HL Deb 20 March 1934 vol 91 cc285-94

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the object of this Bill is to give financial assistance for providing or improving water supplies in rural localities. This Bill is a certified Money Bill and therefore perhaps your Lordships will not wish me to explain it at very great length. I think everybody-will agree that there is a good deal to be done in the way of supplying water in rural districts. Conditions are no worse, of course, than they have been in years past, and indeed they are much better, for since the War the Ministry of Health has sanctioned loans to a total of £5,000,000 to rural authorities for water supplies. Much, however, remains to be done if rural districts are to reach modern standards. The principal difficulty is that of cost. As the law stands at present any def[...]cit that arises on any particular scheme falls primarily on the parish concerned. That may mean in many cases a special rate of 2s., 3s., 4s. or even 5s. in the pound. A number of rural district councils make the deficit for these parochial schemes a charge on the whole district. This tendency has grown in recent years and is strongly supported by my right honourable friend. Your Lordships will remember that under the Local Government Act, 1929, rural district councils were empowered to contribute towards the charges which fall on a parish in respect of a water scheme, and county councils were also empowered to contribute towards charges which fall on a parish or on a rural district. A large number of rural district and county councils have availed themselves of this power. Some of them have systematic schemes for this purpose. But even with help from district councils and county councils there still remain many cases where the deficiency which would fall on the rates is so heavy that necessary schemes are not likely to be provided unless some additional help is forthcoming. That is the justification for the proposed Exchequer grant. The provision of an adequate and pure supply of water is an essential of public health; in addition the schemes will provide useful work for a public benefit. I should like to point out that the County Councils' Association and the Rural District Councils' Association have issued a circular strongly approving of this measure.

If we turn to the Bill itself, your Lordships will note that in subsection (1) of Clause 1 the Minister is empowered to make a contribution towards the expenses to be incurred by a local authority in providing a supply, or in improving an existing supply, of water in a rural locality. This power is "subject to such conditions as the Treasury may determine." It is not practicable to lay down any one definite set of conditions, because the circumstances of various localities vary so much. If the grant is to be used for the best purposes each ease must be treated on its merits and that measure of grant given which is reasonably necessary to secure the water supply which is required. I would point out, in passing, that normally the grant would be made only where the county council and the district council were prepared to contribute as well.

In subsection (2) of Clause 1 there is provision that a grant, when made, shall be made in the form of a lump sum. In this way the total amount of capital which will have to be raised by the local authority will be reduced. The payment of a lump sum should be more convenient to the local authority than assistance by way of annual contributions. In some cases the expenses incurred in providing or improving a water supply may be in the form of annual payments, as where the local authority takes water from a public or private supply on payment of an annual charge. Your Lordships will observe that provision for cases of that kind is made in subsection (3) of Clause 1.

The Government had to make it a condition that where the local authority undertakes this work it should be conducted in a satisfactory manner and that proper precautions should be exercised. Subsection (4) of Clause 1, therefore, provides that the contribution may be withheld or reduced if the works have been executed in an unsatisfactory manner, or if the works are substantially less effective than was estimated by the local authority because of default by them. This particular provision is to meet the case where there has been negligence on the part of the local authority. The Minister will, of course, do all that he reasonably can to make sure that schemes are satisfactory, but he must depend upon information provided by the local authority for some matters, such as the yield from a spring or from an underground source where observation for a period of time is necessary in order to make sure of the facts, or again, where reasonable care has not been taken in ascertaining the nature of the foundations on which it is proposed to build a reservoir. Subsection (5) of Clause 1 provides, as your Lordships will observe, that the contributions made by the Minister are not to exceed in the aggregate £1,000,000.

Clause 2 of the Bill sets out the local authorities for the purposes of the Act, and I may remark in passing that the inclusion of boroughs and urban districts in Clause 2 does not extend the object of the Bill from rural to urban conditions, but simply provides for the kind of case where a borough or urban district may have a considerable rural area within its boundaries. It may be that such a case will never arise, but it has been thought useful that the contingency should be provided for. Clause 3 deals with the application of the Act to Scotland and provides that the aggregate amount of contribution for Scotland is not to exceed£137,500.

