HL Deb 11 May 1964 vol 258 cc16-26

3.7 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I must briefly describe the reasons for this Bill under which spray irrigation, and therefore to some extent river pollution, can be controlled. Although Scotland generally has abundant water supplies, we do have our river pollution problems. And much good work is done under the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) (Scotland) Act, 1951, to improve conditions in the interests of water conservation and amenity. I pay tribute to the work of the River Purification Boards and to the co-operation shown by all concerned, including local authorities, industry and agriculture.

The Scottish River Purification Advisory Committee was constituted in 1956 under the 1951 Act. This small Bill springs from the unanimous advice of that most effective Committee who consider that we ought now to have powers to control abstraction in any area where the need for control is established. There can be good reasons for not taking out too much water. Ideally, alt effluent into a river should be of such quality that its dilution by the volume of water available would prevent pollution. Our aim must always be to encourage higher standards of sewage and other effluent purification. But this can involve very expensive treatment plant, which public authorities, industry and agriculture cannot always afford as soon as we should like; and where this is so, it is necessary to conserve the volume of water in the river and thus ensure effective dilution of the polluting materials.

I should say a word here about what I am advised is the legal position of those who take water from a stream. A riparian proprietor has the right at Common Law to take water for what are known as the primary uses, that is, drink for man and beast, and water for ordinary domestic purposes. He may even be entitled to draw off water for the purposes of irrigation, but he can do so only if no other riparian proprietor's interest is thereby infringed. It would appear doubtful therefore whether a riparian proprietor is entitled at Common Law to abstract the large quantities of water which may be required for spray irrigation. Your Lordships will know that spray irrigation is a developing practice in Scotland, especially in the lower rainfall southern and eastern areas which give the greatest return. This practice, if uncontrolled, could in certain areas result in the serious depletion of rivers and streams because with spray irrigation very little of the water used finds its way back into the river from which it came.

Happily, a good many rivers in Scotland have such an abundant flow of water and such a relatively low amount of pollution that it is unlikely that even a substantial development of spray irrigation would be harmful. This Bill accordingly does not impose any overall control on the abstraction of water for spray irrigation. But it does enable control to be introduced where circumstances would justify this course. While action under the Bill may prevent certain farmers from drawing all the water they want from a stream, it does not prevent them from insuring against water shortage by creating their own farm reservoirs for which grant assistance is available.

The principles of this Bill have been discussed with the National Farmers' Union and the Scottish Landowners' Federation. They accept the need for the limited form of control here proposed. These bodies, however, consider that when a control order is made, the river purification board concerned should have added agricultural representation. My right honourable friend agrees with this view and will provide for this by order made under the 1951 Act.

As to the Bill itself, under Clause 1 the initiative is left with the river purification boards to apply for an order, subject to the reserve power of the Secretary of State to require a board so to apply. The Schedule provides for the full process of advertisement, for notice to be given to all persons or bodies likely to be affected, and—if objections are made and not withdrawn—for public local inquiry. These are the reasonable safeguards which Parliament has enacted in related legislation, including the Water Resources Act, 1963, and the Flood Prevention (Scotland) Act, 1961. The rather detailed licence provisions of Clauses 3 to 6 are essential to secure a fair balancing of justice to the interests of the many parties concerned with the need for prompt decisions adequately conveyed. The aim is to enable farmers to make their spray irrigation plans knowing where they will stand on licences well before the beginning of the year for which the licences will apply. It is envisaged that a river purification board will, if at all possible, ensure that licences granted will substantially be continued in subsequent years.

Clause 4 allows for contingencies, such as changes in tenure of land, which legitimately give rise to applications out-with the normal period. Clause 7 is based on the humble but realistic recognition that "man proposes but God disposes", particularly where rainfall is concerned. River purification boards will need this power to regulate licences—on an equitable basis, of course—in conditions of exceptional shortage of water or, more happily, when abundance of water permits suspension or relaxation of restrictions for the time being.

