My Lords, my predictions were correct. We have had great experience, much more than mine, displayed across the House on these matters. I therefore emphasise that I do not have all the answers. The intention was not for me to deliver a diktat on what the Government have decided on an important matter. It is our responsibility. We are having this debate and the consultations because one of the great responsibilities of Government is to supply one of the most essential components, not only of our lives, but of the whole ecosystem. I have made a careful note of all the questions and will not be replying to each in serried ranks, because much will unfold in the further response. I take on board what your Lordships, in their experience, have thrown into the pot, as an important resource to consider.
We have all identified the undoubted challenges that we need to address to make sure there is enough water to supply businesses and homes, and—as mentioned by all noble Lords, but specifically the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch—to protect the environment. This is at the core of our lives.
I turn to the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, who set out some of the historical mistakes and how one should not do things. England has always welcomed water from Wales. I was not quite as convinced when it was in flood in the Severn, but he made the point that there are ways to address these matters. We would all say that what happened before was not the finest hour of bureaucratic rule. The geographic features of Great Britain dictate considerable cross-border flows, as I have mentioned, and undoubted water dependencies between England and Wales.
To safeguard water resources, water supply and water quality, and minimise the potential for risk in this area of the Administrations’ respective responsibilities, the Secretary of State and the Welsh Ministers agreed the Intergovernmental Protocol on Water Resources, Water Supply and Water Quality, which came into force on
A number of other points were raised by my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering. I fully intended to talk of Slowing the Flow at Pickering, but quite rightly she got there first. This is a prime example of natural capital. I think that we would all agree to the use of natural capital alongside—when we have to use it—hard engineering in certain towns, including some of those in Cumbria. We need to slow the flow above but we also need to invest in hard engineering in certain places. The most important part of what we have been learning—my goodness, we needed to learn about it—is that natural capital is a resource as well as supplying a much-needed element of our ecosystem.
A number of your Lordships, including the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, raised the issue of small reservoirs. Whether they are on farms or are to supply part of our national water supply, the decisions remain with local planning authorities. The Environment Agency’s national framework and regional groups will consider the whole need in a region, not just public water supply. This should help to meet the needs of smaller users, where appropriate. In the future, particularly in the agricultural sector, marshalling of water through farm reservoirs may be much more common than it already is in certain parts, particularly the eastern counties.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, mentioned floods, which clearly are also important. Defra is spending £2.6 billion to protect the country better from flooding. This involves 1,000 flood defence schemes, with the intention of protecting 300,000 homes by 2021. In terms of real-terms increase, the figures reflect the fact that we need to do something and have needed to do something about flood protection and investment for quite a long time.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, from his previous position, particularly in terms of infrastructure, will know these matters much more intricately. We need to ensure that government and all the water regulators work together and challenge industry on its ambitions about leaks and customer consumption, and on how the needs of neighbouring companies are taken into account. We want companies to build on this in the next five years. Ofwat’s regulatory alliance and the Environment Agency’s national framework are intended to and will support the maturing regional water company groups, making sure that large water resource options that come forward for development have been adequately evaluated and are the best to meet both national and regional need, as well as that of individual companies.
I was at a meeting with the water companies about this winter’s issues, to which I think the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, referred. I had better be careful and diplomatic with my words, but the Secretary of State was correct, polite and robust in saying that matters had to be attended to. The water companies were in no doubt of the need to address some of the points made, and that it was not acceptable for customers to be without water. However, having had frozen pipes, I recognise what my noble friend Lady McIntosh said about those who work for water companies and who were out and about dealing with water pipes at a time of extreme weather. There is a balance to these matters.
In response to my noble friend Lady McIntosh on the environment Bill, someone has to say the following words from the Dispatch Box: “We wish to introduce the Bill in the summer. We have consulted on a range of changes to water legislation which may be included”. I am sorry that that is what I have to say, but I hope it is sufficient to indicate that we clearly wish to make progress on this matter.
I agree that we want further uptake of SUDS in planning and building regulations. Defra, the Environment Agency and MHCLG are working on this matter; it is an important force for good. A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh raised the issue of net gain. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, rightly described it as “crucial”. Paragraph 3.4 of the statement concerns environmental net gain. This means achieving biodiversity net gain first, then going further to achieve wider benefits, to deliver ecosystem services and make schemes with wider beneficial impacts on natural capital. Defra has consulted, and will continue to consult, on how best to incorporate natural capital into the planning system. It is extraordinary that we are having to discuss these matters as if we had discovered them. Working with nature seems to me an obvious consideration.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, raised resilience. It looks as though we are going to have changes in rainfall due to climate change. This could mean droughts and severe rainfall. How do we capture it so that, when we have to endure floods, we can work the system to use that water appropriately and to best advantage? This is going to be a vital element of protecting the environment. As all noble Lords said, we need to reduce demand as part of the process. We have to engage with ourselves, as well as with everyone outside this Chamber, on reducing our consumption of water. We should be looking at how other countries are dealing with the demands of increasing populations, perhaps climate change and using water wisely.
The National Infrastructure Commission sets out very good arguments for increasing resilience further. As the Environment Agency develops its national framework, we expect to test what is needed and what it would cost to increase to prepare from a one in 200-year drought to a one in 500. The current draft national policy statement alludes to this but, assimilating what your Lordships’ and others will say, the final draft can make this particularly clear. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, intervened on the contributions of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh about mandatory metering.
Where the Environment Agency has designated a water company as “water stressed” it can consider mandatory metering if appropriate. We will be consulting in coming weeks on further changes. It is very interesting to see the statistics from water companies on proposals for leakages and on metering numbers. We need to look at the evidence: the evidence for metering is self-evident if we are all to reduce our water consumption, but we also need to be mindful in that arena that some vulnerable parts of the community probably need a disproportionate amount of water compared to others.