Clause 3 - Licences to abstract water

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 16 September 2003.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:30, 16 September 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 3, in

clause 3, page 2, line 29, at beginning insert—

'( ) Each licence to abstract water shall be issued in response to an application for planning permission.

( ) The Environment Agency shall be consulted as part of the planning decision.'.

Unlike my colleagues, Mr. Amess, I have not welcomed you to the Chair, and I should like to do that straight away. The amendment addresses the relationship between water abstraction and planning. I am no expert on legal drafting, planning or water abstraction. However, I want to ensure that any business that wishes to abstract—when I wrote the amendment I had in mind quarries and mineral water companies—has to take just one course of action in order to develop. At present, it would have to have an abstraction licence that was a separate entity to the planning application that would need to be granted in the case of quarrying abstract sand, gravel, rock or any type of stone.

It is rarely possible to quarry without abstracting water. That is why the amendment would draw together the planning application and the abstraction licence application. It would ensure that for environmental reasons the Environment Agency is part of the consultation when the planning application is under review.

I hope that that is clear. It is not a complicated concept but it is important, because if planning applications are separate from abstraction licences, the abstraction licence may have a shorter life than the planning application, in which case businesses that have permission to extract rock, for example, may not be allowed to do so in the long term. It would be short-sighted of any measure to allow such a delay; if it is environmentally safe to abstract water, the business should be able to go ahead, provided that it has planning permission. Would not it be so much better if it were all part of the same process? Would not it be better to streamline the legislative burden so that businesses could compete on a level playing field with those abroad? We recognise that there would be a benefit, especially for quarries, if their abstraction licence was coterminous with their planning permission.

There is little point in issuing planning permission without an abstraction licence, because when that expires so, effectively, will the planning permission. Businesses should not be hamstrung by separating the two.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater

I support my hon. Friend's argument. He used the example of quarries, and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) mentioned canals and other sources of water extraction, and I shall refer to them and to farms. We must consider three things in respect of the proposal: first, who will take the final decision? Counties and districts consider planning applications, and in a dispute between a county and a district or a parish, the application may eventually go to appeal before the Minister, which may cause enormous problems, because such matters are time-sensitive. If they have to go through the planning mechanism, they take an enormous amount of time. Another point to be borne in mind is that the weather conditions in this country change rapidly.

Secondly, as subsections 1(a), (b) and (c) of new section 24A of the Water Resources Act 1991 refer to a period of 28 days or longer, are there any provisions for a system of roll-over licences? For example, a quarry may want to remove a tonnage of stone but something goes wrong and it will take longer to extract the material. Can the planning application be rolled over, rather than people having to re-apply and go through the whole process again?

Thirdly, boring for water is one of the most inexact sciences I have ever come across. You bore a hole and it does not quite work, so you bore another hole and keep on. [Interruption.] The Minister kindly refers to divining, which I have tried but not mastered. The scientific world is probably better at divining than anything else. Boring for water, which is frequently undertaken in this country, may cause problems for the Minister, because water moves around rapidly. I completely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster that the planning system must be flexible enough to take that into consideration, and this proposal is not flexible enough to do so. The Minister may like to think about that.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

I genuinely want to hear from the Minister what the Government propose to do about this problem. Things have moved on over the years, but the Bill makes no mention of the relationship between sustainable water supplies, sewerage and planning issues, such as housing developments in industrial use. Nor is there any reference to water in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, which is currently before the House. The situation seems to be completely unsustainable, and must be remedied.

It is nonsense that a planning authority can consult a water company, but that the company is not a statutory consultee. In any event, the water company is obliged under statute to supply whatever it is asked to supply. It cannot refuse to supply a certain housing development or support an industrial development. It cannot refuse to supply water, or to take effluent, treat it and return it to the rivers.

We must address the problem of the interface with planning if we are to be serious about issues such as the water framework directive. I hope that the Minister will be able to convince me. This issue is of great practical significance. Water companies in my part of the world have real problems with sewage flooding in winter, because the land is primarily chalk-based. We have the problem of winter bournes and the water table rising substantially most winters. Indeed, it used to rise absolutely predictably and regularly until we started abstracting a lot. We will store up enormous problems for ourselves if we cannot solve this problem for the planning authorities. The implementation of catchment management schemes will also make nonsense of the water framework directive. We need answers from the Government now.

I wholly support my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster in raising this extremely important issue.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Liberal Democrat, Guildford

I join others in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Amess. Given your substantial

environmental interests, we look forward to your wisdom in dealing with us through our deliberations.

I have no current declarable interest. I do, however, declare a minor interest as a former water company employee, and I will be a pensioner of that water company in the future. The amendment is interesting. We awaited the explanation for it, because it appeared merely to introduce more bureaucracy.

