HL Deb 29 May 1957 vol 204 cc66-128

2.49 p.m.

THE EARL OF ALBEMARLE rose to call the attention of Her Majesty's Government to the fact that the abstraction of surface and of underground water for purposes of drinking, washing, industrial use and farming is increasing at such a rate as should cause serious concern to Parliament; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, last summer certain figures came before me which, being new, seemed to me disquieting. If, when I give them to your Lordships a little later on, you agree with that view. I feel it will be justification for the fact that I have dared to put this Motion on the Paper. Whatever we may be doing in fifteen years' time, I certainly propose to walk down the "middle of the road" in my remarks, rather than keep to the I left or right hand. Having been given many months in which to study every kind of publication and many experts, and to read reams of evidence from proceedings of the Water Resources Committee, I shall have to cut what is a very large subject. It has proved such a wide subject, however, that I find it somewhat difficult to do the cutting, for one must have a little background.

There were, of course, the two great Committees, the Snell Committee of 1920 and the Water Resources Joint Parliamentary Committee of 1945–46, summoned because of concern over the drought which had occurred. Then in 1944, when we had got on with the war, a White Paper came out; then the Water Act of 1945, followed three years Eater by an Amending Act, and finally, the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act, 1951. The 1920 Committee had a great part to play in the 1945 Act, but in the 1945 Act no provision was made for the setting up of a Commission which had previously been recommended by various water authorities. The Ministry summoned the Joint Parliamentary Committee in order to calm public opinion which was excited about drought, particularly in the rural districts. Although that Committee sat for a very long time, the first year was confined to finding out if it was necessary to call the Committee together, and a resolution was passed to the effect that the Committee were quite sure the Ministry had sufficient information to enable them to draft the necessary legislation. They adjourned sine die. However, next year they got down to questioning various authorities, and certain recommendations were made in the Report.

Then the question arose, during the period when evidence was being taken: to whom does water belong? The answer was given that it did not belong to anyone, except to the person who took the trouble to go and get it. If that rather brief description (I have not time to go into these matters further) is true; if it is correct that water does not belong to anyone; and as over-pumping is going on (we have had to have scheduled areas underneath the ground), and as many complaints are being made of rivers drying up above the ground, it seems to me that we need an explanation on the subject of surface water. Beyond all that, I am sure it would be a sound idea, if water does not belong to anyone, to state that it belongs to the country, and to vest it, together with water rights and sites for dams, in a vesting committee. After all, in 1932—or perhaps it was 1937 or 1938—ex-Prime Minister Baldwin astonished everyone by saying that un-revealed and untapped coal mines would henceforth belong to the country. If it is going to help us, I suggest that we might well consider whether the water should belong to the country.

Then there is the difficult question of the Common Law. The Common Law has grown up over the centuries in this country, and as it affects common land and the rights connected therewith it is rather different from that affecting rights in such a matter as digging a well and also of taking what water you want from a passing stream or other flow of water. During the sittings of the Joint Parliamentary Committee many questions were put to various witnesses by the late Lord Mancroft, who was a most notable member of the Committee. He took the greatest trouble in preparing his questions beforehand, and he had copies typed and issued in advance to those who were going to be questioned. And he received all sorts of answers. The thing that sticks in my mind was that, as regards underground wells, no one can say you "Nay". You may sink a well. A person next door may sink a well. If those wells dry up, then the richer person can go on sinking until he has outsunk the other. That state of affairs cannot be right. That cannot he equitable.

Moreover, in regard to riparian owners' rights, it is quite impossible that those rights should be exercisable to the detriment of others. Many streams in this country, particularly in Eastern areas, are now dry, or in process of drying out, particularly in the drier months of the year when the farmers most need irrigation. Though the 1945 Act says that river boards are to exercise powers it forgot to give them powers. Therefore, I would say that many people in this country are hoping that powers will be given to the river boards to enable them to aid in the task of conservation, the chief conservator, under Section 1 of the Act of 1945, being the Minister. I am certainly not anxious to criticise that Act—who am I to criticise an Act? I can only put before your Lordships what has occurred to me in the course of my reading. This Act went through hard times. It was a Coalition effort, but I believe that the actual Act of 1945 was not passed during the lifetime of the Coalition Government.


The Labour Government.


As I was saying, the Act went through hard times. Its work and its efforts were always being held up. In the first instance, Ministers were always changing. In this House a few years ago, I remember a tremendous point being made of the fact that the Minister was always changing and that people outside did not like it. That is what has happened with regard to this set-up.

The water division was, first of all, someone's child, and then it was someone else's child. Ministers came and Ministers went. Almost every year there was a different Minister. And these were Ministers of a major Department who were concerned with every sort of major measure, which surely could hardly allow the time necessary for personal attention to be given to formulating policy in between whiles. And the Minister was supposed to be the formulator of policy. It was laid down in Section 1 of the Act that the Minister's duty should be to promote the conservation and proper use of water resources and the provision of water supplies in England and Wales and to secure the effective execution by water undertakers, under his control and direction, of a national policy relating to water. The water undertakers were to be under his control and direction. The makers of the 1945 Act clearly imagined that the Minister would formulate a positive policy for our water supplies. The whole tenor of the Act is to place the responsibility for a policy upon the shoulders of the Minister and the responsibility for execution of that policy in producing those supplies upon the local water authorities.

What actually happened? The Minister has used his powers negatively. He has made ad hoc decisions. He has said that the greatest thing they are out to do now is to bring about the amalgamation or grouping of water undertakers. Well, this Act was passed twelve years ago, and here we are in 1957 and comparatively few amalgamations have taken place. I believe that there were 1,200 separate undertakings, which have now been reduced to about 1,000. Of that 1,000, I am told, about 150 produce water for half the country, so that there are 850 producing water for the rest. I said that the Minister was negative in his actions. It is true that he is being content to approve or to withhold his powers, and it has been left to undertakers to take the initiative and prepare schemes. To use a homely phrase, it is as if the rider has rested his bridle hand on the withers of his steed and trusted the animal to make his way home. It may be said that it is not fair to say that, but I have that feeling.

The 1944 White Paper denounced a rigid master plan, but I do not think that anybody ever suggested such a rigid master plan. On the subject of planning, I think that the White Paper contains rather conflicting verbiage, which has confused me. In one place it says that undertakings should be chary of embarking on work where the population is changing and demand may decline. On the other hand, somewhere further on it says that if they do plan, they should plan for twenty years ahead, because any big scheme will take twenty years to implement. But I think that one could say that the Act has produced two solid achievements. I am told that in the provision of rural water supplies, the development has been such that only about 5 per cent. of the population are not near a water supply. Of course, this is an achievement. But those of us who have sat on district councils remember that in 1926 we were told to get on with these water schemes, otherwise it would be done for us and we should have to pay the bill. Many of us said then that the district councils were too poor to do it, and we doubted whether the people would come in. It was perfectly true that we were too poor to do it, but the Government helped generously. We were right in thinking that people would show a short-term enthusiasm for piped water supply. They welcomed it, but they did not come in. The odd thing is that there are many cottage homes in England where they remembered the Scriptural saying that He sendeth rain on the just and unjust". And there are many rural dwellers, I suppose, among the old people, who think that there is something sacrilegious in expecting anybody to be paid for producing water.

My Lords, I apologise: I am afraid that this is extremely dry, but I am trying to get through the subject, and I hope that I shall have your indulgence. The other achievement is that the water industry knows what it wants and goes to get it; but it proceeds by the Private Bill procedure, which has many enemies. I know perfectly well that it is for the convenience of Parliament, and that probably Parliament will never give it up but it must be recorded that many people do not like this procedure. We had an instance recently. Important people like the Federation of British Industries testified against it to the 1935 Committee.

The present Minister, in saying that he was pleased with the evidence of the British Waterworks Association, stated of these big water undertakings that "Looking ahead is their normal practice". I understand, however, that the water industry, like everybody else, is suffering from insufficient capital, and that insufficient capital is allowed to local authorities for combating pollution and for improving the arrangements for the outfall of their sewerage works, compared with the amount of capital available to the electricity and gas services. The amount of capital expenditure in electricity, taking 1931 as 100, went up to 281 in 1956, in twenty-five years; and the figures for gas went up 50 per cent. But for the water industry, which started in 1939 with £20 million, the figure in 1955 (the last year for which I have details), was £37 million. Having regard to the extra water supplies required, which mean more sewerage and drainage, and remembering the drop in the price of money, it seems to me that we are putting the water industry at the bottom of the class and making it the "bad boy" of the class. I think that everybody would ask the Government to be more generous.

Water being a primary need for man, as for trade, the position of our water supply is rather disgusting. We know that pollution is rife. Clear water resources become fewer. In fact, we are engaged in cleaning up one another's messes. Water is often cleaned three times over to make it potable. Industry, however, has a use for raw or polluted water, and the emergent feature is this increase in the industrial use of water. Industry needs three kinds of water. It needs water for cooling—and here, quality matters little: it is the temperature that is all-important. Other trades need either natural or treated water, while others require water for boilers. This last has to be the finest kind, because the high-pressure boilers of to-day need cleaned, demineralised water.

May I proceed to some of the things that are happening in industry? The chemical industry is likely in the next ten years to raise its demands for water by 50 per cent., which is a quite phenomenal increase. Largely increased amounts of water are also required for the iron industry, for textiles, for leather and for paper—and the demand for the last-named is likely to rise by 25 per cent. in the next ten years. Supplies for industry must include potable water under the Public Health Act, 1937, and this good water has to be brought in from water undertakers. But the really important need for industry is quantity, and it is in this respect that matters are getting serious. For certain things, such as cooling towers, the water need not be potable; surprisingly enough, anything will do.

But it is not easy to arrange supply for industry. When industry wants to find a place to put up a factory, the first thing it does is to find out the kind of water available. Different industries need different kinds of water—one kind for brewing; another for chemical factories, and so on. That is where it is difficult for them to get—I will not say willing co-operation, but the possible co-operation of water undertakers, because it may not suit those water undertakers. I would suggest that in order to make a whole water policy, various things need to be done. One is the arranging of a standing conference between water undertakers and their would-be clients, industry. There is no provision, so far as I know, to bring those two parties together. I think that should be done, either by the appointment by the Minister of such a standing conference to hold quarterly meetings, or, if necessary, by legislation and the setting up of a statutory committee.

There is no doubt that industry is getting restive. The important fact that I have discovered, in regard to metered supplies—that is, to businesses—is that between 1931 and 1955 they rose from 156 million to 286 million gallons per day. That is a dreadful rise, representing an increase of 82 per cent. There, I think, we have the important fact: it shows that industry is emergent and expanding—and thank goodness! it is, because that is the only way we can live—and needs more help from the Government. While I am on the subject of increased consumption by big water undertakers I have to give your Lordships these figures, because these, among others, have led me to think that something ought to be done about this question. The quantity for the great Metropolitan Water Board, between 1926 and 1956—that is, thirty years—rose from 70 million to 109 million gallons per day; for Leeds it rose from 5 million to 8 million gallons per day; for Birmingham from 8 million to 25 million gallons per day (they get their water from Wales); for Liverpool from 10 million to 22 million gallons per day, and from Manchester from 16 million to 41 million gallons per day. I am sure your Lordships agree that those figures must make one think. Is industry to forage for itself? Are all the initiating forces to come from individuals?

May I continue with what has been achieved? The central advisory committee has been enlarged to include representatives of business, river boards and other bodies. Scheduled areas have been set up. Over-pumping of underground water has been clamped down upon by the refusal to issue new licences, although chat has by no means stopped over-pumping or the water totals from falling. I do not know how the Minister can stop that, though, being the chief conservator, it is surely within his duty to bring to an end this great waste of our internal reserves of water—what might be called our water bank.

I find it almost impossible to condense he many other things that I wanted to wine before your Lordships, but I will try to bang my speech to an end in five minutes. I have said that although the Minister is empowered to set up regional joint water hoards (and, indeed, the Ministry took credit for a list of eight that were, or were said to be, set up) they certainly do not function now, nor have they been revived, although they are provided for in the Act. I do not believe that the Minister can do without that real experience, knowledge and good will of the countryside. Men already prominent in their spheres of influence, with innumerable public work problems already on their shoulders, are the only people to deal with water matters in a regional sense. It is true that the Minister has had to promise to appoint a regional water committee in Wales, but I should have thought that he could not have done that without bringing in local help.

