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Water Supplies, The Wrekin

Volume 643: debated on Tuesday 4 July 1961

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Sir H. Harrison.]

11.13 p.m.

We come now to the end of the day and we move for a few minutes from Scotland into Shropshire to deal not with flood prevention but with the supply of water to my constituency and the area around about. I always feel sorry for those who do not know the beauties of the Shropshire countryside, whether it be upon Wenlock Edge, on a bend in the River Severn, or in the valleys under the shadow of The Wrekin, or even on the old pit banks of Wrockwardine Wood where people are short of water now. Over those pit banks Sir Gordon Richards first started his riding.

It is also good that, at the end of the day, we should use the time to redress grievances. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is here. We have discussed this matter before, and I hope very much that he will give us a valuable reply tonight. If not, we shall have to take it up on another occasion. If ever there were a county which is abundant with water, it must be Shropshire. In the northern area there is Ellesmere and all the beautiful lakes where one can sail. In the old days, there was the great area of bog stretching from Newport nearly to the River Tern. It was under the orders of the Duke of Sutherland that the great engineer Telford reclaimed this land for farming, and, of course, it is some of the most valuable agricultural land in Shropshire today. Water—plenty of it. Take the old Tong Abbey. The duty of the Abbot was to see that the King was adequately supplied with carp, and they were sent to London, making sure that Shropshire fish were known in the City. Water—good gracious, from where does Wolverhampton Corporation draw its water? On the road between Shifnal and Albrighton one sees the Wolverhampton Corporation's water works, drawing off valuable Salop water to pour down the gullets of Wolfunians.

And then we come to the area with which we are dealing tonight. And here may I say how glad I am to see my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. More)—the neighbouring constituency—is here, because he has difficult problems in his own area, which is administered by the same board. One would hardly believe it: short of water in Oakengates. Let us take three pits in Shropshire—the old Stafford, the old Woodhouse, and the modern Granville. What is one of the major mining problems, both past and present? It is water; flooding from water. Yet on the Sunday before last I visited Union Street, Wrockwardine Wood, went up to Oakengates, went into a house and turned on the tap and—no water came out! So one reads in the local newspaper, the Wellington Journal and Shrewsbury News of 1st July, the heading
"Water crisis. Tell the Ministry, urges Dawley Committee."
I can tell the Minister right now that if he thinks he is building a new city of 60,000 people in that area he will have to have a good look at the water supply, and, in passing, he had better consult his friend to deal with the roads as well. One also reads:
"Go the Ministry",
urges Councillor Bullock of Dawley. I understand that the East Shropshire Water Board intends to visit the Ministry fairly soon.

However, from whatever angle one looks at the problem, one can hardly say that the beautiful county of Shropshire is short of water. The question is how the water is supplied to the houses, and under whose authority. The authority in Shropshire is now vested in the East Shropshire Water Board, and looking back to when I arrived in The Wrekin in 1955, I remember that I drove down Rushmore Lane and was surprised to see some people drawing water from a brook. This has been customary over the centuries. When the local water supply came to the area on the north side, however, everybody ran the waste into the old brook, and my constituents suffered. It is now completely unusable.

Further north lies the farming area of Great Bolas, and the Severn River Board, mindful of flooding in the area controlled by the Strine Drainage Board, decided to deepen the river Strine where it enters the Tern. Having done this, it meant that many in Crudgington Green had to dig their wells deeper; and the majority had to do this themselves.

By 1957 and 1958 I was getting perturbed about the supply of water to farms in this area. I complained of the slowness of the water board in submitting plans to the Minister of Housing and Local Government and suggested that perhaps they might push on a little. This was greeted with a furore in the local press by the water board. Although one does not mind being abused in public, speeches were made condemning the fact that I was even interested in helping my constituents to obtain a water supply which they so badly needed.

So sensitive was the water board that I thought it would be a good idea to put a Question on the Order Paper to discover how well the board had served the area. In March, 1959, therefore, I asked the Minister:
"… whether he has yet given approval for capital expenditure to improve the rural water supplies in the areas of Crudgington, Bolas and Waters Upton."
The reply was:
"No scheme for the improvement of water supplies in these areas has been submitted for my Right hon. Friend's approval."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th April, 1959; Vol. 603, c. 2.]
The water board, having been caught out, was absolutely furious. I therefore sent the board's comments to the Minister, who replied as follows in an undated letter of May, 1959:
"I have had the Ministry's records examined but I am rather surprised by the councillors' comments."
He was referring to the chairman and vice-chairman of the water board at that date.

I therefore asked to see the Parliamentary Secretary in his room at the House. He told me quite frankly that between 1956 and early 1959 the water board had submitted no plans to him for the improvement of water supplies in that area. It is a pretty sad state of affairs. Immediately I took this action and complained to the Minister the water board suddenly filled the local Press with the news of grand new schemes to cost £11,000 and £12,000. Eventually, I am glad to say, the water board carried out a scheme for £11,000 most successfully in the area of Waters Upton, Great Bolas and Crudgington.

