HL Deb 17 July 2000 vol 615 cc576-8

2.40 p.m.

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the prospects for a national water grid.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whiny)

My Lords, watercourses and pipelines already transfer water over long distances in several parts of the United Kingdom to provide water supplies. The development of further transfers will be subject to assessment of their environmental impact, future demand for water, and the availability of sustainable supplies. In a proposed joint venture with the private sector, British Waterways is examining further use of the canal network to supply water of all qualities, including potable, linking the North West and the Midlands to London and the South East.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, will the Minister give us more information about that interesting proposal? For years, we have been trying to devise a scheme for moving water from the North, where it is more plentiful, to the South, where it is lacking. It seems that there is now a real prospect of overcoming that problem. When could such a project come about? Might it seriously alleviate the problems in the South over the next few years, bearing in mind the Government's plans for building so many more houses in the South East?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that the main pressure on water supplies is in the South East and the main supply of water is in the North. The canal system can deal with only part of that, because it is not a universal network. However, I assure the noble Lord that the proposed public/private partnership has passed its initial feasibility study. There is a prospect of the supply of water of different qualities to ultimate suppliers through the canal system. That may come into play within a few years. There has been definite progress.

Earl Russell

My Lords, my noble friend has been asking this question since 1989. Have not the Government had long enough to think of a rather less preliminary answer?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I cannot answer for the first eight years of that period. Since my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister has had responsibility for waterways, he has been extremely anxious that British Waterways should look at the way in which it can use its assets for wider purposes—both regeneration and, in this case, developing long-term ability to transfer water. We have gone ahead with the study. The technical side has been addressed and we are looking at the financing side. We believe that if we can provide different qualities of water for different consumers, there will be a strong commercial case for the proposal. Therefore, we are now well on the road.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, I recognise the desirability of transferring water from the wetter regions to the drier regions and I note the contribution which the canal system can make to regional transfers. But will the Minister take note also of the very considerable energy costs which would be involved in any large-scale and long-distance grid system transferring water over very considerable distances? That was certainly one of the factors which influenced the view of the National Rivers Authority during the time that I was its chairman.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, if we were looking to use the canal system and existing waterways for a total transfer and a total national grid, clearly there would be substantial energy implications. There will be some energy implications even for those areas which we are looking at, but we believe that those will be taken care of in terms of the investment that is required, the commercial return and the environmental benefit which could be achieved by using British Waterways' assets in that way.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, it seems that there is a proposal to transfer water from the North West to the South East. Surely, if energy is needed to pump water up hills, hydro-electric energy can be generated beside locks when the water comes down hills?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am sure that, in principle, my noble friend is absolutely correct on that. However, the water course does not operate quite as systematically as his question implies. There will be points at which a degree of help with the flow may be necessary; but in general we shall be working with gravity rather than against it.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, perhaps the Government may find it easier to make it rain when the water is required than to use some of those very complicated systems. What research is being carried out into rain-making in the areas where it might be required?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, judging by recent days, that requirement is perhaps less immediately necessary than the noble and gallant Lord suggests. However, there are longer-term climate change issues which must be addressed. It may well be that the South of England will become drier and the prognostications tend to suggest that the North of England will become wetter. In those circumstances, the proposed scheme would be even more desirable, without intervening directly with precipitation in the way in which the noble and gallant Lord was considering.