HL Deb 16 October 1990 vol 522 cc724-7

252 pm

Lord Nugent of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the levels in surface storage reservoirs and aquifers in the southern half of Britain compared with normal levels for this time of year, and whether they are satisfied with their present capacity.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, in the southern half of Britain reservoirs are between 30 per cent and 75 per cent full In aggregate that represents about 25 per cent below normal for the time of year Aquifers are generally only marginally below normal in the South West, but they are well below normal in the South East The prime responsibility for ensuring adequate supplies lies with the water companies However, I understand that they expect to continue to maintain supplies this winter, with only selective restrictions on less essential use in some eastern areas In these areas above-average rainfall is required to recharge aquifers and avoid the risk of shortages next year

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that very informative Answer Is she aware that the low levels of storage now indicate the probability of a further shortage next summer? Is she also aware that there is very little prospect of storage levels being restored by next spring to the full normal levels unless we have exceptionally heavy rain in every single month for the five months that remain of the winter? In the light of this prospect of another water shortage next summer, and bearing in mind the water shortage of the past two summers, does my noble friend not agree that the time has come when the Government should set up a survey to investigate the supply and demand for water throughout the country in order to determine whether additional storage reservoirs are required over the next 10 years? It takes at least 10 years to commission and build a new reservoir Does my noble friend not agree that such steps should be taken in order to meet the normal growth in demand and to avoid the serious shortages which are fairly widespread throughout the country?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is too early to say what the position will be. However, the water resources are at about the same level now as they were this time last year. The National Rivers Authority estimates, as my noble friend has said, that above-average rainfall is required to restore the levels I understand that the range is from 125 per cent in the Thames area and parts of the South West, to between 175 per cent and 200 per cent in parts of the South East However, I have good news for my noble friend on his suggestion concerning a survey. A few weeks ago the NRA began a survey, similar to the one suggested by my noble friend, under its powers and governed by Section 143 of the new Water Act. It will assess actual and prospective resources against demand for all regions of England, giving priority to those areas which are critically short of water I am also happy to tell the House that the results of that survey will be published. I hope I shall not be pressed as to when that will be.

Lord Zuckerman

My Lords, perhaps I may reinforce what the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, has said The situation is bound to get worse next year unless we have phenomenal rainfall in the months ahead On the basis of past records, is it possible to say exactly what amount of rainfall we need from now until, let us say, next spring, in order to be certain that we shall not be in a worse situation this time next year than we are now? Otherwise, so far as I can make out, the situation is bound to become worse each year for some time to come.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the figures that I gave in answer to my noble friend Lord Nugent a moment ago were in connection with the requirements to restore the levels fully to the aquifers. In order to provide normal levels of water resources next year, full restoration would not be required. Therefore, the need would be for something less than 125 per cent. in the Thames area and parts of the South West, and something less than 175 per cent in other parts of the South East We need above-average levels of rainfall in order to remove the difficulties of providing water next year, otherwise we shall have to resort again to management techniques which are all aimed at restricting demand.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there will be widespread support for the proposal made by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, who has enormous experience in these matters? There should be a survey into the relationship between supply and demand Is she also aware of the pleasure that will be given by the news about the survey which the NRA has just started? Does the Minister not also agree that the prospects of the results of such a survey being implemented effectively must have been diminished by the fact that the water companies have now been privatised and that they are under less direct control?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I believe that almost the opposite is the case It is my view that when the results of the survey appear, the NRA will do two things: first, it will direct investment where it is properly needed; and, secondly, the ability of the water companies to raise money to meet those requirements will be much greater than they were when they were public authorities.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, can the noble Baroness phrase her replies slightly differently? It is not a question of the percentage extra of water that we need, but how often, in terms of years, does that occur? Can the Minister say whether it is once in 10 years, 25 years, 50 years or 100 years, and so on?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, we have looked at the records to see how long ago it was that we had a sustained period of difficulty. I understand that the longest sustained period was in the 1650s, which is a very long time ago. That was for a period of upwards of six years. There were six successive difficult years in a row. Since then there have been periods when we have had one, two or, at the very most, three years of difficulty together. We shall be faced with difficult choices when we see the results of the survey. We shall either have to provide for the extremes, which will be prohibitive in terms of cost and the environmental impact will be very serious, or strike a balance Nevertheless, the survey will produce a very useful direction for targeting investment funds.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in the part of the valley of the Great Ouse in Huntingdonshire where she lives, there are very large pits which were excavated for sand and gravel and that, strangely enough, they are now remarkably full of water? Can she say whether those pits are or will be under the control of the newly-formed water companies so that those pits can be regarded as reservoirs for the future?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am not able to answer that question because I simply do not know the answer. My suspicion is that they are under the control of the NRA, but I shall have to confirm that to my noble friend.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, does the noble Baroness observe that the Benches of the Lords Spiritual have been emptied? Perhaps they have gone to try to assist us in this matter.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, any help that they can give will be appreciated.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will the noble Baroness confirm that the situation is critical in the South East and in the South West? What is the position in the North of England, Scotland and Wales? Is it not the case that we have a surplus in those areas? Can she confirm that there has been a study into the possibility of constructing pipelines from those areas where water is abundant to the unfortunate areas of the South East and the South West? In Wales, we would be extremely glad to arrange that provided the financial terms were appropriate. Does she not agree that this is something that should be looked at again?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, considerable thought is being given to distribution methods, but I have to come back to the difficulties of whether one provides extensively for the extremes An extension of the distribution network may be necessary to some degree but whether it is done to the extent that the noble Lord is suggesting I am not sure. Those are the kinds of arguments that need to be balanced when all the information from the survey is made available.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, my noble friend said in answering questions that it was too early to heed the point made by my noble friend Lord Nugent When would be the time if it is that conditions are roughly as they are now?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, in the sense that there is a problem, it is not too early We know there is a problem and that is being well pre-empted. However, we have no idea how wet a winter we shall have We can but hope and pray.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell the House whether the situation which she has described now means that Kielder reservoir, which she will recollect was constructed to cope with an expected demand for water from industries in the North East that have now closed, will now become useful instead of being the white elephant which it has turned out to be?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I suspect that piping from the Kielder reservoir down to the parts of the South East which require water poses the very question of the cost of redistribution. All these ideas will be fed in, determinations will be made and plans drawn up. Where there is excess water and where there is a need for water, distribution methods will have to be considered.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that her information that a report has already been set in hand is very good news which we should all welcome? Does she agree that when the report is received action will be urgent in some areas? It takes at least 10 years when starting to commission a reservoir to get through all the hoops of town planning consent; and then there is the vast business of construction and the filling of the reservoir.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend again makes a very important point He knows to his cost the difficulties of scaling the heights of the planning system in regard to this kind of investment Perhaps I may end on a positive note With the way in which the Water Act is working and the way in which the NRA is approaching its work, the hope that these problems will be tackled in the long term is very real.