Wash Barrage

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th July 1967.

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2.18 a.m.

Photo of Mr David Renton Mr David Renton , Huntingdonshire

I wish to draw attention to the urgent need for a feasibility study of a barrage across the Wash. Such a study would take several years and would cost £1½ million, but a preliminary desk study would take less than a year and I am told that it would cost no more than £100,000. If it were found possible to build a Wash barrier it would cost, the Water Resources Board estimates, £287 million, but this would be spread over 10 or 15 years and it would have enormous advantages for south-east England, including London as well as for the area adjoining the Wash, including King's Lynn. The hon. Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Derek Page) will, I hope, catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, later.

Against that fairly large cost there would be many advantages which would make it a splendid investment of great national value. First, water conservation and storage; second, reclamation of about 40,000 acres of farmland at present covered by the watery wastes of the Wash; third, conservation of thousands of acres of existing farm land which might otherwise have to be flooded to provide water reservoirs; fourth, creation of a new industrial and shipping centre at King's Lynn; fifth, improved coast protection which at present in that part of the country costs a great deal of money annually; sixth, direct road communication between East Anglia and Lincolnshire and through there to the North; and last, but perhaps not least, wonderful new pleasure amenities for the people.

I shall confine myself to the water supply and agricultural advantages of a Wash barrage and in doing so I shall rely entirely upon the recommendations of the Water Resources Board and the reports made to it by its consultant engineers, Messrs. Binnie and Partners. In a very detailed report which the Board said in its 1966 Annual Report it had found very useful, Messrs. Binnie and Partners said, on page 50: We think it likely that the many problems involved in conversion of the Wash to a freshwater reservoir can be overcome, but a thorough feasibility study supported by site investigations and model tests, is required to establish this and to determine the best line of enclosure. In its Annual Report for the year ended 30th September, 1966, the Board very properly dealt in considerable detail with the needs of the South-East of England and in paragraph 20 referred to the "central area", which includes London and the whole of South-East England from Dorset to the Wash, except for East Norfolk and East Suffolk and counties whose shores touch the English Channel. It said: The cumulative deficiency in the central area at the end of the century—650 m.g.d.—is comparable with the yield estimated for a barrage across the Wash. The Report on the Water Resources of the Great Ouse Basin … suggested that this might provide about 620 m.g.d. for a capital outlay of £287 million at today's prices. A barrage scheme, however, could not be relied upon to be completed before the early 1980s and therefore cannot help to meet demands before then. Nevertheless, a feasibility study should be undertaken without delay, as the Committee recommend, so that the facts about obtaining water in this way may be available for comparative appraisal later with the prospects for bringing in water from the Severn or Wye or elsewhere. I should mention in passing that, although it did not go deeply into the comparative costs of these other schemes, it mentioned that they might be very expensive indeed and not so good a solution as the Wash barrage.

The Board mentioned various other ways in which that deficiency of 650 million gallons a day might be partly dealt with, including, first, desalination. Great hopes have been raised about desalination, but, alas, in spite of the money spent on research, we are still a long way from getting water cheaply enough by that method.

The Water Resources Board also mentioned underground storage, and to this it gave high priority. It said that investigations should start immediately, and some work has started on exploring the possibilities of that. But there is no certainty that underground storage will go far to meet that great deficiency of water storage space which will be required by the end of the century or even that it will go far to meet the smaller amounts required by 1981.

The Water Resources Board, among other possibilities, mentioned the flooding of farmland to provide surface storage reservoirs. But as to that, at page 37 of its 1966 Report, it said: In our proposed programme, construction of big new surface storage reservoirs in the central area is envisaged only to supplement or to follow the development of the groundwater resources and, with the exception of one major scheme for the Welland and Nene area, need not commence until after 1975. Indeed, our concern to keep to a minimum the demand upon agricultural land has been a major factor in shaping our recommendations with their provision for a reappraisal in the early 1970s. In the unlikely event of all the reservoirs listed "— and seven are listed in the Committee's Report as being required— … about 35,000 acres of land would be inundated. This is equivalent to an average annual loss of 1,000 acres over the 35 years to the end of the century. These are large acreages but we emphasise that we are not yet committed to requiring them. Let us hope that if some foresight is shown by the Government in following the other recommendations, including the possibilities of the Wash, not all those acreages will be required. Surely any sensible person contemplating this country's future, with a vast increase in population, with farmland being taken to house the people, and with the prospect of food rationing by the end of the century, would want to avoid flooding farmland merely for water storage when other projects may be available.

Surface reservoirs are merely nibbling at the problem. To me they are just miserable "ad hockery". I hope that that expression will be forgiven at this hour of the morning!

The seven new reservoirs listed in the Report include one at Abbotsley, in my constituency, where 2,200 acres of really good land which is very well farmed might be flooded at a cost of at least £10 million, but that would yield only 32 million gallons per day. The other six schemes for reservoirs mentioned as being possibly required by 1981, if other methods fail, would store only comparable amounts of water—some more, some less. Taking them all together, they would not provide even half of what the barrage would provide.

It has also been pointed out by the consulting engineers that if all these storage reservoirs were built, the availability of the water for the Wash would be less. In other words, the barrage and the water reservoirs combined would provide less water than theoreticaly all of them would do cumulatively.

It was for that reason that in its recommendations on page 77 of its final Report on the Water Resources for south-east England the Water Resources Board said: A feasibility investigation and cost benefit study of the Wash barrage project should be put in hand immediately so that consideration of the project could be included in a general review of regional storage schemes in the early 1970s. That is not many years ahead.

