HL Deb 18 February 1971 vol 315 cc708-18

3.25 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. First, I should like to thank the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees and the authorities of the House, including the Chief Whip, for kindly arranging for the Second Reading debate of this Bill to take place this afternoon. I should like to apologise to noble Lords who may have been inconvenienced when this Bill was set down for Second Reading on January 26, and when I was not present to move the Bill. I was in the House but out of earshot of the Chamber. A very interesting debate was going on, initiated by the Earl of Cromartie, on sites for caravans. I have to confess that, while noble Lords North of Border were speaking, I made the mistake of underestimating the length of their speeches. I shall not do that again.

I must also apologise to the Promoters of the Bill, who may have suffered anxiety for the untoward delay in Parliamentary procedure of the current Bill; because they have had to wait a very long time—from 1969—for this Bill due to one thing or the other. I am sorry to have held it up for another two or three weeks. I should declare an interest in this matter for, as President of the National Association of River Authorities, I naturally have a deep interest in the work and progress of all river authorities.

This Private Bill has already received the approval of the House of Commons. I should record that there were two Petitions lodged against it there; but the Cumberland River Authority satisfactorily met all the points raised and so both were withdrawn. The Bill is before the House to-day with no Petitions set down against it. But, nevertheless, there is a good deal of interest in it for obvious reasons. The proposal in the Bill is to carry out works on Lake Bassenthwaite in order to increase public water supply in the River Derwent which flows out of it. I think it would be true to say that there is no area in the country where public opinion is more sensitive to the proposition for development than the Lake District and, indeed, the National Park within it. But the Cumberland River Authority, who are responsible for the management of rivers and lakes in this area, are very conscious of the exceptional amenity considerations of their area and the absolute need to protect them in any water conservation scheme that they may propose.

With this in mind, the River Authority is providing in this Bill three major safeguards which will, I believe, satisfy your Lordships that the amenities and beauties of this area will be preserved. The first major safeguard is the limit of time in the Bill. The powers in the Bill will end on December 31, 1980. Then the works which are proposed in the Bill will have to be removed. In other words, this is no more than an interim measure to provide additional water over the current decade, and the river authority has in hand plans for a major scheme of development which will provide the extra water needed up to the end of the century. Secondly, the design of the works which are proposed on Lake Bassenthwaite is such that they will be substantially out of sight; indeed, they will be completely out of sight for most of the year. When they are visible they will stand only some six inches above the present natural water level of the lake. Thirdly, there is in the Bill a limitation of the amount of draw-down that there may be on the lake which will be limited to no more than 18 inches below the present minimum level of the lake.

These are substantial safeguards to which I will refer later more fully when dealing with the Bill. The second of these safeguards will ensure that there is little or nothing to be seen interfering with the natural beauty of the scene; and the first of them will ensure that after eight years there will be nothing at all, for it will have to be removed. The third important safeguard is that the rim area of the lake, when there is draw-down, will be minimal in order to avoid interference with the beauty of the lake.

I will turn to the contents of the Bill and deal with them under three heads. The first is the need for increased water supplies; the second is the scheme and its method of operation, and the third the safeguards to which I have referred. As regards the need, as your Lordships will know, under the 1963 Act the river authorities now have the responsibility to act, as it were, as the wholesaler of water, to supply the extra water required by water undertakings in their areas. It is in this context that the Cumberland River Authority is responsible for providing the West Cumberland Water Board and other extractors with the extra supplies they require. In this case they come from the water of the River Derwent.

