HL Deb 11 March 1992 vol 536 cc1373-403

6.22 p.m.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington rose to call attention to the problems affecting Britain's rivers, coasts and beaches, including pollution and water shortage, and to the remedies needed to deal with them; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, many comments were made about the debate which we have just had; that it was a very wide subject and covered many aspects of our political democracy. It can also be said of this Motion that it covers a wide number of subjects. I am therefore delighted that so many noble Lords have agreed to take part in the debate because all of them have their own particular expertise to give to it. I am particularly delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Monteagle of Brandon, has decided to make his maiden speech, after quite a number of years, on this subject. I am sure that we all look forward to hearing what he has to say and to many future contributions from him after his maiden speech.

Britain is unique in Europe when it comes to looking after our own rivers, beaches and water supply. We are an island and we normally have, except for the past three years, a high rainfall. We cannot, therefore, like a number of other countries in the European Community, blame other countries on our borders for whatever is wrong with our rivers nor for the abstractions of water from them by other people. We are uniquely responsible for our own island. If there is anything wrong we have only ourselves to blame.

In looking at the rivers of this country I read with interest the report from the National Rivers Authority on its 1990 survey which shows that 89 per cent, of the rivers were of either good or fair quality. That is nice to know. But it is disturbing to find that 15 per cent, of rivers were downgraded between 1985 and 1990 and that that deterioration happened in what were top quality waters such as the Thames catchment area and in Devon and Cornwall.

In the same report the National Rivers Authority states that 28,718 pollution incidents were reported, of which 3,760 were considered serious. Out of that large number of serious pollution incidents there were only 484 successful prosecutions. I felt a particular concern when reading that the Wessex region, with 1,252 incidents, had only 29 successful prosecutions. The South-West region was equally bad. It is clear, therefore, that a much greater effort must be applied to achieving successful prosecutions and that the fines imposed on perpetrators must be increased in order to deter these incidents from occurring.

In the face of those figures it is even more disturbing to find—I realise that the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, is to speak in the debate—that the National Rivers Authority will receive £15 million less in funding in 1992–93 than originally forecast, having already suffered a 12 per cent, cut in its funding in October 1991.

An increasing number of our rivers and streams are now regularly drying out each year through over-abstraction. Some of them have dried out altogether. Around 50 rivers have been identified as suffering in that way. That is not simply due to the recent drought conditions. It has been going on for a number of years. Many of the rivers had dried out before the past three summers. Many rivers are suffering because it is cheaper to extract clean water near the source of rivers rather than further downstream.

This is all compounded by the practice of discharging into the rivers downstream from the abstraction points whereas in actual fact that process should be completely reversed. It would help enormously the water level in the rivers. It is also sad that much of this abstraction from our rivers is taking place under licences granted over 30 years ago. It does not take much imagination to realise that they must be reviewed.

All of us have come to take water for granted, or we did until quite recently. It was always understood that if there was a shortage somewhere we could build a new reservoir and the problem would be solved. That is no longer the answer to our water shortage. We have to educate people to realise that water is a very scarce commodity. Until we learn to appreciate that we are not going to take the right actions. For instance, I can remember as a youngster living on an island in the archipelago of Stockholm where there was no water. We had water butts collecting the rainwater so that we could water our gardens and wash with it, but we could not drink it. Is there any reason why we should not be as careful as that?

As the water shortage is not exactly the same in all parts of the country, as a nation we should consider the idea of having a water grid. I know it is an expensive exercise but I believe that eventually we shall have to consider it. Worst of all, we have an old system of distribution, now taken over by the water companies, in which the leakage of water is enormous, causing considerable wastage. It is estimated that more water is lost in one day in England than is supplied by the largest region in England in one day —the Thames region. So we are just extracting water and letting it run away in an uncontrolled fashion. That cannot continue. The water companies must plan to reduce leakage to 15 per cent, within five years. If necessary, in order to solve the problem of wastage of water, there will have to be some sanctions on price increases.

I turn now to the problem of our beaches. The Department of the Environment sent me a press release dated 12th November in which Mr. David Trippier stated that 76 per cent, of our beaches met the mandatory coliform bacteria standards in 1991as against 77 per cent, in 1990 and 76 per cent, in 1989. His comment on this was: These results are encouraging because overall compliance has remained steady". How complacent can one get? Is that something on which to congratulate ourselves? Should we not be hoping to improve the standard over a period of three years?

On analysing those figures I found that 36 beaches which passed in 1990 failed in 1991. Of those 36 beaches nine were in the Southern region and 16 in the South-West region. This is only being judged against the present EC standards of coliform contamination. The compliance with the EC standard does not mean that a particular beach is safe, because the sampling does not take account of the presence of viruses in the water. The Government should press the EC to amend the bathing water directive to take account of contamination.

What happens to sewage and how it is treated is the single most important factor in determining the quality of our beaches. As a result of public outrage many years ago there was a move against short sea outfalls for sewage and a move towards the long sea outfalls. But even that relies on the "dilute and disperse" principle. There is a danger that the long sea outfall policy might prove to be the tall chimney policy of the 1960s all over again.

No discharge of human sewage should be allowed unless it has undergone both primary and secondary treatment. There are many minor restrictions that should be introduced, particularly in our river estuaries. For instance, there is no control over the sewage that is released from the enormous number of boats lying in marinas.

I believe that as we live on an island we have an advantage and we ought to be able to do better for ourselves. It is important that we introduce a coastal zone management plan. Many countries already have such plans. We lack an integrated view over coastal zone management. That is very important. Planning at the coast is fragmented and piecemeal. There is no one responsible authority. For example, in North Wales, after the breaching of the sea wall, there are now something like six or seven local authorities all doing different studies on how to repair that sea wall. Some of them are probably proposing to do something which could interfere with what is planned for further down the coast. Therefore, a coastal management plan is necessary, but it needs a single management authority for overall jurisdiction over coastal land, the inter-tidal zone and inshore waters.

At the moment MAFF is the lead department on sea and coastal defence matters; but that is purely historical because originally it was given that responsibility to prevent agricultural land from being flooded. The role of flood and coastal defence should be transferred from MAFF to the Department of the Environment. That department is already responsible for environmental protection and nature conservation and it leads on town and country planning, local authority finances, and environmental protection. It is also the sponsor of the National Rivers Authority. The Department of the Environment should be the overall responsible body. It is time that the Government created a unified authority for safeguarding our coastline.

The absence of a national policy for our coasts, with a multiplicity of government departments, statutory bodies and agencies being responsible, cannot work. The creation of a coastal management plan is of the utmost urgency. I beg to move for Papers.

6.37 p.m.

Lord Monteagle of Brandon

My Lords, it is with great trepidation that I make my maiden speech today. I took my seat in your Lordships' House in 1947–45 years ago—and I am afraid that since then, as far as concerns making speeches, I have been unduly influenced by the saying, "It is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and leave no possible doubt". I have frequently been asked, "When are you going to make your maiden speech? Surely you must be an expert on something". I hasten to assure your Lordships that I am not an expert on anything.

I have been away from England for more than two months and only returned yesterday. I have therefore had no opportunity to research the problems of water shortages with anyone from the water companies or the National Rivers Authority. For that reason I have no doubt that some of your Lordships will tell me that my ideas are crazy and that I am talking nonsense. However, that is a risk I shall have to take and I ask for the indulgence of the House.

I should like to mention a few of my random thoughts which I feel may be relevant. As the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, said, up to a few years ago a plentiful supply of water was freely available to everyone and totally taken for granted; one just turned on the tap and out it came. That has now changed, with many parts of England suffering drought conditions and it would seem to be sensible to take precautions before it is too late.

A number of articles have appeared in the press over the past year or so and while there are differences of opinion on how these problems can be solved it seems that a number of steps could be taken, although they would undoubtedly be expensive. Perhaps I could mention a few of them. It is thought that leakage accounts for approximately 25 per cent, to 30 per cent, of the water supply. Surely that is a very high figure. I do not know whether there are instruments or computers that can pinpoint where leakages occur, but I should have thought that it would not be impossible to devise something, if it has not been done already.

