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Column 445continue to work in partnership with business to ensure that the United Kingdom's firms continue to win in world markets.
A number of my hon. Friends paid tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry. There is no doubt about the gusto that he has brought to his role and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham said, his leadership is helping to drive British trade higher and higher, and we should all be grateful to him.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) : I beg leave to present a petition to the House signed by 2,000 students at Southampton university who have expressed their opposition to the cuts in student grants that will be introduced next year and in successive years. Students already live on incomes lower than those on income support and housing benefit. The proposals will leave students in great debt when they finish their courses.
The petition reads :
To the honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled.
The humble petitioners of Southampton students declare that we the undersigned register our opposition to the cut in student grants by 10 per cent. this year, next year and the year after.
The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons should ensure that proper levels of funding are available for student grants.
And your petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray. To lie upon the Table.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]
Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery) : I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue of great concern to myself and a number of my constituents-- damage caused to private properties in the Fron area of Montgomeryshire as a result of water borehole operations. We often hear from the English that an Englishman's home is his castle. But most of the finest castles are not in England but in Wales. Whether it be those castles in Wales or the lesser dwellings occupied by most of us, people in Wales feel strongly that our homes should be sacrosanct against invaders of any kind. They should be sacrosanct against burglars--the level of burglary in rural Wales is still mercifully low--and Government Departments invading our privacy and the safety of our homes in the name of mere statutory and utilitarian powers.
We look to the House as being the only place where that principle can find protection. Some people have expressed the view--the noble Lord Hailsham is perhaps the most notable--that the House can no longer adequately protect the interests of private citizens. I do not believe that to be the case yet and I hope that the Minister's response will show that my confidence in the House remains justified.
The invasion of my constituents' properties is serious, although it affects but a small group of people. Those mainly affected live in a settlement known locally as the Fron near Montgomery. I know the place well as my home lies less than two miles away by road--perhaps one mile as the crow flies. In the settlement of Fron are three houses with gardens whose owners have approached me about the matter. I have been involved with the matter in some detail. The homes have the arcadian names of Abernant, Silvermere and Cherrylea. All are--or, at least, were--comfortable homes with well-tended gardens. I hope that I will be forgiven for calling their occupants active, mature citizens who are valued in our local community of Montgomeryshire. They are the last people whom one would expect to be moved to lobby and protest through this House.
The three properties are a few hundred metres from the River Severn--less than a quarter of a mile from the river as it flows through that area of Montgomeryshire. Between the river and their properties there lie a substantial field, the A483 trunk road, which is sometimes dignified with the style, "the Manchester to Swansea trunk road", although only a lunatic would use it for that purpose, and the Montgomery canal. A major gas line also passes through the field, transporting the mains supply of natural gas under high pressure.
The road carries a large volume of traffic. Its safety and security are of paramount importance. The canal, although no longer used for the purpose for which it was designed--the carriage of
goods--nevertheless is increasingly used as a leisure facility because it is an especially beautiful canal, with leafy towpaths. The bank of the canal has already started to slip, which is significant in relation to the subject that I shall mention.
Severn Trent Water Ltd. is the villain of the piece, or at least the principal villain. Severn Trent is, as I am sure that you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a privatised water utility, which continues to act as the water undertaking for
Column 447Shropshire and other places, including one part of Wales only. The rest of Wales is covered by Dwr Cymru--Welsh Water- -but Montgomeryshire still has its water supplied by Severn Trent. Generally, we have benefited from that historical anomaly because, on the whole, Severn Trent is helpful and responsive to customer complaints and although its charges are high, they could be higher.
In 1991, Severn Trent sought, and was granted by the National Rivers Authority, a licence for test pumping by the River Severn in the field to which I have referred. The licence required the monitoring of water levels in a number of specified wells. The area consists of one side of a typical glacial river valley. The bedrocks, I am reliably informed, consist of Silurian--that is to say, slightly more than 450 million years old-- mudstones and siltstones, which dip to the north-west. Overlying the bedrock are fluvial and glacial deposits, which are highly variable in their composition, density, porousness and other relevant properties. In granting the licence, the NRA appears to have made, to put it mildly, scanty demands of Severn Trent. The NRA relied on Severn Trent to perform an appropriate survey for the selection of monitoring wells. Oddly, existing wells--for example, one at the property Silvermere--were not chosen for that purpose. It seems that the local survey did not identify the well at Silvermere. That omission is highly suggestive of a negligent survey, for it appears that, in spite of the well's proximity, at 300 m from the pumping site, Severn Trent simply did not know of it. Had it asked in the local post office, or asked any local resident, it would no doubt have been told of it. The well would have been observable from certain maps and, of course, from an aerial view. Two other wells, only 100 or 200 yd further from the pumping site, were not identified either. It was a very scanty survey.
