HL Deb 27 October 1970 vol 312 cc18-27

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The object of the Bill is to remedy a serious, but inadvertent, omission from the Water Resources Act 1963. That omission is obliging river authorities to promote Private Bills for all their water conservation schemes when, apart from this one point, they would almost always be able to secure the necessary powers by Ministerial Order. Among other provisions, the 1963 Act placed on river authorities the duty of conserving, redistributing and augmenting the water resources of their area. In pursuance of this duty the river authorities carry out water conservation schemes.

When the Bill was introduced into Parliament its general principles were accepted on all sides. On the particular aspect of the 1963 Act which is relevant to the present Bill—that is, the powers to be given to river authorities to carry out water schemes—the then Minister, Sir Keith Joseph, said during the Second Reading in the Commons: … the river authorities may be equipped by order of the Minister with compulsory powers in connection with the carrying out of engineering or building operations for the purposes of their new functions; ".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23/4/63, col. 45.] Later in the same debate Mr. Michael Stewart, for the Opposition, said, among other things, that it seemed to him to be a much simpler method, but it was all very well to use Private Bill procedure for something that was new and exceptional, but in cases such as this it: … ought to be done under a procedure that is part and parcel of the ordinary law of the land".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23/4/63; col. 143.] These works by river authorities principally involve the building of "regulating" reservoirs, and schemes for the transfer of water from one river to another. The Empingham reservoir which the Welland and Nene River Authority were authorised to build by an Act passed in the last Session of the last Parliament is an example of the first, and an example of the second is the Essex River Authority's Ely/Ouse scheme (authorised by Private Act in 1968) for transferring water from the Great Ouse catchment to the headwaters of the Essex rivers. In both types of case the regulated or augmented flow of the river may exceed its natural flow at certain times, and in the latter case the kind of water transferred may be different from that of the river into which it is discharged: that is to say, there may, for example, be differences in hardness. Broadly speaking, the effect of these schemes will be beneficial, but it is always possible that some riparian interest may be detrimentally affected to some degree or another. The risk is that if a riparian owner sought and was granted an injunction by the courts, no river authority, as the 1963 Act now stands, would be able to claim the defence of a statutory authorisation, because the powers of the Minister to make an Order compulsorily authorising the building of the works do not extend to authorising the discharge of water from the works. That is the advice which the Association of River Authorities obtained from counsel, and the Minister's legal advisors agree with the general tenor of counsel's opinion. Thus, although the river authority could be authorised by Ministerial Order to acquire the land, and to build a reservoir or transfer works, such as pipelines or aqueducts, it could be restrained from discharging water from such works, so that the object of the scheme would be frustrated.

The Bill therefore is concerned with putting right this omission from the 1963 Act. It empowers the Minister, on an application from a river authority, to make an Order authorising the river authority, subject to such conditions as the Minister may specify, to discharge water into any inland water or underground strata. The Bill also lays down procedure for the publication and service of notices describing the effect of the proposed Order and for the holding of a local public inquiry or hearing in the event of objection. It also, in Clause 1(3), provides for the payment of compensation to anyone who suffers damage attributable to any discharge of water made in pursuance of such an Order. The Bill also provides for the authorisation of discharges of water by other bodies, such as statutory water companies, by agreement with the river authorities.

There is, I think, broad support for the proposition that in this type of case the Order-making procedure has advantages over Private Bills, from the point of view of Parliament itself, from the point of view of those who are promoting the scheme and—this is particularly important—from the point of view of those who wish to raise objections to it. Parliamentary time is a valuable commodity and Private Bills for water schemes can consume a great deal of it. In addition to the time spent on the Second and Third Reading debates, several days are generally required for the Committee stage in both Houses. The Empingham Bill consumed 14 days in both Houses in Committee. Were it not for this Bill which I am now moving, four river authority schemes would have to be introduced by Private Bills in this Session, and more would be coming along in succeeding Sessions as river authorities prepare their water conservation projects.

Another difficulty from Parliament's point of view is that, by their nature, water schemes are felt to be inappropriate for Private Bills because frequently they introduce considerations of much more than local interest and importance, notably as regards the relationship of a particular scheme to national and regional plans for water resources management and development. The procedure by Order, with its public local inquiry, is also preferable from the point of view of the promoters of the scheme. They are able to relate their case to the wider strategy and at less expense to the public, from whom they derive their funds. And—and I think this is perhaps the most important point for many of your Lordships—the Order-making procedure has considerable advantages for the objectors, if any there be, to a scheme. The greater cost of opposing a Private Bill is a much more formidable deterrent to a farmer who wishes to object or to the amenity society which wishes to object. They can state their case in the less formal and possibly less daunting atmosphere of a public local inquiry, rather than before Committees of either or both Houses. Furthermore, a public local inquiry is held at a convenient place in the locality affected by the scheme, whereas the proceedings on Private Bills must take place in London.

