HL Deb 02 July 1976 vol 372 cc952-61

11.45 a.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister for Planning and Local Government. The Statement is as follows: "As I told the House in answer to the honourable Member for Northampton South on Monday, 3rd May, there was then already a danger that parts of the country would be facing water shortages this year. Their severity would vary very much from area to area, but on the basis of something like average rainfall the water authorities hoped to avoid major interruptions over the summer.

" Since that time, the special group of senior officials and representatives of the water industry which I established at the end of April has met regularly and I have been kept informed on a weekly basis. During the last week it has become clear that a combination of the underlying water shortage with the abnormally hot and dry summer we have experienced in the southern half of the country this year now faces us with potentially severe problems of water supply in a number of areas—primarily in parts of East Anglia, the East Midlands, the South and West, and South Wales. A great deal will of course depend on the weather over the next couple of months and, crucially, on the way in which the public respond to the water authorities' requests to save water; but it would be irresponsible not to recognise that over the late summer and autumn we may in some places have to tackle a series of localised water emergencies.

"We have discussed with the water authorities the range of powers available for dealing with this, and have concluded as a result that they are inadequate for what is a quite unprecedented situation. In particular, they have two major defects; they do not allow for progressive limitations on non-essential uses of water in a developing shortage, and they do not enable the water undertakers to impose in an emergency a flexible and equitable water rationing system. We have accordingly decided to bring forward urgently a short Bill designed to confer on statutory water undertakers new powers of control over use of water in times of shortage. Essentially we shall be building on the powers for Drought Orders already contained in the Water Act 1958. The exercise of the new powers will as at present be subject to the approval of the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Secretary of State for Wales and they will be applied for limited periods in specific areas where the water supply situation warrants it.

"I do not want to exaggerate the problems. Over much of the country water supplies should be adequate to see us through without difficulty until the winter rains come. But groundwater levels and river flows have fallen abnormally low, and it is factors like these which make the future so uncertain. The unprecedented weather conditions, which we share with large parts of Northern Europe, continue. In the light of this, it is right that we should arm ourselves well in time against possible difficulties later in the year. I hope, too, that everyone will recognise that this places a heavy responsibility on all of us to make sensible and economic use of our water resources."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.

11.48 a.m.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating that Statement. I do not think any of us will be surprised that after the extraordinarily long spell of dry weather, plus the recent extraordinary spell of very hot weather, some extraordinary extra powers have been sought by the regional water authorities. I think there will be a general welcome from both sides of the House for the Government's intention to provide them with these powers. Particularly welcome will be the emphasis placed on the fact that the power should be used flexibly and in different ways in different localities.

I have one question and one comment for the noble Baroness. No doubt there is a special legal drafting reason for using in two places the terms " water undertakers " and " statutory water undertakers ". Would she confirm that that means in practice the original water authorities plus, in some cases, water authorities? My comment is that I am sure that most people will be ready to do whatever is required of them, either now or as soon as it is required, without waiting to be forced to do so under the law. Therefore, I think it is a pity that the Statement has not quoted this particular matter rather more specifically about what actually is now required by the different classes of users in the areas in question. There are, after all, the irrigators of land, industrial users, other metered users and domestic users and if the noble Baroness could go a little further and say more precisely what extra is now required of them, I think most people would be ready to respond without further ado.


My Lords, I should also like to thank the noble Baroness for repeating this Statement. I think that the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, about the lack of detail of what is required is important and I hope that the noble Baroness may be able to be a little more explicit when she replies.


My Lords, is the Minister aware—

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, if I may, I think it is better if I reply first to the two speakers from the Front Benches opposite. May I thank both noble Lords for their welcome support for the measures that are being taken, particularly what the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, said about emphasising that the powers should be used flexibly. It is in order to get this essential flexibility that this legislation is being brought in. As I am sure he knows, under the Water Act 1958 there was a degree of inflexibility, because this situation which has not occurred, I understand, since 1727 was not prophesied at that time. I can confirm quite specifically that it applies to both the regional water authorities and the water companies. They are included.

The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, said he is sorry that the Statement is not more specific, but I believe that the situation is very largely now understood. The fact that we have made this Statement today, and legislation is to be brought in urgently, also underlines the position. Furthermore, my right honourable friend has said that he hopes, …that everyone will recognise that this places a heavy responsibility on all of us to make sensible and economic use of our water resources. When the legislation has gone through rapidly, as I hope it will, the water authorities themselves will also be given guidance.

