HL Deb 25 April 1983 vol 441 cc738-77

3.45 p.m.

Lord Sherfield rose to move, That this House takes note of the Report of the Science and Technology Committee on the Water Industry.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. After this wettest of winters, and more precisely in a month which bids fair to be the wettest April on record, it seems appropriate that the House should have spent so much time on the affairs of the water industry. Even so, some of your Lordships may at times have felt inclined, metaphorically, to put on your sub-aqua suits to save yourselves from drowning, if not in water, at least in words about water. Nevertheless it was perhaps timely to produce this report, which deals with the performance of the industry as regards research, development and technology, and touches only tangentially on political matters.

The state of our water mains and sewers was brought forcefully to the notice of the public by the recent unhappy strike in the water industry. Indeed that illustrated, and brought home better than could any written or oral evidence, some of the points made by your Lordships' Committee. I wish here to express my thanks to all who have contributed to this report: to our witnesses, to our hosts on our tours, our specialist adviser, and to the Committee staff.

Even after all the recent spate of words about water, important issues remain, and I hope to introduce them briefly to the House today.

Your Lordships' Select Committee set out to discover whether the water industry was taking full advantage of science and technology in the discharge of its functions, and for this purpose we chose to look at the engineering side of the industry. Generally speaking, we were not concerned with pollution, water quality and sewage treatment, important though these are. We looked mainly at the storage and distribution of water, control of leakage, and the condition of the sewers. This proved quite a heavy enough agenda.

We expected our inquiry to flow smoothly, and without agitation—but far from it. Within a month of our starting, the Government announced an inquiry by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission into the sewerage functions of two water authorities. Half way through the inquiry they anounced the abolition of the National Water Council and the reorganisation of the English water authorities. Then one week after we reported came the national water strike.

We selected six main topics. The first was primary water storage and the alternative methods which are available for storing water above and below ground before it enters the distribution system. Then there was the distribution system itself and the efficiency with which water is transferred from primary storage to the consumer. The third topic was the condition of the sewers and the steps which are being taken to improve them, and the fourth was the safety of reservoirs and the non-implementation of the Reservoirs Act 1975. Then we looked at the level and organisation of research and, finally, at education and training. We were aided by some extremely helpful evidence from people inside and outside the water industry. This made a major contribution to the outcome of our inquiry. I am grateful for this.

I welcome the indications that I have received that the water industry, the agents and the research councils concerned, are all responding well to our recommendations. I am also grateful to the Government for their initial responses. Our recommendations on the safety of reservoirs, on research and on training were discussed during the passage of the Water Bill, and the Government indicated general agreement with what we proposed. Accordingly, I shall not dwell on these last three points today.

I shall only say that the Government's announcements had to be made late at night and rather briefly. I think that the Minister might wish to elaborate a little on the announcements he made on reservoir safety and on research. In particular, I am sure that the House would be glad to have further clarification of the Government's intention to ensure that the water authorities carry out their research obligations, especially on an industry-wide basis.

I shall now deal in turn with water supply, water distribution and sewerage. First, I take water supply and the question of demand for water. The increasing difficulty of getting planning permission for storage reservoirs is well known. There are so many competing interests for land in this country that resistance to flooding large areas of it is inevitable. The water authorities face problems in fufilling their statutory duty to provide an adequate supply of wholesome water. Part of the trouble is that they have done their job so well that most people in this country take the availability of mains water for granted. Few people living in towns have had any experience of water being fetched or pumped from another source.

But I suggest that the time has come when consumer attitudes to water supply will change. The introduction of direct billing by the water authorities is slowly giving consumers a quite different appreciation of water. They may not be aware of the engineering required to get water to their houses or factories but they are becoming aware of the cost. As soon as water is recognised to have its price, demand for water becomes susceptible to management.

Industrial consumers are metered and have already started to save water as part of the cost-cutting forced upon them by competition and recession. I believe that this trend can, by tact and skilful management, be extended to domestic consumers as well. If there were a way in which domestic consumers could reduce their water rates easily, they could, I am sure, be persuaded to take it. We suggested in our report that optional metering should be made more attractive to them. Experience during the drought of 1976 showed that demand for water is not fixed. It can be reduced. So the Committee said that attention should now be given to demand management.

As I have mentioned, the water industry is obliged to provide an adequate supply of wholesome water. But an adequate supply is not a limitless supply. Research should be undertaken to assess more precisely what the limits of an adequate supply might be, and whether some part of supply could be regarded as super-abundance rather than as a necessity. If this research shows that demand for water is amenable to management by education or pricing, which I feel certain will be the case, the water authorities should be encouraged to regard demand restraint as one of their options in assessing water resources. They should decide whether they intend to meet all future demand for water before going on to take decisions about additional supplies.

In this context, the Committee noted with interest what has happened recently in the case of the Roadford reservoir in Devon. After prolonged planning inquires extending over about six years, outline planning permission was eventually given by the Secretary of State last month but for a smaller sized reservoir. Without going into the reasons for this reduction, I suggest that this case highlights both the difficulties of reservoir contruction and the scope for modifying the water authority's response to demand.

Once a decision has been taken that resources must be increased, the question of storage arises. Should it be a reservoir or some other form of storage? The committee had no wish to say that one form of storage is superior to others. No option is superior in all circumstances and it was not our job to offer a "best buy". But we did feel that more work ought to be done now to establish the facts on which to assess the alternative methods of storage for the new resources which will be needed in the early years of the next century. We mentioned, for instance, several areas of research into the use of groundwater. We also called for a full economic assessment of the case for reducing leakage as an alternative to new storage. Estimates of water lost by leakage vary but the figure is very high. Almost one-third of all the water put into supply in this country cannot be accounted for.

At this point I wish to ask the Minister to take special note of chapter 2, paragraph 30, of our report about the difficulty faced by the water industry in tackling strategic questions of demand management, groundwater behaviour and the economic assessment of leakage control. The water industry's structure, especially the virtual autonomy of the water authorities, will be an obstacle to such research, which must be done industry-wide. Will the Department of the Environment exercise its undoubted responsibility to take the lead on ensuring that this research is carried out?

My second topic is water distribution. To begin with, I should like to say how impressed the Committee was by the progressive work of some sections of the industry in introducing automation to the distribution network. Examples are the Wessex Water Authority and the Rickmansworth and Uxbridge Valley Water Company, both of which we visited. There are other cases, of course, but I mention these as examples which I hope less advanced sections of the industry will be prepared to follow. Automation of the distribution system offers financial savings, greater efficiency and a better service to customers.

The efficiency of the system, however, is threatened by the condition of water mains and service pipes. In England and Wales alone, these have a total length of over 50,000 kilometres and more than half are over 40 years old. Their condition is not good. The number of bursts repaired every year is about 80,000; that is, 220 on average every day. This number is likely to rise if nothing is done about it. During the recent strike, everyone, I feel sure, had experience of burst water mains in their neighbourhood or, if they were more unlucky, of being cut off altogether. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that in areas with automatic pressure control, such as is being introduced in the Wessex Water Authority, the number of bursts was significantly reduced below the national average and this is one of many reasons why we urge the industry to press ahead with automation. Bursts most frequently occur during the night when little water is being used and so pressure in the mains rises. If surges in pressure can be eliminated the number of bursts drops.

It might of course be said that since water is cheap and most bursts are unobtrusive, things can be allowed to go on much as they are at the moment. The committee dismissed this. Corrosion is the main cause of trouble and failures due to corrosion are likely to grow in number, primarily as a result of changes in pipe materials over the last century and their susceptibility to corrosion. The conclusion being reached by the Water Research Centre—a conclusion which the committee share—is that substantial increased investment is needed now to introduce planned maintenance of the distribution system, in place of the crisis maintenance which has been accepted practice for many years.

This leads me to my third and last topic: sewerage. The problems here are very similar to those of the water mains, only the problems are, if anything, worse. Crisis maintenance is again the practice for sewer repair and, as the committee said in paragraph 4.15, we found: enough evidence to believe that there is a significant risk of decay in the sewerage system getting beyond the water authorities' control". Substantial increased investment in sewer repair is called for as a matter of urgency. The problem will not go away. The longer it is left, the bigger the bill will be.

Our report explains how we think the problem can be tackled best and I will not repeat that now. Nor do I need to repeat the discussion about agency arrangements and their effectiveness for sewer repair because this was satisfactorily covered in the Water Bill. I would merely like to make two related points. First, sewer collapses and repair work involve social costs, that is, the disruption to industry and commerce and the daily life of residents in town centres where the main collapses tend to occur. They are a reason for pressing ahead with maintenance to prevent collapse from taking place. They must also be included in the cost benefit equations for sewerage repair. Research needs to be carried out into assessing these costs. The outcome is, I suggest, likely to confirm the committee's view that more effort will have to go into remote control work underground and tunnelling. The objective should be not to dig up any busy road when a reasonable alternative is available.

Secondly, it is essential to ensure that the investment is well spent. An interesting debate took place at the Institution of Civil Engineers last month, on "Water and Sewerage Services: a case for spending more or less?" Those who argued for more spending had no difficulty in making their case. The case for spending relatively less was also argued. It amounted only to this: more would have to be spent on sewer repair but the extra costs should be kept within bounds and so should be less than extravagant. Naturally, I agree with that and the point to which I would direct the Government's attention is the need for a comparative evaluation of renovation and replacement as options for repairing sewers.

Renovation, which is the fashion at present, consists of prolonging the life of the existing sewer. It has the great advantage of a low short-term cost in cash terms. However, there are cases where sewers are being renovated for half the cost of replacement and are achieving only one-third of the life of a new sewer. The committee would like to be satisfied that a true comparison of costs has been worked out and that this takes full account of the social costs to which I have already referred.

Whatever the outcome of these calculations, a very large increase in spending on the sewers is called for now. As a capital investment for the future, the case seems to be unaswerable, and so I urge the Government and the water authorities to tackle sewer dereliction urgently.

I have spoken long enough and still have only covered parts of the committee's report. But I hope that other members of the committee will carry further what I have said. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply this evening and to receiving an assurance that in due course the House will receive the Government's considered reply to the recommendations in your Lordships' Select Committee's Report. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of the Report of the Science and Technology Committee on the Water Industry (1st Report, 1982–83, H.L. 47).—(Lord Sherfield.)

4.6 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I rise to speak with some trepidation in this debate because the report we are debating is the end product of a long and detailed study by a distinguished Committee of this House. It has complex technical and scientific aspects, and I propose to confine myself to some administrative and political considerations and leave the other matters to those who are better qualified than I am to deal with them.

I note that I am being followed by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, who is well qualified to speak in this debate in the light of his experience and expertise over many years. I would like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, and the members of his Committee and the specialist adviser, Professor Isaac, upon what is a first-class report which is of the utmost importance to the country. Their analysis of the six topics enumerated by the noble Lord in his speech has given us all a great deal to think about. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, for his opening speech, which set the scene for our debate. His Committee decided to concentrate their attention upon the engineering side of the industry and its infrastructure, and this was, I believe, the wiser course. They did not regard the water industry solely as a "pipe and sewer" industry, but as one which has far wider reponsibilities. Perhaps I may comment upon a few of the more central matters, starting with question posed in paragraph 1.10 on page 3.