I suppose the Minister must have thought that a vast network of regional consultatives would be unmanageable, and that a central general staff to advise him, backed by all the stores of fact, maps, knowledge and experience in the Ministry, and in the other establishments which I will not go through now, would have been sufficient to enable him to get out a forward plan. Everybody is unexpectedly bogged down by lack of accurate statistics. The information will not be ready for another year from either of the two sub-committees, nor from the investigating team of engineers for Wales. Nor is there sufficient information which can be gathered for the inland water survey. That is the position. It is everywhere complained of that there is such a lack of detailed information.

That, to my mind, is incomprehensible, because over and over again I came upon evidence in those two Committees, and in the White Paper of 1944, that the Ministry had great experience and plenty of maps and information. The Inland Water Survey has been neglected in the past. I believe that at the time of the flood there were only three or four water gauges. Last year they managed to increase the number to 80, and this year to 117. Bat they will not have the necessary information until they have, they tell me, 400 water gauges. These water gauges are the concern of the river boards. They have been told to get on with it, and each gauge costs between £400 and £4,000. Plan-making is being held up because people cannot get accurate information. So much is water used and re-used, that when you send out a questionnaire to find out people's consumption, you discover that twice as much water has been used as exists in the country. However, another effort is going to be made to try to size up the position.

Plainly, rainfall occurs mainly where population is least. Water is not where it is most wanted. It is extremely expensive to build dams for water, and very expensive to lay pipelines and build aqueducts. Water is expensive to purify and re-clean, but processes now are so improved that it is thought that, rather than bring water from long distances, sources can be used in the middle and lower reaches of rivers which a few years ago would not have been attempted.

Finally, let water rights, as I have said before, be vested in Crown Commissioners, like the Coal Commission and the Crown Lands Commissioners. Let the vesting Commissioners also sit judicially to allocate from this reserve to new applicants as the years go by. Let the various advisory water committees advise the allocating Commission. Let the Minister, as I have said, summon a standing quarterly conference. We should do what has been so often asked for, and treat every river basin as a unit. To do that, some measures have to be taken to compose differences among the five or six Ministries which, on certain occasions, hold sway by legislation over a given length of river. The 1920 Snell Commission suggested an inter-departmental statutory committee to meet two or three times a year and there to compose their differences—because, of course, differences do occur. A water engineer's aim is often opposed to that of a land drainage engineer, and, as we know, navigational matters have precedence over agricultural.

I know that these sovereign departments do not like that idea at all, because they always reply, "If we have any difficulties we just go and have a chat, and it is all easily put right." I am not convinced by that. There is a priority and a difference in prestige between Departments. What happens when the "under-dog" has to put up with what has been said to him by the overriding Department? He has to "take it," and he may not have been able to have his excellent arguments threshed out in a sort of Committee.

I urge the scheduling of surface water areas where needed. I ask that the actions of the Common Law, where they do not seem at all equitable as between subjects, should be investigated. There is one final suggestion that I should like to make, and it is this. For over a dozen years I have served under an Enabling Act in a certain place where the three parties to the matter in hand assemble and thresh out a measure, to their mutual interest. The measure comes to Parliament, and Parliament is not burdened—although it is over-burdened with work—with that particular matter. It either approves or rejects it. I suggest that it might be valuable to have an Enabling Act to empower all branches of water authorities to come together and thresh out their differences, and so save the Minister and Parliament a good deal of labour.

I am very much obliged to your Lordships for the attention you have given me. The 1945 Act is like a suit that has been worn in hard times and passed on; for, owing to the shortage of materials, Ministers have their elder brothers' clothes passed on to them. If only they had looked in the pockets, they could have pulled out something to their advantage; but unfortunately that was not done. I beg to move for Papers.

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise to the noble Earl for having missed the first five minutes of his remarks. I did not realise that we were not having Prayers this afternoon. We are all extremely grateful to the noble Earl for raising this important subject for debate this afternoon and for making a speech in which he certainly touched on most of the really important problems connected with water supply. I think the position from which the noble Earl spoke was perhaps symbolic of our approach to water. As a rule, the noble Earl sits, and sits most assiduously, on the Benches opposite, but to-day—and I am sure that it is no reflection on his Party loyalty—he chose to speak from the Independent Benches. Water is a non-Party matter and has a common approach.

I think it is fair to say that water is the most neglected of our important public utilities. Compare and contrast the improvements that have been made in the organisation and distribution of gas and electricity with the improvements that have been made in the organisation and distribution of water. Taking an obvious example, one finds that there is disproportionate capital expenditure. The figures I have for 1955 are: £247 million invested in electricity, £57 million invested in gas and £56 million invested in water. Of course, more money must obviously be spent on gas and electricity but it is the disproportion which is so striking. I should be obliged to the noble Lord if he could give the figure for investment in water for 1956. I have not given notice of that question, but if, when he comes to reply, he could give that figure, it would be useful for the House to have it to see whether, in fact, investment is going up or down or is on a level.

I agree with the noble Earl that we cannot really grasp this problem without going back to the end of the war when the policy was started which we are trying to carry out and which—and here again I agree with the noble Earl—we have failed to carry out. It was in the general desire for social reconstruction after the war by the Coalition Government, who responded to public opinion at the time, that the White Paper of 1944 was produced. That White Paper laid down a national water policy. I think it is important to remember that the White Paper was the product of a Coalition Government of all three political Parties, because, in fact, the 1945 Act was the child of the White Paper. And so we see the continuity of water policy.

This White Paper still remains to-day the classic statement of what water policy should be. It called for the allocation of our resources according to a planned water economy. The object of this planned economy—I am quoting the words of the White Paper—was: to ensure that all available resources are used to the best advantage and to secure proper distribution. I do not think anyone could quarrel with those principles of policy. If only they had been applied, if only they had been carried out by the successive Governments that we have had since 1944, then we should really not be confronted with the water problem with which vie are dealing to-day.

But the fact is that there has been almost a complete stagnation for the past twelve years, in spite of the provisions of the 1945 Act. The grave defects emphasised again and again in the White Paper—the lack of central authority control, the multiplicity of water undertakers, the inadequacy of water supply in the countryside for both farmers and domestic users—these three cardinal defects are almost as serious to-day as they were when the White Paper was published. This, surely, is an urgent national problem, particularly the continuation of the excessive number of water authorities and the inadequacy of the supply of water to people living in the countryside. These are really the elements of an urgent national problem.

But I think the noble Earl was mainly concerned in his speech, if I understood him rightly, with the problem of conservation. I think he was right to emphasise this matter. He pointed out that our rainfall in fact gives us in ordinary circumstances a plentiful supply of underground and surface water. According to the White Paper, when the White Paper was published we had sufficient reserves to cover fifteen times our then consumption of water. The noble Earl has rightly asked the, Government—and I hope the noble Lord can reply to this question—whether the position to-day is anything like as satisfactory as it was when the White Paper was published. I do not think anyone will dispute the fact that both industrial and domestic demands have enormously increased in the last ten years and will continue to increase in the future. We have to cater for the future, obviously, as well as to have enough in hand for the present time and to give us enough to fall back on in the event of a very severe drought.

It would be interesting to know—and I hope the noble Lord can reply to this point—whether the Government are satisfied that our reserves of water are in fact sufficient for all the likely demands of expanding industry and the larger number of domestic consumers in the next few years. I believe there are three matters which are of even greater and more urgent importance than conservation. Everything depends on conservation, obviously, but I am not quite as anxious about the position as is the noble Earl, and I daresay that that will be the view of the Government.

It seems to me that, if we are to have a water supply to meet our primary national requirements, there are three problems that we have to face. The first is the provision of the organisation or machinery required for the conservation and allocation of water and the Financing and control of water undertakings by a central authority. The second is the provision of an efficient and up-to-date system for the distribution of water to both industrial and domestic consumers. The third is the provision of a piped water supply for houses throughout the countryside. These are, I think, the three essential problems that have to be solved and the three main defects in our present organisation for the supply of water.

Let me deal with these three matters in sequence: first of all, the problem of organisation at the centre. The noble Earl, I think, spoke about a central water authority. He certainly referred to the transfer of water rights to a vesting commission. I am glad that that suggestion came from him, because nobody could accuse the noble Earl of being a Socialist. He obviously regarded this matter, as we all do, on its merits and saw the need in a particular case of this kind, supply of water, for a form of national central authority. My Lords, of course, this authority should exist, and it should have the necessary powers. Some of these powers, of course, are already vested in the Minister, and we are, I think, perfectly entitled to complain that they have not been used.

I should like to mention what seem to me to be the essential powers. If they exist, they should be used; and if they do not exist, then the Minister should be given the powers forthwith. First of all, there must be a power to decide on allocations of water resources between the different users. This would prevent the present scramble for water, which we experience year after year in Parliament—local authorities each promoting a Private Bill to grab all the water it wants, regardless of the requirements of industry or agriculture in adjoining areas. It is perfectly proper that each local authority should think of its own interests—that is absolutely right; but it is the duty of Parliament to look at the interests of the country as a whole, to see that users get what they want according to some rational system of priorities. There should also be power for compulsory mergers when small and inefficient water authorities refuse to effect a merger by agreement. Again, I think that this is a power which already exists, although it is not used.


It does exist.


I am grateful to the noble Lord for confirming my quite "amateurish" view of the law. It seems to be all the more regrettable, if this power has existed since 1945, that it should not have been used. I think we are entitled to urge that it should be used in future.

Another power that is needed is the power to make grants towards development and to decide on priorities as between different applicants for financial aid. Again, of course, grants are made—I shall come to that matter in a moment. But what I think should be done is to alter the amount and the distribution of these grants. At the present moment the central authority is a Government Department. The central authority, could, in theory, be either a Government Department or some form of public corporation like the Central Electricity Authority. But I personally am in favour of a Government Department, partly because it is the authority at the moment, and has something like the powers that we think it should have, and partly because, since water is so dependent on public expenditure and on grants from public money, it is necessary that sanction and authority for such grants should be given by a Government Department.

My Lords, I think that these financial difficulties have been at the root of all the trouble since 1945. It is, after all, a plain fact that the supply of water for domestic users is an expensive and uneconomic matter. The ratepayers cannot cover the whole cost of reservoirs, of impounding water, of laying water mains and of providing pipes from the water mains to people's homes: there must be substantial grants from public funds towards the capital works needed by these rural authorities. I quite understand that this financial factor has been the retarding factor ever since the end of the last war. But I cannot see any way round this difficulty unless this retarding factor is frankly faced, and unless we are prepared not only to provide the necessary money but to provide it more generously than has been the case hitherto.

We must take the view that domestic users require water just as urgently, for health and ordinary domestic purposes, as they require education or the ordinary public health services; and water for domestic purposes in the home should therefore be regarded as a social service, financed to the necessary degree out of public funds in the same way as education or housing or public health. I am perfectly aware—we often discuss the economic situation in this House—that this is not a good moment to ask for more capital expenditure on unremunerative public works. I have no doubt that that is a point the noble Lord opposite will make in his reply. But this is surely a form of capital expenditure that should be sanctioned just as soon as we can afford it; and it should be given the highest possible priority.

May I come now to the second of these problems? We still urgently need a really efficient and up-to-date system of distribution of water. As the noble Earl, Lord Albemarle, has pointed out, there are still over 1,000 water undertakers, many of them far too small to be economic units and to be able to afford the technicians and to borrow the money needed for the work they should do. It is extraordinary (I looked up these figures only a day or two ago) that as many as 460 out of the 1,035 water authorities supply a population of under 10,000 persons; that is to say, only half the total amount. As the noble Earl has also pointed out, the reduction since 1944 has been only from about 1,200 to a little over 1,000. That is all that has happened in the last twelve years. Of course, some amalgamations have taken place, after a great deal of discussion and persuasion. That is the way we should all desire these amalgamations to happen. But since the total number of undertakers has fallen so little in the last twelve years, surely something more drastic should be done. We have to face the fact that, desirable as it is in many ways—and none of us working on local authorities would wish to underestimate the value of it—local patriotism is bound to be an obstacle to voluntary action in this field. I hope that the Minister, armed with these compulsory powers, will not hesitate to use them when his powers of persuasion have failed to secure agreement, and that the procedure will not be unnecessarily dilatory. There is no other way to weed out the small and inefficient undertakers and to put this business of distributing water on an efficient and economic basis.