It is these last factors which I have been mentioning that explain the measure of support which I believe this Bill has, not only from the Association of River Authorities representing the Promoters, but from the Country Landowners' Association and the National Farmers' Union. And I understand that, in principle, the amenity associations agree as well. For all these reasons, the procedure involved in the right of objection by all interested parties, with the right of a public local inquiry leading to a decision by the Minister, is, I believe, more apt for water conservation projects than the Private Bill procedure. I should like finally, my Lords, to emphasise that the present Bill does no more than make a minor rectification to restore the position which the 1963 Act was intended to bring about and which was welcomed at the time. I therefore trust that your Lordships will be ready to accord this amended Bill an equal welcome. My Lords, I beg to move.

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

3.24 p.m.


My Lords, we on this side of the House are disposed to welcome this Bill because it was, of course, one which we had prepared and it has been inherited, and very wisely introduced, by the new Government. I would add that I say that subject to what we are about to hear from other noble Lords. I would not wish to go overboard in support of every detail of it, speaking as I am doing before those noble Lords who have put themselves down to speak this afternoon who have a very wide and relevant experience in this matter. I should perhaps point out to the House that, although this Bill has the merits claimed for it by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford—namely, that it is easier and cheaper to get your case considered by a ministerial public inquiry than to get it considered by a Parliamentary Committee—it introduces a reduction in the powers of Parliament over this matter. It is a passing of power over the environment from Parliament, from the Legislature, to the Minister or the Executive. This in itself is a matter which may cause one to pause and think. I believe the disadvantages of that are outweighed by the advantages which the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, outlined and which I just mentioned, but I think that point needs considering as the Bill goes through the House.

I have one or two detailed questions on the Bill which are quite simply questions of understanding. If I may put them to the noble Lord now, perhaps he can answer them later in the debate or indeed at a later stage. Clause 1(1) says that the whole Bill is to facilitate the performance by a river authority of any of their new functions". In my ignorance, I just do not know what the new functions of river authorities are. I thought they got all their functions together when they were set up in 1963. I know what the new functions of the Thames Conservancy and the Lee Conservancy are—they come in Clause 2(2)(a). But what are the new functions of river authorities?

Then, in Clause 1(5), and again in the Schedule, we come across that shadowy thing in legislation, "a person". It says that river authorities may release water down a river and that water undertakings may act in that way as if they were river authorities, or in conjunction with river authorities. But then we come across "a person". Who is "a person"? If it is intended that it should be someone other than a water undertaking, then who? If it is not intended that it should be someone other than a water undertaking, why not delete this vague person and keep to the precise "water undertaking"? It raises in my mind the question of industry or the private owner of a reservoir. If a firm or a factory owns a reservoir or has any other kind of discharge of water which is likely to come into question under this Bill, or indeed if a private landowner owns a reservoir or discharges water for any other cause, are they going to be ruled in future by Clause 1(5) of this Bill?

In Clause 2(2)(b) we again come to the new functions, but I have already mentioned that point. As to Clause 2(4), I think the House would be grateful if the noble Lord could give some examples at the present stage of what sort of thing it might be in a Private Act which the Minister would wish to repeal because it no longer seems appropriate when this Bill has been passed. Lastly, the Schedule, in paragraph 3(b), refers to the river authority having to give notice to everybody concerned of what it intends to do, and it says that one may not be able to get that notice, or to talk about it with the river authority, unless one has paid "a reasonable charge for being so notified". I do not know whether the Government have consulted with the anglers and other interested groups about this "reasonable charge". It does not sound too nice. I do not think people ought to be charged for being notified that they are going to be damnified and then compensated. They ought just to be notified free of charge, and they ought to have a right to say what they think about it. That concludes my detailed points.

Lastly, may I make a general point about the spread of reservoirs in this country? This point I think is permissible on the Second Reading of the Bill. The reservoirs grow and grow. They fill up our valleys and our fertile agricultural land. Some of them can be put to good recreational use; some cannot. They are a very great nuisance. Far more people dislike them than like them, and if they continue to spread it will be difficult to keep your feet dry anywhere in the country. There is no end in sight, except one. That one end is the desalting of sea water. I know that we on this side, at any rate, would be very grateful to the noble Lord if, in winding up this debate, he could say a word about what the new Government plan to do on desalination policy in general; and in particular whether they plan to go forward with the production of desalination plant for water supply by freezing on the estuary of the river Deben in Suffolk, which I announced just before the Election that the former Government were minded to go ahead with.

3.30 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Sandford has introduced this Bill with a short speech of model clarity and lucidity, and I feel quite confident that all your Lordships will agree that this Bill should be given a rapid passage. Its sole purpose appears to be to remedy an error in the drafting of the Water Resources Act 1963. That Act introduced a new procedure as regards the abstraction of water from rivers. At the same time as the Water Resources Board was set up an attempt was made to have what might be called an overall plan for the water resources of this country which would provide that the normal way in which water would be provided for any particular purpose would be that the River Authority should give a licence for the abstraction of water for a certain purpose. It was not observed by the Parliamentary draftsmen, and it was not observed in either House of Parliament, that while the Act did not alter the existing powers with regard to building engineering works it provided this new and simplified procedure for the abstraction of water.