The question posed here is an important one—namely, are the statutory water undertakings an industry or are they a public service? I would argue that the difference claimed by the Scottish Development Department in the evidence, which says that water supply and sewage disposal in Scotland is a "public service" to be exercised by local government, whereas that in England and Wales is discharged by regional water authorities on a "quasi-nationalised industry basis", is a purely artificial distinction and that a "public service" is in fact given by regional water authorities. If this was not so, then many of the smaller rural communities throughout England and Wales which at present receive a treated water supply and are connected to the main sewerage system would not be enjoying these facilities.

Having said that, I regard the service given by the regional water authorities as a "public service", and I consider that it will always be regarded as such. It may be that the Select Committee stops just short of the real question, which is: how do we ensure that the community is getting the best value from the resources made available? We should ensure that it is maximum value and not maximum expenditure which is achieved. Political judgments will have to be made from time to time to satisfy some urgent local need not easily accommodated within any system of priorities, but the water industry must strive for better management, greater exploitation of existing resources and application of existing and new technology in order to ensure that it is obtaining maximum value. The Government must not expect miracles. The authorities should be efficient, but they must also have adequate resources to give the public the services to which I have referred; they must be given the tools to do the job.

On the question of water storage, I endorse the views expressed in paragraphs 1.11 and 2.13 about the interaction of land uses. I think that this is an important point in the report. The committee recognised that, while increased afforestation in catchment areas provided greater profits to the forestry industry, such profits might be obtained at a cost penalty to the water industry, because afforestation can impair the quantity and quality of the water draining from such catchment areas and the biological communities of the streams and reservoirs receiving such water.

The balance of profit and cost should be carefully established and should also be considered in planning the use of upland areas, whether it be for increased afforestation on the one hand or for intensive grassland use on the other. The committee also rightly stressed the need for the forestry industry to consider conservation interests.

In considering this question of land use, I should like to take the opportunity to express my doubt whether existing planning procedures are adequate to control changes in upland land use. Until Section 51 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 is brought into force in July 1984, water authorities have few legal powers to control afforestation or increased agricultural use of upland catchments. Even when Section 51 is brought into force, the water authority will have to ask the Secretary of State to serve a notice on the occupier of the land forbidding the use of that land for a specific purpose which has either caused pollution or is likely to do so. In their defence, the developers will have to demonstrate that their proposals are in accordance with approved codes of practice. I believe that the water industry should be given the opportunity to help in the preparation of these codes of practice, because authorities are already experiencing some of the problems arising from increased afforestation. When he replies, I shall be grateful if the noble Lord will comment on that possibility.

On the question of storage options, which is dealt with on page 6 of the report, I think that the views of the committee must be right. Certainly since 1974 steps have been taken by regional authorities to integrate the use of water resources so as to avoid the necessity for providing new water sources and to provide additional security of supply to their consumers.

As the House is aware, there is considerable Welsh interest in this matter. Water has always been an inflammatory subject in Wales, and I took the precaution of discussing this with the Welsh Water Authority, which told me that the integration of resources is beneficial to the industry for the following reasons. It said, first, that reservoirs have different drawdown and refill characteristics; thus, when one reservoir is severely drawn down, another reservoir can be drawn upon to support the depleted reservoir. The benefit can be realised either in terms of additional safe yield or of additional security of supply.

Secondly, the authority said that surplus water exists at new sources and thus can be used to augment overloaded resources. Thirdly, it said that, during all but drought years, each source contains surplus water; during the surplus years the system can be operated to overdraw the cheapest sources. I think that that is a very significant point. Lastly, it said that alternative sources can be used during periods when water quality problems exist.

The water authority also made the point to me that the extent of conjunctive use will depend heavily upon topography and distribution of population, but its value is considerable. It gave me one example, which is the only statistic that I propose to give. In South Wales and South-East Wales the water system supplies some 450,000 cubic metres per day. This has been operated as an integrated unit, which has increased the security of supply in drought periods and saved on average about £300,000 per annum in pumping costs, and I think that that was an important contribution.

The noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, dealt fully with the question of water distribution and leakage control, and I shall not dilate upon it. I believe that it is being taken more seriously by the authorities at the present time, and I also understand that, with the increasing cost of excavation and reinstatement, the ability to pinpoint leaks with great accuracy is becoming an ever-increasing factor of importance in leakage control. I read in the report about a noise correlator. It seems to me that this is something which might be introduced in certain parts of this building! But I believe that this is likely to play a role of increasing importance in the industry.

Clearly, leakage control is not a "one-off- exercise, but requires regular monitoring, regular detection and regular repair work to maintain losses at a low level. The degree of effort to do this varies from district to district and area to area, and thus the effort expended on leakage detection must be adjusted continuously to achieve the appropriate allocation of resources. I believe that the recommendations in paragraph 3.51 are both constructive and urgent, and I hope that the Government will take them very much to heart.

Again, I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, dealt with the important question of sewerage fully and effectively in his speech. Undoubtedly, the age of many sewers and also water mains makes it essential that appropriate resources of finance and manpower are made available to ensure the security of these services. Without reasonable cash to embark on a phased programme, the authorities will not be able to do the job. In view of the decline of the older industries, many of which were heavy users of water and dischargers of considerable quantities of effluent, and their replacement by newer industries with smaller demands for water and smaller discharges, the income base for the water authorities has also declined. This makes it inevitable that the authorities should concentrate on improving the security and performance of their existing resources and providing new ones only where industrial development and/or population growth dictate. Paragraph 4.52 of the report makes this quite clear.

I would ask the noble Lord who is to reply to address himself particularly to paragraph 4.53. I shall merely read the first two recommendations on page 43, which state:

  1. "(1) a sense of urgency should be introduced into tackling sewer dereliction;
  2. (2) the NWC's call for additional investment in sewer renovation and renewal should be acted upon".
Here are specific recommendations from a committee of this House which I hope that the noble Lord will convey with as much weight as he can to his right honourable friend.

On Section 5, which deals with the safety of reservoirs, the Government have already announced that they will implement the Reservoirs Act 1975. I was particularly glad when, during the Committee stage of the Water Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, made an announcement to that effect, and it was very welcome news indeed

The final two questions that I wish to ask deal with research and development programmes. Are these being fully utilised? While I accept that the Water Research Centre will remain the major research organisation for the industry, I would suggest that consideration be given to subcontracting appropriate research projects to other appropriate centres of expertise, whether it be another research institute, a university department, a firm of consulting engineers or a water authority. The WRC should know where the best expertise on a particular topic is available, and should commission that individual or organisation to carry out work for the industry or for the Government.

It is also appropriate to point out in reply to the strictures of the Select Committee on the amount of funding provided by the water industry for research that the water industry is a capital intensive industry, and Table 2 indicates that the industry has the smallest return of income per unit of capital expenditure when compared with other public utilities. This must reflect the low cost of the product and service provided by the water industry.

The report discusses the implications of the Wildlife and Countryside Act for regional water authorities, and lays great stress on the need for river corridor work. I do not think that we perhaps gave quite as much time and care to this aspect when we were discussing that Act, then a Bill, in Committee. The river corridors are the rivers themselves and the bankside vegetation, and, as such, form important conservation areas. I am delighted to say that in Wales the importance of these corridors was realised, and in July of last year, on behalf of a number of collaborating organisations, a report entitled Conservation of Wildlife in River Corridors was published. This is not only an interesting publication but an important one as well.

This report described the co-operative work carried out in the catchment of the River Teifi by the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology, the RSPB, the Outer Haven Project, the Nature Conservancy Council and the Welsh Water Authority. The work was funded principally by the Manpower Services Commission, with Powys County Council administering that funding. This was a very commendable exercise.

The last section of the report of the Select Committee deals with education and training in the industry. Here, again, the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, made a constructive contribution. I think that we must support the recommendations, including the proposal that suitable young staff members should be given the opportunity to undertake post-graduate study. We are, however, living in difficult times, and if leave of absence is required for a year or two then problems may arise, especially as authorities are under pressure to reduce staffing levels at the present time.

Perhaps the Minister will comment on this, because the provision of properly trained staff is essential to the future of the water industry. Is an extension of the day-release system with the addition of intensive courses a possible interim substitute? At least this is worth consideration, and perhaps the Minister may wish to consider it. Finally, may I repeat that the report is a very important document, and ask the Minister whether he will indicate which of its more crucial recommendations the Government will encourage the authorities to implement over the next year or so.

4.23 p.m.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I am very happy to add a word to this debate on this interesting report. First, I should like to thank the committee, who were kind enough to invite me to be a member of it for this particular inquiry. I should also like, from my relatively detached position, to congratulate them on choosing this subject for inquiry. I follow the distinguished Leader of the Opposition: distinguished not only for his position now, but, of course, as a Welshman, and therefore knowing more about water than anyone else in the House. As he rightly says, nothing creates greater heat in Wales than water. I can well remember, from my days as chairman of the National Water Council, that whatever water problem we had there was always a Welsh dimension which was different from that in any other part of the country. There was plenty of water in Wales, but there were always some difficulties about getting it across to England—even if it was only paying for it. It was most interesting to hear the noble Lord making such authoritative comments on this valuable report.

From my position of detachment I can congratulate the committee on choosing this subject; and also our noble chairman, Lord Sherfield, on this admirable report—and, I am sure he would agree with me, our superb secretary, who did so much in looking after us during the preparation of the report and in helping to draft it. The reason I would congratulate the committee on the choice of subject of water research is because I think it would be true to say that if you asked the man in the street what he thinks about water research he would say, "Water research? Why do you bother to do that? Water is something you use and throw away when you have used it. What is the point of researching into it?"

Compared with the other great national utilities, like electricity, gas and telecommunications, where it is obvious that research is needed for these highly technological industries, the topic of water research seems an esoteric affair. "Why do you bother to do it?", it is asked. Therefore, it was very discriminating, if I may say so to our noble chairman, to choose this subject, because it is a major problem. As the report reveals, there are some major problems of research which have been highlighted and brought to the attention of my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale.

I am glad that there is this continuity because, as my noble friend Lord Sherfield said, my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale gave us some rather emollient words in general terms rather late at night about what the Government were going to do. Now he has hours and hours in which he can tell us at length and precisely what he is going to do, and we look forward to that with great interest. I should like to mention two major problems in research which are being looked at, and there are many to which my noble friend has referred.

The first one is undoubtedly water purity. In this country we are richly blessed, in a way we do not really fully appreciate, in having, I suppose, the purest, or one of the purest, water supplies in the world. We know that we can drink the water from the tap anywhere in this country with absolute safety. We have enjoyed that blessing not all that long—only for perhaps the last 80 or 90 years—but the horrors of typhoid and cholera were horrors of the last century. You have only to travel around Europe to know that there are not many countries where you can drink from every tap with absolute confidence. Purity of water is a tremendous blessing, and that we have achieved to a splendid degree.

Now water purity is not achieved by accident. It requires constant vigilance to achieve it, and constant research. There are two major elements. First of all there is the inorganic, and then there is the organic, from the environment. Of course, both of these may make direct and indirect contributions. Take the direct contribution first. It is well known to all of us here that there is a great deal of re-use of water that goes into the water supply. For instance, our old friend the River Thames has a big element of re-use in it—up to a third, I should say, in summer months. This means that it has passed through treatment plants higher up the river.