What we are doing is asking people to use their common sense and communal spirit about things like not letting taps run, not using water unnecessarily and not being careful. I should have thought that was quite implicit, without needing to be explicit. This is what we are saying. There will be opportunities in the discussion on the Bill for any other points and suggestions to be made, but I should have thought that at the moment this was a simple proposition. We are telling people that this is the situation and that the greatest care is needed by everyone, everywhere, and not only in the areas where the shortage is acute. I. should have thought that this was quite valid today.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that those of us who came here this morning, rather worried about the nature of the Government's announcement, will be heartened somewhat by the fact that the Government's proposals are to be based on the principle of flexibility ? However, there are two points which are very important, judging by past experience. First, there should be a modicum of common sense: and, secondly, the Government and the water undertakings should take into account the fact that public opinion is one of the most important instruments in the solution of this problem. I join with the Opposition spokesman in asking that the Government should forthwith undertake an educational programme, by telling people and undertakings what is expected of them.

I do not need to declare my interest in racing, and I can understand the annoyance of those who are asked to conserve water by not watering their garden or not washing their car, for example, and who pass by a racecourse and see a whole line of sprinklers at work. But, unless those sprinklers do work, racing will come to a standstill and that is not what the Government want. Therefore, I suggest that if the Government consult with individual racecourses, because, as the Minister has indicated, the problem has a different impact in different parts of the country, and with the Trainers' Federation—it is not only a question of watering racecourses: the gallops also need to be watered—and, indeed, consult with all the interests involved, they will do two things.

First, they will get the maximum amount of co-operation from the individuals involved, because they will be as concerned as everybody else about what could be a great tragedy bringing enormous loss to the community as a whole. Secondly, they will educate public opinion to understand that, because a golf course or a tennis court is being watered, it is not tantamount to high treason. Therefore, do not let us wait as, for example, we waited over the foot and mouth problem, which was then handled maladroitly by the Minister of Agriculture. This is a problem which concerns all of us and, by effective consultation covering every aspect of what needs to be done and what can be done, we may avoid Draconian methods at a later stage.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for what he has said and he is absolutely right. Consultations have been going on all the time, and will continue to do so. As I explained, this legislation will be in two parts. The precautionary part will deal entirely with the points which my noble friend has made and will cover nonessential uses, such as racecourses, bowling greens and golf courses. As my noble friend said, when people see water being used on these they ask themselves "Why on earth should I not water the garden, and why is it necessary to cut down in other ways? " They either feel that they will not do it or, what is even worse, they do not believe that a crisis exists. It is to cover this area that this legislation is being brought in. We hope that it will not be necessary for the second part to be brought in, but that will depend on the co-operation of people as well as on the way in which the situation develops.


My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that water authorities generally will warmly welcome the Statement which she has made that there is to be immediate legislation which will give these increased powers for the control of water resources? Is the noble Baroness further aware that experience has shown up till now just what she has been telling the House, that it has not been possible with existing powers to get adequate control in the areas of greatest shortage, and that in some cases consumers get the impression that there is not a emergency, because they see water apparently being used in an extravagant way? May I also ask the noble Baroness whether it is not true that the object of this legislation, which has been discussed in very great detail with the water industry, is to ensure that we get a fair distribution of what we know are in some areas very limited resources? Is she also aware that the anxieties of the noble Lord, Lord Wigg, will be well catered for, because they are well understood by the water authorities and these measures will be applied only in areas where they are really needed?

This anxiety about water supplies must continue throughout the summer months, where our prospect of replenishment of the ground water resources is practically non-existent until we reach the autumn and winter months, when temperatures are lower and, we hope, rainfall is higher. Therefore, we need the greatest possible co-operation from the public, and every help from Government level and water authority level, to get public opinion with us. Finally, is the noble Baroness aware that it will be most helpful to the water industry if we get this legislation very quickly?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, for his comments, particularly as he is able to make them in such an authoritative manner as chairman of the National Water Council. It is very reassuring for the Government and Members of this House to know that over this matter water authorities are right behind the Government. The noble Lord is quite right about all the points that he has made and I can assure him that the legislation is being drafted. It is a question of detail; I have described the broad propositions. I agree with the noble Lord that legislation is absolutely essential, since it has been found that just exhorting people to save water has unfortunately had very little effect. Exhortation needs to be backed up by these powers.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, in view of the fact that the noble Baroness has said that at present the rivers are abnormally low, a point with which I agree, could she draw the attention of the water authorities to the fact that the daily pumping of thousands of gallons of water out of small rivers, particularly chalk streams, will have absolutely devastating effects in the future unless water is pumped back again when more is available? I would plead with the noble Baroness to ensure that not too much water is taken out of small rivers. In many areas it is already very difficult for cattle to be watered satisfactorily. In my area we are already prohibited from watering our gardens or washing our cars. I agree with this proposition but I feel that an undue amount of water is being taken from small rivers, particularly chalk streams.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I take the noble Baroness's point and I am sure that the water authorities will do so as well, but at this stage I do not think I can enter into a technical discussion as to whether the pumping out of water is necessary, too much or just enough. Obviously, however, note has to be taken of this point.


