HL Deb 20 March 1973 vol 340 cc705-19

7.54 p.m.

VISCOUNT RIDLEY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they realise that the failure to reach a decision on the reservoir to be known as "Kielder Water" might jeopardise the prospects for the attraction of new industry to the North-East of England and will probably postpone the availability of supplies by about three years, so that a water shortage is now possible after 1976. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I should first apologise for what may at first sight appear to be a very parochial and parish-pump type of Question, but I think I may be able to show that it is of far greater significance than that. Reservoirs are about the most emotive subject which can he raised among your Lordships at the moment, but it is my intention not to stir up more of that emotion than I must do and I shall try to stick briefly to the facts.

The start of this story was when the Northumbrian River Authority applied for an order authorising the construction of Kielder Water—an enormous reservoir in the North Tyne Valley—and concurrently applied for an order authorising an extremely expensive aqueduct to take the water from the Tyne Valley to the Rivers Wear and Tees. This aqueduct is now known as the "North-South" solution. I shall not go into any further detail at the moment, because there was a very long public inquiry held in Newcastle a year ago which covered all the facts.

To cut a long story short, at the end of the inquiry the inspector recommended that the river authority's proposals should be accepted by the Government as the best solution to the water problems of the region. On January 19, 1973, the Secretary of State for the Environment said in a letter that he was not—and I must quote him because it is important— convinced that the need for the scheme and the physical suitability of the reservoir site do outweigh the objections to the formation of Kielder Water. He went on to say that he was of the opinion that the degree of hardship, particularly for those who would have to leave their houses, and the damage to the environment which would result from flooding the site, ought not to be accepted without first testing more fully the case for and against constructing a reservoir on the River Irthing, as a first stage in the development of the resources likely to be required over the 30-year planning period. From this he concluded that the best means of providing a formal opportunity to test the strength of the case for and against development of the Irthing site, would be for the river authority to make formal applications for planning permission to develop a reservoir on the Irthing site, and for the transmission links for carrying water into their area—that is, Eastwards.

I am afraid that this was, in effect, a non-decision. I must say that I respect the Secretary of State enormously for taking what is at least a very brave decision (or, should I say, a very brave non-decision) which is, as I am sure he now realises, very unpopular. He had every right to take this decision and, as one of his constituents and knowing him as I do, I utterly reject the allegations which have been made elsewhere that he has acted unfairly because the North Tyne Valley happens to be in his constituency, unlucky coincidence though that may be. Unfortunately, however, I cannot see that the further planning applications which he has called for will help in reaching a decision on this matter, which is of vital importance to the future of the North-East. The Secretary of State said in another place on March 7 last that: Nobody has been disputing the need for the water and no one is denying the need to have regard to the timetable."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons 7/3/73; col. 401.] I wonder whether this may indicate a change of attitude on his part. So much for the history of the matter to date. Now I should like to give a few more facts. I must apologise to your Lordships if I have to descend into tedious statistics for a moment, but I have checked these and believe them to be important.

If nothing is done, the available reserve supplies will be exhausted by about 1976–77 throughout the North-East as a whole; by 1981 the region's total deficit will be 59 million gallons a day, and by the year 2001 this figure will be 190 million gallons a day. These figures are not, I think, in dispute. Indeed, any more winters as dry as this one, when the reservoirs are now half empty at a time when they are normally overflowing, could make matters very much worse. A more up-to-date forecast recently carried out by the river authority indicates that the figures for expected demand, which were given at the inquiry a year ago, may already be about 10 per cent. too low for the year 1981.

If Kielder Water had been given the go-ahead in 1972. it would have been in production by 1977 or 1978, with a subsidiary smaller dam higher up the valley, called Bakethin, producing 15 million gallons a day to bridge the gap between 1976 and 1978. The Tyne-Tees aqueduct would have been constructed concurrently, so that the Tees and the Weir would have been able to use this new sunnly at once. There would be no crisis and ample supplies throughout the region were assured until the year 2001. If Kielder Water were to be authorised now, we should have lost only one year and I do not think the situation is too desperate. If the public inquiry into Kielder were re-opened forthwith—and I believe that this is a possibility—there is still a hope that construction could start in 1974, and that supplies could become available in 1978 or 1979. But this must depend, of course, on the time it took the Minister to reach a decision.

