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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 Valentine McEntee Mr Valentine McEntee , Walthamstow West

I would like to congratulate the Government generally on the policy of the White Paper. It is an advantage to have such a White Paper, because it gives us an opportunity to discuss the question and to allow the Government to rid out what we are thinking before legislation is introduced. The Minister has put before us a number of interesting constructive ideas, but some of them lack courage. I would like to congratulate him on the proposal to reduce the number of River Boards. If he had shown the same courage in reducing the number of organisations that are selling water to the public I should have congratulated him on that also. There is, unfortunately, nothing in the White Paper that gives us any special pledge that the number of water undertakings will be reduced. That appears to me to be the greatest failing of the White Paper. I know that it is said that encouragement will be given to amalgamations, but I am not in favour of that method. It would be far better to force the amalgamation, and ultimately some Government will have to take courage in their hands and do the amalgamating themselves. Surely it is discreditable that over 1,000 undertakings are now selling water to the public and that another 1,000 private persons or small groups of persons have control over water, not for the purpose of selling it but for the purpose of taking it from any place where they are able to get a little piece of land.

The hon. Member for North Tottenham {Mr. R. C. Morrison) referred to the people who sink wells over whom there is no control. The Minister of Agriculture interjected to say that control is being taken on page 13 of the White Paper. I hope he is right and that effect will be given to that control. I am not, however, struck with the wording of the White Paper and do not think it is strong enough. Here is an instance of which a great number of people know and about which all the people of London ought to know. The Metropolitan Water Board pay, year by year, and will go on paying for 500 years from 1581, when a gentleman got permission to take water from the River Thames at London Bridge. He established his wheel there to take up the water and to distribute it in a very limited fashion round about. Because he obtained that power as a freeman of the City of London, the Metropolitan Water Board and the people of London have been paying since 1581, and will pay till 2081, a sum of £3,750 per year to the descendants of that man. I believe there is still a company. That kind of company ought to be done away with. It is disgraceful that the people of London should have to pay tribute such as that. The nation ought to take power to destroy that kind of thing.

What is the Minister going to do to reduce the number of companies which are selling water to the people of this country? I hope that he will answer the question. The White Paper does not take any strong line on it. The River Boards are to be reduced to 29, and that is very good, but the companies are the people who are taking profit out of the industry and you do not destroy them by reducing the number of River Boards to 29. The Boards are not the people who take profit out of the water. Most of their members give their services practically free. Nevertheless, the people who are really taking the profit out of the industry are to be allowed to continue to do so indefinitely for the bad service that many of them have given in the past. It is true that many of these water undertakings have done extremely good work. Anybody who knows anything of their history will admit it, but there are a number who have not done so, and apparently they are to be allowed to continue, unless the Minister can induce them, by some form of argument, to amalgamate, or in some way to give up their power. I do not think that is a line of action which ought to be taken by any Government in the circumstances of to-day, and I hope that the Minister in his reply will be able to state something more definite and clear in regard to the form of action he intends to take to reduce that 1,000 down to, or approximately to, the number of River Boards which he is going to set up.

Mention has been made several times of the Metropolitan Water Board. Why not make the Metropolitan Water Board the model of the organisation which will sell water in the future? It is democratic. It is one of the most democratic and efficient organisations in this country. It has already been stated that it serves approximately one-fifth of the people who use water in the country to-day. Every member of the Metropolitan Water Board—I think they number 60—must have been elected to a local authority before he or she can become a member. When members cease to be the elected representatives of their local authorities, they cease to be members of the Metropolitan Water Board. That is the form of organisation which commends itself to me, and will commend itself generally, I think, to the public. They are representatives of the areas from which they come on to the Board. I do not think anyone will deny that, particularly since the war, the Metropolitan Water Board has proved itself one of the most efficient bodies in the country. I commend it to the Minister as a model, so that similar bodies can give as efficient a supply of water to their areas as the Metropolitan Water Board gives to the people of Greater London. My time is up. I would like to have said a good deal more but I hope the Minister will give consideration to the points which I have raised, and will remember that the Metropolitan Water Board might well have as its motto that it is democratic and efficient.