My Lords, it is not easy to hold a proper balance between the conflicting needs involved in the conservation and the use of water, but I believe that in this Bill we have come close to achieving this aim. I ask your Lordships to give the Bill a Second Reading.

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

3.13 p.m.


My Lords, I would start off by saying that this seems to me to be a measure which will be very much in the interests of water users generally in Scotland. It will help to further the objects of different Acts of Parliament, to make our rivers cleaner and to keep them in that condition once that has been accomplished. I have little, therefore, to criticise in connection with the Bill, but there are one or two points which seem to me to be not completely satisfactory. In the first instance, the noble Lord the Minister has stated that this practice of spray irrigation is already being followed, particularly in the South of Scotland, and that it is growing. I gather, from what little I have read on the subject, that this is not an inexpensive procedure for a farmer or a landowner to undertake. It seems to me, therefore, to be a little surprising that there is nothing in the Bill which gives any security at all to the person who has already installed such a system. It appears to be a little less than fair that no protection of this kind should be put in when control is being imposed for the first time. Frankly, I should have preferred to see in the Bill a provision giving to an existing owner of such a system the right to have a licence granted to him, unless the circumstances were such that it was clearly in the public interest that he should not get it.

At the moment it is really the other way round. A man who has gone to all this bother—and one presumes that a farmer who has done this so much in advance of the general practice is among our most progressive farmers, and therefore should be most encouraged—may, in fact, find himself penalised rather than encouraged. I do not know exactly how licensing could be done, but it ought to be a reasonable possibility that a person who already has this system should be given a licence almost automatically, unless the board or the Secretary of State can show, right from the outset, that it is against the public interest that he should get such a licence.

The second point, on which the Minister's statement went a certain way to clearing my doubts, is the business of a licence being for one year only. While the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, indicated that it was the intention that the licence would go from year to year, the fact remains that a man is going to get a licence for only one year, and he must apply each year for its renewal. It is not quite as simple as running a car or keeping a dog, and it seems to me that a licence, once granted, should be continued automatically on payment of whatever is determined to be the annual fee for renewal of that licence; and that a licence should be revoked only if cir- cumstances, either temporary or permanent, require its withdrawal. So I hope that this suggestion of the licence being for one year at a time may be withdrawn.

My final point is on Clause 8, which says that in addition to any expenses incurred by the Secretary of State under this Act for which money is provided by Parliament, there shall be paid any increase attributable to the provisions of this Act in the sums payable under any other enactment out of monies so provided. Does that mean that the river purification boards' additional expenditure under this Bill will be met entirely by grant from the Secretary of State, and that no part of it will fall upon local ratepayers? I hope that that is the intention, because in recent years there has been a very great increase in the tendency to throw more and more of the burden on to the local ratepayers, and less and less on to the national taxpayer. If this means what I think it means, there would appear to be a welcome change in that pattern. I hope that I am right in that assumption. My Lords, I think that the Bill will lead to the best possible use of water in Scotland. I hope that your Lordships will generally welcome it, and I hope that Her Majesty's Government will be able to give consideration to the suggestions I have made for its improvement.

3.18 p.m.


My Lords, the few words that I have to offer are warmly to commend this measure, as the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, has done. Control over crop spraying has been needed for a very considerable time, and so I would congratulate the Minister of State on bringing forward this measure for Scotland. The spraying of green crops has come into more extensive use since its advantages have come to be realised by farmers. It is now done in East Lothian, and I dare-say in some of the other very dry parts of Scotland it has become almost a necessity when there is anything like a dry summer. We have not had one in recent years, but it is very likely that before long we shall have another very dry summer.

Spraying is used on early potato crops, on sugar beet crops and, to a certain extent, more recently, on grassland for silage. But, of course, its important benefit relates particularly to early potatoes, because it is the early potato that responds more quickly to water. The East Neuk of Fife, and that part of the country which the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, knows so well, South Angus, roughly from Monifieth up to Arbroath—these are the great potato-growing areas in Scotland, and are districts with probably the lowest rainfall in Britain. Certainly the coast of East Lothian has, I think, only 23 or 24 inches of rainfall in the year—very different from some of the Western counties of Scotland. Of course, these early potatoes must be harvested in the month when normally the rivers are at their lowest, the month of June.

