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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 13 June 2006

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Water Shortages

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Jonathan Shaw.]

9.30 am

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): There is a certain irony in our having this debate while it is raining outside. Perhaps that illustrates the problem we have in trying to get to grips with this serious matter.

Although I have criticisms to make today, not all of them are laid at the Minister’s door. I am the first to acknowledge that much of the present regime originated under the previous Conservative Government. I shall be critical on the issue of housing and planning, but I do not hold him responsible for everything that happens on this matter.

There is a complexity in that my constituency is straddled by two water companies. Perhaps that has drawn my attention to the random way in which certain measures are being introduced by different water companies at different times. The north of my constituency uses Thames Water Utilities while the south of my constituency uses Sutton and East Surrey Water, of whose activities the Minister will be well aware. I have good relations with both companies. They keep me well informed and I believe that their management is thoroughly competent. I shall discuss the operations of the companies a little later.

The background to the debate is that the south-east is experiencing a drought. There are plenty of estimates about which year the drought is the worst since; I have heard that it is the worst since 1995, 1974, 1933 and 1922. Whichever is correct, the situation is bad. The present shortage of rain started in November 2004, and there have been two dry winters since. In the 19 months up to the beginning of this May, only four had above average rainfall. During those 19 months, there was only 80 per cent. of the normal rainfall in the south-east, compared with 95 per cent. in the UK as a whole. However, October 2004 and, as we well know, May 2006—the two months straddling that period—were very wet, with rainfall of about 180 per cent. of what we would expect. If that is taken into account, rather worryingly, we are talking about the driest period for only 11 years—since 1995.

During that period, river flows have also been below average, although the Environment Agency says that the situation is getting worse. Groundwater levels in southern England are below average. Reservoirs in southern England were in the 83 to 88 per cent. full bracket at the beginning of May. The figure for the rest of the UK was 95 per cent. That is the shortage of water in that region. Two other factors are involved—demand and leakage—to which I shall return.

The response of the Government, the water companies and the agencies, through the regime that prevails, was to introduce bans and orders. That is the
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correct response. Use must be restrained, because if there is no water, there is no water, and we must accept that.

However, the application of some of the orders is bizarre. There have been a number of different interpretations of how a hosepipe ban is introduced. In any event, as far as I can tell, such bans have been largely ignored. Will the Minister examine the situation with micro-irrigation systems? As he is well aware, under a hosepipe ban, someone may use a watering can to water their garden, but a micro-irrigation system is technically banned although it is more efficient. Will he review that point?

There is also the question of why royal parks are exempt from a hosepipe ban. If there is a shortage of water, there is a shortage of water, so we are not talking about something we can juggle. In my judgment, a royal park has no greater priority than a garden in Croydon, South. We are all grateful to Alice Miles of The Times—I am sure that the Minister has seen the article—who exposed the hypocrisy that No. 10 is technically a royal park and seems to be getting round the hosepipe ban by having a tank of undefined size to water the garden there. If No. 10 can do it, why cannot my constituents do it? I do not expect the Minister to march into No. 10 and demand a halt, but the issue should be examined.

That deals with hosepipe bans, but as we all know, Sutton and East Surrey Water has introduced a drought order and Thames Water Utilities is about to do the same, and that represents a more draconian approach to the matter. Royal parks will be exempt under the drought order. Why will Thames Water Utilities be introducing its drought order so late in the day? It will be introducing it at the end of the one of the wettest months that we have ever had. What had changed from the situation at the beginning of that month by the end of it? The situation surely cannot have been worse. What decision could not have been made at the beginning of May that was able to be made at the end of it? I do not believe that there has been more rainfall in central London than in south London.

In the meantime, the top end of my constituency is subject to a hosepipe ban and the bottom end is subject to a drought order. That means, for example, that car washes may operate in the north of my patch but not the south. There are five golf courses in my constituency. In the north, they may be watered, but not in the south. There is no difference in the situation of the areas, in that they all use the same river basin and they are in the same water catchment area. The patchwork fragmentation of the water regime in the south-east needs to be examined. What is effectively an economic distinction is artificial. We should return to that. Let us not forget that we are not just talking about golf courses. Tennis clubs and bowls greens also face difficulties.

The public are sceptical. Imposing a drought order is a serious matter. Car washes may still operate under a drought order if they use less than 23 litres per car. How on earth can we persuade the public to save water at home if they see a car wash operating during a drought order? If the argument is that we must look after businesses, we must recognise that a darn sight more people are employed in a golf course than in a car wash. Golf courses are big business.