My Lords, let me come finally to the third of what seem to me the three main problems of water. The worst blot on our system of water supply is its inadequacy in the rural areas. The White Paper stated that 30 per cent. of our rural population is without a piped water supply. I have not any recent figures. Perhaps the noble Lord could give us the present percentage, or the percentage at the latest calculation.


It is about 10 per cent. now.


I am glad that there has been such a substantial reduction. But I think that even 10 per cent. is a much larger percentage than we can possibly afford to tolerate in a country that prides itself on up-to-date social conditions. If I work it out in relation to the figures I have for 1944, it means that several hundred thousand persons are without a piped water supply. The noble Lord agrees with that figure which I have worked out in my head from some figures I have in front of me


May I interrupt the noble Earl for a moment? Is it not the case that piped water is carried to 97 per cent. of the population of the country?


Well, the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, has just said that 10 per cent. of the population is without a piped water supply.


I am asking in relation to the whole country.


I think I had better leave the two noble Lords to fight it out.


Perhaps I might referee. Both figures are perfectly correct. The figures that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and I were discussing are purely rural figures. The figure of the noble Lord, Lord Blackford, is that for the whole country.


I am obliged to the noble Lord for that explanation; I think that satisfies everybody. To resume, I think we have to look at these figures for water supplies in the rural areas in a very broad setting, because we all want people to go on living in the country. That is one of the problems of agriculture at the present day. If we are to stop them drifting away to neighbouring towns, as they are still doing in large numbers, we must make their conditions of life at least comparable to urban conditions. A very high priority should therefore he given, to making the life of the housewife in the village, or in the cottage at some distance front a village, as convenient as the life of the housewife in the town. We cannot accept social conditions which deprive so many households of what we regard as one of the essentials of a civilised life. I cannot visualise what it would be like if I had to carry in all my water for washing up, washing, and so on, in addition to the ordinary chores that I should have to do if I were a housewife.

What is the answer to all this? It is difficult for anyone who is not speaking From the Government Benches to know, but I suggest that amending legislation is required and that we should have a Bill co amend the 1945 Act, If Her Majesty's Government complain that there is insufficient evidence on which to base such a Bill, I would suggest that we should have an immediate Committee of Inquiry. I would rather have a Committee of Inquiry than a Royal Commission, because a Royal Commission takes such a long time; and I am sure your Lordships will agree that what is needed is an end to the inertia and drift which we have experienced over the last twelve years. We need action, and we ask Her Majesty's Government, as the responsible authority, to take the action that public opinion requires We very much hope that the noble Lord will have some comfort for us in being able to say that Her Majesty's Government have in view some form of constructive action.

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, before I address to your Lordships the few remarks on this subject which I propose to make, I must disclose a certain interest in the water industry, because I am one of the directors of a stautory water company working in the Home Counties. I should like to thank the noble Earl who has put down this Motion for initiating what is going to be a most interesting and important debate, because one of the things with which we are bound to be confronted is an increasing demand for water in the country, both from the industrial and domestic side and for farming, a demand which is bound to increase quite considerably. One is really, not shocked, but surprised when one sees the enormous amount of water now demanded by some of the industrial undertakings for steelworks, nuclear power stations, various textile factories and places of that kind.

I should like to see every attempt made to ensure that industrial concerns obtain their water from the most economical source possible, and, at the same time, that they are careful not to take more water than they require. It is simple for a concern to put forward to a water undertaker a big demand for water, on the assumption that it is easy to meet that demand, but if that water is then used in an uneconomical way, it inevitably leads to a certain amount of waste. I was wondering whether big industrial undertakings should not be more encouraged than they are to take water from rivers, to which, after appropriate treatment, a certain amount of water can be returned, rather than take large quantities of water from underground sources when river sources might possibly be available. In ways of that kind some economy in water consumption might be effected.

A second direction in which a certain amount of economy—though not very much—could be effected by water undertakings in the amount of water used for domestic purposes is by taking proper steps to see that as little wastage of water as possible occurs. In the undertaking with which I am connected, by carrying out a number of waste tests and by taking great precautions against waste, we have managed to save about 10 per cent. of our daily consumption—water which otherwise would go to waste. I do not think it is possible to cut wastage down to a very small figure, but some reduction can he achieved in that way; and, if the reduction applied to the country as a whole—it would serve a good purpose in the conservation of water supplies.

The Water Act, 1945, which has been referred to to-day by noble Lords, makes it possible for water undertakings to combine and, as the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, has said, gives the Minister power to compel them to do so. One of the things about which we feel a great deal of disappointment is that so little has taken place in the way of amalgamation since the Act came into force. I believe that there are one or two particular reasons for that around London. When the 1946 Act was passed, there was a departmental inquiry into the London Water supply, but the Report was not published until 1948. Nothing much was done about the Report and that made water undertakers about London move rather carefully, as they wondered what was to occur. At the same time a rather big scheme was prepared by the Metropolitan Water Board under which it was planned to absorb most of the undertakings near London. That again caused undertakings around London to delay discussions on amalgamation. So far as I am aware, however, these have begun again, and one hopes that, following the Minister's circular last year, we shall now see more speed. Nevertheless, I trust that if amalgamations do not occur voluntarily, the Minister will not hesitate, in a fairly short time, to use what pressure he can to bring about some amalgamation.

I do not necessarily want to see any particular kind of undertaking coming out of this discussion, for if there is a goad statutory water company it provides one of the best forms of water supply we can possibly have. Similarly, a good local authority is a very satisfactory form of supply. But both must be big enough to employ a regular engineer and chemist, and to have the money necessary to carry out essential works. What one hopes will occur is not that very good local authority undertakings will be amalgamated with statutory companies, but that some should amalgamate with statutory companies and some with statutory authorities. Statutory authorities should not take everything under their wing if there is a good statutory company prepared to take one or two local authority undertakings under their wing.

I should like Her Majesty's Government to give us, at the end of this debate some indication, in the first place, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has suggested, of the amount of capital which can be invested in the water industry during the next year, five years or whatever is a convenient period; and also to know whether the Minister can tell us whether progress has been made towards amalgamation of these authorities and whether the Minister proposes to take further steps than he has taken up to the present to encourage such amalgamation.

3.58 p.m.


My Lords, I think we all agree that the subject introduced by the noble Earl, Lord Albemarle, is well worthy of debate in this House. There are a large number of facts which it is desirable, for purposes of debate and action by Her Majesty's Government, should be fully marshalled. There are a good many more facts, as one has heard from speeches which have been delivered, which apparently we ought to know but which we do not know; and both those points raise quite a number of practical problems.

The one predominant and certain fact is that the consumption of water has increased enormously and will certainly go on increasing. I remember that a good many years ago a distinguished doctor—I it was Sir Almroth Wright—warned us of the great danger of washing too much. At a later stage, during one of those crises in which the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, told us that his Party was always united, Mr. Gaitskell brought Sir Almroth Wright up to date by warning us of the great danger of taking too many baths. The House may remember the observation of Sir Winston Churchill that he wondered whether it was that which had brought him into such bad odour in the country. I do not think that any modern Canute, scientific or political, is likely to stay the tide of ablution.

Although consumption will go on progressively increasing, this is the one industry in which we cannot increase production. We can conserve to greater advantage, but we cannot make more water fall. Even the atomic scientists cannot do that—at least they say that their operations have no effect on the atmosphere. Even scientists cannot make more water fall than a merciful Providence sends us. I gather that the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, has heard something to suggest that possibly they can. There has been mention of something which has happened in Arizona, and I know they have been trying. The noble Lord, I hope, is going to speak and he may say something upon this matter. I doubt whether this factor is going to affect us materially in the amount of water which is brought down.

I would certainly agree with the last speaker that large undertakings, whether municipalities or companies, are extremely efficient. I would also agree that there are a lot of small undertakings which, by reason of their size, cannot be efficient and which, no doubt, ought to be amalgamated. But even when you have done that you have not solved the problem of conservation; you have only made the production, the management and the distribution more efficient. You have not dealt with the problem of national resources. It is really rather an odd thing that water is, I suppose, the only great national asset which is not considered nationally. We have a Ministry of Power, now expanded and very active, covering efficiently the whole field of power; bat to-day we have no effective Ministry of Water. The 1945 Act, with the foundations for which my noble friend had something to do, intended that there should be. The first section of the Act, I think, lays down that the Minister shall be responsible for securing the execution of a national policy. Then there is to be established—and there has been established, I believe—a Central Advisory Committee. But certainly no one has suggested that either the Minister or the Committee, under any Government, have devised a national policy, much less secured the execution of it.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, I thought, was very fair when he said in effect: "We cannot make any Party capital out of this; we do not want to; we have both been equally negligent." The Government of which the noble Earl was such an ornament for many years did nothing. And I am afraid that successive Governments, of which I was a less perfect ornament, did, if possible, even less. Certainly, neither of us did much good at it. What happens to-day? New projects come forward under Private Bills and all sorts of local objections and interests are heard—and quite rightly. I think that very often some people object rather unnecessarily to the construction of reservoirs on their property. At my home I happen to enjoy two large reservoirs, owned by two great municipalities, and I must say that I find them a very agreeable feature of the landscape. In addition, they make a substantial and very welcome contribution to our local rates.

But one may find not only local bodies but possibly also two great corporations competing for some source of power, seeking a ruling at to which of them is to use it—it may be who is to have possession or user of a watershed. The odd thing is that though this comes before Parliament and may occupy this House or another place or Joint Parliamentary Committees for days and days, so far as I know there is no one to advise Parliament what is in the national interest or what (if my noble friend Lord Salisbury will forgive me for saying it) is best in the long run. I am sure that nationalisation is no answer to that. There is no justification in expropriating efficient undertakings. It certainly would arouse great opposition and it would be an unnecessary expenditure of public money. Moreover, you would get much less local efficiency of administration, I believe, under a nationalisation scheme. And I do not think you would have done anything to solve the main problem.

Therefore, what I would suggest is that there should be a small body of National Commissioners and that they should survey all the unused resources; and when a water company or a municipality wanted to tap a new source they would consult the Commission, who would advise the undertaker and also advise Parliament (when the matter came before Parliament on a Private Bill or some Provisional Order, or whatever it might be) whether the plan was in the national interest. A scheme of that kind would not hold up plans which were coming forward. These would have to be—and would rightly be—considered ad hoc, and the Commission would give its advice upon them as it got into its stride.

I may be told that we already have the Central Advisory Committee. I daresay that may be a good body; but is it doing what is required? I do not think it is. A matter comes before Parliament; different municipalities—it might be Manchester or Liverpool—have schemes to put forward. Do they go straight to this Committee and get advice? I know one has to get leave before one can carry out some particular boring or other work, and that is quite right; but those are comparatively small matters. If the Central Committee is the right body to do this task, then let us see that it is efficient, that it has the time, that it is not bound by red tape and that it can advise both Parliament and the Minister.

I make that suggestion because I do not like speaking in a debate like this merely in order to criticise. I hope the Government will welcome any suggestions that are put forward. It may be that they have a great plan, and policy of their own. If so, this will be a very convenient occasion on which the Minister—who always explains things so clearly—can explain to us what the Government's plan is. If they have not got a plan, I hope that they will receive with an open mind—and by an open mind, I do not mean a vacant mind—any suggestions and modest contributions, made in this spirit, from different quarters of the House.

4.10 p.m.


My Lords, until my noble friend Lord Swinton rose I was a little afraid that nobody was going to pay any attention to the noble Earl's Motion, which desires Parliament to express concern at the continued and increasing extraction of surface and underground water for various purposes. Much of the discussion we have had so far has been aimed partly at increasing the consumption of water and partly at organising so that we should be enabled to get more water.