Even if there are no obstacles to the Irthing Reservoir scheme—and there will be, because these democratic processes do take time; the Irthing Reservoir is a site of special scientific interest and harbours a rare sedge or bird or two—the investigation into the pipe-line across to the South Tyne Valley, the various planning procedures and the public inquiry there would have to be into the application for any order, together with the time taken for the Secretary of State to decide, would mean that construction could not start at the Irthing until 1976, and it would be 1978 or 1979 until the reservoir was in production. This is the same year as that which I gave for production from Kielder water. But—and this is an important fact—Irthina's yield of water is almost exactly only one-third of Kielder's, the figures being 64 million gallons a day for Irthing and 190 million gallons a day for Kielder. Therefore, there would be nothing like enough water to spare for the Tyne Tees aqueduct. The very heavy cost of this aqueduct could not possibly be justified on the Irthing alone, and Teesside and Wearside would have no increase in supplies for the foreseeable future. Secondly, the smaller Bakethin dam, to which I have already referred as covering the short gap, it would not have been possible to build under this scheme.

It therefore follows that if Irthing River is chosen other reservoirs will be urgently needed as well. Where ought they to be? Further reservoirs in the Tees or Wear Valleys have, I think, very few supporters, and they would be violently opposed. They would take much valuable land—much more land than Kielder—and would displace hundreds of people. I think it not going too far to say that even the daffodils at Farndale must be threatened again now. The leading objectors to the Kielder scheme, the North Tyne Valley Preservation Society, have suggested that smaller reservoirs could be built on the tributaries of the North Tyne. This, of course, is possible, and may well be a perfectly good solution. But it must be realised that these reservoirs would cost more than Kielder water; they would flood more land; they would involve almost continual disturbance for many years if they were constructed piecemeal, instead of the once-and-for-all upheaval if Kielder water was built; and the smaller reservoirs would not provide the marvellous recreational potential of a single large reservoir, which is one of its most attractive features. Furthermore, I do not think that there is any time left to investigate these smaller reservoirs in the situation we find ourselves in to-day.

Much has been said of the environmental aspects of Kielder, but this valley, I would point out, is poor land, almost entirely in the hands of the Forestry Commission, who are in the process of flooding most of it, anyway, with a green blanket of Sitka Spruce. I am told that the majority of the 95 residents (excluding those who are only there at weekend cottages) over the age of 18 living in the area would not object if they were offered adequate compensation or alternative housing in a more centrally-sited village. Most of these people are in any case employees of the Forestry Commission, and I think their jobs would be unaffected and quite secure. Of course, every reservoir anywhere involves a great degree of hardship and disturbance to some people. We must be sympathetic to these people and do all we can to help them. Indeed, the Bill to which your Lordships gave a Second Reading earlier this afternoon will no doubt help in this respect. But we have to balance their fate against the thousands of unemployed whose future may well be dependent on water supplies in other parts of the region.

I should like to refer to the really serious situation which this non-decision has created on the industrial side. In South-East Northumberland the reserves of water for incoming new industry are now fully committed. It is already impossible to allow any new industry to come to this area if it is using anything more than a minimal quantity of water. Boreholes and old mine workings as temporary sources have been investigated and found unsuitable. I think desalination (or it may be desalinisation; I never quite know which) must be years and years away through cost, and, anyway, it may well be environmentally just as bad as any reservoir. Water from Scotland has been considered, but I think the Water Resources Board themselves have ruled this out as quite impracticable through the very heavy expense of bringing it over. I think that on Teesside the situation is even more serious. Almost all the reserves of the Tees Valley and the Cleveland Water Board will be completely used up by 1978 even without the vast quantities of water which will be needed for the new British Steel complex on that river. The establishment of Ekolisk's operations at Hartlepool might well indeed be threatened.

The Secretary of State will be only too well aware of the concern which has been expressed to him about the situation by the Economic Planning Council, by the C.B.I. and by many others whose names I will not weary your Lordships by reading out. They include, of course, most local authorities, as well as many local Members of Parliament and other people of that kind. The Northumberland County Council's planning authority are now quite satisfied on all counts about Kidder. The C.I.A., the N.F.U., the Council for the Protection of Rural England. the Nature Conservancy and the Countryside Commission did not object to Kielder water. So we face a situation where all the concerted efforts of national and local government could be destroyed by the running out of this one essential raw material—water.

It has taken years and generations, no less, to get the people in the North-East to speak in regional terms. Paradoxically, this reverse—this temporary reverse, as I hope—has done this more than anything else could have done in such a short time. If we are to face any setback to the development area policies at this moment, when there are encouraging signs of a recovery in inquiries, it is little short of tragic. It is of course not yet possible to say that any industry has definitely been turned away in the two months which have gone by since the Minister's letter. I can only have suspicions about this. But to see the whole strategy crumbling like this is, to me, a personal tragedy, and all our efforts and the taxpayers' and the ratepayers' money must be at risk. It is even worse if one contemplates the psychological effects that the situation has already caused. This sort of reputation is a very difficult one to combat, and in some sense the damage may already have been done and will take some years to put right.