My Lords, in view of the general tendency nowadays for engineers and river authorities to favour the regulating reservoir instead of the holding reservoir, I think that this Bill can be of immense value. The new idea is that instead of merely storing water in a remote part of the country and conveying it by pipes, which are of course expensive to build and to maintain, use should be made of the existing river.

In the debate which we had on the purification of British rivers at the beginning of this year I and many other noble Lords drew attention to the immense possibilities of meeting the ever-increasing demand for pure water by using the existing rivers, if only they were purified. I believe that there was almost a consensus of opinion—and certainly it received favourable notice from the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, who was at the time speaking for the Government—that our general policy should be so far as possible to purify our rivers and in that way to obtain large quantities of pure water without the expense, and the dislocation and destruction of the countryside, involved in holding reservoirs.

So far, this Bill is a most desirable amendment of the Water Resources Act 1963. But just as the Parliamentary draftsmen and the Government of that day failed to observe a defect in the Act, so, I fear, the amenity interest for which I spoke were oblivious of a certain change that was being made which would very much reduce the control of Parliament over Orders of this kind and thereby diminish the opportunities of the amenity societies to oppose Orders that were going to have an adverse effect in submerging attractive parts of the countryside.

My Lords, in 1945 the late Lord Kilmuir, when Solicitor General, was responsible for devising what was called Special Parliamentary Procedure with a particular view to its being used in the Water Act 1945. That Bill, which he had drafted during the time of the Conservative Government, was in fact passed by the Labour Government when they came into power and, subject to certain reservations which we put forward in another place and which were accepted by the Government of that day, Special Parliamentary Procedure is a speedy, relatively inexpensive and satisfactory way of enabling Orders to be made effective while at the same time retaining the control of Parliament over the general policy. What we did not observe at the time was that the effective control by Parliament through the Special Parliamentary Procedure contained in the Water Act 1945 was to a large extent done away with by the Water Resources Act 1963.

The Government may say that the amenity interests were like Homer and nodded in 1963, and that this general principle was then accepted by Parliament that the safeguards which had been contained in the Act of 1945 could properly be done away with. The Government may say that it is now rather late in the day for us to wake up to this fact, and to raise this matter on what is only a Bill to amend defective drafting in the Water Resources Act 1963. I would ask them, however, to take a slightly more generous view. And since even the Parliamentary draftsman now admits that he was at fault, and a Bill is being put forward to rectify that defective drafting, I hope that the Government will look sympathetically at an Amendment if I put one down for the Committee stage of this Bill which will go some way towards restoring the control of Parliament over these measures and enable the amenity interests, and other people who are concerned with the broad national interest in these matters, to have, in the last resort, recourse to a Joint Committee of both Houses to review the decision taken by the Minister.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, rightly pointed out—and I entirely agree with him—that in matters of this kind it is cheaper, better and more effective for the procedure to be by Order and for the Minister to consider the recommendations of a public inquiry. But I think it is desirable that, where public opinion is really deeply moved about some proposal of this kind, the Special Parliamentary Procedure which was devised for this special purpose of retaining ultimate Parliamentary control should be restored; and I hope, therefore, that if I put down an Amendment on these lines the Government will look at it with a sympathetic eye.

3.39 p.m.


My Lords, I believe that when an inspector is appointed to preside at the public local inquiry envisaged by this Bill under current practice he will be a water engineer employed by the Ministry. I would just ask your Lordships whether somebody whose whole life has been devoted to the provision of water is necessarily the best person to undertake the completely objective inquiry and to assess objections which may not be only on water grounds, but on grounds of hardship, environment, amenity, and so on. Would it not be better if somebody completely impartial could be chosen to preside at these inquiries? Would it not be better if it were someone just to say something "off the cuff"—possibly somebody like a county court judge who would have no axe to grind in the matter?

Secondly, I support the noble Lord, Lord Molson, in what he said just now about Special Parliamentary Procedure. As I understand it, Parliament would not be altogether excluded from consideration of future reservoir proposals, in that where there was a proposal com-pulsorily to acquire National Trust land or common land the Special Parliamentary Procedure would still apply. But I am not entirely happy that where the future of a whole community may be at stake, where people's livelihoods may be altered—in fact their whole lives changed—Parliament should have no say at all except in certain very limited cases. On this point I would support the noble Lord, Lord Molson. Could not Special Parliamentary Procedure apply to all reservoir proposals, so that there would be an opportunity for Parliament to debate the Minister's Order and, if necessary, it could be referred to a Joint Select Committee of both Houses? Under English law, if a man is being tried whether he is guilty or not is decided by the jury, not by the judge, and I cannot help feeling that here, too, where people's livelihoods are at stake a final court of appeal consisting of a jury of five people might be better than one man's decision.

So I come back to my two points: could we not have a completely impartial person to act as inspector on these local public inquiries, and is it right to exclude Parliament altogether from these proposals?