Of course, it follows from that that if no such study is made, the general review, which will have to take place in the early 1970s, will be ill informed and quite inadequate. If no such study is made, the Government will have flouted the expert advice of the Water Resources Board, a statutory body which is highly respected and appointed to advise and warn and guide the Government on this vital problem of water supplies. Good farmland might have to be flooded which need not be flooded, a tragedy which should be avoided if possible. It could also mean that 40,000 acres which might be reclaimed from the Wash would remain part of the watery wastes of salt water for more years than need be. Other opportunities would also have been missed by the Government, including the considerable increase in food production which could result from providing more water for spray irrigation for farming than would otherwise be available if the Wash barrage were not created.

It may be—I do not know—that in the next few months the Government are to announce a splendid policy to stabilise the population of the United Kingdom at, say, 60 million people by 1981. If so, the Government should say so and I would be delighted. The whole complexion of this problem would then be altered, but if the Government accept the population growth figures on which the Board's recommendations and advice to the Government were based, then the Government must either at once accept the Board's recommendations for a feasi- bility study for the Wash, or say why they refuse to do so. One of those two things must surely emerge tonight.

If, as one suspects, the refusal is based on lack of funds, the Government should at least agree to make a start by spending £100,000 on the desk study. It would be total folly not to do so, because it is obvious that this study will have to be made sooner or later and the Board said that it should be done immediately.

If a country the size of Holland can drain the Zuider Zee, we should be ashamed if we fail even to study, or to make a desk study, of the possibility of a barrage across the Wash.

2.35 a.m.

Photo of Mr Derek Page Mr Derek Page , King's Lynn

I have great pleasure in supporting the case put forward by the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton). Understandably and rightly, he has paid a great deal of attention to the water conservation aspects of this great and imaginative scheme, but I have a strong feeling that the reason why our pleas for a feasibility study have been cold shouldered is that other aspects have not been properly taken into account and that, in spite of assurances given in Answers to Questions, there has been a tendency for the admittedly large cost of the ultimate scheme to be put on water alone and for the Department therefore to say that we cannot pay about 12s. per thousand gallons for water. But this is only a very small part of the picture and it is imperative that all the aspects should be fully considered.

It is extremely difficult to put a figure on flood control, for instance, but we know that the cost of the floods which have occurred from time to time in the East Anglian coastal areas has been incalculable, certainly running into multi-millions and in spite of improved coast defences, the statistical risk of millions of pounds worth of flood damage being caused again from time to time is undeniable. The Wash barrage would certainly be the only way in which to give assurance to these areas.

It would be quite unthinkable for the important ports of the Wash area to be cut off and therefore there would have to be provision for locks in any barrage. It would be impossible to build such locks simply to cater for the ports as they now stand and we have to think in much bigger terms, because once the tidal surge in and out of the Wash had been stabilised, the dredging of channels would become simple and we would have the makings of a sort of British-Europort, the "Anglian Port" as it has sometimes been called. Preliminary studies suggest that the largest ship now afloat could be brought into such a port, taking goods to and from the heart of the Midlands, and offering tremendous relief to the Port of London which is now so dreadfully overcrowded. As far as I know, nobody has made a proper study of the cost benefit of such gigantic potential port facilities. I believe that the benefit could well outweigh many times over the water that we have been talking about.

Apart from ports, we have heard of the possible land reclamation, not only the saving of land which otherwise would be flooded, but the reclamation of 40,000 acres, or something like 60 square miles of additional land. That land might or might not be usable for agriculture, since it would be drained rapidly and, with little chance of silt building up, it might not be suitable.

There is a lot of talk about the buildup of overspill towns in East Anglia and of industry based on North Sea gas. We are all bemused by the use of gas for domestic purposes, but the big revolution will come with the development of large-scale industry based on gas. A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to see the tremendous factory development in parts of the southern States of America. It is tremendously impressive, but what a colossal impact it has on the appearance of those areas. I am sure that the people there are grateful for the extra income, but I do not know that I would like to see some of the effects of the factory building having a similar impact on the Norfolk coastal area.

There is no doubt that economic pressures will tend to drive the factories towards the well-heads. It would seem a God-given opportunity to use recovered land in the Wash area for such factories. I regard their development as inevitable, but I would hate to see Norfolk beauty spots spoilt. This 60 square miles of additional land would be a perfect location for industry, right on top of the gas well-heads and on top of any port facilities which would be available, as well as having the massive amounts of water which are always necessary for industry.

The cost benefit of this type of development needs careful evaluation. I am not convinced that this has yet been done. I do not see how it could be done by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, much as I respect the quality of my right hon. and hon. Friends in that Department. There appears to be an unanswerable case for an economic and social study as suggested by the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire. The cost would certainly not be more than £100,000 and might be considerably less. This is a fleabite. Such a study is necessary to answer the questions which are being raised tonight.

This is a great and imaginative project which would capture the whole of our scientific and industrial imagination. It would certainly give tremendous scope for the technological surge that we have heard talked about so often. I urge that consideration of the project should be transferred to the Department of Economic Affairs, which is the only Department with the scope to consider the numerous aspects involved.

The Government have, rightly, set up the Hunt Committee to consider the special problems of areas of comparatively low economic activity. My hon. Friends and myself have drawn attention to low earnings in parts of East Anglia. There is no doubt that the Government have taken the right step in setting up this Committee to investigate the possible changes in policy which would answer the low standards of living suffered by so many of the constituents of hon. and right hon. Members. A great and imaginative project, such as the Wash barrage, could go a long way to stimulate the right sort of development. The case for a social and economic study is completely unanswerable, and I urge my hon. Friend that he should agree, here and now, to recommend to his right hon. Friend the First Secretary that such a study should be undertaken by the one Department which can give it appropriate consideration, the Department of Economic Affairs.

2.43 p.m.

Photo of Mr Richard Body Mr Richard Body , Holland with Boston

Before I follow the hon. Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Derek Page) in discussing the exciting potentialities of the Wash barrage, may I ask the House not to overlook that there are a number of people who earn their livelihood in and around the Wash, and others whose recreation is to be found there. At the moment there is about eight square miles of deep-sea fishing that would almost certainly be lost if the Wash dam came about. Also there are those who gather mussels, cockles and shrimps from the area. The naturalist too, has something to lose from the erection of a dam.

