Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witnesses (Questions 260-279)

TUESDAY 6 FEBRUARY 2001

DR GEOFF MANCE, MR MARTIN GRIFFITHS AND MR GWYN WILLIAMS

Chairman

  260. You do not have any problem with them putting in winter storage?
  (Dr Mance) Not if the circumstances are suitable, no.

Christine Butler

  261. Rainwater in big tanks underground?
  (Dr Mance) That is one option but we are very keen on all farmers dependent on irrigation to support their crops with a trickle or spray to focus on winter storage to give themselves the resilience during hot, dry summers.

  262. I would be interested in what you think of that idea. I have a model railway club which does not use any water—which it needs for its little engines and so on—but it has been very inventive and it has giant plastic containers, and it diverts rainfall into those. Would it be possible on a larger scale to do that kind of operation?
  (Dr Mance) It is possible and we actively encourage that. We refer to them as sustainable urban drainage systems in part; trying to store water off impervious surfaces where it falls, because there is a benefit all round from that. Whether it could generate enough water would depend on the circumstances of the site.

  263. That brings me on to another possibly even more difficult area, again the south east: house building. That is a well known problem because sometimes local authorities will say, "What about the water supply?" Are you acutely aware of that?
  (Dr Mance) I think we commented to a previous inquiry that we believe it is important at the time of a structure plan's development that the planning authorities be clear on the availability of water resources to support growth of housing areas and demand, so that if that creates the need for a new reservoir in the area they are clear on that at the time. It does not come as a surprise to them afterwards, when as the planning authority they face the prospect of a planning application for a significant new reservoir with the consequent disruption to their constituents.

  264. How do you view the 1963 Act when it says that you have a primary duty to conserve, redistribute and otherwise augment water resources? How on earth are you going to augment water resources in the long term to safeguard supply to people?
  (Dr Mance) In terms of supply to people through the public water supply, we are doing that administratively by requiring the companies to produce water resources plans for the next 25 years which we are vetting and commenting on. Then each year giving them an annual programme of improvement to address so that where their information is shaky they are required to improve it so that the assumptions underlying that plan are improved. Within those plans at the moment there are a number of short term additional water resources identified as needed and those are in the process of being developed. Some of those are extra boreholes, some are amendments to existing abstraction points, some are increased capacity at some water treatment works. They have got the capacity in their licence to take from a particular source of water but they cannot actually treat it and get it into the system, causing pressure elsewhere in the system for resources. In the medium term there are one or two more significant enhancements of water resources: the raising of possibly one or two reservoirs in the south east corner, for instance. At the moment none of the water resources plans approved for the 25-year horizon shows the need for a major strategic reservoir. That does not preclude that changing after the review.

  Christine Butler: Where would that be though? Where would a major strategic reservoir be?

Mrs Dunwoody

  265. Who has the right to direct them to do that? Do you have the right to say to them, "The only way you can safeguard supplies is to build now a reservoir of so many thousand cubic litres"?
  (Dr Mance) They are under a statutory duty to ensure the security of the public water supply. We have to have regard to that duty now in our legislation.

  266. I ask you again: who would tell them to build a reservoir?
  (Dr Mance) Under the present framework in extremis the Director General.

  267. In extremis?
  (Dr Mance) Yes.

  Mrs Dunwoody: When we are all gasping you would say, "Go out and build a reservoir"?

Christine Butler

  268. Would you tell them all that?
  (Dr Mance) I do not think we would wait that late.

  269. Would you have to tell them all that? Some might be water rich.
  (Dr Mance) Clearly if a large part of your business is to supply water to your customers you do not wish to run out. As we saw in the reaction of governments old and new to the 1995 drought, the political reaction was severe, the pressure on the industry was severe. What does cause us some concern in the draft Bill is that the ability to require a water resources plan from a company by ourselves, so we can assess it and check it for soundness, if you like, depends upon a general information requirement provision as opposed to a specific power.