I speak with feeling on this particular point. A few years ago a tree was felled at my home, and as the ground was very wet the problem that arose was not discovered for a few days, by which time about 100,000 gallons had literally gone down the drain. I understand that more reservoirs are needed but that there are endless problems such as planning permission, public inquiries, building delays and so on. If it is difficult to build new reservoirs, would it not be possible to enlarge existing ones in some way?

I gather that there are various schools of thought over the feasibility of installing water meters and whether they would be effective. It would seem to me to be essential that they should be installed, particularly where water shortage is acute. I realise that that would cause problems over costs, especially for low-income large families, but perhaps some sort of rebate scheme could be used to help them. I am on a water meter and it certainly concentrates the mind wonderfully not to be wasteful.

I understand that in the Isle of Wight a metering experiment has cut consumption by 20 per cent, over five years. If such a saving could be made in one area, surely it could be achieved in others. Could not builders be encouraged to put water tanks in the attics or on the roofs of all new buildings to harness the rain-water? If that idea is feasible, could not existing house owners be encouraged to do the same, perhaps with a grant as an incentive? In public washrooms —for example, on motorway service stations—some of the taps are of the sprinkler type or shut off after a few seconds. Could not such taps be used in all public buildings?

In view of the fact that television is watched by millions of people, would it not be a good idea for the drought problems to be publicised by the BBC? That would surely be an ideal way to educate people. I quote from an article in Country Life. It reads: What is needed most urgently is a change in public attitudes to water". I understand that it is well known that desalination plants have always been astronomically expensive and that therefore they are not a practical solution. I believe that they are used by Middle Eastern countries, but perhaps they do not have the same worries about expense that we have.

I spend a considerable amount of time in Ireland, a country which has a well-deserved reputation for being very wet. It is sometimes said that the country needs a large umbrella over it and that its inhabitants need web feet in order to survive. However, over the past few years very dry conditions have existed in certain parts and people are now worried. I was told by an Irish plumber that he was recently called to check out an unoccupied council house. On arrival he found a tap running and on inquiring as to when the house was vacated he was told that it was two years ago. I only mention those points to show how, wherever one is, it is very unwise to take cheap and abundant water supplies for granted. I thank noble Lords for listening to me so patiently.

6.42 p.m.

Baroness White

My Lords, I am sure that I speak for Members from all parts of the House when I very warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Monteagle of Brandon, on his maiden speech. After hearing such an excellent speech, I cannot think why in the world he waited so many years before making it. I found it extremely persuasive. I very much hope—and I am sure everyone will join me in this expression of interest —that we shall hear the noble Lord making frequent speeches on subjects with which he is plainly much concerned. I extend to him our warmest congratulations.

I should also like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, for having chosen as her topic for debate such an appropriate subject as water supply in all its various forms, and the state of our rivers, coasts and beaches, as well as more familiar subjects such as water pollution about which some of us have perhaps heard almost too much over the past few years.

Owing to the restrictions of time, I shall contain my remarks and direct them to the coastline and in particular to our heritage coasts. About one-third of the designated heritage coasts in the United Kingdom are to be found in my own country of Wales. I am, of course, familiar with them. But some of the very finest are to be found in England and are therefore in the care of the English authorities. In both countries a major role is played by the National Trust with which I have been having some discussions over the past few days.

Through the Enterprise Neptune scheme, the National Trust acquires and protects many miles of highly valued coastline in both countries. The trust assures me that the successful or perhaps less successful fate of those purchases is very much conditioned by the attitude of the local authority; that is, the county authority concerned. Where the county authority has members and officers who are really interested in the fate of the heritage coasts and where they are prepared to spend time—and, no doubt, these days only limited resources—on the matter, then excellent results can follow. But where such people are not particularly interested, then I am told that even purchase by the National Trust is not necessarily as successful as one might wish.

But, in any case, there are problems. I was especially glad to hear the noble Baroness talk about the need for integrated planning of the coastal areas. I should like to speak particularly about the Welsh situation. I am advised that roughly 70 per cent, of our Welsh coastline enjoys some form of statutory designation. That would lead one to believe that it should therefore be much easier to protect the coastline. But a heritage coast may be in a national park; it may be in an area of outstanding natural beauty (an AONB); it may have one or more sites of special scientific interest; or part of it could possibly be an environmentally sensitive area. All those designations can co-exist.

When one turns to the marine environment adjacent to the shore, the Crown Estate commissioners come into play below high water mark. But the jurisdiction of the local authorities in charge of the heritage coasts ends at low water mark. There are suggestions of marine consultation areas which I understand are favoured by the Department of the Environment and the Welsh Office. In other words, there is a bewildering over-designation, an uncoordinated designation, of the coastal areas. The Select Committee on the Environment in another place has been studying some of the problems. I understand— no doubt to take our minds off the forthcoming election—that we can shortly expect to see special guidance on coastal planning from the Department of the Environment.

Meanwhile, there are many interested parties; not only the National Trust but also the Heritage Coast Forum organisations. They are really growing apace. There is now an independent organisation for the Principality of Wales with its own steering committee which co-ordinates with that for England. There is talk of establishing similar bodies in Scotland and possibly even in Ireland. In addition the National Audit Commission has views on organising coastal defence and protection, for which the NRA, as the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, knows very well, has some responsibility, financially and otherwise.

As time presses, I cannot take the matter further, but the situation clearly calls for statesmanlike intervention and effort. All that one can do is to emphasise the problem and to urge that co-ordinated attention is paid to it as soon as possible. The noble Baroness, Lady Robson, is absolutely right to urge that attention should be drawn to the importance of coastal zone management.

6.50 p.m.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, is to be congratulated on introducing a Motion on a subject of such lasting importance. I should also like to congratulate my noble kinsman, Lord Monteagle of Brandon, on his excellent maiden speech, which comes into the category of a long-awaited speech. I hope that we shall hear from him again soon.

I should like to address one area of which I have some direct knowledge. I refer to estuaries. It is only recently that the condition and importance of our estuaries have come to attract public notice. Previously, they did not seem to be of much importance, but we now understand the significance of these tidal rivers and of the flora and fauna which flourish in and around them. This is well understood by naturalists and ecologists and, increasingly, by members of the general public. However, we lack an administrative system that pays full attention to the needs of the estuaries and to ensuring that they receive proper environmental protection.

My specific point is that we do not have adequate administrative surveillance to oversee the growing use of the estuaries and to prevent abuse of them. Of course, the National Rivers Authority has control over the quality of the water in a river and has responsibilities in preventing flooding. But the NRA's role is limited and does not, in practice, cover many of the other activities that take place on estuaries. Let us take the case of my local tidal river in Suffolk, the Aide and Ore—confusingly, it changes its name mid-course. It is widely used for a variety of purposes, both commercial and pleasure. A number of small boats are engaged in commercial fishery, both in the river and off-shore. We have some flourishing oyster beds. There is traditional wildfowling for the pot by those living in the adjacent villages. There are also many small boats, ranging from sailing dinghies to large craft. For some years, we have had water skiers in the summer and, more recently, jet skis have arrived.

The river flows through an area that is designated as "Heritage Coast" and an area of outstanding natural beauty. Part of its course contains a site of special scientific interest, owned by English Nature; two separate, important bird sanctuaries, owned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; and a new reserve that is being created by the Suffolk Wild Life Trust. All those activities need to be conducted with proper regard for each other and for the environment. To some extent that prevails, thanks to the good sense of those involved, but pressure on the river is increasing all the time. To encourage co-operation between those various bodies, a river association has been set up locally. It enjoys much goodwill and the prospects look promising.

However, all that activity depends entirely on voluntary co-operation and goodwill, and there are limits to what can be done. If a district or parish council, for example, wishes to prohibit excessive speed by motorcraft which damage the river and create hazards, it does not seem to have the legal power or—just as importantly—the administrative resources to track down and restrain persistent offenders. There are particular anxieties about those using jet skis, a sport which seems to attract noisy individualists who do not always take kindly to suggestions that they should confine their activities to a particular part of the river or to a certain time of the day or week. Jet skis are a special problem: many people feel about them much as the Chancellor of the Exchequer feels about portable telephones.

I do not wish to suggest that we need a heavy bureaucracy or cumbersome administrative structure to discipline people who enjoy using boats or walking along river banks. What I have in mind is the encouragement of more supervision over the increasing use being made of our estuaries. What we want is a restraining hand to prevent abuse.