It is of absolute importance that we should know precisely what effluents are going into the river and therefore into the water supply. That means that the effluents from the many industries on the banks—many sophisticated industries on a trading estate like Slough—have to be carefully monitored in order that we may know precisely what is there, so that these effluents can be cleaned up; that is, partially cleaned up before they hit the river and completely cleaned up before they get into the supply. All that requires a great deal of scientific effort to make sure that there is no danger when it reaches human beings. All the time in these technological processes new inorganic problems are coming along.

Then there is the other aspect, the ground water supply. About a third of all our water supply comes from underground, from the aquifers. There is a growing problem, which has been much reported on, of nitrates percolating into the aquifers and getting into the water supply, partially from nitrogenous fertilisers used by farmers in heavier and heavier applications nowadays for good commercial reasons; and probably there are other contributors, too. It is not absolutely known precisely what happens then: how long it takes before these nitrates build up and actually come out in the supply which is pumped out, or precisely what they do in the form of nitrosomes in the human frame. But here is an area where continuous research is needed in order to make sure that the human frame is not endangered by this major contribution to our water supply.

Then, of course, on top of that there are other waterborne viruses coming along which we do not even know about. Some of them come from overseas, with foreigners coming here from Asia and the Middle East. Along they come and their effluents go through the sewage works. The virus may survive and come into the water supply. Here is an area where research has to be absolutely continuous. Very large sums of money have to be spent if we are to be sure that no unknown really dangerous new virus comes along. I will mention one new virus—infective hepatitis.What about that, my Lords? That can pass into the water supply—and, believe me, you can get it very easily abroad. Only continuous research on a large scale protects the assured purity of our water.

The other major aspect, of research which has been partially referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, is the problem of the maintenance and, indeed, the repair of the sewerage and water mains systems. As noble Lords will know, there are about a quarter of a million kilometres of each system. That is quite a great length, is it not? The two systems total half a million kilometres. They have to be maintained. Most of them are quite small, but for the big mains the distances are pretty long, especially in the big cities in the North and the Midlands, where the sewerage systems and the water mains are both in a pretty rickety condition.

They desperately need an effective system of inspection and renovation, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, rightly said, techniques are being developed rapidly by the WRC for in-site inspection and in-site renovation, to avoid having to dig the whole thing up. This can be done to some extent very effectively, but much remains to be done. There is another major area of problem which needs further research, both into methods of approach and into methods of structure.

Then, of course, if this has to be dug up and rebuilt, what do we put in its place? Especially in the North and the Midlands where there are problems of subsidence and coal mines, there is an endless problem of how you build major sewers which will be strong enough to stand the test of time when the ground underneath is shifting. So I make the general point that despite its apparent simplicity water has major expensive research problems.

The point was wisely made by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, that for its capital expenditure the water industry is remarkably un-cost-effective. The annual capital expenditure mentioned in the table in the report is £834 million in the year. This in itself underlines that there is a very major expenditure on capital; but that immediately makes the point that if an industry has such a huge capital expenditure it ought to have a major research programme behind it to ensure that its very big expenditure really is cost-effective. Such a research effort does not exist.

When I turn to paragraph 6.33 I see that the report is emphatic that the water industry is not spending enough on research, and this is amply confirmed by the table on page 55, which shows the annual capital expenditure of the other major national utilities—electricity, gas and telecom—compared with the annual capital expenditure on water, and that in these other major national utilities their research expenditure is some 7 to 10 per cent. of capital expenditure, whereas in water it is only about 2 per cent.

So here is a striking disparity in the size of the research capacity behind this enormously important industry. Let me say immediately that the "mini" size of the research effort is no fault of the Water Research Centre—far from it. The present chairman of the WRC and his director work like heroes to strengthen the relationship of the RWAs and to raise sufficient finance. The fault of inadequacy by way of a research programme—and this is the major point in my speech; I have built up the case that research is needed on a large scale—is due to the fact that there is an endemic weakness in the existing structure set up in the 1973 Water Act. Instead of placing the responsibility for research squarely on the shoulders of the industry, as happens in all the other great nationalised industries, this strange concept of an independent research centre was invented, mainly dependent for finance on the regional water authorities and the complementary water companies, a diminishing grant from the Department of the Environment and small contributions from other bodies, but all on an entirely permissive basis, none of them a statutory obligation.

When I was first invited to be chairman of the NWC 10 years ago I strongly advised against this structure as being much too frail to support the needs of the industry, but the die was cast. We had to go ahead as it was, but we on the National Water Council worked very hard to get the centre functioning effectively, with disparate bits brought together. We had a strength, of course. The NWC had a statutory responsibility to give advice on research, and this gave us some authority. We appointed an admirable man who was chairman of the Yorkshire Regional Water Authority and who had been an executive director of ICI—he thoroughly understood all about research—as chairman of the management committee, and he did a prodigious job getting bits of research together, surveying what they were doing, redeploying resources to deal with the major problems that we had, and generally making the best of our resources.

Undoubtedly, the work of the WRC became more related to the needs of the industry; but despite this we had a continuous struggle to get the regional water authorities to "up" their annual contributions. The climax was reached when a major water authority refused to pay anything at all, and we had no powers to make them. After a very lengthy arm-twisting process by Ministers themselves, the water authority was finally persuaded to pay up and the crisis was over. That is all convincing evidence that this is a very frail structure, far too frail to provide for the research resources of a major national industry.

In the face of this handicap, the good work of the Water Research Centre, especially in recent years with the present director of research, John Van de Post, has really been first-rate. He succeeded in opening the new engineering research laboratory at Swindon which we all visited and which is making a particularly valuable contribution to these major problems of renewals in water mains and sewers.

So our report makes some cogent recommendations in paragraph 6.37 for strengthening the financial structure of the industry: in particular, to lay on the regional water authorities a statutory responsibility to provide for research, instead of there being a mere permissive power. This is the point. I am bound to say that I hoped, and I think we all hoped, that my noble friend would accept it. However, he felt he could not. The Department of the Environment naturally preferred its own solution—Governments always do—but my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale did give us some encouraging words, as I mentioned earlier. I would suggest that my noble friend has a much stronger obligation now to take effective action in this field because he has abolished the National Water Council, which at least had some power in the matter of a national programme of research, particularly for long-term research, which is so badly needed. He has abolished that, so now the responsibility for the research programme rests squarely on the shoulders of the Secretary of State for the Environment, and therefore on my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale.

So I look forward to hearing what my noble friend has to say on how he is going to provide for increased expenditure on research, which is one of the things he said he would do. I am referring now to the Committee stage, the first day, columns 921 and 922. I am sure they are inscribed on my noble friend's heart in letters of blood by now. I look forward to hearing how my noble friend will provide for long-term research. Therefore, it remains to my noble friend to tell us what structure he is going to set up which will stand the test of time, because, after all, Ministers change and civil servants change. This, to my mind, is the most important aspect of the whole report if out of it the advice the report is giving to my noble friend ensures that for the future there really will be an effective research capacity in the industry to meet the very great needs that fall upon it.

4.41 p.m.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, I share with the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, a certain trepidation in rising to speak in this debate in the company of experts in this field such as the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, who has just spoken and the members of the Select Committee on Science and Technology. It is partly as a result of my membership of the now defunct Select Committee on Unemployment, which reported in May last year, that I came to read the report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology on the Water Industry; and I am very glad that I have done so. In addition to its expertise and authority, it is succinct, pithy and eminently readable. But it was not merely for pleasure that I read this report. I did so because I seemed to remember that the unemployment committee had said something about sewage, and indeed it did not take me long to find the relevant passage in that far bulkier report. After warning that investment-led job creation can be very expensive and that projects, whether of a public nature like the Severn Barrage or the Channel Tunnel, or subsidies to private industry such as the De Lorean Car Company or the Invergordon Smelter, should certainly not be undertaken, if at all, on job-creation grounds, we went on to say in paragraph 14.71: On the other hand, where there is a good investment case for capital projects or carrying out long deferred maintenance, for example, in housing, sewer renovation, or road maintenance, we consider that extra expenditure now on projects that cannot be indefinitely delayed is justified, in order to realise their job creation potential when jobs are most urgently needed. It is very difficult to give reliable figures on this job-creating potential, but the estimates by Cambridge Econometrics Ltd. for the construction industry are indicative. These suggest that additional Government expenditure of £500 million p.a. on either increased public sector house building and rehabilitation or on increased capital spending on road networks, water and sewerage could create 62–64,000 jobs at a net annual cost of £2,300-£3,400 each. The Government indeed have announced an additional construction programme costing £240 million in the 1982 budget"— this, of course, was written last year. We recommend that this additional programme should be trebled. In contrast to jobs created which add to public services and fill long standing needs, most forms of investment-led job creation, of the kind outlined above, are required for a limited period until a given project is completed. For this reason investment-led job creation can be phased out if, as the economy recovers, pressure in the labour market makes it desirable". I said it was partly because of my membership of that committee that I came to this Select Committee's report, but there is also another reason, which is that this is one of the major points in the programme of capital investment which forms part of my party's employment programme. In fact, we have specified this in our Green Paper on the subject. We have spoken of a major programme of public works over a five-year period to replace worn-out water and sewerage systems.

This, of course, is to approach the water industry from a different point of view from that of the authors of this report, who have very properly conducted their inquiry to discover whether the industry is taking full advantage of science and technology in the discharge of its functions. At the same time any programme, whether of renewal or replacement or a combination of both, has obvious employment implications, and I set out to discover from the report what these might be.

In Chapter 3 on water distribution and leakage control, I found in paragraph 3.38 that manpower shortages were creating obstacles. One authority which used three leak noise correlators—I must say that I thought these might in fact be persons or individuals when I first read that, but by reading on I discovered that they were instruments—had found 9,000 leaks in a year and employed outside contractors to repair those with which they could not cope themselves, thus providing additional work for the private sector. Another authority used only one noise leak correlator because their workforce could not repair any more leaks than this instrument could locate. Manpower is therefore a significant factor, and in chapter 3.49 the committee writes—and I quote: At a time of high unemployment coinciding with a need for labour, it would be opportune to take on additional manpower where this could be justified by long term economic savings and in the Committee's opinion this should be done". This opinion is the basis for their recommendation in 3.51 (8) that, additional manpower should be employed for leakage control". I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, himself who told us that something like one-third of all the water pumped through the system simply disappears into the ground; so this is obviously a matter of some urgency.