The forecast of the West Cumberland Water Board of increased demand over this decade is as follows. On the domestic supply the Water Board forecast that demand will overtake the existing supply by 1975, and that by 1981 there will be a deficit of 2 million gallons per annum. Secondly, regarding the industrial supply, the Water Board forecast that demand will overtake the existing supply somewhere about 1973–74; and by 1981 there will be a deficit in the industrial supply of 8 million to 10 million gallons per day. This makes a total prospective deficit by 1981 of 10 million to 12 million gallons a day. This deficit could be higher if the established regional policy is successful in attracting more industry to the area. As noble Lords will know, this area has been designated a special development area, the unemployment rate is high, and certainly no one would want industrialists to be deterred from moving industry there by the possibility of a shortage of water. Thirdly, there is a further consideration of need for an increased water supply; that is, in the fresh water flow through the tidal estuary below Yearl Weir. Now this flow sometimes falls below 15 million gallons a day, which is far too low for amenity fishery and public health interests. Indeed, it is desirable that it should be at least three times as great, if that be possible. So there is no doubt about the need. There is a growing need which will become acute within the next four or five years.

My Lords, let me turn secondly to the scheme. As I have mentioned, the River Derwent flows out of the lower end of Lake Bassenthwaite. In essence, the scheme is to draw on Lake Bassenthwaite at times of low flow in the River Derwent, when there is exceptionally dry weather, in order to make a marginal increase in the natural flow of the river. The increase aimed at is an additional 20 million gallons a day on these occasions of low flow, to meet the forecast increase in demand of 15 million gallons a day for extraction. As some noble Lords will know, Lake Bassenthwaite is a very big lake—it is some four miles long and half a mile wide—so even at a time of maximum extraction the effect on the lake will be very small. The engineering work proposed is the construction of a weir at the lower end of the lake. The height of the weir will be only six inches above the normal minimum level of the lake water and its length will be approximately 70 feet; in other words it will extend across the mouth, where the River Derwent runs out at the lower end of the lake. This should be quite unobtrusive, even when visible, but usually it will be submerged, with the lake water running over the top.

A pumping station is incorporated in the scheme. It is proposed to build it in the spinney on the North bank of the River Derwent, where it can be effectively screened. The method of operation will be to pump water from the lake into the down-stream side of the weir to increase the natural flow of the river in dry periods. The pumping will stop when the lake level has fallen to two feet below the crest of the weir; that is to say, 18 inches below the present natural level of the lake. Pumping will be limited to 55 million gallons per day, which, it is estimated, will provide for the net increase of 20 million gallons a day which I have mentioned. The other 35 million gallons a day is the volume which in a dry period would be flowing out naturally at the lower end of the lake and flowing down the River Derwent.

The scheme of this low weir and pumping system to draw off the water has been designed in order to avoid the alternative, which would be a regulated sluice, to be opened according to the volume of water required to be discharged down the river. Of course, any sluice of that kind would require considerable engineering works on top of the weir and would be extremely unsightly; so the engineers have hit upon this ingenious idea of a pumping scheme which will be out of sight and will draw out the water and discharge it off down the river.

The frequency of operation is obviously vital, and the River Authority forecast that in the eight-year period—that is, until the powers run out at the end of this decade—the lake level will be drawn down the sill of the weir on not more than 120 days during the whole period. They also forecast that the longest consecutive period of operation will be 40 to 50 days. Your Lordships will understand—if I have been successful in describing the picture to you—that during the rest of the time the River Derwent will be flowing over the top of the weir and that the weir will not be seen at all; everything will look the same as it does now. In very simple terms, my Lords, the scheme is to use this great Lake Bassenthwaite to a very limited extent, to a total depth of 24 inches, as a regulated storage system, to be drawn on in exceptionally dry weather in order to supplement the natural flow of the River Derwent.

My Lords, the safeguards, which I have already mentioned briefly are, first, that the River Authority will be limited by the duration of the powers in the Bill to December 31, 1980. In the meantime they are preparing a major scheme to take the place of this one. Secondly, the Bill seeks powers to compensate for damage due to altering the level of the lake; this is dealt with in Clause 27. This compensation will work in two ways. It will be for the benefit of those who are affected by the raised level of the lake, as it will, in future, be six inches deeper than before, necessitating increased land drainage works on surrounding fields; or, alternatively, by the reduced level of the lake, necessitating additions or adaptations to landing stages. In either event, my Lords, the River Authority is taking powers to compensate those affected. Thirdly there is the safeguard to amenity. As I have mentioned, the height of the weir is to be six inches over the natural level of the water, and therefore the periods of maximum draw-down it will be showing to the extent of 24 inches. Fourthly, there is the safeguard to limit the draw-down of the lake to 18 inches below the present level. The River Authority have appointed a landscape consultant who will give the best possible advice to make sure that all these works tone in as well as possible with the natural surroundings.