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We need a coherent regime and water efficiency strategy, and not patchy implementation throughout the south-east. If we were to look at a map—the Environment Agency’s map is as good as any—of the water companies in the south-east, we would see that there is a complete fragmentation. As we looked north up through the country, we would see that the areas are large and are built primarily around the river basins, such as those of the Trent, Severn and Thames. Why is there a patchwork in the south-east? Well, that is how things are set up. The most fragmented regime is in the areas of worst drought. As I said, I have high regard for the management, but the fragmentation of the regimes is not in the public interest.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that the water framework directive is coming over the horizon. It is one of the few decent bits of European legislation. The UK is obliged, by 2009, to develop a river basin management plan. This is a unique opportunity to review the strategy and to introduce much more co-ordinated measures than we have had in the past.

May I turn to the question of demand, housing and planning? London, of which Croydon is a part, is expecting to have 800,000 new houses by 2015. The south-east is growing by 1 per cent. per annum in respect of demand for water. The Government say that there is no problem in supplying the planned housing expansion with water, and they point to a figure of an increase in water demand of 0.1 per cent.

The excellent report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology described planning of water supply and water management as one of the foremost domestic policy challenges of the day. Paragraph 4.40 refers to the Government’s approach and states:

The report continues in paragraph 4.47:

That report has no side to it—I am not being patronising, but the Lords produce good reports which tend to be non-political—but it goes on to discuss the need for proper consultation. When the Commons Environmental Audit Committee was chaired by my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), it said that it was dismayed that water companies had not been properly consulted. That point was picked up by the Lords Committee in paragraph 4.19 of its report, which says that Werner Boettcher, who is not a lackey, but managing director of Thames Water,

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Further to the point that my hon. Friend is making about water demand, may I draw the Minister’s attention to paragraph 8.18 of the Lords report, which states:

My hon. Friend is aware that there is a proposal to build 4,000 houses in East Grinstead in my constituency, thus doubling the size of the town—increasing it by 47 per cent. by 2016 without any consultation with the water companies. That will require 6.75 million litres of extra water a day. That is hardly a sustainable development and I wholly endorse the point that he is making. Does he agree that people in East Grinstead who want more affordable housing and know that development is necessary are deeply worried about the sustainability argument and the water, infrastructure and everything that goes with building a modern sustainable society?

Richard Ottaway: My hon. Friend makes the point very well indeed and is far from alone among my Conservative colleagues who tend to have constituencies in the south-east. A substantial number of people have that opinion.

It is not convincing for the Minister to say that the Government have looked at the matter and are satisfied. The body of opinion is that it has not been properly assessed and evaluated and he should go back and look again at the matter. If he is right—I do not believe that he is—the public need to be convinced and persuaded.

Leakage, which is primarily a problem for Ofwat, has been falling. It was 23 per cent. 10 years ago and is now down to 16 per cent. That has been achieved through the pricing mechanism, but in many cases pressing down on prices by Ofwat may have inhibited investment. Sutton and East Surrey Water has been under such a tight regime that although it is currently meeting its water leakage targets, it will take 200 years to replace the infrastructure at the rate that is allowed at present.

Thames Water has, famously, not hit its leakage targets and has failed to do so over the past four years. In my judgment, that is a big test for Ofwat. If Thames Water fails again—it looks as if it may—what fine will Ofwat impose on it when the public are having to make sacrifices? Thames Water has not been fined to date.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this timely debate, and I apologise that I cannot stay to make a contribution, because of a pressing session of the Select Committee on Defence.

On leakage, does the hon. Gentleman find it scandalous that 1 billion litres of water—one third of
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Thames Water’s output—have been lost while it has made record profits? There should be plenty of money to reinvest if Ofwat—this is the case he is making—provided the proper regime for that.

Richard Ottaway: The hon. Lady makes the point well. I have no difficulty with the water company making profits and was heartened by the Minister’s response a couple of weeks ago to a Labour Member who attacked the water companies on an urgent question. However, the matter is in Ofwat’s hands and perhaps the Minister will discuss that with it.

The test for Ofwat is whether it will impose fines on water companies that are missing their leakage targets. That is bound to affect the public’s response. They are asking themselves, “Well, if we’re losing so much water through leakages, what’s the point?”