There seems to be a lacuna in the legal system that affects the ability of local authorities to act effectively in the way I have suggested. At present, there appears to be a general right to use tidal waters for navigation, but there does not appear to be a set of principles to regulate or control such use. It is true that if a nearby large town or port has passed a law through Parliament to control its various activities and to give it certain powers, some power may be taken in by-laws, but that is by no means the case for all tidal rivers, and especially not for small but significant tidal rivers, such as I have mentioned.

My impression is that a new statutory provision is needed to give effect to what I have in mind. The best solution might be a law to permit or even encourage local authorities to issue by-laws for certain defined purposes for the protection of estuaries. I believe that that task is important and that we should plan new legislation to create a proper legal framework for the future.

At this stage in a Parliament, all that one can do is to note subjects that might be raised in the next Parliament. I believe that this subject requires attention and I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some encouragement in her reply.

6.56 p.m.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, I suspect that today we shall not receive the press coverage that this Motion deserves, but I nevertheless thank my noble friend Lady Robson for tabling it and for the way in which she spoke to it. I congratulate also the noble Lord, Lord Monteagle of Brandon, on his excellent maiden speech which anticipated some of my comments. I hope that we shall hear from him more frequently in future.

When I started work on this speech on Monday, I had before me a picture from that day's edition of The Times of the sun-baked bed of the Graaf-Reinet dam in the Cape Province of South Africa. It was not a beautiful picture, and the caption ran: One of the worst dry spells on record has led to crop failure and is forcing Southern African countries to import food amid fears of social unrest". That should remind us in this country of how exceptionally fortunate we are in the availability of water, yet even here there are signs that demand is beginning to outstrip supply. It is on the problems that could arise from a shortage of water that I want to comment briefly, as did the noble Lord, Lord Monteagle.

I am not one of those who believe that economic growth as more than a temporary expedient is either possible or desirable, and I do not believe that it is right to seek to satisfy every demand without seeking sensible restraint. We were told only the other day to expect an increase before long of 42 per cent, in road transport activity. There seemed no suggestion that it might be better to exercise restraint in demand and not to have nearly three lorries for every two that are on the roads today—an idea that I find very disturbing.

I was brought up in a household where the breadboard had carved upon it the words, "Waste not, want not". The lean war years made those words particularly relevant, but the message remains true. In a magazine that was published last summer, the CPRE, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, said this: The time has now come to stop abusing our incredible good fortune. Anticipated climate changes may result in increasingly erratic rainfall patterns. The South and East of Britain may take on characteristics more like the Mediterranean, causing drastic changes to the countryside and wildlife and making drought a regular feature of life. With rising demands and limited resources a re-evaluation of the way we manage and exploit our water resources will be essential". Those who seek to meet an unchecked demand for water advocate the building of quite a number of large reservoirs. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, supports that policy, and I am sorry that, as one formerly closely connected with the water industry, he cannot be here today to make his case. I understand that at least four new reservoirs are proposed in the South of England—in Kent, Oxfordshire, Devonshire and Hampshire. I was disturbed to hear that scheme described as like adding a lane to the M.25 —stimulating demand but not satisfying it. As the CPRE asks: Should we really be flooding open countryside to create new reservoirs, which may make matters worse rather than better"? There is an urgent need for a reassessment for our national use of water.

We are told that the average consumption of water per person per day in Britain is 136 litres. Surely with sensible restraints and without undue hardship there is room for economy. I submit two courses of action for consideration: first, the introduction of water meters, a subject mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Monteagle. That may sound a sad step to have to take, and I cannot deal with the matter in detail now. Where it has been used it has been effective in easing demand.

Ofwat is the Government's economic regulator of the water industry, and it has recommended the water companies to consider selective metering where water resources are stretched. In a press release last December, the CPRE came out strongly: Water companies in those areas no longer have any excuse for dithering; we hope they will now take the plunge and introduce selective metering as soon as possible". Secondly, with or without water meters, the public should be educated—my noble friend Lady Robson mentioned this point —in the need to avoid waste. An important part of that process would be advice on the best equipment to use. An enormous amount of good drinking water is flushed unnecessarily down our lavatories and many of our washing machines (users of as much as 12 per cent, of all domestic demand) are highly inefficient. Add to that the fact that leakages, as has been said, in some regions waste more than one third of the supply, then action in that field is clearly necessary.

I should be grateful if the Minister would answer a few questions. First, does she agree with the CPRE that, The time has come to stop abusing our incredible good fortune"? Secondly, what incentive do the privatised water companies have, even with Ofwat on their backs, to encourage sensible economies in the use of water and to educate the public in possible methods of so doing?

7.3 p.m.

Viscount Mills

My Lords, as an employee of the NRA I am responsible for the fisheries in Lancashire. The major river catchment within that area is the Ribble, which faces the full range of environmental problems that beset our rivers. It is affected by industrial and agricultural pollution as well as by problems of sewage and water abstraction.

I could spend the rest of the speech discussing those problems, but that is not my purpose. The point I wish to make is that, although I am a fisheries manager trying to maintain, improve and develop fisheries, my work is dependent upon water quality, water resources and all the uses to which rivers are put—what has been described by my noble friend Lord Crickhowell as the cat's cradle of inter-relationships necessary to achieve integrated river basin management.

That metaphor is vivid and accurate, but it is not accepted by the House of Commons Environment Select Committee. That committee wishes to see a new national regulatory body unencumbered by operational functions and focused upon pollution control. The committee clearly believes that the regulation of water quality and the management of rivers can be carried out separately. I believe, and many who are far more expert than I have argued, that that view is too simplistic.

Water is a resource which both dictates to and is dictated by man's activities. Like any other resource it must be managed to achieve maximum benefit. Regulation of water quality is just one aspect of that management process, but it cannot be separated from all the other factors needed to achieve integrated management of a river system. Such integrated management depends upon two important concepts. The first is catchment management planning which identifies present and future uses of water and associated land, considers interactions and possible conflicts and provides an action plan for improvement. Such plans would, for example, protect fisheries which rely not just on water quality but on water quantity.

The second concept is the setting of statutory water quality objectives. From this year, legally binding standards for water quality are to be set for all inland and coastal waters. The setting of water quality objectives and standards will be complex, incorporating not just a wide range of environmental criteria but the need to protect the different uses made of any given stretch of water—uses which are at present controlled mainly by existing NRA functions. In addition, the water quality requirements of existing and proposed EC directives will be incorporated into those statutory water quality objectives.

The influence of such EC legislation upon the structure and working practices of the new environment agency should not be overlooked. For example, compliance with the urban waste water treatment directive may well lead to the strictly controlled input of organic material and nutrients into designated sensitive areas such as estuaries. Such controls would necessitate a high degree of integrated river and land use management. Similarly, it is hard to see how the proposed EC directive on the ecological quality of surface waters will be achieved merely by regulating water quality.

River catchment management planning, the achievement of statutory water quality objectives and compliance with EC directives will all require integrated river basin management. The environment committee itself expresses a strong preference for it to continue; yet it recommends breaking up some of the vital components. I do not believe that there is anything to be gained by stripping the pollution control function from other river management functions. Quite the contrary, I believe that much will be lost.

I shall now move rapidly downstream to the issue of our estuaries and coasts. There is no proposal by government to make the new environment agency responsible for regulating inshore marine pollution, despite the fact that effective management of our coasts, and in particular our estuaries, as the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, emphasised, is required urgently. I quote from the Land Ocean Interaction Study Science Plan published last month by the National Environmental Research Council: A piecemeal approach to the understanding and management of the coastal zone is no longer acceptable; effective management requires an understanding of how its ecosystems and physical regimes work and interact". That plan identifies that effective pollution control in our estuaries and coastal zones is just not possible if it is not linked to the control of pollutants entering into land waters. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, said, there is at present no integrated management of the coastal zone, let alone any attempt to manage inland waters, estuaries and the coastal zone as a single resource. There is not even a national coastal management.

Although the Government are preparing a guidance paper, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady White, for all local authorities on coastal zone issues, it is unlikely to address the problems of conflict between agencies which work without the aid of a common plan. When will government produce a national coastal strategy to guide authorities and industry on the use of our coasts, and who will oversee it?