Turning to the even more urgent question of sewerage, one discovers from paragraph 4.16: As 80 per cent. of sewer construction costs lie in excavation and reinstatement, it is almost invariably cheaper to renovate a sewer by relining it than to replace it altogether. Therefore, it says in 4.22:

Most of the water authorities favour renovation whenever suitable". However, in 4.23 Mr. Donald Rees is reported as saying in evidence: It is all very well lining a sewer at half the price that it would cost to build a new one but in fact it may only last a quarter of a normal funding life and may therefore be uneconomic". Also the Association of Metropolitan Authorities questioned whether it makes economic sense to spread the available money thinly on renovation with perhaps a fairly limited life, or to spend more money on replacements. They and other authorities called for a cost benefit study of the whole problem. On the financial side, we learn from the report that the NWC called for the expenditure of an additional £100 million per year in sewers and water mains, while the manufacturers' interest was strongly upheld by the Concrete Pipe Association, who were concerned—and I quote, at the slow response of the Government to the clear need to act on sewer renovation and replacement with sufficient alacrity". The very revealing graphs on pages 37 and 38 of the committee's report show first the increasing financial cost over time of crisis maintenance (crisis maintenance is simply current practice) and then the even wider gap over time between the cost of the committee's proposed strategy and the total engineering and social costs to the country, including disruption to transport and business, if present policies are pursued. In the opinion of the Committee, it is made clear in 4.43 that, the dereliction of the sewers is serious and that action is essential". They also say in 4.44 that, the DoE in particular have adopted a relaxed attitude which accords badly with collapse data". Paragraph 4.49 warns that, the vogue for renovation, spurred on by its short-term cash advantages, must not be accepted uncritically. There are certainly cases where sewers are being renovated for half the cost of replacement and the end result is one third of the life of a new sewer". Their recommendations therefore call for a sense of urgency in tackling the problem, for additional investment in sewer renovation and renewal, for selective inspection and repair and for greater attention to the manufacturers' need for a sustained programme.

What would be the employment effects of such a programme? It is, of course, impossible to quantify them. But is is quite clear that the committee's proposed strategy involves increased expenditure over the next six to eight years which would obviously be positive in employment terms and would come at a time when jobs will be desperately needed. Though the point is made in the report that disruption through excavation should be avoided where possible—the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, referred to this—it will obviously be necessary in some cases and it is better that it should take place as part of a plan than as an ad hoc response to an emergency.

This would clearly give rise to an additional need for semi-skilled labour in the construction industry. If such labour is drawn from the unemployment register or a redundancy is prevented in the private sector, unemployment costs of about £5,000 a year are avoided; and even if jobs are created in the public sector it is worth drawing the Government's attention to the calculation in paragraph 14.71 of the Unemployment Committee's report that such jobs would have a net annual cost of between £2,300 and £3,400 a year, which is very cheap job creation.

I should therefore like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, when he comes to reply, to say whether he agrees that the pressing public need for sewer renovation, combined with the job creation aspects of this need, make a persuasive case for increased public investment. We are not talking about anything grandiose, like the Severn Barrage or the Channel Tunnel, or anything as dubious as De Lorean or Invergordon. We are talking about the renewal of a vital public service.

We have here two reports from committees of your Lordships' House—one very concrete, very specific and very expert; the other much more wide-ranging and concerned with one of the great social problems of our time. When both coincide in the urgent need for investment in the country's antiquated system of water distribution and sewerage, can the Government really persist in the "relaxed" attitude which the Committee on Science and Technology rightly criticises? This is not, or should not really be, a party matter, so I hope that the Government will see their way to responding positively to this report in the public interest. My party would—and, if called on, will—give high priority to the recommendations contained in this report.

4.52 p.m.

Lord Todd

My Lords, we must all thank the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, for the admirable summary that he gave of this report in opening the debate. We should also thank him even more for the tremendous amount of work that he put into the production of this report, as chairman of the committee which carried out the study. He did a tremendous job there, and I think we would all agree that he has produced a report which is not only well-composed, but is of very considerable importance. As a result of his admirable summary and what other speakers have said, I do not propose to detain your Lordships very long. But I should like just to underline, and perhaps amplify a little, some of the things which the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, said about this problem of sewerage and sewer dereliction.

It is not just a large problem, although it is very large. Many of your Lordships may be as surprised as I was to discover that we have something like 130,000 miles of sewers in this country, and that about 15 per cent. of these sewers are more than 100 years old. So the problem in not only large, but is one which is very important from the standpoint of public health.

Until about 10 years ago, we heard very little about sewers and the problem of sewer dereliction. To some extent, that is because sewers are largely underground or mostly out of sight, and correspondingly out of mind. But during the last 10 years the physical condition of these sewers and the accelerating deterioration have brought the subject of dereliction very forcibly to the attention of the water authorities and, indeed, of the public. Sewer failures are now costing us about £100 million a year to repair, and that is quite apart from secondary costs and social costs of the disturbance which usually accompanies the repair work.

In general of course the problem of sewer dereliction has so far been pursued on the basis of crisis maintenance; that is, you wait until a sewer collapses and then you do something to patch it up. That might be all right; but it has been estimated—and the estimates seem to me to be quite sound—that the number of collapses in sewers that are going to call for maintenance will increase by about three per cent. per annum for the next two or three decades. If this is indeed so, we are not very far from the point where the rate of collapse will exceed our capacity to cope with it.

The only answer lies in our starting forthwith with a much enlarged programme of renovation or renewal on a continuing basis. This would involve very large sums of money. I know that in a period of economic recession such as presently exists we must plan our expenditure carefully, and perhaps proceed a little more slowly than we would like. But we simply have to face this problem of sewer dereliction and I think that the committee's call for the expenditure of additional sums rising to about £100 million per annum after five years, to be spent on sewers and water mains, is very far from being extravagant.

This really is a matter of urgency, and in my view it is essential that the Department of the Environment now provide the backing and the money needed by the water authorities to develop adequate programmes of renovation and renewal. The water authorities are all well aware of the urgency of the problem, and are already doing everything possible with the limited resources which they have, so that what is really needed is more money.

The problem of getting money for something like this is perhaps particularly acute in Scotland, where the water authorities—as I think the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, pointed out this afternoon—are simply the local authorities. The water authorities are not separate; they are part of the regional councils or local authorities. The trouble is that in local authorities a problem like this has to compete with all the other demands on local authority money.

It is generally held that there are "no votes in sewers" and therefore nobody wants anything to do with them. I am not sure that it is correct that there are "no votes in sewers". I think that if nothing is done, there will be a great many "votes in sewers" in a year or two's time. In any case, I would urge these authorities to take matters more seriously than they have done. After all, I do not think that future generations will hold, for example, the present Strathclyde Council in very high esteem if it allows Glasgow's sewers to become derelict, as they surely will do unless vigorous action is taken quite soon, and the longer that action is delayed the more it will cost.

Even given the money that is needed, we should not underestimate the difficulties involved. In many areas, our knowledge of the location, let alone the condition, of our sewers is grossly inadequate. For example, the committee was told by one water authority that it had adequate knowledge of only 8 per cent. of the 22,000 kilometres of sewers in its area, although well over 50 per cent. of them had been built since 1945.

Our problem incidentally is not just with the old sewers. Poor workmanship in the years after the second world war has led to many instances of premature failure in sewers which were laid during that period. An additional trouble has come through frequent failure to supervise adequately the connection of new drains to public sewers. Certainly, there has been sufficient bad work there to have exaggerated the problems very greatly in certain areas.

But it is the old sewers that are really the main headache at the moment and, since these exist mainly in urban areas, the difficulties encountered in dealing with them in the good old-fashioned way are often daunting. However, we should remember that, as a result of research in recent years, there have been some remarkable advances made which show the way ahead very clearly. These are still in the course of development, but they are already in many cases sufficiently advanced for them to be put to practical use. Closed circuit television for inspection, the relining of sewers without new excavations, the removal of obstructions and proper attachment of side drains—these and other operations, all done by remote control, have already made renovation of sewers a very much more practicable proposition than it was, and in a number of cases they have already been employed with considerable success. For these advances we must thank not only the places like our Water Research Centre but also industry.

We should remember that we in this country were the first major exploiters of the industrial revolution. For that reason our sewerage systems are just a bit older than those of the other industrialised countries. The troubles that we have today with our sewers are the troubles which these countries are going to have tomorrow. Here, I believe, is a real opportunity for British industry to capture a very large overseas market. But, if we are to take advantage of it, these firms have got to be given, through evidence of continuity of approach and appropriate contracts, encouragement to keep on and to promote more and more research and development. Money spent by us on developing methods to renew our sewerage system will certainly not be wasted. It will lead in due course to the increased prosperity of our manufacturing industry.

As has been mentioned by several speakers today, the problem of sewer dereliction is not only a live one at present. There is also a great deal of debate as to whether one should go for renovation or renewal. Renovation tends, on the whole, to be favoured because it is much cheaper. But surely we ought to have something like a cost benefit analysis in each case before we decide which of these alternatives we are going to adopt. After all, even if it costs only half as much to renovate as to renew, one must really consider the relative life of a renovated as against a new sewer.

In view of the developments which have occurred recently in research and development, I do not believe that we should overestimate the environmental disturbance that might be attendant upon sewer replacement in urban areas. We all know that at present there is a great deal of disturbance. As it happens, personal experience in Cambridge, where I live, has recently underlined that fact. For several weeks there has been traffic chaos in Cambridge because of two vast excavations in main thoroughfares in the centre of the city. When one sees chaos of that kind one realises the terrible problems which arise if one starts to dig up old sewers, which are mostly in urban, heavily used thoroughfares.

However, I do not believe that that kind of disturbance need be so great as it is. It could be minimised by development and the better use of tunnelling and micro-tunnelling, as opposed to digging holes in streets. I am quite certain that improved methods for that, for underground void detection and also, perhaps, for rapid sewer mapping, using something like infra-red radiation, could all be developed by industry, given adequate encouragement and the realisation by industry that a big market for this kind of thing is going to develop.

This is not the occasion to go further into technical detail, but I hope I have made clear my view that to tackle sewer dereliction is not only a national duty; it provides a real opportunity.

5.4 p.m.

Baroness White

My Lords, as a member of the select committee presided over so admirably by the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, I feel that I should say a few words in support of our report. I need hardly say that in his most lucid exposition the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, has covered all the major points. As he is no longer chairing this particular sub-committee, perhaps I may be permitted to say what a considerable pleasure it has been to work under his chairmanship and also to have the assistance of our excellent clerk and our specialist adviser. In other words, it has been a thoroughly satisfactory committee.

On the whole, we have produced a very satisfactory report, in the sense that I believe we have gone to the heart of matters which are of genuine concern and real practical importance and which should be faced by Government and by the other institutions concerned, as I think they are being, with the genuine intention of doing something about them.

The only thing which is wrong with our report is that we call it the first report on the water industry. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, said about the importance of purity and quality of water, that was not the subject with which we were primarily dealing. We were dealing primarily with the physical infrastructure through which the pure water may be expected to flow.

Coming to this subject as somebody who knew a little about water management, in the sense of water quality, water control and trying to keep in touch with the EEC directives, and so on, I found it quite fascinating to consider the physical equipment which is needed in order to maintain our water supply and our sewerage system. I was very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, mentioned in particular one fact which I found absolutely astonishing. If anybody had asked me 12 months ago what proportion of our water supply, when collected, was unaccounted for and which therefore, in some shape or form, ran to waste, I should have said, at a guess, 6 to 7 per cent. Therefore I was absolutely staggered to learn on good authority—the most recent figures for 1981 have been worked out—that the aproximate proportion is very nearly one-third. The public must be quite ignorant of the proportion of our water supplies which run to waste in one way or another, some of it through our own dripping taps but larger quantities because of leaking pipes, junctions which do not fully fit, and so forth.