The first test pumping at the site took place in November 1991. The first signs of cracking in the walls of the property, Abernant, appeared shortly after that, but it was not realised then that there was likely to be a connection between the pumping and what at first appeared to be relatively minor damage. However, further pumping of a much more dramatic sort took place in 1992, particularly in the period from 7 September to 5 October 1992.
During the 28-day pumping period, collapse and subsidence were observed at three locations. The company, Severn Trent, was informed by my constituents part way through its drilling that damage had occurred, but it did not stop drilling. It continued drilling and the damage was thus exacerbated.
The main collapse occurred in the field opposite Silvermere in the following sequence. On the night of 24 to 25 September 1992, collapse in the field was observed and it was reported on the morning of 25 September. On 26 September, the hole was photographed. The hole shown in the field at that time was irregular and large, but not very large--approximately 3 m by 5 m and 2 m deep. But by 27 September, the next day, the hole had increased in size to approximately 16 m by 22 m and 10 m deep. It would have held two or three double decker buses.
The test pumping finished on 5 October ; by then, the sides of the hole were vertical for about 2 to 3 m, then curved to the bottom. The description given locally was
Column 448that the hole was deep enough for a double decker bus although, in reality, it would have held a garage of double decker buses by then. The collapsed hole was refilled within a week by Severn Trent. Another effect noted at the time was that three local wells ran dry or so close to dry that no abstraction could take place from them, which had never happened before. The wells were not drying up due to dry weather. I must admit that, wonderful holiday area though Montgomeryshire is, by 5 October we do not expect the wells to dry up in ordinary weather.
Another feature that was noticed at that time was extensive cracking in four locations. The three houses, Abernant, Silvermere and Cherry Lea, and also, worryingly, in bridge No. 140 over the Montgomeryshire canal. I have been to see the cracking, which continues to expand in a worrying way. Ground subsidence of up to 9inches also occurred at that time in the gardens and fields at the Fron. One of the gardens, which was particularly well looked after, has changed dramatically in its topography since the bore hole operations. Ground subsidence of up to about 3 ft also occurred in the fields next to the river, bringing out something that had not been seen for a long time : the line of an old river channel. Another matter that was noticed was the effect on the well at the property, Silvermere. My understanding is that, to this day, that well has not recovered and the water depth remains at only 1 ft against the normal expected level of 4 to 6 ft.
All those effects were noted and caused great alarm. As a result, my constituents set about obtaining some technical evidence. Fortunately, the son of one couple--the people who live in Abernant, Mr. and Mrs. Gleave--is a hydrogeologist ; otherwise, they would not have known where to turn. He and a colleague prepared a careful report on what had occurred, and I believe that the report's findings are entirely objective. It is good scientific work.
In a sentence, what has been found is that the drilling of the boreholes has caused a significant change in the local hydrogeology. No other cause for the change can be found ; nor has any other cause been suggested with any sense of conviction or any evidential support. It is clear to the people who know the area that a cause-and-effect relationship exists. Before the boreholes, there was no subsidence. As soon as they were started, the subsidence started. As the borehole operations were increased, the subsidence dramatically increased. And at the height of the borehole operations, a hole the size of a double-decker bus garage appeared, and no one has been able to give any realistic explanation besides a cause-and- effect relationship.
Recently, nearly two years after these events, Severn Trent appointed a Professor Hutchinson of Imperial college, London, to write a report on what has occurred. It is impossible to understand why Severn Trent has taken so long about this. It is to be hoped that the report will be available very soon. I am pleased to say that I was informed this morning on the telephone by a legal adviser to Severn Trent that efforts will be made to expedite the report. But the residents have now waited two years for Severn Trent to recognise the cause-and-effect relationship, despite their own clear evidence of one.
I suspect that the company has delayed so long because it finds it hard to admit to its negligence, for there is certainly clear evidence of negligence by Severn Trent. It failed to exercise proper professional care, in that it did not
Column 449adopt the normal professionally recommended procedures in this case ; it did not, for instance, report the situation to the appropriate local authorities to ensure that no damage to the surrounding properties, roads, bridges and canal would occur in the event of collapse or subsidence. The company failed to carry out proper tests of the local geology.
It is extraordinary that when the collapse occurred on the land, Severn Trent did not inform the NRA of what had happened. The NRA found out only because a local resident rang it up and told it. As a result, an NRA officer had to visit the scene to find out for herself whether it was true.
