Clause 96 - Provision of public sewers

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:22 am on 21 October 2003.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Labour, Knowsley South

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 10—Appeals: disputes over duty to provide sewers—

'(1) Section 101A of the WIA (further duty to provide sewers) is amended as follows.

(2) In subsections (7) to (10), wherever the words ''Environment Agency'' appear, there is substituted ''Secretary of State''.'.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:30, 21 October 2003

New clause 19 would change ''Environment Agency'' to ''Secretary of State'', in respect of the further duty to provide sewers. Sewers are one of the most contentious subjects when things go wrong, as anyone who has had constituency or personal experience of such problems is well aware. It

is a most aggrieving, unpleasant and awkward situation. We propose that the powers be given back to the Secretary of State where they belong, rather than being with the Environment Agency. I hope that the Minister will agree with the proposal and although we cannot vote on it now, I shall be grateful for his constructive comments on the measure.

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

I understand the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument on this important issue.

In section 101A of the Water Industry Act 1991, sewerage undertakers have a duty to provide first-time mains drainage in an area where non-mains sewerage arrangements, such as cesspits and septic tanks, are causing an environmental or amenity problem. They must provide a public sewer if certain eligibility conditions, similar to those in statute and in guidance, are met. The hon. Gentleman's amendment would not change that, apart from the power being with the Secretary of State rather than the Environment Agency. It does not alter the fact that it is not an obligation; criteria still have to be met.

If the sewerage undertaker disputes whether the conditions have been met and refuses to provide a public sewer, the applicants can appeal to the Environment Agency and that is what the hon. Gentleman's proposal would change. There is an argument about whether the Environment Agency is the most appropriate body to consider any section 101A disputes or whether the Secretary of State should do so.

In a dispute of that kind, the Environment Agency has the expertise to deal with such matters as it has knowledge of the areas where the proposed sewers are requested. I am not sure that it is practical for the Secretary of State to consider such appeals, because there is all sorts of legislation that states that the Secretary of State should consider appeals on lots of different things. That power is with the Secretary of State, who, in practice, generally refers the appeal to a specialist body and in this case, the Environment Agency is the most appropriate.

There are guidelines that fix the conditions for appeal, so there is no additional policy element that requires the Secretary of State's overview. I appreciate that considering disputes can sometimes take time, especially when the decision is then challenged by sewerage undertakers through a judicial review, which they have the right to do. Given that it is a job for an external, specialist agency, I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that it should be the Environment Agency.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. I agree that the Environment Agency would be the agency or specialist to which the Secretary of State would delegate the power to take the decision. That is how things should proceed and we debated it in earlier parts of the Bill. The new clause aims to provide a short cut so that the Environment Agency automatically acts on behalf of the Secretary of State. Instead of its being an automatic action on behalf of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of State is not mentioned at all in the clause as it stands.

A person who finds that his house is polluting and causing damage to the environment and is told that it

must be connected to the sewer may not wish that to happen. He will appeal to the Environment Agency, whose mandate is to put the environment above all else and so he will lose. He will receive a large bill and will complain to his MP and ask him to appeal to the Secretary of State. Normally that is what would happen. The Government are being a little sharp in seeking to cut these corners. That is what my amendment seeks to rectify.

The reality is exactly as the Minister describes. The Environment Agency will recommend to the Secretary of State that the sewer be connected. The net result will be the same. It is the process that is important. The Minister will recognise from his many years of experience that people expect the process to take all the customary steps. While I recognise what is going on in the Bill, my new clause seeks to do the opposite of streamlining the process. People who are in this position, either as a polluter or as someone who wishes to be connected to a sewer because of environmental damage that might be taking place against his wishes, should be able to appeal to the Secretary of State. That is all that the new clause seeks to ensure.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

I shall be brief. I seek clarification. I do not want to pre-empt the debate on the new clauses. Some of us think that sewerage, notwithstanding my hon. Friend's commitment to bring forward changes in this area, is an important aspect of the Bill. This is a good time to deal with some of the issues. I hear what the hon. Member for Leominster says and I am sure that the Minister will respond about the appropriate way to look at not just who is involved in discussions but the degree of accountability.

My hon. Friend knows that I am a great proponent of alternative solutions to the normal approach of putting in a sewer, come what may. I would be keen to know what the process could and should be under the Bill if there is no agreement on the best way to dispose of the waste products. Clearly there is a presumption that putting in a sewer is the ideal solution. Increasingly people, including water companies, are concluding that that is not necessarily the best method. There are soft technology solutions, including reed beds, that should be considered. I should like an assurance that, if the office of the Secretary of State is not involved, the Environment Agency will be open minded to these other solutions and will talk to the water companies, the builders, the developers and the householders about what could be a better and, dare I say it, more affordable series of solutions.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

I am concerned that the Bill will miss a golden opportunity in respect of the connection of sewers to new properties. The Minister's comments confused me about what is happening. Let me take a practical example. There are many villages in my constituency where one new house can have a dramatic impact on sewerage. The sewers were designed 100 years ago and are carrying more and more sewage. The planning authority cannot say no to a development on grounds of lack of sewerage and the water company, as the sewerage company, is not a

statutory consultee who can also say no to the new development.