We are at a watershed. There is a need for a fully integrated environment agency. As the Prime Minister said: It is right that the integrity and indivisibility of the environment should be reflected in a unified agency". I believe that the correct way forward is to integrate regulation and management throughout the water environment and that what is needed is not merely a pollution control agency but an agency for environmental protection and enhancement.

7.9 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, the Motion includes the word "beaches", and I wish to draw attention to a special problem which affects the North East in particular but which is seen also in other parts of the country. The problem arises from the dumping into the sea of coal waste from local pits, much of which returns to the beaches.

Those of us who have lived in the North East remember long stretches of golden sands, the playground of generations of families, which are now black deserts. Dozens of communities are paying the price of providing coal for the nation, quite apart from the more serious cost in the loss of life and limb and in lung diseases which occur through the mining of coal.

It is more than 20 years since I first raised the matter in another place. Here we are, all these years and 14 ministerial visits later, with the position unchanged. I see that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is to reply to the debate tonight. Who knows? With her great energy and industry, we may see her set the ball rolling towards a final solution to the problem.

There are two basic problems: first, who is to pay for cleaning up such devastation; and secondly, how is it to be done? The principle of payment is at least clear under present policy. We are told that the polluter must pay. In this case, the villain is British Coal and, as Shakespeare said, "There's the rub". British Coal says it cannot afford to pay and if it is forced to do so it will mean the closure of yet more pits. I need hardly remind your Lordships that dozens of pits have already been closed and are still being closed with the loss of thousands of jobs and the destruction of scores of mining communities. I believe that the solution to this aspect of the problem is that the direct provision of government money is fully justified. I fail to see why some areas of the country should pay such a price for an operation which is essentially national in character.

The other problem as to how the cleaning up is to be done appears to be more difficult. I say "appears" because I am continually puzzled by the fact that it has been solved in other countries. I cannot believe that the conditions in this country are so different from those elsewhere that similar action cannot be taken here.

Some of your Lordships, I am sure, are asking why we should not fill up all the big holes in the ground that we see when we travel around the country. All the holes in the North East were filled up long ago, but again the cost of transporting thousands of tons of waste by road—and some of it also by rail—is high, to say nothing of all those lorries causing social unrest and irritation with their constant rumbling throughout the region.

Seven years ago an attempt was made to solve the problem with a new technique. The waste was pulverised and pumped with water out to sea. The intention was that the waste would be dumped so far out that because of the nature of its content it would not come back on to the beaches. That was a laudable attempt, but it failed for a number of technical reasons. Thus, once again no progress was made. Perhaps I should mention that there were also protests from conservationists who said that marine life was being affected. It was a legitimate objection and it added to the difficulties.

In a short debate such as this, it is not possible to go into greater detail on what many people in the North East regard as a great and intolerable injustice. I have no doubt that the biggest obstacle to progress is a lack of will by governments of both parties to tackle the problem seriously. Money and technical know-how are, as I hope I have made clear, essential ingredients in the solution. But with a determined government there is no doubt that the beaches will be at least as good as those of Bournemouth, Torquay and all the other seaside areas that have had the good fortune to escape the worst features of our industrial history.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, it was for me a particular pleasure to hear the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Monteagle because I knew him long before he knew me. I was a humble and hard-pressed recruit at the Guards depot at Caterham when he was a young junior officer. To me he was a figure of infinite seniority and distinction. His maiden speech has reinforced that image.

We are fortunate that the noble Baroness introduced the Motion today. It is a subject on which many of us feel passionately. I wish to deal primarily with the heritage coast. We are all aware that once the beauty of our coast is lost it is difficult, if not impossible, to get it back again. I believe that we in Britain have much to teach the rest of Europe. We lead the way in many aspects of coastal conservation.

However, much more remains to be done. Our most sensitive coast is usually too precious to be left in private or local authority hands, for the simple reason that the pressures for commercial development are hard to resist. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, said. At home in Suffolk we share the same rivers and I hope that some of his suggestions will be introduced in the next Parliament.

The noble Baroness, Lady White, referred to the work of the National Trust and the tremendous contribution which Enterprise Neptune has made. I believe that the original target in 1965 was to bring 900 miles of the best coastline into protective ownership and 530 miles has already been secured. I hope it will not be long before Orfordness in Suffolk is added as a jewel to Neptune's crown. Another point important to us in East Anglia is the future of the Iken Cliffs. If they become available I hope Neptune will be able to take them over. I have no reason to believe that this is imminent but we must not miss chances. Government and statutory agencies must assist and support the National Trust with this splendid work.

Secondly, I wish to refer to the concept of Heritage Coast about which the noble Baroness, Lady White, spoke. I must declare an interest as a countryside commissioner. Heritage Coast is a designation whose history started in 1966, chronologically with Enterprise Neptune, although it took some time to get under way. It was not until Mr. Heath's government in 1972 that it was launched. Now, 927 miles, 34 per cent, of the coast of England and Wales, is designated as Heritage Coast. That must mean more than mere designation. We must move further forward from pure conservation as far as possible towards restoration. The points about which the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, spoke are appropriate to it.

This project is being carried forward to some extent by the Heritage Coast Forum. I feel some parenthood towards it because it came out of the 1988 Dartington heritage coast conference which I had the honour to chair. The Heritage Coast Forum is now chaired by a good friend of many of us, Maldwin Drummond, who is particularly well qualified for the job. It is an independent standing body and carries forward our cause.

I wish to say a word about a particular problem on the coast —litter. There is only one way to deal with it, and that is to pick it up. The new legislation imposes fresh and welcome obligations to do this, but often it is felt that the occasional picking up is enough. Litter should be picked up as often as is necessary. Picking up litter from the coast is a therapeutic occupation. I enjoy it greatly and recommend it to your Lordships. Where noble Lords are not available, it could be part of the community service programme for offenders. They could benefit as much as the coast.

We could teach Europe a great deal about coastal protection. Many noble Lords will be familiar with the environmental degradation which has occurred in Italy, France—in my opinion, the Cote d'Azur has been totally ruined—and in Greece. It is disappointing that the socialist government that was in power in Greece did not concern itself more with these matters and little progress was made during that era. One might have expected more action from a socialist government. Britain's heritage coast is part of Europe's heritage, and Europe's coast is part of the world's heritage. That is a flag we must carry forward.

I must refer to water supplies and the effect that over-abstraction of underground water supplies is having on our rivers and on our trees. In the early 1980s the world conservation strategy was launched. It was based on the concept of sustainable development. That must mean that water needs are met from the storage of surface water which would otherwise run into the sea in winter. There will be a limit to the amount of storage capability in some parts of England, particularly in the South East and in East Anglia. I do not favour the idea of a water grid as I do not think it is right to pipe water from the North West to the South East. The North West needs its water supplies to encourage development. If I lived in the North West, I would greatly resent my water supplies, which constitute a useful asset for development, being taken away to facilitate more development in the South East. The right answer is for those areas that have the water to take advantage of those supplies to encourage local development. Water is crucial for the economic development of this country.

7.21 p.m.

Lord Ashburton

My Lords, these are fascinating and important topics that the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, has brought forward for us to discuss. Like many other noble Lords, I am sure the only criticism I could make is that such a wide field is covered that we cannot possibly do justice to it in a two-hour debate. Nor, indeed, can one in the allotted span of six minutes do more than make a very few points. Inevitably the points I make will to some extent be repetitive.

It may help if I say where I, as it were, come from in this whole field. I was brought up in the country and from an early age was interested in and indeed influenced in the direction of being an amateur of nature in the broadest sense. More specifically, I am also a keen fisherman and therefore vitally interested in the variability and sustainability of water flows. As I live near Winchester on the chalk, the problems of that kind of area are most familiar to me and the aggregation of these interests with farming inevitably has sharpened and concentrated my ideas on environmental questions.

Plenty of water normally falls on these islands to satisfy even the growing demands of domestic, industrial and commercial consumers without resort to desalination or the more fanciful idea that is occasionally put forward of towing icebergs here to use as they melt. The potential growth of water demand is, however, considerable and this has of course to be taken into account. The task we have is quite simply put. It is that of trapping enough of the water before it runs off into the sea and conserving enough in reservoirs to even out the natural variability of flows.

