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13 Jun 2006 : Column 175WH—continued

9.54 am

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I am very grateful to you, Mrs. Humble, and I propose to speak briefly. I hope that you and the Minister will forgive me, but I have to leave for a sitting of the Standards and Privileges Committee at 10.25 am.

In support of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway), I want to speak about linking development with water resources in my constituency. My contribution is intended neither to be as parochial as it sounds, nor to make a constituency point, because what I have to say affects many other constituencies in the south of England. The Minister knows that, because he is wrestling with problems that are not of his making and have existed for a long time, but they are being exacerbated by the Government’s policies.

The point that I really want to make to the Minister concerns the fact that in about 1999 I became aware of plans that might lead to the building of a substantial number of new houses in the south-east. There is clearly a requirement for more affordable housing and for other housing in the south-east—nobody disputes that—but the sheer scale of the proposals is critical for us. He might know that more houses have been proposed in the Gatwick diamond, incorporating Mid-Sussex, Horley, Horsham, Reigate and Crawley, than there are in Milton Keynes. However, the Gatwick diamond does not have the special infrastructure that Milton Keynes has been accorded, so the infrastructure development is impossible. It is impossible to build such a great number of houses merely on the basis of developers’ contributions, and without the Government’s support for the infrastructure. It is not a matter for argument today, but water is an important part of infrastructure.

When I heard about those plans in about 1999, I wrote to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who was a Minister in the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, to warn him about them and to explain some of the difficulties. I went to see South East Water, which was then managed by a remarkable woman, Margaret Devlin. She, sadly, has now left her post as managing director to emigrate to New Zealand. Given the scale of the problem that she faced, I do not blame
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her. She is an outstanding woman, and she did a very good job. The Minister knows her, and she is a loss to the water industry.

I went to see Mrs. Devlin to discuss openly with her the extent of the Government’s consultation with the water companies on the sheer scale of the proposals for my constituency and elsewhere in the south-east. She told me, and I must say that I was surprised, that the water companies were not official consultees. On 26 May 2000, after I had been to see her, she wrote to me, and said:

She continued:

Subsequent to that meeting, Mrs. Devlin sent me the interesting points and the brief that Water UK submitted to the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee’s 1998 inquiry into those matters. Inter alia, Water UK recommended:

It made a number of other important points, too. The Government decided to pay no attention to those recommendations. Their response, as set out by Mrs. Devlin in a letter to me dated 16 March 2000,

I wholly support all the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South, who knows a great deal about the subject and has made a number of important strategic points. Mine is a strategic point, too, but it is linked to a local point. The Government cannot go on willing the scale of development planned without matching the infrastructure to make it happen. The issue is not just water, but hospitals, roads, schools, care for the elderly and everything else; all those things are increasingly underfunded. In the south-east, the Government have stripped money from the shire authorities to give it to the north. At the heart of the matter lies the Government’s policy of sustainability.

I shall end with only a slight jibe at the Government’s expense—tendered, of course, with immense respect, affection and admiration. After my exchanges with Margaret Devlin, I tabled a question for the heroic Deputy Prime Minister, asking him to define sustainability. It was not for urgent answer; the usual space of time was given. The departmental answer was that I would get a reply “in due course”. In other words, the Department did not have a clue what sustainability meant. Three weeks later, I got an answer—a detailed letter—explaining to me what sustainability means. Some of what was in that
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parliamentary answer has not survived through to today; because of the sheer scale of the developments proposed, the Government’s new definition of sustainability has had to be thrown out of the window.

Part of the definition of sustainability is the prudent use of natural resources, and so say all of us. The Government must will the way, and must enable us to cope with the level of housing and development proposed for my part of the world. There are proposals for East Grinstead and elsewhere in my constituency, where we need housing, and where young people desperately need to be able to buy affordable housing. However, there is also the question of how they are to travel on roads already gridlocked, and there are hospitals already under great pressure with tremendous deficits. The hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) knows all about that, given where she comes from. The proposals are, by the Government’s own definition, unsustainable.

All that I ask of the Minister, who has a proven record of being reasonable, rational and sane on such matters, is to give us some understanding and some hope that the Government will consider with the greatest care the points being made by colleagues from across the south-east. They are not anti-development; I was distressed that when I went to see the Minister for Housing and Planning at the Department for Communities and Local Government, she was extremely aggressive with a delegation from the south of England, which included my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), and my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), and for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). She suggested that we were just anti-housing, and were simply nimbys, but we are not. We want the housing, and we know that we have to have it, but we want it to be proportionate and to scale, and we want sustainable resources that will be used in a sensible and prudent manner.