The letters that I receive from the clerk to the water board usually end: "You can however rest assured that there will be no delay by the board." The board may rest but I am not very assured! Early last year I was not surprised when people in the area of Oakengates and Wrockwardine Wood started to write to me to explain that on Sunday mornings and at other times during the week there was no water supply available. Once again I made comments in the local Press on the lack of water in the area and once again my remarks were greeted by the chairman of the water board with such comments as:
"M.P.'s comments unfair and disturbing."
We are getting into a pretty sad state of Parliamentary procedure when a Member of Parliament interested in helping his constituents is called unfair for trying to call attention to the lack of water.

If one is not satisfied with these comments one has only to ask the people and they will say that it is fantastic that there are not proper water supplies in the area. I came across a case of scarlet fever for the first time in my constituency. I am not saying that it had anything particularly to do with the lack of water, but it so happened that the case was among houses where there was a lack of water.

Gradually the water board became alarmed and councillors began to make public statements. In the words of Councillor Wright:
"The East Shropshire Water Board have almost made their last move. According to a member of the water board no improvement can be expected for at least eighteen months."
Indeed, in one paper they said they were robbing Peter to pay Paul and playing draughts in a desperate move to get supplies.

I wonder what plans the water board put to the Minister between the years 1956 and 1958. I do not think it put any plans to the Minister at all, if I judge from his reply to me on 3rd July, 1961. I believe that the only scheme put forward to relieve the water supply in Oakengates and Wrockwardine Wood was submitted in 1959. So, rightly, the Town Clerk of Dawley complains that phasing of water supplies is completely lacking in the area. Does the Minister imagine that no houses have been built during this time? Of course, I calculate that about a thousand council houses and private houses have been built.

Every time one looks at the local paper one always finds that the chairman of the water board in the end turns round and blames the Minister, and so for some time now I have really been wondering whether it is in fact fair for the chairman and the planning authority of this Shropshire Water Board to blame the Minister. Let me make one thing quite clear.

My constituents are satisfied and really do admire the work of the paid officials of the East Shropshire Water Board and also to those of the engineers who work with them, but what they do ask is, who is responsible for water policy? Is it the water board itself, the officials and the members of the board? If so, they think that there has been dereliction of duty and there has been nothing short of crisis and a water scandal. It is no use the chairman of the board complaining that the Minister has not been helpful to him, because when I saw his predecessor in 1958 he said that no plans had been submitted to him and he was only too anxious to do as much as he possibly could to help the area.

Therefore, this evening I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us a great deal more of what is going to be done to relieve the situation. He may say many things, but I understand from officials of the water board that no improvement can be expected for at least eighteen months. They have said this themselves.

I think it is quite disgraceful that planning should have got into such a muddle. If in fact the chairman of the water board is to blame, then I think perhaps it really ought to be his duty, and that of those who are responsible for planning, to submit their resignation to the Minister.

11.28 p.m.

I am very grateful to have the opportunity to say a very few words regarding the Borough of Wenlock in my constituency which is having the same problem as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. W. Yates). The Borough of Wenlock includes the two communities of Madeley and Broseley on the considerable elevations on either side of the River Severn. I am informed that in Madeley there are frequently periods when there is a total absence of water due, apparently, to inefficient mains. In Broseley on the other side of the river. There are almost daily failures of the supply. That has been going on for the last four or five weeks every day. This has meant water closets unflushed, hands left dirty and eating and drinking utensils left unwashed for considerable periods, resulting, as one of the Broseley doctors has pointed out, in a dangerously insanitary situation for the whole community.

The East Shropshire Water Board recently received a petition from 562 people from Broseley. The root cause may be that many new houses have been built without adequate consultation and the chief sufferers are undoubtedly those in the higher sites. It has been suggested to me that a temporary remedy might be provided by metering resources of water in the lower sites. I understand that the Board has schemes in hand, particularly a booster scheme to help Broseley at a cost of some £8,000, for which, I understand, the Ministry has now given approval. I am not here to cast blame on either the Water Board or the Minister, but only to ask my hon. Friend if the Ministry can help, either with advice about local development, or in expediting any of the outstanding schemes.

11.31 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government
(Sir Keith Joseph)

My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. W. Yates) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) have brought out important points and I shall try in the short time left to answer them fully.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin, in what was a most lyrical and historically nostalgic speech, was a little sensitive about the reaction of the East Shropshire Water Board. I hope that I shall show the true position and unravel the various strands which contribute to the problems of which he spoke. I think that he will agree that, without distinguishing them, he introduced three separate problems.

The first is the continuing problem of supplying rural areas, particularly farms. This is a continuing effort on which all the water boards in the country are engaged, and it cannot be completed overnight with the best will in the world. The East Shropshire Water Board has piped water to 93 per cent. of the population in its district, which is a fair achievement, but I cannot promise that it will be made into 100 per cent. overnight.

My hon. Friend made great play with the lack of any schemes by the Water Board between 1956 and 1958. I have with me—I will not take up time giving them—the details of schemes which were submitted in 1955 and at the very end of 1958. My right hon. Friend is not aware of any failure by the East Shropshire Water Board to put forward schemes to serve the needs of its area during that period of time.

