HL Deb 12 January 1987 vol 483 cc363-5

3.1 p.m.

Baroness Lane-Fox

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they are taking to improve the quality of coastal bathing waters.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Skelmersdale)

My Lords, we are in discussion with the water industry with a view to including more waters within the scope of Article 1(2)(a) of the bathing water directive. It is hoped to make an announcement soon.

The survey announced on 18th December 1985 by my honourable friend the Minister for the Environment, Countryside and Local Government is continuing. While full analysis of the results for 1986 is not yet complete, preliminary findings are encouraging. More than half the waters surveyed already meet the standards set by the directive. Remedial works are in hand or are planned for a number of those waters which do not at present conform. In the United Kingdom, we are at present spending some £70 million a year on schemes related to the improvement of coastal bathing waters.

Baroness Lane-Fox

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that very useful reply. May I ask him whether, in view of the small number of bathing waters identified in this country at the moment, we can hope that the Government will consider formally identifying further ones?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, in answer to my noble friend, my original Answer concealed the fact that we are currently monitoring the quality of more than 350 bathing waters according to the regime laid down by the Commission in the directive. Further-more, we are in discussion with the water industry with a view to designating further waters. It is hoped to do that shortly.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I missed the figures that the Minister gave for the beaches which have already been designated under the directive, but the directive is six years old and the last figure I had was 27. Can he explain why the Government are having such difficulty in designating more than that number, if that is still the number, when France has designated something like 1,000 beaches under the same directive? Is he aware that many of us, particularly on this side of the House, feel that our beaches are a disgrace? I mention in particular Anglesey, where I understand bathing is almost impossible. There are hundreds more beaches up and down the country of which we should be thoroughly ashamed.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the figure was and remains 27. The directive, however, does not set out guidance, and we are in discussion with the Commission as to precisely what the directive means for the selection of bathing waters. Up to now, the Government have selected them on bathing use rather than on the use of an adjacent beach, which I understand has been the practice in some other countries.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that our bathing beaches are one of the greatest assets of this island? Can he explain how it is that, whereas such good efforts have been made by local authorities inland to provide proper sewerage for the people, the prosperous seaside places seem, relatively speaking, to have failed? Has not the time come to put some moral pressure upon them, as well as bribing them and exhorting them with the aid of taxpayers' money?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the moral pressure that is required is not on local authorities but on the water authorities in whose domain these waters fall. Moral pressure is being applied. The House will know that some £280 million is being spent over the next four years by the water authorities on capital projects to improve the water quality and this will continue beyond 1991.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I can confirm what my noble friend has just said about some of the beaches of Anglesey as I walked there during the recess? Is he further aware that a good deal of the rubbish along the coast there has been discharged from ships? To what extent is that being monitored by his department? The noble Lord is aware of the legal obligations on ships within the territorial limit, but will he and his right honourable friend look again at the damage which is being done by vessels passing our coast?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, in answer to the supplementary question of the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, it may be that I slightly misunderstood the question from my noble friend behind me. The problem of litter on beaches is one for local authorities, whereas the quality of the water per se is a matter for the water authorities. With regard to the disposal of oil at sea, which is also involved in this matter, this is regulated by Annex 1 of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. Since that annex came into effect in 1983, the number of oily beaches reported has been reduced by 20 per cent. and this improvement is continuing.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware, that, when attributing to river authorities responsibility for the condition of coastal waters, he should take into account the fact that the river authorities inherited the condition of the coastal waters and the short outfalls from the local authorities only some 13 years ago? Is he further aware that the custom of all local authorities throughout the country was to take the sewage down pretty well to the tide level and discharge it there? Therefore the river authorities have had an immense undertaking to begin to install long sea outfalls, which cost many millions of pounds each, in order to clear the beaches and make them safe for bathing. On the practical side, is my noble friend aware that it would be of the greatest help to river authorities in expanding their programme of further building of long sea outfalls if he relieved the pressure on their financial objectives and did not put quite such a stringent aspect on it as he and his noble friends have been doing in recent years?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, my noble friend's point on the inheritance of the water authorities from the local authorities is well made. Nobody pretends that this problem, which undoubtedly occurs in some places, will be cleared up overnight. The £280 million over the next four years, which will continue beyond 1991, is within the water authorities' investment plans approved by government, most recently in another place on 24th November.

Lord Renton

My Lords, in fairness to my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, may I say that it was I who got my question wrong and not he who misunderstood it? The fact is, as has been mentioned, that water authorities, river authorities and to a more limited extent local district councils are all involved in this problem.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his clarification.

Baroness Stedman

My Lords, if as the Minister says some 350 beaches are being monitored by his department at the moment, and we are spending something like £70 million a year in order to try to clean up our beaches, what rate of improvement does he expect over the next decade?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, from the list of monitoring which was given by my honourable friend the Member for Leeds, North-West on 18th December 1985, it appears at first glance that some 60 per cent. of the waters would meet the requirements of the directive. Over the next 10 years I would expect pretty well all the 350 waters in question to be brought to an acceptable standard.