The plain fact of the matter, to which my noble friend Lord Swinton referred, is that the domestic consumption of water per head of the population is still going up, and also the population; while the increase in the industrial uses of water continues at a pretty rapid rate. Moreover we are to have a chain of atomic power stations throughout the country, which I understand use enormous quantities of water. The table available is still adequate, so far as I can make out, but it is not fifteen times what we require, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said.


My Lords, I think the noble Earl has misunderstood what I said, because my reference was to a statement in the White Paper on the position in 1944. I was not referring to the present situation.


I thank the noble Earl. From a paper given to me, I understand that the table to-day is only somewhere between four and five times what we require. I will not give your Lordships the figures because they are hedged about by so many reservations that I think the authors of the paper would rather that they were not made too public. That is not a very wide margin when it comes to such an essential commodity as water. Of the water which we use in such large quantities, a proportion comes from underground, and the larger proportion from overground sources. So far as underground water is concerned, I think that we are all aware that the water table in large areas of the country has lowered very materially. One calls to mind particularly the Thames Basin, where I believe it has dropped by from 20 to 40 feet.

We need to think a little about what is happening on the surface in relation to what is happening underground, because the reservoirs of water which are underground can be filled only by what falls on the surface and percolates to the lower areas. We need to remember, too, that we are increasingly covering the country with impermeable areas—it may be roofs, roads or aerodromes. Those who are concerned with these activities have only one object, so far as the water which falls on them is concerned—that is, to get it away as quickly as possible; to shoot it off somewhere into a river, We must also remember in this connection that, on the average, rather more than half of the total water that falls on this county disappears in the form of evaporation and transpiration. It seems to me that we are gradually and steadily decreasing our reserves of water through the methods we are adopting to-day. I might also add, of course, that agricultural drainage, drainage boards and rivers all add to the getting away of water as quickly as possible. We are continually drawing increasing quantities of water away from below and increasingly preventing the percolation which would restore the supplies.

I do not want to expand that point, because my interest in this was aroused more particularly from a much narrower point of view—from the forestry aspect. Last year, at the British Association meetings at Leeds, an eminent water engineer read a paper describing an experiment he had done, in which he purported to prove that growing trees in a water catchment area was highly detrimental to the supply of water to the reservoirs which the catchment area was supposed to feed. I think that he would be the first to admit that his experiment was of a limited nature, and I am inclined to think that he put forward that paper more to provoke discussion than as a serious contribution to the water problem. Unfortanately, his paper received wide publicity in the Press, and subsequent papers, many of which offered a different point of view received no such publicity.

From the forestry point of view, what he said has frightened a number of water engineers, and we feel a little concerned about the matter. That is a domestic matter to the Forestry Commission, but I raised the matter with a body which kindly helps us in our scientific activities, our Research Advisory Committee, which consists of a number of eminent scientists in various walks of life, not necessarily in water—botanists, soil scientists and the like. With the aim of starting something to counter the paper which had been read at Leeds, I suggested that we might do our own research into the effect of trees on the flow of water to reservoirs. I found the unanimous opinion, however, that the subject was far too wide for a body like the Forestry Commission to deal with, and that there was a real necessity for a national review at the scientific level of the whole situation. With that I had to be content. I was not allowed to take any action myself, and therefore I would suggest that a committee be set up.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and my noble friend Lord Swinton both suggested some kind of inquiry. I should like to make it more particular and suggest that it should be a scientific inquiry, which could lead to further research into the whole problem of water supplies. I think your Lordships will better understand my suggestion if I quote from one of my correspondents, who happens also to be a member of the Research Advisory Committee of the Forestry Commission. He wrote: A critical assessment of the state of our knowledge is needed to correct the widespread misconceptions that prevail among the general public, and to a considerable extent in many scientific and technical circles also, and to provide the basis for further action. I am certain that, by "basis for further action," he meant further research out of which action could come, and in order to ensure our water supplies in future years, it is necessary that we should have as complete knowledge as possible. This must be a long-term policy. We cannot afford, even now, to let it slide, for fear that in twenty-five years' time we may easily find ourselves running short of water, even in this moist climate.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, am glad that my noble friend Lord Albemarle has raised this question of water extraction, because from my experience as a member of the Essex River Board and of the Port of London Authority, I can testify to the urgency of the problem. The consumption and use of water is going up by leaps and bounds. It is estimated that by 1970 the demand for water for all purposes will be double what it was in 1938. I think this debate has already established the fact that the abstraction of both surface and underground water is increasing at such a rate as to make the position in relation to an adequate supply for all purposes an urgent problem in large areas of the country; and particularly is that so in the Eastern and South-Eastern counties of England, where the rainfall is low. I recently heard an authority on the subject, speaking at a meeting, describe the situation in these words: We are down to the bone in water supplies. That is true.

As has been said by one or two noble Lords, it is the increasing demand for water by industry that is causing the greatest concern. In London alone meter supplies to industry have been increasing on an average each year by about 2 million gallons a day. Our rivers are the chief source of supply of raw water required for industrial purposes. Many of your Lordships must have noticed how the banks of our principal rivers are becoming studded with electric power stations, chemical works, oil refineries and other similar undertakings. The reason for this is that they all require enormous quantities of water; they cannot work without them. For example, it has been said that the oil industry would die of thirst in a matter of minutes if its supply of water ran out As the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, pointed out, we are now faced with a building programme for atomic energy plants, which also require masses of water for their processes. It is not domestic consumption which is the main problem, but the demands of modern industry and the many new processes which are attendant upon it.

I see that my noble friend Lord Waverley. Chairman of the Port of London Authority, is to speak after me, and I am sure he will confirm that one of the great headaches of the Port of London Authority is the continual and increasing abstraction of water from the Thames by large power plants and others, and the de-oxygenated condition in which it is returned to the river. I would also remind your Lordships that nearly all sewage and trade effluents are discharged into rivers and streams. What an important point this is when we are thinking about this problem of water abstraction!It is only by retention of a sufficient flow of fresh natural water that these sewage and trade effluents can be absorbed without causing conditions harmful and dangerous to river water for human consumption, fisheries and public health.

In the last two or three years a new demand for water has arisen which shows signs of expanding rapidly; that is, the use of river and stream waters for irrigation of farm crops by spraying. On the Essex River Board, the information that we have about the extent of purchases of pumps and spraying equipment is causing much concern as to the effect all this is going to have on our already attenuated stream and river water supplies. There is no doubt that spraying greatly accelerates maturity and increases crop yields both of farm produce and fruit, and we cannot but admire the enterprise of our farmer friends in this development. We members of river boards do not suggest that this development should be stopped. It is most desirable, in the national interest, that all demands for water should be met to the fullest extent possible, including the spraying of farm fields; but unless there is proper planning and reasonable conservation of the water in our streams and rivers, the present situation will develop into chaos.

Like other bounties of nature, there is water in plenty, but it must be conserved and not misused. Water has been used for irrigation in agriculture ever since the days of the Garden of Eden. Problems of water conservation affecting our English streams and rivers also existed when watermills were the vogue, in days gone by. Until modern engines driven by steam and oil came into use, the watermill was a feature of every stream and river in the land. But the old problem of the sufficiency of water to keep the watermills going is now no longer with us. Now we have a new and much more serious water problem confronting us, affecting not only agriculture, but also industry and public health; that is, the extent to which water abstraction is exceeding the natural processes of water replacement.

In my view, the time has arrived when we should have a national water policy embracing all sources of fresh water supplies. The White Paper, A National Water Policy, issued in 1944, to which the noble Earl, Lord Albemarle, referred, recognised that action on these lines was necessary; but as has been pointed out in this debate, unfortunately in many important respects the proposals contained in that White Paper have never been implemented. Planning at present is restricted to the control of underground supplies and abstractions by statutory water undertakers. But the supply of water from all sources, and its use for all purposes, should be dealt with as a single problem. I agree with much of what the noble Earl, Lord Swinton said; I would say that we should have some central authority of some kind or another. But in the administration of this central authority, I suggest that, so far as surface water is concerned, it is essentially a matter for local administration. I think the obvious authorities to be charged with this duty are the river boards, constituted under the River Boards Act, 1948.


Perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord. I want the central authority or commission to be the policy-making or policy-approving body. I do not want them to have executive powers. I want the executive powers to be in the hands of the water authorities, the undertakers.


That would probably perpetuate the trouble that we are in just now. Under the 1948 Act river boards are charged with the authority of conserving surface water supplies. But Parliament has never given the river boards any authority or power to carry out the object. I should say that, whatever central authority we have to deal with the overall water policy in the country, they must have power of some kind or another to carry it out. I am glad that the noble Earl agrees with me that much of this work, particularly dealing with surface water, streams and rivers, could well be made a matter of local administration.

May I turn to my point about the growth of abstraction of water for agricultural irrigation? That is undoubtedly causing great concern in the river boards up and down the country. Here, again, we are completely powerless to deal with this situation, but I believe it can be dealt with. I believe that ways and means can be found to conserve water for irrigation by impounding streams which carry ample water in the winter and are dry in summer, by constructing reservoirs alongside streams with an overflow weir to the reservoir to enable the stream flow to be maintained in times of dry weather and drought.

In conclusion, I assure your Lordships that the aims of my friends and myself on river boards are not to limit the use of stream water unnecessarily, but rather to regulate the use of streams and rivers to allow the maximum use and benefit. I submit that industrial and agricultural progress, building development, public health and other interests, all demand an effective national water policy, and I hope that action to that end will not be further delayed.

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, I have no intention of claiming your Lordships' attention for very long, but, as my noble friend and colleague said a few moments ago, the Port of London Authority, of which I have the honour to be Chairman, have for some years past been greatly exercised in regard to the position that has been developing, primarily, of course, in the Thames basin, in this matter of water supply. No-one who has listened to the speakers in this debate can have any doubt as to the importance and urgency of the matter that we have been discussing.

I want now to emphasise only a few special aspects of the problem. As has been truly said, and as was emphasised by several speakers, the demands on the available water supplies of the country have been increasing at a rapid and rather disquieting rate. As my noble friend Lord Macpherson of Drumochter has said, not only have the demands of industry been increasing very rapidly, but the demands on water for private consumption, owing to the natural increase of the population, changing habits of the people, development of modern housing and so on, have also increased to a great extent. Not only has there been this progressively increasing demand but, as I think was said by my noble friend Lord Radnor, the availability for the needs of the community of water—and it all comes from one source, the "gentle rain" falling from Heaven—is diminished for several reasons, in several ways.

First of all, there has been a great development of land drainage and, at the same time, the extent of the areas which are impermeable to water falling from the skies has been progressively increasing. The results of those two causes operating together have been that, in time of heavy rainfall, the proportion of water (which formerly used to be held in the soil, acting rather as a sponge, to be given up gradually) which makes its way straight away into the rivers and streams, is much greater than it used to be; and there are no means available of capturing to a sufficient extent the water that escapes into the main rivers and waterways of the country in time to make it available for the general use of the community.

In the London area, various devices have been resorted to in order to mitigate the risks inherent in the existing situation. Storage reservoirs are being developed at great expense, and measures are taken to ensure that they shall be kept topped up at times when the flow in the rivers, and particularly in the Thames, is adequate. In time of reduced rainfall, when the natural flow in the rivers shows signs of falling away, then the reservoirs can be drawn upon, and in the London area there is a useful formula which is applied which relates the amount of water drawn from the storage reservoirs directly to the level of flow for the time being over Teddington Weir. Also, the Metropolitan Water Board have taken measures, at considerable expense, to make available water falling in the Thames Valley to supplement the waters of the Lea Valley. The water is pumped underground, and the reservoirs in the Lea Valley are kept at a high level, thus ensuring that they shall be available to make good any deficiency in the Thames area.

There are other aspects of this matter which, in my view, require further investigation. I will say a word in a moment on the organisational aspects which have already been touched upon. But first of all I want to say a word about underground water supplies. One can easily paint in one's mind an attractive picture of vast basins of water undergound, available to be drawn upon by simple processes so as to supplement the supplies of water above-ground. But, for some reason or other, it does not work quite like that, and I think there is something of a mystery there. I do not know why, when artesian water is being taken from these underground basins, the water table is so severely lowered and only so very slowly restored. You can apply statistical methods, and you can calculate quite easily the amount of rainfall on the great areas of the country where the surface strata are permeable, and you can make due allowance, as my noble friend Lord Radnor did, for loss by evaporation. You must assume that half of what falls goes away in evaporation and is no use to anybody. Nevertheless, statistically there is a vast source of supply available there, and what becomes of it? Where does it go? By what hydro-dynamic forces are the underground waters supplemented from the surface, which is the only way in which they can be supplemented?