We get an idea of what benefit spray irrigation has been to green crops when we realise that, since it has been practised, anything from two to three tons per acre have been added to a crop of potatoes—a very considerable gain when we think of our need for food production. Fortunate, then, are the riparian farmers, the people who have had the opportunity to get this water free and without any restrictions up to date. But, of course, this has all been done at the expense of the river, as the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, has said; and while doing everything we can for the farmers, we must at the same time not let our rivers get too low and polluted. We campaign and we legislate for a litter-free land, and we legislate for clean air: it is just as important that we should have clean rivers as well. Nor must we forget the fishing, which makes a valuable contribution, both to sport and, of course, to the public food supply as well.

If your Lordships will pardon me for one moment—I shall not be very lengthy—I should like to take the River Tyne, in the South-East of Scotland, as an example, because this is the river on which I live and which I know intimately. There are already eight pumping stations on the lower reaches of the River Tyne, which is not a very big river, in just about as many miles. The number of potential users of pumps amounts to twenty—that is to say, in a very short time we expect to have twenty pumps on this river. Each pump is capable of drawing 15,000 gallons per hour, so that twenty pumps, if they were all working together, would extract from this small river 300,000 gallons per hour—just about one-third of the river's flow in a normal summer. Of course, it is not difficult to visualise what the effect on such a river might be in an excessively dry summer if all these pumps were working together. One other important point which I think we should remember is that very often pure, undiluted water is extracted in the upper reaches of a river, which water would be of benefit to towns further down for their sewerage schemes; that is, water is being extracted above, and the towns do not get it for their sewerage schemes further down.

What, then, can be done to control this increased extraction of water from small Scottish rivers? My noble friend has told us that the Bill proposes a system of licences. I hope this will work satisfactorily. But we have this situation. The greatest amount of water is always required at the time when the rainfall is at its lowest and the rivers are low. The obvious solution, which is not mentioned in the Bill, seems to me to be that there should be some form of storage; that we should have storage provided by reservoirs on farms into which water can be pumped during the winter and spring months, when the rivers are full and when there is plenty of rain, for use in times when the rivers are running dry and there is little rainfall—in other words, in the summer months. I have heard of such storage schemes being operated already on one or two farms, and I think they have been very satisfactory. I would suggest that these could well be included in farm improvement schemes, for which grants could be available.

I think that qualified technical advice on the construction of dams and storage of water should be made available. I do not know whether that is in the Bill, but I do not think it is. Then we must see that there is sufficient agricultural representation on the river purification boards, to see that the farmers' rights are kept up against other rights. It seems to me that, generally speaking, this Bill will really have an impact on only certain districts in Scotland—as I say, in the East and South-East, where the rainfull is low and where the arable crops are grown, and where spray irrigation is at present the common practice; not in the West of Scotland, of course, where there is plenty of rain and plenty of water.

I see it is obviously the intention of the Bill that there must be a good case for a control order before such an order is made by the Secretary of State, but problems will arise and decisions will have to be made by the river boards. For example, who are to receive licences and who are not? And, enlarging on what the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, said, as to the farmers who have already invested capital in spray equipment, are they not to receive licences automatically? If every riparian farmer on a river is to be entitled to ask for a licence, it seems only fair that he should get one. Consequently, it seems to me that it is quite possible that, if too many licences are issued, the rivers may run dry again and an individual farm crop might just not get enough water because there will not be enough to dole out to all these licensees. That is why this question of off-peak storage—and I am sorry to have to hark back to it again—seems to be of such great importance, and I hope the Government will examine this aspect of the matter, because I see no mention of it in the Bill. It seems to me to be a possible solution of this problem of extracting too much water from these rivers during the dry period.