Mrs Dunwoody

  270. So if they do not give you the information you cannot check it?
  (Dr Mance) It makes us slightly nervous that a water resources plan needs information about the security of their supplies. We would probably prefer to see it as an explicit power, just as there is a power proposed for requiring drought contingency plans.

Christine Butler

  271. Power for you?
  (Dr Mance) For us, and that enables us to advise the Secretary of State and the Director General that a plan potentially is not adequate, not competent and not going to secure the long term supply.

  272. What do you see from all of this—Mrs Dunwoody was asking too—would be the mechanism to having a new strategic reservoir? You were talking about something big. It would not be a decision of a company or a regulator or of yourselves. How would it come about?
  (Dr Mance) If I use the example of the present water resource plans and the process we have been going through, one company has identified a potential need for that. It is not justified on the present information, but you could see that it may be in the time horizon of 25 to 35 years out. It is clearly appropriate for them to start doing the base work now about the environmental impact of such a reservoir, the location, the pros and cons of different locations, and explore them.

  273. Would the location have to be within its own catchment area?
  (Dr Mance) Not necessarily. That is why they need to start evaluating options now, given the long lead time.

  274. Would it mean them having to buy that resource from another company in another area?
  (Dr Mance) One of the provisions deals with bulk transfers where there is existing spare capacity but where there is no further existing spare capacity (which is what one is looking at) 20 to 30 years out. Then there is clearly a need for them to provide the additional resource. It is clearly for them then to fund it. The water resource plan for the company becomes the base document for the periodic review issue for the next price review, for instance, for the Director General to see what needs funding in the certain time horizon.

Mrs Dunwoody

  275. But supposing you keep saying to them, "I do not like your plan. It does not guarantee supplies." There is a whole area of dispute where the company says, "We have secured sufficient supplies", and you say, "No, I am not satisfied that that is the case." At which point does somebody say to them, "Within the next 15 years we would expect you to provide a reservoir."? That is the interesting thing.
  (Dr Mance) Within the present framework of legislation, and it is not addressed within the draft Bill, or in Taking Water Responsibly, the document behind the Bill, the route would be for us to advise the Director General that we had no confidence in the provision being made by the company and the Director General has powers in relation to the competent management of the company.

  276. How much power does having no confidence give them? I have no confidence in a large number of utilities, but how much competence does that give me to squeeze them into building a reservoir? I am sorry, but before I get to the point where we run out of Welsh water in bottles I would like to know what we are doing. Who says to them, "Look, you so-and-so's, you have not got it right"?
  (Dr Mance) We have very clearly said that in public two or three times and companies have moved a long way as a result, so public pressure works tremendously. In relation to major reservoirs we have been acting in the opposite direction in the sense of requiring companies to demonstrate that they do need all the large reservoirs they claim are necessary. If you cast your mind back to 1995/96, the water industry itself was talking about five or six major strategic reservoirs being needed to be built in the next ten to 15 years. The evidence does not support that at all when we examine it. It is actually restraining rather than pushing at the moment.

Chairman

  277. Can I take you on to the question of competition? As far as competition is concerned, in all these water resources plans that you have been studying how much extra new supplies of water do the companies envisage coming about as a result of the provisions for competition?
  (Dr Mance) None. Depending how competition is implemented it should have no implications for additional water being required by the companies.

  278. But it may encourage people to look for new sources, may it not?
  (Dr Mance) Yes indeed, and one of our concerns which we have flagged to government is that the competition model adopted should not get into the area of speculative licensing of abstraction, ie that the applicants must be able to demonstrate that they have got reasonable need for the water as now, ie, they do have credible prospective customers to supply that water to.

  279. Parts of East Anglia putting in new boreholes might cause all sorts of problems to the water table, but putting new boreholes under most of our cities actually would probably improve the environment to lower the water table, would it not?
  (Dr Mance) Yes, and some of the smaller more entrepreneurial companies looking to compete with the establishment companies are well aware of that and looking in just those areas for sources of water.


 
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