HC Deb 27 July 1984 vol 64 cc1400-7 11.44 am
The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Ian Gow)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement about water supplies.

I should like to apologise to the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) for the fact that, for reasons which I have explained to him, he did not receive a copy of the statement earlier than he did.

Since my statement on 9 July, the very dry weather has continued, particularly on the western side of England, and hosepipe bans affect 21 million people. Water shortages are becoming severe in Devon and Cornwall, in parts of Wales, about which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has already made a statement, and in the north-west, where I reviewed the position yesterday with the chairman of the North West water authority.

In parts of the north-west rainfall has been less in the first seven months of this year than in any year since records began, 91 years ago. The major reservoirs at Haweswater and Thirlmere are lower than in July 1976. Hosepipe bans are in force in almost all the region and 15 drought orders ahve been made to authorise exceptionally low water levels in rivers. The authority applied last week for orders to authorise additional abstractions from Ullswater and Windermere, and this week to restrict inessential uses of water.

Since my statement on 9 July, the situation in the southwest has become more serious. Three orders have been made to enable the South West water authority to prohibit or limit the use of water for certain inessential purposes, and another 12 orders have been made to permit exceptionally low river levels. However, demand has been unprecedently high. On Wednesday the authority appealed for a 50 per cent. reduction in consumption if rationing is to be avoided. It has also applied for power to introduce water rationing by rota cuts or by standpipes throughout Cornwall and in much of Devon, and is preparing plans to start rationing on 9 August if necessary. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State is today reviewing the position in the south-west with the chairman of the authority, and I shall be visiting the area on Thursday of next week.

I met all chairmen of water authorities on 18 July and repeated that I expected them to take early precautionary action, whether by hosepipe ban or by drought order applications, to reduce consumption and conserve supplies. I reaffirmed my earlier advice to the water companies when I addressed their chairmen in London on Wednesday.

The exceptionally low rainfall in some parts of England underlines the importance of the responsible and economical use of water. I ask everyone to comply with restrictions which are imposed in the interest of the community as a whole and to follow the advice which authorities and companies are giving in order to diminish the prospect of more severe restrictions later on.

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

I am grateful to the Minister for his apology, which I accept. However, the Opposition do not accept the fact that the Secretary of State for the Environment was not present to make this statement. He was available to the British Broadcasting Corporation earlier today for an interview about another matter, and he should be in the House to answer for his responsibilities on this issue.

I regret that the statement is one of massive complacency and that the Government's actions are coming far too late to alleviate the position of millions of people. The prospect of water shortages has been obvious since early this year — certainly since Easter. The Government are doing too little too late to help people. Indeed, the implication of the statement is that the Government are expecting people in the south-west and the north-west to endure indefinite water shortages and rationing. Government policy—or, more properly, lack of it — has been a major contributory factor in the problem.

The minister's statement was devoid of mention of any useful action by the Government to relieve the present problems. In real terms, expenditure on water resources under this Government has been cut by almost half since 1981–82. In addition, the external financing limits applied to water authorities have prevented them from borrowing to finance the investment that many of them would wish to make, as was made clear on radio this morning by Mr. Roger White, the water spokesman for the Association of Local Authorities. He said that the shortage of capital investment and Government cuts in the water authority's capital programmes meant that they were unable to supply consumers. The government have been too busy attacking councils and their capital expenditure programmes to devote sufficient attention to the critical water shortage.

Before he made his statement, did the Minister seek advice from the Meteorogical Office? If so, what advice did he receive—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar) may laugh, but people in the south-west and the north-west are not laughing. The hon. Gentleman had better recognise that there is great anger and frustration, especially in areas where water is being piped away at the same time as consumers in those areas have had their consumption restricted, as is the case in the area that I represent.

Does the Minister recall what the Select Committee on Science and Technology of the House of Lords said about Government policy in December 1982? It reminded Parliament that Ministers have a duty under…the Water Act 1973 to promote a national policy for water in England and Wales and a somewhat similar duty in Scotland. The Committee concluded: There is in fact no national plan and it is difficult to see what national policy, if any, exists. Since then the Government have made further cuts in investment in the water supply industry.

Does not the long-term trend of demand for water show clearly that this problem will occur again and again unless there are fundamental changes in Government policy? Will the Minister undertake immediately to set in train such a fundamental review?.

Mr. Gow

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asked me to make the statement today, because I was entrusted with special responsibility for the water industry, because — as the hon. Gentleman will remember — I answere a private notice question on it earlier this month, because I was in the north-west yesterday and because I am going to the south-west next Thursday.

