HL Deb 12 February 1991 vol 526 cc1-4

Lord Nugent of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:

When the National Rivers Authority report on water supply deficiencies, especially in the southern half of England, is to be published, and whether they are considering action to be taken in the light of this report.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the National Rivers Authority expects to publish a preliminary report by Easter this year. It will consider the actual and prospective demand for public water supplies relative to actual and prospective water resources in England and Wales. The responsibility for action to deal with any supply deficiencies rests primarily with water companies. But the NRA will continue to seek to ensure that plans take account of the need to use resources judiciously and to protect the water environment.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that informative Answer, but it does not take us very far forward. Is he aware that the water situation is already grave? The bar on hosepipes still exists in some parts of the country and all water storage levels are seriously down so there is an almost certain prospect of water shortages next summer. Is my noble friend aware that the only way to cure the problem is to construct large new reservoirs? Is he further aware that past experience has shown that planning applications for such constructions have invariably met powerful local opposition which has usually delayed construction not just for years but for decades? Is he satisfied that the normal process for dealing with planning applications and local inquiries is adequate to meet what has now become a national need?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right when he says that a ban on the use of hosepipes is still in force, which I believe affects about 13 per cent. of the population. As regards reservoirs, I remind your Lordships that the Roadford reservoir in Devon has recently been completed. It. will increase storage in the south west region by 40 per cent. The Carsington reservoir is due to be completed next year, and it will benefit 3 million people in the East Midlands. Reservoirs are large-scale developments which have a major impact on the environment. The Government appreciate the need to avoid delay. We continue to exhort local planning authorities to improve their performance in the handling of applications. Furthermore, the provisions in the Planning and Compensation Bill which is currently before your Lordships' House are designed to make the planning system more effective and efficient. While we shall continue to do all that we can to speed up the processing of applications by local authorities, we must ensure that the system achieves an appropriate balance between the need for development and the need to protect the environment without unwarranted delay to the applications.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, has the Minister any comment to make about the Thames Water Authority? He will know that it looks after, or is supposed to look after, the water supply needs of the people of London. The press reported that the authority proposes to spend millions of pounds on two new reservoirs. Can the Minister say when construction is likely to start and when it will finish? Has he any general comments to make about it on behalf of London?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am aware of one new reservoir. Thames Water is currently consulting about a major reservoir south-west of Abingdon which is designed to meet the forecast of increased demand in the next century. Geotechnical surveys of the site are unlikely to be completed by 1993. Work is unlikely to start until 1996 and therefore the reservoir should be on stream at the end of the 1990s.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that one of the worst affected counties in the south of England is probably Kent? Can he give me some information about the proposed reservoir on the outskirts of Canterbury at Tyler Hill?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I believe that the noble Baroness is referring to the Broad Oak reservoir. Following a public inquiry an application to build a new reservoir was turned down in 1980. The inquiry took account of the environmental impact, apparent overestimation of demand against reservoir capacity proposed and the availability of alternative sources.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, in view of the fact that the Kielder Reservoir has surplus water and that there is surplus water in the north of England, can my noble friend say whether there are any long-term plans for a grid system, using the rivers, to bring the water south?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I understand that no national water grid plan is being considered because water is extremely expensive to pump. It is quite easy and cheap to make water flow in the right direction but not if it has to flow uphill. There are various area water transfer schemes in local areas—for example, the London water ring main—and water augmentation schemes. Those are artificial recharge schemes which involve pumping water into aquifers when the river flows high for abstraction when needed.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am fascinated by the Minister's response in respect of the Planning and Compensation Bill which is now before the House. In view of the long timescales he described in response to specific questions, none of which has anything to do with delays on the part of local authorities, can he explain why he is still seeking to put the blame on local authorities for delays in constructing reservoirs?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I did not put the blame on local authorities. I pointed out that a long and complex procedure is involved when one wishes to acquire planning permission for such a major development.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that when I was about 18 the prospect of what was called a water grid was then thought to be an engineering possibility? Is he further aware that now I am 83 it is rather a disappointment to find that it is no longer on the tapis?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I certainly appreciate the noble and learned Lord's comments.

Lord Elliott of Morpeth

My Lords, while my noble friend Lord Nugent is quite right to draw attention to the shortage of reservoirs in the south of England, does my noble friend appreciate that in the north of England, despite the fact that we have the Kielder Reservoir, certain areas north of Northumberland have an insufficient water supply? Is he aware that the NRA report is awaited as anxiously in the North as it is in the South?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am not aware of any current shortages in the very north of England, but I am sure that we all await the report with interest.

Lord Peston

My Lords, reference has been made to the Thames Water Authority. The Question is about water supply deficiencies. Is the noble Viscount aware that some of us who live in this part of central London and are allegedly served by the Thames Water Authority have no water whatever, either to bath in or even to make a cup of tea? Will the Minister ask his office to get in touch with the Thames Water Authority to ascertain whether it could supply a little water?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, if the noble Lord is short of water I should be delighted to offer him a cup of tea any time he requires one. I understand that the water engineers are working round the clock to try to produce water in Westminster, where there has been a problem.