Water Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Wiggin: Transcends.

Norman Baker: Thank you. It transcends all political parties and all Members of the House. For that reason, I invite the Committee not to delete clause 2. In that light, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 13

Division No. 1]

AYES
Baker, Norman Doughty, Sue Key, Mr. Robert
Liddell-Grainger, Mr. Ian Osborne, Mr. George Wiggin, Mr. Bill

NOES
Ainger, Mr. Nick Atherton, Ms Candy Brennan, Kevin Burden, Richard Dobbin, Jim Drew, Mr. David Iddon, Dr. Brian
King, Andy Morley, Mr. Elliot Organ, Diana Palmer, Dr. Nick Simon, Mr. Sio n Tipping, Paddy

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 2 disagreed to.

Clause 3

Licences to abstract water

Mr. Wiggin: I beg to move amendment No. 3, in

    clause 3, page 2, line 29, at beginning insert—

    '( ) Each licence to abstract water shall be issued in response to an application for planning permission.

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    ( ) The Environment Agency shall be consulted as part of the planning decision.'.

Unlike my colleagues, Mr. Amess, I have not welcomed you to the Chair, and I should like to do that straight away. The amendment addresses the relationship between water abstraction and planning. I am no expert on legal drafting, planning or water abstraction. However, I want to ensure that any business that wishes to abstract—when I wrote the amendment I had in mind quarries and mineral water companies—has to take just one course of action in order to develop. At present, it would have to have an abstraction licence that was a separate entity to the planning application that would need to be granted in the case of quarrying abstract sand, gravel, rock or any type of stone.

It is rarely possible to quarry without abstracting water. That is why the amendment would draw together the planning application and the abstraction licence application. It would ensure that for environmental reasons the Environment Agency is part of the consultation when the planning application is under review.

I hope that that is clear. It is not a complicated concept but it is important, because if planning applications are separate from abstraction licences, the abstraction licence may have a shorter life than the planning application, in which case businesses that have permission to extract rock, for example, may not be allowed to do so in the long term. It would be short-sighted of any measure to allow such a delay; if it is environmentally safe to abstract water, the business should be able to go ahead, provided that it has planning permission. Would not it be so much better if it were all part of the same process? Would not it be better to streamline the legislative burden so that businesses could compete on a level playing field with those abroad? We recognise that there would be a benefit, especially for quarries, if their abstraction licence was coterminous with their planning permission.

There is little point in issuing planning permission without an abstraction licence, because when that expires so, effectively, will the planning permission. Businesses should not be hamstrung by separating the two.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I support my hon. Friend's argument. He used the example of quarries, and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) mentioned canals and other sources of water extraction, and I shall refer to them and to farms. We must consider three things in respect of the proposal: first, who will take the final decision? Counties and districts consider planning applications, and in a dispute between a county and a district or a parish, the application may eventually go to appeal before the Minister, which may cause enormous problems, because such matters are time-sensitive. If they have to go through the planning mechanism, they take an enormous amount of time. Another point to be borne in mind is that the weather conditions in this country change rapidly.

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Secondly, as subsections 1(a), (b) and (c) of new section 24A of the Water Resources Act 1991 refer to a period of 28 days or longer, are there any provisions for a system of roll-over licences? For example, a quarry may want to remove a tonnage of stone but something goes wrong and it will take longer to extract the material. Can the planning application be rolled over, rather than people having to re-apply and go through the whole process again?

Thirdly, boring for water is one of the most inexact sciences I have ever come across. You bore a hole and it does not quite work, so you bore another hole and keep on. [Interruption.] The Minister kindly refers to divining, which I have tried but not mastered. The scientific world is probably better at divining than anything else. Boring for water, which is frequently undertaken in this country, may cause problems for the Minister, because water moves around rapidly. I completely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster that the planning system must be flexible enough to take that into consideration, and this proposal is not flexible enough to do so. The Minister may like to think about that.

Mr. Key: I genuinely want to hear from the Minister what the Government propose to do about this problem. Things have moved on over the years, but the Bill makes no mention of the relationship between sustainable water supplies, sewerage and planning issues, such as housing developments in industrial use. Nor is there any reference to water in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, which is currently before the House. The situation seems to be completely unsustainable, and must be remedied.

It is nonsense that a planning authority can consult a water company, but that the company is not a statutory consultee. In any event, the water company is obliged under statute to supply whatever it is asked to supply. It cannot refuse to supply a certain housing development or support an industrial development. It cannot refuse to supply water, or to take effluent, treat it and return it to the rivers.

We must address the problem of the interface with planning if we are to be serious about issues such as the water framework directive. I hope that the Minister will be able to convince me. This issue is of great practical significance. Water companies in my part of the world have real problems with sewage flooding in winter, because the land is primarily chalk-based. We have the problem of winter bournes and the water table rising substantially most winters. Indeed, it used to rise absolutely predictably and regularly until we started abstracting a lot. We will store up enormous problems for ourselves if we cannot solve this problem for the planning authorities. The implementation of catchment management schemes will also make nonsense of the water framework directive. We need answers from the Government now.

I wholly support my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster in raising this extremely important issue.

Sue Doughty: I join others in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Amess. Given your substantial

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environmental interests, we look forward to your wisdom in dealing with us through our deliberations.

I have no current declarable interest. I do, however, declare a minor interest as a former water company employee, and I will be a pensioner of that water company in the future. The amendment is interesting. We awaited the explanation for it, because it appeared merely to introduce more bureaucracy.

These are difficult times for water—there are the problems of climate change—and I appreciate that the constituency of the hon. Member for Leominster may have had more rainfall this summer than did other parts of the country. Maps produced by the Environment Agency, which are reproduced in the Library's research paper on the Water Bill, show that the precipitation is desperately low. Our main problem is where we will get our water from and how we plan for it, especially in areas of very high use—the Thames gateway development was referred to on Second Reading.

The Minister very usefully told us that we now have the Committee to worry about this problem. However, it remains to be seen whether the Committee will do the rain dances at the right moment, or whether it has other plans in place. We wait with anticipation and excitement to hear where the water will come from.

It was said on Second Reading that we would all be against the Thames gateway development for some peculiar and parochial reason of our own. There was no reason to make that statement. We do not necessarily oppose it. However, we recognise that that development, more than any other, encapsulates the major problem of water shortages, water planning and announcements made about housing and other developments while there is no clear idea of where the water will come from. The amendment is therefore useful.

Thames gateway has the highest consumption of water per capita. We are using more water not only, as some like to say, because it is leaking, although there are problems to do with that, but because as individuals we water our gardens and like to take a shower when the weather is hot, as it has been in the past few months. We wash our clothes much more often and put things in the dishwasher. We are cleaner than we used to be, and that is not a bad thing, but it increases demand.

The points that the hon. Member for Salisbury made about winter bourns are true. There are a number of winter bournes in the Thames basin system, but they have been depleted, and species such as the water vole have been lost because they have not been replenished in the winter owing to over-abstraction in the Thames area. There are problems there that are not unconnected with new developments.

We must recognise that when applications are made we must be satisfied that we know where the water is coming from. Because of those concerns, we shall support the Conservatives on the amendment.

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10.45 am

 
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