I reject entirely the hon. Gentleman's charge of complacency in the Government. There most certainly is not. Hosepipe bans were first imposed in the south-west on 12 May, and in the north-west on 2 June. The first drought orders were made for the north-west on 7 June and for the south-west on 21 June. In the current financial year, £230 million of capital investment is being spent to improve water resources and supply.

I receive the fortnightly reports issued by the Meteorological Office, and earlier this month I met the two chief scientists. Although the forecasting of weather is an imperfect science, the forecasts show no immediate prospect of an end to the dry spell.

Miss Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake)

Would my hon. Friend confirm that the South West water authority is in no way to blame for the present water shortage? Apart from the lack of rainfall from Heaven, should not the blame be placed on those in the localities who have repeatedly resisted the authority's attempts to find suitable sites, and on the time that it appears to take the Government to come to conclusions after public inquiries? Furthermore, will my hon. Friend take on board the fact that the South West water authority wants the Roadford reservoir to be larger than has been approved? Will he have serious second thoughts on that matter, which is critical?.

Mr. Gow

As my hon. Friend knows, since the drought of 1976, Wimbleball reservoir has been opened and on 5 June I opened the new reservoir at Colliford. It is hoped that work will begin on the new Roadford reservoir before long, and I shall discuss my hon. Friend's point about capacity with the chairman of the authority. In the southwest the exceptionally dry weather, coupled with an increase in demand, has led to the present restrictions.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

I remind the Minister that we have had hosepipe orders almost every year since I have been a Member of the House, so it cannot be blamed only on the weather. May I bring the Minister up to date by telling him that boil orders have been placed on the districts of Kerrier, Penwith and Carrick, in that all water for domestic use must be boiled?

Can the Minister tell the House how the applications for orders made to his Department are progressing? I understand that at present the legislation requires that about 3 million gallons of water is pumped back from one reservoir into a river. It seems logical that that loophole should be stopped and that the water is made available to the people of the south-west.

The Government's complacency on this issue is outrageous. I and other hon. Members who live a long way from London cannot help but believe that if the people of London faced such a problem a Cabinet Minister would have made the statement, a special Minister would have been appointed, and the House would probably be asked to sit in special session to pass new legislation to deal with the problem. However, because the problem is in the far south-west, if anything, the attitude of Conservative Members is that this is rather funny. It is anything but funny; it is a disgrace, and many people will suffer because of it.

Mr. Gow

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this is a serious matter for those who are affected, and I agree with him entirely. I repeat that since 1976 steps have been taken to improve the water supply in the South West water authority area, notably the opening of the two reservoirs to which I referred a moment ago. I assure the hon. Gentleman that applications for drought orders received by my Department will be processed with the upmost speed, and that we shall do all we can to expedite the granting of drought orders, subject of course to the statutory duties of my right hon. Friend.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

I thank my hon. Friend for making a statement and for emphasising the seriousness of the position. I reject the accusation of complacency, because my hon. Friend has done everything possible to back local water boards in the requests that they have made to his Department. Can he go a stage further than his previous statement and say that when orders are requested they will be approved by the Department on the day that the request is made? Will he examine the position carefully and ensure that rota cuts are used so that we need not have the great hardship for the elderly and the infirm of rationing by the use of standpipes? That would cause great difficulty to such people and should be avoided if at all possible.

Will my hon. Friend consider for the future ensuring that the take of water from rivers can continue for a long period after the drought to ensure that the build-up of reservoirs is increased so that next year our reservoirs in the south-west will be full to capacity, which they were not this year?.

Mr. Gow

I can assure my hon. Friend that the procedures for dealing with drought orders will be gone through as expeditiously as possible in accordance with the provisions of section 1 of the Drought Act 1976. I understand my hon. Friend's point about the undesirability of standpipes unless they become absolutely necessary. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State is discussing that very matter with the chairman of the South West water authority today.

I shall discuss with the chairman when I see him on Thursday my hon. Friend's suggestion about the extraction from rivers.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

From the time that the hon. Gentleman was the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary, does he recall that his boss had no hesitation in hiring the Danish ship Herta Maersk to take fresh water from Southampton, Lisbon and Auckland, New Zealand, to the Falkland Islands? Is the south-west of England considered to be less important than the southwest Atlantic? What are the figures for investment to which my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) referred? Is this crisis not predictable and predicted, foreseeable and foreseen?.

Mr. Gow

The hon. Gentleman makes a comparison between the Falkland Islands and the south-west of England. Has he been to the Falkland Islands?.

Mr. Dalyell

No, but the Minister has.

