(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the water supply situation in general and specifically for the county of Northamptonshire, and what action is being taken to transfer water from those areas with adequate supplies to those beleaguered areas which are already experiencing extreme shortage.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to comment on the situation.
Parts of the country are certainly facing water shortages this year. The severity of the shortages differs very much from area to area, but the effects are localised, depending on the pattern of water supply and the measures open to the water authorities to make alternative arrangements.
As my right hon. Friend made clear to the House last week, I have set up a group of senior officials and representatives of the water industry to assess the situation to keep me in touch on a weekly basis, and to advise what contingency measures may be needed in addition to the plans that the water authorities have already made. The group will meet regularly, and Ministers will be discussing its first report with the chairmen of the regional water authorities next week. At this stage, it appears that the immediate position is under control. Given sensible use of water by domestic consumers, industry and agriculture, the water authorities tell me that they hope to avoid major interruptions of supplies during the summer, although there is bound to be local inconvenience, and possibly even a degree of hardship. There may be specific problems in relation to spray irrigation.
As regards the particular situation in Northamptonshire, where storage reservoirs are about one-third full and the River Nene is very low, steps have been taken to transfer in extra quantities of water from Grafham Water, and a Drought Order has been made to allow maximum advantage to be taken of any storm flows in the Nene that may occur. The water authority tells me that these measures are proving effective.
This assessment, as I have made clear, is on the basis of our having something like an average rainfall this summer. But we are already working with the water authorities on the contingency measures that would be needed to deal with the problems of an altogether different order that could arise with an abnormally dry summer.
The crucial thing is that people should use water sensibly and prudently. The water authorities are in the best position to judge what economies are needed in their individual areas, and people should follow the guidance they give.
I am most grateful to the Minister for that very full answer. If there is another summer similar to that of last year, is he confident that he has all the necessary powers and that the necessary research has been done to ensure that there will not be extreme hardship to industry, agriculture and domestic consumers in the areas that are now suffering an extreme shortage?
As I said in my opening statement, if there are problems they will be local problems. We are not in a national drought situation, or in any danger of one. The whole purpose of the ongoing contingency meeting, and of the group itself, is to see that we meet these problems before they come upon us.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will be taking 12 days to meet the National Water Council and regional authorities? Why wait 12 days? Is my right hon. Friend further aware that the Meteorological Office has said that even if we have monsoon weather we shall not have sufficient rainfall this summer? As people do not use their supplies reasonably, would it not be wise to make regulations to conserve water—for example, by prohibiting the use of garden hoses?
Unless my arithmetic is at fault, between 3rd and 12th May is not 12 days but nine days. It may seem like 12 days. During this period there will be a series of ongoing official meetings. Reports are coming in. The point that my hon. Friend makes may be applicable in certain areas but not in every area throughout the country. I have tried to stress that we are dealing with a localised situation, not a national one.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, quite apart from the effect of a dry summer this year, we shall face year by year an increasing problem over our water supply because of increasing usage? What steps is the right hon. Gentleman taking to impress upon the nation as a whole the need for the utmost economy in the use of water? What investigations is he making into alternative sources of supply—for example, desalination?
If the hon. Gentleman were to study fairly closely the consultative document that was issued recently by my Department—I forget the exact date on which it was issued—he would see that we are presaging the formation of a national water authority, a strong authority with the power to examine all the questions that he raises, with the possible exception of desalination, which at the moment does not seem to be necessary.
Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what progress has been made by the Central Water Planning Unit as regards the Water Resources Board's posthumous report of 1973? Has it now developed that report as the board would have done had it not been abolished by the Conservative Government? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the proposals in the Green Paper to which he has referred show the wisdom of the Government's present suggestions?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. I believe that a proper national view of the whole situation is the right way of proceeding. For example, we must use all the existing links—and there are a number of links that can be used—to bring water from one area to another. We must consider what extension there might be in future.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the use of water for food production, including home food production, should have priority over the washing of cars? Would it not be excellent for water authorities to concentrate on their prime duties of collecting, impounding and distributing water, rather than squandering money on exotic exercises such as direct building, which waste effort and money and have nothing to do with their prime duties?
The whole House will agree that where there is a water shortage and where there is not, the production of food must take precedence over the washing of cars. There cannot be any dispute between us on that subject. Direct building is the King Charles's head of the hon. Gentleman. As the hon. Gentleman will be fully aware, I have looked into the matter and taken the advice of the local authority associations. I have tried to follow their guidance and assistance.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is a strong sense of concern about this matter, especially in the Wales, Essex and Anglia regions, and among the farming community? Is he satisfied that enough is being done to put over the need to save water, and the way in which it can be done in those areas? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us when the Leader of the House expects to give us a debate on the important topic of water?
Of course I was not satisfied. If I had been satisfied I should not have set up the contingency group. One always runs the risk of being alarmist, on the one hand, and being thought too complacent on the other. I felt that the time had come when we should be making as clear contingency planning as possible. As regards a debate, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman can have a word with my extremely reasonable right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. Should my right hon. Friend think that there is any justice in what he says, no doubt he will consider the matter.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that whatever contingency plans he comes up with, he will refrain from deciding upon a system which results in our having another column, another army of people going about the country telling consumers how to save water and being paid expensive salaries for doing precisely that? Is he aware that there are some other simple formulae such as persuading people to put a brick in their toilet cistern? If that were done 15 million times over we should make an immeasurable saving. It is in that regard that perhaps we might be able to resolve the problem.
I know that my hon. Friend will acquit me of having had any part whatever in the reorganisation of the water industry. The present Government can at least be acquitted on that score. The various water authorities know the position in their own localities. This is not a national problem but a regional problem here and there. Therefore, they must be left to make their own decisions. Some authorities have given just the sort of advice stated by my hon. Friend.
I accept that this is a regional problem rather than a national one, but does the Minister agree that we face a prospect in which the average per capita consumption of water is now about 50 gallons per head per day and is expected to rise to 100 gallons per head per day within 20 years? Therefore, in those circumstances does he not agree that it is a national problem, and will he take steps to see that the recycling of water is carried out more effectively?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the consultative document, which is very important. Problems of this sort underline the reason for our having a strong national water authority.