If one goes from Fosdyke Dock, where the Welland goes out to the sea, one can walk 10 miles or more and not see a soul and scarcely a house, until one reaches the old lighthouse, not far from King John's Farm. One can then cross the river down at Sutton Bridge and walk for another 10 miles until one reaches Admiralty Point, and again not see any sign of human habitation. This is where the common seal is to be found and where, unfortunately, too many of them are being destroyed.

It is a mecca for wildfowlers and a place where lovers of nature can find uncommon plants and see unusual birds. The Wash dam will bring this rare part of England to an end. It will be sad if that comes about. Reluctantly I conclude that it will be necessary. Nothing can compensate the naturalists and the wildfowlers, but for the fisherman, if a golden bowler is not to be an appropriate headgear for them to be given, there should at least be put into their hands a silver net.

As I understand it, the one objection the Government have to the Wash dam is the huge cost involved. As all of us who are interested in the Wash dam know, the Binnie report has estimated that £287 million would be the cost of this venture. That, it goes without saying, is a huge sum, but one must examine that sum in the context of the amount of money we have already spent on water supplies since the war and the amount we shall have to spend in the next two or three decades. The money spent since the war on increasing water supplies adds up to no less than £800 million. We must spend much more than that in the next two or three decades to meet the demands which were outlined by my right hon. and learned Friend. I believe that to obtain the additional 650 million gallons a day that the South-East of England will require we shall have to spend a capital sum of at least £200 million. I cannot see any lesser figure being realistic.

Not only shall we be expending money, we shall be expending land, and it is almost impossible to calculate now the capital value of the land which will be eaten up—that is not the right word: drowned, I should say—by those reservoirs. My right hon. and learned Friend named one reservoir. I think he gave a figure of £10 million. Certainly, the total sum must be very much greater than that. The Wash dam, on the other hand, will mean reclamation of a large number of acres.

The hon. Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Derek Page) calculated 40,000 acres. There have been other calculations, he knows only too well, and I think he was being rather lenient to the antagonists of the scheme when he said 40,000, because others have gone up to 80,000. Of course, 40,000 is a fair figure of the land which will be of use to agriculture, and he knows how valuable agricultural land is in his constituency, and in my case, over the county border, land is even more valuable. Only a fortnight ago a 90-acre farm went for more than £700 an acre, and nothing in Norfolk can equal that. There is rich land in Lincolnshire, and it is valuable land, and if those 40,000 acres were reclaimed there is no doubt that it would be most valuable—not less, I think, than £16 million.

Again, I think one ought to set off the quite considerable cost each year in coastal protection. I believe that the figure is now running at about £300,000 a year round the Wash. If one were to capitalise that, I suppose it would be fair to put it at £20 million. Therefore, those items ought to be set off against the £287 million which has been estimated by Binnie and Partners.

The Wash dam, as the hon. Member for King's Lynn showed us so clearly, would prove an enormous capital asset. Across it could run a major highway to relieve the existing A17 road and act as a link between Humberside and the East Anglian ports, the growth areas around King's Lynn, and indeed down to London as well. It is within the realms of possibility that we could have built on the dam a new Europort to serve our trade between Rotterdam and the manufacturing areas in the Midlands, which are the two major growth points on either side of the Channel.

I believe that fish farming within the dam may well be an economic proposition. Today the deep-sea trawler costs £500,000, and maintenance comes to about £100,000 a year, and these costs are increasing rapidly. Some of the pundits predict that fish may soon become an expensive commodity if it is to be obtained from the sea by present-day methods. In years to come, quite different methods of fishing may be needed, such as electrocuting fish bred in reservoirs. If this is so, the Wash dam would be a most valuable asset for commercial fishing.

Then there is the recreation which would be available, especially for those keen on sailing. This is a recreation which gains more adherents every year, and decades hence one can visualise the Wash dam serving a most valuable purpose for recreation.

There is one more point about costs. I think that the hon. Member for King's Lynn gave the figure of 12s. per thousand gallons. I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman got that figure from, but from the various reports which we have had, and from the various experts who have given opinions on this project, I understand that if one obtains 200 million gallons a day from the Wash the cost of water will work out at 5s. 4d. per thousand gallons, but if that is increased to 620 million gallons a day, the cost will be 3s. 5d. per thousand gallons. This is just about the average cost of water for users in this country; and that is the extra quantity of water that we will need in south-east England.

The figure which I have given, and the calculations which I have made, are based on the original estimate of £287 million as the cost of the Wash dam, but as those who take part in these debates, and who have studied the poten- tialities of it know, Binnie and Partners are not the only ones who have examined the possibilities of the Wash dam. The hon. Member for King's Lynn and I went to Holland some months ago and saw how much was being achieved in the Rhine delta. We saw how the brilliant Dutch engineers were transforming countless acres of Holland. They were doing it by economic means and enterprising methods. We had an opportunity of discussing the Wash with them. They were unanimous in their belief that the Wash dam was a practical proposition. I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of the leading consultant engineer in the Rhine delta. I invited him to this country to examine the situation, and he visited the National Hydraulic Laboratory and the Wash. He said categorically that the Wash dam is most certainly an economic as well as a practical proposition. Although he had more scanty material than Messrs. Binnie and Partners, he estimates the cost to be less than they envisaged.

It is significant that two other Dutch engineers have given a detailed account of what they consider the Wash dam might cost. Mr. De Weger and Professor Jansen have been here to study it and have concluded that the cost need not be more than £150 million—much less than the figure suggested by Messrs. Binnie and Partners. They have urged three phases for the dam, starting with a technical feasibility study, which they say could be completed within six months. If the scheme seems feasible they recommend going on to a detailed design study, which would take two years, followed by the third phase, the construction period, lasting seven years. The advantage of the three-phase system would be that the work could be brought to a halt at the end of the first or second phase without undue waste of money.