There is plainly, therefore, a problem. Nevertheless, one has to keep it in proportion. We as a committee naturally examined the problem and came to the conclusion that there are situations in which it is not cost effective to try to deal with even a known and identified leak. Nature is bound to cause problems in certain parts of the country, including the Principality of Wales. It is not always sensible to spend time and effort upon it, the moment you find a leak. On the other hand, it was encouraging to find that modern technology and particularly pressure control can be used advantageously and relatively economically, not entirely to overcome the problem but to mitigate it to a very considerable degree. This is just one of many areas where a lay person was both interested and encouraged to discover that modern technology is making an enormous difference to the potential for meeting the problem of the growth of supply of water and of the sewerage system.

But there were other areas about which we were less happy. Several of them were dealt with in our discussions on the Water Bill. In some ways the timing of the Bill was slightly unfortunate, in that we were unable to discuss this report before the Bill came before us. It would have been advantageous had the Parliamentary timetable permitted otherwise. It meant that we had an unstructured discussion of the Water Bill, in the sense that certain matters would have fallen much better into place had this debate taken place before the Water Bill came before this House.

One such matter, which was discussed at some length and to which I myself made a contribution, was the dissatisfaction we found among a number of water authorities with their relationship with local authorities over the agency position in relation to sewerage. I was interested to receive—as I believe my fellow members of the committee also received—a letter from the president-elect of the Association of Chief Technical Officers of the Association of District Councils, which is, of course, the body representing local authorities concerned with agency sewerage arrangements.

I do not wish to go over all the arguments that were put during the discussions on the Water Bill but I was glad that we at least managed to galvanise this particular association into making a response, in which they claim that their members are only too anxious to co-operate in using all the most up-to-date technological methods and expressing their willingness to co-operate with the water authorities in this area. I quote from Mr. Wood's letter: I would like to reiterate the commitment both I and my members have to securing improvements to our decaying and exhausted sewerage systems, the introduction of new technology and the achievement of capital expenditure". That is admirable, and if we have done nothing else, we have drawn attention to an area where there has been some genuine difficulty.

Had I not been laid low by influenza last week, I would have moved an amendment at the Third Reading of the Water Bill, to ask the Government exactly what they meant by suggesting that water authorities' sewerage systems, taken as a whole, should be efficient. One would hope that they would be efficient, whether wholly or in part. Unfortunately, I was not able to take advantage of the opportunity which the Third Reading of the Bill would otherwise have offered. But if the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, is able to explain exactly what the Government meant by that phrase—to which I believe the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, referred at an earlier stage—it would be very helpful.

One of the main areas in which our committee was dedicating its efforts was in line with our general commitment, as a Select Committee on Science and Technology, in the direction of research. My two noble colleagues Lord Sherfield and Lord Todd are entitled to speak on such matters with great authority and have done so, and I would only add that there was a general feeling in the committee that, although much of the work being done by the local authorities was admirable—particularly that done by the Water Research Centre—there was a lack of a sense of overall direction. That is why I was particularly interested to receive, again in common with all the other members of the Select Committee and possibly with other Members of your Lordships' House, the immediate reactions of the National Environment Research Council and the Science and Engineering Research Council on some of the comments made in the Select Committee.

Again, it is gratifying to find that, within a very short space of time following the publication of the report, these bodies—as with the local authorities—have felt it important that they should take note of the recommendations of the Select Committee. It is quite clear from the comments of these two research councils that they too are concerned, about both the amount of support that has been going into research in those areas and its strategic direction. In fact, it is made quite clear that there has been a reduction of Government support for strategic research in these areas and this, in the opinion of the research councils, has resulted in major gaps in the programme, which is aimed at providing a link between basic and applied research.

It is also clear that the research councils share the general view of the Select Committee that there is need for a strategic oversight on research in these areas. The National Water Council is shortly to be dissolved. I believe it would appear to everyone that the department itself must take a much livelier responsibility than it has done in the very recent past. If it does not do so, then where is the strategic direction to come from? I hope very much that the Minister will address himself to this matter because we in the Select Committee felt that the department had withdrawn from any urgent sense of responsibility for strategic oversight in this particular area.

We are all concerned also with the very important aspect of education and training of the professional staff engaged in an area where so many new techniques are being developed—some of them, with considerable rapidity. Many of us were not entirely convinced that training—particularly of the older generation of engineers concerned in this matter—was broad enough to give them an adequate basis for directing activities where some of the new technology would be of particular value. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to say something about the need for updating and invigorating the training and experience of the professionals involved—particularly on the civil engineering, water engineering and production engineering sides. I believe that at the Water Research Centre there is a very keen interest in this, but it does mean that the water authorities—and in some instances, local authorities—must themselves take advantage of this and be in a position to do so, and to encourage their staff to do so. They must also keep in touch with the university research work which is continuing.

Finally, I am very glad that my noble friend Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos referred to the recommendation in the report concerning the environmental consequences of some of the work that is done under the direction of water authorities—not least, the land drainage authorities. I see that for this purpose at least my noble friend Lord Cranbrook is to speak after me, and he is much more of an expert than I am on these matters. As my noble friend Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos said, the report drew attention to the need to take seriously the enlarged responsibilities of the water authorities under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

As I mentioned when discussing some of these matters during the progress of the Water Bill, I had an opportunity of discussing this particular aspect of their responsibilities with the Welsh water authorities and they were in some doubt as to precisely how far they were entitled to use their resources in terms of manpower and finance for the purposes of these enhanced responsibilities under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Some of us pointed out that by enhancing the authorities' statutory responsibilities, presumably Parliament intended also that they should devote some resources to them. I hope that my noble friend Lord Cranbrook will enlarge upon this aspect because it is not only in the Principality—although we have been pioneers in this respect—that these matters are of interest.

I am sure that all of us who worked on the Select Committee are glad to find that our report has been generally welcomed. We now hope that we shall have assurances that the means to implement our recommendations will be forthcoming from Her Majesty's Government.

5.20 p.m.

The Earl of Cranbrook

My Lords, following on the lead very kindly given to me in her admirably interesting and reflective contribution by the noble Baroness, Lady White, I think it is perhaps right that I should take this opportunity to expand somewhat on the one theme in which she and I share a very strong interest—that is to say, environmental issues. Although, as has been remarked by noble Lords who have spoken earlier, the terms of reference of this inquiry were very broad indeed, in fact attention was concentrated particularly on the engineering activities of water authorities, and this approach is reflected, as the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, has indicated, in the topics chosen as the main subject headings of the six chapters.

One consequence of this approach is that any reader will find that environmental issues are not conveniently grouped in a single section of the text, but are treated in different parts of the report wherever environmental considerations impinge on other aspects of the activities of the water authorities. Nonetheless, the report recognises very firmly the overall significance of the environmental impact of those activities of the water authorities in every phase, as is stressed in paragraph 1.11. I hope your Lordships will find it useful if I discuss briefly certain important environmental issues relevant to the Select Committee's report.

First of all, I want to follow the noble Baroness, Lady White, in emphasising the Select Committee's view on the overall co-ordination of long-term strategic research in the environmental field as much as any other. This point has already been made by the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, during the Second Reading of the Water Bill and in amendments moved at Committee stage. That is to say, it was clear to the sub-committee that there is a need for a centralised review of strategic research priorities. It seemed to the sub-committee that the operational responsibilities of water authorities inevitably focus their attention on shorter-term research subjects. In my view, it is not reasonable to expect the water authorities, or even the Water Research Council, to provide the forum for the broader context of strategic research planning. This must be the duty of the Department of the Environment, in consultation with the water industry and the research councils, and with academics whose research subjects fall into this field. To this end, in chapter 6.35 the Select Committee call on the Science and Engineering Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council—incidentally, perhaps I should mention that I am a member of the latter council—to create an effective liaison involving also academic scientists and engineers and the water industry in its widest sense.

As the noble Baroness has mentioned, and as my noble friend on the Front Bench doubtless already knows, these meetings have taken place, and SERC and NERC, to use the acronyms, have submitted a joint paper, copied to the Department of the Environment, as a direct response to the Select Committee's report. I look to my noble friend for assurances that he recognises the links that already existed between the two research councils and that he welcomes the strengthening of the relationship in this instance, and I hope will seek to integrate Department of the Environment participation at a high level into future meetings of this nature.

Chapter 2 of the report discusses water storage and emphasises the environmental objections to any large new inland surface reservoir which were touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, in his speech. One solution to this problem is to combine a number of sources of water in an integrated scheme. The Select Committee visited the North West Water Authority and were impressed by the excellent example of the managed use of different water sources in the Lune Conjunctive Scheme. It is likely that future developments elsewhere will also follow this scheme in taking advantage of the potential for underground water storage that appears to exist in natural geological formations in many parts of Britain. Paragraphs 2.31 to 2.35 discuss the associated research topics.

There exists a most important source of basic data on regional hydrogeology, including information on the quantity and quality of natural groundwaters. This is contained in the National Well Record Collection. This is an archive maintained by the Institute of Geological Sciences. The IGS bears a statutory duty to record details of all new wells. These details have to be provided by the well sinker under statute. The IGS has also actively gathered information about the enormous number of existing wells throughout the country, some of extreme antiquity, and has so provided a unique centralised collection of valuable data for groundwater research. Because the Department of the Environment has, over successive years, first run down and now, I believe, completely withdrawn financial support, the Well Record is currently maintained by NERC at the minimum level of activity. In view of the likely emergence of underground water storage as a favoured technique in conjunctive schemes, such as Lune, this I believe is a short-sighted economy. I ask my noble friend to urge his right honourable friend the Secretary of State to restore in full the departmental support for the National Well Record Collection wherever it happens to be sited.

Another option, briefly mentioned in the report at paragraph 2.16, is estuarine storage. As the Select Committee observed, this is unlikely to be adopted as a viable scheme on its own, but on reflection I myself do believe that it might prove valuable in multiple use water storage schemes. For instance, information which has kindly been supplied to me by the GLC leads me to believe that, although at the time there were strong overriding counter indications, if, at the time when the Thames barrier was originally being thought of and the design formulated, this option had been given a degree of priority, we could possibly now have not only protection from the very rare hazard of tidal flooding but also a hugely valuable resource for daily use in the form of a high-level freshwater Thames running through London. If other barriers elsewhere ever come under consideration, I believe it is important that design research should be directed towards the maximum number of compatible uses.

Where existing inland water sources are concerned, multiple uses are already commonplace. These include water sports, fisheries and wildlife protection. Several important environmental aspects still require research. These include continuing studies of basic biology of different fish species, especially in relation to water quality and to variations in water flow. The critical period in the year for aquatic life is, of course, the summer season, when temperatures are high and water flow is at its lowest. Research is needed also into factors affecting animal life under these conditions. More needs to be known about the associated cycles of algal growth, which can become a serious nuisance in the summer. There are opportunities for improvement in the design and management of reservoirs which would help to lower the cost of manipulating the activity of aquatic plant and animal life at critical seasons.

Paragraphs 6.23 and 6.26 of the report deal with the statutory responsibility imposed by the Wildlife and Countryside Act on water authorities, so as to exercise their function … as to further the conservation and enhancement of natural beauty and the conservation of flora, fauna and geological or physiographical features of special interest". This point has been repeatedly stressed in amendments and in debates on amendments during the passage of the Water Bill through your Lordships' House.