Perhaps I may add this. As your Lordships are aware, this Bill was originated during the recent period of exceptionally dry weather, and it was therefore perhaps not unnatural that some apprehension should be expressed in some quarters as to whether the amount of£1,000,000 was sufficient. With the recent rains that criticism has become less noticeable, but of course my right honourable friend cannot take quite so transitory a view of the situation. He looks on the water requirements of many rural districts as still being worthy of immediate attention, and he proposes, if this Bill is passed, to encourage them to proceed forthwith. At the same time, I ought to point out that the£1,000,000 is only the Treasury contribution. The Treasury contribution plus the contributions of the rural district councils and the county councils, plus the consumers' payments, will, of course, amount to a very much larger total than that. It is estimated, in fact, that the£1,000,000 will form the basis of other expenditure totalling£5,000,000, which, as I remarked at the beginning of my speech, is about equivalent to the total amount of money spent on rural water supplies since the War. I therefore submit that the amount of money allocated is a reasonable amount, although we quite agree that the task is a very important one. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.— (Viscount Gage.)


My Lords, I do not rise in any way to oppose this Bill; indeed I support it strongly, and think that it is long overdue. I rise only to give the Minister notice that on the Committee stage I propose to move an Amendment which I hope, if accepted, will safeguard the position of the local authorities. If your Lordships will look at the Bill, you will see that it will be almost as difficult as getting to Heaven to be sure of getting hold of this million pounds. First of all, it is naturally optional to the Minister whether he is to pay the money or not; it is provided in Clause 1, subsection (1), that he "may" do so. Then you come to the Treasury regulations, which anyone who has had some experience of public affairs knows are always very tightly drawn up, and the taxpayer is, very properly, safeguarded most rigorously. If your Lordships will turn to subsection (4) of Clause 1, I think you will see that the means given by this Bill to the Minister of evading his obligations are really unfair to the local authority, especially paragraph (a) of that subsection. The subsection provides: The Minister may withhold, or reduce the amount of, a contribution which he has undertaken to make towards the expenses to be incurred by a local authority in respect of any works or transaction, if it appears to him either— (a) that any of the works have been executed in an unsatisfactory manner. I can quite understand the Minister saying to a local authority who have carried out the work by direct labour: "You have carried out your work badly; you are in default; you have made mistakes, and therefore my contribution shall not be paid"; but cannot conceive any Minister who carries out his duties as he should, saying to a local authority who have worked through a contractor: "Because your contractor has carried out the work badly, therefore the Exchequer contribution shall be withheld." Obviously, it seems to me—I know it was always so in tie Ministry of Transport—before a Minister promises a contribution to the local authority he goes over the lists of the tenderers, and agrees as to who should be asked to tender. Therefore, he goes in as a partner with the local authority, and it seems to me that if the Minister of Health agrees to the work being put out to tender, and that firms A, B, and C shall be asked to tender, he should then not be able to refuse the contribution which he has promised to the local authority. I apologise for detaining your Lordships, but this is a rather important Committee point and I propose to put down an Amendment for the Committee stage, to remedy what I consider to be an injustice.


My Lords, as this is a certified Money Bill it does not seem that there is much purpose in discussing it, but it is interesting to note that the Government have realised at last that there has been a drought. So long ago as last November the Minister of Health was saying that the problem was urgent, but it has taken from then until now for this Bill to get to your Lordships' House. When the Government took office I suppose they thought there never would be a drought, and that, the great National Government having swept into power, even the heavens would be kind to them. So they have been. But I would like to point out with respect to the rain which we have been having, and are having, to-day, that it will take months and months before the small country village, are affected—places where carts have been going round selling water.