I would urge strongly that there should be a further detailed scientific investigation of that particular limited problem. As I have said, the areas of the country which are covered by permeable strata—by the chalk, by the oolite further north, and by the triassic sandstones further north still—are of vast extent, and the sandstones and the limestones are, at any rate theoretically, capable of holding vast quantities of water. In many cases, those formations are overlaid by, for example, the London clay, which ensures that the water is held in situ, and one would think prima facie that it would be perfectly easy, by sinking boreholes in suitable situations, to draw upon underground sources of water to an extent wholly ample to make good any deficiency that is likely to occur even in the remote future. I would suggest that there is a strong ease for making a thorough investigation of that problem.

There is also the problem, to which my noble friend Lord Radnor referred, of the effect of afforestation on water supply. I will not vie with him in endeavouring to expound any theory in regard to that. I will just say this. In India, where I spent some years, we were encouraged to believe that afforestation had the effect of stimulating local precipitation at the expense, no doubt, of more remote areas; but, on the other hand, that the rain that fell in the afforested area was much slower in finding its way into the waterways and draining off than it otherwise would be. However that may he, it is part of a very large subject indeed. I am not surprised that the Advisory Committee of the Forestry Commission felt it was too big a problem for them to tackle. It is a large problem and I should like to see it tackled scientifically along with the other matters to which I have referred.

When one comes to the question of organisation, I think a very clear case has been made for a change in the orientation of the governmental mind in this matter. We have hundreds of small water authorities supplying perhaps, on the average, 10,000 or 20,000 people, and those authorities are not in the nature of things capable of dealing thoroughly or scientifically with the problems that present themselves all over the country. People have spoken of "the Minister", but there is not, in fact, any one Minister who is specifically charged with primary responsibility in this matter. It happens, I believe, to be the business of the Minister of Housing and Local Government—I believe that is now the name: it is constantly changing. That Minister and the Government have many other matters of more pressing urgency to attend to.

I think the attitude of the Government in this matter should be constructive and not merely regulatory. I think it was the noble Earl, Lord Albemarle, who spoke of the attitude of the Government as being negative. That, perhaps, is a strong word to use, but the function of the Government Department in question, as hitherto conceived, has been what I call regulatory and not constructive. I think it should be made constructive, and I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Swinton that a very good purpose would be served by the establishment of an ad hoc body to keep this whole question under review and to be available to advise the Minister in regard to the line of policy which should be adopted.

I do not think that one needs to become unduly alarmist about this matter. There is plenty of time to set on Foot the necessary measures. But unless action is initiated n the fairly near future, we may find ourselves before long in the awkward position of having to resort to very unpleasant measures of restriction and control at the expense of the general population, whereas, taking time by the forelock, it should be possible to avoid any situation of that kind.

4.43 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to support, so far as I can, everything that has just fallen from the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, because I think it is quite clear not only from this debate but from the history of the way in which Governments, in the plural, have treated the water problem that it has been unfair to Parliament to try to make decisions on local proposals presented in Local Bills without a national policy. That is why I so heartily agree with everything that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said about the matter being entirely non-Party. It is of tremendous importance.

I have been for over thirty years on the Thames Conservancy where we have responsibility for the purification of the River Thames above Teddington and for loosing down over Teddington Weir a sufficiency of water to flush the River Thames and keep it pure and sweet. I will not say anything about the history of the London County Council and what they have not done for the treatment of sewage; but if an analysis of the filthy water that drifts up and down outside this building were taken, it would make every noble Lord appreciate how important it is that we should always keep the Thames sufficiently topped up at Teddington by means of what is known to every noble Lord and everybody else as a good flushing closet, because that, in fact, is one of the functions that has to be performed by the Thames Conservancy.

I had the great honour and happiness of joining the Thames Conservancy at a time when the late Lord Desborough, who was so well known to most of your Lordships, was the Chairman. Lord Desborough was one of the great men of the Thames. He was a great man in every respect. I remember going with him to see a good friend of mine called Guthrie Allsebrook, who has been working in Berkshire, on the Berkshire Chalks. He was certain that the right thing was to sink trial boreholes and to do exactly what the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, suggested should be done, to find out what, in fact, happens to the water that is brought up from down below. If it could be put back into the Thames at a suitable place and at a suitable time, it would help the Metropolitan Water Board by maintaining in times of drought the contents of the reservoir. It would certainly save the Treasury enormous sums of money, because to-day the cost of creating reservoirs like those we have just outside London is £15 million to £20 million apiece, to say nothing of the evaporation that takes place from such a reservoir. There is also the fact that those reservoirs, when created, may be inadequate. The problem that faces the Metropolitan Water Board to-day, so far as I understand it is that they must create more storage if they are going to supply what is necessary for London and elsewhere.

The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, has mentioned the method of taking Thames water, pumping it underground and bringing it up to the surface again to supply the reservoirs of the River Lea. We at the Thames Conservancy are very glad that the water should be so used; but it is a curious thing that we have reached the stage where we have to pump water from the Thames Valley to fill the reservoirs of the River Lea. It is an example that can be cited as showing the urgency of this problem.

There is one thing I urge the Government to do and not turn down just light-heartedly. When I first went to another place many years ago, we had Joint Committees of both Houses. For some strange reason there are now no Joint Committees of both Houses. In the days when I first went into another place, in 1918, there were many such Committees and I think we did some good work, because the combination of Lords and Commons sitting together is undoubtedly very helpful when local legislation comes up. I think that we can make a contribution one to the other of our time and ability, and can join together for the improvement of whatever may be the subject under discussion. If ever there was a case far a Joint Committee to inquire into the present conditions of water supply, I think this debate has shown the need of it.

We all want to see domestic supplies improved. Some of us 'believe that there are good sources that can be tapped without any detriment to the water supply generally. Every winter, when some of the London newspapers come out with headlines about flooding of the Thames Valley, they never stop to say that we, as a river board, have no powers and, therefore, that the river boards should have more powers. If flooding in areas where jerry builders put up billets is to be stopped, I believe that the use of underground sources of water at the right time, will help. If it is put into the river by discharge in the ordinary way, it will have the effect that, in a rainy period, we shall not have floods to the same extent. I believe that if water is drawn subterranean, that will be the first thing to fill up, with the result that there will be less flow down the Thames May I say a word about the new towns? I do not think the noble Lord appreciates what happens in a thunderstorm in a new town. There is a downpour of rain, and what we call the runoff has to be accommodated in brooks which were quite unintended by nature to carry such a volume of water. Flooding is therefore inevitable. I have asked on many occasions that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government should consider, at any rate as one measure of delaying this run-off, the forming of lakes, both for amenity and other purposes, which would catch the water, hold it for a time and gradually release it so that it can be accommodated in the out-falls of the particular district. There are many problems now connected with housing and with industry. One noble Lord mentioned atomic energy. I know what volume of water Harwell and Winscales takes. It is obvious that those are subjects which ought to have the urgent attention of any Committee that is set up. I believe it is only by the setting up of such a Committeee, with wide terms of reference, that we can really deal with the matter.

In conclusion, may I draw the attention of the Minister to Section 14 of the Water Act, 1945? When that section, which is part of Part III, went through another place after a great deal of debate, it was not realised that an enormous loophole was left which enables anybody, without a licence, to overpump if he already possesses a borehole. Noble Lords will realise that there is not much difference between putting down a second borehole and taking water out of it and utilising an existing borehole and taking that additional amount of water from it. That kind of thing is going on to the detriment of the Metropolitan Water Board to-day.

I think that the whole question of who pays foe water, who gains money from water and how the matter should be controlled and regulated, is one that should command the urgent attention of any Committee that is set up. But the first step is for the Government to admit that the formulating of policy in the last few years has been disgracefully slow, entirely without proper research or understanding, and slipshod, and that river boards have had to contend with great difficulties and have had little or no help from the Government It is an intolerable position that river boards, which are statutory bodies, should not have firm support from the Government on the lines that my noble friend Lord Waverley has suggested, so that we can regularise this problem, find out what are our possessions, how valuable they are and what is the best use to which they can be put.

4.55 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that noble Lords on all sides of the House are extremely grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Albemarle, for bringing forward this Motion. When I first looked at it I was a little frightened that we might he going to use this concern, which is the word used, to suggest measures of economy, and to say that all this water was not necessary and that we ought not to use so much water. This has been suggested before. People have suggested that the solution to this whole problem is that the water charges should be put up; that there should be more restrictions and so on; and that water is wasted. For twenty years I have been proud to be associated with one of the big statutory water companies the Bristol company, and I could not "go along with" that suggestion. I am delighted, therefore, that in this debate that matter has not been raised. But what has been most valuably ventilated is the great problems that we are facing in regard to the vastly increasing amount of water that is required.

I do not propose at this late hour to try to follow noble Lords on what I might call the organisational or political problems that have been raised (I do not mean Party political problems at all, but the organisational problems), but perhaps it may be of interest if, for a moment, I try to take a constructive line on actual measures which might he of value from the point of view of the water industry itself. May we consider for a moment the traditional methods by which supply undertakings, great or small, make water available. There are, of course, three main methods. First, there is pumping. That was probably the first method: the spring and the well is probably the oldest method of obtaining water. Secondly, there is the impounding reservoir; and then, thinly, there is the use of rivers.

At this late hour, I will leave pumping aside, though, in passing, I would say that there must be restrictions and control of pumping. But I think that the main method now, and likely to be in the future, is the use of reservoirs, and I propose to confine my attention largely to that question. What are the procedures, both Parliamentary and engineering, that take place when you want to make a reservoir? First of all, you have to get your catchment area, or your gathering ground as it is called; and in that catchment area or gathering ground you gauge over a number of years the yield for the area. Here, it should be noted that this yield is gauged on what is called the three dry-year period—the lowest possible minimum yield that you can count on from the area. There are streams, or even, it may be, great rivers running through this area. Then, when you have got your catchment area defined and your yield of the area set out, you plan to put a dam across the bottom of the valley, to make the reservoir and impound the water. The procedure then is that the matter comes to Parliament. One of the great things that Parliament has to do is to settle the amount of compensation water that is to be allowed to run over the dam and to go down to the streams and into the valley where it used to run before.

Just let us glance for a moment at the problem involved. First of all, we must remember, and must never forget, that this is a very small country and that we have many uses for every inch of land in this country. We must not squander or waste the land. So, after you have your gathering ground or catchment area, you must not operate on the old-fashioned and, in my contention, luxurious traditional pattern—because tradition can so soon become a tyrant—of restricting all access to this gathering ground. The liberalisation of the gathering grounds must therefore be the pattern of modern policy. We must allow the public to have access.

The company in which I am interested has allowed organised sailing even on one of its reservoirs, and the amount of land from which we exclude people is restricted to the minimum. We have fishing in our big lakes and we permit wading. It really is ludicrous to think that there are still in this country some gathering grounds where people are not allowed to have a picnic, yet in this great capital we are drinking water out of the Thames. Then we must remember that the yield of this catchment area is going to be based on the three dry-year period, and we must be careful not to over-insure. It is possible to over-insure in this matter. We ought to consider the question whether we are going to restrict the washing of our cars one year in seventy, or whether we are going permanently to flood some enormous area to make a reservoir.

Then, of course, there is the cost of this reservoir in land and in money. Let me take an example of the sort of figure we are talking about. The Chew Valley reservoir which my company promoted a Bill to build in 1939 and which was inaugurated by Her Majesty last year cost very nearly £2 million to build. It flooded 1,200 acres of good agricultural land and produces a dry-weather flow of 10 million gallons a day. Those figures make one think. The consumption in the whole statutory area of Bristol is about 25 million gallons a day—and rising; and whether, as industry increases, with atom stations, power stations and housing estates being built, we can go on producing 10 million gallons at the cost of £2 million and 1,200 acres of land I am not sure.

