Kent and Sussex: Water Shortages

– in the House of Lords at 2:51 pm on 13 June 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Trumpington Baroness Trumpington Conservative 2:51, 13 June 2005

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have taken account of possible water shortages arising from current and planned housing programmes in Kent and Sussex; and, if so, what action they propose to take.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

My Lords, before I answer the Question, perhaps I may say how delighted we are at the great honour that the noble Baroness has received at the hands of Her Majesty this weekend. As Dame Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, we will hold her in even greater awe and affection.

In looking at house-building programmes in Kent and Sussex, we are determined to achieve sustainable development. To that end, we are advised by the Environment Agency, which has been working alongside all the local water supply companies on operational needs and future plans. Evidence suggests a requirement for both improved demand management and new investment in capital projects, but that these together will enable sufficient water supplies for the necessary growth in housing.

Photo of Baroness Trumpington Baroness Trumpington Conservative

My Lords, I very much thank the Minister for her kind remarks and wonder whether she would agree that this is a moment to quote "Hello, Dolly!", namely:

"Wow, wow, wow, fellas . . . Look at the old girl now, fellas".

Having said that, is the Minister aware that a hosepipe ban was imposed yesterday on the area that I have in mind, and that it must have been known well before any plans were made for increased housing that there has been a constant water shortage in that area? There have been more water shortages in that area than anywhere else in England and long before they occurred in other parts of England. That has been so well known that I find it incredible that the building is continuing.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

Yes, my Lords, I am aware of the hosepipe ban. Such bans are part of the routine arrangements that water companies make for planning water supply in what may be a dry summer—although the jury is still out on whether it will be a very dry summer.

On the original Question about the need to build houses in the south-east to meet the great demand of those already living there—and two-thirds of demand would come from people who are already there—the issues of sustainability and water are at the heart of our thinking. We are working extremely closely with the South East England Regional Assembly, the Environment Agency and the water companies to plan for the water that will be needed. The best evidence is that we can meet those targets with capital investment and demand management.

Photo of Lord Borrie Lord Borrie Labour

My Lords, in her original Answer the Minister mentioned enhanced demand management. Will she consider whether a higher proportion of water meter use in the area we are discussing would be helpful? Are there any plans to increase the use of water meters?

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

My Lords, the evidence certainly suggests that water metering reduces demand and that is one of the options that the water companies are encouraging. However, there are other ways of cutting water consumption. In some new-build homes, for example, we will be able to save much more water by more intelligent water use, including the use of better and smarter water appliances.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Spokesperson in the Lords, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

My Lords, in their recent reply to the ODPM Select Committee in another place, the Government said:

"the scope for a more targeted approach through the planning system . . . should be fully explored".

How is that exploration progressing? It is now a matter of urgency. Rather than there being a sensible government policy on the issue, the current planning system leaves it to local authorities to test individual decisions through the public inquiry and appeals process.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

My Lords, as the noble Baroness will know, we have made considerable reforms to the planning system under the 2004 planning Act, and the water companies are now required to produce statutory plans. While I cannot provide the noble Baroness with much detail about future planning reforms, it is important to say that public examination through the planning process allows everyone who is interested and concerned about the type of issues raised by the noble Baroness to put forward their ideas and test the evidence. It is an extremely valuable process.

Photo of Baroness O'Cathain Baroness O'Cathain Conservative

My Lords, as the noble Baroness has only just taken on this brief, does she realise that the water companies—and I declare an interest as a board member of one of the water companies in the area—have for ages been badgering the department for compulsory metering? We cannot get it. It is not in the water companies' hands; it is in the hands of the Government. That is the first point.

Secondly, at the moment the south-east has 55 per cent of the normal water reserves for this time of the year. That is the position without all this new house-building. What are we going to do about that? Again, it is in the hands of the Government.

Thirdly, do the Government realise that in the south-east of England the average amount of water available per head is less than that available in the Sudan?

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

My Lords, insofar as we work in partnership with the water companies and the Environment Agency, we would much prefer that decisions on matters such as compulsory metering are taken jointly and in partnership as part of the whole approach to sustainability. However, I shall take the noble Baroness's point back to the department.

The noble Baroness's second point was on the state of our reserves. The companies in the south are looking at their drought plans, as they should. Within those plans there is a hierarchy of things that can be done, depending on severity, track records and effectiveness. We shall watch that with great interest. The Environment Agency's eye is well on that problem. It is to be hoped that it will rain before long, which might help, too.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, when the Minister looks at overall housing needs, does she take into account population drift from areas such as the north-west of England? In a city such as Liverpool, more than three-quarters of a million people were resident in the 1950s, but only about 340,000 are there today. Does she accept that programmes such as Pathways, which further threaten Georgian and Victorian terraces all over the north-west of England, are leading to the unnecessary demolition of homes and the migration of people from the north-west, where there is plenty of rain, down to the south-east, where there is a shortage of homes and, as the noble Baroness has said, water shortages, too?

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

My Lords, I shall first address the point about who is creating the demand for more water in the south-east. As I said, two-thirds of demand is from households that are already here. We have an increasingly ageing population with many more people living on their own. The sons and daughters of those who want to stay in the region are also looking for homes. So, we have a major duty to provide those homes and to make them affordable.

Our regional policies are designed to address the imbalance between north and south. Policies such as Pathways exist to try to generate, renew and refurbish. By no means is it just demolition. It seeks to create and recreate those communities where houses have been abandoned. We need to put in investment and to ensure that those communities are sustainable and have as good a future as some of our communities in the south-east.