I must finally say what I think should be done now. I believe that the Secretary of State for the Environment already has enough information to allow him to reach a decision on Kielder. But in any event a planning inquiry into the Irthing cannot really help on this. If he feels there is further information that he can have there are many ways in which he could seek it, and if further examination is required before he decides on the future strategy he might, of course, as I have already mentioned, reopen the Kielder inquiry. But he will by now, I hope, have much more information, since his letter in January, and I hope it is enough to make him act quickly and to realise, as I am sure he does, that speed is absolutely critical and is the essence of this problem, where jobs of this kind are at stake. I believe, my Lords, that the danger really is that the delay has already been so long that the Secretary of State has in fact lost any option which he may have had to use any other source of supply except Kielder water.

8.7 p.m.


My Lords, I am very glad of this chance this evening to support my noble friend. On these regional issues I speak more often on those which more intimately affect the North-West than the North-East, but I have lived in the North-East for a large part of my life and I look on the North of England as one, and not as a part of this country which is subdivided. I am puzzled at the Minister's decision, because this Kielder scheme would seem to me to be attractive on account of its great yield. No other suggested scheme that I know of compares with that yield. It seems to me to be attractive on conservation grounds, too, because an internal reservoir is generally to be preferred on conservation grounds to any estuarial scheme; and, of possible internal schemes, it is hard to imagine an area which is more attractive than Kielder for putting down a reservoir, because this area is dominated by manmade forests with an unavoidable uniform character.

This Kielder scheme is also attractive on grounds of amenity. Such an impounding reservoir ought to add to the amenity of the district rather than to detract from it, since it must break into the monotony which a great forest area of this size inevitably creates. It must be attractive, too, on grounds of recreation. What better area for water sports could my noble friend imagine, including those noisy water sports, than the Kielder area, remote in a sense from the more popular areas, from the established small villages where people go for their holidays? What better area for water sports is there than the Kielder area? We all take note of the increasing demand for such facilities. They are illustrated in the North of England by the use of the Blanchland Reservoir, which in a sense compares with this but is much nearer the centres of population and is much smaller. Both are so different from the quiet character of the Lakes in Cumberland and Westmorland where many go to enjoy these sports and where they find that there are many others who feel that the area is not big enough to accommodate both.

I think the Minister must explain the reasons for the odd decision which his right honourable friend has taken. The references to the Irthing scheme are inexplicable. What really is there about the Irthing scheme which we do not know about already and yet ought to know about at this time? That is the point of my noble friend's Unstarred Question this evening: the references to Irthing in the letter from the Secretary of State and what in fact are the reasons behind these references. If a decision on Kielder depends on further investigations of the proposed Irthing scheme, why were those investigations not started before, as against after, the public inquiry on the Kielder scheme? I can see no reason why that should not have happened. If the inquiry is to start after that on the Kielder scheme, lost time is unavoidable.

My noble friend spoke about Scotland. I do not wish to follow him on that point. He spoke about desalination. Of this, I would only say in passing that it is likely to be of very great importance in this country in 20 or 30 years' time even if it is not so to-day. Recently there was a Paper read before the Society of Patentees and Inventors in this country which suggested that we and successive Governments were slow in thinking about the advantages of desalination, bearing in mind the very great expansion we have seen not only in other parts of the world but in this country over the last ten years. The eminent scientist who read the paper made one pertinent remark. He was explaining how in this country it is becoming more and more difficult to put into practice really far-reaching schemes because of the number of Government Departments and different public organisations which are involved. He ended by saying: It appears that we have developed a mechanism of democratic government which is incapable of making a sound assessment of any ambitious proposal. I would not go so far as that; but we are approaching that situation because Parliaments last a maximum of five years only and the investigations stage of some of the schemes that we are thinking about to-day extend beyond the maximum life of one and sometimes of two Governments.

I do not want to go on at any length. All I want to do is support my noble friend. I end with a quotation from a book, a classic, with which I think the noble Lord who is to reply is probably more familiar than I: …the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. "Time and chance happened' to them all"—a comment on all Governments from the days of King Solomon onwards. But I should like to think that we here could do better than that.

8.14 p.m.