My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that I first raised this subject on 4th March when the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, gave me a very soft and gentle reply which boiled down to the fact that the situation was being watched. May I say to the noble Baroness that I am delighted that somebody has at last seen something. When the Government are considering the drought situation, will they be prepared to tell the public how it is going to affect them in the future? For those of us who live where everything starts, as opposed to those who live in the conurbations, one of the most devastating features of the present situation is that we have to watch our vegetables just vanishing through lack of water. When the balancing of water supplies is made out, would the noble Baroness please ask the water authorities to ensure that agriculture first gets the best supply possible, otherwise the cost of living will rocket ?

May I suggest that we should think about what water means and is likely to mean if the drought continues. The first priority is water for people to drink: the second priority is water to provide basic food; the third priority is water for industry. Perhaps the noble Baroness will believe me when I say that whatever gift of rain we are given, I cannot see any improvement, looking at it from a countryman's point of view, for at least 12 months.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I agree very much with what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford. The long-term point has not been overlooked by the Government. Indeed, my right honourable friend has said that we shall have to look at that point; it may well be that we are in the midst of a change of climate, although we do not know for sure about that. The noble Lord's point about agriculture is perfectly right. It is because of the essential priority of water for agriculture that these measures are being taken. They will ensure that when there is a shortage of water it is used to the best purpose for the community. Again, cutting down on non-essential uses and, if necessary, using the powers to ensure this means that water will also be used to the best advantage in industry. I can assure the noble Lord that the points which he has raised, which are very important ones, are understood by the Government who have them very much in mind.


My Lords, may I ask a genuine question in the form of a question: whether my noble friend will be as generous as possible to the export industry when she issues the advice about flexibility, in the interests of both employment and our balance of trade ?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. This is the whole point of trying to obtain the best use of what is at the moment a scarce resource. Water for industrial use is, of course, a priority.


My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will allow me to extend the discussion to the drought and no likelihood of its breaking, coupled with the high winds which make the situation even more precarious in our national forests and private woodlands, a point to which various speakers have already made reference. May I suggest that the noble Baroness should draw to the attention of the Government the fact that something like 40 fires are breaking out every day in East Anglia and the South of England and that the fire risk has now spread to Yorkshire and the North. The noble Baroness is probably well aware that forest fires on peat land can rekindle and that it will be only a question of time before it is necessary to call in the Armed Forces or some other body to cope with a situation which is becoming critical. The situation arises from the shortage of water, and I hope your Lordships will forgive me for bringing to your attention the fact that as timber is now our third largest import it is important that we whould preserve our woodlands.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, the Government are, of course, aware of that point and are doing everything that they can. I am sure that the noble Lord is also aware that this problem is caused by the decrease in ground water. Again this is not a point which the Government could possibly overlook.


My Lords, in the light of the impression that I have received from the answers to the questions, may I ask the noble Baroness whether the instructions will be more definite regarding the non-use of water and whether there will be any refund of fees to those who have paid for water which they will not he allowed to use?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, we are coming now to questions of detail which we shall be able to discuss when the Bill reaches this House. The legislation is coming through very quickly and we hope that it will be discussed here at an early stage. Probably, therefore, it would be better to wait and see what is in the Bill and then to debate some of these points.


My Lords, by your leave may I ask one further question? Will the noble Baroness consider the possible saving of water in coastal areas if the public were allowed to have the substance that was used during the war in troop ships—salt water soap—by which one could obtain adequate laundering and bathing? If such a substance were made available to the public, would it help the water situation?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, we are moving into rather sophisticated detailed areas. All these points will be noted and I will make sure that my right honourable friend sees them, as recorded in Hansard. I cannot give a Yes or No answer to the question. However, if people individually are able to do this, obviously it will help the situation.