressure behind the idea of an emergency attack on the problem?

Mr. Gow

As I said earlier, I am in the closest touch with the water authorities, and the hon. Gentleman's suggestion will be considered.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

Is not the lesson to be learnt from the unhappy experience of the past few weeks, particularly in the south-west, that there must be more expenditure on basic infrastructure? I accept the difficulty in regard to public expenditure. If necessary, there should be a reduction in discretionary regional grants to pay for it.

Mr. Gow

I have said that investment in the water industry will have to be governed by the truth, which seems to be forgotten by the Labour party, that the resources available for public investment are not unlimited.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Is the chairman of the Welsh water authority right, or wrong, when he says that the situation would not have occurred had the authority been allowed capital spending, and were it not for Government cuts? Is it right that half the water of Wales should be exported to authorities where there is no water shortage, when Wales is suffering from a drought? What will the Minister do about water equalisation rates? He has not given a straight answer to that question.

Mr. Gow

I have not seen the remarks which the hon. Lady attributes to the chairman of the Welsh water authority, but I shall draw her question to the attention of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, who will write to her.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

Will my hon. Friend completely discount the idea of a national grid? Will he consider the use of canals—many of which are falling into disuse—as channels?

Mr. Gow

I shall consider my hon. Friend's suggestion.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Has my hon. Friend any information on whether British people are having more baths, as contrasted with people in other countries, where there is increasing use of showers, which require less water?

Mr. Gow

I do not have the statistics to which my hon. Friend refers. Should I be able to unearth them, I shall send them to him.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

In south Wales the drought conditions have become more severe than those of 1976. Does the Minister appreciate that, had the Wye-Usk transfer scheme been in operation this summer, with its capacity of 15 million gallons per day, the increasing gravity of the water shortage would have been greatly reduced? Why did the Government not provide sufficient funds for the vital Wye-Usk scheme, which was planned long ago and sanctioned by the previous Labour Government? South Wales faces a period in which intense and damaging pressure will be put on the tourist, agriculture and manufacturing industries. A more determined and generous Government would have prevented that.

Mr. Gow

The hon. Gentleman falls into the same trap as that of his hon. Friends. He believes that it is possible to spend unlimited sums of money in the public sector, when the truth is that that is not possible.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary tells me that the Wye pumping station has been put into operation and that 4 million gallons of water a day are being transferred to Court Farm treatment works, serving British Steel at Llanwern and part of the Newport area.

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