With this situation confronting all water authorities we cannot blame them for turning to the cheapest water source of all, which is to cut down the amount of compensation water. An authority came to Parliament with a Bill which it promoted—say in 1853, or perhaps in 1953—and which said that they must send a certain volume of water over the darn as compensation water. Subsequently, after the Bill has been passed, that authority or water company is sorely pressed; it has these vast sums of money to raise, and this enormous amount of water is needed. Can one blame that authority, in this free-for-all situation, if it comes to Parliament and says: "Let us have the cheapest water of all. Cut down the compensation water. What is a little trout fishing as compared with this great steel works?". That is a matter which Parliament has to be most careful to guard; because it is not a matter of a little trout fishing. There is much more in this compensation water than a little trout fishing, as I want to show your Lordships.

My Lords, that brings me to my third point, which is the proper utilisation of the rivers in all this matter. I want to be very careful in what I say, with the Thames Conservancy in front of me and the Port of London on my right, and I do not propose to put to your Lordships any ideas that are simply my own. But I suggest that it is extremely interesting and significant to read what was said at the annual meeting of the Institution of Water Engineers this year (one of these big gatherings that takes place each year, and which took place this year at Weston-Super-Mare: gatherings of gentlemen who are chief engineers of all these water undertakings and who read each other papers) by the president, who happened to be chief engineer and general manager of the company to which I belong.

He read a Paper, the main theme of which was the better utilisation of rivers—that is extremely significant, since the Bristol company has just built the biggest reservoir in England. He said—and this was an engineer, and not a politician, speaking: We must look to the greater use and reuse of the rivers, not only as sources, but as ' pipelines '. The water industry must if necessary develop new and more flexible techniques in river water purification in order to deal with rapid changes in the character of raw water. He went on: Surely there must he cases throughout the country where water supply schemes for industrial and domestic use could be based on abstraction from rivers, without injury to other parties at times of low flows, without the need for expensive reservoirs, and often at points near centres of population. I would go further and say that this is one of the reasons why we must be so careful not to slip into the easy mistake of reducing the compensation flows. For I believe that the future lies in the utilisation of rivers, and that if we find we have reduced compensation flows, or, in the case of pumping direct from river, reduced the dry weather or prescribed flow (and that is what one has to leave in when one is pumping out), we shall find that we have hamstrung our future development policy, which should be to use this water much lower down. We want to use water just before it becomes tidal. The water undertaking at Newcastle is at present doing just this. I understand that there has been for long a controversy whether they should build a big impounding reservoir in traditional style on be head waters of the Tyne. I am delighted to say that that project has, I believe, been overruled, and they will now extract water right down where it is nearly tidal, where there are no riparian owners below and where the least possible damage will be done.

Think for a moment, my Lords, what this could mean—if this development is not a day dream. This is a small country, but it is also an island; and if we let our-minds do a little geographical exercise, it is fascinating to note how many of our great cities are within reach of a tidal river. It may well be that Birmingham will still have to go to Wales; but if Birmingham alone is going to Wales, and not Liverpool also, there may he less public concern. Perhaps Bristol in future may use, the Avon, and other coastal towns their rivers.

How are we to bring it about? Is there anything constructive that we can do to bring it about. I believe there is. We have had this famous Circular 52 of 1956 from the Ministry of Health on regrouping of undertakings—and heaven knows!it is overdue and must be pressed forward: we must get these smaller organisations amalgamated, because one cannot deal with water except on a geographical basis. The rural district council with its political boundaries, to use the geographical term, is no area for a water undertaking, for it may be, and probably often is, on both sides of a watershed. These amalgamations must and will go forward. There is great impetus for them to go forward, at least in my part of the world, as a result of Circular 52. But the great need now is that we should have, as it were, a Circular 52 on the regrouping of interested planning parties, for there are so many of these bodies concerned: the newly constituted Central Advisory Water Committee, the British Waterworks Association, the Water Companies' Association, the Institution of Water Engineers, the River Boards' Association, the Salmon and Trout Association, the Anglers' Co-operative Association, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Central Council for Rivers Protection, the Geological Survey (Underground Water)—and so the list goes on.

When we try to get some kind of coordinated policy all or some of these people will want to have their oar in it. Surely we want to "do a Circular 52" on these bodies and try to get them amalgamated a bit. The three we want to pick out of this group are the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (that must be the Ministry charged with this business; we do not want two Ministries to be concerned); the Central Advisory Committee, to which we must give "teeth" and which we must allow to function; and the river hoards. In my view, the river boards are the key to the whole matter. I think that if river boards are to be built up simply to be leaders of the opposition against the water undertakings, we shall be in for a very bad time, because the battle will go to the strong. And who will the strong be? The battle is going to be decided by weight of artillery. When you get a great urban authority with an area containing one million inhabitants—which is the status of some of the water undertakings—or a great company like the company to which I belong, and the river board marshalling forces, which may consist of perhaps some half dozen rural districts in the mountains, and some gentlemen looking after trout fishing in the rivers, which side is going to win? We are going to have the river board doing nothing but raise a protest, while the great industrial juggernaut goes through.

What I feel we must do is to strengthen these river boards. I suggest that they should have on them representation from the water undertakings. My own company has representation on the Avon River Board in North Somerset, and that representation is most valuable. All sorts of things can be done by means of friendly negotiation which cannot be done in any other way. So I suggest that we have these three means of really tackling these problems. We must not let tradition be a tyrant. We must not go on saying that the only way to get water is by building big reservoirs: that may be one way, but it is not necessarily the only way. We have, therefore, to utilise the rivers and, I believe, utilise them near their mouths, not near their sources. This is, of course, a complete reversal of the old idea. I do not deny that when Mr. Melvin, the chief engineer of my company, read that paper it was not listened to in silence. The water industry is, if I may say so without offence, a rather conservative industry. Mr. Melvin's statement has caused a great deal of controversy. But, we must use these rivers near their mouths, and we must use the Central Advisory Committee. This Committee, I feel, might really act as the broker which brings the water industry and the river boards together.

5.15 p.m.


My Lords, this is one of the most important topics which your Lordships' House has ever discussed, because there is no substitute for water, and it is clear that year after year increasing quantities are being required, not only for domestic purposes but also for numerous industrial purposes. New technological processes seem, in many cases, to require very large quantities of water. So the demand continues to increase, and larger and larger areas are used as reservoirs. And the water table in those cases where artesian wells are used, continues to fall. In the London area, the wells have been deepened time after time during the last fifty years as the underground resources become exhausted.

One of the questions which deserve most careful consideration is, what are the reasons for this? The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, apparently thought that there was a paradox here; that ample supplies of water ought still to be found in the underground water tables, and he asked why was it still not there. It has been mentioned that large areas are becoming covered with buildings, with streets, with arterial roads, with aerodromes. The same amount of rain falls upon those as ever fell, but it rushes off very quickly. It is carried into the streams; it runs down the streams rapidly into the sea, and it is lost.

Not only that; there is the question, to which the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, referred, of afforestation. The amount of forest in this country has been considerably diminished as the result of two world wars. I know it has been argued that the transpiration from the leaves of forest trees is considerable and that forests do not help water supplies. But I think there is a great deal of evidence that, in a climate such as ours, and with the kind of trees which are grown in this country, the conservation of water supplies is helped by them. They reduce the rate at which the rain runs off the soil. A well-matured forest contains a great bed of decaying leaves and humus which soaks up rain; it accumulates there like a sponge and gradually trickles out afterwards and helps to keep the flow of water in the streams and rivers more constant.

Another matter which I think deserves a great deal of thought is whether the changes which have been made in our methods of agriculture, during the last half century particularly, have not also had a repercussion upon water supplies. Less land laid down to permanent grass to soak up the rain, more land cultivated as arable land, and cultivated by new methods of cultivation which do not conserve the humus in the soil in the same way as traditional methods of agriculture did, a greater use of artificial fertilisers, practically no horses on the land to provide manure, in many cases specialised farms which are devoted only to the production of grain and carry no stock—all those are leading to diminution in the humus content of the soil. Though people say that you can have a dust bowl in the United States or in Mesopotamia or somewhere but you cannot have it in this country, already there are signs that the soil is being denuded and is running off into the streams, and we are at one and the same moment losing both the fertility of our land and the water which is so urgently and so increasingly necessary. These are some suggestions which I hope will have most serious consideration.

Out of a long practical experience, the noble Earl, Lord Waldegrave, has suggested that more water ought to be obtained out of the lower reaches of rivers and so save the construction of reservoirs in the upper portions. There is a great deal to be said in favour of that as a general policy. But we must remember that we are busily engaged upon courses of action which are making it much more difficult to carry out that policy. Industrial processes carried on on the upper reaches of rivers, even if they return to the river approximately the amount of water which they take out of it, often return it in a very different condition, and it may be so polluted that it prevents the re-use of water at a lower point in the flow. There are a great many cases in which the effluents from sewage works are put into the upper reaches of rivers, and these effluents are becoming more polluted not only with industrial wastes but also with a new form of domestic waste, in the enormous masses of detergents which are interfering with a whole series of processes using water. They are interfering with the use of water for drinking purposes.

Reference has been made to-day to the action of the Metropolitan Water Board in transferring water front the Thames down to the Lea Valley. But what has been happening to the Lea Valley? The water in the river Lea, from which the Metropolitan Water Board used to feed their reservoirs, has become so polluted with detergents that they may be seen on occasion to the depth of five or six feet of foam, and oven where detergents are used which do not produce foam (and some of them do not), nobody can say that they are any better as an ingredient in the water which he is drinking.

The River Thames itself is also becoming polluted in the same way. Although a Committee which was set up to consider this question produced a Report in which they said that we must not be unduly alarmed, they also clearly stated that nobody knows very much about this subject yet, and certainly nobody knows what is likely to be the effect upon a human being of partaking of water which has detergents in it year after year during the course of his life. This is a serious problem, which interferes with the sensible suggestion which the noble Earl, Lord Waldegrave, made, that we ought to use rivers which could he sources of water supply nearer to their mouths instead of going to the enormous expense which is involved in the construction of reservoirs and pipelines in the mountainous or hilly districts in which they have their origin. I think that this matter deserves the attention of some body which can investigate the facts about our water supplies in the first place, how they are being used, why the gap between the amount theoretically available and the amount required is becoming narrowed, how to preserve the purity of our streams and rivers, and how to utilise all this to the best advantage.

May I refer again to what I said just now about the effluents from sewage works going into rivers? That happens in a great many cases. Towns which are situated at the seaside as a general rule discharge the effluents into the sea, with consequences which are locally unpleasant but which do not involve the question of public water supply. But in the case of inland towns it may well be that the problem will become more acute. I am told that already a number of commercial firms, such as hotels and restaurants, are disposing of the more solid part of their refuse by pulverising it and discharging it into the drains—a process which is well known in the United States and is done in a great many dwelling-houses there. All that will tend to make the problem of sewage purification even more difficult than it is at the present moment. It will help to aggravate the whole problem. So there is a field not only of water supplies but also of afforestry, agriculture and sewage disposal which requires to be considered in conjunction, in order that a rational and considered policy may be achieved.

5.23 p.m.


My Lords, we have had an interesting and useful debate, which I think will help to dispel a good many illusions about the limit of the possibilities of water supplies in this country. Of course, this question has to be measured against the demands of a continually increasing population. It seems to me that one of our greatest problems in the near future will be that of supplying our big towns and cities and industrial organisations in various parts of the country with the amount of water they require to carry on their life and work.

In this matter we are in the same position as we are in with regard to many other things at the present time; we have a greater responsibility thrust upon us than has ever before been thrust on the people of this country, and we have to face new problems which, whatever we do, we cannot evade, because they are problems not only of money but also of organisation Looking at the big cities, let me take Manchester and Liverpool as typical of the development which is now taking place as part of the normal development of the organisation of our national life. The amount of change which is coming about by reason of this reorganisation is very great and it seems to me that in all probability it will become even greater in the near future. I hope that nobody in this House will feel unduly depressed by these conditions, but will consider how best we can meet the new conditions which are being forced upon us; how we can tackle them, conquer them and make them the means of a new and better life in this country.