These are difficult times for water—there are the problems of climate change—and I appreciate that the constituency of the hon. Member for Leominster may have had more rainfall this summer than did other parts of the country. Maps produced by the Environment Agency, which are reproduced in the Library's research paper on the Water Bill, show that the precipitation is desperately low. Our main problem is where we will get our water from and how we plan for it, especially in areas of very high use—the Thames gateway development was referred to on Second Reading.

The Minister very usefully told us that we now have the Committee to worry about this problem. However, it remains to be seen whether the Committee will do the rain dances at the right moment, or whether it has other plans in place. We wait with anticipation and excitement to hear where the water will come from.

It was said on Second Reading that we would all be against the Thames gateway development for some peculiar and parochial reason of our own. There was no reason to make that statement. We do not necessarily oppose it. However, we recognise that that development, more than any other, encapsulates the major problem of water shortages, water planning and announcements made about housing and other developments while there is no clear idea of where the water will come from. The amendment is therefore useful.

Thames gateway has the highest consumption of water per capita. We are using more water not only, as some like to say, because it is leaking, although there are problems to do with that, but because as individuals we water our gardens and like to take a shower when the weather is hot, as it has been in the past few months. We wash our clothes much more often and put things in the dishwasher. We are cleaner than we used to be, and that is not a bad thing, but it increases demand.

The points that the hon. Member for Salisbury made about winter bourns are true. There are a number of winter bournes in the Thames basin system, but they have been depleted, and species such as the water vole have been lost because they have not been replenished in the winter owing to over-abstraction in the Thames area. There are problems there that are not unconnected with new developments.

We must recognise that when applications are made we must be satisfied that we know where the water is coming from. Because of those concerns, we shall support the Conservatives on the amendment.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:45, 16 September 2003

I hope that there is not too much boring for water in the Committee—we have a long way to go and are only at the beginning.

There is already guidance to planning authorities about applications to take into account water resources. Hon. Members are probably aware that the Environment Agency is a statutory consultee in planning applications. Water companies have a responsibility to undertake forward planning for potential resource demand, and they are also part of the planning process. It would therefore be wrong to think, as the hon. Member for Salisbury seems to, that there is no consideration of planning applications and the expectation that water companies will provide water and sewerage. The system does not work like that and we would not expect it to.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I thought that the position was exactly that, and that water companies could not resist applications in the way that they could before the Water Act 1989, when they could have a veto in certain circumstances. Now they cannot have a veto but are told that there is a statutory duty on them to connect and supply water. In a situation such as the one that we are facing in the south-east, where, according to Government policy, a huge number of houses are to be built and where water is least available, surely that is a recipe for disaster.

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

It would be if no consideration had been given to water resource management, but that is not the case. The hon. Gentleman is confusing two things. He is quite right to mention the statutory obligation on water companies to provide their services, but water resource issues and availability must be taken into account in the long-term planning. That is certainly true of, for example, the Thames gateway. The provision of water and sewerage is taken into account for that project, which is a major planning proposal and, I might add, Europe's biggest brownfield development.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

Yes, of course, the Minister is right: those matters are taken into account and the advice of the Environment Agency is no doubt listened to. However, it remains a fact that the company providing the water and sewerage cannot refuse to do so on planning grounds, and that is unsustainable. It is true, I am told, that the provision of water for those extra hundreds of thousands of houses will not be a problem. However, what will be the cost to the area from which the water will have to be supplied? What will be the impact on the upper Thames valley of abstracting the water in the lower Thames valley?

The Minister cannot have the argument both ways. He cannot say on one hand, ''Yes, we'll take it into account,'' but on the other, ''It's absolutely right that they can't say no.''

[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]

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

Again, the hon. Gentleman is confusing the requirements on the water companies and the longer-term strategic approach to water resource management and supply. The issues are important, and the impact of transferring water must

be taken into account, if that is required. The Bill imposes a requirement on water companies to produce long-term water resource plans—and, incidentally, drought plans, which are slightly different from, but allied to, water supply. Those issues have been included, so it would be wrong to think that they had been ignored in relation not only to projections of housing demand and growth—water supply must of course be taken into account—but to new build and new design opportunities for minimising water use in a sustainable way. We need to explore those opportunities.

The hon. Member for Leominster said that he does not think that the amendment is properly drafted or legally compliant—indeed, it is not. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to try to link two regulatory regimes—the planning regime for quarrying and the proposed abstraction licensing scheme. I understand his point because some quarries have very long-term planning permission under the different legislation on minerals. That is a potential problem because quarry dewatering can have a significant impact on water resources and the environment, which is why such matters have been brought within the scope of the Bill.

