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House of Lords

Thursday, 18th April 1996.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.

Water Supplies: Adequacy

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are satisfied that there will be adequate water supplies in all parts of the United Kingdom during the remainder of 1996.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, the Government are satisfied that water supplies in Scotland and Northern Ireland are adequate for the remainder of 1996. In England and Wales, a report on the position at 31st March will be published by the Environment Agency within the next two weeks. The Government expect water companies to take all measures necessary to comply with their statutory duty to maintain supplies.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does he agree that we are facing one of the most serious water crises in England and Wales for the past 80 years; that reservoir levels in many parts of the country, particularly Yorkshire, the north west and the south west, are greatly below the levels of normal years; and that unless there is immediate and heavy rainfall the crisis this summer will be the worst in living memory? Does the Minister agree that that calls for more urgent action than merely the report to which he referred? Given that the leakage rates for many of the water companies are still high, should there not be mandatory leakage targets for each water authority right away?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I do not take the same desperate view as the noble Lord. With all the effort that the water companies are putting in and all the additional measures they have planned for this year, we are confident that even with the low rainfall we have experienced to date and the low expectations for the summer we shall see nothing worse than the usual measures. So far as concerns leakage control, I have answered that in previous Questions. The answer is the same: water companies are doing all they can to achieve sensible levels over the next 10 years. It is important that they do so. There is no need for mandatory targets which would merely mean that the consumer rather than the water companies would have to pay.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that it would be extraordinarily foolish to express confidence about the water situation this summer? As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, reservoirs are extremely low due to the weather conditions that have prevailed over a long time. Is my noble friend also aware that, important though it is to reduce leakage, the considerable efforts being made to that end cannot

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achieve much change in the timescale to which the Question refers and that there is therefore a real need for people in the areas affected to attempt savings and to be economical with water? The only alternative is to take water from the rivers with the resulting environmental damage.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, leakage measures will not make much difference in the short term. They require a lot of money and take a long time to get right. As to shorter term measures, we are confident that the expensive and extensive improvements made by the water companies will put a great deal more resource at the disposal of consumers this summer than there was last and very much reduce the chance of any problems arising. Of course, I cannot promise that there will be rain between now and September. I have no adequate rain dance, and my noble friend Lord Ferrers is in no condition to do one either.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the reservoirs in Wales which supply Birmingham and Liverpool are reasonably full and that therefore they have every reason to be grateful to us? Secondly, will he be more precise and tell the House where the shortages in England are likely to be most serious? Is it in the south east and Yorkshire, or are there other areas which may be in difficulties?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, on this side of the House at least we are all grateful for having Wales as part of the UK. The noble Lord asks about areas with water problems this year. The areas of difficulty are those of North West Water where, if things become bad, there may be a need to draw upon the lakes more than we would wish; Severn Trent Water, which seems likely to get through with minor restrictions only; South West Water, which has problems in one particular area; Yorkshire Water, as noble Lords would expect; and, to some extent, the south east where the aquifers are running at a rather lower level than we would like.

Lord Gisborough: My Lords, is there any resolution of the controversy between the local authorities of Windermere and other lakes which do not wish the water to be taken out and the need for water? Will it be possible to take water out of those lakes in an emergency?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, it is important for the tourist industry and others that the lakes should remain at a level at which they are beautiful to look at. It is also important that people in the locality have water to drink. The difficulties of reconciling those two considerations will be exacerbated in the short term if there is a drought and will be solved in the long term only by bringing in extra supplies of water. I cannot predict what will happen this year but we hope that matters will be resolved without causing problems to the scenic beauty.

Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, if the report due to be published on 31st March does not show that satisfactory steps have been taken by the water companies what action do the Government have in mind, given the fact that in Yorkshire, for instance, the

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reservoirs are only about one-third full whereas at the same time last year they were full to capacity? There followed the terrible summer and autumn and the threat that water would be cut off on alternate days. Will the Minister indicate what steps have been taken to install a pipeline between Yorkshire and Kielder reservoir?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot answer the noble Baroness's second question but I shall write to her on the subject. If difficulties were to be highlighted in the report from the Environment Agency, we would take immediate steps to make sure that the water companies dealt with them. Under the Water Industry Act we have extensive powers to do so, and if they fail to comply we can throw them to the crocodiles.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, West Yorkshire suffered most badly as a result of last year's drought. The revival of industry in West Yorkshire, which has been most welcome during the past few years, was threatened by the interruption of water supplies. Will the Minister ensure that the interests of industry as well as tourism are considered as an important factor in the most severely affected part of the Yorkshire region?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I entirely agree with the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord.

The Earl of Kimberley: My Lords, has further thought been given to connecting up different areas with the canal system and also to enlarging that system to enable water to be transported from one area to another?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I have not looked at whether or not we can use the canal system but I assure the noble Lord that we are studying many projects to move water from one part of the country to another in order to deal with long-term water deficits which may emerge over the next few years.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the water industry in this country spends some £23 billion implementing EC water directives whereas we spend only £1 billion on infrastructure work such as storage facilities and the delivery of water? Have we not somehow got our priorities wrong at great expense to the British community?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I do not have the exact figures but those quoted by the noble Lord appear to be of the correct order of magnitude. Obtaining water of high quality is an expensive business and a great deal of money has been spent. It is right that the consumers of this country should be able to rely on good quality water at all times. It is also right that they should be able to expect a proper water supply, given the willingness of Him above to rain on us in necessary quantities. We must provide both, and the amount of money that each costs is the amount of money that each costs. If one is more expensive than the other that is the way it is.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, the noble Lord said that the Government would throw the water

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companies to the crocodiles if there was a serious problem. I understood that the nature of privatisation was to ensure that there would be no such government control over water companies and that they could not throw them to the crocodiles. When they handed water over to the fat crocodiles who now run the industry they expected that the water problems would be resolved. Will the noble Lord now admit that the principle of the privatisation of water, which is a vital resource, was fundamentally mistaken?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, certainly not; it has gone extremely well. As the noble Lord is aware, the water companies have accepted an obligation to supply water and we have the ability to enforce that obligation.


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