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

Examination of witnesses (Questions 500-519)



  500. Not 15?
  (Mr Meacher) 12 might be the normal period but the applicant can justify a longer period in the interests of funding a major infrastructure development. He could indicate that 15, 20 or even 25 years is appropriate and it is for us[3] to take a judgment on that. There is the presumption that a time limited licence will be renewed. All that we are taking is the power, for reasons that of course we would have to make public, that in the interests of protecting the environment it is not justified to continue this beyond 12. That may apply in a few cases, but it will certainly not be the generality.

  501. You are not saying you must strictly adhere to the time limit to the Environment Agency; you are saying that these are general guidances.
  (Mr Meacher) We are saying that 12 years is the normal period for which we would expect licences to be granted by the Environment Agency.

  502. It is interesting that you say there is a presumption of renewal. It is not on the face of the Bill, is it?
  (Mr Meacher) It is the kind of consideration which it is difficult to put into legislation.

  503. Life is full of situations like that, Minister, but on the whole what is written on the Bill is what affects the development of the companies in the use of water in this country.
  (Mr Meacher) That is perfectly correct. Presumably you are looking for some such phraseology as, "The Environment Agency shall restrict the length of licence to 12 years unless the applicant makes a justified plea that it should be extended for a longer period."

  504. I am not seeking to indicate wording to you. I am saying if it is not on the face of the Bill it does not exist and therefore a presumption by a minister that it should be under normal circumstances renewed is something which changes with the minister, if I may say so.
  (Mr Meacher) Can I ask Alan Davis, the director of water and land, to explain how that presumption would be exercised if it is not specifically applied on the face of the Bill?

  505. Can you get the Minister out of the little hole into which he has dug himself?
  (Mr Davis) The 12 years itself is not on the face of the Bill. The 12 years is the policy that the Agency has announced as the normal period in its work on catchment abstraction management strategies. The government has stated very clearly that there is a presumption of renewal and if it is not on the face of the Bill—

  506. Where did it state this?
  (Mr Davis) In Taking Water Responsibly, the decision document following the—

  507. And yet you have not followed greatly the other things that are in Taking Water Responsibly, have you?
  (Mr Davis) I believe the government has. If the Agency were to decide not to operate the policy the government has set down, on every abstraction licence application there is a right of appeal to the Secretary of State so it is the Secretary of State who determines renewal and the time limit that will be imposed if it arises. The government has stated the policy very clearly. There is a balance to be struck between how much is spelled out in primary legislation and how much is left to secondary legislation or policy statements.

  508. I am sure that is true but we are asking you, since there is a clear presumption on the part of the ministers that licences will be renewed unless there is some very clear indication why they should not be, why that is not on the face of the Bill. You are telling us it is because the Minister has made this quite plain somewhere else. Is that right?
  (Mr Meacher) That is right, but you are saying—and I would like to consider further whether we should make it explicit—both the normal length of a licence and also the possibility of it being extended for justified reasons.

  509. That is why you are such a very good Minister. Are you confident that the Secretary of State is going to be able to certify this Bill as it stands as compatible with the Human Rights Act? If not, why not?
  (Mr Meacher) You are talking now about the compensation provisions. What we are proposing is that compensation should be ended after 15 July 2012 for a licence without a time limit, if it is curtailed for good, environmental reasons. Is that compatible with human rights legislation? We believe it is. Our judgment is that that strikes a proper balance between an individual's property interest and the public interest.

  510. I want to talk to you about trickle irrigation because most people in horticulture would regard trickle irrigation as not only the way to go in the future but a much more sensible, disciplined way to use water. The NFU have given us very clear indications that, certainly in the case of those people who previously did not require licences but were using trickle irrigation, they have now been told yes, they do require licences and, in one instance, they have specifically been told, "You probably will not get it anyway because we are a lot tougher than as has been indicated in the past." When you talk about compensation and human rights, most ordinary people would regard that as being pretty brutal.
  (Mr Meacher) I am aware of this one case.

