WATER BILL [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th January 1948.

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Photo of Mr Henry Berry Mr Henry Berry , Woolwich West 12:00 am, 30th January 1948

I think we are all in agreement that the Bill is a necessary improvement on the 1945 Act, not that one wishes to throw stones at that Act, which, in itself, was a considerable improvement on what had gone before. Indeed, for the last hundred years, since the passing of the Waterworks Clauses Act, 1847, which was the foundation of all modern waterworks enterprise, there has been a steady but slow evolution of waterworks legislation. If I wanted a parable on the subject of water, I would say that the attendance in the House today is indicative of the way in which Government Departments and local authorities consider the subject of water. They consider it lightly until they are threatened with losing it. We had an example of that during the war. I hope my friends in the Treasury will not mind what I am about to say, but one of the regrets of my life is that, when a German bomb broke the watermain in Whitehall, the water was shut off too quickly for it to overflow into the Treasury vaults. If it had done so, it would have called attention to the need of labour for repairing it. During the war, water was held in such light esteem that there was no priority for the repair of water mains, although more than 6,000 were broken in London.

Some of us have had to struggle very hard to get water put on the same footing as gas and electricity for supplies of fuel. As water is one of the elementary necessities of life, for rural areas and for the towns, it should not be so difficult to maintain a good supply. I regard this Bill as a further step in the evolution towards what should be a nation-wide supply of water. Because of that, I wel- come the Bill. From my own experience I can endorse what my hon. Friend has said in introducing it.

The 1945 Act has been operated in various ways. For instance, the Central Advisory Water Committee has been set up, and has been working pretty hard. I hope that before long there will be outward and visible evidence of some of the work it has been doing. One result of that evidence, I hope, will be to correct something which went rather badly astray about 12 months ago, not through the fault of my hon. Friend nor his right hon. Friend. Reference has been made to new towns, and some of us know that the propositions in regard to water for one new town would have resulted in robbing an English river of a considerable amount of water which they proposed to put back above the intakes of the authority in the shape of sewage. That is not planning, but the negation of planning. I hope there will be very careful planning in connection with the finding of water. After all, the game of robbing Peter to pay Paul may be a good thing for Paul up to a point, but it does not make common sense. The water supply of the country should be regarded as a comprehensive whole, rather than as little fragments entirely unconnected with one another, as has been the case in the past.

The 1945 Act gives an opportunity for organising the water supplies of the country. Some of us have had uncomplimentary things to say about the rainfall in the North West. Although people up there have spoken about London as "The Great Smoke," I have heard people compare the North West to another place, not quite so salubrious as "The Great Smoke." It gives us a shock to find that great towns in that area have had difficulty in connection with their water supply recently. I agree that there has been a tremendous hold-up of water undertakings, due first to the war, and secondly to the postwar situation. I know the Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister are straining at the leash to see that handicaps are overcome. I yield to no one in my desire to see water supplies extended to the rural areas, but all that will mean new mains, plant, and the acquisition of land. This Bill makes the acquisition of land easier than under the 1945 Act, and I hope that before long the Minister and the Parliamentary Secre- tary will be able to take a big jump forward in that direction.

The situation in regard to water pollution is serious. There was a time when the London river so teemed with salmon that London employers were forbidden to feed their apprentices with Thames salmon more than twice a week. That was the time when we had a pure stream, but now London's river, and other rivers, are not pure. I know that if London's supremacy is to be maintained it must maintain its industrial character, but I am afraid that authorities, large and small, have been great sinners in the way in which they have polluted the streams, I know that London's water is not taken from the tidal portion of the river, but in many rivers there has been a steady deterioration of the sewage effluent. The Minister of Health and his advisers are keen to see it made nearer the high standard attained by the West Middlesex scheme at Mogden. If every sewage works in this country had the same high standard, the rivers of our country would be in a much better state. I only wish some other towns were working on those lines.

I hope that when the Bill becomes an Act, the Minister will turn his attention to the real organisation of the water supplies of the country. In the past there has been too much fighting by one authority against another, instead of combining to provide a proper supply of water. I know that in this I am probably speaking against the interests of Parliamentary counsel, because they have flourished as a result of that strife, but their interests are far less important than the water supplies of this country. I hope that by means of regional advisory councils throughout the country there may be regional co-ordination, instead of the fight which has gone on as recently as last Session in this House between more than two water authorities.

While I wish the Bill well, I agree with the Parliamentary Secretary that it is a minor Measure, though a very necessary and important one. I hope it will be the prelude to administrative action on the part of the Government towards putting the water supplies of the country into such a state that we shall not have the spectacle of water flooding, and then water scarcity, such as there has been in recent years. The advice given by Joseph Ben Jacob many centuries ago to take the products of the rich ripe years, and store them for the time of scarcity, is advice which might very well be taken into account in connection with water supplies. Quite a number of years ago a scheme was put forward for two very large impounding reservoirs up the Thames, where the water could be impounded in times of surplus, and let down in times of drought. Unfortunately, due to procrastination, one of those sites is no longer obtainable.

What can be said in regard to the Thames can be said of other districts. As we are likely to be presented again with the spectacle of floods followed by droughts, the commonsense thing to do would be to take the products of those floods and store them, and then let them out in time of drought. After all, this country, in many respects, is a wet country, and I am not saying that from the temperance point of view. From that point of view, I am increasingly hopeful that it will become a dry country. There is plenty of water in this country, and it flows in unchecked every winter. If that water could be stored, and if it is not beyond the wit of British water engineers to devise means for storing it—indeed, there are a number of schemes which cannot be proceeded with now owing to the present situation—if it can be stored, for manufacturing purposes and for hydro-electric purposes, we shall no longer have the farcial situation of 12 months ago.

I should like to mention to the Minister that there are certain directions in which I think the Bill may be improved when the Committee Stage is reached, but it would not be proper to mention them now. I hope that, when the suggestions are made to the Minister he will recognise that they are pat forward with the sole aim of improving the Bill and helping the administration of the water supplies in our country.