My Lords, I welcome this debate and am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. I declare my interests on the register. I co-chair the All-Party Parliamentary Water Group with the honourable Member Angela Smith in the other place. I also do some excellent work with the water regulator for Scotland—the Water Industry Commission for Scotland—and, through that, with WAREG. I am vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities and I am the recently appointed president of the NEA.
I am extremely proud of the work I have done with the Water Industry Commission for Scotland, through which we managed to achieve a contract for technical assistance with the Romanian equivalent regulator, under the auspices of the EU. Through WICS, I have worked with WAREG—the European association of water regulators—and have seen first-hand the importance of sharing best practice both between member states and between existing member states and applicant countries to the European Union.
I congratulate the Minister and the Government on producing this draft national policy statement and, in particular, on the collaborative way that they have worked with the water sector in producing it. It plugs the gap to boost water efficiency, originally as set out in the Walker review. It is interesting that it has taken this long for water efficiency to become the order of the day, but I welcome the recent initiative shown by the Environment Agency in this regard. Successive Governments have implemented the recommendations of the Cave review on competition and, in large part, the recommendations set out in the Pitt review for flood and water management.
I echo the importance that my noble friend has attached to infrastructure and resilience in that regard. I have a passion for SUDS, or sustainable drainage systems, which I hope my noble friend will share, and also for the building of more reservoirs. That begs a question, given that it is one of the remaining issues from the legislation that was set out between 2010 and 2015. I urge the Government to deal with the de minimis rule that is currently discouraging the greater use of reservoirs on farms, golf clubs and caravan parks. I notice that, both in the document and in the Minister’s remarks, the focus is especially—and, probably, quite rightly—on nationally significant infrastructure projects in the next three to five years. I urge the Minister and the department to look at the importance of smaller reservoirs, too, particularly in areas of increasing water stress, where the environmental impact will surely be much less—both in the building of reservoirs and their maintenance.
I entirely endorse the remarks that my noble friend made about leakage. About seven years ago, Yorkshire Water, under measures it signed up to during the last price review, invested in setting up a highly commendable leakage programme. The programme was set back by three days of sub-zero temperatures reaching minus 17 degrees. I defy anyone to be able to protect pipes from freezing at that temperature. I hope that the Minister and the regulator will look kindly on companies that operate under the additional burden of sub-zero temperatures. As I say, it is impossible to protect against leaks in such circumstances.
As we have heard, water companies face increasing challenges of water stress from population growth, housebuilding, global warming and climate change. I recognise that, of all the challenges they face, surface water flooding is one of the greatest and most recent. I welcome the Government’s catchment management approach, which brings together all the relevant partners, but if it is to succeed, one body within each catchment area must be identified as the lead organisation. They must decide which organisation should take the lead, and that will differ from area to area. However, the approach may fail if no one actually takes ownership of the catchment. In many areas, it may be the water company, while in others it may be the drainage board. This needs to be identified in order to enhance the excellent work that is being done on catchment management.
Natural capital is becoming increasingly significant in government policy, yet it remains nebulous, hazy, vague and indistinct. I urge the Government to put more meat on the current bare bones. I refer to the report, Bricks & Water, co-authored by the honourable Angela Smith MP and myself, which has been published under the auspices of the Westminster Sustainable Business Forum and Policy Connect. If my noble friend Lord Gardiner has not received a copy, I will make sure that one is dispatched to him. The report puts forward a number of specific proposals to local authorities, including that they should consider carefully how planning permission for major developments can best be delivered, ideally with the use of SUDS going forward and possibly meeting the even bigger challenge of retrofitting SUDS to historic drainage systems. Also, one of my pet wishes is to end the automatic right to connect to the water supply. This is one of the key recommendations in the Pitt review, but we have still not actually taken it on board.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to reduce per capita consumption, and we have seen how that can be delivered in part through Building Regulations. I hope that my noble friend will look at other jurisdictions, in particular Scandinavian countries like Denmark, where loos are specifically designed to limit the amount of water that is released with each flush. That, along with the use of grey water, must be considered going forward in order to improve resilience and encourage the greater use of innovation.
My noble friend referred—as does the draft national policy statement—to the importance of transfers between water companies and, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, has said, the potential for creating a national grid. I would look no further than to congratulate Yorkshire Water, which I believe is the first water company to make a significant investment, delivering a 31,500 kilometre network of underground pipes to ensure that, in times of stress in one area or another, one company can supply water by transferring it from one area in the region with plentiful supplies to another which is suffering from a shortage at a particular time. I welcome similar investments which are being planned from 2020—under the 2019 price review—by companies such as Anglia Water, which has also planned a multi-million pound development.
All major housing developments must pass the test of being built in appropriate places using appropriate infrastructure. We must stop building on functional flood plains, and we need to end the right to connect. I commend the use of natural flood management and defence schemes. My noble friend will be familiar with pilot flood defence improvement schemes such as the Slowing the Flow at Pickering programme, where the planting of trees and the creating of bunds, mini-dams and peat bogs, which take 200 years to develop, is being undertaken. It is a long-term project, but it has already prevented any further flooding in Pickering, a town which used to flood every two or three years. I would place much greater emphasis—I hope I can persuade my noble friend to do so—on natural flood defences rather than on elaborate engineering projects. There is scope for much more rewarding schemes for public good under the environmental land management schemes that Defra imagined going forward. I hope this can encourage the use of such natural flood defence schemes.
Innovation was recognised for the first time in PR14, which encouraged investment in innovation, and as water consumers we have reaped rewards from that. PR19 focuses much more on outcome delivery, with a greater focus on pay against performance. A debate yet to be had is on the role of competition as opposed to regulation, but this is possibly for another day. I would argue that the question of ownership of the water sector and water companies—whether they should be in public or private hands—is a debate we are going to have, possibly at the next general election. However, I would commend the level of investment we have seen in the last 30 years through privatised water companies investing in improvements in water quality on our beaches, in our drinking water and in our rivers.
I conclude by asking my noble friend a number of short questions. When might we expect the environment protection Bill, and when will the office for environmental protection be up and running? What role will abstraction play in the draft NPS, amid competing uses and an ever-decreasing supply of water? I urge his department to use its best endeavours to ensure that SUDS are used in every major housing development going forward. I make an urgent plea that we end the automatic right to connect. In this regard, will he look favourably on using his good offices to confer the status of statutory consultee on water companies in the planning application process? Finally, what greater clarity does my noble friend the Minister intend to give—