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18 Mar 2008 : Column 170WH—continued

10.40 am

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) on securing this debate. I also congratulate him on the expertise that he has built up over the years. Any Yorkshireman would be shocked that Cornwall could even begin to compete with the wealth of resources that we have on our beaches in North Yorkshire, let alone the whole of Yorkshire. I await what the Minister will say but hope that this does not turn into a war of the roses.

Moving rapidly on, one thing that this debate has established is that the demand for household water has risen by 55 per cent. since 1980, and that the trend is set to increase. Water metering should be seen as part of an integrated approach to providing information and helping to adapt consumer behaviour. I do not see any reason why a rising block system could not be introduced without universal smart meters, and I hope that the introduction of smart meters does not require us to be too smart in using them. The concept of meters that are able to talk to each other so that households, whatever their income, will be able to see, particularly in the coldest months of the year, their consumption of all utilities is exciting.

On affordability, I draw attention to the fact that there is currently a vulnerable groups tariff: metered households in receipt of certain state benefits who have three or more dependent children and people with certain medical conditions should pay no more than the average charge for their region. We should all draw attention to that. A vulnerable groups workshop in September 2006 produced recommendations that I find very persuasive: tariff and associated information should be given more positive branding, application forms and guidance should be simplified and standardised, and all relevant parties, including the
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Department for Work and Pensions, should collaborate in targeted publicity. The recommendations also stated that there is a strong argument for extending qualification to include pensioners. I should like to ask the Minister, having heard this debate, what discussions he has had with his opposite number in the DWP in the context of the 2009 review and the consultations on and reviews of the water strategy. It strikes me, particularly when talking about those on benefits and the plight of pensioners, that the recommendations bear some regard.

The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell focused heavily on beaches, for reasons which are perfectly understandable. Perhaps I ought to declare an interest: I was an MEP for 10 years and probably dealt with the European Union bathing directive, drinking water directive and several other directives. In my time as the representative for the whole of the Essex coast, I handed out a blue flag to one of the beaches on behalf of the district council.

I make a plea to the Minister and to all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate to consider the implications of the price review for sewerage and water supply generally. I have some sympathy with South West Water customers, but I am a Yorkshire Water customer. I have had a series of meetings with the company, and I pay tribute to the work that it did in the clean-up exercise, given the number of houses in one city alone—Hull—that were flooded last year. Our price change involves an increase of 7.5 per cent., which may dwarf even the South West Water price increase.

Will the Minister say something about his adaptation agenda in the context of the price review and the water strategy generally? The Association of British Insurers has come up with its own adaptation agenda. It specifically asks for more investment in flood and coastal defences and in urban drainage and strengthened land-use planning.

The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell and his colleagues spoke about land use. There is some idea that we could move forward with that, in the context of the Ofwat review. Does the Minister accept that water companies could play a role in slowing water down by co-operating with the landowners and farmers who work the land and allowing some water to be retained on that land? Is it possible or feasible for water companies to do that, or is it even appropriate for them to do so?

The concept of storing water on land upstream to prevent flooding downstream is worth exploring. It is not something that we want Yorkshire Water to do, but it is something that we are looking at in my constituency. As the Minister well knows, Thirsk was flooded twice within five years. One business there is now unable to get any insurance cover at all. There is a flood alleviation scheme—I know that this is not about the price review—but we felt a bit aggrieved when, having worked for five or six years to get Cod Beck enmained, we found that the Government changed the point system, so that it did not matter that it was enmained. A different point system applied, so that Cod Beck was still not due to get money. It is worth exploring whether Yorkshire Water and other water companies, as the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell suggested, could work with landowners for the greater good of the local community.

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As recently as 14 March, the Minister responded to one of our great concerns, which was reflected in the Pitt review recommendation. At present, water companies are obliged to offer all new developments—I believe that this probably relates to substantial new developments—the right to connect to the public sewerage system under section 104 of the Water Industry Act 1991. As the Minister is aware, one of the interim recommendations of the Pitt review is that there should be an end to the automatic right to connection. The Minister will appreciate that we support that recommendation wholeheartedly. In his answer of 14 March, he stated:

I believe that the Government have allocated £34.5 million in respect of the Pitt review.