In rejecting the feasibility study, has the Minister considered the views publicly expressed by Professor Jansen and Mr. De Weger? If their views have been considered, why have they been rejected? I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will not say that the only opinion that has been considered is that contained in the report by Messrs. Binnie and Partners.

I echo the words of the hon. Member for King's Lynn that the case for a feasibility study is absolutely unanswerable. I hope that tonight we shall hear that at last the Government have had second thoughts and now realise that soon it will be desperately urgent to go ahead with the feasibility study.

2.58 a.m.

Photo of Mr Bertie Hazell Mr Bertie Hazell , North Norfolk

I support the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton). This is a matter that has caused considerable concern and great interest among hon. Members from East Anglia on both sides of the House. That is shown by the desire of hon. Members to take part in this short debate.

We feel that there are distinct possibilities of advantage to be gained from fully investigating the opportunity of using the Wash to meet the shortage of water, particularly in the South-East, which is notoriously the driest part of the country and is also one of the best agricultural areas. From an agricultural point of view alone, the use of water is now much greater than it was formerly, and therefore the demand from agriculture will be enormous. But the area is also one where new towns will be developed, and this, together with the needs of industry, means that the demand for water will be very great. I agree that we are not as courageous as our forefathers or the Dutch in reclaiming coast land. If our forefathers had been as timid as we appear to be, much of Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Norfolk would still be inundated. They reclaimed what is now some of the most productive land in the country and we owe them much.

We lost much good land to the ravages of the sea and ought to be grateful for the opportunities of reclamation and not baulk at the small cost. The Wash provides a glorious opportunity. This is the chance to secure water from an area which not only will not take up good land but will provide some into the bargain. The Government's proposal to create vast reservoirs and explore the possibility of underground schemes on the Great Ouse and in the Lambourn Valley is causing great concern in the area. My association, the National Farmers' Union and the Country Landowners' Association have been holding meetings in the area which would be inundated by the reservoirs, trying to draw attention to the serious consequences for agriculture.

The Government have argued that, after a feasibility study, there would be no guarantee that an attempt would be practicable, but the current investigations into reservoirs and underground schemes are no guarantee of ample supplies of water in future. There is a good deal of doubt as to whether they will supply the needs of that part of the country. We should consider a feasibility study together with the Government's other proposals and should not wait unnecessarily long for the results of the investigations.

I condemn the use of good arable land for reservoirs if there is another possibility. We are losing too much good land for other essential developments. Because of this, and the need to maintain and increase the production of food from our own soil, we should consider seriously before using good land if we can meet the nation's requirements from another angle.

The cost of the feasibility study has been discussed from time to time. I do not think one can measure cost in this kind of issue. While £1 million or ·l½ million may seem a lot of money in the present economic difficulties, in the long term it is a mere fleabite and we should not boggle at this expenditure.

Following the protest meetings—joint meetings for the first time of farmers, landowners and workers—it was decided to send a deputation to meet the Minister. As president of my organisation, I accompanied that delegation only a few weeks ago. The Parliamentary Secretary was present at that meeting. The deputation, presenting its case, pointed out many features to which previous speakers have referred. The Minister said that it would be three years before the Government had an indication whether the current investigations would be worth while and five years before they had a complete picture of whether these schemes were likely to meet long-term requirements. At that time, it might be proved that the current investigation will not bring a solution and then one would start five years later on probing the possibility of the Wash barrage.

That is why I said that we should at the same time explore the possibility of the Wash barrier. An hon. Member opposite referred to the possibility of a desk study before embarking on the feasibility study but I would have thought it better to go for the feasibility study and see once and for all whether the ideas of engineers who have looked at this over the years are practicable and if it will meet the requirements of this developing area for the long term. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be impressed by the fact that hon. Members on both sides are, for various reasons, unanimous in their opinion that detailed investigations into the possibility of the Wash barrage should not be put in the background, but be dealt with straight away.

3.10 a.m.

Photo of Mr Paul Hawkins Mr Paul Hawkins , South West Norfolk

I rise eagerly even at this late hour to support my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) and the hon. Members for King's Lynn (Mr. Derek Page) and Norfolk, North (Mr. Hazell) and others in this debate, which is a very worthwhile one.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have formed themselves into a Wash Study Group. We have had many people to talk to us on the subject, and we feel that it is worth waiting up till this time of the morning to discuss it. We have studied it to the best of our ability, and we feel that it is an exciting plan and that if it were put into operation it could transform the outlook of millions of people.

My constituency—although the Boundary Commission has other ideas—does not touch the Wash. But through my constituency runs the Great Ouse which will form part of the water supply if the Wash has a barrage. There also runs through it the great relief channel which has saved thousands of acres from flooding over the last few years. The Dutch engineer, Vermuiden, came to my constituency in about 1600. Strangely enough, his final plans were carried out only when the relief channel was built, almost entirely to his plans in 1600.

I was worried when I heard the opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body), whose countryside I know very well—it is a marvellous place for getting away from people, and I like to visit it after a time spent here—for they were only too true. I was frightened that the build-up of hostility which occurred towards Vermuiden on the part of the people who fished and shot in the waters of the Fens around Ely might be repeated today. But I am sure that the Government will not repeat those arguments.

The adventurers started about Vermuiden's time. They were people who had ventured their money in the drainage of that wonderful area, the Black Fens of Norfolk and the Isle of Ely, producing for us land which today is some of the richest in the country.

Photo of Mr Paul Hawkins Mr Paul Hawkins , South West Norfolk

I must admit that it is not quite as good as that in Holland with Boston, but it will be in future. The scheme is badly needed because of the growth of population in the country and because of the demand for water from industrial, agricultural and domestic users. I have in my constituency a man who this year, when practically every blackcurrant crop has been destroyed, has a bumper crop and is advertising for 500 women to pick it. This is simply because he installed an overhead irrigation plant which stopped the frost affecting his blackcurrant acreage. Because of housing improvements, domestic users are demanding more and more water. The scheme would provide a quantity of water large enough to meet future demand, not just the estimated demand—often in the past the estimated demand has proved an under-estimate—but all foreseeable demands.