One example of what happens is in Hanging Langford in Wiltshire, where every winter the springs rise and the sewers are flooded. As more houses get built, the water company has no option but to relieve the pressure on the local village sewage works by letting it flow into the river, which is a candidate special area of conservation river. The Environment Agency wrings its hands and says that damage could be done, but as there is no other option, it issues an exceptional licence for discharge. That happens year after year, even though the water company does not want to do it. The company has applied to Ofwat for a capital programme to upgrade the sewers but has been told that it cannot because Ofwat thinks that the consumers will have to pay too much for it.

Every year the environment is damaged in a river that is important to not just the UK, but Europe. We go round in circles, and I would put money on the fact that we will see sewerage problems in that village and many others again this winter. If the Secretary of State is saying that he is happy for the Environment Agency to be the judge, nothing will change. The pollution of the river will continue, as Ofwat will not allow the water company to do the work to the sewerage that allows it to cope with the problem. More houses will continue to be built, and the problem will get worse. Unless I have missed something, we are missing an opportunity.

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

The latter point raised by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), for which I have some sympathy, is not covered in this clause. Clause 96 is about simply replacing cesspits with sewers, not planning or new developments. I would not claim to be an expert on planning law, but I know that in my authority an application was turned down because the drains were inadequate. I should have thought that the sewerage was a planning issue for his local authority to take into account, although I do not know the ins and outs of the particular issue. However, it is not covered by clause 96.

Planning guidance urges authorities to work closely and at an early stage with water undertakers so that new water supply and disposal infrastructure is timed to coincide with the development. The logic of that is that if that work is not so timed, planning permission should not be given. The hon. Gentleman might want to pursue that issue with his local planning authority.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I am conscious of straying from the clause, but the Minister should understand that although such planning may be easier for brand spanking new developments, for which everything can be planned properly, it is far more difficult to deal with matters during incremental growth on the existing system.

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

I understand that. However, if the application is new, the facility of the existing infrastructure is a consideration. There might be a problem where outlying planning permission has existed for a while, as that restricts planning authorities, but we are beginning to stray from the

clause. Although the point is important, it does not relate to what we are dealing with.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) asked whether other options could be considered rather than expensive mains sewerage. The answer is yes—there is a range of new technologies. There have been interesting developments in relation to sewage treatment, and he mentioned reed bed technology as one. Legislation sets out that the undertaker must take account of all relevant considerations, which is interpreted as including new technologies. That might be a more realistic option than expensive engineering, the cost of which has to be picked up by the local authority or, sometimes, by a household.

The hon. Member for Leominster asked whether the Secretary of State or Environment Agency should be the judge. There are various points to make, and I hope to persuade him that his proposal is not the best way forward. An appeals process will be delayed if the case goes first to the Secretary of State. He or she will have to deal with it in relation to the administration within the Department and then put it out to an external agency, which would do the actual work. If that is the Environment Agency, that would achieve nothing except add another level of bureaucracy. That would delay the process, which would not be in the interests of the people concerned.

An appeal to the Secretary of State would suggest further policy consideration; that is the whole point of an appeal. In fact, under what has been suggested, the Secretary of State would set the policy framework and the agency would work within it. That is how things would work, so there would not be much point in going to the Secretary of State.

With regard to hearing the appeal, the Environment Agency would work in accordance with the guidelines set by the Secretary of State. That is the current situation. The Secretary of State has an involvement in setting the guidelines that the agency must follow in the appeals process. That means that if people have issues about the process, they can raise them through Parliament. If there is a case for change, the Secretary of State can alter the guidelines and the framework set for the agency. The hon. Member for Leominster wants some accountability with regard to the Secretary of State; it exists, and it can be called upon. I understand the case that he has made, but his suggestion would add an unnecessary level of bureaucracy and would slow down this entire process.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:45, 21 October 2003

I take on board the point about the extra layer of bureaucracy but, in reality, the letter that the Secretary of State receives would simply be passed on to the Environment Agency, which is not an insurmountable layer. If people disagreed with the Environment Agency's decision, they would appeal to the Secretary of State in any case. We are missing a trick by not allowing that to be clearly stated in the Bill. My main fear is that we are empowering an unelected agency.

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

The appeal would not go to the Secretary of State, even under the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. If people were unhappy with the

Environment Agency review, the next step would be a judicial review.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for that comment, but it flies in the face of the argument about adding another layer of bureaucracy.

I am deeply unhappy that the Environment Agency is being empowered in this way. I suspect that this will have to be addressed again at a later stage. The Minister should take on board our fears about empowering agencies. However, at this stage, I am grateful for what he has said, although it does not give me as much comfort as I would have liked.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 96 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 97 ordered to stand part of the Bill.