HL Deb 31 March 1965 vol 264 cc1005-8

2.36 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they anticipate that, assuming an average rainfall in England during the next six months, there will be any serious shortage of water supplies; and, if so, which areas of the country are likely to be affected.]


My Lords, the present situation is exceptional. The three years ending January, 1965, were the driest 36 consecutive months in this century over England and Wales as a whole. February, 1965, was particularly dry. Average rainfall in the next six months should maintain supplies in reservoirs, but in areas dependent on underground sources, where rainwater may take up to three or four months to percolate, abnormal rainfall will be needed to cancel the risk of shortages later.

It is not possible to say in which areas shortage may occur. This depends not only on the total quantity of rainfall. It also depends very much on the "pattern" of rainfall: that is to say, whether a little rain falls each day—in which case much of it evaporates or a lot of rain falls on a number of days—in which case much of it percolates into the ground; or the rainfall of several weeks falls in one day—in which case much of it runs off the surface into streams and rivers.


My Lords, I am very much obliged to the noble Lord for his full Answer.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the situation is already pretty serious in certain parts of the country? Can he give an assurance that every possible step is being taken to avoid rationing in the later months of this summer?


My Lords, I do not know how much rain is going to fall in the later months of the summer. All I can say is that this situation has unfortunately happened before. I looked up what happened in the six months ending on November 10, 1959 (when the present Government definitely were not responsible for the rainfall), and I think that about 52 drought orders were made in England and Wales. This was done under the Water Act, 1958, which had recently been passed for this very purpose. I cannot find that any further enactments directed to this particular matter have been passed since then, and I doubt whether any kind of legislation can be certain to cope always with the vagaries of the British climate.


My Lords, the noble Lord misunderstood me if he thought I was asking for further legislation on this subject. The legislation passed by the late Government is ample to deal with the situation. What I was asking the noble Lord for was an assurance that steps would be taken well in advance to try to bring into use other supplies—because there are in many instances other supplies which could be brought in. They may be of a similar character, but they would be a help, not only now but in the future. There is very serious concern about this matter in many parts of the country, and the noble Lord is not dealing with the matter by referring to what has happened in the past, in 1959.


But, my Lords, the point is this. These orders are made on the application of statutory water undertakings, and have to be so made. I have not the least doubt that now, as in 1959 when previously we had a very dry summer, the applications will be met. I am relieved to hear from the noble and learned Viscount that the legislation passed for the subject is appropriate and sufficient. I was not quite certain about it, and it is nice to know. I can assure him that it is being operated, and that the broad question of water resources, which was dealt with, he will remember, by the Water Resources Act, 1963, is of course under active consideration, and has been for some time.


My Lords, I repeat again, if I may, that I was not on the question of legislation; nor was I on the question of drought orders. I was asking the noble Lord to give an assurance that his Ministry would take every step possible to encourage the authorities responsible to bring into use in plenty of time such other sources as may be available. As the noble Lord is, I am sure, aware, where water boards are created in various parts they often cease to use certain sources of supply, which might be brought back into use at the present time. That is what I was asking the noble Lord about—whether he would give that assurance.


With great respect to the noble and learned Viscount, I do not think that that is necessary. When there is need for a drought order undertakers ask for it. They are the first people to ask. There was no difficulty in getting requests for orders on the last occasion; nor do I expect any such difficulty now. However, I can give the noble and learned Viscount the assurance—and I think it is a repetition of what I said before that the whole matter of water resources is under active consideration now. I do not quite know what he is suggesting should be done. There are two Ministries concerned, I may add: the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.


My Lords, is not the answer that the Minister is suggesting, with some hesitation perhaps, that the Government inherited the weather from the late Administration?


May I thank the noble Earl, and tell him that it is not the first time I have noticed his very deep interest in water supplies in this country?


Would the noble Lord tell us whether the Government have in mind any plans to prevent the wastage of water, and whether we, as householders, who are charged for water on our rateable value, cannot have a meter? Because it would be much cheaper if we were charged by a meter than on the rateable value, as happens at present.


My Lords, I think I must ask for notice of questions about meters. I hope that I have answered the Question on the Order Paper.


My Lords, may I ask whether the noble Lord cannot on this occasion put the blame for the whole situation on thirteen years of "Tory misrule"?


My Lords, I hinted that I was not quite sure whether there had been sufficient legislation, but I was reassured on that point by the noble and learned Viscount, who told me that it was all right.


It generally is.

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