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Water Undertakings Bill Lords

Volume 393: debated on Thursday 28 October 1943

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Order for Second Reading read.

On a point of Order. Am I in Order in asking what the Government intend to do about this next Business, which is highly contentious? There is a good deal of feeling in the House of Commons with regard to it.

There is no intention to make contentious progress with this Water Bill, which seems to excite so much heat; but my right hon. Friend would like to make his Second Reading speech, opening the matter to the House. It may be that that will calm rather than excite passion and facilitate the future progress of the Bill. I suggest that we get on with that, without prejudice to any future discussion.

I will readily accept what the right hon. Gentleman says but I am sure there will be hot water.

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

We must try to do what we can to provide the necessary oil. I can assure the House that I do not think that we shall find the Bill as contentious as some Members appear to think. I would rather describe it as a purely useful Bill, though I have observed in my time in the House, and I expect other hon. Members will share my memory, that it is sometimes one of the hardest things in Parliamentary life to get a useful Bill through. I would describe this as a utility Bill without any turn-ups at all, a useful Bill, not a major Bill in terms of policy but important in regard both to the consolidation and modernisation of water law. It is important also, because however varied views may be in the House about the future development of our water resources, I think this Bill can be nothing but useful because it will clear the ground. It will consolidate the law, which has not been altered since 1863, and will make the law clear.

This Bill, as I will point out a little later, is the result of long and arduous labours. Let me make quite clear that it has nothing to do with any alteration of major policy and it does nothing to interfere with any view about major post-war policy that will arise. I do not doubt we shall have in the new Session, or later, big Debates on other reports of the Central Advisory Water Committee, presided over with such ability by Field Marshal Lord Milne. I have no doubt there will be many views about that. These things are not for us to discuss to-day, except in general terms, because of course the First and Third Reports of the Committee are before the Government and the Government now has them under consideration.

I would say that the aim of this useful Bill is to consolidate in one Act the general law regulating the supply of water by statutory water undertakers in England and Wales. It is to add the most suitable of the common form provisions usually included in modern local Acts as a result of our experience and it is, as I said at the beginning, to provide a consolidated and modernised water works law which would apply generally, as far as this is possible, to statutory water undertakings. Perhaps I had better tell the House, to put it on record, how many water undertakings there are now. The total number at the moment is—local authority undertakings, including joint boards, over 850; statutory companies to the number of 150; and non-statutory companies to the number of 80; the total being about 1,100. Local authorities supply about 80 per cent. of the population served.

There has been no general revision of the law regulating the supply of water by local act water undertakings since 1863 and there has been no comprehensive revision since the Water Undertakings Clauses Act of 1847. This Bill is based on the work of the Government's Central Advisory Water Committee, generally known as the Milne Committee. The Committee was, I may remind the House, appointed in 1937 by the late Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Kingsley Wood, after consultation with other Ministers, to advise Government Departments, not merely mine, on water policy. For the purposes of this work of consolidation the House may be interested to know there were added to the Committee Sir Frederick Liddell and Mr. G. R. Hill, who have very special skill in all these matters.

The Milne Committee pointed out in their report that the conditions affecting public water supplies have changed greatly since the Acts of 1847 and 1863 and that their scope is quite inadequate to present-day conditions. Of course, this is within the experience of Members of the House. Those who have taken part in the old days in long-drawn-out Committee work upstairs will know that we have had to overcome the drawbacks arising from these inadequate powers to some extent by Parliament's conferring special powers in local Acts to enable water undertakings to deal with conditions not covered by the general Acts. The time has, however, clearly come when general legislation, designed on the basis of the past intervening years and based on both the general and the local Acts, ought to be carried in order to secure the uniformity and continuity of practice which is desirable, and I think most Members would consider essential, for such an important service as public water supply. Indeed looking over the field I should say that the Bill is very long overdue. I claim that it does for water legislation what was done for public health legislation in the Public Health Act, 1936, and for local government in the Local Government Act, 1933.