Based on discussions that I have had with water companies, it strikes me that ending the automatic right to connection would be done for no other reason than to ask water companies to perform a similar role to that of the Environment Agency in determining whether there is indeed the capacity for any substantial new development of houses to feed waste water into drains. Missing from the debate was the concept of water companies dealing with surface water run-off, which caused flooding in substantial parts of the country last year, and the end to the automatic right to connection having cost implications for water companies. Has the Minister given some thought to who will pay, and how the water companies will raise the money to enable them to perform that duty?

Finally, just what should be the role of Ofwat, as the economic regulator? Obviously, it is there to protect the interests of consumers, to promote effective competition and to set the framework for new water supply licensing regimes. We note with some concern the increases in water bills, not just for those who are clearly not in a position to pay but for middle earners—those hard-pressed families who have probably been hit by other substantial, above-inflation increases in their energy bills.

Linda Gilroy: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Miss McIntosh: I want to allow time to hear from the Minister. I hope that the hon. Lady will permit me to wind up.

I note that the increases in water bills in Yorkshire and other places are substantial. I hope that the Minister will talk about sustainability, adaptation and moving towards smart metering, with block meters in the interim. In moving towards the price review, I hope that he will consider the impact of flooding on the whole sewerage and drainage system in parts of the country that were badly damaged, not least Yorkshire.

10.50 am

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mrs. Humble. I concur that the best beaches are in the north-west of England, particularly in your constituency.

I offer the traditional congratulations to the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) on securing this debate and raising this issue. It is somewhat intimidating when the hon. Member who
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leads an Adjournment debate clearly knows much more about the subject than the Minister who responds. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that the former hon. Member, Sir Percy Harris, would have been extremely proud of him. I send him my best wishes.

Let me answer the questions as best I can in the brief time available to me. It is best if I start by responding to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). Our review of the charges is not about whether there should be change, but about how it should be brought about. Therefore, the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) can be reassured that this is part of a process to change policy and not a review about whether we should be changing policy. The decision and the direction of travel are clear; I put that on the record.

I shall try to get through the policy points and answer the questions. Clearly, policy has to change because of the points that hon. Members have made about water supply in parts of the country, water affordability and the equity of water bills—given the modern circumstances that we are in—and because of the important point, made by a number of hon. Members, about the relationship between water use and energy efficiency in the home and in buildings. The lowest hanging fruit is energy efficiency, and the lowest hanging fruit in that regard is better use of hot water. We need to tie the relevant policies together, and my strategy does exactly that, as the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell suggested.

Climate change is the issue that will force us to change. If we do not get our policies in place, we will suffer the consequences. So that is important as well.

Hon. Members mentioned that 2008 is a critical year for water policy. That is so. The “Future Water” strategy, which a number of hon. Members mentioned, sets out our high-level vision for the water sector in England. The main goals of the policy are to improve the quality of our rivers and lakes and the wildlife that they support; to manage sustainably the risks from all types of flooding and coastal erosion; to ensure a sustainable use of water resources and fair, affordable and cost-reflective water charges; to cut the greenhouse gas emissions associated with water supply and use; and to make adaptation to climate change and other pressures part of the business-as-usual activity in water policy and management. That strategy is not a blueprint, but it sets out the priorities for water management and some of the steps that we need to take.

On the Ofwat price review, I want to say a few words about the latest periodic review of water company price limits, or PR09. The review process is explained in detail on Ofwat’s website, as hon. Members know. Last year, I published a statement of obligations for companies and regulators to bring together and describe the environmental drinking water legislation that will apply to the water industry over the PRO9 period. Looking to the longer term, alongside “Future Water”, we published draft statutory social and environmental guidance to Ofwat. That answers the point made by the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell about what happens upstream. I concur on that point and will answer in more detail if I have time.

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Matthew Taylor: I take the Minister’s point. It is clear that the Government’s position, as suggested in “Future Water”, is that Ofwat ought to be taking a positive approach to the water companies engaging with landowners, farmers and others to deliver benefits. Ofwat should not take the narrow view that, because land does not belong to water companies, improving the way in which it is managed is no business of theirs.

Mr. Woolas: I shall reassure the hon. Gentleman by answering in the affirmative: yes, that is our view. To quote from the draft that I referred to:

I hope that the hon. Gentleman takes that back to his constituency this weekend and takes some credit for it, because he deserves it.