It is worth noting that the Law Society, for example, is about to be fined £250,000 by its regulator for having missed targets in its first year and looks as though it will not make its targets this year and will be fined £750,000. If regulators want to dispel the notion that they are a soft touch—Ofwat is beginning to get that reputation—they must act.

Water efficiency and conservation is growing in importance. The UK average water consumption is about 150 litres a day, in contrast with Austria, Germany and the Netherlands which use 125 litres a day. The Environment Agency said that to be sustainable—this is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) made—that needs to be reduced to 110 litres a day. That is a remarkable statement by the Environment Agency and assumes a number of changes in the approach of households. How will that be achieved?

When Baroness Young of Old Scone—that is a good Labour title—who is the chief executive of the Environment Agency gave evidence to the House of Lords she simply said that there will have to be greater focus on water efficiency and a much higher level of water penetration to achieve lower demand. She also said that we need acceleration in mains replacement, a new reservoir and greater use of desalination. Those are all important points, but why are they coming out of the mouth of the head of the Environment Agency, which is just a talking shop and comes up with strategies but has no powers? The problem needs Government action and the Minister must pull together many loose ends and work with the companies to achieve the objectives that we all want.

Mr. Soames: There have been several occasions—I do not have the details with me, but can obtain them for my hon. Friend—when Ministers in the House of Lords have given strong assurances that developments will not take place without adequate water supplies being in place. I am afraid that that assurance looks highly unlikely in parts of the south-east.

Richard Ottaway: Again, my hon. Friend makes powerfully his point that the strategy I am urging the Minister to take up does not yet exist.

Water metering must be a key tool of water conservation. Those who do not have water meters have absolutely no incentive whatever to save water.
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There is simply a reliance on appeals for restraint. People must be responsible for their own actions, and they must be responsible for the water that they consume. I urge the Minister to consider introducing a plan for compulsory metering. Some 75 per cent. of the country is not metered. I know that it is a political hot potato, but in the present climate, if hon. Members will forgive the pun, the mood is for reconsidering water metering. I have installed a meter in my house, and I actually save money, so it is not quite the ogre that it is made out to be. It could go a long way towards reducing demand.

On the issue of a national grid, it is quite easy in the present situation to say, “Why can’t we ship water from one side of the country to the other?” Having considered the idea over the past few days, I am persuaded by the argument that it would definitely be a bigger job than one might think. Immense volumes of water would be needed to supply water from one side of the country to households on the other. Indeed, to make it work, one would in effect need a canal system. Therein lies a possible answer, but that is for another day.

A grid would also introduce an element of competition, and that is really the matter to which the Minister must apply himself. It is worth noting that Thames Water’s drought order does not apply throughout its entire area. It says that it could move water from one side to the other but there are problems. There is not that much more water on one side compared with the other; and there are technical questions, because the water on one side is different from the water on the other, and machinery is geared for a certain type of water. That, again, would cause a problem for a national grid.

Mr. Soames: Like leaves on the line.

Richard Ottaway: Or the wrong kind of snow. It is the wrong type of water, so I shall let the idea of a national grid rest. I do not think that the case is proven at the moment.

Linda Gilroy: I want to ensure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of an organisation called Waterwise. I am chair of the all-party water group, and tomorrow we are having a meeting entitled, “Is the Country Running Dry? The Need for Efficient Water Resource Management in the UK”.

Richard Ottaway: Committee Room 8, 4 pm.

Linda Gilroy: I thank the hon. Gentleman. Has he assessed the contribution that Waterwise’s awareness programme could make to controlling demand?

Richard Ottaway: Yes I have. I looked at that and at what the all-party water group is doing. I find it encouraging—I hope the Minister does, too—that there is a growing consensus about the need to act, to be efficient, and to revisit the water strategy and the question of planning.

On desalination, Thames Water has made an application for a site on the Thames but the Mayor of London is blocking it on the ground that it uses up too
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much energy. Again, technology must come into play to analyse how we can run such plants using less energy. A thought came to my mind: I gather that the new generation of nuclear power stations run at a temperature so hot that one could actually run a desalination plant on the back of them. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) may laugh, but it is a source of heat that would otherwise go into the atmosphere, and it is not beyond the wit of man to harness that heat for the common good.

In summary, there are many loose ends and much to be done, and only the Government can pull those loose ends together. It is not enough to leave it all to the water companies, and what is needed is a thorough review of water management strategy.

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