The scheme would save several thousands of acres. I sat on a small special committee for six weeks about a year ago considering the construction of a reservoir for Teesdale and learned a lot about the amount of land which is gradually or quickly disappearing below water and what that can mean for many purposes. In addition, there will be the road across the barrage to link the Midlands with East Anglia. Gas from the North Sea will be coming ashore, and it will be possible to build big plants for it on land reclaimed. Further, the reclamation of land will give young farmers a chance, which they have not had for many years, to have additional land to farm, and farm workers, too, will have the benefit of more work opportunities.

Now, a word about amenity value. Sailing is becoming an extremely popular sport. The education committee of the Norfolk County Council, of which I am a member, has recently been trying to find extra broads and acres of water in order to teach sailing to the enormous number of grammar school, secondary modern and other school children who are demanding this type of recreation in Norfolk and East Anglia.

It is a most exciting project. The country badly needs it. I beg the Minister to think about it again. It is an all-party project. We hope to see it go ahead in my lifetime, within the next few years.

3.15 a.m.

Photo of Mr John Hill Mr John Hill , South Norfolk

I support everything said by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) and by other hon. Members. Anyone who has had the good fortune to see the work which the Dutch are doing on the delta and to go out to the North Sea gas rigs cannot but suppose that a feasibility study of the Wash barrage is an essential link in the technical reconnaissance of the development potential of East Anglia. I greatly hope that, after tonight, it will cease to be a missing link.

I shall concentrate on the question of water supply. We always tend to underestimate future demands for water rather than overprovide for them. This seems likely to be true of the use of water in agriculture. On page 70, table S, the Report tells us that the use of water for irrigation is likely to be doubled between 1965 and 2001, from 17,000 million to 35,000 million gallons seasonal use in the year of peak demand, and about 30,000 million gallons of storage space is likely to be in use in 1981, mostly in small farm reservoirs.

In at least two ways, these assumptions may be proved false. Appendix III shows that the ultimate limits for irrigation demand in each river authority's area as estimated by the Ministry of Agriculture are in most cases markedly higher than the estimates for the year 2001 worked out by the Water Resources Board. Therefore, it is at least possible that those ultimate limits may be reached earlier than 2001.

Second, the assumption running through the Report is that what are described as low value crops, that is, mainly sugar beet and grassland, will generally use only water which is available for direct abstraction and will not as a rule justify expenditure on conservation works.

That assumption could also easily be proved wrong. Already, in several cases the use of water on grassland has been shown to be most profitable, provided such grassland is itself converted efficiently into either milk or meat. If our agriculture is to expand to its full potential, whether we are in or out of the European Economic Community, we must expect some pressure towards higher productivity from grassland, and irrigation plus fertiliser undoubtedly offers most scope for extra productivity.

Thirdly, if there is any marked improvement, in cost and labour, in spraying water over the land, that, in itself, will lead to a faster and greater use of water. Those are reasons why the agricultural demand has probably been under-estimated. No doubt similar uncertainties about the validity of these estimates of future demand exist in other respects. Conversely, estimates of future supply may prove over-optimistic.

Throughout the Report and the country the possibility of the Wash barrage stands as a huge imponderable alternative source of supply. It may easily make good all of and more than the prospective regional deficiency which will develop in the last quarter of this century. All we know for certain is that the Wash barrage could not be of much help before 1981. Conversely, all the rest is necessarily conjectural in its scope and detail. It might, on close examination, prove too difficult or too costly in relation to its effectiveness. On the other hand, new techniques in sea wall building may make its construction much less formidable and less costly than has hitherto been supposed.

It is of great advantage to resolve these doubts. To know that the Wash barrage is a practicable and economic proposition is valuable in itself, and the earlier such knowledge is gained the more valuable it is. We can argue whether we want to go straight for the full feasibility study or whether, in view of the load on resources, both real—in the sense of the technical resources required—and financial, it might be better to start with a desk study, which would be comparatively cheap.

That could be amplified if it pointed towards the probability of ultimate success, but the fact that such a study was being undertaken would be the best earnest of the Government's sincerity that they mean to protect good farmland, and it would reduce the opposition of the farming community to the taking of land for large surface reservoirs.

Otherwise each new reservoir is likely, at any rate in its own locality, and probably over a much wider area, to be opposed as Stansted airfield was opposed. The Government's present decision about Stansted airfield is alleged to be justified because of the time factor and because it claims that an insufficiently detailed study was made of alternative sites in earlier years. If that argument were true of Stansted, I beg the Government not to repeat that mistake now in relation to the study of the Wash barrage. If the Government do, they will—as they claim previous Governments have done about Stansted—have left the detailed study until it is too late to be of use.

3.25 p.m.

Photo of Mr Eldon Griffiths Mr Eldon Griffiths , Bury St Edmunds

Whatever reply the Minister is to give us, I have no doubt that sooner or later we will build a Wash barrage. We shall do it for the simple reason that in the end we shall not be able to afford to do otherwise. It is not a question of if, but only a question of when, just as it is not a question of whether we join the European Economic Community, but rather a question of when and on what terms.

The reasons why we shall eventually build the Wash barrage are as simple and basic as food and drink itself. We shall dam the Wash partly for water to enable our growing population to have enough to drink and we shall also do it for food, so that children yet unborn will have home-grown food to grow up on.

There is another reason, and that is that we shall do it to have enough lebensraum for our people to live, to play and enjoy themselves in recreation such as water sports. In short, we will be tackling this job, if not to improve the quality of life for the next generation, then at least to prevent the present quality of life from deteriorating as far as otherwise I fear is likely.