However, in order to fulfill these statutory obligations, knowledge must be acquired at least at two levels of research. First, there are the basic studies which are suitable for research institutes or university research teams. I would include in this category the long-term environmental and hydrological effects of water abstraction, the effects of land drainage schemes and the effects of changes in the plant cover of catchment areas, such as the afforestation schemes which were referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos.

At the second level, the lower level perhaps, there is the practical applied investigation of the distribution and vulnerability of features such as areas of high landscape value, rare or protected plants or animals and relevant geological or physiographical features. Some indication of the cost of carrying out adequately, on the ground, a full ecological assessment was given to the Select Committee by the Thames Water Authority in relation to one land drainage scheme in the valley of the River Stort in Hertfordshire. The cost was estimated at between £20,000 and £25,000.

At present, we in England, I assure those noble Lords who are of Welsh extraction, can do it, too. As the Suffolk Trust for Nature Conservation indicated in its evidence, the County Naturalists' Trusts and other voluntary amenity societies are shouldering the main burden of an enormous labour which is properly the duty of water authorities. In Suffolk, in fact, the membership of the county naturalist trust is about equal to 1 per cent. of the county population. In my view it is unfair that this small fraction of the community should carry the burden when the entire population of the county, or indeed of a wider area, ultimately enjoys the benefits.

It follows that to meet their obligations under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, water authorities collectively, through the appropriate institutes, should commission the basic research that needs to be done. In addition, each authority must also ensure that it employs sufficient staff with appropriate training and expertise in field studies to carry out environmental impact assessments of major projects.

The Natural Environment Research Council has estimated, in the papers circulated to the Select Committee, that the cost of fundamental research in environmental subjects needed now by the water industry is of the order of £2 million per annum. My own rough guess at the extra salaries and overheads needed now to fulfil the statutory obligations to conserve wildlife and the natural environment might be about £100,000 per authority each year. In relation to the costs of sewer renewal, these sums are small, I also believe that, in relation to the value of the irreplaceable environmental resources at risk, these sums are small and that the money should be found.

5.35 p.m.

Lord Adrian

My Lords, I was privileged to be a member of your Lordships' Select Committee and to take part in its work. I add my tribute yet again to the skills and wisdom of our chairman the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and I learnt a very great deal about an important and, to a great extent, hidden subject.

We have taken our sewers and our water mains too long for granted and we are now finding out how many distressing ways they have of making their presence and their derelict state felt. I do not suppose that John Simon's great reports on the sanitary state of the City of London are widely read nowadays. They should be. They date from 130 years ago, in the middle of the last century, when cholera was only the worst of the very many epidemic diseases common in London and when London's drainage and water supply were wholly inadequate. At the time they received enormous interest and great publicity. They were printed in full in The Times, which I regret is more than our own report received. They gave urgency and impetus to providing clean water for the City and to completing the sewers. We need to renew that sense of urgency today, for without maintenance and renewal of the country's sewers and water mains, public health will surely suffer.

I know that water quality was not our most urgent topic and I must plead my own medical bias as an excuse for mentioning it. I make only two points. First, I was struck by the very wide differences in the application of technical advances in different authorities. Making, I hope all due allowance for the different resources and the different problems faced by each authority, it seemed that some authorities more readily see the advantages of technical advances and some authorities more readily see the disadvantages. The result is a wide variation across the country in the technical up-to-dateness of the water undertakings. I am sure that much of this stems from the friction which inevitably attends the exchange of ideas between large autonomous undertakings.

I find it difficult to judge how far the various joint councils, the National Water Council—now to be suppressed—and the Water Research Centre have in the past succeeded in overcoming this difficulty. I am sure that the situation is, in fact, much better than before 1973, but I cannot help feeling that there is some further room for improvement. In this connection, it was good to receive the assurance from the Association of Chief Technical Officers, which has already been referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady White.

My second point concerns research in the water industry. The noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, has dealt with this point already and I shall be brief. It is certainly immensely important to identify short-term applied problems which require a solution. It may be difficult and expensive to find solutions and the problem is mainly one of resource allocation. Within existing resources we were certainly impressed by the progress of the work at the Water Research Centre. The work, as has been described, mainly concerns the many engineering problems of the renewal of water mains and sewers. It is plain that these are seen as common problems for the water authorities, to which they now appear glad to contribute jointly.

But there are other, strategic problems which concern the wider acquatic environment—hydraulics, drainage, the environmental impact of water schemes on other land users and work on the water cycle—which will anticipate future problems. All these at the moment, although they do not lack advocates, seem to lack anyone who sees them as their special responsibility. Therefore, they lack adequate resources.

The Science and Engineering Research Council, in the document already referred to, states that it has a programme of research in hydraulics and drainage, safety of reservoirs and geotechnical studies relating to underground systems. It also has new initiatives in pollution and public health engineering and in the repair, maintenance and operation of sewage. These they are co-ordinating with the Water Research Centre, but they say that the scope of these programmes will be heavily dependent on the extent to which additional funding can be made available.

The Natural Environment Research Council says that there is a need for an additional £2 million per annum to fill gaps in forward-looking research in hydrological and environmental fields. But, although it is widely admitted that these needs exist, the research councils, the water authorities and the Department of the Environment all imply that the responsibility for finding the money does not lie with them. The noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, has already referred to this situation in much more detail than I can. It is a wholly unsatisfactory situation and should not be allowed to persist. It is a damaging one, because it means that the water industry will once again be forced into crisis management, just as it has been forced to do with sewer repair. In the long run it is less expensive to anticipate problems by acquiring knowledge than to finance crash programmes of applied research to repair years of neglect.

We may have learnt just in time how to prop up our sewers, but that should not make us feel with any confidence that we could, for instance, reverse heavy metal pollution of our ground waters if we let it, by inadvertence, occur. No doubt in the past we neglected the bricks and mortar and iron pipes, but that is no reason for now neglecting to find out how best we can conserve and care for our water resources. It seems logical that the Department of the Environment should shoulder the co-ordinating role in these essentially environmental problems. It would be very good to learn that the apparent void at the centre, which was indentified by the Select Committee, is indeed to be filled.

5.42 p.m.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, unlike quite a number of earlier speakers, I was not a member of the Select Committee. I think I can therefore congratulate the committee on its work and on the excellence and expertness of the report without any hint of self-congratulation. The report owed a great deal, I think, to the expertise of the members of the committee, to the work of its clerk and also in no small measure to the support given by its expert adviser, Professor Isaac of Newcastle University. I think that we should place that on record here as well as in the report itself.

Before I take up the four points which I hope to deal with briefly, let me say that I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, who spoke a few moments ago, and also disagree with him in the same breath, if a Scotsman can do such an Irish-like thing. I strongly agree with what he said in general terms about the future use of estuarine water resources, but I am afraid that I cannot go with him in supporting what I think is the over-enthusiastic advice that he was given from the Greater London Council in respect of the Thames and the possibilities of what might have been done in regard to the Thames Barrier. I say this because I was concerned in the engineering of the Thames Barrier right at the very beginning, in the mid-1950s. We thought of things of that nature, but to have produced an estuarine water solution in the Thames and a barrier to deal with floods and to cope with up and down river traffic flow was not, I think, very likely.

The Earl of Cranbrook

My Lords, I should be misleading the noble Lord and your Lordships' House if I left any impression that the Greater London Council was in any way enthusiastic for the scheme. It was my enthusiasm and interest in it. I was given a very clear briefing on all the reasons why it was perfectly impossible at the time that the planning took place.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, I am not sure that we thought anything was impossible in those days, but perhaps it was not quite the thing to go for. I think that the future of estuarine water might lie not in the Thames but in obvious places which have been examined before, like the Wash, Morecambe Bay and perhaps the Solway. I certainly hope that these possibilities for water supply will not be forgotten or overlooked.

I now want to turn to those aspects of the report which have interested me most. The major one was the recommendation of the committee that the Reservoirs Act 1975 should not be permitted to lie upon the statute book unimplemented. In his interesting introductory remarks today, Lord Sherfield touched upon this matter but did not go into it in any detail. I think I should like to touch on it rather more heavily than he did. The committee recommended that the Act should not remain unimplemented and suggested that certain of its provisions should be brought into operation fairly rapidly. They suggested that the Water Bill, which fortuitously was passing through the House at the appropriate time a few weeks ago, was the best occasion for bringing this about. In the course of our debates, amendments were put down along these lines. To our great joy and no little surprise, the Government undertook during the Committee stage to implement the 1975 Act. That was something in the nature of a U-turn. I do not cavil at that in any way. I rejoice in U-turns when they are brought about for a good reason, as this one undoubtedly was. The Government have undertaken to meet the recommendation of the committee, but, as I understand it, by instalments, and that is really what I want to talk about today.

Since the Committee stage, I have received a letter from the Minister, Lord Skelmersdale. It is a very nice letter. In it he says the following: The phased implementation of the Reservoirs Act 1975 and the orderly transition from the provisions of the Reservoirs (Safety Provisions) Act 1930 require careful consideration of the overall programme and detailed provisions". He goes on to say that discussions are being held and suggests that they will require wider consultation and the issue of a circular. The letter then goes on: It is thus too early to set out a detailed timetable but, as already announced, it is the Government's intention to give priority to those provisions which require the enforcement authorities to compile a register of reservoirs in their areas and other aspects that give an early contribution to safety". So far so good, but I think we should refer back to what the Select Committee actually recommended in its report. The recommendation states: so much of the Reservoirs Act 1975 … should be implemented forthwith"— I emphasise the word "forthwith"— to provide the following for large raised reservoirs

  1. (a) supervision
  2. (b) independent inspection
  3. (c) the effective enforcement of safety measures
  4. (d) safety precautions in the case of discontinuance or abandonment".
These recommendations of the Select Committee seem to me to go rather further than the Government have intimated in their letter to me, unless the words in the letter, "other aspects", can be held to include such things as are asked for by the committee. I sincerely hope that they can.

But let me say what I think the major priorities ought to be. I believe that priority ought speedily to be given to Sections 6 and 7 of the 1975 Act, which among other things define certificates of construction and go on to say: the reservoir shall be under the supervision of the construction engineer until he gives his final certificate for the reservoir". That is very important, because the 1966 Institution of Civil Engineers report from which the 1975 Act initially sprung, in criticising the 1930 Act, stated: it is significant from a study of the record of slide failures suffered by earth dams in all parts of the world that a quarter of these failures occurred during the first year after construction, a quarter during the next four years, and the rest fairly uniformly over the next 35 years". It is extremely important that arrangements should be made speedily to ensure that the inspection and control of dams in the early years of their lives, immediately after construction, is brought into operation right away. That was one of the weaknesses of the 1930 Act, and it was one of the more important strengthenings which appeared in the 1970 Act. I hope that the Minister will be able to turn these matters over in his mind. He need not reply to me at the end of the debate, but I hope that he thinks about these matters in the coming weeks.

I should like to mention one other point about the Water Bill, and I do so with a certain degree of regret. During consideration of Clause 5, which relates to guidelines and other matters under which the water authorities would be empowered or permitted to work overseas, we had a very considerable discussion, largely led from the Liberal Front Bench by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, and supported from the Conservative Back-Benches by the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery of Alamein. Those noble Lords and others asked that the guidelines should be inserted in the Bill; and the Government said, "No". In the end we yielded to that, with considerable disappointment.

