We’re celebrating National Democracy Week! Find out more

WATER BILL [Lords]

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Ellis Smith Mr Ellis Smith , Stoke-on-Trent Stoke 12:00 am, 30th January 1948

My hon. Friend, who has just made an able and informative speech, is a recognised authority on the question we are now considering, though he was speaking mainly from the point of view of the London area, where some forward planning has been done in anticipation of the needs of the population and of industry. I was glad to hear him contrast that with our position in the North of England, and especially in North Staffordshire, the North-Western areas and adjacent areas.

This Bill is a disappointment to me, for, relatively, it means the maintenance of the status quo based upon evolution that comes from legislation passed 100 years ago. Today, we have this Bill; next week or the week after, it may be the Rivers Bill; and, in the following week or the week after that, some other Bill. Expediency, expediency, expediency. What we were entitled to expect from a Labour Government was a comprehensive policy, and a Bill based upon that comprehensive policy, like the Bill which has been published today dealing with Parliamentary representation. We have floods and ample water in the winter, droughts and a shortage of water in the summer, and that even applies to Manchester. For several summers, the water supply of Stoke-on-Trent has been in danger. In North Staffordshire, we suffer from the serious effects of mining subsidence, which seriously endangers our water supplies. In that area, we must have steel pipes to carry water, and one of the difficulties over which the local authorities have no control is that they are only offered cast-iron pipes when it is absolutely necessary that they should have steel. I contrast this dangerous position in North Staffordshire and the North-West, and also in other industrial areas, with what I have seen for the last 20 years.

For 20 years, I have been travelling between Manchester and Euston, and, every year, I have seen floods in the Trent Valley and in other parts: yet, we now have 10th century technology at our disposal—bulldozers, mechanical navvies, trench diggers and reinforced concrete for the banks of rivers and canals. In these circumstances, the Minister responsible should tell the scientists and engineers of this country, who are the authorities in these matters, what is required of them because they can deal with almost anything. Instead of that, we still allow floods in winter and a water shortage in summer, and all this after a war of science such as we have just passed through.

This Bill is the product of a Victorian mind, or of an office where men and women live in a world of their own. This Bill is not worthy of Labour Ministers; it is the product of backwoodsmen. We should have introduced an all-inclusive and comprehensive Bill, prepared with vision by men with a big outlook and an understanding of what can be done with 10th century technology to meet the needs of the country. The country is in a serious economic position. By their own efforts, the people will save themselves, if they are allowed to do so. Industry and the people are achieving miracles. Give them the tools and the plans and they will deliver the goods. This Bill can be compared to using a spade instead of a modern bulldozer.

This country must have ample supplies of coal and power. What an opportunity we have, and what great potentialities we have in our country in our ample supplies of coal and water power. We should have laid out a national plan for the scientific utilisation of our ample supplies of water. We should have adopted, in accordance with Labour's policy, a national water policy for the use and conservation of water. Leading members of the Government in the past have all had a great deal to say about planning. Never did a Government in peacetime have greater powers than this Government, and they should have gone in for the planning of our natural resources, of which water is one, so as to build up, conserve and utilise them in a 10th century way. Let all remember the fuel crisis of 1947, when some of us for weeks spent much of our time in prophesying what was going to take place. Now, I give the same warning in regard to water. My hon. Friends may not, however, be prepared to accept this from me. Let them, then, listen to the Secretary of the Royal Meteorological Society, who some time ago gave a grave warning. This is what he said: With water reserves in their present state, a drought comparable with that of 1740–43 would be a national disaster of the first magnitude. He implied that we are little better prepared to meet the emergency than were our ancestors 200 years ago. I was not as pessimistic as this, for I contented myself with saying 100 years ago. He goes on: So imperfect are arrangements for conserving water in some of our more populous centres that, after three months of dry weather, following the great floods, supplies ran dangerously low. Compared with that serious warning, this Bill is only tinkering with the problem. Those of us who represent areas where the water supply of the people has been in such danger many times before would be lacking in our duty if we did not protest on their behalf against this tinkering with the problem, for that is all this Bill means. Compared with that, we have had long newspaper reports of the terrible suffering that arises from flooding in places like the Severn Valley, the Wye Valley, and the Lugg Valley. In Shrewsbury, for example, 500 houses were flooded. In the North Staffordshire area, floods endangered poor people's houses. It is always the poor people's houses that are flooded, and their furniture which floats on the water.

Salford have issued a booklet stating that, in the event of the Irwell again overflowing, the local authorities have made provision for rest shelters, for medical men to attend the people, and to blow the sirens if the water gets above a certain height. One would think this was 1748, not 1948. As I have said, 500 houses in Shrewsbury were flooded recently, the main roads were blocked, ferry services had to be organised to take people to and from their employment, to take food to them, and a large number of cattle was lost. There is grave danger of subsidence as the result of the water getting under the surface of the roads. Yet we still prefer floods in the winter and shortage of water in the summer.

We have suffered from flooding for generations. It was excusable in the past when we worked with small tools, like picks and shovels, but, now that we are in the 10th century, there is no excuse for floods in the winter and shortage of water in the summer. The time has arrived when this should be regarded as a national responsibility. The Government ought to have introduced a comprehensive Measure—not three or four Bills, but one Bill—dealing with the whole problem of water supplies for the people and industry, and its utilisation in other ways. Large concerns like Metropolitan Vickers, the English Electric, Mowlem's, Wimpeys, and Lindsay Parkinson's, are among the firms who build reservoirs all over the world which guarantee water supplies to the people of other countries, but they are not building in the same way at home. I suggest that the Government should reconsider their approach to the problem. This is the old way of approach. My hon. Friend said that our water supplies in the North-West and other areas are in danger. I contrast that with the position in the London area, where they planned for the people's needs. Therefore, I hope that a more comprehensive Measure will be introduced as quickly as possible.

I was probably anti-Nazi long before a lot of other people in this country, but it can be said to the credit of the Germans that they organised their inland waterways and their water supplies. There is no excuse for us not doing the same. When I suggest what ought to be done, people sometimes point out our serious economic problems. I am the first to admit that we are in a very serious position, but what I am saying is that, instead of tinkering with the problem as we are doing today, we ought to have introduced a Bill that would have enabled us to approach the problem in a 10th century way. What our contractors can do all over the world, what the Germans did in Germany, and what is being done in many other countries, we can do, if we adopt a similar policy.

I remember, when a similar Bill was introduced some years ago, I made an appeal to the then Minister of Health, who was looked upon by some of us as being relatively progressive compared with many of his right hon. and hon. Friends. He was Sir Kingsley Wood. It must be to or 15 years ago since he gave a promise that this matter would be dealt with, and that pollution would be done away with. My hon. Friend, who understands the needs of the London area probably better than anyone else, said that the authorities in London had anticipated the needs of the people, and had made plans for dealing with them. But, in many other parts, the position is no better today than it was years ago. The health of our people is endangered, our water supply is wasted, and fish cannot live in many of our rivers.

In my view, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works was correct when he said, in June, 1946, that there was a source of weakness in the multiplicity of undertakings, many of which needed to be eliminated. This Bill perpetuates this multiplicity. We should have had a Bill based upon a national authority with regional organisation, when, in my view, we would have been able to deal with the whole problem. We need a comprehensive Measure based upon a national plan for the co-ordination of all our water interests and supplies, and for the conservation of our water resources and the scientific harnessing of water for the supply of power.