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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 Mrs Beatrice Rathbone Mrs Beatrice Rathbone , Bodmin

I must confess that I confronted the White Paper on water with mixed feelings. I myself feel sympathy for the Minister of Health, who has rather precipitately been forced into fatherhood of a large and unwieldy family of children, not the least unwieldy of which is this question of water. It is not as if he had had the disciplining of that family from infancy; he has inherited it at a period which might easily be described as a rather difficult adolescent period, for we had reached a semi-stage of post-war planning when the Minister came to his Department. I thing that this question of water has needed a brave and courageous policy and I feel, like those who have spoken previously, that somehow the White Paper does not offer that bold approach for which many of us had hoped.

First, we are told in the White Paper that £15,000,000 is to be made available in this country for water supplies. I would like to remind the Minister of Health that we could easily spend that money in Cornwall alone. In fact, anyone who represents a portion of a rural county in this country could probably say the same. Furthermore, although sewerage is mentioned now and then in the White Paper, we are not told what proportion it is estimated will be necessary to use for sewerage. It is well known to many of us that in some instances it costs more to drain water away than to provide pipe water supplies. It depends entirely upon the village and how it is located. Before I leave the question of finance, I am still wondering, even after hearing the Minister speak, exactly what the proportions of expenditure are to be. What proportion is to be borne by the rates, by the district council, by the county council, and by the Exchequer? As the Minister well knows, in rural areas, the rateable value is extremely low. Therefore, as I said before, we could easily spend £15,000,000 and ask for more as a direct grant from the Exchequer.

Secondly, on page 5 of the White Paper, we are told that agriculture must have water. Various reasons are given for this which are obvious to all of us. On page 3 we are told that water cannot be easily transported and, to quote, it says "local sources must therefore be used as fully as possible." On page 15 we are told that the Minister of Agriculture is proposing legislation, and that isolated farms which are not practically served by the mains will form "a residual problem" which has to be solved after the Ministry of Health Bill and the Ministry of Agriculture Bill have been brought in. I am glad to see the Minister of Agriculture with us at this moment, because he will surely agree with me that most farms are isolated. It is going to be uneconomic, according to the White Paper, to carry pipe supplies to most farms; therefore, from where, and when, will they get their water? The Minister said that every sizeable group of houses will be provided with a pipe supply. What does he mean by "sizeable group"? Is he including in that one of the many villages in my constituency? Because these are the places where water is needed. Surely he is not including farms in a sizeable group in any case?

Therefore, I come to my main criticism of the White Paper, which is that there is no mention from cover to cover of the proper use of electricity and the linking up with electricity supplies for the provision of water locally. To repeat, we are told that we must use local sources, and yet we are not told how it is proposed to do so. It is simple enough to see that unless there is co-operation between the Electricity Commissioners and those people who are preparing this Water Bill, the provision of piped water will lack a very big impetus which it could be given. It is very much cheaper to carry wires than it is to carry water mains.

We are also told in many reports which hon. Members have had that the war has driven up the price of pipes and that anyway nothing can be done at the moment. Yet in the constituency I represent the electric grid marches bravely throughout the county and I see no reason why we should not tap that so that a simplified electric pump can be provided for farms and small villages, by means of which they can pump their own supplies. These pumps could be purchased reasonably, or provided on the loan system, as in the case of electric cookers for which we pay rental and which are kept in order for us. I beg the Minister to give some consideration to this proposal in the consultations which he proposes to hold.

There is one problem which arises, and that is purification of water. I understand, however, that many models of simple purification apparatus could also be supplied. But this plan can only be efficient if there is available to the local authorities, who wish to provide water from local sources, an atlas. I want to draw attention to the Inland Water Survey, which devotes its time to underground water supplies. There is a great deal which we can learn from the United States in this connection, where a much larger proportion of the water supplies of that country are drawn from underground sources. In this country over half our water supplies are drawn from the surface. The Inland Water Survey is not concerned with making a survey of that. There was, before the war, only one engineer in the Ministry of Health whose job it was, without finance and without any powers, except persuasion, to make a survey of surface water supplies in this country. The Minister would do well to see that a proper atlas of surface water is made and is available for those people who are now planning water supplies.

There is another point which worries me. I have already said that I wished the Electricity Commissioners could have been brought into this White Paper. They would have been about the only Government Department which has not entered into our discussions to-day. We have the Ministry of Health, which is accountable for public water supplies and pollution prevention; we have the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, which is responsible for land drainage, fisheries, agriculture, water supplies and pollution prevention; we have the Ministry of War Transport, which is responsible for inland navigation and pollution prevention; we have the Ministry of Fuel and Power, which is responsible for water power; we have the Ministry of Home Security, which is interested in fire fighting; we have the Board of Trade, which is further interested in water in so far as it affects industry and, particularly, the rights of riparian owners. At a time when we can step forward firmly in the right direction, instead of dabbling with this problem and again rebuilding the difficulties we are trying to wipe away, we should appoint a National Water Board, which would be able to co-ordinate the whole business of water supply.

I therefore beg the Minister, before he brings in his Bill, to think wisely about this matter. We have been allowed only a small sum of money to provide piped supplies and we do not want to waste any of it in co-ordinating Ministries. Let us spend the money wisely and well and have a National Water Board, representative, if you like, of all five Ministries, but concerned with water and water only. Let us give this Board power instead of vesting in the Ministry of Health powers which will be an encumbrance to that Department already over-burdened with a veritable galaxy of problems. If we do not take some such action as this the people whom I represent will be left, once again, without -water supply. I think the moment is ripe to provide for this National Water Board. I was delighted to hear the Minister say that he understood that Cornwall has a special problem when 100 of her 177 parishes are without water and suggest that special steps should be taken. I intended to ask him whether he could provide some sort of county committee in areas of that kind which are sparsely populated, which would have access to the atlas, and which would be able to push ahead witih the schemes that are so vitally necessary.

The Minister has told us that he wishes to consult with interested parties before he brings in his Bill. A plea has already been made to my right hon. and learned Friend on behalf of the agricultural industry and now I want to put in a plea for the D.S.I.R. as well. They should have direct power to get information. It is quite wrong that any geological survey, valuable as it is to the nation, should be held up because one person or company will not provide the necessary information. The D.S.I.R. ought to have prior 'notification of bore sinkings, such as they have in the mining industry. The geological survey should have the same sort of power as the mining industry has. I feel that the success of the Minister in housing, agricultural prosperity and health of the nation will be jeopardised unless he tackles this problem bravely and courageously and is not afraid to admit that the feeling of the House to-day is strongly against the half-hearted measures proposed in the White Paper, and is strongly in favour of more drastic action. If he does that he will earn not only the gratitude of the agricultural industry and of many millions of people in this country but, not least, the gratitude of 42,000 south-east Cornish constituents of mine.