Mr. Gow

Yes, and I was about to come to that. I was about to make the point that any hon. Member who had visited the Falkland Islands would know that, whatever other problems may exist there, there is no shortage of water. Therefore, a comparison between the water needs of the south-west of England and those of the Falkland Islands is not valid.

Mr. Dalyell

That ship was filled with fresh water.

. Gow

As for investment, I have told the House already that in the current year we are spending £230 million on improving water resources and supply.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the position in the south-west is made worse by the inability to switch water from the Wimbleball reservoir on Exmoor, which at the moment is 75 per cent. full? Can he find out why the water cannot be switched to areas which need it?

Is my hon. Friend also aware that one third of the 20 million gallons of water used in Plymouth every day goes to waste because of defective and leaking old pipes? Will he ask the South West water authority to spend some of its £70 million a year income on patching up those pipes?

Is my hon. Friend also aware that because of water bureaucracy the reservoirs in Devon have had to be emptied before water from streams and rivers which has been pouring into the sea can be tapped? At the moment the reservoirs are empty and the water in streams and rivers continues to pour into the sea. Cannot my hon. Friend do something to reverse that process?

Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the people of South Hams, who year after year have patiently endured the totally unacceptable position of being without running water for two or three months every year?.

Mr. Gow

I willingly pay tribute to my hon. Friend's constituents who have suffered in the way that he has described. I will discuss my hon. Friend's point about Wimbleball with the chairman of the authority when I see him on Thursday.

My hon. Friend is right in what he says about leaks. There is a substantial loss of water as a result of leaks from old pipes, and water authorities will be taking action in the future, as they have done in the past, to diminish that loss of water.

Finally, my hon. Friend asked about water running into the sea from streams and rivers. Obviously it is necessary to keep those water courses at a certain level, but if it is possible to have further abstractions that will be decided by the chairman of the authority.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I hope that the Secretary of State will not blame Arthur Scargill or the NUM for this, as he has tried to about almost everything else.

Is the Minister aware that when he got his job I sent him a letter about the fate of people producing pipes at Clay Cross works and pointed out to him that it would make some sense for the Government to implement a big capital investment programme to make sure that we got a better water system by repairing all those leaking pipes and thereby putting more people to work or stop people being sacked at Clay Cross works, Stanton and Staveley in Derbyshire, putting them out of work when they could be producing more pipes to carry out this massive programme? Does the hon. Gentleman recall that he told me initially that he was monitoring the situation and that everything would be under control?

Is the Minister also aware that in my second letter to him I pointed out that the situation had got worse? So far from the Minister being on top of his job and making sure that he has a massive investment programme to provide that work and to stop the water leaking away, he has just sat on his hands and watched people being thrown on to the scrap heap as a result.

Mr. Gow

The hon. Gentleman has written to me on the subject of pipes, and I have made it clear to the House that there is already a substantial programme of capital investment to improve our water supplies. However, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that the resources available for capital investment are not unlimited. It is essential to understand that, and irresponsible calls from the hon. Gentleman and others for financial resources which are not available are unrealistic and exceedingly unhelpful.

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

Bearing in mind that the majority of householders have no real incentive, other than good will, to reduce their water consumption and that the cost of installing meters which would provide such an incentive is too great in the majority of cases for people to contemplate it, is there not a case for the water authorities to consider whether they might be able to reduce that cost to a figure perhaps below the immediate cost of providing meters? In the long run, that might work out more cheaply than the kind of capital investment which is needed to provide a greater supply.

.Mr Gow

My hon. Friend knows that every water authority and water company offers to its domestic consumers as an option the metering of water. The effect of water metering on consumption is not as great as my hon. Friend may think.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

By trying to run this industry on the cheap and by cutting the investment programme, is it not clear that the Government have effectively inconvenienced people this summer? Is the Minister aware that Thirlmere, in my constituency, and other lakes have been watched by my constituents over the past four months? We knew as early as April this year—and this summer has been one of the hottest in living memory in the Lake District—that there would be a water shortage. How is it that we knew and yet the Government did not? Is not that an indication of the Government's complacency in this matter?.

Mr. Gow

There has been absolutely no complacency on the part of the Government. If the hon. Gentleman is able to say that he knows precisely what will be the level of rainfall in the future, he has powers which are denied to the rest of us.

Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon)

Bearing in mind what my hon. Friend says about the north-west of England and the action to be taken by the North West water authority, can he say whether the Liverpool international garden festival is likely to be a major casualty of these obviously necessary restrictions?

Can my hon. Friend also say what is the position of areas a little nearer to London than the far south-west such as Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset and whether they are likely to be affected in the same way in the near future, assuming that there is no change in the weather?.

Mr. Gow

I hope that the garden festival will not suffer.

