HL Deb 12 February 1946 vol 139 cc379-87

3.8 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the Bill to which this afternoon I invite your Lordships to give a Second Reading is the Scottish counterpart to the Water Act of 1945. That Act applied to England and Wales the principles of the White Paper on "A National Water Policy," presented to Parliament in April, 1944, by the Minister of Health, the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Secretary of State for Scotland of the Coalition Government of that day. The present Bill, however, differs from the English 1945 Act in one important regard, inasmuch as the opportunity has been taken to consolidate the general law governing water supply.

Before I attempt to expound the content and purposes of the Bill, it may be convenient to your Lordships if I mention the fact that of Scotland's population of approximately 5,000,000, nearly four and a half millions are served by public water supplies administered by local authorities or combinations of local authorities. In this respect the situation North of the Border differs from that in England and Wales, where statutory water companies are a very important element in the general picture. This difference is reflected in the absence from the Bill before your Lordships of any provisions specifically related to the operations of such companies in the field of water supplies.

There are in Scotland at present 208 "local water authorities" as the Bill terms the local authorities, or combinations of local authorities, supplying or authorized to supply water. These authorities fall into two groups—145 deriving their powers from public general legislation, and 63 (including most of the major authorities, and of course all the six combinations of authorities) working under powers conceded them by Parliament in local enactments. The essential difference between these two groups is that the powers of authorities operating under local enactments are strictly limited and can be extended only by a new local enactment, while authorities supplying under public general legislation have wide powers to "acquire and provide and arrange for a supply of water for the domestic use of the inhabitants … and do and execute all such works, matters and things, as shall be necessary and proper."

The present Bill has three main purposes. First, to give statutory effect to the principles of the White Paper on "A National Water Policy" to which I referred a few moments ago. The basic principle of the White Paper has been given legislative sanction in the Bill by the imposition for the first time on the Secretary of State of a formal and general duty in relation to water supplies—a duty for which he will be responsible to Parliament.

Another salient recommendation in the White Paper touched upon the need for greater co-ordination in the field of public water supply. The historical development of this vital activity in Scotland has been un-coordinated and sometimes (perhaps) even parochial. It is obvious that water-supply boundaries, being ultimately determined by the natural phenomena of watersheds and catchment areas, do not march with the contours of local government units. This fundamental fact makes it essential that in the interests of economy, efficiency and quality there should be a measure of central planning of future water-supply developments—the more so since the problem in Scotland is the expensive one of storage and distri- bution of the natural resources of the country. Under the present law the Secretary of State possesses no powers to compel combination; and only local authorities supplying water under public general legislation combine voluntarily. Water authorities—whether local authorities or joint boards—operating under local enactments cannot at present combine except after specific authority to do so granted by Parliament in a local enactment. As adumbrated in the White Paper the Bill provides simplified machinery for achieving combination and contains power to the Secretary of State to enforce combination and the giving of bulk supplies by one water authority to another where necessary to secure efficiency and economy. In the event of opposition to a compulsory amalgamation at the hands of the Secretary of State, there is, of course, provision for the submission of the issue to Parliament.

Another important provision derived from the recommendations in the White Paper is concerned with the giving to industry of a right to demand water from local water authorities subject to certain priorities in favour of the supply for domestic purposes. Where such a supply is refused or where the terms and conditions are regarded by the potential consumer as unreasonable, he may appeal to the Secretary of State who may himself determine the question or refer it to an arbiter. This provision in favour of industrial enterprises marks an advance over the existing position in which non-domestic consumers have no statutory claim to receive supplies of water from public undertakers.

I now turn to the second main purpose of the Bill—consolidation of the general law of water supply in Scotland. Your Lordships may think that I am taking a little longer than usual but this is a Bill covering 86 pages, with five Parts and five schedules. It is a very comprehensive measure, and I am trying to make my statement as brief as possible. The existing general law is to be found in some fourteen Acts of Parliament, mainly in two sets of Statutes, the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act, 1892, and the Public Health (Scotland) Act, 1897, which, while roughly parallel, differ in minor though significant respects—for example, in the definition of "a supply of water for domestic purposes." The opportunity is accordingly taken to provide in the present Bill one body of rules and one set of powers and duties for burghs and counties alike, incorporating such amendments as are called for by the change in conditions since the general law, whether in the Burgh Police Act or the Public Health Act, was enacted some 50 years ago. Broadly speaking, local authorities are under the Bill to be required to provide water for every part of their district where this can be done at reasonable cost and are required to execute this duty either at their own hand or by securing the provision of a supply by another local authority or a joint water board or otherwise (for example, from an estate having a private supply).