Again, I apologise, Mrs. Humble, for the fact that I have to go at 10.25, but I shall read with great interest what the Minister says. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South, for allowing me to take part in this debate.

10.4 am

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) on securing this debate on an important issue. The problem, as he said, is stark, and statistics suggest that, in some places, ground water levels and river flows are the lowest on record. We have been experiencing drought since November 2004, broadly, and the Environment Agency says that rainfall has been much lower during that period than during the drought of 1974-76. In some places, rainfall is at its lowest since the 1920s, as the hon. Gentleman said. There has been some respite, due to the traditional English summer solution—May was the wettest that there has been for some time—but that provided only partial respite from the drought.

Clearly, there is a possible connection to the progress of climate change, and what were once extreme environmental phenomena—such as heat waves and floods—are increasingly becoming the norm. The
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impact on communities and businesses is major, and will get worse with climate change. It will certainly get worse in the south-east and other parts of the country where enormous increases in housing are proposed.

I sympathise with the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) on trying to get a definition of sustainability out of the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I tried, too, and I was on the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I did not get a comprehensible answer, either. The ODPM’s approach to housing supply came overwhelmingly from the Barker report, which was a very clever report, I am sure, but was commissioned by the Treasury, and was asked an essentially one-dimensional question about how to tackle house prices through housing supply. I am sure that Kate Barker is a clever woman, but she gave an essentially one-dimensional reply, which was that one would have to increase housing supply by a great amount to make a difference. She was given no particular environmental remit. The lack of consultation on policies that emerged from the Department formerly known as the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—its lack of consultation with the water companies has been pointed out—demonstrates the lack of environmental impact assessments in the whole post-Barker process.

I was struck by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report; buried in page 121 of it are comments from Professor Adrian McDonald, who points out that Kate Barker’s report says:

Professor McDonald comments:

He mentions an earlier report, commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that asserted that

The newly named Department for Communities and Local Government needs to do some serious thinking on the environmental impact of the numbers of houses that it proposes for the south of England. I hope that it will look again at those numbers and consider different ways of tackling the issue of affordability, perhaps by thinking about household size and the availability of credit, so that it has a less one-dimensional approach.

On our response to water supply crises, we have various tools at our disposal. The Government approach has essentially been one of regulation and restriction up to now, but all the numbers suggest that the trends are now all in the wrong direction. Let us consider first leakage numbers. I should praise the Government a little; I am not entirely sure what Water UK is—from the name, one can only tell that it has something to do with water and is British—but the Government-introduced report by Water UK is extremely useful in giving us statistics on what is going on in the water industry. Strangely, Water UK has quite
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different numbers on leakage from Ofwat. The Minister might look into that inconsistency.

Water UK reports that, from the water industry’s total output of about 18,000 megalitres per day, there is a loss of about 5,000 megalitres per day. The comparable figure from Ofwat for the same year is only 3,649 megalitres per day, so there is some inconsistency there. Both the Ofwat and the Water UK reports show a consistent trend since 1999-2000 of an annual increase in water leakage since 1999-2000. According to Ofwat’s figures, from a level of 3,243 megalitres per day in 2000-2001, leakage has increased each year to reach 3,649 megalitres per day. According to Water UK’s figures, it has consistently increased from just over 4,200 megalitres per day in 1999 to over 5,000 megalitres today in 2003-04. The trend is clearly going in the wrong direction.

Ofwat’s response to that trend strikes me as remarkably complacent. It talks of an economic level of leakage, but it does not appreciate the potential impact of the trend going in the wrong direction. There are good guys and bad guys in its analysis of the water companies. Companies such as Wessex, Yorkshire and Dwr Cymru are clearly going in the right direction in tackling leakage and appropriate action is being taken, but companies like Severn Trent and Thames Water are going in the wrong direction.

The charts included in the Ofwat report show that Thames Water’s long-term target for reducing water leakage by 2010 is, in terms of litres per property per day, way above the highest number for any other water company today. Thames Water is a case apart. In Government jargon, it is in need of special measures, or a turnaround team. It needs drastic action and, given its profit levels, it seems inappropriate for it to continue to have such a poor record and such unambitious targets set for tackling leakage.

Demand management is going in the wrong direction as well, according to Water UK’s report. It shows that in the last year for which there are figures, domestic water demand was still increasing, from 149 litres per person per day in 2002-03 to more than 150 litres in 2003-04, and that non-domestic demand is also increasing. Strangely, it shows a slight reduction in total water consumed, which I am slightly confused by, but there is clearly still a problem in demand management. The comparison with approaches to climate change and carbon emissions is quite striking. Part of the solution lies in big infrastructure by tackling leakage and distribution problems, similar to the distribution problems to be tackled in energy supply. There are the big technological fixes—the George Bush approach—such as desalination plants and the like, but I am somewhat sceptical of those.

