§ 11.16 a.m.
§ Lord Buxton of Alsa asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ Whether they accept the prediction by the National Rivers Authority of a severe water shortage this year in the east of England and whether they will ensure that no further licences are issued for the abstraction of water from natural reserves.
My Lords, we cannot predict with certainty that there will be severe water shortages in the east of England this year. However, the unusually dry weather in eastern England over the past three or four years makes water shortages likely unless persistent, above average rainfall is experienced over the next two or three months. The grant or refusal of abstraction licences are matters for the National Rivers Authority.
§ Lord Buxton of Alsa
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. I venture to say that I can predict with certainty that there will be a fearful shortage of water in the east of England. Does my noble friend realise that the National Rivers Authority is constantly under great pressure to issue new licences? It comes under pressure from vested interests and also, if I may say so, from government departments. Is he aware that the NRA must somehow be strengthened and informed that it has absolute authority to handle this matter regardless of pressures brought to bear on it?
My Lords, an application for an abstraction licence must be made to the NRA, which will consider the environmental effects, the possible effects on other licence holders and other relevant matters. Conditions may be imposed on the quantity to be abstracted and the duration of the licence. There are also seasonal conditions which may be imposed. Objections to the application can be made and these could result in it being determined by the Secretary of State. I stress that these are matters which Parliament has established for the NRA to handle. It must be, in the end, a matter for the NRA.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, does my noble friend recall that in answer to a supplementary question attached to the first Question of my noble friend Lord Buxton he used the interesting phrase "extensive enhanced ozone depletion"? Is that not precisely what is happening to water levels in the south-east of England? When will the Government encourage the water companies to apply to the planning authorities to build reservoirs to overcome this problem?
My Lords, groundwater levels in the Anglian region are currently very low. Surface reservoir levels vary but are generally more than half full. At present, the levels of surface water are not giving as much cause for concern as the groundwater levels. If there is one thing the Government cannot do it is to bring about rain.
My Lords, it is the succession of dry years, and in particular dry winters, which has caused the acute problems that we are now experiencing.
§ Lord Donoughue
My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is not satisfactory for the Government to wash their hands of this question? The noble Lord, Lord Buxton, made a telling point when he referred to pressure on the NRA to give such licences. It is not even simply a question of the amount of rain. Even in these drought years Britain has had enough rain. The heart of the problem is the balance between extraction through boreholes and the retention of surface water. What we need is less abstraction from the water table. Noble Lords will know that abstraction is creating a major problem in East Anglia. Older trees are beginning to die because in age they cannot push their roots further down as the water table shrinks. What is needed is a policy of much greater construction of surface retention reservoirs and much greater limitation on the capacity of the companies to abstract through boreholes.
§ Lord Donoughue
My Lords, will the government not pretend that it has nothing to do with them when the National Rivers Authority complains that it is under pressure from departments? Further will they make it clear to the water authorities that they want greater construction of retention reservoirs and less boreholes into the water table?
My Lords, we continue to urge the conservation of water resources. Officials meet with water companies and the NRA to discuss the contingency planning required in the event of a continuing drought this year. There have been a number of major projects designed over the past few years to increase the supply of water resources over the country. They are progressing.
My Lords, following on from the last two, if I may say so, excellent supplementaries, is my noble friend aware that the scandalous lack of action in this regard is perfectly illustrated in the area where 1104 I live where, since before the last war, the building of a reservoir north of Canterbury has been discussed but shelved continually? Is he also aware that, as a direct result of that, for the fifth year in succession a hose-pipe ban has been imposed on the area in the middle of winter?
My Lords, perhaps I can be more specific on the last answer that I gave. Water undertakers now operate water resource systems in an integrated way so far as is possible to maximise yields and minimise costs. If anything, those are lessons which have been learnt from the droughts of 1976 and 1984. Several major new schemes have been completed including Roadford Reservoir in the South West and Carsington Reservoir in Derbyshire. New schemes are proposed in many areas such as those for north Kent at Broadoak and the Upper Thames Valley.
Lord John Mackie
My Lords, referring to the level of reservoirs, I live 20 miles from here. Is the Minister aware that the reservoirs are so low that we have to pump out our water from the mains at the end of the road and have had to do so for many years now?
My Lords, I was not aware of that specific fact, but I thank the noble Lord for raising it.
§ Lord Buxton of Alsa
My Lords, does my noble friend realise that agriculture is not the fundamental problem in this respect? However, the public perceives it to be so because people see great hoses spraying over fields. But that is only a small percentage of the usage. Is he aware that, fundamentally, it is industrial and residential development that causes the problem? Is he further aware that in many cases the advice of the NRA is not taken and that, statutorily, it does not have to be taken, by local authorities?
My Lords, both the water undertakers and the NRA distribute publicity on the subject of water conservation, which is a serious matter. My noble friend is quite right to say that such problems arise in part from increased demand. I simply point out that a casual householder who leaves a sprinkler running for hours ought to be aware that in one hour at least as much water can be used as an average family uses in a single day, without necessarily benefiting his garden.