The Government intend to close the current exemption for dewatering and to bring it within the regulatory regime for managing water resources. The Environment Agency was established for, among other things, that very purpose. It has detailed duties, including the determination of abstraction licences and the conditions attached to them. The agency is clearly the proper authority for that role. It is already a consultee of the planning authority, so the part of the amendment that relates to that is not needed.

I expect the agency and planning authorities to co-operate in dealing with such issues. They should liaise—as they do—on the scope of environmental impact assessments and to ensure that they cover the needs of both regimes. However, the effects of quarrying on the water environment are, by their very nature, difficult to predict. Opposition Members have made the point that the water environment is sensitive to the effects of climate change. The time scale for reviews may necessarily be different given the horizon of planning permission. Reviews may be out of sync, which is why different approaches are necessary.

If the quarrying industry is committed to dealing positively with impacts on the environment, I can assure it that because it is not a consumer of water, it has nothing to fear from the introduction of the new regime, and we will have the opportunity to discuss that point in further detail as we go through the Bill. For new sites, we must ensure that there is sustainable development from the start. Time-limited licences, with an option for review on renewal, are the sustainable approach, which we are trying to take. If the initial duration of the licence affects investment, it can be dealt with as part of the application and determination process by the agency, or indeed by the Secretary of State on appeal, if it should be required.

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

The Minister has touched on the Achilles heel of the argument. Investment, particularly in quarrying, is normally based on at least a 25-year

amortisation. The Bill seeks to reduce that period to 12 years—the period for which a licence will definitely be granted without review—which would dramatically change the calculation of the required investment. That will have a fundamental effect on the price of stone, which will be passed on to users. As the majority of users are councils, that price rise will in turn increase council tax. I know that the Government are not particularly shy about council tax increases—it has increased dramatically in my constituency—but investors calculating their investments in quarries will have a significant problem.

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

There will be an opportunity to go into that matter in detail later on, but I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's argument. The Bill contains a presumption of renewal, and quarry operators will be able to work round the regulations. The Bill does not specify a particular period, and the Environment Agency will have discretion over the period to be applied. Of course, the measure does not extinguish licences currently held by quarries in perpetuity, but provides a power to withdraw them if there is environmental damage. I would expect that to be the exception rather than the norm, and, as one of a range of options, it will be the last resort. Quarries may well find that moving to time-limited licences is to their advantage, but we will discuss that later.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Labour, Sherwood

The Minister will accept that the Environment Agency is already very involved with the quarrying industry and is a statutory consultee on any planning application. But is not the real issue long-term investment? Surely it is necessary for the agency to discuss matters with the industry. There is no difference over principle; everyone is signed up to the principles, but an open and transparent process is needed so that the industry can continue to make long-term investment decisions.

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

My hon. Friend takes a sensible approach. A discussion of the issues facing quarry owners and the agency's concerns about sustainable management is in the interests of both parties. That opportunity is addressed here, but the amendment is technically flawed, so I hope that the hon. Member for Leominster will accept my explanation and seek to withdraw it.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Guildford for her speech, although I feel that the disappearance of water voles has more to do with the release of mink than with abstraction.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Liberal Democrat, Guildford

I would agree that some water voles have disappeared as a result of mink being released, but I lived in the Lambourn valley at the time and I can say that there were no mink dealing with those particular water voles.

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

We are all a little the wiser.

I wanted, through my amendment, to do precisely the opposite of what the Minister just suggested and link the regimes. The hon. Member for Sherwood suggested that it would be tremendous if the agency and the quarrying industry sat down together and worked things out. I think that they would be happy to

do that; it was a sensible and helpful suggestion. Unfortunately, they would then have to go and work things out with the planning authority. The trouble is that the net result would not necessarily be beneficial for either the quarriers or the end users—all of us every time we drive on a road—so we need to link the two systems.

The speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury was tremendously helpful and showed the depth of his wisdom and experience in such matters as linking housing to sewerage and water. I was extremely grateful for that and for his previous speech, for which I neglected to thank him at the time.

Initially I felt prepared to withdraw the amendment, but now I do not. I shall be very clear about the reason: we want to link planning to the Environment Agency. When I found out that it was already a statutory consultee, I thought, ''Perfect, I can withdraw my amendment on that basis''; but I cannot do so because the Minister's argument is very much against linking the regimes, while I am very much in favour of that. I accept all the Minister's criticism of the amendment's wording, but I am not prepared to withdraw it because I want to see the principle changed and environmental policing linked with planning, and that is the amendment's purpose.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 12.

Division number 2 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 3 - Licences to abstract water

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 12 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.