There is some shortage in other regions of the country other than the north-west and the south-west, but the shortage there is not nearly so serious.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

Is it not a matter of constant amazement in other countries, the annual rainfalls of which are considerably less than ours, that we should have to meet a crisis after a few weeks of dry weather? Is there not a case for bringing our reservoirs up to date and for renewing our outdated Victorian sewerage plants to give jobs to construction workers who desperately need them?.

Mr. Gow

There has been and there is substantial investment in the water supply industry. I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's point and it is always possible to ask for yet more investment. I should like to list some of the achievements that have been made since 1976. The Lancashire conjunctive use scheme in the north-west and the Brenig reservoir are both in operation, in Northumbria there is the Kielder reservoir, in the Severn Trent water authority area there is the Shropshire groundwater scheme and the Wye abstraction scheme, in the Yorkshire water authority area there is the Winscar reservoir and in the Anglia water authority area there is the Rutland water scheme. There is also the Farmoor reservoir, the Ardingly reservoir in the Southern water authority area, new boreholes and link mains in the Bristol, Avon, Avon and Dorset and Somerset river basins and the two new reservoirs in the south-west to which I have already referred. They are all improvements that have been made since the drought of 1976.

Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)

Irrespective of whether there are restrictions in an area at the moment, does my hon. Friend agree that it makes sense for everyone to do their utmost to conserve water supplies? Is it therefore not something of a disgrace that a company in Grosvenor place was apparently using thousands of gallons of water this morning to clean a building?.

Mr. Gow

There are at present no restrictions in London, but I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is important, as I said in my statement and in response to a private notice question earlier this month, that everyone should use water sensibly and economically. If people respond to the advice of water authorities, there is a real prospect of our being able to avoid more serious restrictions later.

Mr. Robert C. Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

Is the Minister aware that, in the north-east of England where we have had no measurable rainfall for more than four months, we have no problem thanks to the farsightedness of the former Northumbria river authority which was Labour controlled? Because of its farsightedness and that of the Labour Government who provided capital to get Kielder into operation, the three main rivers of the area—the Tyne, the Wear and the Tees—are linked. Surely the abolition of the National Water Council, for which the Government are responsible, has not made it any easier to develop a national grid system, which is sadly needed.

Mr. Gow

As I said earlier this month in response to a private notice question, the Government have no plans to introduce a grid system any more than did the previous Labour Government.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Do not these events show the importance of proper public capital investment, especially when plant, men and machinery are readily available? The Minister said that the Government are not complacent. Is he saying that he has agreed to every capital scheme for storage that has been put up by water authorities since 1979? If he has not agreed to any such applications, why did he turn them down?.

Mr. Gow

Resources for investment in the public sector are not unlimited, but there has been substantial investment. Some parts of the country have experienced the driest first seven months of the year since records began. The exceptional drought is responsible for the restrictions that have been imposed in the north-west, Devon and the south-west.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

Is the Minister aware that we have been advised that there is a danger, when reservoir levels get extremely low, of Weil's disease—a virulent form of glandular fever — which can affect young children who play on river banks? What advice has the Minister received about that from Government medical officers? What advice will be given to water authorities to prevent it? We have noted the Minister's reluctance to come clean about the cuts in water authority budgets which the Government have imposed.

We are delighted that the Minister read a long list of schemes, almost all of which were instituted by a Labour Government. Will he confirm that virtually none of those schemes would have gone ahead if they had been applied for under the present Government because of cuts in spending and water authorities' budgets? Is the Minister aware that the £230 million of capital expenditure on water projects shows that such expenditure has been cut by more than 40 per cent. since 1979? For every £10 that Labour spent on water investment, in real terms, the Government have committed only £6.

The Minister talked about the lack of capital resources but is it not a higher priority to develop decent water resources than to encourage the shipping abroad of £1 billion a month for investment on the Hong Kong, Japanese, or Wall street stock exchanges? Whis is the higher priority? Is it not the case that millions of people at home, on holiday and at work risk having their health jeopardised, their holidays ruined and their jobs put at risk not because of the acts of the Almighty but because of doctrinaire cuts in public expenditure that have seriously damaged a vital British industry?.

Mr. Gow

The cause of the water shortage in the southwest and the north-west is the exceptional drought. In many areas it is without precedent in living memory. Water authorities are well aware that, in some cases, they must take special precautions to preserve health in the event of a fall in the level of reservoirs and rivers. The level of investment in the water industry during the past five years has been justified in the circumstances. Only the exceptional drought has made it necessary to impose restrictions. I am confident that water authorities and water companies will take all prudent steps to safeguard future supplies and to minimise hardship for their customers.