Not only has there been professional negligence by Severn Trent but local residents have enjoyed less care than they were entitled to expect from the National Rivers Authority. In correspondence, the NRA has stated that it has no jurisdiction to protect property from the structural effects of water abstraction and no power to refuse or qualify a licence on the ground of structural defects. The test pumping certainly did not set out any requirements concerning either the procedures that should be undertaken in the case of adverse structural effects on the local geology or adverse effects on the local water table. Perhaps, the National Rivers
Authority--foolishly--took it for granted that Severn Trent would approach the matter with proper professionalism.
It is also regrettable that the NRA, in granting the licence, appeared to have paid no attention to any possibility of an effect on the area surrounding the boreholes. As I have already said, the canal bridge and the canal bank have been damaged. I understand that British Waterways, which is ultimately responsible for the canal, is concerned about the situation. I understand that the Ministers's Department, the Welsh Office, has been monitoring the trunk road to see whether any damage has been caused to that and that it is concerned. The bridge to which I referred earlier is all too evidently patched and cracked.
The damage to the three properties has been very severe indeed. It will cost many thousands of pounds to repair it. However, another aspect of the damage to the properties is that they have suffered a significant diminution in their value. If the owners wanted to sell their properties, it is almost inevitable that purchasers would be put off and would require a huge reduction in price because there was and has been serious subsidence. It is likely that the value of those properties may well have been reduced by a half to two thirds. The residents concerned are respected and respectable people, but they are not rich. None can afford the consequences of such an attack on their largest asset.
One may ask, what is the problem ? Surely, if Severn Trent has caused that damage by its water boreholes and if it has been negligent--perhaps, even if it has not been negligent--it will pay up. Not a bit of it. We have received from Severn Trent something that one may expect to receive from me at my more legalistic moments--po-faced legal pedantry. It is the sort of legal pedantry that is extremely hostile to people such as my constituents. I shall quote from two letters. One is from the district manager of Severn Trent, Mr. Ashcroft, who, I must say, is usually extremely helpful and I do not believe for one moment that Mr. Ashcroft is responsible for the words in the letter. He says :
"the company solicitor has advised me that even if the damage to your constituents' properties has occurred as a result of our
Column 450activities, we have no legal liability. I understand that this opinion was derived from case law involving ground- water levels being affected by the carrying out of legal acts.
I have also been advised that it would not be appropriate for the Company to make an ex gratia' or other payment to Mr. Gleave or any other party."
A little later, on 11 April, 1994, Mr. J. T. Rhead, the area solicitor-west for Severn-Trent Water said in a letter to another local resident :
"As you may be aware, much of the law relating to England and Wales arises not from Acts of Parliament ("statute law"), but from the decisions of the Courts going back in some cases centuries ("case law"). As a result of case law, the legal position is that where surface damage arises as a result of lawful interference with water in undefined channels in underground strata, that damage carries with it no legal liability. There are perhaps half a dozen cases directly bearing on this question, and all confirm that legal principle. The most recent, something under ten years ago, was Stephens v Anglian Water Authority. On the basis of these cases, we will of necessity have to strenuously deny any suggestion of liability, even assuming that there were a definitely proven connection between our pumping activities down by the river and damage either at your property or elsewhere."
That denial of liability contradicts something that had previously been said by a representative of Severn Trent. On 21 September 1993, a Mr. Bramley of Severn Trent met Mr. Gleave--who, with Mrs. Gleave, owns the house Abernant--in the presence of his solicitor Mrs. Snow, a local solicitor in Bishop's Castle. Mr. Bramley said categorically that it was the practice of Severn Trent to provide compensation for loss and damage arising from water abstraction and that funds were available for such contingencies. That was a welcome commitment, but it appears to have been withdrawn in an attempt to rely upon a set of ancient legalities which, if they were right, would have no relevance to this modern age.
On the face of it, Severn Trent is saying that there is a wrong without a remedy. Surely that cannot be acceptable to the Government. The water utilities claim in their correspondence the right to interfere with the underground strata with total impunity. I hope that we will hear from the Minister that they are wrong and that it was never the Government's intention on privatisation to give the water utilities total security from legal action.
I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that privatised utilities were not given powers that are available even to the state only in extreme emergencies. What is claimed would be the equivalent of requisition without either compensation or reward.
Putting it simply, what is claimed by Severn Trent is a licence to be negligent. Surely the Government cannot accept--and I am sure that the Minister's advice would weigh with Severn Trent--that if what would otherwise be lawful borehole operations are carried out with negligence, there is an immunity from civil liability. It would be ludicrous to say that that is correct.