I want now to deal with matters concerning my constituency. West Suffolk is involved in an extremely ambitious expansion programme. We have 130,000 people and we are being asked to add another 40,000 in the next 15 years. Given a reasonable improvement in the standard of living, it appears that the demand for domestic water for the people of West Suffolk to drink and wash in will double over the next 10 to 15 years. Alongside this new population is industry. We are not getting enough industry to match our growing population. We are getting some and with it another vast increase in the area's demand for water. The same goes for farming.

More and more of our arable farmers, who are among the best in the world, are turning to irrigation. If the Minister would come with me I could show him this weekend, in the villages of West Suffolk, many irrigation units which are helping to produce bigger and better crops. One thing that is certain is that irrigation will go on increasing. This is true of the livestock industry. The nation badly needs more meat, and East Anglian farmers are moving over to bigger and more intensive units for pigs, poultry and cattle.

Does the Minister realise how much water the intensive pig unit uses? From my own experience I would reckon that in a modern fattening house, for drinking and cleaning one has to count on something not far short of 20 to 25 gallons of water per animal every day.

When one adds it all up—new people, new industries and new farming methods—the fact stares one in the face, namely that the demand for more water in East Anglia is growing quite prodigiously, and so too is the cost of providing it. Already we face the need to carry water from the Great Ouse catchment area to the Stour Valley area over long distances and at great expense. Simultaneously, the price of water is going up at a very rapid rate. I do not suggest that we yet face a great water shortage, but we have temporary water shortages almost every summer. So far, West Suffolk has rarely faced a major drought. What the future may hold is a different matter. I have no doubt that the capital investment required to meet our growing needs will be well beyond the capacity of our local resources.

West Suffolk, like most of East Anglia, badly needs new sources of water and the Wash may be able to provide it. I do not say that this is certain; I do not know and the Minister does not know. It may be that the feasibility study we are seeking will show that the Wash is inadequate, but it is surely essential before we go on with all our vast expansions in East Anglia at least to examine the feasibility of getting more water from the Wash. To do this is a matter of urgency now before it is too late.

My second point concerns land. One aspect is the land we might gain by draining part of the Wash, but I am more concerned with the land which we are certain to lose in my constituency if the Wash barrage scheme is not adequate. We use land well in West Suffolk and we do not want to lose it any faster than we are already losing it through new roads, concrete and pylons. Yet there is the prospect in the southern part of my constituency that the Government might push through a scheme to flood 3,000 acres of good cornland in the area of Great Bradley to create a purely stop-gap surface reservoir to feed parts of Essex.

When the Water Resources Board made its Report on the South-East, it recommended a series of actions, one of which was that borings should be taken in Great Bradley and another that a feasibility study should be made of the Wash. The Minister of the day thereupon announced that he accepted the Report of the Water Resources Board as a whole. The House will note that he did not say, "I accept the Report with the exception of the feasibility study, which I do not accept". Oh, no: he accepted the Report as a whole. Farmers in my constituency took him at his word. I could have told them that that was a rather rash thing to do. Hardly was the ink dry on his acceptance of the Report as a whole than the Minister was trying to escape from his commitment to the Wash barrage study.

Some hon. Friends and I suspected that he was trying to do this and, on 14th November last year, we took him to task about it. It was the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) who replied: I welcome this chance to emphasise that the Government have not yet committed themselves either for or against a feasibility study of the Wash barrage project."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th November, 1966; Vol. 736, c. 2.] I then warned the Minister by letter that in the case of the Great Bradley reservoir some of my constituents had agreed to admit water board surveyors to their property in the belief that he had accepted the feasibility study. I went on to say that their co-operation would not be forthcoming if he went back on what they understood to be a firm commitment on his part. The right hon. Gentleman chose to ignore this warning, which was repeated in correspondence to him. The result is that the farmers of Great Bradley are flatly refusing to admit the surveyors and, with the support of the National Farmers' Union, the Country Landowners' Association and the National Union of Agricultural Workers, they are determined to go on refusing until he changes his mind and authorises the Wash study.

It is quite impossible for me to endorse this defiant stand, but I understand and sympathise with the attitude which the farmers have adopted, for the land which the Minister wishes to cover by the reservoir is lost for eternity. There is no chance of going back on this. The corn will be lost, the homes drowned and production will be finished. Before taking so drastic and irretrievable a step, it is incumbent upon any Government to weigh up all the alternatives to see whether, at any reasonable price, any other solution can be found, and that is precisely what the Board recommended. It said that the Government should look at the Wash.

The Minister has so far refused to do that. I hope that tonight we shall be told that he has changed his mind. He does not know whether there is a sensible alternative to the drowning of Great Bradley and other parts of East Anglia. Yet in his ignorance of the alternatives, and knowing that he is ignorant, he still persists apparently in pushing for the Great Bradley scheme, which will ruin the lives of some of my constituents, take away 3,000 acres of valuable land and destroy the amenities of at least two villages.

It is the injustice that I and my constituents so deplore. First, the Government asked the Board to make an investigation. When the Board recommended a Wash study in a report, the Government accepted those parts of the report which suited them and rejected the Wash study, apparently out of hand. It is, as has been said, the Stansted story all over again and the farmers will not stand for it.

Where once they were co-operative, now they have dug their toes in—and when Suffolk farmers decide to be stubborn they are very tough and determined customers who will not just fall into line. A resolution on the Wash barrage passed by 60 representatives of the N.F.U., the C.L.A. and the N.U.A.W. said: That this meeting … resolves that save in respect of those urgent local schemes where co-operation has already been forthcoming, they will do everything in their power to prevent any future agricultural land being taken for surface reservoirs until the Government has authorised the expeditious carrying out of a full feasibility study of the Wash Barrage Scheme. This is not an idle statement but a declaration by men who mean precisely what they say, who are highly responsible and law-abiding citizens and who are not prepared to have their farms flooded by a Government who will not even take the trouble to find out in advance whether it is necessary. If the Minister is wise, and I hope and believe that he is, he will head off this revolt of the farming community by putting in hand at least the early stages of a feasibility study. He may argue against it on ground of cost but how ironic that would be in a debate on a Bill authorising Her Majesty to have access to £5,851 million.

