Devon is at its most glorious at the moment. The woodland floors are covered with an abundance of primroses, the tall Devon banks are still covered in daffodils, and the hedgerows are just starting to turn that wonderful pale green. I thoroughly recommend glorious Devon to anyone who has not yet made arrangements for the Easter break: it is looking absolutely wonderful, and I am looking forward to going home tomorrow.
Despite the rural idyll of glorious Devon, however, we have lower than average wages, higher than average house prices and a large retired population. However good the view from the window, the quality of life for my constituents in Tiverton and Honiton is under increasing pressure from numerous directions, not least as a result of the council tax. But today I shall focus on what is becoming another real financial burden, which we have borne for a long time but for which there seems to be no relief. I refer to the charges imposed by South West Water.
The peninsula of the south-west features a third of the nation's beaches that have had to be cleaned and brought up to standard. Those of us who live in the south-west fully understand the requirement to do something about the old Victorian sewerage system, because the way in which sewage was being discharged into the sea was clearly a serious health hazard. A great deal of money has been invested in raising the standard of those discharges to an acceptable level, at a cost to those of us in the south-west who pay water charges, particularly those on lower incomes or in retirement.
In the coming financial year, water charges will rise by 12.5 per cent. for those with meters and by 16 per cent. for the rest of the population. That is a massive hike. I know from my postbag and from discussions with those who seek to represent water charge payers how disappointed people are that neither the regulator nor those officially appointed to speak for the water charge payer have been able to use their influence to ensure that the prices are brought under control. As we know, many people on low incomes qualify for tapered council tax relief. I feel we must now consider a similar arrangement for water charges, because I cannot see the present position improving.
Secondly, the chief executive told me that South West Water faces a five-year programme to refurbish a third of the drinking water mains. Just as one programme starts to tail off and we think there might be a bit of relief in the future, another comes along. The reason for this particular clean-up is a mystery to me. When I go into supermarkets I see people loading bottled water into their trolleys. They stagger under the weight: they can hardly carry the load. We seem to have become a nation that drinks only bottled water, although we have invested enormous amounts in improving the quality and safety of the drinking water that comes out of the tap. For some extraordinary reason people feel that they must buy bottled water, yet regulation upon regulation comes down from on high requiring South West Water to spend more and more on cleaning up the drinking water mains.
There is a serious point that I want the Deputy Leader of the House to convey to his colleagues. Most of the regulations dealing with the costs applying to South West Water originate from Europe. I should like the Deputy Leader of the House to do two things. First, I should like him to ask whether we really need higher and higher quality. There needs to be a standard—we should all feel relatively certain that drinking water is safe and clean—but how far does it have to go? Why, when standards are higher than they have ever been, must we face a five-year programme?
I understand that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has launched a consultation process. The privatised water companies are having to consider taking on financial responsibility for all the unadopted sewers in the country, of which we have a great many in the west country. Who will pay for that? It looks like even more expenditure for the water rate payer in the south-west, and when that is added to the other costs that I have identified, it becomes unbearable and unacceptable.
We have engaged in many cross-party debates about the issue, and there is complete consensus among the parties in the south-west about the unfair burden that is being imposed on water rate payers. We have also had many debates in the Chamber. Now is the time for the Government to do something. I believe that without Government intervention of some kind and some mitigation of the problem, at least for those on lower incomes, there will be a huge impact not only on people's quality of life but on their incomes.