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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 Robert Morrison Mr Robert Morrison , Tottenham North

This Debate has already progressed sufficiently to indicate that the Government must be a long way from being satisfied with the reception given to the White Paper. At any rate, if they are not, before it is finished they will be convinced that the White Paper does not come up to the expectations which Mem- bers of the House hoped for it. I want to make one or two suggestions, and I would like the Minister to understand that the suggestions I am making are minimum and not maximum. Frankly, I was disappointed with the Minister of Health's opening speech; it seemed to me to be depressing. He did not seem to have much hope and I want to tell him that there are many signs that the public are getting rather tired of Government attempts to solve problems by setting up advisory committees, which have no power to carry out anything and whose advice is either accepted or rejected. This policy is being overdone.

I propose to touch upon one or two specific points. Unlike the hon. Lady the Member for Bodmin (Mrs. Wright), whom I have just heard make her second most interesting speech on water in this House, I am unable to speak on rural water supplies. I would rather like to draw the attention of the House to the present position, and to the importance of water undertakings. It seems ridiculous that in this small island of ours there should be nearly 2,000 separate undertakings to supply us with water. It would be comical if it were not so serious. The White Paper urges amalgamation, and gives as an example a body of which I have the honour to be a member—the Metropolitan Water Board. This body was formed in 1902 as a result of the amalgamation of eight separate undertakings. The White Paper pays tribute to the Board, which is now the largest water undertaking in the world, but then there is included this curious sentence: Amalgamation can be over-done in the sense that there comes a point at which a further increase in size, so far from improving efficiency, may increase the costs of administration. I want to ask the Minister what that sentence means. There is no evidence in the White Paper in support of that contention, and there is no suggestion underlying it that the Metropolitan Water Board is too large, and that if it was made larger it would be inefficient and that its costs of administration would rise. Why that sentence has been put in I do not know, unless it be that the Government wanted, first of all, to advocate the amalgamation of undertakings and then put in something to the contrary.

Let us look at the present position in the London Civil Defence Region, where there are 13 separate water undertakings, some of them owned by the Metropolitan Water Board, some by local authorities and some by private interests. The Richmond water undertaking is owned by the Richmond Corporation and is completely surrounded by the Metropolitan Water Board area. Most of these 13 undertakings have inadequate reserves, and have to receive bulk supplies from the Metropolitan Water Board to keep them going. Some are small and they have no laboratories, no research organisation, no facilities and are unable to provide themselves with any of these things. Therefore, I want to know whether there is any reason why the 13 undertakings in this region should not be combined?

Let me remind the House of the disaster that took place in the London area, in Croydon, just before the war. There was an epidemic of typhoid which was directly traced to the pollution of water supplies in the borough of Croydon. A considerable number of people lost their lives, great alarm was caused and in the end damages were claimed and given by the courts because of the number of people who had died. The borough of Croydon realised that this had happened because, being merely a small part in the great metropolitan area, their reserves were inadequate. So they asked the Metropolitan Water Board to take them over. A Bill was promoted by the Board, in the House of Commons, to take over Croydon's water undertaking, but it was thrown out by the authorities on the ground that it was ultra vires because the Water Board had no right to take over any undertaking which was outside its own area. Therefore, the Bill which had been drafted, at great expense, had to be dropped. But the Board's relations with Croydon were perfectly friendly and a solution was found. Instead of the Metropolitan Water Board promoting a Bill to take over Croydon a Bill was promoted by Croydon, who asked to go to the Metropolitan Water Board, and that was in order. The Bill, therefore, was redrafted by Croydon and was about to be presented to the House when the war broke out. That is the position and Croydon is still carrying on with its own undertaking.