My Lords, it is entirely fitting for my noble friend Lord Ridley, Chairman of the Northumberland County Council, to be drawing our attention to the industrial development of the North-East with which he is closely involved, to the importance of assured water supplies in that connection and to the need for early decisions on how water supplies in the North-East can best be augmented. The Kidder water scheme was put forward by the Northumbrian River Authority, who made applications for planning permission, compulsory powers of acquisition and the necessary licences under the Water Resources Acts. The applications related to the construction of a major reservoir in the North Tyne Valley, to be known as Kielder Water, to provide a yield of some 200 million gallons per day. The applications also related to the construction of an aqueduct linking the Tyne with the Wear and the Tees, so that the yield from the reservoir could be used to regulate all three rivers and meet the demands on them which could be foreseen to the end of the century.

The applications were considered at a public inquiry from February to March last year. In his report to my right honourable friend, the inspector did three things. He accepted the need for further inland water storage in the North-East, and considered that the site was physically suitable for the construction of such a reservoir, and reported that it would solve the water problems of the North-East to the end of the century. He also found, however, that there were two main areas of objection to the scheme. First, he said—and I quote— the greatest objection…is the hardship which will be suffered by the 58 families who will have to leave their homes". He went on to say—again I quote— the second big objection to the scheme is the environmental loss—the complete loss of the flooded area with its special vegetation and wildlife, its quietness and opportunities for study". The inspector also found that—if the House will permit me to quote again— the next best solution which arose from the inquiry appeared to be the construction of Tailing with about a third of Kielder's yield followed by three other reservoirs". While this solution would offer less certainty than the Kielder proposals, he thought the objections to Irthing were not as strong as at Kielder. There was, however, no application before him relating to Irthing and it was therefore not possible to test the full strength of the case for and against it at that inquiry.

In considering the inspector's report, my right honourable friend attached considerable importance to the personal hardship and environmental implications of the Kielder proposals. He accepted that the need for measures to augment water resources to meet the growing demand for water within the area of the river authority was established and that the North-South strategy of linking the rivers Tyne, Wear and Tees was preferable to what was then known as the West-East strategy. He went on to say that, on the evidence of the inquiry, he was not convinced that the need for the scheme and the physical suitability of the reservoir site did outweigh the objections to the formation of Kielder Water. My right honourable friend was of the opinion that the degree of hardship, particularly for those who would have to leave their homes and the damage to the environment which would result from flooding the site ought not to be accepted without first testing more fully the case for and against constructing a reservoir on the River Irthing as a first stage in the development of the resources likely to be required over the 30-year planning period.

As my noble friend has already pointed out, the letter suggested that the best means of providing a formal opportunity to test the strength of the case for and against development of the Irthing site would be for the Northumbrian River Authority to make formal applications to the two local planning authorities concerned for planning permission to develop a reservoir on the Irthing and for the transmission links for carrying water into their area". My Lords, from what I have said, I think you will agree that we are not here to discuss the merits of the applications. Indeed, as they are still before my right honourable friend, if that was being done, it would be improper for me to enter into it. My noble friend's question relates to the urgency of the need for a decision, and the timing implications of delay. We are discussing timing procedure, not merit.

My Lords, I think we are all agreed that this issue does not brook delay. We all recognise the importance of attracting industry to the North-East and the part which guaranteed water supplies can play in doing so. No one has challenged that, and, as I pointed out, my right honourable friend has accepted the need for water, but not necessarily this scheme for providing it. He wants further evidence on the alternative sites before reaching his decision. I think we all agree that the objective now must be to see that the evidence is obtained and tested in public as quickly as possible.

As my noble friend said, the river authority did not readily accept my right honourable friend's suggestion that they should seek planning permission for the Irthing site. They have asked whether alternative ways could be found to bring the evidence before him more quickly. My Department has been considering this very carefully and there seem to be four possible courses open. One would be the planning application for Irthing which my right honourable friend has already invited; the second would be to reopen the Kielder inquiry itself; thirdly, my right honourable friend does have power to hold inquiries under Section 109 of the Water Resources Act; and fourthly, it would, in theory, be practicable to proceed by way of written representations. But in practice, my Lords, I think the choice lies between the first two of the four courses and perhaps it would be helpful if in answer to my noble friend's Unstarred Question I explained some of the implications.

If the river authority were to accept my right honourable friend's original invitation, there would be a specific application relating to the Irthing site before him. The inquiry rules would apply, and those who might be affected would be able to give evidence at the inquiry. He could consider the report of that inquiry alongside the existing report of the Kielder inquiry and could reach a decision of principle on both sites. If he were then prepared to approve the Kielder applications he would be able to give all the necessary permissions, orders and licences in one decision. If, on the other hand, he were to prefer the Irthing site, outline planning permission could be given, though further applications relating to compulsory purchase, Water Resources Act licences et cetera might be necessary. This course, therefore, has the merit of some degree of certainty, and it was for this reason that my right honourable friend suggested it.