The present Bill, the provisions of which I will deal with in a few moments, was introduced first in another place in 1939. It was then exhaustively considered by a Joint Select Committee of the two Houses in sessions extending over six days. Lord Onslow was the chairman and there were six other members from another place and seven from this House. Two of them I regret to say have since died, the late Sir Francis Fremantle and the late Mr. John Rathbone. The other Members are with us and will be able to add their knowledge of the technical work done by that Committee in the course of the future stages of the Bill. The Bill was passed by the Lords and then the war held it up. Now I am bringing it forward in the hope that the House, when the air has been cleared and we have explained what it really means, will speed it on its way. The Bill as reintroduced in Parliament this year is the same Bill, subject to some minor amendments of a drafting character made when it appeared the second time, and it comes to this House with a small number of further Amendments made in another place.

The Milne Committee expressed the view, which Members will find on page 3, para. 7 of their First Report, that
"We consider that legislation to carry out the recommendations contained in the Underground Water and Planning Reports should not be promoted prior to the passing of a Consolidation Bill."
It is quite clear that the Committee thought this consolidation useful, and indeed essential, work. I hope that the House will agree that this is the way we ought to proceed in dealing with reconstruction in the matter of water supplies. We must also consider sewerage when we come to matters of policy. That was the Committee's view, and the Government share that view. From that angle, the Bill is to be regarded as a necessary tidying-up process. The Government hope in due course to bring forward more far-reaching proposals; and in framing those proposals, they will have before them, among other things, the important recommendations made by Lord Milne's Committee in their First Report, for comprehensive legislation covering such matters as central control of exploitation of limited underground water resources; securing, where necessary for efficiency, groupings and amalgamations of undertakings; and dealing also with such matters as better arrangement, better conservation and protection of our water resources, and more efficient and economical distribution of supplies, both for industry and agriculture as well as for the domestic consumer.

There are, of course, those who advocate much more sweeping changes. The time to discuss them, I suggest, will be when we bring forward a Bill to deal with major policy, after the Government have considered the Milne Reports and come to their own conclusion. I should say, however, that the Government are mindful of the desirability, on general grounds of health and amenity, of some further extensions after the war of piped supplies of water in rural areas and of consequential sewerage facilities. They will consider sympathetically, at the appropriate stage, whether it is possible to ease the financial burden of the capital cost of schemes for sizeable groups of houses. In 1934 and the following years water supply schemes in rural areas were carried out in just under 2,000 parishes with help from the Exchequer; and this help produced schemes to the total value of about £7,000,000. I mention that now to show that it is not outwith the Government's mind, as they say in Scotland, to show that there is no ground for supposing that this useful Bill—which, viewed against the background of major policy, is little, but important—is regarded by the Government as being by any means all that is wanted, or as anything more than the first measure for clearing the ground for a full water policy. The House will see that this Bill does not prejudice the shape of things to come or tie the Government or the House in any way as regards any future Bill for securing better planning, better conservation, and better protection of water resources and supplies.

I have said that we have the Reports under the closest consideration, and I cannot imagine any replanned or reconstructed future in this country without better water supplies in the rural areas, and without facing the major issues which are brought up in the Milne Reports.

Some of us have urged that ever since we came into the House, many years ago.

I hope that my hon. Friend will help me as far as he can. The present Bill is divided into a main part, consisting of 26 Clauses of general application, and three Schedules. It includes an important simplification of the procedure of the Gas and Waterworks Facilities Act, 1870, and of the Public Health Act in that provided—and this is important—that there is no opposition by interested local authorities or other persons affected, powers for the carrying on of water undertakings will in future he obtainable by Order of the Minister of Health. The existing procedure, dating from 1870, by which all Orders are provisional, even where there is no opposition, is out of date and unnecessarily expensive and rigid; and the proposed simplification will benefit both the consumers and the undertakers, and save an immense amount of Parliamentary time, as well as other time. Clause 1 makes very full provision for publicity in the "London Gazette" and in local newspapers, so that anyone wishing to raise objection can have an opportunity of putting his or her case fully at a local inquiry, before any Order is made. Where opposition has been expressed and it is not withdrawn, the Orders will be provisional as before, and will require definite confirmation by Parliament. The proposed simplification in procedure does not extend to the major powers of the compulsory acquisition of land or water rights. They are expressly excluded from these arrangements, under Clause I; so it will still be necessary for water undertakers to promote their own Bills for these purposes.

