Clause 5 - Existing impounding works

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 16th September 2003.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 11:00 am, 16th September 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 5, in

clause 5, page 4, line 22, at end insert

'unless the impounding works are contained in an area less than 50m x 20m x 3m'.

I suspect that this also has to do with whether clause 5 stands part of the Bill. This is not a wrecking amendment. In the previous debate I intimated that I wanted the Minister to clarify the Bill's implications for the smaller user, impounder or pond builder and to recognise the significant differences between somebody who digs a hole in a field and watches it fill up with water during the winter and somebody who actively seeks to store water to spray on their crops during the summer. Nobody should have more red tape thrust on them. I am, however, worried that the Bill seeks to do that. On reading earlier legislation, I could not see enormous differences, so I should be grateful if the Minister could shed some light on the purpose of this change to section 25 of the Water Resources Act 1991. We shall need illumination when the details come out.

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean

The amendment gives measurements of 50 m by 20 m by 3 m. As we are talking about clarity, may I ask the hon. Gentleman to clarify whether that is the size of his swimming pool?

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I like the easy ones. I have no swimming pool, and I do not think that I could afford one that size. I sought to draft an amendment that would refer to something the size of a swimming pool because we should be talking about significant amounts of water that will have some environmental impact. We require clarity on that.

If the hon. Lady were to build a swimming pool, I should be grateful if she would let me swim in it.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

The hon. Gentleman said that he wanted the amendment to refer to a body of water the size of a swimming pool. Did he deliberately choose the size of an Olympic pool—because that is what his amendment describes?

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

Order. We are not going to enter into the question of the provision or size of the swimming pool.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am distraught by that, Mr. O'Brien, because my constituents in Leominster are trying to build a swimming pool to replace the one that has just been closed.

It is important that we find out exactly what dimensions the Minister requires, and I look forward to hearing his illuminating response.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I repeat the point that I made earlier: even a small impounding can have detrimental consequences downstream, so I cannot support a threshold for exemption. Any small works could have an impact and must be considered carefully, so those involved must apply to the Environment Agency for advice about the necessary licence.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 11:15 am, 16th September 2003

Is the Minister talking about the damming of a stream rather than the construction of a reservoir that fills only in the winter?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Yes, because impounding takes place where there is water flow. If a person digs a hole, that is somewhat different, unless they are affecting the water table.

People might want to impound for ornamental purposes, and the Bill does not prevent them from doing so, but they must apply for a licence. We need to consider the potential effects on the ecology of even very small streams, which must be protected. The measure would not generally apply to swimming pools, which come under separate planning controls; in some cases, water authorities insist on compulsory metering for swimming pools. There are cases of swimming pools that are designed by impounding to have a flow through them. I saw a design for a swimming pond that cost £20,000—one could buy a house in certain parts of the country for that kind of money, so I am not so sure that that is a good use of resources.

Clause 5 provides the agency with a new power to serve notice to require that an impounding licence be obtained. Such licensing is generally for impounding works that never had a licence, because they happened before the current legislation took effect, but may now be causing a problem. Failure to comply with such a notice will be an offence. Clause 6 provides the agency with the power to serve a works notice.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

Can the Minister tell us how much one of those licences will cost?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Not just at the moment, but I am sure that I can provide that information for the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

An obscure example has sprung to mind. Will the few people who live in castles with moats need a licence? We need to consider all the

implications for ancient monuments. Am I right in saying that anyone who has impounded any sort of water in the past will now have to buy a licence without knowing what the price will be?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The licence will cost about £100. As far as ancient monuments are concerned, I draw to the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that some ancient earthworks that impound water for defence purposes come under the Reservoirs Act 1975. We have to ensure that earthworks are maintained because of the risks that they pose to people. In some cases, regulations on impounding are needed.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am slightly bemused by this exchange. The implication of my amendment was that anything smaller than an Olympic-sized swimming pool should be exempt. I accept the Minister's argument that if one dams a stream, there are consequences downstream. However, there is a difference between people who save water, say for farmland use, and those who do damage by damming streams. We have all been to the countryside and seen people who have dammed streams while children have been playing—

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The Minister is right. They have not dammed streams with the intention of causing long-term environmental damage.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

Would not a more topical and appropriate example than castle moats be the American fashion of impounding water for golf courses? That has caused a lot of damage and created ponds and pools smaller than Olympic-sized swimming pools. The amendment would allow that to continue.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful for that intervention. We are considering how the clause will make a difference. If the hon. Gentleman is right to say that golf courses are causing damage, I do not have a problem with his point. However, I have had difficulty in getting a feeling for size. My probing amendment was designed to tease out from the Minister the volume of water that we are talking about.

Several hon. Members rose—

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Lots of hon. Members want to intervene. I shall start with my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury.Mr. Key: Does my hon. Friend know whether slurry pits on farms will need a licence? If not, perhaps he could ask the Minister.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I can assure the hon. Member for Salisbury that slurry pits will not require a licence under the Bill.

I also wanted to give some clarification on the powers to require a licence for impounding. The agency will not necessarily seek a licence for every impounding works. The power will be discretionary, and it is intended to deal only with problem sites. The agency will not require applications for all unlicensed works, as no benefit would be had from that; it will do so only where there is a problem.

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Labour, Birmingham, Erdington

Is not the hon. Gentleman missing a trick as regards the golf course element? He has been such a valiant spokesman for ordinary people with swimming pools and those who live in castles with moats, but what about ordinary people with golf courses?

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

That is amusing, but it is a great shame that the hon. Gentleman said that, because all the factors that I mentioned are important in the abstraction and retention of water. I was probing the Government for the answers that, funnily enough, I have just had from the Minister. I suspect that more people play golf than swim—

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It is certainly true in my constituency, because the swimming pool has just shut.

Photo of Mr Andy King Mr Andy King Labour, Rugby and Kenilworth

You should have used it more often.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It was shut for health and safety reasons.

The important thing is that we are, at least, teasing out what the Government mean. Whether we are talking about a golf course or any other scenario, what we seek from the Government is the assurance that people who are not causing environmental damage but are storing water will not be penalised, and that people who are storing water, for whatever reason, are doing so in such a small way that their actions are highly unlikely to have an environmental impact. I have had an assurance from the Minister that the Environment Agency will show discretion and that it will not require licences from such people.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

Can the hon. Gentleman enlighten me on whether, if the Environment Agency invites a person to apply for a licence and that person chooses to appeal, he or she is entitled to continue impounding while the appeal is heard? It would be useful to get that on record.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

That is an extremely useful request. My understanding of the Bill is that the clause applies to existing, not potential, impounding works, so I think that the person must have already done some impounding to have caught the agency's attention. However, I am happy to stand corrected by the Minister if that is not the case.

Mr. Morley indicated assent.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

In that case, I think that we have exhausted all the questions apart from that of the hon. Member for Lewes, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.