HL Deb 28 May 1968 vol 292 cc1039-44

3.0 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is a small and, I hope, uncontroversial Bill which I move to-day on behalf of my noble friend Lord Kennet, but it is nevertheless important, for its purpose is to remove a limited but serious defect in Section 27 of the Water Resources Act 1963. The main aim of that Act was to secure the efficient conservation and management of water resources in England and Wales. It established river authorities with wide powers to conserve and augment resources and to control abstractions. This control is effected through a system under which, with certain exceptions, any person proposing to abstract water is required to apply to the river authority for an appropriate licence. Public bodies, other than Crown bodies, are also subject to these requirements.

Section 27 of the 1963 Act is a key element in this licensing control system. Its object is to prevent the making of speculative or pre-emptive applications by persons who are not already in a position to make use of a licence or unlikely to be in a position to do so in the reasonably near future. Section 27 accordingly provides that no application for a licence (other than a "licence of right", to reflect established abstraction rights) shall be entertained unless the applicant either occupies the relevant land or, in the case of an abstraction from surface waters, satisfies the river authority that he has or will have a right of access to the relevant land when the licence takes effect. The section also provides, however, that an occupier of land shall be taken as including anyone who satisfies the river authority that he has entered into negotiations for the acquisition of the necessary interest in land. This is to accommodate persons who although not yet in occupation of the land can nevertheless be credited with a genuine intention to go into occupation in the reasonably near future.

During the Commons Committee proceedings in 1963, the present Minister of Agriculture raised the very point which now concerns us in this Bill to-day; namely, whether statutory water undertakers would always be able to comply with the terms of the section bearing in mind their occasional need to acquire the relevant land by compulsion. The then Parliamentary Secretary said—and here I quote from Hansard, Standing Committee F, of May 28, so that to-day, by an extraordinary coincidence, is the fifth anniversary of the Second Reading of the 1963 Bill: My advice is that the existence of an order (authorising compulsory acquisition) would definitely bring the water undertaker … under the heading of negotiations having been started even if the order had not confirmed that compulsory powers were available. Thus it was taken to be the case that statutory water undertakers and other public bodies were not precluded from applying for licences in cases where the owner of the necessary land was unwilling to treat and where they had initiated compulsory purchase action. This assumption, however, was challenged in a particular case last year. The Minister was advised that "entering into negotiations" implied more than a mere offer to treat which was rejected or ignored, and that it was doubtful whether the courts would uphold the argument that Section 27(4), which contained the words "entered into negotiations" could be interpreted so as to include the case where statutory bodies had applied for an order authorising compulsory purchase.

Consequently, as things stand no water undertaker or other public body which needs to acquire the relevant land can apply for a licence unless the owner is prepared to negotiate the sale of the land to them. And yet it would usually be unreasonable, to put it no higher, to authorise the compulsory acquisition of such land in advance of a decision on a licence application. This situation constitutes a serious impediment to the carrying out of schemes by statutory water undertakers, and other public bodies, such as river authorities themselves who need to carry out works of conservation. It has meant that a number of important schemes have had to be promoted by means of Private Bills, such as those submitted by the Essex River Authority and the Medway Water Board. Some eight or nine other river authority and water undertaking schemes are likely to be submitted to the Minister this year, and these may give rise to similar difficulties.

The Bill therefore seeks to remove and to resolve this impasse. It specifically rectifies in Clause 1(2) the anomalous position of water undertakers and other public bodies by extending the entitlement to apply for a licence to any person who satisfies the river authority that compulsory acquisition of the requisite land either has already been authorised or can be authorised and has been initiated. The effect will be that the public bodies who require a licence to abstract water on land which they expect to acquire can apply for the licence once they have submitted an appropriate order or draft order for compulsory purchase powers.

The Bill also tidies up another, quite small, problem in Section 27 relating to abstractions from excavations, such as gravel pits. This is contained in Clause 1(1) and was introduced at the instigation of the Association of River Authorities. The entitlement (under Section 27(2)(b) to apply for the licence on the strength of satisfying the river authority that the necessary right of access will be available does not extend to the abstraction of water from underground sources, but only to abstractions from surface water. However, the absence of this "right of access" provision in relation to underground abstractions has created problems in the case of abstractions from gravel pits, the owners of which are willing to allow the abstraction of water and a right of access for that purpose but who do not want to grant a right of occupation which might interfere with their operations. This is a small, technical, but I think useful point.