  511. I do not want to just keep it to that one case. Decisions on something as basic as trickle irrigation which put people out of business must have an impact on justice for this country.
  (Mr Meacher) I think we are all agreed that trickle irrigation is a very efficient form of irrigation. I agree with you. I think it will be much more widely used in the future. It is much less wasteful; it is much less targeted. The only issue is whether a farmer automatically will get a licence when the exemption for trickle irrigation is removed. In the case that you are referring to, I think the Environment Agency indicated not necessarily.

  512. Was that based on the use of water in that region?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  513. Or was it based on some other abstract set of presumptions?
  (Mr Meacher) One would have to ask the Environment Agency. I am sure it was the water situation in that region. My view would be rather to put it the other way round. There is absolutely no reason why the licence for abstraction should not be provided when the current exemption for trickle irrigation is removed. If it is necessary to cut abstractions in any particular given area, the Environment Agency would look at all sources of abstraction to decide what the reductions should be. I think they would not necessarily—and almost certainly not—fasten on a trickle irrigator as the best way to make a reduction.

  514. To be quite clear, trickle irrigation is something which in principle the Ministry approves of. Secondly, you would not regard any barrier against that as being simply a matter of automatic disbarment on anyone taking extra resources without all of the resources in a particular region being taken into account?
  (Mr Meacher) Correct.

  515. Thirdly, in general terms—and it is very difficult to argue from the particular to the general—you would regard this as a perfectly normal development and something which should be looked at on the basis of fairness and justice?
  (Mr Meacher) Absolutely. I would be stunned—maybe I am sometimes all too easily stunned nowadays—if a trickle irrigator were not to receive a licence for abstraction in the absence of wholly exceptional circumstances and, even in those cases, I would expect probably other forms of abstraction would be where the cuts were made, not in respect of a trickle irrigator.

  516. You would not regard the remarks that you made about the Human Rights Act as being inimical to that decision?
  (Mr Meacher) Not in our view. It is a very difficult balance between the individual's property rights and the public interest. We have drawn them where we have. We think that is justified but of course it is arguable.

  Mr Brake: Could we return to the subject of dirigisme? You have already said that the economic regulator should have regard to sustainable development in your view and you are going to fight the dark forces in the Cabinet who might be opposed to it.

  Mrs Dunwoody: I do not think he quite said that.

Mr Brake

  517. Reading between the lines, I think that was clearly what he was indicating. Do you think there should be a duty on the part of water companies to promote demand management?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes, I do in principle and they are already doing a great deal to reduce the demand for water that they have to meet. The leakage rates have been dramatically improved in the last three years by something like nearly a third. All companies now offer a free supply pipe leakage repair service. The toilet flush for new cisterns has been reduced by 20 per cent. There are regulations in respect of labelling for dishwashers and washing machines. A great deal has been done. If one wants to have water demand management mandatory targets, which maybe is what you were meaning, I do not think they can operate in the absence of universal metering. The level of domestic metering is 18/19 per cent—something of that order. In the case of industrial premises it is 75 or 80 per cent plus, but it is still only about a fifth in the case of domestic metering. The other problem is that you would have to exclude external influences over which companies cannot have control—for example, the weather. Whilst I am in favour of further and tighter measures to restrict use of water and companies taking ownership of those measures, a wholesale mandatory target water demand management is not practicable at the present time.

  518. What other measures do you think they could implement that are not currently being implemented to address demand management?
  (Mr Meacher) I suppose if everyone were to put a hippo in their tank. Again, there are ways of trying to ensure that flush levels are reduced for existing cisterns and I suppose one could give greater incentives for water companies to their customers to do that. We already have the Watermark system for bench marking water efficiency in the public sector. We have Envirowise, which was formerly the energy efficiency best practice programme, giving business advice about water efficiency. We are trying to encourage consumers to be more publicly aware of excessive use through the idea of the doing your bit advertising campaign. For example, if you just need a cup of tea do not fill up the kettle to the brim. Any further ideas we will take on board but there is a lot which has already been implemented.

  519. In relation to the weather, you are saying that would be excluded from demand management, but is not the summer period exactly the time when demand management is needed?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes, but if you are going to have mandatory targets and they are going to be nation wide, unless you are proposing that they should be regionally variable, it would be much harder for companies in hotter, drier parts of the country to meet them than those in wetter areas. That is all I am saying.

3   Witness correction: the Environment Agency. Back

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