HL Deb 15 June 1992 vol 538 cc6-8

2.52 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are considering long-term plans to provide water from northern regions to areas likely to suffer from drought, making use of canals and other existing waterways where possible.

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

My Lords, water resource management is the responsibility of the National Rivers Authority. Water transfer schemes under consideration include using canals such as those in the Midlands, the Grand Union and the Oxford, and river transfers such as the augmentation of the Trent-Witham-Ancholme scheme and a Severn-Thames scheme.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reply. I accept that there may be practical difficulties. One is that a few of the rivers are now drying up. The National Rivers Authority has no jurisdiction in Scotland although it was given the name "national". However, since some regions have excesses of rain and of water in reservoirs on this comparatively small main island of Britain, is serious consideration being given to other schemes of distribution?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, yes. Additional schemes are being considered by the NRA. The implementation of schemes to transfer water to areas of need is a long-term planning matter. Comparative costs and environmental effects have to be assessed for the various options. The NRA is making good progress in developing a strategy based on the most feasible options.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, will the Minister state which regions are suffering the worst water shortages? What restrictions on water use have already been imposed on those regions? What consultations have Her Majesty's Government had with the National Rivers Authority about cutting back abstraction from rivers?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the main areas of the country affected by drought-type conditions are in the East and the South. Many of those areas have hose-pipe bans. Of the population, 17.5 per cent. are affected by a hose-pipe ban. On abstraction and the NRA, I have said that it is the responsibility of the NRA to make sure that there is enough water and that it is used in a way that is effective and conducive to long-term sustainability.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, is it true that only about 10 per cent. of the capacity of the Kielder dam in Northumberland is used for local purposes? What would be the approximate cost of building a water main from the Kielder dam to London?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the question of whether a national water grid would be feasible has been asked many times by people interested in inter-regional transfers of water. Until now it has been considered far too expensive and ineffective when there are other solutions at hand.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that when the subject was discussed in the House about seven or eight years ago it was stated that expensive machinery had been installed in pits to keep the water level down? At that time I suggested that the water could be allowed to rise. Surely that is a more practical answer than trying to achieve movements of rivers which have already dried up. The Minister may tell me that the water is acid. If rains can desalinate the Red Sea, surely we can deacidify the water?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, clearly that is a subject about which the noble Baroness knows a great deal more than I do. It is very expensive to use machines to desalinate or deacidify water. And it does not improve the taste or quality of the water, which might not necessarily be accepted by the consumer.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that some river transfer schemes have had baleful results? Is he also aware that transfers of water via the River Thames from the Kennet and the Thames Valley to Thames Water—it used to be called the Metropolitan Water Board—have created environmental havoc in the Thames Valley and the Kennet valley? The result has been dried up streams and other water courses, lowered water tables and flora and fauna adversely affected.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am well aware of the problems sometimes caused by inter-regional transfers. The noble Lord referred to baleful results. I am glad to say that the NRA has today acted by talking to Thames Water to see what can be done about that very important river.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, never mind the difficulties. Where is the will to overcome them?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, there is plenty of will to overcome them—in the Government, the National Rivers Authority and the water regulator, and among consumers who envisage that every pint saved today is a pint which can be used later in the summer.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, does the Minister accept that as well as a problem of supply there is a problem of demand? Quite apart from the vagaries of the weather, the ever-increasing tendency to abstract water for agricultural, industrial and consumer purposes is causing the shortage. Therefore, in addressing the problem, the Government, the NRA and the water companies need to think of a strategy for demand as well as for supply.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. He will be pleased to know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment announced a few weeks ago that he will issue a consultation document aimed specifically at demand management.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, if I understand the Minister correctly, he states that some thought has been given to transfer of water from the northern regions to the South. If at any time the North is short of water, will he arrange for water to be brought from the South to the North?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the point is that some schemes are already in operation. I am sure that the NRA would not countenance a scheme which meant that the North, while having plenty of rain, suffered from drought conditions.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, when I hear the Minister state that the NRA is acting by "talking" to the water authority, I wonder whether the noble Lord has understood the question put by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury. Would it not be desirable for the Government to emulate the forethought of the London County Council and of the Greater London Council which built the Thames barrier long before global warming had ever been thought of?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am not sure of the point which the noble Lord is trying to make. I agree that the Thames water barrage is a good safeguard. However, the private sector is investing record amounts of money in the water industry, which is to be welcomed.