HC Deb 26 July 1989 vol 157 cc1009-11
5. Mr. Teddy Taylor

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will take steps to require water authorities to make public their long-term plans to improve the quality of bathing waters at coastal resorts; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Michael Howard)

The Department is in discussion with the water authorities about the accelerated programmes of improvement that they have drawn up to bring bathing waters up to European Community standards by the mid-1990s. They will be made public in due course.

Mr. Taylor

While bathing waters at Southend on sea have been vastly improved by the installation of an extended sewage pipe which, happily, has transferred our problem to other constituencies, is my hon. and learned Friend aware that we do not have the slightest idea about the long-term plans of the Anglian water authority, despite the endeavours of energetic Members of Parliament to establish what they are? As the water authorities are wholly non-elected bodies, answerable to no one but the Secretary of State, would it not be appropriate to require the water authorities to tell the people what their long-term plans are, as it is the people who are paying for them?

Mr. Howard

I cannot accept my hon. Friend's assessment of the effect of long sea outfalls, which were recognised by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution as the most effective way of dealing with sewage. However, I agree that more information needs to be made public about the long-term plans of the water authorities. That information will be made public shortly.

Mr. John P. Smith

Does the Minister recognise that something must be done about the indiscriminate discharge of raw sewage into the sea, and in particular into the Bristol channel? Not only is the Welsh water authority failing to attain the standards that should be expected in this day and age, but the quality of water is declining. In my constituency, on Fontygary beach, the voluntary coast guards—the courageous men and women who safeguard our beaches—are advised not to go into the water except in emergencies because of the level of pollution, and I had the appalling experience of seeing those men and women coming out of the water covered in human excrement. That is not acceptable in this day and age.

Mr. Howard

A great deal is being done to improve present conditions. The water authorities are spending £100 million per year on improving the quality of our bathing waters. I have asked them to accelerate their programme of improvement, and I expect to make their plans public shortly.

Sir Hugh Rossi

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that a long outfall policy is analagous to the tall chimney policy which led us into such great difficulty with air emissions, based on the principle of "dilute and disperse" which is now somewhat discredited?

Mr. Howard

I have great respect for my hon. Friend's views on the matter, but I do not think that his analogy is apt. All the available evidence suggests that long sea outfalls are an effective way of dealing with sewage, and that the action of the sun and the sea is a natural reproduction of the artificial method of treatment employed in sewage treatment works.

Mr. Allan Roberts

Now that there is a new boss at the Department of the Environment I expected that the Government might have started to tell the truth about the environment and our bathing beaches. Does the Minister accept that the 300 beaches designated as bathing beaches is a gross underestimate and that the Royal Commission on environmental pollution identified 600 bathing beaches? In any event only 30 per cent. of the 300 designated conform to EC standards. It is not surprising that all the beaches on the north-west coast are polluted, whether designated or not. It is not surprising that Albert and Mrs. Ramsbottom took their chance with the lions because if they had gone into the sea neither of them would have come out alive. When will the Government prepare plans and commit the necessary expenditure to stop raw sewage going into the sea, including through long sea outfalls, and when will they stop dumping sewage sludge in the sea?

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. The number of designated bathing waters is not 300, but 403, and the proportion complying with the EC directive is 67 per cent. The hon. Gentleman's complaints are paricularly rich coming from a party which when in government failed to designate any bathing waters at all in this country four years after the directive came into force.

Mr. Paice

Can my right hon. and learned Friend tell us a bit more about bathing beaches on the other side of the Channel? Is it not true that many European bathing beaches fail to meet the EC directive? Surely it is more important for the Community to consider the problem throughout Europe rather than concentrating on the state of British beaches.

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend is entirely right. France is one of five countries in respect of which the Commission has made complaints about the standard of bathing waters. In this, as in so many other respects, our record compares extremely well with the rest of Europe.