Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. He has clarified the situation to a considerable extent. I am grateful for his comments, which are now on the public record. In particular, the issue of compulsory purchase is a running sore in terms of whole villages being floodedindeed, the local church or chapel, halls, farms and so forthand we cannot take it lightly. A public inquiry brings about transparency, fairness and a considerable element of justice in that people are able to make representations. As regards the Aarhus Convention, I thank my noble friend Lady Miller for making that particular point. I thank, too, the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, for his thoughtful speech on this issue.
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However, I should like to point out to him that, yes, people complain, but it is not a normal complaint when a whole language can disappear from a valley when only about 19 per cent of the Welsh population speak Welsh. Indeed, the language can die out as a result of a reservoir being established in a Welsh-speaking community. Therefore, there are very important issues here which are not of the normal type in terms of social responsibility.
I thank everyone who has spoken to this amendment and the Minister for his reply. It has given us a considerable measure of transparency as to what will happen in future. As this will be backed up by European legislation, I should not expect to see again what happened 30 and more years ago in Wales. I am reassured and therefore beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 2 [Restrictions on impounding]:
Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 5:
Page 2, line 42, at end insert
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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I support all that the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said. In speaking to our Amendments Nos. 7 and 8, grouped with Amendment No. 5, we have tried to give the Government yet more latitude to accept something along these lines by not specifying which months may be the wettest. We have left it to the Environment Agency to decide. In Committee, I mentioned January, February and March, but in subsequent discussions and on looking at the figures, I could see that in some years perhaps November and December might be more applicable.
As the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, so eloquently said, the spirit of these amendments is to achieve two objectives; namely, the environmental good of creating small ponds and wildlife areas and allowing the farmer to use the top of that water for irrigating his crops. It would be for him to determine the balance between the use for irrigation and the wildlife areas.
I understand that if a farmer digs a hole in the ground that just fills up naturally, that will not be subject to a licence. If he makes an impoundment across a stream, that will be subject to a licence. There is still confusion as to when run-off water from the ground that appears in the form of a stream in winter is a stream, and when it is merely heavy water flooding over fields. Were there not this confusion, we would not need these amendments.
I understand why the Government and the Environment Agency might resist making impoundment across a stream something not subject to a licence. However, unless they are willing to accept the amendments, I believe that the Government need to reflect further because, as the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, pointed out, the situation is still not encouraging the end result we all wish to see.
"( ) A general consent to impound water in January, February or March will be notified, catchment area by catchment area, by the Environment Agency on those days to which it applies."
The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 5, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 6. In Committee, the Government's response to the amendment, as it was then worded, was to support the intention of facilitating the storage of floodwaters without unnecessary bureaucracy. The amendments, as now worded, would exempt small reservoirs filled only in the early part of the year at times and in places notified by the Environment Agency as having sufficient water flow to allow the impoundment. We consider that this will get around the problem of abstraction taking place during a winter drought. At the same time it will reduce both the workload and the cost to the agency, landowners and farmers. We hope that the Government might look more favourably at this improved amendment.
The concept of being able to store relatively small quantities of water freely and easily could have a very significant environmental benefit in country areas. I have built a small reservoir myself, and I am reminded that I should have declared an interest at the beginning of the proceedings as the holder of an abstraction licence. These small reservoirs enhance the environment considerably. They are very good for wildlife and they often create small wetland areas. There are trees, shrubs and wild fowl, which otherwise would not be there.
The more we can do to encourage small reservoirs, the better. The more we can free the administrative machine so that it can deal with the major issues which really are important and not have to deal with these smaller reservoirs, the better. I was going to say that they are "as nature intended", but of course a reservoir by definition cannot be that. It is an artificial creation. But the more natural it is, the more we should seek to free it from regulatory procedures. I beg to move.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord is trying to do with these amendments, but there are quite serious practical problems here. Amendment No. 5 aims to provide for a general consent to impound winter floodwater, subject to certain conditions. Its operation is linked to impounding works that can store water only during defined months, as provided for in Amendment No. 6. Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 offer some flexibility over the definition of those months. However, in either situation it is doubtful whether a general consent could be satisfactorily tailored to meet the specific environmental needs and resource management of each site or watercourse. There is also the important practical problem that water captured during flood conditions then has to be stored, in-river, until needed.
It is important to reiterate that the existing controls and the proposals in the Bill apply only to works to impound water that are constructed across a natural watercourse. The noble Baroness made that point. Excavations on land designed to collect and store winter rainwater and which do not impound a natural watercourse or intercept water contained in underground streams are not subject to impounding licence controls. The natural filling of such
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excavations during floods is not subject to any controls and the agency is already able to issue abstraction licences which allow water to be abstracted from rivers at times of high flows to fill those same excavations. So the system already provides a fair amount of flexibility.
Activities to impound water on-stream, irrespective of whether they are also subject to the drainage consent process under the Reservoirs Act 1975, could have major implications for the overall management of water resources. If these activities were deregulated or subject only to a "general consent", as the amendments would provide for during the designated months, they could well have serious consequences for the ecology of the watercourse and possibly the passage of fish. It would also impair the ability of the Environment Agency to ensure adequate flows of water downstream of the impounding works for the health of the watercourse or for any other lawful users of that water at the times in question.
Much of this relates to the predictability of the English weather. If we were to rely on the definition of the months referred to in some of the amendments, then clearly it would have been difficult to implement such a proposal this year in that it was much wetter in May than it was in February and March. The same would apply to any set of months. The following months could be subject to drought. We can have a winter drought, a spring flood and then a spring drought. If the changes which have taken place over the previous four months were repeated, it would impair the ability of the Environment Agency to operate the system over the subsequent months.
While I understand why the amendment has been put forward, I do not think that it is appropriate. Of course the charging structure provides ways for the agency to encourage the winter storage of water for subsequent summer use in that charges for winter-only abstractions are only one-tenth those of summer-only abstractions. That provides an incentive, but to give an absolute exclusion, as would be the case under these amendments, does not seem sensible given the British weather.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, can he say whether he is satisfied with the definitions set out in the present law between "surface water", taking the form of heavy waterflows producing a runnel down a field and therefore looking like a small stream, and what is meant by a "watercourse", which may dry out for nine months of the year?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, so far as the legislation can specify the variety of topography and rainfall described by the noble Baroness, I think I am satisfied that there is a difference between a watercourse that is full only intermittently and surface water resulting from a particularly heavy downpour, which forms the basis of the distinction. If legislation were to attempt to devise a more precise definition than that, we would
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find ourselves in more difficulty than is the case under the common-sense interpretation already in place in the legislation.