HL Deb 05 February 1990 vol 515 cc519-22

2.53 p.m.

Lord Nugent of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What were the levels of reservoirs and aquifers in the southern half of the country at 1st January 1990 compared with average, and whether they foresee any danger of drought next summer.

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

My Lords, reservoir levels were about normal except in the South-East, where they were about 60 per cent. of normal. Aquifer levels ranged from below to above average except in the South-East, where they were still well below normal. As for next summer, water undertakers in the West and central areas believe that the risk of shortages is relatively low. Those in the South-East and East risk being short of water if rainfall this winter is insufficient to recharge the aquifers on which they largely depend.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that informative answer. Is he aware that the information that he has given about water levels in the southern region reflects the dangers for water supply next summer in that region, where rationing and shortages are already endemic? Is he aware that the southern region is particularly dependent on groundwater supplies, from which it obtains 80 per cent. of its water? That is more than in most other regions. Does he agree that the answer would be for Southern Water to build a couple of large storage reservoirs which would conserve some of the rainfall in order to supplement the groundwater supply? Does he also agree that that would provide an adequate overall supply for dry summers? Will the noble Lord advise the company that that is the action it should take with all expedition?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords are aware that my noble friend Lord Nugent knows far more about water supplies anywhere in the United Kingdom than this Minister ever will. He has made a very good point. I remind the House that some 10 years ago the proposed Broadoak reservoir outside Canterbury was turned down for planning reasons. As a result that reservoir was not built. It is also a fact that, due to its technical specifications, a reservoir is bound to be built in a valley, which is likely to be more scenically attractive than a flat plain. As my noble friend pointed out, if we are to have more reservoirs the local authorities and planning committees involved will have to give consideration to that aspect in the future.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell the House whether there was an appeal against the planning decision in the case of the Canterbury reservoir?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I do not know whether there was an appeal or whether at the time the local authority felt that it was not worth appealing. However, that does not alter the difficulties of achieving a balance between the interests of those who support one use of the landscape and the requirements of those who supply water to people who live in the surrounding area.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that most of the South-West of England has been turned into a reservoir in the past few days? Is there any way of updating the figures that the noble Lord has given the House to take account of the fact that since the beginning of January the country has had between 150 per cent. and 200 per cent. more rainfall than is normal for the month?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, is entirely correct. My noble friend's Question referred to 1st January. However, in January in the South-East and the East rainfall was 150 per cent. of the average. For the first four days of this month the figure has been between 30 per cent. and 50 per cent. of the average for the whole of the month of February.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, can the Minister give up-to-date information regarding the promise that was made in this House five years ago for a reservoir for South Wales? So far as I know, nothing has happened. Does the noble Lord have more up-to-date information?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I have to confess to the noble Baroness that I was not in your Lordships' House five years ago. However, I shall inquire about that Welsh reservoir and drop her a note on the subject.

Lord Morris

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the proposal for a reservoir to the north-east of Canterbury has been under consideration for more than 14 years? Will he use his best endeavours to ensure that the local authority gets its priorities right in that matter?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I believe that it is entirely proper that I should draw to the attention of the local authority the remarks that have been made in your Lordships' House today.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, does the Minister agree that reservoirs are the solution to the problem? People who live in southern England will be bewildered by the answer that he has just given. He said that we are still short of water. After all the rain that we have had in the past few weeks, people will never believe that. Reservoirs have been subject to local authority planning permission. Am I not right in saying that, if a local authority refuses planning permission, it is a matter for the Government to step in and decide? If that is so, why have the Government not done that?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, in answer to the last part of the question of the noble Lord, Lord Mellish, we believe that local authorities should show initiative and ability in local government. However, I remind him that though he may decry the figures that I have given for the past month, we have suffered from a substantial drought for a considerable period of time. Last summer was the hottest summer since 1659.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there has been gross over-pumping of underground water supplies over a long period of time, leading not only to the present water shortage but to damage to small rivers and the environment throughout the South-East? Is it not time that water authorities were encouraged to adopt a conservation policy and to stop the gross waste of water? Perhaps the Government can give some advice to the new water authorities as to the conservation of water, which is just as important as the conservation of energy.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, it is fair to say that there are two responses that I can give. First, I am sure that the introduction of metering will make the consumer more aware of the level of consumption. I should point out to the House that since 1976 some £3.3 billion has been spent on improving the connection service and the inter-connection, to which attention was drawn after the last drought in 1976.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the noble Lord, Lord Mellish, is perfectly right to say that adequate water comes from the skies and that we are well blessed in this country with more than we need, only using about 10 per cent. of what falls from the skies for supply? Management therefore depends on storing enough of the winter rains, either underground or in surface reservoirs, to ensure that we have sufficient for dry times in the summer. A couple more reservoirs are needed for the southern region to supplement the limited aquifer supplies.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am not quite sure whether the law of the land is in favour of the imposition of building, but I must confirm that my noble friend Lord Nugent is absolutely correct. I can assure noble Lords that, when I attend the conference in San Diego next Sunday to address the matter of water, most of those attending the conference will be amazed that I have been asked to do so because they will not believe that I have anything to talk about which relates to the problems that they face in the south-western United States.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, I hesitate to intervene, but I do so merely to ask the noble Lord whether he will be good enough to duplicate the answer that he intends to give to the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, about South Wales. Strange as it may seem, I am interested, inter alia, in water in Wales.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I shall certainly put a copy of the letter in the Library. I remind the noble Lord that Wales is even more blessed than the South-East of England when it comes to rainfall.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, does the Minister agree that adequacy of water requires not only adequate quantity but adequate quality? In the light of the revelations regarding the 1,300 landfill sites which may be damaging the aquifers in this country, will the Government say, first, what they propose to do to resurvey those landfill sites which have not been surveyed since 1974; and, secondly, whether they will do something to protect the quality of our water?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, would not expect me to answer on pure speculation in a popular Sunday newspaper. However, I can assure him, as I often have to, that the privatisation of water has resulted in the UK having the only fully funded programme of some £17.5 billion.

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