Just examine the position. When the Government took office in 1931 the first thing they did was to cut off the grants. For that matter, they did exactly the same thing in regard to housing and roads. When the Labour Government came into power in 1929 they proposed to spend £424,000 in that year for rural water schemes. In 1930–1 they proposed to spend £680,000, and in 1931–2 they proposed to spend £917,000. This Government now, after two-and-a-half years of inaction, propose to spend £1,000,000 only. I suppose they want to wait until every little village in the country is riddled with disease before doing anything about it. Although we welcome this £1,000,000, it is only a drop in the ocean. The problem has not been tackled at all. The law is unsatisfactory at the moment. It has never worked with some of the rural district councils and, in fact, with some of the urban district councils it does not work at all well, and but for the Metropolitan Water Board in London we should be in much the same position as the rural areas. It is a most unsatisfactory Bill, although I suppose one should welcome the£1,000,000 towards the solution of the problem. The Bill will, of course go through, without any trouble in this House.


My Lords, I do not rise to criticise the Bill but to ask a question. I am entirely in favour of this Bill. I think everyone will recognise that something in the nature of a State grant will be necessary in order to meet the very great difficulties in the way of a water supply in rural districts. There was only one point that I am a little doubtful about. I quite recognise that it is impossible to insert in the Bill all the details and conditions and regulations under which grants shall be made, but it seems to me that a point of such importance as that mentioned by the noble Lord in charge of the Bill—that no grants will be made unless the district and county councils participate in the ex- penditure—might advantageously be inserted in the Bill. But nothing is said about it. Of course the condition will appear in the regulations, but it is of such importance that personally I should have thought it might have been inserted in the ambit of the Bill.


My Lords, I welcome this Bill and wish to give it my wholehearted support. It goes some way towards solving the water problem in rural districts. The consumption of water in rural districts has been gradually increasing, as it has in urban districts, due partly to more conveniences, more comfort, improvement in the general standard of living, and also, to some limited extent, to the use of public water for trade purposes. An adequate supply of water is of vital importance to any rural community, and therefore I welcome the proposals in the Bill to aid by State funds small local authorities in rural localities in the provision of a water supply. The whole question of a supply of water in rural areas is a question of cost. We are told by water engineers that there is an abundance of water for all communities in the country, but that the cost of obtaining it is bound to be a matter of consideration, and that in many cases where a supply could be obtained the cost of doing so is out of all proportion to the ability of the local people to maintain the burden. We could have, for example, a pipe supply throughout rural villages, but the cost would be out of all proportion to the burden which the local community, even with the assistance of local rates or the county councils, could bear.

There is also water obtainable from public wells, pumps, springs, and rain water. These supplies could be safeguarded and protected from pollution if the local authorities were able to take the proper steps in that direction, and for that purpose I would like to see local by-laws put into force. For the present moment I wish to direct attention to the rain water supply. It is one which throughout the country could be safeguarded and protected to a vast extent. There was a Report prepared by an engineering inspector of the Ministry of Health some little time ago on the use of rain water for domestic purposes. He had visited villages in East Anglia and the Midlands, and he reports upon the Provision of water for public purposes, and speaks of the consumption of rain water. It is a most interesting Report, and the author points out how many cottages in the villages which he visited had tanks receiving water from the roofs. Tanks, if of a sufficient size, were quite sufficient in themselves to supply water to the cottages. He goes on to state that throughout the whole of East Anglia and in the Midlands an ample supply of water can be afforded from that source alone. In the Report he calls attention to the fact, for example, that also from public buildings a water supply is obtainable in that way. In a village in the Isle of Axholme—a rural district—water from a chapel roof was obtained and sold to the villagers for one-halfpenny a bucket. The Report also mentions the case of Hartlepool Church, where Queen Elizabeth made a special order allowing the Mayor the sole use of the rain water from one special water spout. So that the question of this rain water supply is not a matter of recent practice.

