HL Deb 11 June 1992 vol 537 cc1358-61

3.12 p.m.

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps are being taken to alleviate the water shortage in the south of England.

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

My Lords, the responsibility for maintaining adequate supplies rests with the water undertakers. The National Rivers Authority has a general statutory duty to conserve and augment water resources and is publicising the need to conserve water. Hosepipe bans and drought orders are in force in areas of shortage. The overall position is reviewed regularly by my department and we shall shortly be issuing a consultation paper on water conservation.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord for that reply, may I remind him of the report on the water resources development strategy issued by the NRA in March of this year in which the NRA concluded that in 1992 and 1993 it would be further considering the question of a strategy for water and would in due course be issuing another report? Is he not aware, however, that in the meantime people are suffering from water shortage and are wondering what is going to be done rather earlier than that? Have the Government any plans for doing anything rather sooner other than restraining people from using water for purposes which they consider necessary? In addition, when such action is decided upon will the NRA have the necessary powers to see that the action is carried out?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the noble Lord talked about the problem of water shortages. He must realise that that problem has been caused by four winters of dry weather, an event which we are told by statisticians happens only once every hundred years. As I said earlier, the NRA has a general duty to conserve and augment water resources, which is why it has issued a consultation document on those water resources. We are looking carefully at the conservation of water by the consumer. Those two forces working together will, we hope, alleviate the problem in the long term.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that it is not only householders, factories and so on which will be deprived of water supply but that complete streams and rivers have dried up, including the River Darent, which is no longer a river at all, where I had the happiness of catching eels and gudgeon as a boy?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I very much regret that my noble friend's joy has been removed by the lack of rain. It is our intention in the longer term to make sure that the water system provides for as much enjoyment as possible from natural water resources. To reply to the first point in my noble friend's Question, currently 17½ per cent. of the population is affected not by total water bans but by hosepipe bans.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is it not a fact that the most profligate wasters of water are some of the water companies themselves, which waste 25 per cent. of water through their failure to renew and maintain their mains? Can the Minister tell me what the Government intend to do, before doing anything else, to ensure that the water companies themselves do not waste that precious commodity?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to mention the problem. The figure of 25 per cent. is difficult to quantify because it includes leakage from customers' own pipes and water used for fire fighting or mains flushing. The water undertakers are aware of the problems and are using highly sophisticated equipment to detect and repair leaks as early as possible.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, my noble friend referred to the longer term. Is he aware that as long ago as when my father was a Member of the House of Commons and I was a schoolboy at Eton people were talking about a water grid whereby water could be shared by transferring it from the areas with higher rainfall in the North and West to those with less rainfall in the South and East? Is that not rather a long time to wait?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, recently the NRA looked at the need for a national water grid and came to the conclusion that it was the most expensive and least effective solution. There are minor examples of inter-regional transfers of water—for example, the Ely-Ouse/Essex and Trent-Witham schemes, which have greatly improved the situation in those areas. There is also the example of the inner London water ring main.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, will the Minister agree that his first reply was a little exaggerated? He said that four dry years had caused the water shortage. Up to a point that is true, but does he agree that what that has really done is to highlight the way we have neglected our water supply? We would not be without water if we had a proper system. In addition to the points already raised by other noble Lords, will the Minister also look at the licences for abstraction from rivers?

Lord Strathclyde

Of course, my Lords. However, the problems is that we have had those dry years. Under the present system if there is average rainfall the water system can supply what we need. However, I should point out that over the past five years consumption has been increasing.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, in view of the contribution of water meters to reducing the problem of water shortages, will the Government look at the water companies' present use of their monopoly position in insisting on water meters being installed by themselves without allowing competitive tenders by local plumbers of the householder's choice?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, that is a matter which the regulator at OFWAT is looking at extremely carefully.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the water companies are pressing metering as though the problem was largely one of usage when already we are among the lowest users per head of water in Western Europe—among the dirtiest—and living in the dampest country. Is it not instead largely a problem of supply, not just a matter of leaks but, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, said, of the need for water transfer schemes? As a full network of transfer schemes requires a co-ordinated approach, which is impossible in a fragmented privatised industry, will the Government take the lead in introducing strategic planning?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the noble Baroness talked a lot of nonsense in her question. Water consumption figures in Europe range from Belgium at 108 litres per head to Switzerland at 264 litres per head. Our figure is 136 litres per head which is by no means a bad record. With regard to the issue of investment in the water industry, in the course of the past few years, since privatisation, we have been investing record amounts of money in the water industry and improving the quality of not just what comes out of the tap but also what has gone down the lavatory.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there must be something badly wrong with this Government? We have been four years without rain and obviously displeasure from above has been visited upon them. Is he aware that some years ago the Labour Government appointed a Minister to deal with this very problem, following which the heavens opened and it rained for weeks afterwards?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, that particular solution lies entirely in the hands of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, the noble Lord appears to be in the market for advice. Has he contemplated seeking the assistance of our new colleague, the former Mr. Denis Howell?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, we all await with anticipation his arrival in this Chamber. No doubt he will be able to give us extremely good advice on this subject.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Wakeham)

My Lords, perhaps we ought to move on. This Question has had a good airing.