The House is the repository of the rights and duties of citizens. The citizens for whom I speak tonight could not be more dutiful people. I ask the Minister to confirm in his reply that their legitimate expectation of redress is one which the Government will confirm.
Column 451Montgomery (Mr. Carlile). I fully sympathise with them, and I shall deal with them as well with the broader background of the matter. Severn Trent Water is currently seeking to develop a new source of water supply at Abermule to enable it to give a better service to a large area of Montgomeryshire between Welshpool and Llanidloes. I understand that the existing supply at Llandinam, which serves a population of about 20,000, is near the limits of its capacity. In 1993-94, the average demand on Llandinam treatment works was 13.4 megalitres per day, compared with the permitted daily abstraction licence figure of 13.7.
That leaves little or no spare capacity for growth in demand or to accommodate the sort of peak demands that could be expected during a prolonged dry period. Apart from Llandinam, there is no other existing source of any substance available to meet the demands of the area. The new source being investigated at Abermule is intended to have a similar output to the source at Llandinam and would be linked into the distribution system, to reduce demand on Llandinam and to provide for future growth. It would also provide increased security in the event of equipment or power failure at Llandinam.
Although a number of alternative sources to Abermule are theoretically possible, I am advised that they all have major disadvantages in terms of delay, cost, water quality or practicality.
As to Severn Trent Water's actions in undertaking the test pumping operations at Abermule, the land on which the boreholes were constructed was purchased at auction by the company in April 1989. Before that, general geophysical cross-sections of the valley had been undertaken in the Abermule area, to identify the parts of the valley that might provide fruitful exploration for a public water supply source. Ordnance Survey geological maps were also studied by the company to obtain hydro-geological inferences before the land was bought.
The boreholes were constructed under consents to drill and to test-pump, issued by the National Rivers Authority. Planning permission was not required. Initially, a small exploratory borehole of 10 inches diameter was constructed to test the geology and water quality characteristics and to allow an estimate of the potential for obtaining an exploitable yield from production-sized boreholes. That pilot hole gave good results, and production holes of 508 mm diameter were then constructed by the company. There are three production-sized boreholes on the site--all around 54 m deep. I am advised that all boreholes on the site have solid lining to a depth of approximately 54 m to stabilise the holes, with slotted screen below the level to the bottom of the holes. The boreholes were constructed to be stable, to prevent local collapse, and were screened to prevent the ingress of any large volumes of the surrounding gravels and other uncemented strata during pumping. The boreholes were test-pumped singly and in groups. The water was discharged to the River Severn via an open-top weir tank for measurement.
The test pumping was undertaken under a consent issued by the National Rivers Authority, and a number of local water sources in the area that the authority specified
Column 452in the consent were measured. The company maintains that it complied with good practice, in that the development was staged with pilot exploration work prior to proceeding.
Full-scale test pumping was started at a low rate from individual holes, and only later increased to pairs of boreholes being pumped. All observations required by the NRA were undertaken. When it became apparent that other wells existed outside the specified area and were affected, they were measured. I am advised that is the usual staged approach to good groundwater developments.
The hon. and learned Gentleman expressed concern about the possible wider effects of the pumping operations on a nearby trunk road and on the Montgomery canal. As to the latter, I am advised that the problem is confined to the ground below an accommodation bridge at Abernant. The situation is being carefully monitored by British Waterways, which has advised that it will take any steps necessary to protect its own property and the safety of those on and alongside the canal, including users of the adjacent highway.
As to the A483 trunk road, Powys county council--as the agent of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State--has been asked to pay particular attention to the section of the road at Garthmyl during its normal monthly safety inspections. I assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that the situation will be carefully monitored, but at present there does not appear to be any need for immediate concern. Following the test pumping operations, there were reports by local residents of possible subsidence-- exactly as the hon. and learned Gentleman said. In response, the company commissioned and paid for a professional examination of the three houses involved. Indications from the examination are, I am informed, that the damage does not put the structures at risk of collapse, being mainly superficial. In addition, the NRA required that a number of identified wells and boreholes in the local area be monitored and measured during the test pumping. During the later stages of, and also after, test pumping, a number of other wells were reported to have been affected and monitoring was immediately initiated. Only two wells were in regular use, other than for garden watering, and an alternative source of water was provided.
Although at present there is no known direct geological linkage between the damage and Severn Trent Water's activities, the company has taken the step of appointing an independent geological consultant, Professor J. N. Hutchinson, of Imperial College, London. He is an expert in geotechnics, engineering geology and engineering geomorphology.