The Advisory Committee also received further reports from local medical officers of health, who were requested to state how far rain water is used as a source of domestic supply, and the Committee say: Much information has been obtained from these reports and from other sources, which goes to show that the use of rain water as a source of supply is much more widespread than might be supposed. The reports are there dealing with water collected from the roofs of houses and buildings in rural areas, and I am speaking of rural areas—not in any area where there is manufacture, or where the atmosphere is at all polluted. And I might go further and quote from a letter which appeared in The Times on September 11, 1933, from Mr. C. J. P. Cave. Mr. Cave is a member of the Meteorological Society, and formerly was President of that body. He is writing from Stoner Hill, Petersfield, and he describes how he himself is supplied with water. He says: I have made a catchment area here to provide for the needs of this house and have found it very satisfactory. It is situated in the corner of a field and consists of corrugated iron with an area of 7,670 square feet. Then he goes on to say: With the average rainfall for this locality of 40 in. a year the catchment pro vides 120,000 gallons a year, or 300 days' supply at 400 gallons a day, which I find is the average consumption. The catchment is supplemented by the water collected from the roof of the house, and the system gives an ample supply. I can store 70,000 gallons, and at the present time, in spite of the drought, I have enough water to carry on till the middle of December were there to be no more rain in the meantime. Another point made by Mr. Cave to which I should like to call attention is this. He writes: For a village supply the catchment and storage would have to be larger, but the expense would probably be less than a deep boring and a pumping station, and, once Installed, there would be no annual expenditure for raising the water. Another advantage of the catchment is that as soon as the rain comes the water is immediately available. When wells and springs run dry some time usually elapses before the rain affects them. The catchment might be corrugated iron or cement, but I have experience only of the former. There must be hundreds of villages which might obtain a water supply from the heavens in this way at a comparatively small cost. After all the system is good enough for Gibraltar. There. is a gentleman of wide experience writing of his own practice of securing water in a rural district, and it seems to me that, considering the various policies which might he put forward for the supply of water in rural districts, where a bulk supply cannot be obtained, it might be a useful guide to proceed to consider how far the rain water, in addition to what is obtained by pumps, wells and springs, might be made use of.

Competent observers have noted that the supply of water in this country is more adequate, purer, and more wholesome than in any other country; and one cannot help observing the great strain that was put upon the great water authorities in this country during the past year and how well they bore that strain. That, no doubt, was largely due to the foresight that water authorities have exercised in this matter, and I noticed in a statement made the other day by the Parliamentary Secretaty to the Ministry of Health, Mr. Shakespeare, that no less than£60,000,000 has been expended in improving water supplies during the last twelve years. No doubt most of that money was expended on urban supplies,but the proposal of the Government now to give further aid in support of rural supplies should go a long way to meet the situation.


My Lords, I must thank the noble Lords who have spoken for the support they have given to the Bill. In the case of the noble Earl opposite (Lord Kinnoull) it was of a somewhat qualified nature, and all I can say is that if the amount of precaution exercised by the Labour Government is to be measured by the amount of money they spent, this Government compares favourably with his late Government, because we are proposing to spend£1,000,000, and I understand that the total expenditure to which he was referring only amounted in the case of the late Government to£500,000.


I think the noble Viscount is rather misquoting me. What I said was that the National Government is spending£1,000,000 after two years of inaction, whereas we proposed to spend £2,000,000 in two years.


Yes, but they actually spent only£500,000 in two or three years.


You cut it down.


With regard to the point made by Lord Clwyd, of course I will represent these matters to my right honourable friend, but I think the answer will be that he desires a certain amount of elasticity in the conditions in which he proposes to give the grant. If I remember rightly, a case was quoted in another place where a special demand was made for a grant, where the county council did not, or could not, make a suitable contribution. But, nevertheless, as I have said, the intention is that the grants should not be given normally unless the county council and the district council both contribute. My noble friend Lord Mount Temple made a point which, of course, I cannot answer now, but I will refer the matter to my right honourable friend for decision before the Committee stage. My noble friend behind me (Lord Amulree) made a most interesting speech, for which we are very grateful, but your Lordships will no doubt understand that the amount of latitude for improvement or extension of the Bill in the case of a Money Bill of this character is not very great. We are nevertheless very grateful for his interesting suggestions.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.