There is one particular feature of the consolidation and amendment proposed by the Bill to which I should like to call your Lordships' attention. The existing general law deals mainly with the provision of water by the local authority but also—and this was necessary if the local authority's efforts were not to be frustrated—with the Introduction of water into the houses themselves. It did not of course say—and neither does the present Bill—that the water must be taken from the authority's water system; many isolated houses can be served only by private supplies. The point is that since 1919 the law has required water to be introduced into the house where "reasonably practicable" and in the Bill that test remains in regard to existing houses. The Government feel, however, that the time has now come to prohibit by Statute the building of a house without an inside water supply, and provision to that end is made in Clause 53.

One power of water authorities is left almost untouched by the present Bill—their power to rate for water supplied. The reason is that in July, 1944, the Secretary of State set up a Committee under the chairmanship of Sir Robert Bryce Walker to go into the whole question of rating and charging for water. Their report was received by the Secretary of State while the Bill was in Committee in another place and is now under consideration. There is, however, one rating provision tucked away in the single sentence that forms Clause 48 of the Bill and abolishes the existing and out-of-date limitation of water and sewer rates.

The third main object of the Bill is to provide local water authorities with an up-to-date operational and administrative code. For their powers to construct works, to lay mains, etc., water authorities depend on either local Acts or the public general Statutes, but the relations of both types of authorities with consumers, highway authorities and so on in the day-to-day workings of the undertakings are in the main governed by the provisions of the Waterworks Clauses Acts, 1847 and 1863. It is now proposed to give authorities as a whole a revised code including the best of the provisions secured by local-Act authorities in modern water legislation. The new code appears partly in the body of the Bill and partly in the Third and Fourth Schedules. The general effect of the procedure will be to secure not only a modern administrative code for water authorities of whatever type but also a considerable measure of uniformity as between authorities.

One feature of the code appearing in the Waterworks Clauses Acts has not been reproduced—the obligation on a water authority to extend their main only when the return in water rates from the premises to be supplied will equal a tenth of the capital cost of extension and the intending consumer binds himself to take the water and pay water rates for at least three years. Now that in Scotland public water supply is the virtual monopoly of local authorities, it is felt that the extension of the water main should depend not on any arithmetical formula but on the public health conscience of the water authority. Accordingly "the tenth rule" as it was called, finds no place in the Bill but Clause 8 requires the main to be brought to such a point as will enable the buildings for which a supply of water is required for domestic purposes to be connected to it at a reasonable cost, always provided that the authority are not themselves involved in unreasonable expense. Any question as to what is reasonable cost (whether to the owner who pays for the service pipe or to the authority whose main is to be extended) is to be decided by the Secretary of State on the application of ten or more local government electors. This is no real innovation, for the principle of it appears in Section 3 of the Rural Water Supplies and Sewerage Act of 1944, where it was necessarily limited to rural localities.

The Bill which I have attempted to expound to your Lordships is of crucial importance for the future development of water supplies in Scotland and despite its formidable size and necessarily technical complexion it has the simple aim of laying down a statutory basis for a better water-supply system in that country. That purpose it achieves and for that reason I confidently commend it to your Lordships and ask you this afternoon to accord to the Bill a Second Reading. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Westwood.)

3.23 p.m.


My Lords, this is a Bill as the noble Lord, Lord Westwood, has said, which has long been due for Scotland. If the Government had not changed at the last election I should myself have been in the position of Lord Westwood of bringing in this Bill and therefore I am quite sure that he realizes that it is in no critical sense that I say these few words. When you see the terrific size of this Bill, composed of eighty-nine clauses and five schedules, you will realize that we had no time before the election even to consider introducing it into this House. But I have no doubt that large as this Bill is, it will be in future of great assistance to the County Clerk or the Town Clerk who is concerned with water administration in that he will be able to turn to one Act of Parliament instead of the fourteen Acts which are mentioned in the Fifth Schedule.

