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Surface Water Charges

Oral Answers to Questions — Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 2nd April 2009.

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Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 10:30 am, 2nd April 2009

What progress he has made in his consideration of options for mitigating the effects on water customers of increases in surface water charges.

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Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Marine and Natural Environment)

I am pleased to report that United Utilities, about which most of the complaints on this issue have arisen, has in light of representations received taken steps to resolve the problem of disproportionate increases for faith buildings, community amateur sports clubs, scout associations and so on, by reverting to charges based on 2007-08 for those customers—that is, back to rateable value.

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Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I am sort of reassured. I have the honour of being joint chairman of the all-party Scout Association group, and the information that the Scouts have given me is a little different from what the Minister has said. They and other charities have clearly made the point that surface water charges in such difficult economic times have damaging effects on voluntary organisations. They have also brought it to my attention that Ofwat has refused to meet the water companies. They are worried that, next year, when the moratorium is lifted, the charges will be crippling because they will be treated the same as multinational companies.

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Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Marine and Natural Environment)

I should declare an interest as the former president of the West Glamorgan Scout Association. We are not out of the woods yet— [Interruption.] I am sorry; that was not a deliberate pun. The principle of surface water charging, whereby a proportionate element is charged to everyone for discharging water is right; otherwise we would have cross-subsidies and would have to get into the question of which organisations should be exempt. Four companies have introduced surface water charging, which, by and large, has been well received because they dealt with it sensitively. Lessons have been learned and the regulator has been fully involved, but we need to keep a close eye on the matter. The regulatory principles and the need to deal sensitively with all community associations are clear. I will personally ensure that that happens and so will the regulator. I encourage any hon. Member of any party who is currently experiencing problems to take the matter first to the water companies, and by all means to bring it to me as well.

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Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

May I suggest that my hon. Friend gets out of the ivory tower of London? He needs to come to the north-west and learn what is happening to the churches, sports grounds and voluntary groups, which will close and cease to exist. No impact study has been done on the effect of surface water charges—no one is telling us how many churches and sports buildings will close and how many scout groups will cease. The bottom line is that United Utilities needs to be told to back off and not introduce the charge. If need be, we should introduce legislation to stop it—the sooner the better. Let us protect the people we represent.

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Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Marine and Natural Environment)

I understand my hon. Friend's passion about the matter, but let me reiterate: United Utilities has agreed not to put a moratorium on this year's prices, but to revert to 2007-08 pre-surface water drainage charges. It will take 12 months to assess the way forward with the regulator. I have met the company chief executive and the regulator. We have also been in communication with churches, scout associations, sports clubs, our colleagues in Whitehall and fellow Members of Parliament. I welcome the pressure that has been brought to bear and the representations that have been made. As I have said, we are not out of the woods: we need to ensure that the 12 months produces an appropriate review, so that all the groups that have been mentioned are not hit disproportionately. I will keep my eye on the matter, as I am sure my hon. Friend will, too.

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Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Last week, I asked the Leader of the House to arrange a debate—a topical debate or even a debate in Westminster Hall—in Government time on the matter. She suggested that I question the Minister today, and I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me to do that. The charge is unacceptable. The House has never agreed or introduced a proposal for such a charge for the disposal of surface water. The charge adversely affects many organisations—charitable, sporting and others. United Utilities in the north-west has announced a moratorium, but surely the Minister appreciates that that is only a delay. When will he say that the charge should be stopped and not introduced on any future occasion? That is justice; will he do it?

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Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Marine and Natural Environment)

I hear the calls for nationalisation, although I am not sure whether Sir Nicholas Winterton has suggested that. I repeat that things have moved on in the past few weeks, but we are not fully out of the woods. Events have moved on in that the moratorium has reverted to pre-surface water drainage charges in the United Utilities area. Four companies have introduced the model of charging that we are discussing. In three areas, it has been done proportionately, sensitively and in a customer-facing way. There is a way forward under the regulatory regime.

The call for legislation is interesting, and I assume that it covers exceptions. If we consider exceptions, I think that we all agree on scout associations, churches and community amateur sports clubs, but would we agree on, for example, consular buildings, fish farms, public houses—perhaps we would—and petrol filling stations, which had exemptions under the previous method of charging? Is that fair and proportionate? There is a way forward and we are getting there. I tell the hon. Gentleman to keep the pressure on, and we will get there.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

Is my hon. Friend aware that since the Conservatives privatised the water companies, for those who are in the Yorkshire region, as I am, it is impossible to have a dialogue with Kelder or Yorkshire Water on that or almost any other issue, because the major shareholder in private equity is the Singaporean Government, who are more conscious about surface water in Singapore than they are about surface water in England? Is that not the sad state that we are in, thanks to the privatisation that those people over there on the Conservative Benches introduced?

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Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Marine and Natural Environment)

We are always keen to see any companies out there engaging properly with all hon. Members and their constituents. However, let me reiterate the guidance from the Secretary of State in 2003: "surface water drainage charges" for non-household customers

"should be set in a way that is sensitive to the actual use of the service by different premises. Premises with large grounds, such as burial grounds, schools, hospitals," and so on

"may have a large proportion of their land not draining to a public sewer. Companies should be prepared to set their charges...accordingly," and the phasing in of such charges should be considered. I hope—indeed, I can see this now—that lessons are being learned by certain companies. However, we will keep the pressure on and the dialogue going, because we are as concerned as everybody else that the charges are imposed in a proportionate, fair and sensitive way.

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