To sum up, this is an urgently needed Bill to remedy an unintentional but critical defect in the 1963 Act. It is of course right to make water undertakers and other public bodies prove their case before they are allowed to carry out schemes of abstraction which may affect other interests. It is not, however, right that there should be a specific obstacle in their way which prevents the submission of their proposals for approval. Unless this obstacle is removed—which is the purpose of this Bill—it will prove a serious impediment to the effective implementation of water supply and water conservation schemes. I hope that this Bill will receive a Second Reading to-day and that as soon as possible we can go forward to Committee stage and remove what is a difficult piece of legislation, which acts as a brake on river authori- ties and on water undertakers. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Baroness Serota.)

3.8 p.m.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, for moving the Second Reading of this Bill and explaining to us so lucidly the purpose of it. May I welcome the Bill, and may I also tell the noble Baroness that it is much welcomed by the river authorities, because it will meet the specific difficulty which she has described. In the event, Clause 27 has proved to be too tightly drawn, and the intention of the original Bill to which the noble Baroness helpfully referred in an extract from Hansard in 1963 has been partially frustrated. There is no doubt that in the interpretation of the courts the Act as it now stands is a shade too tightly drawn. This small Bill before us now widens the criginal Bill to meet the particular point, and it will enable a number of schemes to go forward by a more smooth procedure than by the Private Bill procedure, which is of course expensive and cumbersome and was never intended. Therefore, I think this Bill can be welcomed in every way. I am quite sure that it will not in any way deprive the general public of any rights that they have in the matter of these proposals.

I would just mention to the noble Baroness that there are other points gradually accumulating in regard to the 1963 Act. This is inevitable. It is a vast piece of legislation. On the whole it has been remarkably successful, and I think a great credit to my noble friend Lord Brooke and the civil servants of the day who so successfully conceived and constructed this Act. But gradually small points are accumulating, and I hope that the noble Baroness will take note that in due course it might be appropriate to have another small amending Bill which may take up some other points. I have much pleasure in supporting this Bill.


My Lords, I should like very briefly to thank the noble Lady for the clear explanation she gave of this rather complicated little Bill. Speaking as one involved in a statutory water company, I think this Bill is going to be of great benefit to the statutory water companies in due course. I have discussed the matter with the British Waterworks Association and they tell me they are satisfied with the Bill as it is before the House at this time. Therefore, I would join the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, and hope your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading and that there may be further little Bills of a similar nature coming along in the course of time.

3.11 p.m.


My Lords, this little Bill gives us the opportunity of expressing our congratulations to the noble Baroness upon what I think is the first occasion on which she has been in charge of a Bill on the Front Bench.

I have an interest which I ought to disclose to your Lordships; I am a past President of the British Waterworks Association and at present Vice President. That is the organisation that is representative of the water undertakings, both municipal and company undertakings. The British Waterworks Association welcomes this Bill. As the noble Baroness has pointed out to us, it sets right one or two relatively minor points in the Act of 1963. It will facilitate the working of that Act, and it will facilitate the task of water undertakings in obtaining the water that they require. I have no doubt your Lordships will pass the Bill without much further deliberation.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lords who have spoken so kindly and so briefly on this particular Bill, which is admittedly one of considerable technicality and some difficulty, certainly for me, standing here in place of my noble friend Lord Kennet. I am aware of the point that the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, made in his remarks about a number of matters that have occurred since the passing of the Act and of the need from time to time to consider further Amendments to it. I am grateful that he did not raise certain other points which I am sure would have been well beyond my capability to cope with at this particular stage, but we are conscious of the need to keep the matter under review. I am sure that the Government, working in association with the various undertakings concerned and in association with the river authorities, will constantly watch the situation to see when, if it is possible with the kind of timetable we have before Parliament at the present time, further amending legislation can be produced. I am grateful for the support of the House for this Bill, and look forward to the Committee stage.

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

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