It is, however, with the new provisions of the Bill that I am mainly concerned, and I am bound to say from what I have seen of them that my reactions are mainly favourable. In particular I welcome the proposals in Clause 2 of the Bill that persons requiring water for other than domestic purposes should have a right to demand water from the local water authority, subject, of course, to certain safeguards to make sure that the rights of existing customers are not prejudiced. I am afraid that I have not examined Clause 2 very carefully, not minutely, but I take it generally that its terms will apply to agriculture as well as other things.


I can give you an unqualified assurance on that point.


I am very glad of that because from my own experi- ence and knowledge I am quite sure that an adequate amount of water is needed for the furtherance of agriculture and I am glad the noble Lord has given me his assurance. But there is another clause in which I am interested as regards agriculture, and that is Clause 61, if the noble Lord will turn his attention to that, because this clause seems to me to give a local water authority the right when necessary in the interests of a pure water supply to say how agricultural lands within the gathering ground of the water authority are to be cultivated. That is a very strong clause. It has to be done by by-laws and the Secretary of State is to be the confirming authority. The Secretary of State for Scotland is, I will not say a "Pooh-Bah," but at any rate he is a man with a large number of Departments under him and I earnestly hope that when he is using his prerogatives under this clause he will have regard to his functions as head of the Department for Agriculture as well as the Department of Health. He is equally in charge of both of these Departments and I can conceive it to be very often the case where the Department of Agriculture has regard to the working of these lands that it might easily be in contradiction to the working of the Department of Health. I hope the noble Lord will be able to give me an assurance that agriculture will in no way be prejudiced under this clause.

Let me turn for one moment to industry, which is also very much interested in this Bill. Under Clause 53 I notice that industry is affected to a certain degree. We all want to do what we can to encourage the setting up of new, and the expansion of existing, industries in Scotland. Under this Clause 53 I think pure water has got to be used as far as possible for everything in a factory—domestic, sanitary, and so forth. If this clause is enacted, as I understand it, drinking water will have to be used for central heating and sanitary purposes, and will have to be paid for.

As noble Lords know, some factories use water which is not drinking water and could perfectly well be used for central heating and sanitary purposes, and would not have to be paid for. The cost may not be much, but every single additional cost that goes on to the capital production of a factory is a factor. When we are making for the export trade and we are trying to get factories set up in Scotland as much as we can—in opposition, in a certain measure, to England and Wales—we have got to have those factories run as cheaply as possible. It may have escaped the notice of the noble Lord, Lord Westwood, that in England, they have the advantage of being allowed to use water that is not drinking water for heating and sanitary purposes. When a factory, therefore, is going to be set up, it will be found that the water for its purposes will have to be paid for in Scotland, but that in England and Wales factories may use water for which they do not have to pay. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Westwood, will look into this, and put Scotland on the same plane as England and Wales.

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, I would like to clear up two of the points made by the noble Earl. His latter remarks seem to reflect another injustice to Scotland; that England can do something which Scotland cannot. We might have had better attention today if we had been discussing something other than water. I can give the noble Lord a definite assurance on the point he raised regarding agriculture. The other point was in reference to the requirement of Clause 53 that all water for domestic purposes, which includes sanitary purposes—I think that is the noble Earl's point—in new factories should be wholesome. All I can say to the noble Earl to-day is that he may be assured that the Government have taken note of the representations made and that the possibility of amending the clause on the Committee stage is under active consideration.

3.34 p.m.


My Lords, I am afraid I do not fully understand the Bill, but I would like to ask the noble Lord to consider that there are probably a great many places in Scotland whose water supplies are local and old. After seven years of war, such authorities have not been able to carry out current repairs to their water supplies, and they are probably faced with very heavy expenditure. If such burghs are increasing, they may be faced with the necessity of a short-term water policy to supply the deficiency. I am sure the noble Lord will agree with me that, in the first place, there is by no means too much water in Scotland. We need every drop we can save, and the economic long-term water policies are obviously the ones that must be adopted. I would like to know whether, under this Bill, it is possible to get assistance for small burghs so that they may adopt long-term water policies and get necessary works carried out within a reasonable time, in order not to retard their prosperity and development.


I would rather the noble Lord had a talk on this matter with me, when I might be able to put his mind at ease.

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