Some of these 13 water undertakings are quite small and are unable to supply any proper facilities for research or to handle the problem in the way it should be handled. Some are completely encircled by the Metropolitan Water Board, they are all in difficulties and are appealing to the Board to help them out. Is there any reason why the greatest city in the world should have to put up with 13 undertakings in its area? Could not the Minister do something about that? He may reply that the White Paper proposes a Regional Water Advisory Committee for Greater London, but that is really begging the question. The public are getting tired of advisory committees. There had been, for a long time, a Greater London Committee for all these authorities, or we should not have got through the war period as we have done. The Ministry of Health appears to think that the public are much more stupid than they really are. The public know what they want. They want a drought-proof water system. They do not want to live in an area where a fortnight's sunshine puts them into difficulties. They do not want to live in an area where the water authority is so small that it has no facilities for storage, and is not likely to have any. When there is a heavy rain-fall they cannot collect the water, and a drought puts them in difficulties. In view of the necessity for replanning London, which is an urgent matter, I suggest that this matter of London's water supply needs urgent attention, and when the public know the full facts, as I hope they will, I am sure they will not tolerate 13 separate water undertakings inside the London Civil Defence area. I think an overwhelming majority of people would be found to vote, if a test were taken, that water should not be sold for private profit. It might be accepted by the House generally as its policy that the time has come when water should be regarded as one of the things not for exploitation.

I should like to say a word or two on another subject of interest to Greater London, the question of underground water supplies. The amazing position is that anyone can sink a well anywhere, at any time, and take any amount of water out of it that he likes, as long as he likes, without keeping any records or statistics or without permission from anyone, always provided he does not sell it to the public but uses it himself. The result is that laundries, breweries, ginger-beer manufacturers, dairies, and people who use water on a large scale sink their own wells. When it is no longer profit- able or if they remove their business, they can leave the well derelict. Lest the House should think that this is confined to dairies and ginger-beer manufacturers, let me give an example which I think will amuse Members. It happened some years ago that Lloyds Bank decided, as a little pastime from banking operations, to sink their own wells when they were rebuilding their premises. The Bank of England, just across the road, heard about it. They were not to be outdone by Lloyds Bank, and they decided to sink their own well too. A few days after it began to yield water, Lloyds well dried up and it was necessary to deepen it in order to recover the water that the Bank of England was taking away. Then it became necessary for the Bank of England to deepen their well in order to get the water back. I really do not know why there should be this urgency for banks to get their own water. I do not know what they would think if the Metropolitan Water Board decided to start its own bank. They are as much entitled to do so as a bank is to start its own water supply. Dr. Stevenson Buchan in notes on the underground water supply of the county of London says: A progressive fall in the water level has been recorded for a long time. As it did not affect to any great extent the supplies which could still be obtained by deepening the wells, it was ignored. Now that the level is locally nearing the bottom of the reservoir, and in certain areas causing polluted water to enter the chalk sand reservoir, a problem demanding an immediate solution is presented. How can the fall in water level be reversed? Unless a solution is speedily found it is inevitable that the value of the chalk-sand reservoir under a great part of London will be destroyed. As the result of the falling levels, many of the older wells have been rendered useless, as they are not deep enough for the changed conditions. Similarly shafts and adits which were once an asset in collecting and storing the supply from the sands over the chalk have had to be abandoned. In the South-East of the County the average yearly rate of fall has been very small. During the last 3o years the fall has not been more than one foot per annum. In the centre of the Basin, however, the annual falls have been considerable, frequently averaging over five feet per annum during the 30 years in which observations have been recorded. Graphs of the water levels from individual wells show that the annual rate of fall has increased in recent years. In the inner zone of London there are twice as many wells as in 1911, and pumping and competition for water has become more intense. In that astonishing state of affairs, which will become more important with the re- planning of London, every new factory will want to sink its own well and draw its own supplies. If the Metropolitan Water Board wants to sink one well it must promote a Bill. These people can take any quantity of water and keep no records at all. The White Paper meets the position only in one respect, that it is proposed to take measures to see that, they keep records of the water that is taken out of the wells. The recommendation is: The Health Minister to have powers to require information and statistics from all users of water and all sinkers of wells and bore holes. In other words, anybody can go on sinking wells in the London area or anywhere else The White Paper is most inadequate in this respect. There are two steps that should be taken immediately. No more wells should be sunk without the permission either of the Minister of Health or of the water undertaking in the area. I think that is reasonable. If there is a case for sinking a well, consent need not be unreasonably withheld, but to go an sinking them as at present is a silly and absurd policy, particularly in London, where every organisation of any kind proposing to put up new premises after the war will make provision for sinking a well regardless of the effects. The second step is that all unused wells should be sealed off to prevent pollution. There is definite evidence in the possession of the Metropolitan Water Board, and probably of other undertakings, that this foolish policy of allowing people to leave wells derelict is causing pollution. There is urgent need—and the White Paper says nothing about it—for a national research organisation to cover all fields of water engineering.