The river authority, however, said that further investigations are necessary before they can make formal applications for planning permission and these would take some months to complete. Secondly, they have suggested that, if the issues of hardship and environment are to be fully weighed, further information needs to be obtained on the sites which might follow Irthing, on which engineering investigations have not been carried out. Thirdly, they doubt the appropriateness of a solution which would require them to promote an alternative to their own scheme which they prefer. In view of the comments of the river authority, it might be possible to move more quickly by reopening the Kielder inquiry. My right honourable friend could issue a statement of the further evidence he considered to be needed and ask the river authority to produce their evidence on the items concerned. Notice, together with a copy of that evidence, could then be served on all the people likely to be affected.

There are, however, two drawbacks to this procedure. First, there would be no formal application before him in relation to Irthing. On receiving the inspector's report on the reopened inquiry, my right honourable friend's decision would, therefore, be limited to a "Yes" or "No" for Kielder. If, for example, he preferred the Irthing scheme he could give no formal approval at that stage. A further inquiry into formal applications would therefore be necessary if it were to be pursued. Secondly, it would not be possible to guarantee that all the evidence had been obtained from those who might be affected by an alternative strategy. For example, if a subsequent application were made for approval of Irthing, new evidence might be brought forward, which had not been considered at the reopened Kielder inquiry. But I think that much of this difficulty could be avoided by the procedure I have outlined.

My Lords, I do not think it is necessary to spend very long on the other two possibilities. While the powers under Section 109 of the 1963 Act could be used, they do not seem to us to be very helpful. 'There would be no specific issue before the Secretary of State, and this course has all the difficulties I have mentioned about reopening the Kielder inquiry but none of the advantages. And the "written representations" method would also not be particularly suitable. As I said, my Lords, I think the choice lies between the planning application for Irthing and the reopening of Kielder inquiry. I have to admit to your Lordships that we have taken some time in considering this point. I can only apologise for the fact that we have not yet been able to tell the river authority whether my right honourable friend can accept the difficulties I have outlined in relation to the reopening of the Kidder inquiry. But I hope I have said enough to make clear to your Lordships the implications of the alternatives, and I can assure my noble friend that we will be getting in touch with the river authority about it as quickly as possible.

The question remains, my Lords—and it is up to mc, I think, to say something about this—how much difference all this makes to the timetable, because that is the real issue which concerns my noble friend and the effect it has on the development of his region. It may be helpful if we start by considering the timetable which might have followed had my right honourable friend been prepared to approve Kielder at the beginning of this year. I understand that the river autho rity hoped that in that event it would have been possible to place contracts in time to allow a start on the actual work to be made this summer. On this basis, by the construction of a subsidiary dam, some water might have been available to the Tyne by 1975. The scheme as a whole, however, would not have been completed until 1978, and in particular, the augmentation of supplies on the Wear and the Tees depends on the construction of the aqueduct which it is estimated would take five years to construct. So even if my right honourable friend had approved the scheme earlier this year, water would not have been available in any case to the Tees until 1978.

I cannot tell the House precisely when water will be available in the present situation. It will depend not only on the procedure which is now adopted, but also on the decision which my right honourable friend takes when that procedure has been completed. Whichever course is adopted, however, it seems likely that the dates I have mentioned would now need to be advanced by at least one year; that is to say, augmented water supplies to the Tyne by 1976 and to the Tees by 1979. I hope that with that explanation the situation is clear to my noble friends.

My Lords, may I end by saying that we all agree on the urgency of the need for water, but there are other objectives in the minds of the Government and, I am sure, of the House. These include the effects of substantial works of this kind on the individual—the very subject we have been talking about earlier this afternoon—and the effect on our environment. These are subjects to which we all attach increasing importance. That is the reason why the Bill on which I moved the Second Reading this afternoon has been introduced. I am sure the House would agree that it would be wrong to sweep them aside without carefully considering all the alternatives. We simply have to find the time needed to obtain the further evidence to enable us to be sure that we have taken the right decision. To take a decision, any decision, and particularly a decision on such a vast project as this, on incomplete evidence simply because a decision is needed urgently, is a recipe for mistakes which we should all live to regret. I want to assure the House and my noble friends that we will not use this is an excuse for unnecessary delay.


My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, may I ask whether he would answer one question arising out of his speech with reference to the possible reopening of the Kielder inquiry? Could he give an assurance that if that happens the Government will pay all the costs, including those concerned with the Irthine, scheme, of those who appear for the scheme and those who wish to make objections to it?


No, my Lords, I cannot give that assurance; but I will give the assurance that the matter will be considered.