With that reservation, I would heartily support the Bill, which I feel will be very useful in bringing method and regularity into crop spraying, which have certainly been absent in the practice up to now. Above all, it will help to keep our rivers clean. I therefore hope your Lordships will give the Bill a Second Reading.

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, while, I am afraid, automatically disliking any further imposition of restrictions, I welcome this Bill because, as a member of one of the river purification boards, for the River Tweed. I know all too well the importance of controlling the abstraction of water. I will not repeat the arguments that have been put forward from both sides of the House on this case, but will merely say that I would stress the importance of everything that has been said.

There are two small points which I should like to raise with my noble friend the Minister, and one is the notification of the imposition of a control order, the procedure for which is set out in the Schedule, paragraph 3, subparagraph (1)(a). That says that every person known … to have any interest in any land to which the control order applies has to be informed. That, I am told (rather "off the cuff", I admit), by the river inspector of the River Tweed would mean in one county only through which that river flows 5,000 letters. I wonder whether paragraph 3(1)(d) might be deemed to be sufficient; that is, that those to be informed should be the bodies or associations representing those people, for example, the National Farmers' Union, which is the most important one.

The other point I should like to make to my noble friend is this. He talked about added representation from the Secretary of State. I entirely agree that the farmers' interests must be fully represented; but in our particular case the Secretary of State has six nominees already, and that includes people who are undoubtedly representatives of farmers' interests. In addition, the county councils (who, in our case, I think, appoint four members each) also include farming representatives. So I hope that Her Majesty's Government will not increase the size of these boards so that they become unwieldy; they are fairly large now. With those two reservations, I wholeheartedly support this Bill.

3.31 p.m.


My Lords, while giving general support to the Bill, I should like to draw the Minister's attention to the penalty for contravention in Clause 2(2), which I consider to be inadequate. The damage which, in a drought year, selfish extraction of water could do runs far beyond the penalty of £50. It would be a long time before an unscrupulous and selfish extractor was taken before the courts where he might then suffer the penalty of £50, but meanwhile he would have been allowed to indulge in continuous defiance and continuous extraction. I should like the Minister to consider whether the Bill should not be amended in the way of providing greater penalties for second and subsequent transgressions; and also to consider whether there should not be some provision which would prevent continuous extraction until legal action is taken by the river purification board. As I have said, in that event the worst that could befall the extractor would be a penalty of £50, which seems to me entirely inadequate in such circumstances as I have described.

3.34 p.m.


My Lords, I support this Bill, as, of course, control of the use of water from rivers is undoubtedly necessary. Before saying anything more, I must declare an interest, which in my case is a double, and possibly conflicting, one. On the one hand, I am a farmer using spray irrigation; and, on the other hand, I am a chairman of a river board. I have two criticisms: one is general and the other specific. My general criticism is that I am not sure whether Her Majesty's Government (who are so often criticised for not acting soon enough) have not this time acted a little too soon. In any case, I think they have put the cart before the horse. This question of extraction is an extremely big one, and at present we have the Hunter Committee sitting and about to make a recommendation on the use of rivers for fishing. Undoubtedly, when their Report is published there will be a great deal in it affecting this matter.

There is much in this Bill that is to fall on the heads of the river purification boards, and as a result of the Hunter Committee these boards will probably be changed. At present, they are in many cases little more than face-savers. The trouble is that the local authority representation on the board vastly outnumbers the fishing interests. This means that whenever there is expenditure on measures against pollution the local authority, rather naturally, drag their feet as long as they can.

My specific case is that which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hughes. I think there must be some safeguard to those farmers who have already installed expensive equipment, to ensure, at least to begin with, that they are granted a licence unless there is some extremely good reason why a licence should not be granted. Otherwise, some farmers are going to lose a lot of money over this. The Bill is a necessary one; but, in my opinion, it can be considerably improved. I am quite certain that the Report of the Hunter Committee will make the task of improving it very much easier.