Reservoirs are of two kinds—man-made and natural. Natural reservoirs are either lakes or the underground aquifers found in the chalk and limestone areas of the country. Reservoirs sited in popular areas are of great recreational use, providing of course sailing, fishing and water skiing, not to mention the use of jet skis—the bane of the life of the noble Lord, Lord Bridges. If properly landscaped, reservoirs can prove to be marvellous wildlife refuges. But they need to be watertight for the sake of efficiency and therefore rely on suitable rock and/or soil conformation. It is no good, for example, damming a chalk valley. In any case, though reservoirs once constructed are normally regarded as an asset to a neighbourhood, new planning permissions can and will be vigorously fought. Not in my backyard is a perfectly legitimate though perhaps somewhat over-denigrated human reaction which every one of us at times feels.

Chalk aquifers are of course ideal reservoirs. They are already there; they are out of sight and they produce on the whole extremely pure and plentiful water. It is small wonder therefore that in the past so many of the chalk aquifers of Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire were over-exploited to the extent that their streams have either become trickles or in some cases ceased to exist at all.

In my part of the world the aquifers are still being tapped but newer schemes involving pumping water from the aquifers at times of acute shortage are now being instituted. These new schemes do not involve piping the water away from the headwaters of the rivers where the best aquifers naturally occur direct to the consumer but rather running the pumped water down the water courses themselves to where abstraction normally takes place. That is not always, I regret to say, as near the tidal limits as one would hope.

I should like here to pay tribute to the work of the National Rivers Authority for the remarkable research it put into these schemes before they were implemented. The NRA undertook the most comprehensive and detailed studies of hydrographic and hydrological data and the drilling of boreholes to establish the facts including—this is most vital—the speed of refilling of the aquifers from varying levels of rain. The NRA has also undertaken the most interesting surveys of aquatic and riparian flora and fauna under varying conditions over periods long enough in terms of years to give us a whole new scientific and factual view of phenomena we could only surmise about before. Undertakings were given not to use these schemes if the aquifers were showing, through constant monitoring, signs of being deplenished permanently.

But once installed these schemes which help to preserve and in some cases even enhance the ecology and environment of the streams, and both rural and —this is important—urban riparian areas, are, I fear, a potential Achilles' heel. I hope I am wrong but water demand from those who live away from rivers involves many more votes than those of the people who live along their banks. Undertakings given in good faith will in extremis succumb to pressure and the story of Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire could be repeated.

At this moment we are experiencing an extraordinary run of low rainfall years and some streams are lower than they have ever been before. This run of dry years is not unprecedented in the period since rainfall records have been kept but it is certainly consistent with possible climatic change, and if this were to prove to be the case we could have real problems.

I have concentrated on the problems of the chalk land because I have experience of this, but all over the country the provision of water is of vital national importance. I am often surprised at the way people seem to regard water as something which should be free at the point of sale and available in unlimited quantity for every purpose. I am also surprised that people often regard climatic change, in particular higher temperatures and lower rainfall, as an unqualified boon.

At some stage I am sure we are going to have to face up to the construction of a national water grid. In anticipation of this need I believe we should be researching with urgency and with all the resources necessary the likely demands for water over the longer term, the likely or at least the possible climatic changes which may occur and then the design and the costs of a national water grid. At the same time there should be every attempt to make sure that the public realise that water is an expensive commodity and is not to be taken for granted. There are, after all, many places in the world, and not just the oil producing areas of the Gulf, where water costs a lot more than oil.

7.28 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, as often happens when one speaks towards the end of a debate, much of what one wanted to say has already been said. In this case other noble Lords have spoken on this subject better than I could have done. Therefore I shall try to avoid repeating their points.

I feel rather put upon because I am followed by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, who knows far more about this subject than I could ever dream of knowing. So I shall restrict my remarks to a few general points. As regards all matters of conservation I am always struck by the fact that there are virtually no wild areas left in this country. Man has been living on this island at too great a density of population to have left any habitat in anything like its natural state. Indeed, when people talk about our wild countryside and wild animals and birds I find that I have to remind them that the natural condition of Great Britain is a large forest and that we cannot go back.

The same is true of our river system. The wetlands which provided the sponge and water reserve for most of our rivers have largely disappeared through land reclamation. That process has been taking place since Roman times. We are continuing to remove a natural wildlife habitat. Once one removes the habitat of any species of wildlife one has effectively destroyed that species far more effectively than by any form of hunting. Not only has one destroyed the animal; one has also removed any chance of its being able to reproduce or even of allowing a small population to continue or expand. Therefore, when we consider our coastal areas and river banks and the wetlands alongside them emphasis should be placed on their preservation because they represent a reserve bank for our natural wildlife.

In addition, the wetlands of this country have traditionally provided the water reserve for our rivers. Much has already been said about the fact that we are taking far too much water out of our rivers and lakes, and even the reservoirs which we have created, especially when we have low rainfall. As the noble Lord, Lord Ashburton, said, low rainfall is not totally new but it may be becoming more common. Unless we are prepared to take positive action—and as we have changed our environment so much we must take positive action, since we cannot leave nature to repair itself because we have changed it too much to allow it to do so—we shall continue to experience those problems.

We are using our water system far more than we have in the past, for divers reasons. We have used it as a waste disposal system in our industrial progress, and that has led to damage. We also indulge in practices such as fish farming. On the face of it that would appear to be an environmentally friendly process. However, a river system, like land, can become exhausted if it is over-used. Fish farming produces effluent from the fish, which are kept in large densities. That tends to kill off the life in rivers due to the growth of algae which results from the increase in nutrients.

If crop rotation is the answer to land exhaustion, surely something similar should be applied to rivers if we are not ultimately to destroy them and make them unsuitable for the fish we grow in them. Fish farming is only a short-term project. Something on those lines must be encouraged. Within the confines of privately-owned rivers it is difficult to see how that can be done unless some new system can be worked out. I can offer no overall solution other than suggesting that the Government bring together the people responsible and make them discuss the problem urgently.

Another problem which has not yet been covered in the debate and on which I hope the Minister can provide an answer concerns the marine pollution control unit within the Department of Transport which responds to oil incidents. Apparently the unit can deal with a 14,000-tonne oil spill at sea within a 48-hour period. That is an impressive figure, I agree. Fourteen thousand tonnes of oil seems to be a great deal to be dealt with in that period. However, the "Exxon Valdez" distributed over 300,000 tonnes. More than 232,000 tonnes of oil were spilt by the "Amoco Cadiz". Will the Government ensure that tanker routes are strictly controlled and avoid sensitive coastal areas and that adequate clean-up facilities are provided to deal with a major spill? That is a matter which should be looked into and I shall be interested to hear whether they have any plans.

I see that my time is rapidly running out. All of us who are involved are going to have to pick up the cheque for the sins of our past. That is not a political point. It is something that we had not realised until now. Unless we adopt an aggressive and positive approach to the problems we shall not be able to save the environment we have today.

7.34 p.m.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord who has just spoken that we have to take a vigorous approach to tackle the inherited problems of the past. Speaking as Chairman of the National Rivers Authority, I have to obey the Addison Rules, which means that I can leave the Minister to reply to any criticisms of the NRA that have been made during the course of the debate. I hope that she will vigorously defend our prosecution policy, for example. However, I can make a contribution to the general subject under discussion. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, for enabling me to make a few observations this evening.

It is a great pleasure to congratulate my noble friend Lord Monteagle of Brandon, who referred specifically and in some detail to the acute problem of water resources. I hope that he will study the discussion document on water resources development strategy which, as it happens, was published only this morning. That document forms part of the process of preparing a national water strategy in which the NRA is engaged. That will take some time because it is a major task, but it is under way and a great deal of work is being put into it.

In introducing the debate the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, said that Britain was unique. That is true, but I hope that we shall stop saying that we are uniquely bad. I was delighted when David Bellamy, when helping to launch an environmental project earlier this week, emphasised that we are by no means the dirty man of Europe. That is a message which needs to be repeated. If politicians and quango chiefs are not believed, perhaps David Bellamy will be. In some ways I believe that we are uniquely good. That is the case in the thoroughness of our supervisory arrangements and public supply of information. I wish that the rest of Europe was as good.

