HL Deb 18 May 1961 vol 231 cc726-30

2.45 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the Bill to which I am asking your Lordships to give a Second Reading this afternoon is intended to put right an anomaly in the 1944 Act of the same name. The provision of services of water and sewerage in thinly populated areas is obviously uneconomic. Long lengths of piping are needed to serve few houses, and there is a great deal of expense. Unless local water or sewerage authorities have financial help, the cost must be passed on to the consumer and would be prohibitive. In order to make it possible for local water and sewerage authorities to provide amenities and to encourage them to do so, the Rural Water Supplies and Sewerage Act, 1944, provided that the excess cost—that is, the cost for a thinly populated rural area, which would be very much more than an urban district area—could be spread over the whole of the country. Under this Act, the Minister of Housing and Local Government was to give a grant, and the county council in which the local sewerage or water authority was situated was to give an additional grant, the local county council grant to be roughly the equivalent of that given by the Minister.

These provisions have worked extremely well, as your Lordships can see from the vast improvement in sewerage and piped water that exists throughout the rural areas in the country, but a difficulty has arisen which was not foreseen by the drafters of the 1944 Act. The Water Act, 1945, a year later, provided for the amalgamation and regrouping of water authorities. In some cases, water undertakings serving rural areas are county borough councils or a joint board on which the county borough council is represented. The 1944 Act is so worded that the equivalent grant to that made by the Minister is to be provided by the county council within which the area of the authority to whom the undertaking is given falls, or, where that area falls within more than one county, the councils of each of the counties … In other words, the county councils who are to give the grant are defined as those in which the water authority is situated rather than those in which the actual work is to be done. Where a water authority for a rural area is the county borough council, or a joint board on which the county borough council is represented, the county council cannot contribute towards the cost of water schemes because, although the county borough council is geographically within the limits of a county, it is not administratively so.

This happened not long ago in Leicester. The Leicester County Borough Council has a number of schemes that it wants to put into action in order to improve the water supplies of various rural areas which it serves outside its own boundaries. But owing to the wording of the Act, and the fact that the Leicester County Borough Council is outside the administration area of the county council, the county council is unable to make a grant. As a result, the schemes have been held up. Clause 1 (a) of this Bill removes this anomaly by amending the wording of the condition for the county contributing The new words are: any county within which the whole or any part of the locality in relation to which the undertaking is given falls. In other words, if the work to be done is within the county, the county council will now be able to make a grant towards it, even though the water authority may be situated outside its administrative area.

Subsection (2) is to get over a slightly similar anomaly. It provides for a case where a water scheme is being carried out in a rural area which is actually within the administrative area of a county borough and where the county borough is not itself the water authority, even though it may be represented on the joint board that is the water authority. Under this subsection the county borough council can make a contribution to the water authority, in the same way that the county council could have done if the rural area had been outside the county borough council area. Subsection (3) authorises the additional amount of rate-deficiency grant payable as a result of this Bill.

This amending Bill does not at the moment have any effect on sewerage, as there has not been the same regrouping and so the same difficulties have not yet arisen. But if in the future regrouping did take place, the same provisions would apply to sewerage as to water. This Bill introduces no new principle but simply enables the intentions of the parent Act to be carried out in cases where the form of drafting has prevented it. It is completely non-controversial, a very minor Bill, but none the less important, and I hope that your Lordships will give it a Second Reading. I beg to move.

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


My Lords, I wish to be very brief on what I have to say about this Bill in view of the lengthy discussions on other matters which will take place in your Lordships' House later this afternoon. The purpose of the Bill has been fully explained by the noble Lord, and I think his explanation of this somewhat difficult, although small, Bill has been very complete. As he has said, it clears up an anomaly in the 1944 Act and brings into operation means whereby the local authorities can get together and press on with the work of providing water in the rural areas. I speak rather feelingly in regard to this matter as I am a victim of inadequate supplies in my own rural district, and I therefore hope the means may be found later of connecting the various villages around me with piped water.

This particular Bill opens the means of providing water for rural areas, it facilitates negotiations as to liabilities of county and other authorities, and facilitates the progress of regrouping water undertakings, which I think is very important, because there are a large number of small water undertakings up and down the country which if they were regrouped would, I think, play a more important and better part in providing us with water. I want to say, in conclusion of these very brief remarks, that any activities or means to provide adequate and efficient water supplies in the countryside for householders, farmers and local industries must be very acceptable and welcome, and I hope the Bill will have a Second Reading this afternoon.

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend in moving the Second Reading of this Bill has explained its purposes very clearly. I will try not to repeat what he has said but rather to put the Bill into its more general context. Your Lordships will be aware that a good deal of thought is being given in Whitehall and elsewhere at present to the longer-term issues of how best to safeguard and develop the water resources of these islands. The national thirst for water is increasing very rapidly. Domestic and industrial demand is rising at about 3 per cent. a year and agricultural demand is also rising sharply as farmers seek more water for crop irrigation. The time is fast approaching when we must consider whether we should not look at our water resources on a wider basis and whether there is not a case for more positive measures to conserve this vital asset. That is the longer-term perspective.

For some time, however, as your Lordships know, the Government have been pursuing a policy of regrouping water undertakings. The increasing difficulty of making available pure and reliable supplies of water in this heavily industrialised island means that we must use our available water supplies as economically as possible and therefore strengthen wherever possible our existing water undertakings. This process of consolidation has in fact been going forward pretty steadily. In 1956 there were over L000 individual water undertakings in England and Wales. Now the numbers have been reduced to around 720, which I hope will encourage the noble Lord, Lord Wise. Nevertheless, my right honourable friend, the Minister for Housing and Local Government, considers that the process must continue, and continue energetically, if we are to have a network of undertakings capable of meeting the exacting requirements of the future.

The need for the present Bill, whose Second Reading has just been moved by my noble friend, is due to the fact that the original Act, the 1944 Act, which the present Bill seeks to amend, represents one of the means by which my right honourable friend's duty of promoting water supplies has been discharged. Its underlying principles were, I think, very clearly stated by my noble friend.

This policy of regrouping and consolidating water undertakings has had a number of consequences. One is that water tends increasingly to be supplied by joint boards which include a county borough, and another is that increasingly water is supplied by the undertakings of county borough councils which reach out into the rural districts, because in the interests of efficiency they have been permitted to take over smaller neighbouring water undertakings. My noble friend has explained how the present small Bill enlarges the circumstances in which county councils can contribute to joint boards, and also makes it possible for the first time for county borough councils to contribute. It thus removes an anomaly, which has become increasingly vexatious, in the Act of 1944.

I should like in conclusion to make it clear that the Government, for their part, welcome this Bill. They feel it wrong that the principle of financial partnership underlying the 1944 Act should in any degree be frustrated, as it is at present, because of its wording being too restrictive. They also consider that this Bill, modest though it is, will remove an obstacle to the improved organisation of the water industry in England and Wales, and, what is more important, help to bring better water supplies to the homes of people in the country. May I congratulate my noble friend on moving this Bill so ably and clearly, and express the hope that your Lordships will give it a fair wind this afternoon?


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Wise, and my noble friend, Lord Jellicoe, for their support of this Bill. I hope your Lordships will give it a Second Reading.

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