But I put it to him in any case that the £1½ million put forward as the figure would not in any event be spent unless the preliminary signs during the study were sufficiently encouraging to justify going on with it. If it were found in preliminary soundings—and I doubt it—that the scheme would be unfeasible, then it could be called off and no further money would be spent. But stubbornly to refuse even to start a study is both penny wise and pound foolish.

If, as I predict, the Minister meets the unswerving opposition of the farm- ing community, it will cost him and the country a great deal of money and time to bulldoze through these surface reservoirs. He will not save money but will only cause a row, bring ruin to large stretches of farm land and will not solve the problem of water for the eastern counties. This would be the dereliction of planning. It would be short-sighted expediency which is bad for the Great Bradley farmers, bad for West Suffolk, bad for the whole of East Anglia, and bad for Britain.

In conclusion, I say to the Minister that if he continues to refuse even to countenance the beginnings of the Wash barrage study, he will only brand himself and the Government as timid, unimaginative, and utterly uninspired by the challenge of what can be and needs to be done in this country. Can he not for a moment look up from all the difficulties which he faces and contemplate, with the excitement of my hon. Friends and hon. Gentlemen opposite, what man is capable of doing and is doing in transforming the face of nature for his own benefit? The Soviet Union building vast new dams, huge lakes, which have transformed the climate of Central Asia; the Chinese taming the Yangtse; the Dutch having made their achievements in the North Sea; and the Israelis in the Negev Desert. These nations have done something more than simply improve their own environment. They have offered a challenge to their technicians and engineers and an inspiration to their young people which is worth as much as, if not even more than, the vast material benefits that these gigantic projects can provide. What the Dutch can do in the Zuider Zee and what the Americans can do in the swamps of Florida, let Britain do in the Wash.

The message of this debate to the Minister at twenty minutes to four in the morning is: do not be so timid; take hold of the capabilities and the resources of this country in the late twentieth century and proclaim with confidence that British engineering can and will and must do the job that the East Anglian counties sooner or later will need and sooner or later will get. With this Government, with the next Government, some time, some day, they will have it.

3.42 a.m.

Photo of Mr James MacColl Mr James MacColl , Widnes

The Wash barrage, as the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths) has said, is certainly something to seize the imagination, and nothing I say would in any way derogate from the great, stimulating and imaginative concept that it is. Unfortunately, the duty of my right hon. Friend and the Government is to deal with the problem of providing water at an economical cost in an efficient way and with as little waste of land as can be managed.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Hazen) fairly said, we do not know that the current arrangements for getting the water without the Wash barrage will work. He is right about that. We are all in a state of exploration. Our view is that the first thing to be done is to explore the other non-barrage methods of getting water before we come to the great cost of even the feasibility study, let alone the barrage scheme itself. That is the problem which faces us.

I have been rebuked by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) for not following the advice of the Water Resources Board. It is true that it wanted us to have this preliminary study—I will not pretend to run away from that—but it is not true to say that it, or, indeed, the technical experts who advised it, thought that the Wash scheme was preferable, or was likely to be preferable, to the other methods of getting water. The Technical Committee said: While it appears unlikely that water from such a source would be competitive in cost with or of as good quality as water from other sources outlined in that Report"— that is, the Binnie Report— and in Appendix IV, we nevertheless consider that an investigation should be made. That is about as lukewarm a recommendation as one can have, accepting as it does that almost certainly it will be more expensive and not of such good quality.

The other question is the effect of the Wash barrage on land use. Running through the debate there has been the theme that this is o dramatic and bold way in which to save the use of other land, but on a large scale that is not true, because the urgency of providing sources of water is such that we would not save anything like the figures which have been quoted. We would not be likely to save more than about 12,000 acres. The other acres are bound to be required before we get to the stage when the Wash barrage could be of any use.

Again to quote from the Technical Committee's Report—and this is a point on which the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds should meditate when he is advising his constituents— We consider it vital, however, that a study of the possibility of storage in the Wash should not be made the pretext for delay in the investigation of the various inland schemes both surface and underground and in the development of these schemes which will be needed to meet demand during the next 15 or 20 years. That is a view confirmed by the main Board in paragraphs 28 and 29 of its Report.

That is the problem which we have to face. We have to explore the most effective and cheap ways in which to get a water supply quickly. That is not to say—and this is why I do not want to go too far the other way and condemn the Wash barrage—that if we are wrong and we cannot get the water from those other sources, we will not use the barrage. All I am saying is that it would be a very expensive source of water.

The Board's estimate of the cost is £90 million more than a combination of the inland schemes, and that is the important figure. The important figure is not the gross cost of £287 million, or whatever it may be, but the difference between the cost of the inland schemes and the cost of the barrage. It would take a long time to build the barrage and we would find ourselves in a great deal of difficulty, however quickly and smoothly the scheme proceeded. There would be difficulty about the quality of water. The Binnie Report suggested that as much as 40 per cent. of sewage effluent would be in the reservoirs formed by the barrage, and that would be another of the problems of providing good clean water at a moderate price.

There might be corresponding advantages from it. The difficulty is that of seeing what those would be. I want to say something about the question of the saving of agricultural land. A figure has been quoted of about 12,000 acres, and the barrage might reclaim about 40,000 acres. There has been a lot of bold talk in the debate about the beautiful, rich and fertile land. My hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Derek Page), with his characteristic honesty, if that is the right word, said that he thought that the land would be pretty poor, and would not be very much value for agricultural purposes. One has only to do a simple arithmetical calculation.

