National Policy Statement for Water Resources Infrastructure 2018 - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:53 pm on 11th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour 12:53 pm, 11th April 2019

My Lords, the noble Baroness raised a number of very pertinent questions and the Minister will wish to address them. I congratulate the Minister on his opening remarks, which set out the issues involved. As a former chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission, I wrestled with these issues myself.

My concern is that the draft national policy statement we are debating today is essentially a list of considerations that need to be addressed in the development of a national strategy for dealing with water infrastructure. It does not set out a strategy. Look at all of the key issues: what should be the policy going forward on water metering, which is crucial? Will we move towards water metering and, if so, when? The Minister said that the Government would come forward with a consultation on that. What will be the policy in respect of new infrastructure? Will we commit to new reservoirs or not? Will we have a national water grid or not? The Minister did not offer any clear way forward on any of those issues and neither does the document, which simply lays out a number of considerations. I am very glad that it pays tribute to the work of the National Infrastructure Commission, and I pay tribute to my colleagues there who wrestled long and hard with these issues. But it does not appear to take the debate forward.

As soon as one gets into the actual issues at stake, they are very controversial. The issue of whether water metering will be mandatory is controversial because it will impose new requirements on householders, many of whom do not want mandatory water metering partly because it imposes the potential of real additional costs for the consumption of water.

The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, referred to the Tryweryn Valley saga, which alongside the building of airports and the closing of railways is one of the great infrastructure controversies of the last generation. I add another controversy to the list: the Abingdon reservoir saga of the proposal to build the first new reservoir in the past 30 years in Abingdon. It was proposed by Thames Water and went to public inquiry. It was reviewed by Ofwat which then ruled against it after a very long controversial planning saga and the reservoir was not built. There is still a big debate about whether that was a huge missed opportunity.

The document itself does not actually say anything about new reservoirs. I probed the Minister on that and he very elegantly said that the plans coming forward would address that issue. But on the questions of whether we will or will not be building new reservoirs, will or will not have a national water grid or will or will not have mandatory water metering—three absolutely critical issues in terms of a water infrastructure plan—the Government have ducked them all so far and have simply kicked them forward. The vogue phrase at the moment is kicking the can down the road. I say gently to the Minister that this draft national policy statement kicks the can down the road.

I raise that because if the can is kicked down the road and this becomes the national policy statement, the onus will in fact be on the water companies to come forward with plans that will then go to Ofwat to go through a regulatory and economic assessment with the Government having the reserve power to intervene or not. I simply say to the Minister—I need to be brief because I am intervening in the gap—that that will not work when it comes to taking controversial decisions. We have been there and it has not worked in the past. That is what the Abingdon reservoir saga shows us. The only way that you will get controversial new infrastructure built is by the Government taking the lead with a government infrastructure plan.

My underlying concern about the draft national policy statement is that it could turn out to be a complete irrelevance. If we need to go into the era of building significant new infrastructure, which we might well need to do, it will have to be at the behest of the Government. It cannot come from private water companies and this does not resolve the issue of how the Government will take forward plans for significant new national infrastructure.