HL Deb 11 November 2003 vol 654 cc1216-20

3.5 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domerasked Her Majesty's Government:

When a lack of rainfall becomes a drought enabling Ministers to direct water companies to implement drought plans.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, each water company has a drought plan which sets out the actions necessary to maintain public water supplies during a drought. The plans contain a series of triggers which, as they are reached, cause the company to initiate a series of actions, the nature of which is dependent on the severity of the drought. Drought plans are not statutory so the Government cannot direct companies to follow them.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, while I thank the Minister for that reply, I feel that it does not quite answer my Question: when does a lack of rainfall constitute a drought? Noble Lords will be aware, and I am sure that the Minister will agree, that at present river levels are very low. When replying yesterday in another place to the debate on the Water Bill, Mr Elliot Morley said that pumping out rivers to replenish low reservoirs was the best that could be done. Does not the Minister think that the Government need to do something about saving water? If it does not rain much before the spring, we shall be in a very difficult position.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I apologise if I did not answer the Question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, to her satisfaction. The test for drought conditions is as follows: rainfall is judged against the long-term average; a high percentage of deficiency and the probability of future rainfall occurrence will determine whether it is an exceptional event. However, I am happy to tell the noble Baroness that, within the drought plans and under the powers of the water companies, many steps can be taken short of issuing permits and orders. Therefore action has been taken in a variety of ways, in particular in those areas hit hardest by the current low rainfall.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that I was very pleased with her first reply? I am immensely glad that she does not have to bear the responsibility of declaring a drought. If the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, had to live with the levels of rainfall that we are accustomed to in Essex, then her county would be in a state of permanent drought. That is one of the impossible realities of this situation.

It is a fact that the water companies have to do the work—that is the appropriate solution. Further, that this Question has been tabled surely reveals the need for much greater investment in our water industry. Can the noble Baroness indicate what plans are being made to increase levels of investment to ensure that water supplies across the country, whatever may be the particular circumstances of an individual utility, are secure?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, the Government keep constantly under review the need for appropriate investment to be made. Both the Water Bill and the work being done with the Environment Agency are targeted on looking at water resource availability in the future.

As regards the first point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, I cannot but agree with him. Circumstances do vary from area to area and it would be a patent nonsense for the Government to establish a level for drought that would then apply across the whole of the country. Different areas of the country are affected in different ways. As the noble Lord himself pointed out, certain parts of the country have had to learn to cope in advance of others.

Lord Renton

My Lords, in further considering this matter, will the Government be careful to bear in mind that we do not have a single problem for the whole of the United Kingdom. The east of England is much more short of water, generally speaking, than the west.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is right—there are variations between different parts of the country. London, the South East, the Lake District and Severn Trent are currently looking very carefully at this issue. I am pleased to reassure the noble Lord that companies in other regions will learn from the experience of the south-east.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, the Minister said that drought plans are not statutory. Are compensatory river flows statutory and does the Environment Agency have enforcement powers with a statute behind them? Many of the rivers in the west are running extremely low—lower than I have ever seen before—but I am happy to say that, although that is causing great ecological damage, the citizens of Birmingham are still getting their water.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, the noble Lord is right—the Environment Agency has a statutory duty to have regard to the environmental impact of plans that are put forward, particularly in a time of drought. As to its impact across Offa's Dyke, as I know the noble Lord knows, Severn Trent Water relies on a transfer from the Elan Valley reservoirs in mid-Wales for supplies to Birmingham. The company is in discussion with Welsh Water and the agency with regard to the need for a drought permit or order to conserve stocks and increase the likelihood of being able to refill reservoirs.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the Defra committee warned that unless rainfall this winter is 30 per cent above the normal level there will be serious water shortages in the spring? Does she further accept that the unacceptable delays between a water company applying for and receiving permission to invoke a drought order cannot continue under these circumstances? Why is there a delay between a drought order being sought and permission being granted?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I should be extremely grateful if the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, would let me have details of any such occurrence. I have not been made aware of any plan or any application for a drought order. If the noble Baroness is referring to permits, discussions are ongoing at all times when a water company feels the need to hold them. I am not aware of any circumstance where there has been a difficulty.

I appreciate the first point made by the noble Baroness. Quite obviously we have had the worst rainfall figures between February and October for 74 years, with the exception of 1959. We all hope that there will be at least an average seasonal rainfall to replenish stocks.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, what proportion of the population is now metered for water?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I do not have the exact number of those who are metered for water. The Government recognise that metering has a role to play and their policy, put into law by the Water Industry Act, allows household customers to choose between the two systems. I do not have the exact percentage. If the figure is available, I shall contact the noble Baroness.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, there is a good deal of anxiety about the long-term availability of water in this country and the need for more reservoirs, particularly in the south-east. What interaction is there between that kind of information and the plans for greatly increased housing in both London and the south-east of England?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, it is important that those considering plans for housing should have regard to the issues raised by the noble Baroness. It is important that we are aware that the south-east, as noble Lords around the House recognise, is particularly water stressed. Efficiency measures in terms of water use will be critical from the outset of the new development. We have set a water efficiency saving target of 30 per cent to help develop a sustainable water supply. I know from helping to take the Water Bill through your Lordships' House that many noble Lords are aware of the advice that has been given in regard to teeth and bathing.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we have discussed this issue many times before over the years, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, will recognise? We were told in the 1990s that the Welsh water table had fallen by 18 inches. Within a year or two, of course, it came back. Does my noble friend further agree that we should not cause panic; that we should deal with the situation as it comes and not get too worried about the rainfall that may or may not occur in Wales or throughout the United Kingdom in December or January?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, to a degree, my noble friend is right. It has been my experience of visiting, on many occasions, the beautiful country of Wales and the Lake District, where there is currently a problem, that it rains from time to time and the water invariably comes back. The Government do not have a direct role with regard to water company actions but the situation is kept under review by the Environment Agency. I know that my noble friend will pay particular regard to, and take pleasure from, the fact that the Environment Agency takes one of his major concerns in life—fishing— seriously as part of the equation.