I continue to believe that the Water Act was one of the most important environmental measures ever passed in this country. The fact that the 1990 survey shows some disappointing results does not provide contradictory evidence because it reported on the period prior to the implementation of the new Act and does not give a picture of the position that will emerge over the next five years.

I believe that with the Water Act and the introduction of integrated pollution control we are in pole position in Europe. If we get the Environmental Protection Act right then we shall probably be better equipped than any other country in Europe to deal with the very great problems. We have to get it right and my noble friend Lord Mills was absolutely correct in what he had to say on the subject and on the need to aim not just at pollution control but at the enhancement and protection of the environment. Those were the Prime Minister's words when he announced the new Environment Agency, and that means an integrated approach. That approach is also necessary if we are to achieve the objectives of the draft ecological directive which is now being prepared in Europe.

Great progress has and is being made. Enormous investment is now under way. That is not just the £28 billion over 10 years which the water industry is undertaking or the striking improvement in operational practice in that industry since it came under the supervisory arrangements introduced by the Water Act but includes the very substantial investment now being undertaken by industry in general. However, in a sense all that has been aimed at achieving standards set in the past. It is only this year that we shall begin the introduction of the system of water quality objectives, again referred to by my noble friend Lord Mills, which will enable us to balance our use objective with the costs and practicality of the various options.

In setting those water quality objectives we must concern ourselves not just with point-source discharges but with the equally important problem of diffuse pollution. That is in part, but only in part, agricultural pollution and also pollution from storage of waste, discharge of waste from many farms and the serious problem of contaminated land. Indeed, we shall have to address the problem of contaminated land and mines very seriously in the period ahead.

There has been a great deal of reference to drought, and drought without parallel in modern times in the South and East, particularly affecting the chalk aquifers. I said that we are preparing a water strategy, working with the other providers of water resources. But in the short term we shall have to get through some very difficult periods. We shall face some very difficult problems this summer.

Partly to help tackle the acute problems of some of our rivers, the NRA will introduce a moratorium on consent to licensed abstractions on those rivers which are under very severe stress as a result of the drought. There will have to be a wait before consents will be granted. I am sure that that must be right when particular rivers are under severe stress.

I agree with everyone who says that water is a valuable resource. People will have to pay for it, including the cost of protecting the environment. I also agree with much that has been said about the need to improve our coastal protection arrangements. There is an enormous job to be done. Great progress has been made in recent years and I hope that soon we shall see more rivers like the Tyne, which 10 years ago was a dead river and is now the best salmon river in England. I hope that we shall see many more rivers in the future giving evidence of the improvement that is taking place.

7.41 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, this has been a good and extremely informative debate. Many noble Lords have contributed from their special expertise. We are indebted to my noble friend Lady Robson for her suggestion of this topic for our discussion today and for the introduction she gave to it.

The whole question of the measurement of pollution and standards of our rivers was dealt with some five or six years ago when I was a member of Sub-committee F (the environmental sub-committee dealing with European legislation). I am not entirely certain whether the committee is still dealing with it. I was never able to fathom—particularly when we had a slight disagreement with most of the Continental countries, which had different problems from ours, as the noble Baroness said—why we did not enter much more into co-operation with the Republic of Ireland, which is the other country in the European Community that faces almost exactly the same problems and equally can collaborate with us in finding the cures.

I was very interested that the noble Lord, Lord Monteagle, in his valuable maiden speech raised the subject of Ireland and made a comparison. We can do rather more to co-operate than we have done in the past.

It is part of my duty in winding up the debate from this Bench to pick up some of the themes that have been mentioned. However, I shall start with an issue that has not been raised. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Grey is not here. Owing to ill health he was unable to make the speech that he had planned. I had the pleasure of reading the speech that he would have made. It was extremely useful and I should like to read out just one paragraph from it. It raised a point whose particular application, although touched on by my noble friend Lord Addington, has not been mentioned. He said: The sad effect of pollution is a steadying decline in otters. Otters used to be common throughout the British Isles but are now restricted to the more rural areas of the west country, Wales, Northumbria and Scotland. Today it is estimated that there are only 15,000 otters left in Britain. The situation in Devon is grave. The Torridge and the Taw rivers are so polluted with PCB chemicals that the otter is unable to breed and many of the animals which still are there will be barren". That is just one more instance of the many illustrations that have been given in the debate today. Another instance concerns coastal protection. My honourable friend in another place, Mr. Alan Beith, the Member of Parliament for Berwick-upon-Tweed, has been leading a campaign, which is in the interests of most of the local people, for the preservation of Druridge Bay. Because of agreements entered into 30 years years ago—how many of our problems stem from such agreements of 30 years ago!—Druridge Bay is losing all its sand. Its sand is literally being carted away. The whole of the area is being ruined by an extraction policy about which apparently nothing can be done.

Any number of points have been made and many noble Lords have raised one that I should like particularly to draw to your Lordships' attention; namely, the growing staging of oak trees all over the South of England as the water table falls. That can be seen any day of the week in Richmond Park only half an hour from Westminster.

These topics above all things need greater co-ordination. It is good to know that much has been done, and the noble Lord who has just spoken brought us some rather cheering news. But there is a need for greater co-ordination in the fight against deterioration. We must be sure to foresee what is likely to be a threat in the immediate future so that the generations to come do not look back—as we look back to 30, 40, 60 or 80 years ago—and say that all their problems were laid up for them by their grandfathers who did nothing to avoid them and were wasteful in the extreme. We are aware of the dangers. It is up to us to tackle them.

It is extremely important that all governments— this Government and any future government—take great care to differentiate between borrowing for current expenditure and borrowing for capital expenditure. We need great investment in capital expenditure.

7.48 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on her choice of subject—but it is impossible to deal with it in six minutes. Therefore I must be very selective. This afternoon we have had some extremely interesting speeches, not least the one made by the noble Lord, Lord Monteagle. I hope that we shall not have to wait for long before he speaks again.

I shall not enter the argument, despite the bait dangled in front of me by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, about the benefits of who owns the industry at the moment. Whoever controls the industry, the same problems remain to be faced. First, there is the problem of pollution, about which so many noble Lords have spoken this afternoon. The noble Baroness, Lady Robson, illustrated very well that it is not thought to be under control.

I am a supporter of the NRA. It is doing an excellent job. Despite that, we have to face the fact that in 1980 there were 12,500 incidents of pollution recorded, and by 1990 that figure had risen to 28,143. Some of that undoubtedly will be due to increased reporting, but it is still a horrific total. Some of the watchdog organisations believe that the real figure is still higher. Clearly, there is a need for stronger statutory control on discharges and for better policing. I was interested to hear the noble Viscount, Lord Mills, setting out the controls that he hopes will be available to us in future. If those controls were acted upon, they would go a long way towards improving the situation.

However, high pollution levels are exacerbated by lower rainfall, especially in the South and East, where we face severe shortages this summer. I live in Cambridge where the situation is quite desperate. The shortages are made worse by a lack of will to control abstractions or perhaps the lack of facility for doing so, and by the old problem of leaking water mains. The noble Baroness referred to that in her introduction. Between 25 per cent, and 30 per cent, of all treated water is lost between the treatment works and the consumer. Despite the fact that modern technology allows rapid identification of areas of leakage, and despite new techniques for pipe laying and renewal, it seems that the industry has not succeeded in reducing that percentage. I remember drawing the attention of the House to the same figures in 1986 when we first discussed privatisation of the water industry.

Leakage of treated water also means wastage of chemicals and energy used in the treatment. The noble Baroness, Lady Robson, said that we must economise, as did the noble Lord, Lord Monteagle. We would have to examine that. It is a subject for a debate in itself because so much could be done to reduce our water demands. But failure to tackle those problems has led to a reduction of flow in many of our rivers in the South and East with disastrous effects for wildlife, angling and other water-based recreations including quiet enjoyment of the river bank.

Much has been said about estuaries and coastal areas. United Kingdom estuaries are biologically rich and remain ice free in winter. They have become therefore internationally important in terms of bird conservation. As a member of the council of the RSPB, I hope that I shall be forgiven for raising the matter in this context. In March 1990 at the last North Sea ministerial conference, the United Kingdom Government committed themselves to the "wise use" of our coasts. However, a recent survey by the RSPB revealed that 80 of Britain's estuaries faced some threat, and 30 of them faced permanent damage. The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, has listed the damages which threaten those estuaries. I shall not use my time in listing them again. But clearly we need to look more closely at what we are doing.