Our disappointment was compounded when, at the later stages of the Bill, during the interesting debates on Clause 7, which deals with consumer matters, the Government eventually decided that the guidelines in that part of the Bill should not in fact be included in it, but should come before Parliament. I am left with a strong feeling that what was sauce for the goose ought to have been sauce for the gander; not, let it be said, that the consumer as well as the water authorities should have been excluded, but that both of them should have been included in some way. Perhaps it is now too late for that to be done, since the Bill has passed through our procedures; but I speak at this moment merely to place on record my regret that the same procedure was not followed on both occasions.

Another point that I wish to take up, very briefly, was raised and commented upon by the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield. It is the use of water meters in assessing charges for water. This is by no means a new subject; I can recall being involved in debates upon it over at least the last 20 years. I shall tackle the matter from a much more domestic aspect, a much more painful aspect, than the aspect from which the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, approached it. He mentioned a recent symposium at the Institution of Civil Engineers which dealt with various matters relating to the water industry, including the subject of today's debate. In the course of the discussion one of the speakers, who is an official of the Severn-Trent Water Authority, remarked that the average household pays something around 20p a day for a 24 hour service, not only of water supply in, but taking foul water away, and dealing with prolonged rainfall on roofs, the yard outside and the highway, plus a variety of environmental services". I heard that being said, and I found it a very reassuring remark until, by coincidence, on the very same day I received my water rate demand from the Thames Valley Water Authority, and I discovered that for these services I was being asked to pay not 20p a day, but something in excess of 70p a day. I know the egalitarian theory which lies behind this mode of charging for water, and I do not in essence object to it; but I must confess that when I pay my water bill I rather object to paying three-and-a-half times the average. I should be perfectly happy to pay the average, and to pay twice the average might be painful, but permissible. But three-and-a-half times the average seems to me to be rather much.

A system of paying for water (which is a commodity like electricity or gas) which seemed appropriate under a certain egalitarian theory, at a certain time, now seems to me to have got out of sync. It is now time to give very serious consideration to the introduction of metering for water, not only for me but for everyone else, just as we meter electricity and gas. I believe that the disparity in payment has now become too wide for things to be left as they are.

The last point that I want to mention arises from the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady White, when she referred to training. In the same symposium to which the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, referred, one of the speakers, who is one of the training officers of the Institution of Civil Engineers, drew attention to the number of young engineers taken into the water industry in England and Wales from the beginning of the water industry in 1974—that is, the water industry as we now know it—up to the present time. He said: It is clear that from a level of somewhere round about 40 or 50, which I believe is the level required for simple replacement of civil engineers in the industry, we have now declined to a point where last year only three graduates were taken on under agreement in the whole water industry in England and Wales, and this year only one so far". That is to some extent a reflection of the decline in construction work which has afflicted the water industry, just as it has afflicted so much of the rest of the construction industry. It gives rise to what will be a very serious situation in the not too distant future. If the replenishment of the engineering resource in the water industry requires 40 or so young engineers a year, and we are now down to bringing in a handful—three last year, and only one so far this year—that is a very serious situation which in the future will give rise to problems which might well be unsurmountable.

5.58 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Hadfield

My Lords, I should like to speak on the section of the excellent report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, entitled The Water Industry, which deals with sewers. Your Lordships have had a splendid and very wide-ranging debate, and I shall be brief. First, I wish to declare my interest as a shareholder in, and president, founder, and director of, Taylor Woodrow PLC. This company is interested in repairing sewers, and sewerage work of that type, as indeed are many other contractors, too. Secondly, I should like to declare my interest in free enterprise which, in my humble opinion, enables the people of this country to have the best possible standard of living, and is responsible for 90 per cent. of our exports.

The noble Lord, Lord Todd, gave a figure of 130,000 miles of sewers in our country; I have a figure of 140,000. We are not very far apart, and whichever figure is correct, nevertheless the length of sewers is very considerable. Some sewers in our country, where the stone was suitable, were simply drilled through the stone and never lined. There is no doubt that many of our sewers are in a very dangerous state and require immediate attention.

The report is excellent. It highlights the urgent need for attention but it is sad that it had to be written at all. It does not tell a new story. It is, in fact, the latest in a series of reports warning successive Governments of the increasing urgency and the serious nature of our sewers. A duty is laid down for the water authority to try and appoint agencies for work to be done. I propose that the best, the quickest and the least expensive method would be to appoint reliable, competent and financially sound private contractors on a fixed price contract. Two or three contractors would be invited to state the methods that they would use, and their specifications, for carrying out repairs, maintenance or preventive maintenance of sewers in need of attention.

This method of using contractors throughout the country would speed up the execution of essential and urgent repairs. It would call upon an enormous amount of knowledge and expertise that exists among contractors. It would avoid the water authority or the local authority having to recruit more employees. It would also spread the work so that a small section of employees could not hold the water authority to ransom, as was experienced recently.

I should like to refer to the system of financing in the United States. The state governments authorise five-and ten-year low interest bonds with taxation concessions. In this case, they would have a charge on the extent of sewer for which the bond had been issued. In some sections the private contractors would be prepared to provide the finance. An enormous amount of private money is available. I am sure that this would be a good and efficient method of financing. In closing, I thank and congratulate the Science and Technology Committee on an excellent report.

6.3 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, we have listened to a stimulating debate. It is a tribute to the excellence of the report that 10 noble Lords should have been moved to speak. Half of them, I think I am right in saying, are members of the Select Committee, while one, my noble friend Lord Nugent—I think that I paraphrase him accurately—said that he was semi-detached. In this connection, if the definition of an expert really is a drip under pressure, then the last time we discussed this subject, I was halfway there.

I am confident that the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, who so ably chairs the Select Committee, will be as gratified as are the Government that this has been a constructive debate even if it has concentrated on sewerage and water mains which relate to only a part of the Select Committee report. Before responding to the report I should like to make a general observation to Lord Cledwyn, who posed a fundamental question about the objectives of the water industry. His question was: is it a business or a public service? The noble Lord knows as well as I do that this is extremely difficult to answer. However, in the objective statement, recently agreed between Ministers and chairmen, it is indicated that authorities, consistent with their statutory duties, should conduct their operations in a businesslike fashion to achieve a satisfactory balance between the quality of the various services that they provide and the cost borne by their customers as a result.

Another general subject that the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, raised was that of planning. The Government recognise that land use planning is a subject that will arouse, and has done, continued public discussion not just in regard to the water industry but in agriculture, roads, wildlife and practically any subject that we can mention. I understand that your Lordships' Select Committee on the EEC will devote a little time to this matter in the near future. The Government will await its report with great interest.

As we have heard this afternoon, the committee discussed four main subjects in its report. It discussed first in chapter 2 water demand and the ways in which this can be met and/or constrained. Next, your committee considered, mainly in chapters 3 and 4, the technology of water supply and of sewerage, the scope for technological advance and the requirement for investment both in the renewal of the existing physical capital and in the improvement of performance through the most modern techniques of analysis instrumentation and control. Thirdly, chapter 5 of the report deals with the safety of reservoirs. Fourthly, your committee devoted considerable attention in chapter 6 to the organisation and funding of research. That is not an exhaustive list of the matters discussed in the report, but I hope that it identifies the major topics.

Your Lordships will recall from the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, that the Government have already made commitments in response to this report on the safety of reservoirs. In the Committee debate on the Water Bill, speaking for the Government on 8th March, I said that we had decided that the time had come to move forward from the Reservoirs (Safety Provisions) Act 1930, the legislation in force for requiring owners of reservoirs to attend to their safety, and now intended to bring into effect the Reservoirs Act 1975 with its stronger and more effective requirements in order more fully to achieve the same purpose.

I am not going to become involved in the subject of U-turns, S-bends or even Z-bends because it would not be appropriate. I should, however, like to say a few words about the background. There are thought to be about 2,000 or so reservoirs in Great Britain that come within the scope of the 1930 Reservoirs Act. From the results of a survey addressed to district councils by the Department of the Environment last year, it is apparent that two out of every three reservoirs recorded by district councils are satisfactorily documented. Many of these are owned by substantial organisations and public bodies and there is little concern about their safety.

However, for about one-third of the reservoirs known to exist, some 600 in all, either it was not known if there was documentation under the 1930 Act or the owners were unknown. As a very rough estimate, there are thought to be some 200 additional reservoirs of which the district councils have no record. It is these two groups of reservoirs, possibly some 800 in all, probably all over 100 years old and not recently, or possibly never, inspected, which give cause for concern.

For these reasons, the Government accept that the Reservoirs Act 1930, with powers but insufficient duties, is not adequate for the supervision of the reservoirs of this country. The Government have decided to follow the Select Committee's recommendation and to implement the Reservoirs Act 1975. This will ensure for reservoirs, the necessary supervision, independent inspection, effective enforcement of safety measures and the use of safety precautions where a reservoir is discontinued or abandoned, that were recommended by the Select Committee.

While it is the Government's intention that the Act should be implemented as soon as possible, your Lordships will appreciate that legislation of this nature affecting both public bodies and private citizens, as reservoir owners, needs careful consultation so that a complex piece of legislation can be activated in a logical manner and that all are aware of their powers and duties and obligations and are able to meet them.

It is therefore the Government's intention to consult representatives of those affected on the timetable for implementation. Nothing I say now should be taken as prejudging the outcome of those discussions. But I can say that most of the provisions should come into effect on 1st April 1984 and that the fewest possible will be left until no later than 1st April 1985 before they are brought into effect. However, it is to be hoped that those owners who have not had their reservoirs inspected within the period prescribed within the 1930 Act, will not delay in complying with the existing legislation. Implementation at an early date of emergency powers under Section 16 of the 1975 Act should ensure that powers to avert danger are available if necessary to county councils.

No one listening to my noble friend Lord Nugent could doubt the value of research in the water industry. At the Committee stage of the Water Bill I informed your Lordships that the Government accepted the responsibility for the existence of a long-term research strategy. Before the abolition of the National Water Council under the Water Bill, which your Lordships finally despatched after 24 hours of debate—was it only that long? it seemed much, much longer—it was the National Water Council's duty: to promote and assist the efficient performance by water authorities of their functions, and in particular their functions relating to research'. I positively agree with the noble Baroness, Lady White. With the abolition of the NWC, the department must equip itself to take a view of the adequacy of the industry research and the strategic issues for which research activity is timely and requisite. I regret that I am not in a position today to tell the House how we will do this, but do it we must and I promise that we will inform the House in due course.

In the debate on the Water Bill, I said that we accepted the Select Committee's recommendation that each water authority should include in its annual report an account of the research it has carried out. I also told the House that we believe the position of the Water Research Centre to be assured without recourse to legislation to make it compulsory for water authorities to be members. Adequate legislation already exists to maintain the current membership of all water authorities should its use ever be necessary. I was also able to say that the Government accept that there are requirements for research indicated in the Select Committee report which will require a higher level of spending on research.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked if research and development programmes are being fully utilised. An increasing and demanding effort on the part of the Water Research Centre is being devoted to the implementation of the results of its research, even to the extent, on occasion, of inhibiting progress on new research. This is an issue of great concern to the Water Research Centre Council, which is considering it closely as it develops a further five-year strategy.