Finally, my Lords, I should like to say a word of thanks to my noble friend Lord Inglewood for the great pains he has taken to cater for the interests and anxieties of the members of the Bassenthwaite Society who, naturally, are deeply concerned with all this. I can assure him that their views are now well understood, and I can give him the two safeguards, or assurances for which he asked from the River Authority. These are, first, that the River Authority will recognise the interests of agriculture, particularly when the lake is raised above natural levels; and secondly, that local interests, and in particular the Bassenthwaite Society, will be kept informed at regular intervals as to the operation and effects of the scheme, and indeed will be adequately consulted. In conclusion, I think I can say with confidence that the Cumberland River Authority is taking every possible care to design this water conservation to provide the urgently needed extra water in a way which will be acceptable in this very beautiful part of the Lake District. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Nugent of Guildford.)

3.41 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to try noble friend Nord Nugent for the outline that he has given us of this Bill, and for his generous assurances, which will be greatly welcomed not only by the people living in the immediate neighbourhood of the lake, but by others farther afield. He has told us about the original features of this Bill: and it really is very original, in addition to being ingenious. It could become the pattern for other Water Bills.

I think I can fairly say that it is not quite as simple as my noble friend represented. It certainly is not just a local issue, not least since it has stimulated correspondence in The Times about the difficulties of small communities with small resources making their representations to Parliament, especially when they cannot afford to brief counsel to appear before a Select Committee. It is not generally known, either, that Bassenthwaite is of international biological interest, and is on the provisional list of sites of scientific interest. It is within the Lake District National Park as the noble Lord mentioned, and the late Lord Birkett, eight years ago in a memorable debate, said that the enjoyment of the parks should be for all people in all times."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8/2/62; col. 234.] And here I should like to pay tribute to the Cumberland River Authority, who have gone to endless lengths to deal with every sort of issue that has been raised. May I say, too, that since this Bill, despite its interest, was never debated in another place, it is right for this House to give a few minutes to its discussion. And I would say here that I know of no one who is wishing either to obstruct or to block this Bill, or put difficulties in the way of West Cumberland's needs.

Water Bills are generally part of a long-term plan. This one happens to be the very opposite: it is a stop-gap. We have been told that it is only for 10 years, and further, that the small works which are to be constructed under powers given in this Bill are actually to be demolished at the end. There is no power under the Bill for the Minister to extend by Order—though there have been local rumours that the Water Resources Board would have liked such a provision to be in the Bill. So, on the face of it, this is a short-term measure to meet short-term needs pending decisions about the longer term. That seems innocent enough.

But if anyone thinks that this is not a first step towards more drastic and permanent control of the lake, he has only to read the book: because the Water Resources Board are on record as favouring as a long-term solution the linking of Bassenthwaite and Thirlmere. That would mean more drastic control and, in fact, different works. Since Bassenthwaite Lake is inside the Lake District National Park it really is important for us to get these first steps right and to see that there is a fair balance between the interests involved. If I may quote the late Lord Birkett again, he referred to the Lake District as: so small, so lovely and so vulnerable …"(col. 234). These words are indeed true.

Here I should like to pay tribute to the chairman of the Cumberland River Authority and to his predecessor, both of whom have taken great pains to explain to the county what they are trying do, and why. My noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford has explained what the Bill attempts to do. It is to regulate the flow of this lake down the River Derwent, so making possible limited additional extraction from the lower reaches. That, I think he will agree, depends a little, not just on theoretical calculations, but on Providence and the rainfall. It could be that these possible abstractions will not be as great as some people may hope. Furthermore, there is going to be a welcome improvement in the flow in the River Derwent.