I can also give some good news to the mussel farmers as well. [Interruption.] I think that I have lost the attention of the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh).

Let me say briefly that the combination of “Future Water” and the social and environmental guidance to Ofwat sets out a strategy dealing with how, through the review, we can move from the current situation to a fairer and more equitable one that takes into account South West Water’s customers, who are paying high bills.

Linda Gilroy: Does my hon. Friend the Minister accept that it will be some time before that has an impact on consumers? Will he consider seriously the matter that I raised about the vulnerable persons regulations and consider making that a target in the next periodic review?

Mr. Woolas: Yes, I will do so.

In the brief time that I have left, I should like to make a further point, which hon. Members will be interested in, about bad debt and the non-payment of water bills. The figures on the non-payment of water bills are outlined on page 78 of “Future Water”, in paragraph 13. The latest figures show that £575 million of water bills went unpaid out of a total water bill in England of around £7.5 billion. An analysis of those figures shows that a number of people cannot pay because of changes in circumstances; it also shows that a number of them will not pay. The water companies have made that point to me, and I have undertaken to consider it. Of course, there is no liability on the landlord for the water bill and the water company has no right to have access even to the name of the tenant. It is therefore difficult for them to pursue matters. It is unfair that people who pay their bills are subsidising others—not those who cannot pay, but those who will not pay—to the tune of some £11 per head.

Linda Gilroy: I was just going to ask the Minister whether he realised that the figure was £11 per head. That was brought forcefully to our attention in the all-party water group inquiry.

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Mr. Woolas: Indeed. If those bills were passed on through rent, some of the points made about the benefits system would come into play.

Given the time available to me, I am not able to answer all the specific questions that were asked. If hon. Members wish to receive answers to outstanding questions, I should be happy to provide them. I look forward to a continuing debate, in which I am trying to build consensus across all parties in the House for a fairer, more equitable and more efficient system of water charging.

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Fire and Rescue Services (Humberside)

11 am

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): It is a delight to speak in Westminster Hall under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. I would appreciate it if you could convey my thanks to Mr. Speaker for selecting this subject for debate.

On Saturday, firefighters, members of the public, MPs and councillors marched through the centre of Grimsby carrying banners stating, “No Fire Cuts” and “Cuts Cost Lives”. People were clapping and cheering as they marched past, and a flower shop had a sign in its window stating “Florists Support The Firemen”. It was a good-natured march, but the message was deadly serious. At the front, four firefighters were carrying a coffin because they believe that the proposed changes to Humberside fire and rescue service could endanger lives. We must remember that those are the very people who head towards burning buildings when the rest of us would instinctively want to get away. They constantly put their lives on the line, and I take it seriously when they tell me that the changes will put lives at risk.

To put the matter into context, it was 11 days before Christmas when East Riding of Yorkshire councillor Doreen Engall, who chairs the Humberside fire authority, made the following announcement:

If those changes go ahead, they will be some of the most severe cuts ever experienced by the Humberside fire and rescue service.

I want to give the Minister and others who do not know that part of the country a picture of the area that it serves. People often imagine that the east riding and Lincolnshire they are bucolically rural, and in parts are. However, they have a population of more than 900,000 and are dominated by a huge concentration of industry. The north and south banks of the Humber are home to most of England’s oil refining, chemical and pharmaceuticals industries, and British Aerospace at Brough. The Humber ports of Immingham, Grimsby, Goole and Hull are some of the busiest in the country. It is estimated that 25 per cent. of the UK’s freight goes in and out of Immingham. Associated with that, apart from road transport, is a huge rail freight depot. We also have Humberside airport and the Corus
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steelworks at Scunthorpe. Some 32 industrial sites are subject to the top level of control under the control of major accident hazards regulations, and that is the highest concentration of such sites in the country.

The area is very varied. As well as those industrial sites, Cleethorpes and Bridlington are busy resorts, with a huge influx of visitors in the summer. In Cleethorpes, apart from day visitors, there is a 4,000-strong caravan park. Other risk factors that we must consider include, sadly, the bad road traffic accident rate in parts of Lincolnshire.

News of the changes broke in the local media on 15 December when the Grimsby Telegraph stated:

It is important to focus on the

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