On the subject of research, noble Lords were concerned about the Natural Environment Research Council and its liaison with the water industry. The Government are satisfied that the council has arranged effective liaison which will be of benefit to the water research effort. My department will organise a meeting to which the Nature Conservancy Council and the water authorities will be invited, along with other organisations, which could include the Water Research Council and NERC, to develop a common approach to the carrying out of surveys and to agree funding arrangements. It may be necessary for this group to meet annually to monitor progress, as it is expected that the survey work will take several years to complete.

I turn now—

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, before my noble friend leaves the topic of research, may I raise a matter? I noted carefully that he said that he cannot tell us how he is going to implement his undertakings that more will be spent on research and that long term strategic research should be more adequately coped with. I remind him that he told us that two months ago. Therefore, his department has had two months in which to think the matter out. If he cannot tell us the structure and what the arrangements will be in order to carry out these undertakings, I think that he should tell us today when he will be able to give us a statement on this matter.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, my noble friend is pre-empting me a little on further remarks that I intend to make in my speech. I shall return to that point a little later on, if I may.

I was going to turn immediately to the questions of technology and investment in infrastructure raised by the committee. Although we enjoy excellent water services, it is not surprising that in systems laid down in Victorian times deficiencies are to be found both in the fabric and the conception of those systems. Recognition of these deficiencies within the water industry led in 1979 to a major shift of strategy at the Water Research Centre, which, by the creation of the engineering laboratory at Swindon—of which we have heard mention this evening—gave new emphasis to the technology of sewers and water mains and made way for the great adoption of instrumentation, control and automation of operations.

Your Lordships called for more investment in water services and especially in sewer renovation and renewal. My noble friend Lord Taylor of Hadfield gave his own particular gloss to this and I shall read most carefully what he has said. The Water Act 1973 places upon water authorities the responsibility to survey their areas and produce plans for capital investment. The water authorities are in the best position to assess need and to develop programmes, whether for new works to meet new demands or for renewal or replacement of existing assets. But I can tell your Lordships that the Government have been very concerned about the problems of dilapidated sewers which exist in some parts of our older towns and the more widespread problem of deteriorating water mains. We have supported the work of the Water Research Centre. And we have taken full account of the identified needs in our public expenditure decisions. Over the last three years, allocations have been more than sufficient to meet total expenditure. In the North-West particularly we have consistently encouraged the water authority to achieve increases in the level of investment, both to deal with underground dereliction and to clean up the Mersey. An additional allocation was made in 1981–82 for these purposes.

When my department gave evidence to the Select Committee a year ago, we pointed out that water authority allocations were not being fully spent. I am pleased to say that remedial action has been taken so that, although final figures are not yet available, the indications are that expenditure in 1982–83 was close to the cash allocation and, because inflation was less than predicted, the volume of construction may actually have exceeded that programmed in most areas.

The needs for manpower for leakage control are best determined by each water authority and water company themselves. While Government policy has been, and continues to be, to effect a reduction in overall manpower consistent with efficiency, where any undertaker has taken all steps possible internally to recruit and retain existing employees in control techniques, then any shortfall in requirement must be met either by outside recruitment or by contracting out. The Government consider that manpower implications must not deter undertakers from applying the measures recommended in paragraph 26.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves that subject, I should like to raise a point. I am extremely grateful to him for the helpful way in which he is dealing with the entire problem. He will have heard noble Lords on all sides of the House say that the replacement of dilapidated sewers is a matter of extreme urgency. Is he now saying on behalf of the Government that the Government are prepared to provide additional resources to the water authorities and to local authorities to enable new schemes of replacement to be undertaken immediately?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am about to say that they have. The noble Lord is also pre-empting me. I shall reach that point later. Specifically on sewers, as a result of the Water Research Centre's work, water authorities are moving towards a strategy which concentrates upon those places where the risk of failure is high and the consequences of failure are greatest. The strategy will take some time to develop fully as it depends upon the progress of survey work, but that will not prevent water authorities from continuing to make repairs and renovate or renew sewers in the normal way, as they have done in the past. We shall be discussing their annual plans with them shortly and will be looking at this aspect of their plans particularly closely. We shall urge a vigorous approach, and we shall continue to seek to ensure that our public expenditure decisions make available sufficient external finance to enable the water authorities to carry out the investment that is needed and which can feasibly be implemented. We shall encourage maximum use of private sector design and engineering contractors to ensure a satisfactory rate of progress.

It is axiomatic that the development and subsequent refinement of investment strategies should take account of technological development. The report deals at length with the technology of water services and I can assure your Lordships that it has given rise to considerable debate within the water industry in both the public and private sectors, and I am sure it will stimulate fresh developments and applications of technology.

The lack of good information about large parts of the sewerage system is a matter for great concern and the Government are giving every encouragement to the Water Research Centre's programme of survey work. We expect authorities to press ahead with this urgently and to take account of the results in formulating their capital programmes. But noble Lords will be pleased to know that in many cases the surveys can be reassuring about the state of sewers. Where the needs are obvious—as in the North-West—the Government have consistently sought to ensure in their public expenditure decisions that those needs are recognised. So the urgent need in the short-term is to press ahead with surveys and to develop the tools needed to inspect and repair existing sewers with minimum disruption, and to enable manufacturers to have the opportunity to test in the field their new materials and equipment for this purpose.

In this connection the public expenditure White Paper, published in February—Cmnd. 8789—provides an increase (and I think that this is the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn) in the regional water authorities' overall capital investment from £677 million this year to £820 million in 1985–86. This has been arrived at after considering the plans that water authorities put to us; planned increases for the North-West and Yorkshire Water authorities fully reflect their problems with underground dereliction. We shall do even more than this by considering very carefully the plans that authorities are just putting to us now, and future plans. When these show that there is a well justified case for more investment in renewal, taking acccount of their sewer surveys and development in renovation techniques, I can assure the House that we shall respond appropriately.

The noble Lord, Lord Todd, and the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, asked about the Water Research Centre's strategy on sewerage. The basic suggestion that the strategy for sewerage expenditure should be based on selective inspection and repair is, of course, sound. This is a more satisfactory way of determining expenditure needs than estimating current replacement costs and dividing by standard lives, which incidentally is the approach used by the committee in paragraph 4.2. But it would not seem wise for authorities to increase expenditure where the need has not been demonstrated by survey or other evidence. The Water Research Centre's strategy has yet to be published. Meanwhile, authorities are pressing ahead with survey work and the existing public expenditure provision, which allows for some increase in water service investment, appears adequate to meet the identified needs at the present.

I agree that comparative evaluation of renovation and replacement by the Water Research Centre is desirable, taking account of social costs, to the extent that suitable methods can be developed for doing so. The relative infancy of renovation techniques points to the need for further work to prove these techniques in practice and to overcome some of the remaining problems. It is for this reason that the Secretary of State has written to all authorities urging them to include in their capital programmes a number of innovative projects for sewer renewal.

By this the House will see that we in the department seek to encourage innovation, for we see the possibility not only to improve quality and efficiency in our water services at home, but also to enhance opportunity for our consultants, contractors and manufacturers to sell their expertise and products overseas.

I was going to expand quite dramatically on what I said in Committee, but perhaps I can write to the noble Lord, Lord Howie, on this subject of guidance and guidelines, and the difference between them. Time is now running a little short, but the Government are, of course, extremely keen and are watching with interest the exciting subject of instrumentation control and automation. With one or two exceptions, the water industry has been slower than some industries to seize the opportunities of this new technology. But I am happy to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, that they are getting off the ground and we are delighted to see this and hope to see a great deal more progress in the very near future.

The committee gave close consideration to water resource planning, water demand forecasting, and so on. The Government have much sympathy with this approach, but believe that the search for new ways to meet and constrain the demand for water can be more selective. The crucial point is how fast and, indeed, whether demand for water is increasing. The committee referred to continuing demand growth at the rate of about 1 per cent. per annum; but the fact is that for three years now there has been virtually no growth. The demand for water from those whose supplies are metered has declined since 1973 by 16 per cent. because the structure of industry is changing away from the older, heavier manufacturing industries, which were intensive water users, towards new industries and services which are not great consumers of water. Industries are also more cost conscious where water is concerned. It is true that domestic consumption continues to rise at about 1 per cent. a year. Nevertheless, greater efforts to control leakage—as the committee strongly urges—should postpone substantially and perhaps indefinitely the need for some of the more costly and controversial measures to avert a scarcity of water.

In the compass of a speech such as this I have not been able to do full justice to your committee's report and the points which noble Lords have made in the debate today. Both the debate itself and the report have ranged over several distinct and important subjects and the Government have reached only a provisional view on many of the recommendations made in the report. Indeed, it has been my purpose to listen to this debate before reaching final conclusions. In spite of the pressure put upon me earlier by my noble friend Lord Nugent, this is the position in which I find myself today. I agree that two months has been quite a long time in which to consider the structure of research in the water industry, but the Government wanted further time and also wanted further advice from your Lordships before they made up their mind. The Government intend to present a memorandum to the Select Committee's report in the near future and I would hope, although I cannot give any promises on this, that it will be done in a good deal less than the two months we have already had.

I can assure your Lordships that we shall be looking closely and with interest at what has been said today before responding formally and by memorandum to your Lordships' Committee. It only remains for me again to thank the committee for their stimulating report and to thank the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, for initiating this fascinating debate upon it.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I am sorry to press him, and he has had a very wide subject to cover which I think he has covered with very great care, but can he say just a few words about the important matter of training raised by the noble Baroness, Lady White, and later commented upon by me during the debate?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the Select Committee report says that the water industry should pay attention to the case for broadening the expertise of water engineers with particular emphasis on process and systems engineering. The department is currently seeking a view from the industry on this issue, but will encourage the water industry to pay regard to the recommendation for itself, and seek to maintain the appropriate education and training of chartered water engineers. This general premise also covers the other points on training which were identified particularly by the noble Lord himself and by the noble Baroness, Lady White, which are what I would define as junior training, day release, and so on. The Government intend to continue to press the water industry on this subject, but of course it is for the water industry to identify their own needs.

Lord Sherfield

My Lords, my first task in replying to this debate is to thank the members of the committee who have taken part in this debate for their contributions, and also to thank the other noble Lords, not members of the committee, who have helped to make the debate less "endogamous" than it might otherwise have been. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for his comments this evening. They encourage me to hope that the Government's definitive written response to the recommendations of the report, which he has undertaken to provide, will be a positive one; that it will not be long delayed; and that it will cover the important points just referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, relating to the provision of resources for long-term strategic research.

Perhaps I might again express on behalf of the committee considerable satisfaction at the reception of its report by the interests outside this Chamber who are concerned with its conclusions. Judging by the correspondence and reports which I have received and which were referred to in greater detail by the noble Baroness, Lady White, they are, notwithstanding some criticisms here and there in the report, responding positively to our recommendations. The committee will, I am sure, wish to keep this nationally important subject on its agenda, but I hope that the Government will use their influence to ensure that the momentum which may have been imparted by the report is maintained and accelerated. I commend this Motion to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.