HL Deb 07 July 1971 vol 321 cc1044-7

6.32 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is quite a straightforward Bill; its purpose is to enable us to keep on making new awards of grant under the Rural Water Supplies and Sewerage Acts. Very soon we shall have given pledges up to the limit of our existing statutory authority. We must therefore have further provision. At present we have authority to pay up to a total of £105 million in capital terms as Government contributions towards the cost of rural water supply and sewerage schemes in England and Wales. Where the Government pay a grant, this entrains a county council contribution, usually of the same amount.

The post-war programme was launched by the Act of 1944 which authorised Government grants up to a limit of £15 million. As the programme developed, this was increased by three successive additions, each of £30 million, under the Acts of 1951, 1955 and 1965. The total value of grant awards to date is approaching £104 million, and new awards are running at the rate of £6 million a year or more. Since the war, a total of £415 million has been spent on these two rural services. A sum of £115 million has been spent on rural water supply, and the proportion of the rural population with piped water has been raised from 70 per cent. to an estimated 97 per cent. A total of £300 million has been spent on rural main drainage, and recent returns by rural district councils in England and Wales show that 75 per cent. of their populations are now connected, or could connect, to public sewers. Something like 40,000 existing properties are brought within reach of sewers every year by means of these grant-aided schemes.

Looking to the future, my Lords, returns from water undertakings show that not much is proposed by way of mains extensions because, of course, the water programme is in its final stage. Some 10,000 properties will be supplied for the first time during the next few years, and the signs are that the proportion of the rural population supplied will finally settle down at somewhere between 97 and 98 per cent. But sewerage authorities still have a long way to go. Rural district councils in England and Wales reckon to spend more than £160 million—at 1970 prices—during the next ten years, and bring the proportion of the rural population within reach of sewers up to 85 per cent.

Had the Government followed the precedent set by the previous Rural Water Supplies and Sewerage Acts, I should probably now be asking your Lordships' House to agree that the limit on grants should be raised by a further £30 million, which would provide for a further four or five years. But, instead, I am asking for agreement that the limit be removed altogether—an approach which, I may say, is entirely in accordance with the trend followed in other legislation in recent years. Perhaps I should say, by way of explanation, that the inclusion of a statutory limit in respect of expenditure provided wholly from Votes duplicates formal Parliamentary control exercised at annual intervals through the normal supply procedure for the approval of Estimates, and that the procedure provided for here is somewhat unusual.

The removal of the limit does not mean that there will be unlimited awards of grant. The intention is rather to maintain the maximum freedom of action in this field at this time, when Parliament has yet to take decisions about the future organisation of the water services, in particular, and the reform of local government, in general. The financial relations between central and local Government are also being generally reviewed, and within that the financial arrangements for the water services also fall to be considered. We cannot say now, therefore, exactly what the future holds for the rural water supply and sewerage grants, and we do not want to anticipate the decisions of Parliament about these matters by proposing some particular amount by which the grant limit should be increased. But in this period of change we are seeking authority which, by enabling us to continue to make further grant awards, will help to keep the programme of rural water supplies and sewerage schemes going forward without any check to its momentum. My Lords, with that explanation I beg to move.

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

6.37 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to express the regret of my noble friend Lord Greenwood of Rossendale that he has been called away and has been unable to stay for this debate. Secondly, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, for his very clear exposition of the content of the Bill. I understand that when this Bill was before another place, apart from the Ministerial statement, there was no discussion; but sometimes we do a little better in your Lordships' House. I say that as a prelude to putting one or two points to the Minister. First, my Lords, let me make clear that we give the Bill a wholehearted welcome because, as the noble Lord has said, it will permit the continuance of a policy to take sewerage schemes to rural areas which have hitherto lacked a system.

The position of rural areas is very fully reviewed in the Report of the Working Party on Sewage Disposal, so ably chaired by Mrs. Lena Jeger, entitled, Taken for Granted. I hope that some thought may be given to it, and I should like to draw attention to what the Working Party had to say in paragraphs 289 and 292 of its Report. The Working Party touched on the cost of connecting up. There is little point in having a sewerage system unless householders connect up. Attention is drawn in the paragraphs to which I have referred to the very high cost to householders in some rural areas of connecting to the main drain. One wonders whether the local authorities that may be involved should decide that they would carry a proportion, or indeed the whole, of the cost of linking up; and whether then the schemes might fall within what is regarded as a right and proper figure for grant.

Finally, my Lords, I should say that a number of rural district councils have had to postpone carrying out small sewerage schemes, costing under £100,000, because insufficient capital is available to be borrowed after the allocation of the county area pool under the new scheme for loan sanctions in Circular 2/70 from the Department of the Environment. It would be reassuring if the noble Lord could indicate that sufficient additional money will be made available, either from the pool or by other means, so that the money made available under the Bill will be fully used for the benefit of local areas which are still unsewered. If the noble Lord is able to indicate that such an assurance can be given, it will be very much welcomed. If not, perhaps I could have a word with him later and it could be passed on to those who have made representations. In the meantime, I give this Bill our whole hearted support.

6.42 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reception of the Bill. I would confirm that the Jeger Report, with its many virtues and merits, is receiving close consideration, together with other reports which bear on this matter. In particular, the factors in the Report to which the noble Lord has drawn attention will be fully considered. The noble Lord also asked about the operation of the new scheme for loan sanctions. I do not think that I can give the assurance which he asked for in the precise terms in which he would like to have it, because he will recall that the object of the whole scheme is to give local authorities wider discretion and freedom to decide their own priorities within locally determined schemes. This means that central Government cannot say that funds made available are going to be used in this or that way in locally determined schemes. The noble Lord will know that this year is the first in which this system has operated. The experience gained is being taken fully into account and some changes have already been announced as a result of the consideration of this first year's experience. I can assure the noble Lord that the provision of water supplies and sewerage in the countryside is something which we and the local authorities would like to see going forward, so far as possible unchecked.

On Question, Bill read 2a: Committee negatived.