I was struck by the fact that we are especially warned in the statement we have been discussing this afternoon in regard to water supplies that it is essential that we should have more control over the surroundings of our lives, and that we should take a keener interest than we have done before in maintaining a high standard of living and a high standard of civilisation. With regard to the actual water itself, it seems to me that we are likely to have need of all the water we can get. I do not entirely agree with some noble Lords who have said that we are near to a complete drying-up of water supplies. I think rather that we are coming to a point where we shall have to get larger supplies. I have been studying this question of water supply lately, and I believe that the amount of water which we can get from our own country is very great indeed, and that it will be increased by means which are under our control

I do not know how far the Members of the House I am now addressing will agree with me, but I feel that while, in one sense, we are taking part to-day in a very humdrum debate about one of the essential necessities of ordinary daily life, we are taking part also in the opening of a study of this question which will affect our future life in this country. I feel that we shall be in a very different position in ten or fifteen years' time and we shall find that what has been said today by noble Lords, who have made most valuable suggestions, has made its mark on the tablets of the House of Lords, and will mark a definite progress forward into a new state of organisation of life, when I believe we shall be in a far better position to conquer the difficulties which now face us.

5.34 p.m.


My Lords, I do not propose to trespass on your Lordships' time for more than a few minutes. Indeed, I have no excuse for doing so, for such experience as I have had in regard to the control, storage and distribution of water has been in other countries, where the geologic, climatic and economic conditions are very different from our own. However, I think it is perhaps worth while to make a few remarks in the light of experience in other countries, in order to help to put our own domestic problem into proper perspective and proportion.

The fact is that while we have an extremely elaborate water control and distribution system in this country, our task, by the standards of what confronts other countries, is a quite limited and easy one. In comparison with other countries, we never have very heavy rain, or rain that continues for a long time. What we call our droughts are of very short duration. We are not dependent for the whole of our life and economy, as, for example, Egypt is, upon one great river. Our rivers are not tumultuous and incalculable, like, for example, the rivers in Iraq, the Euphrates and Tigris, or the Mississippi. We never have the long periods of drought which have inflicted such terrible disasters upon the dust bowl of America. We have no great mountain ranges, with vast quantities of snow liable to be discharged in disastrous floods, as, for example, in North Italy. Our rivers are tameable and, for the most part, tamed. I suppose that there is hardly any country in the world which has at once so many rainy days and so small a total rainfall. Surely all this constitutes an intrinsically extremely easy problem; and, indeed, the White Paper of 1944 says, more than once, quite definitely that our resources of water are ample; it is just a matter of proper distribution.

Some noble Lords have, I think, differed as to whether the amount of water at our disposal is many times what we need, or only several times; but, at least, it is several times. In an international context, that seems to be an extraordinarily easy problem that ought to be tackled, and tackled successfully. Yet we sometimes have a disastrous flow of water, such as that which occurred at Lynton and Lynmouth a few years ago. It sometimes happens that if we have an absence of rain for even a fortnight, which we call a drought, considerable hardship and disadvantage arise. That does not reflect credit upon the administrative system we have in this country dealing with water.

I do not want to exaggerate the defects, or minimise what has been done. I listened with great interest to the speeches of my noble friends Lord Waverley and Lord Glyn, both of whom have been closely concerned with the problems of the River Thames. Well, my Lords, I was born on the banks of the River Thames, and I was brought up in a family which was very much concerned with running pleasure steamers during the summer. I well remember, in my childhood, how frequent it was, if not normal, to find that in the winter, after just a little rain, people would have their ground floor rooms and basements flooded and have to get home by paddling about in punts and canoes. Again, I remember that, one summer after the other, either it would be so wet that people did not want to go on the river, or it would be so dry that after a few weeks the steamers could not run because they grounded. It is many years since either of those things have happened, and that is due to the greater efficiency of the Thames Conservancy.

When I think of what other countries have had to face, it would be discreditable if we could not have a system which does for other parts of the country what, on the whole, has been done for the Thames Valley. It is only about three years ago that I was in the great City of Baghdad. Mesopotamia, the Land of Noah's Flood. There we were in imminent danger for a long time of having the capital submerged, with panic and enforced evacuation of the people of that great city. Since then, there has been completed the Wadi Tharthar reservoir, and it is extremely unlikely, unless there should be such political instability or lack of administrative efficiency as to prevent the means of control being properly used, that any such danger or disaster will ever be threatened again to that area.

It has come out clearly, I think, from many speeches this afternoon that we have failed to put at the top of our dispersed, over-elaborate, over-decentralised system, a sufficient central guiding apparatus of research and control. When drainage, for example, which so often has been carried out very effectively in recent years in the interests of agriculture, is not accompanied by greater storage, what we have done is to destroy the natural protection that we had before. That is a danger for which we can and should find a remedy—and at once. I will not propose the exact machinery or method, but it is quite clear, I suggest, that we want more central research, planning and control; more co-ordination of the interrelated problems of drainage, storage and distribution than we have through our present machinery. The task is not a difficult one, but it is important and I suggest that it is becoming urgent.

5.42 p.m.


My Lords, may I begin by joining those of your Lordships who have thanked my noble friend Lord Albemarle for putting down this Motion to-day, and for enabling us to have a debate upon a subject which is rarely discussed? The noble Earl was good enough to refer in his interesting speech to my own father's interest in this matter. I well remember that the last occasion, I am afraid, on which I ever heard the subject of water discussed in your Lordships' House was upon a debate which he himself initiated, and to which I listened from the steps of the Throne with filial attention, slightly wondering what on earth it was which caused your Lordships to be so interested in what appeared to be to be so dull a subject. I now know better. The trouble is, as several noble Lords have pointed out, that we tend in this country to take our water supplies for granted. The question which your Lordships have asked this afternoon, and which it is now my duty to try and answer, is whether we are justified in taking our water supplies for granted, or whether we may not possibly be running into serious trouble.

As I say, we do not debate this subject nearly often enough. We take it for granted that we have the best water supply in the world (in point of fact, we have far and away the best), and we typify this when we go abroad by refusing to drink a foreigner's water which always makes him slightly irritated, unless he happens to be a manufacturer of mineral waters. I think the noble Lord, Lord Salter, in his interesting and unusual speech, was perfectly right to draw attention to our good fortune compared with some other countries who go through great extremes of flood or risk of drought far greater than we ever consider in this country. I must confess that it is only in this country that we could have had, as we had three years ago, the newspapers coming out four days running with news of serious drought in the Western part of the country, and serious flooding in another part at the same time.

Now we are faced with a new problem which has been vividly brought to us by the noble Lord, Lord Macpherson of Drumochter, of the vastly increased demands made upon our resources by domestic consumption, an increased standard of living, agriculture, industry and, finally, the uncalculated demands of atomic energy and such new industries. Can we keep up with the pace of the increase? That is the question your Lordships have asked this afternoon. The first thing I must state, then, is this. Do we know what is the increased demand put upon our water resources by all these increasing sources of demand? Quite frankly, we do not. Attempts have been made to gauge the rate of increase, but I am afraid that no authoritative figures exist. I must tell your Lordships at once, in reply to the numerous questions that have been put on this subject, that I believe that the need for a more precise assessment of our demands in the light of increases in recent years is now urgent.

Your Lordships know that in 1955 my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government reconstituted the Central Advisory Water Committee. I think this Committee has been overlooked by one or two of your Lordships who have been asking for further authorities and for further powers for existing authorities. This Committee does many of the things your Lordships are expecting other bodies to do, and I think it has much greater influence and authority than some speakers in this afternoon's debate have been prepared to credit it with. May I give your Lordships its terms of reference, and remind you that the demand for water and the need to assess the size of foreseeable demands was one of the first subjects which the Committee was called upon to inquire into? The terms of reference are: To consider the extent to which the demand for water for domestic, industrial, agricultural and other purposes is increasing and is likely to increase; to consider the problems involved in meeting these demands, including, in broad terms the cost; to consider whether there are any substantial economies in the use or cost of water which could be made willow reduction in standards of hygiene or in industrial or agricultural efficiency; and to make recommendations. Those are wide terms, and I think they cover a large number of the points which have obviously been worrying your Lordships this afternoon. It will take some little time for this work to be carried out. But in view of the debate which has occurred this afternoon, and the questions which the noble Earl, Lord Albemarle, has been putting to the Government in the last few weeks, the Committee will obviously now have to press on as a matter of urgency with their investigation into this matter, to which your Lordships have drawn so much attention this afternoon.

Several speakers have suggested that the existing organisation is not sufficient to cope with all the problems which we now have to face and may have to face. Of course, the problem is not the same as that of gas and electricity, and we shall fall into error if we try to link those problems in any way at all. Let me briefly remind your Lordships of the existing organisation. As you know, as part of the review of the whole social policy at the end of the war, the Coalition Government published in 1944 the White Paper which has been referred a frequently this afternoon and which contained proposals for shaping a national water policy. This aimed at ensuring: a planned and economical use of the water resource of the country and efficient administration of water supply services. As your Lordships know, that was endorsed by all Parties.

The view was then expressed that ample supplies of water existed for all our needs as we then knew them, and the problem was not one of total resources but of organisation and distribution. I am still inclined to think that that may be the situation to-day. I should not like to be over-positive, because the question of atomic development, which was not in the minds of those who produced the White Paper, obviously puts a different complexion on it. But I think the noble Lord, Lord Haden Guest, was right to say that we do not want to over-exaggerate the problem, but to look at it a great deal more carefully and get it in proportion.

The problem is really this. We have enough water all over the country, and our problem is to get it into the tap at the right place at the right time. The White Paper's proposals were embodied in the Water Act, 1945. The White Paper accepted that the existing powers of Ministers were vague and ill-defined. The Act placed on the Minister the duty: to promote the conservation and proper use of water resources and the provision of water supplies in England and Wales and to secure the effective execution by water undertakers, under his control and direction, of a national policy relating to water. Those are pretty comprehensive and sweeping powers. Among the powers given to the Minister were powers to regulate the activities of public water undertakers, to control the exploitation of underground water, and to make orders For the voluntary or compulsory amalgamation of water undertakers so as to reduce the existing number of small undertakers and thereby increase the efficiency of the industry. The Act also required the Minister to appoint a Central Advisory Water Committee, to which I have just been referring and which he ha, now done. The purpose of that Committee is to advise him on all matters connected with the conservation and use of water resources and the administration of the relative enactments.

So we have this situation. The Minister is the central authority and is armed with the extensive and wide-sweeping powers of the 1945 Act. It was the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, I think, who expressed the opinion that the Minister had used his powers in a regulatory rather than a constructive manner. I hope the noble Viscount is not right, but he has great experience in this matter and we have taken note of his opinion. I hope that in future the Minister, therefore, will know which way the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, wishes him to act. And the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, is perfectly right in that respect. That is the way, of course, in which the Minister should be using his powers.

In addition to these powers the Minister can seek advice from a large number of authorities, and he does take that advice. There is, first, the Central Advisory Water Committee which is a very powerful body reflecting all shades of opinion of the consumer, producer and everybody concerned. All aspects of supply, demand and information are covered in that Committee. Then there are the various interested departments. There is the Geological Survey of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research who deal with underground water. They are, I believe, looking at one or two of the points raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley. Then there is the Meteorological Office, concerned with rainfall; and there is the Water Pollution Research Board, again part of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. The noble Earl, Lord Waldegrave, in a very interesting and highly technical speech to which we listened with great attention, mentioned a number of people who are concerned with water, more than I have mentioned in this brief survey of the bodies from which my noble friend seeks advice.

Some people have suggested the setting up of yet another committee, yet another consultative council or central advisory body. I think we have quite enough. We want to keep this with the central authority, namely, the Minister, because, apart from all those authorities, he can consult his own Department, which has amassed a wide range of information and which is in daily contact, and has been for a long time, with the water industry and others concerned with the industry. That is where Parliament has put the authority, that is where it should best be and that is where I think it can be most efficiently carried for the benefit of the industry and for the country.

We have talked a great deal about the organisation of the industry. This industry, as we all know, is administered by over a thousand statutory undertakers in England and Wales. Is this too many? Frankly, I think it is; I believe everybody is agreed on that. I was glad to hear the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, put forward the argument that nationalisation is no answer to our problems. He is quite right there. If I may, with respect to those who have a warmer feeling for nationalisation and public ownership than noble Lords who sit here, I will console them by reminding them that three-quarters, at least, of these undertakings are already in public ownership. They are themselves public authorities.