As in energy efficiency, a large part of the solution must lie in water efficiency and micro-scale solutions to water demand. The House of Lords report includes recommendations relating to what is euphemistically described as “black-water recycling”. It includes examples from Australia of localised black-water recycling. It acknowledges that the “yuck factor” has to be overcome in this respect, but says that there is more to be done provided that—I am reassured by this—
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sufficiently expert plumbing exists to prevent the confusion of water supplies.

We must also consider the greater use of grey-water recycling and rainwater capture. Even the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee is relatively unambitious about that. It suggests extending the remit of the Energy Saving Trust and the Carbon Trust to water, which seems a slightly strange solution. Grants are available for the microgeneration of energy, through what was the clear skies programme and is now the low-carbon buildings programme, but no similar grants are available for rainwater capture technology for householders. I know about that because I am trying to do it myself. There might be potential in the long term to create a resource management agency that takes on the function of the Energy Saving Trust and the Carbon Trust, perhaps incorporating water, which extends to other areas of resource management with ecological implications, such as the use of nitrogen. The Government should be ambitious in this area.

Regarding water efficiency and reducing our “water footprint”, various demand methods are available. The only one used at the moment is the emergency measure—an example of failure—of moving from hosepipe bans to drought orders. Such measures are introduced when all other systems have failed. It is a shame that we have ended up in this situation, but we have done so in many parts of the country. I agree with the hon. Member for Croydon, South: it is important that such measures are applied fairly. There should not be exemptions for royal parks and people should not be able to use water for car washes and swimming pools while the livelihoods of people working in horticulture suffer because of their inability to use water.

We must encourage metering. I support moves to encourage strongly the use of water metering nationwide, and perhaps we might consider alternatives to water rates even for those houses that do not have water metering. For instance, each house could have a home water efficiency rating operating on a different basis to water rating, which uses the rateable value of the house in 1973—an increasingly bizarre basis on which to base water rates. We should encourage a greater understanding of the “water footprint” and impact of water use by households. For instance, Friends of the Earth has suggested that estate agents might quote water ratings so that people buying a house might have a sense of what its “water footprint” is.

Mr. Soames: The hon. Gentleman makes some hugely important and very technical points. Does he agree that all the information is available, that the knowledge is there and that there are people who know about it? The water companies know all about the matter, they know—by and large—what they need to do and many of them would like to do it. Unless the Government listen to the water companies about the availability and supply of water, unless there is consultation in the true meaning of the word—when the Government and councils consult on planning applications where the water is discussed—and unless the points made in such consultations are listened to, we are heading for a disaster in planning.

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Martin Horwood: I agree with the hon. Gentleman up to a point. Certainly, it is important that water companies are part of the consultation process and are statutory consultees. I entirely support his points in that respect. However, my point is that it is not only a question of big infrastructure and big companies. As with energy efficiency and microgeneration, there is an important dimension to the process that can operate at household level as a matter of individual and community responsibility, and the Government should encourage such activity.

That process could lead to something like the environmental labelling of white goods. When people buy white goods in their local store, they can examine the energy efficiency of those products, so why can they not look at their water efficiency as well? A labelling scheme could show the water efficiency of such goods. Ultimately, we also have to talk about—as the House of Lords report does—catching up with people who are not paying their fair share. The report draws attention to the unacceptably high number of people who are not paying their water bills but who can afford to do so. That is another obvious area for Government action.

We must also consider the new building regulations. There has been much pressure, which I support, to make the code for sustainable building mandatory. It should include the requirement for microgeneration technology to be used, but why not also include rain water capture of grey water systems, too?

The debate has highlighted the fact that when we are talking about Government action on the environment, it is more than a question of carbon. There are other impacts that our lifestyles, society and economy have on the environment. I was struck by one of the submissions made to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, which seems to have gone slightly unnoticed in some of the recommendations, from Milton Keynes Friends of the Earth. Its response to trends in household size and the detrimental impact that they have on housing, land use and water use was not to ask how we accommodate such trends, but to ask whether we can challenge them. Can Government methods and policies be deployed to challenge the trend in household size and encourage greater occupancy levels in domestic properties?

All in all, we need a joined-up approach from the Government to water and to the environment in general, but the current trends do not give great evidence of that joined-up approach being implemented.

10.20 am

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) on securing this important and timely debate. It is, perhaps, typical that on a day on which we are debating drought and water shortages, the heavens should open and it should pour with rain.

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