Many areas are designated sites of special scientific interest. However, as we have discussed on so many occasions, that designation does not protect the site against damage. Now that the European Community's habitat directive has finally been agreed, and will be published in April, with two years for implementation, the Wildlife and Countryside Act will need to be amended to comply with the directive.

I shall have to put this question in these terms in view of the announcement made today. Will a future Conservative Government take action to identify those coastal and marine areas requiring protection under the new EC directive? What new measures would be introduced to protect such areas? English Nature has recently secured £250,000 to assist local authorities in coastal and estuarine areas in developing policies which are sympathetic to nature conservation. Would a future Conservative Government make sure that the same provision was made in Scotland and Wales? It is important that the same criteria are applied in all three countries.

The noble Baroness, Lady Robson, said that six or seven departments were involved with coastal planning. In fact, 33 government departments, statutory bodies and agencies have a finger in the pie. I have to repeat to the noble Baroness who will respond for the Government my constant plea: that the Government will consider again the need for a coherent coastal management policy because we still do not have one despite all the reassuring words stated in the past. If Shetland and Orkney can do it, surely we should be able to apply their criteria to the remainder of the United Kingdom.

I wish that there were more time to discuss what has been said today. My noble friend Lord Dormand of Easington referred to beaches. My noble friend Lady White had much to say about heritage coasts. Both subjects need to be examined. I cannot do so in six minutes. I support the Motion.

7.55 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, we are all up against time constraints today. I therefore do not believe that I can do justice to what has been not only an important subject but an interesting debate. We are all grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, for introducing the debate. Two hours is not long enough. I am grateful also to my noble friend Lord Monteagle of Brandon. We have waited 45 years for that speech. It was well worth waiting for. However, he left us in no doubt that he was far from being a fool. His contribution to the debate today was valuable and we implore him not to leave it too long before we hear from him again.

Living on a densely-populated island, it is inevitable that water plays a significant part in our national life. We expect a lot. We depend on rivers not only for drinking water supply, and for agricultural abstraction, but also as an inevitable disposal route for effluents. To all of us, as individuals, clean and wholesome water for everyday use is vital. We rightly expect our rivers and coastal waters to be clean, litter free and suitable for fishing and recreation. But we all like to think that water will always be available, in unlimited quantities, on tap—however much we may moan when it rains. It is therefore important that our water resources are effectively managed to meet all the uses that need to be made of them.

The Government are committed to securing lasting improvements in water quality, wherever they are needed, and to improved management of water resources, and has made a number of important changes over the past few years to achieve this. A cornerstone of our policy, contained in the 1989 Water Act (now consolidated into the 1991 Water Resources and Water Industry Acts), was the establishment of a separate and independent environmental regulator, concerned with all aspects of water problems throughout the whole of England and Wales. Accordingly, the Government set up the National Rivers Authority, in 1989. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Crickhowell on the work that he has done with that body.

One of the NRA's first major tasks was to review the situation which it inherited. The results of its 1990 river quality survey, published last December, provide an important baseline for the drawing up of objectives and the NRA's work in improving water quality. We are naturally disappointed that the results showed a small net deterioration in river quality since 1985. However, the survey was too soon to reflect the impact of water privatisation or the success of the NRA. The NRA attributed a large part of the small net overall change to the effects of drought, and changes in survey methods. And let us remember that around 90 per cent, of rivers in England and Wales remain of good or fair quality—suitable for drinking water supply after treatment and supporting fisheries. This compares with an average of around 75 per cent, throughout the European Community for rivers of broadly comparable quality. No other EC country betters the UK's position on river quality.

The NRA has been working to develop strategies for tackling pollution, and to chart its priorities for action. It has already published reviews covering the discharge consent system, blue-green algae, river quality, bathing waters, farm wastes, groundwater protection, and pollution incidents. More work of a similar kind is under way.

The Government have given the NRA wide powers to set and to review the standards set for discharges, to seek improvements, to take samples and to bring prosecutions where standards are not met. Only recently we gave the NRA power to secure fines of up to £20,000 in magistrates' courts. And the NRA can and does seek heavier fine in higher courts.

The number of successful prosecutions brought by the NRA has shown a marked increase. It was up by 42 per cent, from the NRA's first to its second year in business; a clear reflection of its commitment to tough and effective regulation of water quality. We also gave the NRA the powers to clean up after pollution and to recover costs. These are a direct reflection of the polluter pays principle and can be particularly effective.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, appeared to agree that growing environmental awareness has in part accounted for the increase. The NRA seeks to prosecute all those responsible for major pollution incidents. Its recent report indicates that nationally 43 per cent, of major incidents were successfully prosecuted in the same year. The figures show a significant rise in the number of prosecutions brought by the NRA.

The Government have also ensured that the water industry is investing to meet higher standards. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, said that we need more investment. I am happy to say that some £28 billion will be spent until the turn of the century on improvements, and some £14 billion will be for improved sewage disposal. Those sums were unthinkable under the old system of a state controlled water industry. Already a steady improvement is apparent in the performance of sewage treatment works. Non-compliance with long-term consent conditions was down to 12 per cent, in 1990 from 23 per cent, in 1986. We are also tackling farm pollution.

I have so far spoken largely about rivers. It is commonplace, even fashionable, to play down British achievement. If so, may I for a moment be thoroughly un-British and say a few positive things about bathing water quality. Monitoring of bathing waters under what is probably the most comprehensive sampling regime of any member state shows the dramatic improvements that have been made in recent years. In 1986, 51 per cent, of identified waters complied with the bathing water directive's coliform bacteria standards. Last year compliance had risen to 76 per cent. This is a real and positive achievement. By 1995 all but a handful of waters will have achieved compliance.

Compliance is assessed using the mandatory standard of total and faecal coliforms. That is the most usual basis for assessment and it is used by the Commission. Information on other parameters which are monitored is contained in a detailed summary placed each year in the Library and sent to the Commission. Informed opinion regards the enterovirus standard as unrealistic and meaningless. There will always be year-to-year variations in quality which reflect differences in year-to-year weather conditions.

We are not complacent—more needs to be done. Many of our old-established resorts have relied for too long on sewage disposal arrangements considered acceptable years ago but no longer capable of meeting the standards now expected. Our objective is to bring all the remaining non-compliant waters up to standard as quickly as possible. By 1995 we will have achieved this for all but a handful of waters. Many of the improvement schemes have been enhanced to include sewage treatment fully in accordance with UK policy to phase out discharge of untreated sewage to coastal waters and to meet the requirements of the urban waste water treatment directive, which we adopted last year well inside the timetable that it sets. This is a comprehensive and ambitious programme estimated to cost more than £2 billion —expenditure that it would have been difficult to contemplate a few years ago.

The directive lays down minimum standards for the provision of sewerage systems and sewage treatment, and its main impact in the UK will be with respect to coastal discharges. But it is also important for the quality of surface freshwaters. We announced earlier today the publication of a consultation paper outlining the Government's proposals in England and Wales for identifying sensitive and less-sensitive areas for the purpose of this directive, and "polluted waters" for the purpose of the nitrate directive which we adopted last December. As far as we are aware the UK is the first member state to consult publicly on the way we intend to implement these directives. This demonstrates our commitment to openness in environmental decision-making and to the proper implementation of these directives, which will make an important contribution to improving our environment.

I have set out the many things that the Government are already doing to secure better water quality. We are determined to do still more in the future. We have provided for a statutory framework of water quality objectives to be set by the Secretary of State within which the NRA will work. These will extend the present coverage of informal objectives to include for the first time coastal waters, lakes and groundwaters and will provide us with a powerful new weapon for achieving sustained, programmed improvements in water quality wherever they are needed. Water quality objectives will now be determined through an open public procedure of consultation; they will specify clear, unambiguous standards and the timescale for achieving them.

The NRA set out its proposals for a new system for classifying water quality in a detailed consultation paper published last December. We look forward to hearing from the NRA the results of this consultation process and will publish formal proposals later this year.

