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Water Supply

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 3rd May 1944.

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Photo of Mr Henry Willink Mr Henry Willink , Croydon North

I think it will be better at this stage not to deal with details, particularly in a matter with which, as I have said, my right hon. Friend is in some respects more closely concerned than I am. There is a great deal in this subject, and I shall not be able to fulfil my promise to be short if I am interrupted too many times. The essence of the proposals is that, for the first time, we shall have a small number of strong and effective authorities responsible for prevention of pollution for the whole length of our rivers. The present multiplicity of authorities has been one of the difficulties. We make our proposal with the full support of Lord Milne's Committee, which recommended this course unanimously in their third report, which we received in August of last year. I think we all know that the Industrial Revolution left us an appalling legacy in rivers that had become foul drains, receiving trade effluents of every kind and, in the early days, something like untreated sewage. We have done a good deal, but there is a great deal more to be done. We have to prevent our rivers from getting worse. There are old problems still unsolved and frequently new problems of a different character that have arisen during the war.

I should like at the outset to make one point quite clear, and that is the position of the River Boards in relation to water supply. I would remind the House that they are a matter concerning England and Wales alone, and that they are not concerned directly with water supply at all. Their powers will be those of the existing land drainage, pollution prevention and fishery authorities. They will not have power to carry on the business of a statutory water undertaking. They will not have an absolute veto on the abstraction of water from their rivers, but they will, of course, have the fullest possible title to be heard whenever there is a proposal to take water from the river. They will have a better title than anybody has ever had before, because they will speak as the body responsible in all those fields—drainage, purity and fishery. They will have a duty put upon them to conduct their land drainage operations with proper regard to the needs of water undertakings and other river users and those responsible for water supply will, we believe, profit from their operations.

The River Boards will have to maintain records of the flow of rivers, for the information of the Inland Water Survey, and, of course, that means benefit for all users of the river and all people interested in the river, including the River Boards themselves. We shall have all over the country organisations, of which the Thames Conservancy Board is really the prototype, and a very fine prototype. There are other examples where fine work has been done—one thinks of the West Riding River Board and of other River Boards, They will concern themselves with protecting and improving the purity of our rivers throughout their length. It has to be remembered that three-quarters of our public water supply is derived from rivers. With that, I will part with Part II of the White Paper and leave the details to be filled in by my right hon. Friend and hon. Members who are particularly interested in the subject.

I will turn now to Part I, which is the bulk of the White Paper, and, in the first place, to the first six chapters, which set out the defects in our present system and the overhaul which we intend to undertake—"overhaul" is the proper description to give to our proposals—both of the law and of our administrative arrangements. Appendix A of the Paper is, I hope the House has found, an interesting and candid review of the history of the matter and the way in which these defects have arisen. In a large measure they have arisen from their age. The system is archaic. All sorts of things can be done in the sphere of housing policy which cannot be done at present in connection with water, simply because our housing legislation is so much more modern. But these matters are set out, I hope with lucidity and in an interesting form, in the Paper, and I hardly feel that I need go into them at this time.

I would rather describe our objective and our proposed methods. Our object must be now to secure that all reasonable needs for water shall be met. Those needs are not met to-day, and they will increase. We want a system which will enable us to meet them without avoidable waste of water, labour, money or materials. There are considerable changes necessary, but there are three pinciples which I think must be accepted. In the first place, there must be a greater degree of central control over development than there has been in the past. It must be control which is sufficient for our purpose, not excessive but sufficient. The measure of its appropriateness must he improved technical efficiency and reduction of cost. At the same time, we should not feel, or allow it to be thought, that there are not very large parts of our present organisation which are working very well indeed, and we do not believe there is any reason to make a complete change in its nature.

The second principle which we think should be observed is that there should be an ultimate responsibility for the efficiency and vigour of our water supply administration and the conservation of our resources, with a Minister, or rather two Ministers—the Secretary of State for Scotland and myself, while I am here— directly responsible to Parliament, and with local authorities responsible to their electorates. Other suggestions have been made, and may be made to-day, but now is perhaps not the time to go into these. Where there are statutory company undertakings these too must accept further regulation of the conduct of their business, where that is necessary in the national interest. The third principle we must be sure is adhered to is this: in this sphere, where there are many sectional interests, those interests must be set aside if the national interest requires it, but there must be ample protection for those concerned. They must have full and fair opportunity of putting their case to the Minister who is to have this joint responsibility and who will have the power to direct a local inquiry; and where there is need there must be an opportunity of recourse to Parliament itself.