HL Deb 31 October 1984 vol 456 cc515-8

2.37 p.m.

Lord Molson

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they accept that between 25–30 per cent, of water, valued at £45 million, is being wasted annually by leakage; and if so, what steps are being taken to remedy this before the next drought, and whether Exchequer assistance will be given.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the percentage and value of water put into supply which is unaccounted for, principally because of leakage, vary widely from place to place. A survey in 1977 put this figure at approximately 24 per cent. for the United Kingdom as a whole. However, in some areas the figure can be much higher.

Water authorities and companies have adopted policies for detecting and controlling leakage which concentrate effort on places where the value of the water saved justifies the costs incurred. Recently-developed equipment to prevent excess pressures in water mains is proving to be particularly successful in reducing leakage. This is now coming into wide use.

Lord Molson

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that Answer, which as far as it goes seems to be encouraging, may I ask him two relevant supplementary questions? Was it known before the beginning of the drought that there was this serious problem of leakage from the mains and from water pipes? Secondly, since the whole financial policy of the water authorities is strictly controlled by the Secretary of State, can we be assured that water authorities will be allowed sufficient freedom in obtaining money to carry out the necessary repairs to these mains? Do the Government agree that it is preferable for money to be spent on maintaining the essential infrastructure of the country rather than for it to be spent on unemployment?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, there are about 180,000 miles of undertakers' mains, and a similar length of supply pipes in the ownership of consumers in England and Wales. Therefore, there will always be a certain amount of leakage. What one has to ascertain is at what point it ceases to become cost-effective to repair this leakage. As to my noble friend's question on the budget of water authorities, yes, the budget is approved in each case by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State; and for those procedures which the water authorities themselves wish to carry out there is sufficient money.

My noble friend's last point was about the relative cost of improving the water mains system of this country vis-a-vis paying unemployment benefit. I do not think that the two are relative because if extra manpower were to be used on this it would rapidly become a non-cost-effective situation so that I think it would be a short-term saving on unemployment, even assuming that the people on the unemployed registers were qualified to carry out the work in the first place.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that his answers to the very serious and important questions put to him by the noble Lord, Lord Molson, were thoroughly unsatisfactory? Is the noble Lord aware that it is vitally necessary at this time, not only in relief of unemployment but on its strict financial, economic cost-effective basis, for the Government to pull their finger out and see that a proper investment is made in this very important part of the nation's infrastructure?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, your Lordships' Select Committee on Science and Technology in 1982 reported on the future of the water industry and took up in some detail this question of water leakage. I would refer the noble Lord to what they say and to what was the Government's response. The Government have been in contact with the water authorities to set under way new and improved measures to reduce water leakage and these are being taken forward. So in the noble Lord's phrase, I do not think that it is a question of the Government not pulling their finger out.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, is it not more a question of the Government putting their finger in rather than pulling it out?

Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon

My Lords, while this system is obviously a pretty uneconomic way of transporting water, is it really true to say that all this water is being wasted? Apart from burst water mains in built-up areas where water is lost through storm drains, surely the leakage from underground pipes is absorbed into the ground and goes to replenish the water table?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I wish that that were entirely so. But of course there is an uptake by plants; and it finds its way into rivers and so down into the sea. It also finds its way into ponds and it is lost through evaporation.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that the interests of the water authorities would be far better served by opening up their meetings to the press, the public and the media instead of insisting upon meeting in secret and in camera as they do at present?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, that is a totally different question. However, even if I agreed, I would have to say that there is now a perfect mechanism for the press to get any information they require out of the water authorities.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the water authorities in the past few years have most impressively developed techniques for surveying the mains water supplies without digging up the roads? They use various methods such as radar screens, and so on; and they have television cameras actually placed in the mains. Thus they have been able to work out techniques for repairing and re-lining mains in situ, which is greatly to the benefit of the economy for they do not have to dig up and replace the system. Massive progress has been made and the water authorities should be given some credit for the progress that they have made in this fashion. While it is true that they could make even more progress if they had the money to enable them to carry out more service and repairs, they have achieved a very great deal in this particular respect.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend. He is quite right. The Water Research Centre has been at the centre of producing the new machines such as the leak/noise correlator to which my noble friend has referred.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, have not the Government a rather bad record in controlling leakages?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, it depends upon whether they are H20 or other materials.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, in view of the heat in the supplementary question put from the Front Bench opposite, are we to understand that that leakage has only taken place over the past five years?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am sorry but my noble friend has totally lost me.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, may I put my supplementary question again? Has the leakage which has been admitted on all sides taken place only during the period of the Conservative administration?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for spelling out his supplementary question. No, my Lords, leakage has always gone on and always will go on.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Government's failure to invest more in water resources accounted for by problems of liquidity?

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, does the Minister recall that in his original Answer, he used the expression "non-effective cost situation"? Can he please tell me what it means?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, in my terminology, non-effective cost is something that, if you spend it, does not actually do any good.