The main part of the Bill also reproduces, with some minor alterations, the Supply of Water in Bulk Act, 1934, and the Water Companies Act, 1887, and gives us a simple procedure, based on provisions frequently allowed in modern local Acts, for the revision of water rates and charges. I am sure the House will regard this as a very valuable addition to our law. Provision is included for the protection of public water supplies from the risk of pollution, and powers which will facilitate the supply of water to rural areas. The First and main Schedule contains 107 Clauses. They include the replacement of the Act of 1847 and the Act of 1863, and, in addition, new Clauses based on the most suitable of the provisions extending those Acts which are commonly included in modern Acts. It is proposed in Part X of the Schedule that the existing right of the consumer to break up the street for the purpose of laying a communication pipe between his premises and the water main should be transferred to the water undertakers, and then there should also be transferred to the undertakers not only the right but the cost of maintaining and renewing the communication pipe. Members with whom I have been in correspondence about that, will be glad to see that point in the Bill. Clause 21 provides for the incorporation of the First Schedule with every future water Act or Order after next Session; but, in order to meet special local circumstances, provision is made for any necessary exceptions and modifications. Further, the Schedule may be applied by the Minister, first, at any time on the application of the undertakers; second, on his own motion after the expiry of five years from the end of the "emergency." In the original Bill of 1939 this five years began to run from the passing of the Act, instead of the end of the war, but the Bill has now been amended in another place to make reasonable allowance for war disturbances.

One particular matter which I should like to deal with is that of public access to moorland and open country. A good deal of public interest has been aroused in this subject. Fear has been expressed that this Bill interferes in some new way with the rights of rambling clubs and other members of the public to get healthy exercise and recreation. Attention has been drawn, quite naturally, to what are known as the Birmingham Clauses, under which the public have statutory rights of access to a large part of the water gathering grounds, of, for example, the Birmingham and Manchester Corporations. I can assure the House that I yield to no man in my belief in the value of rambling and other forms of outdoor exercise—and not in speech only. There is no question whatever of making use of any of the powers in this Bill to exclude the public from walking over land where they can do so without detriment to water supplies. The fear of wholesale exclusions is entirely unfounded, and I am not asking for any new powers in this regard in this Bill. We have had most friendly discussions with those who speak for what I may call the rambling and amenity interests and I can assure the House that there is no difference whatever between us in principle. They, for their part, are as much alive as I am to the importance of avoiding the risk of water-borne disease, notably the scourge of typhoid, and I for my part am, as I have said, a wholehearted supporter of fresh air and exercise. Bound up with this question is a somewhat technical question relating to the extinction of commoners' rights. This is the subject of an Amendment already on the Paper and perhaps I may clear the air by saying that at the appropriate moment I intend to advise the House to accept that Amendment, together with another one bearing on the more general issue of the Birmingham Clauses to which I referred just now. I hope that that will allay some of the fears and when the Committee stage comes the House can probe it to the full.

It is clear that Amendments of an extensive and far-reaching character, while not technically outside the scope of the Bill, are obviously more appropriate to the subsequent Measure to which I have referred, dealing with questions of policy. Failure to secure—or to propose—Amendments of that nature in this Bill, which is primarily a consolidation and minor Amendment Bill, would not prejudice consideration of them when the Government's full proposals are made known.

I see a Motion on the Order Paper in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon) and others and I would like to say a word about that in conclusion. The Motion begins by referring to the national importance of water supply and with that I am in most cordial agreement. It is one of the glories of this country that, thanks mainly to early and unremitting attention to our public water supply, we can proudly say that in freedom from typhoid and allied water-borne diseases we are ahead of every other country in the world. There is none that can equal us. But the Motion goes on to suggest that this present Bill, which is a preparatory and primarily a consolidation Bill, ought to be rejected because it perpetuates the existing multiplicity of undertakings and thus, the Motion asserts, prejudices the efficient organisation of water supply. I hope it is clear from what I have said that that is a misapprehension based on a complete misunderstanding of what the Bill in fact does. It consolidates and codifies the present law and simplifies procedure. Hon. Members may ask that the number of undertakings shall be reduced and I have considerable sympathy with the view that much could be achieved by a reduction of the number of undertakings. What can be a more useful preparatory piece of work than a Bill like this? A Bill which endeavours to put on as uniform a basis as practicable the relations between undertakings and consumers, the rights of the consumer against the undertaker and the rights of the undertaker against the consumer, and the relations between the undertakers and the multifarious other interests with whom they have to deal, such as highway authorities. I have almost completed my speech and so I think I had better sit down.

Ordered, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—[ Major Sir James Edmondson.]

Debate to be resumed upon the next Sitting Day.