In achieving this, as my noble friend has said, great efforts have been made to meet the amenity, recreational interests and the fishing interests. There is only one interest which comes less well out of this, and that is the farming interest, which is the basic interest of many of those who live round the lake. They come out of it less well because, however slightly the level of the lake is raised, it must make drainage more difficult. This is what is worrying the Bassenthwaite Lake Society.

This Bill has a certain House of Lords flavour about it, because the whole bed of the lake is owned by my noble friend Lord Egremont. It is a great credit to my noble friend and his family that it has remained so unspoilt, and the atmosphere so peaceful: unchanged, one can say, from the time when it inspired Tennyson to write so many of his lovely passages. I have to declare a personal interest, the same as I declared in another context only a short time ago. I am the owner of a narrow strip of very marginal land along one side, and two waterlogged patches, one at each end—waterlogged now, if they were not forty years ago. There is no great cash interest in this, my Lords: the only modest cash interest is a small boat landing which I have let for some years to my noble friend Lord Egremont.

Many local residents and farmers feet that this scheme, if it had to be, has been pitched at the wrong level. If only the engineer could have pitched it a little lower none of the other interests would have been affected and the possible damage to agriculture could have been avoided. The professional surveyor advising the Bassenthwaite Lake Society, considers that an opportunity has been missed, and that there was no need to start by raising the level of the lake. I should like to make this plea. I cannot see that there is any statutory obligation in the Bill for the River Authority to raise the lake to the limits. Surely by experiment they can see whether they cannot achieve their object at a lesser if not the present level. If successful, this would be welcome.

The Society are interested not just in amenity, as many local societies are, but in sailing, agriculture, and all forms of life around the lake. Their chairman wrote to The Times not long ago explaining the difficulties of a small community in making representations to Parliament, especially when they are, as at present, facing two threats, and this is not the bigger one. I hope it is not intruding on your Lordships' time this afternoon if I make their representations to the House. They had hoped to join others in a Petition, but no-one was prepared to follow them on the agriculture and drainage points alone; and they could not "go it alone". They are not opposed to many of the other features of the Bill, and they will be extremely grateful for the assurances which my noble friend has given to-day. I hope that these assurances will lead to a sympathetic administration and a feeling that farming is at least as important as the fish.

In conclusion, I should like to ask my noble friend Lord Sandford two questions, of which I have given him notice, which are relevant to this issue. The first is why West Cumberland—and that is the area around Workington and Whitehaven—has been passed over as a site for an experimental desalination plant: because all the features would seem to be there. The claims of this area would seem to be stronger than those of the Ipswich area, where I believe a start is being made. I hope this is not just because Cumberland is further away from London; that it is not a case of "out of sight out of mind". There is no mention in the Water Resources Board's Report, Water Resources in the North, of desalination.

The second question refers to Scotland. Although the Water Resources Beard sometimes seems to overlook it, the North of England has a common boundary with Scotland and on the North of the Solway there are considerable water resources, with only limited claims on them. The Board's Report completely overlooks the supplies on the North side of the Solway, which an amateur would think might be piped across the estuary to supply the needs of West Cumberland, the surplus then being fed down into the Manchester supply. This would save us in the future from these claims on the Lake District, one after another. As I represented earlier on, I am sure that this is not the last claim. I believe that the Water Resources Board have done an exercise to see whether some of this water could be used to meet the needs of the North-East of England, but none so far as I know has been done to try to meet the needs of the North-West.

My Lords, I think we should all be grateful to the Bassenthwaite Society for bringing some of these points to our attention. The consequences of the scheme could lead to quite unnecessary damage in the National Park. The Society have performed the same sort of service as the noble Lord, Lord Birkett did when he spoke in this House eight years ago, when Ullswater was threatened, though on an entirely different scale. If the Bassenthwaite Society have been less easily satisfied than some of the others who considered petitioning, I think, my Lords, you would agree that they have also helped towards a better final outcome.