May I thank the noble Lord for that remark and say that I would have made it myself if I had thought there was any question of nationalisation or any other doctrine entering into this debate.


Perhaps, in view of a recent speech from Sir Hartley Shawcross, it was tactless of me to raise the matter at all. We agree that these bodies are of varying sizes and varying capabilities.

There are also the river boards, who have a general interest in the conservation of local resources, as well as their duties in regard to land drainage. There have been suggestions for establishing some new controlling or co-ordinating body with general jurisdiction over the water industry, with particular reference, if I have understood the debate correctly, to the planning and allocation of resources. The British Waterworks Association revived this proposal in 1951. It has been revived again more recently, and one or two of your Lordships this afternoon have lent their support. This suggestion has invariably been rejected in the past and I am afraid I must add my voice to its rejection to-day. I think that concentration of authority in the Minister is obviously the right solution. He should carry out a positive water policy, aided, when necessary, by fully representative advisory committees which can be put at his disposal. Your Lordships will remember that, following the White Paper review of 1944, Parliament again concluded that the proper course was to place the responsibility squarely on the Minister's shoulders.


May I interrupt the noble Lord? I do not want to take away the Minister's power or to detract from the duty of the Minister to exercise this policy. What I want is that the Minister should have a policy to exercise.


Yes, I have grasped that point. I am glad that at least we are at one over that, and I am glad to think that the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, who speaks with such authority and knowledge in matters of administration and governmental control, agrees with me that we should think twice about changing these arrangements.

Water supply is mainly in the hands of local authorities or joint boards of local authorities. Those are the two main agents. I think that that is right. Traditionally, they are in close administrative and financial relationship with the Minister of Housing and Local Government. His day-to-day administration necessitates trained staff, and this has resulted in, and we have now at our disposal, a wide range of knowledge and contacts. That is invaluable. I am glad that we are agreed that these functions should not be removed from the Minister, because the setting up of any other body would lead to overlapping and duplication. The Minister is fully in the picture and he will be formally and informally in possession of all the information which any new body could have.

I am not suggesting for one moment that there is no room for improvement and that suggestions put forward in this debate might not well result in greater flexibility and greater concentration of policy. We are at the moment, for instance, studying the views of leading academic authorities about the organisation of the water industry with particular reference to hydrological research. I must remind your Lordships that the Central Advisory Water Committee is also tackling the problem of information which has been referred to several times this afternoon. A sub-committee was set up with the following terms of reference: (i) to review the current activities which contribute to our knowledge of the nation's water resources. (ii) to define the additional work needed to make a balanced survey of the quantity and quality of surface and underground water available for domestic, industrial and agricultural use. (iii) to advise on ways of collecting and interpreting the necessary information, correlating it with information from other sources and publishing it. That work is well advanced. I emphasise it, and the only reason why I keep harping on it is to show your Lordships that it is something in which the Minister takes a practical z070 and businesslike interest—not a mere theoretical interest but a practical day-to-day interest.

My right honourable friend authorises me to say that observations and information on this subject are always welcome to him and particularly, of course, from your Lordships. The River Boards Association have also been invited to send a memorandum on this subject. This Report, when we see it in the, I hope, not too distant future, will help us to see what further steps are needed to put the whole question of research and supply on a sound basis. I hope your Lordships will forgive me, therefore, if this afternoon I do not try to reach any premature conclusions in advance of this most important Report on the subject. At the moment, for the reasons I have just given, I am not in a position to express views on the subject of vesting or curtailment of water rights, because, as the noble Earl, Lord Albemarle, appreciates, this would involve interference with the Common Law and it would certainly involve important legal issues. But the importance of it is fully appreciated.

My Lords, to sum up on this point, we are not yet clear, frankly, whether the strain on our resources is enough to make drastic new steps necessary. That is the first question which the debate poses. We are not yet in a position to answer it satisfactorily. We have, I think, taken all the necessary steps to put ourselves in that position. This applies equally to such suggestions as that of the River Boards' Association for powers of control to be given to river boards over the abstraction of water front rivers and streams. I suppose that this would be broadly similar to the control over the abstraction of underground water already exercised by the Minister. I do not know whether the Committee's findings will encourage the Minister to propose tighter control in areas to be defined. The noble Earl, Lord Albemarle, also made the point about according to river hoards, including the Thames Conservancy, some functions in this respect. That, again, is being studied carefully. I think my noble friend would appreciate that that involves legislation; a major point is raised.

Meantime, we are taking positive steps to overhaul the water industry itself. We have all agreed, I think, that some of the thousand undertakings are too small for modern requirements. Regrouping of undertakings into larger and stronger units is now in train. The circular which my right honourable friend issued last September has been referred to, and I hope that before long we shall see substantial progress. I hope it will be possible to do this on a voluntary basis. Any Government composed of members now sitting on this side of the House do not like using control, regulations and orders if they can possibly get the same effect by voluntary reorganisation and a voluntary answer to this request. That has met with some success. There are compulsory powers and in answer to various noble Lords—Lord Waldegrave and, I think, Lord Listowel, too—who asked this question, I may say that my right honourable friend will not hesitate to use the powers if he has to. They have been used in three cases, I think, since the circular was issued. But we hope that that will not be necessary as the need for regrouping and amalgamation becomes more generally appreciated. One cannot help noting, I suppose with a certain amount of cynicism, the interesting fact that breweries seem to amalgamate themselves a good deal more easily than water undertakings.

The main method of regrouping will be the formation of joint boards of local authorities. I think it is important to retain the local connections wherever we can; they are extremely valuable. I take as an extremely useful point the point which my noble friend Lord Albemarle made in that respect. They have enormous accumulated experience, and I think we must do something, if we can, to strengthen the use of that local experience and to make certain that local knowledge is available to the Minister and his officers as freely and as readily as possible. I think that this scheme of amalgamation will produce units with trained staff and resources to deal with present-day requirements. There are also cases where substantial local authority or water company undertakings absorb their neighbours. The British Waterworks Association and the Water Companies Association support this policy.

I have been asked why the Minister has not used his powers under Section 3 of the Act to set up joint advisory water committees to deal with local questions of water supply or conservation of water resources. I readily admit that no such statutory committees have yet been set up. I think, if I may return to this controversial topic, they were not set up at all under the Government of which the noble Lord opposite was a member, and there was always a doubt whether or not nationalisation was in the air at the time. I think that may have had some influence—but I am only guessing. However, there is no getting away from the fact that our attitude towards these committees has been modified since 1945.

The main duty, if I understood it aright, intended for them was the surveying of water resources and demands, and the framing of proposals to meet future requirements. As I think will now be self-evident, to a certain extent these duties have been overtaken by the Minister's own engineering staff. They have carried out comprehensive surveys of nearly all undertakings in the country. The Central Advisory Water Committee is now making more general inquiries in this field. The active policy of regrouping water undertakings is, as I have just told your Lordships, in train. This is aimed at producing a much smaller number of all-purpose bodies, planning for wider areas. I feel that the usefulness of joint advisory committees may thus be reduced. I think it is preferable to concentrate first on improving the basic organisation, which is what we are trying to do. We may have to consider later whether there is a need for additional bodies such as joint advisory committees. Their establishment would, of course, entail much work. There has been criticism of the functions and the probable make-up of these committees. But these can be considered in connection with the proposals to set up a committee in Kent, and if more general establishment of such committees is considered, then the whole function and composition may have to be revised. Here again, fundamental changes would involve legislation.

Let me now try to deal with one or two of the detailed points that have been made. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, referred to rural water supplies. The correct figure is 10 per cent. We are now down to the real problem cases—the really difficult cases which are a long way from supplies, the provision of which will be expensive and will require a lot of work. Both Governments have done a great deal on this matter since the war, and work is going steadily ahead on rural water supplies within the limits of capital investment restrictions. A further large sum of money for grants was voted in the Rural Water Supplies and Sewerage Act, 1955. My noble friend Lord Glyn, talked about the problem of delaying run-off of drainage into rivers. This can be done, as the noble Lord said, by having regulating reservoirs. I understand that in some parts of the country it has in fact been done. I agree with my noble friend that it is a good thing, and I agree with him that it ought to be encouraged.

The noble Earl, Lord Radnor, is not in his place at the moment—he told me that he might not be able to stay until the end of the debate. He and the noble Lord, Lord Douglas of Barloch, made an interesting point about afforestation and the effect of afforestation on water resources and conservation. I am aware of the Paper to which my noble friend Lord Radnor referred, and we are considering the problem generally in consultation with the Forestry Commission, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Ministry of Agriculture. I am afraid that it is a little early yet to say much about it, but we are setting up an informal Working Party on the whole subject. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and other noble Lords asked me about capital investment. The figure for the calendar year 1956, which he particularly asked about, was nearly £24 million. There is no agreement at the moment about the right level of investment if we had no restrictions. In 1955, a year when restrictions were eased, the figure was about £27½ million. But the broad cost of meeting future demands is part of the terms of reference of the Demand Sub-Committee of the C.A.W.C.

My Lords, if I have not answered all the detailed points which your Lordships have put to me, I apologise; but I do not want to trespass too long upon your Lordships' time. I hope that I have not given any impression of complacency in this matter. Her Majesty's Government fully appreciate the urgency of the case, but I hope that I have described enough of the plans in detail to convince the House that Her Majesty's Government are roost earnestly and objectively going into this whole problem. We have not yet enough information to know how serious the problem may be. If it is as serious as some of your Lordships have suggested to-day, then, clearly, more drastic action will be required. We are, at the same time, making certain that we have enough information to go on in making our plans. As the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, said, we must have a firm policy. I think I have said enough to your Lordships to show that that policy is there. The Minister has requested the Central Advisory Water Committee to undertake inquiries to fill the present gap in our knowledge of demands and resources. These will tell us if anything is seriously wrong with out present organisation. If it is, we shall have to take the necessary action. We are now strengthening the industry generally to ensure that every unit will be capable of meeting likely demands.

To conclude, Her Majesty's Government will take very careful note of what has been said in this debate. The noble Lord, Earl Swinton, twitted us with the vacant mind, but I am sure that he would have been very upset had we come down with a closed mind and told him that Her Majesty's Government had made up their mind and were not amenable to persuasion in your Lordships' House.


My Lords, I spoke of an open, but not a vacant mind.


My Lords, I am, of course, speaking fir my right honourable friend and not for myself. My right honourable friend will take careful note of what has been said in this extremely interesting debate. I said at the beginning of my remarks that we have the best water system in the world—of that I am certain. But just because we have the best water system in the world there is no reason at all why we should not make it still better.


My Lords, did I understand the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, to say that there is to be a slight easing-up in the matter of the capital required for these new reservoirs? It is very long-term policy, and because of the economic position the situation has been very tight.


My Lords, I did not go quite as far as that. I appreciate the noble Lord's point. I said that the broad cost of meeting future demands is part of the terms of reference of the Sub-Committee who are going into that matter very carefully.

6.12 p.m.


My Lords, we have had a long debate, and your Lordships will excuse me from adding very much. First of all, I am grateful to the large number of noble Lords who were so kind as to put in an appearance. Their contributions have greatly enriched the discussion, and I have no doubt that they will help Her Majesty's Government. I found some of the things said by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, very reassuring and was pleased about the joint regions. I must point out, however, that I thought we had it fixed in our mind all along that local help and enthusiasm, if it can be whipped up, is essential. The thirty-one maps which I have seen, usually coloured, which were sent out through various local authorities are prepared by engineering inspectors. Local democracy, I think I am right in saying, does not come into it yet I have understood that for several weeks past we have been talking of "bringing in the locals". I am disappointed about that.

I do not know whether I misheard the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, but I do not think he has offered a body, time and place for periodic adjustments between industry and undertakers—at least I did not hear any reference to that question. It seems to me essential that we should get undertakers to explain why they cannot supply certain kinds and quantities of water to competing factories. It is difficult to see where such competing factories will go. How do they contact those who could possibly supply their industry? As time is late I will now beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.