The brief of the consultant is to provide an independent assessment of the events to date, to examine the data gathered, both incidental to works carried out and that resulting from specifically initiated research, to advise on proposed further investigations and submit a report addressing the implications of developing the source from the point of view of ground stability. The consultant will also investigate the reason for the appearance of three holes in fields near the boreholes during the second period of pumping in September and October 1992.
The company will consider the findings of that independent assessment and will consider its course of action on that basis. I understand that it is the company's intention to make the report available to the hon. and learned Gentleman.
Column 453The company has stated that it will not undertake any further pumping from the site until Professor Hutchinson's report is available. Other than for test pumping, the company will require a licence from the NRA to abstract water from underground strata. The company advertised its proposed licence application in July and August 1992. Its application was received by the NRA on 24 August 1992. No objections were received during the statutory period. A licence has not yet been granted by the NRA, pending further legal agreement with Severn Trent Water.
I am advised that there was a disruption to private supplies to two properties during the initial pumping stage. No further properties are expected to be affected, since the operational pumping regime will be less rigorous than that during the test pumping. Temporary alternative supplies were provided to those affected during testing, but the legal agreements required by the NRA as a condition for granting a possible licence have been reached by the company and both parties concerned whereby their properties will be connected to the mains at no cost to themselves. A capital sum would be paid to each to compensate for the higher cost of mains water by comparison with the private source, should the new source be developed.
On the legal and compensation issues raised in the debate, Severn Trent Water was, as I have already said, duly entitled to undertake the test pumping operations at Abermule under the terms of a consent granted by the NRA. The authority is entitled to give consent--without the full advertisement procedure required for licences--for boreholes for the purposes of looking for water in underground strata, or for testing the effect of borehole abstraction.
Otherwise, a full licence is needed, which carries with it the requirement to advertise the proposal locally and nationally and to give all those affected the opportunity to comment. An abstraction licence application was advertised in this case, and no objections were received.
Given the purposes of the Water Resources Act 1991, the NRA is not expected to consider the effects of a consent or licence other than those on water resources, the aquatic environment and the protected rights of others to abstract water. The control system is not there to reinforce the law generally on the question of the support owed by one landowner to another.
A right of abstraction can be available to any person, subject to the consent powers of the NRA. Severn Trent Water is not relying upon any specific powers in its role as a water undertaker in order to carry out the operation. Nevertheless, Severn Trent has a general duty to maintain a water supply system by virtue of section 37 of the Water Industry Act 1991, and its activities must be judged against that duty.
Water undertakers have powers to carry out works on land that they do not own, and for that purpose they may compulsorily acquire land and rights over land. They may also enter premises for the purposes of survey and to search
Column 454for water. In such circumstances, schedules 6 and 11 to the Water Industry Act govern the payment of compensation. However, such provisions are not applicable where the water undertaker is seeking solely to exercise rights that are available to any landowner, such as rights of abstraction conferred by the Water Resources Act. As I have said, the action of Severn Trent Water is one that any landowner is entitled to take. In these circumstances, the usual legal remedies are open to any complainant, who may seek legal redress through the courts in the form of a private action in negligence or nuisance.
I understand the concerns that have been raised by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery. Nevertheless, a balance has to be drawn between protecting people's property rights, protecting the aquatic environment and countryside and ensuring that the necessary water is available for public and private supplies, industry and agriculture.
I have already said that planning permission was not required for the test pumping operations at Abermule. However, it is possible that, if the borehole is to become a permanent structure, planning permission may be necessary. In that event, it may be open to the council to request the preparation of an environmental impact assessment, although such a request would be subject to the usual appeals procedures.
I stress that I fully sympathise with those who have suffered damage to their houses and properties, but it is still premature to say with certainty that that damage has been caused by the test-pumping operations. It is also premature to suggest anything other than that the company's operations were properly and professionally carried out, and were within the requirements of the responsible authorities. New water resources need to be found if demands are to be met in this area, and that is the background to Severn Trent's operations.
The company, as the statutory undertaker for the area, has a general duty to develop and maintain water supply systems, to ensure adequate and sustainable supplies. Those parties whose private water supplies may be affected by the operation have been offered a mains water supply at no additional cost to themselves.
The company has taken the responsible step of commissioning an independent report from an acknowledged expert in this area. I suggest to the House that we have to await his findings. Ultimately, it is for the individuals who feel that they may have been affected to seek legal redress if they consider that they have suffered damage as a result of the company's operations.
As the hon. and learned Gentleman is aware, I have written to the company seeking its further views on the matter. If, as a result of the correspondence, there is anything I can add to what I have said, I shall write to the hon. and learned Gentleman.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Ten o'clock.
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