Many of those who have spoken this evening have expressed concern about the possibility of a widespread drought this summer and the implications in eastern England. The dry weather that we are experiencing is exceptional; rainfall records are being written afresh as the spell of below average rainfall continues. In fact, 1989 was the driest year since 1976; the 13-month period to March 1991 was the third driest this century. The period from November 1988 to February 1992 was the driest for over 200 years in the Anglian region, and so on.

It is just possible that abundant rain in the next few months will enable us to get through the summer without serious difficulties. But we cannot rely on it and must not be complacent. Nor can we rely on the whingers who complain that it is raining yet again.

The NRA and the water companies have the primary role in dealing with water shortages. Under Section 37 of the Water Industry Act 1991, the companies must develop and maintain an efficient and economical system of water supply in their areas. It is they who must in the first instance judge what measures are needed to deal with immediate water shortages. The NRA has the longer-term role of conserving, re-distributing and otherwise augmenting water resources in England and Wales. I commend its publication today.

But with an abnormal situation in prospect we have asked our officials to meet with the NRA and the water companies to discuss the special procedures and contingency arrangements which need to be made.

The measures available include hose pipe bans, reducing leakage—I have noted all that was said about that—improving inter-linkages between supply systems, and applying to the Secretary of State for the Environment for drought orders. All these are the responsibility of the water companies. For its part the NRA exercises control over spray irrigation and can also help where it owns and manages resources such as the Trent-Witham-Ancholme scheme. The NRA has been liaising with those holding abstraction licences in the South East to discuss what measures can be taken.

It is important too to get over to the public the message that we need to conserve water and not waste it. Too many people in this country believe that because water falls from heaven it ought to be free. That belief ignores the substantial raft of provisions and the vast industry that must be put in place to make the water drinkable. I say to people that it falls from heaven as in abundance in Pakistan but in its undrinkable form kills. We need the industry to ensure that the water that we drink is safe. But the message must go out from Parliament because it has the primary responsibility for that education.

The department is being kept fully informed of the steps being taken so that my officials have a full overview of the situation. The NRA and the water companies are fully aware of their responsibilities and are co-operating fully with my officials. This will continue as necessary while the situation develops.

My noble friend Lord Crickhowell was anxious about abandoned mines and contaminated land. They represent a most serious issue. We recognise that although they are not a major problem nationally, they present particular difficulties. The NRA is studying the extent of the problems as part of its continuing review process for pollution problems. We are also looking at the practical and financial problems which are raised.

The noble Lord, Lord Ashburton, is anxious about the siting of reservoirs. There is an appropriate framework of planning control for approving the siting of reservoirs for which the National Rivers Authority is a statutory consultee. The strategy for the future has been discussed in a report published today by the NRA. Of course, the water grid is one option but it is regarded as rather expensive. That was mentioned also by my noble friend Lord Marlesford and the noble Lord, Lord Bridges. They served to illustrate that there are varying views about the water grid option but I am sure that their views will be valued in consultation on the issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, expressed a view about the use of jet skis in estuaries. I recognise the anxieties generated by the use of jet skis. One function of coastal zone management, particularly in sensitive locations, is to identify appropriate recreational uses and, where necessary, to seek controls through the use of by-laws.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, asked a number of questions about coastal zone management and heritage coasts, as did my noble friend Lord Marlesford and other noble Lords. Today the DoE is publishing for consultation a draft planning policy guidance note on coastal zone planning. The PPG strengthens our commitment to the protection of coastlines and brings up to date advice on coastal planning. It too commends to local authorities and others the value of the heritage coast model. We are also promoting regional coastal groups, including local authorities and the NRA, which examine regional coast defence needs. However, we do not believe that a single coastal zone management unit, the NRA or any other body, could successfully tackle all coastal issues. We need collaboration and co-ordination of all the agencies involved.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, asked whether the Government would take action to identify coastal and marine areas requiring protection under the habitats directive. The Government are fully committed to implementing the directive which allows member states three years in which to draw up a national list of sites. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee and the country agencies for nature conservation are considering the criteria for selection contained in the directive and how they should be applied in detail in the United Kingdom. They will make recommendations to the Government.

On the Scotland, England and Wales question, all three country councils have power to pay grant to any person, including a local authority, who spends money on nature conservation. The total grant in aid provision for the three bodies in 1992–93 is £88.5 million, an increase of 19.8 per cent, over the current year. The Government consider that to be an adequate sum for the fulfilment of all the bodies' functions, including the grant giving powers.

If there were more time, I should like to go into how much work the water companies are doing on leakage control. Whenever they go under ground, for whatever reason, they address the issue of putting in new pipes. A great deal of new material and technology is being used to that end. However, a water leakage of 25 per cent, to 30 per cent, is unacceptable and that problem must be addressed.

Wholesale metering has been mentioned. That is undoubtedly an important option for conservation in the use of water. That forms one option in the document. I have no doubt that noble Lords will look at that. It is not a straightforward matter but it should be considered as one of a range of options. The department has commissioned a joint survey with Ofwat on the impact of compulsory water metering. That report is due later this year.

The noble Baroness, Lady Robson, is anxious about resources. The NRA's actions have shown that the fears of the worst doubters before its establishment are entirely groundless. We are firmly committed to ensuring that the NRA is able to carry out its role as a strong and effective regulator. The number of staff involved in pollution control has continued to increase by 38 per cent, since its establishment. The combination of grant in aid and income from discharges enables the NRA to increase expenditure in its core environmental functions from less than £150 million in 1990–91 to over £180 million in 1991–92 and around £200 million in 1992–93. In particular, expenditure on pollution control is budgeted to increase by 15 per cent, between 1991–92 and 1992–93.

My noble friend Lord Mills mentioned the single agency. That will be a major step forward. The agency will be able to develop a consistent and cohesive approach to environmental protection. It will be able to develop greater expertise and authority than the current arrangements allow. Above all, it will be a powerful voice in influencing the adoption of better environmental standards and practice.

The noble Lord, Lord Hampton, asked what incentives water companies have to encourage economy. In assessing the K factor, pass through costs are allowed for. We must link in the minds of people the cost of those improvements. That must be part of the downward pressure on bringing that message to bear.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, for bringing to our notice the particular problem of coal discharges on the Northumbrian beaches. As he points out, we are committed to the general principle that wherever possible the polluter, and not the taxpayer, pays. However, that is clearly a long-standing and difficult problem which I shall look into. I shall write further on that matter to the noble Lord.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, is anxious about controls on tanker routes. He referred to the marine pollution unit. He rightly recognises the important measures taken by the Secretary of State responsible for transport both to provide navigational controls on congested areas of coastal waters and to make advance contingency plans to deal with incidents. Clearly accidents on the scale of the "Exxon Valdez" need to be avoided at all costs. They fall beyond the practical scope of immediate contingency plans, but I have no doubt that the unit is as well prepared as it can be.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, mentioned Richmond Park and the effect on the trees there. Only last week I was in Richmond Park to designate it as an area of special scientific interest. It is now in very good hands and the problems mentioned by the noble Lord will be addressed as part of the management plan.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, mentioned water resources and the protection of fish and other natural resources. Again, that is one of the reasons why the Government set up the NRA. We believe that the NRA will deal with such matters.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, asked why we cannot work more closely with Ireland. The Government wish to work closely with all their Community partners on such measures, and that of course includes Ireland.

This Government are firmly committed to improving the quality of our water and the management of our water resources. We have demonstrated that commitment by a wide range of practical measures.

We are also looking to the future. Only today we published a consultation paper outlining our proposals in England and Wales for identifying sensitive and less sensitive areas under new Community legislation. We are not complacent. In view of the abnormal drought situation in prospect, my officials are already discussing with all the agencies the special procedures and contingency arrangements which are to be made. I assure your Lordships that the Department of the Environment will keep itself fully informed of the developing situation and the steps being taken on water resources.

However, the longer term is just as important. Therefore, I welcome the discussion document which the NRA published today. That is a valuable and timely contribution to securing our water resources for future generations. I thank the noble Baroness, and I commend to this House the Government's record and their proposals for the future.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that extremely long and detailed reply to our debate. In her usual competent fashion, I believe that she answered the questions of every noble Lord. Whether we necessarily agree 100 per cent. with those answers is another matter. However, it is reassuring to have a Minister who takes so much trouble in replying to a debate. I thank all noble Lords who took part and who contributed on so many different interesting aspects of the problem raised by the Motion. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.