Assuming that it is good land, one will save 12,000 acres, create 40,000, getting 52,000 acres, which one would not get under the inland schemes, and one will do it at a cost of £90 million. That is about £1,750 per acre, which by any test of the value of agricultural land seems to be very high. It is all very well to say that one should not think of cost when talking about saving land, but one has to if one is to have any adequate economic assessment of what one is proposing to do. One must ask the question: in terms of the loss of land, what is the corresponding advantage? On a cost basis, the amount which one will have to invest to get the land makes it beyond all reason.

My hon. Friend said that the great advantages of the scheme were not so much to do with water or agriculture, but from the point of view of the development of the area—

Photo of Mr Paul Hawkins Mr Paul Hawkins , South West Norfolk

Can the hon. Gentleman explain why this feasibility study, or at least the preliminary part of it, could not go on at the same time as these deep wells, and other methods, which he is examining, and which he has said it will take five years to complete? I cannot understand why that should not go on at the same time.

Photo of Mr James MacColl Mr James MacColl , Widnes

The point is that if this was something vitally necessary, if it was proved that it could provide better water than we could get by other methods, then there is a case for saying that we must spend £1½ million to find out whether we can do it. As we start from the assumption that, even if it is successful, the costs will be very high indeed, the quality of the water almost certainly poorer, it is very difficult for a Government to justify spending that money until we have pushed ahead with the better schemes, and particularly the underground schemes.

The Water Resources Board made the same point, that the best and most hopeful way of saving agricultural land in the next 15 to 20 years was not with the barrage, but with the development of our ground water resources.

Photo of Mr Eldon Griffiths Mr Eldon Griffiths , Bury St Edmunds

Why does the hon. Gentleman suggest that it is necessary to spend £1½ million simply to start the scheme? If, in the early stages, it were determined that the signs were discouraging and the project appeared not to be feasible, it would not be necessary to continue with the full expenditure.

Photo of Mr James MacColl Mr James MacColl , Widnes

I had that point in mind.

In courtesy to my hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn, I return to the point with which I was dealing a little earlier. The difficulty about the points made by my hon. Friend concerning the non-water uses of the barrage are that, in most cases, they would involve a good deal of expenditure on the other purposes. There would be certain advantages—possibly improved road links, improved access to the Wash ports and amenities of a fresh-water lake, which would be discounted by the fact that the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body) would not be able to get away from it all with quite the same facility as he does now; but there would he advantages in general for recreation.

On the other hand, there would be disadvantages. There would be definite losses in sea fisheries and shellfish, there would be the cost of maintaining tidal locks and navigation channels, and the character of the salt marsh and sand dunes would be lost. Even with those additional advantages, which I do not think would have more than one-third of the extra cost of the scheme, further capital investment would be required to develop the project as an economic rather than a water exercise.

Photo of Mr Derek Page Mr Derek Page , King's Lynn

We would be interested to know how my hon. Friend can justify the figures which he has picked out of the air. I have never seen any justification for saying that possibly one-third of the cost would fall on those other facilities. What work has been done to prove this? Does my hon. Friend's Department have the facilities to do such work?

Photo of Mr James MacColl Mr James MacColl , Widnes

Certainly we do not. That was why I was putting them forward in very general terms. I am not setting myself up as an expert who can give a final answer. I am saying that on any reasonable assessment, the saving is unlikely to make a big bite into the extra £90 million which has somehow to be covered.

Photo of Mr Paul Hawkins Mr Paul Hawkins , South West Norfolk

Where does the £90 million figure come from?

Photo of Mr James MacColl Mr James MacColl , Widnes

From the Water Resources Board Report and the Binnie Report.

Photo of Mr David Renton Mr David Renton , Huntingdonshire

I have before me the passage from page 13 of the introduction to the Report on Water Supplies in South-East England. Having given the matter some attention for some years, I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said. He seems entirely to have misunderstood the figures from which he refers to £90 million.

Photo of Mr James MacColl Mr James MacColl , Widnes

I have taken the cost of the inland schemes and the other scheme, some of it inland, because one has still to go on with the inland schemes. They cannot be abandoned because of urgency and the Wash scheme. I have taken the difference between the two figures, which is £90 million.

Photo of Mr David Renton Mr David Renton , Huntingdonshire

The hon. Gentleman overlooks that under the two schemes, different results are achieved. He has assumed that the same result would be achieved under the one scheme for £310 million and the other scheme for £400 million. He has to bear in mind that the £400 million scheme produces much larger water storage.

Photo of Mr James MacColl Mr James MacColl , Widnes

The inland schemes, if successful, should be sufficient to provide for demand up to the year 2000.

I want to deal with the points which were put about the question whether it is not possible to have a sort of preliminary desk study. When my right hon. Friend saw the Water Resources Board and the rural authorities he said that he would certainly be prepared to look into this. We do not know what it would cost and what the study would entail; nor are we sure what its advantages would be. It would really be a sort of feasibility study into a feasibility study. If it is to try only to do, not very efficiently, what the £1½ million study was really required to do, probably there is not very much justification for it, as some of my hon. Friends have said. If, on the other hand, it can be shown that it is possible to do something which will produce an effective result quickly and cheaply, then, of course, my right hon. Friend will give it further consideration. He has asked the Board to go into it and produce some further ideas which it has and thinks would be effective.

I would only say in regard to this—I repeat—that my right hon. Friend and the Government are not in any way against a Wash barrage in principle; they are not unromantic, not unprogressive, not unprepared to look far ahead. What they are concerned with, and regard as the most important duty at the moment, is to provide for a supply of water by the methods which will produce the cheapest and purest water, and produce it most quickly. At the moment, all the evidence we have had points to the fact that the best way of doing that is looking at underground storage and the land methods, before looking at what a barrage can do.

Several Hon. Members:

Several Hon. Members rose

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. I remind the House that there are still 35 debates ahead of us.