I have a letter from his predecessor to say that no schemes were submitted to him.

My hon. Friend chooses the period from 1956, but a tender for about £24,000 was submitted in 1955.

My hon. Friend rightly spoke of schemes for the Broseley area, and I can tell him that schemes have been approved by my right hon. Friend to the value of £25,000. Tenders have been invited and the work should be completed by the end of March next year.

The serious present position, to which my hon. Friend referred indirectly, is that about which I want to take most time. The short fact—and it is a sad fact—is that in his division housing and water have become seriously out of phase. That has upset the supply to some existing houses, particularly to about 50 houses in the higher levels of Wrockwardine Wood and Holyhead Road in Oakengates. Increased numbers at a new housing development at the Wombridge Common area at a lower level have affected pressure and upset supply to those higher houses, particularly at weekends when so many people are doing their washing.

The new development of the Worn-bridge Common area, which has interfered with the Oakengates supply, had not been expected by the water board, and it had no reason to expect that development. Housing has been allowed on a site which it had thought would not be used for housing. In mid-1959, planning permission was given for a substantial housing development in the Wombridge Common area and only at the very same time was the water board warned, by the members of the board who were also members of the Oaken-gates Urban District Council. This planning consent was 'translated into actual housing with unusual speed and house building has therefore outpaced the provision of adequate water supplies. The people who are suffering are those at the higher levels in the Oakengates area. How did this happen?

There is a system of cross-representation and mutual consultation between all the relevant bodies. Oakengates U.D.C. has three representatives on the East Shropshire Water Board, and it was they who told the water board in mid-1959 that planning permission had been given. My hon. Friend asks why had planning permission been given without due attention to water supply. Of course, the Oakengates U.D.C. was well aware of the difficulties, but it is not the planning authority. Shropshire is the planning authority. It has a very good practice of consulting the urban district councils in whose area housing is to be allowed. It acted properly and punctually in consulting the Oakengates U.D.C.

The Oakengates U.D.C. failed entirely to appreciate that water schemes take longer to plan and execute than the erection of houses. Oakengates is represented on the county council and on the water board, and it must have known of the water implications. It is perhaps understandable that Oakengates was very keen to secure development. But the fact is that, despite this cross-representation, housing permission was given without the full water implication having been understood.

When all is said and done, it would be wrong of me to deny that my right hon. Friend would expect the county to be aware of the general water situation in its area, so that even though it consulted Oakengates and did not get a full picture from it, it is proper to suggest that the water situation should, in general, have been known to it.

The East Shropshire Water Board itself has not been dilatory. But the new housing, permitted without ensuring that the water implications were taken care of, has at the lower level tapped the supplies of the houses above. As soon as it heard of the new project in mid-1959, the board immediately commissioned a report from its consulting engineers on the best means of catering for new and existing development as a whole. This report was submitted in February, 1960, and made proposals for supplying water to a total of 2,200 houses. A number of separate schemes were involved and these were submitted to the Department as the details were settled. No delay was involved as the water board was simultaneously engaged in obtaining the necessary consents, agreements to the sale of land, etc.

A scheme submitted in October, 1960. and estimated to cost £100,000 provides for service reservoirs at Snedhill and Cockshutt and related mains to serve new low-level development in Oakengates and the adjoining part of Wellington Rural District and for improved distribution in the high-level areas of Oakengates at present suffering from shortages of supply.

Difficulties in acquiring land and an existing main have held up progress, but these have now been resolved. Water will come from boreholes at Hilton Bank and Sheriffhales from which some water is also used at present to supplement the supply to Shifnal. To ensure the supply for the increased development at Oakengates and Wellington it is proposed to put the Shifnal load entirely on the existing borehole at Shifnal, which will be duplicated and supplemented by an additional borehole to provide for Dawley as well. A scheme estimated to cost £84,000 provides for a direct link between Shifnal and Dawley, so that Madeley will no longer affect the Dawley supply.

These schemes are to be investigated locally by an engineering inspector of my right hon. Friend's Department next week. If this confirms that they are technically satisfactory they will be approved and the board authorised to invite tenders. The schemes are expected to cure the troubles at Oakengates and Dawley, but they will, however, take up to two years to carry out and during this period the difficulties are likely to persist if not to get worse. Our engineers are unable to suggest any temporary palliatives. The Water Board now find themselves in a difficult situation which will only be remedied when their schemes are carried out. Everyone in the area concerned is now alerted and the pace of housing will be kept in phase with water supplies. I fear that as new houses are built the position of those householders on the higher level will get no better and may even get worse until the new scheme is effective.

The wider implications of any new development in Dawley are well understood by my right hon. Friend. He expects these important matters of services to be dealt with by the local planning authorities. They have a procedure for consultation. They have members on the U.D.C., the county authority and the water board. My right hon. Friend does not reckon to have to supervise the local planning of authorities in this work. The East Shropshire Water Board acted as soon as it knew of the need to act. My right hon. Friend is satisfied that the mechanism for consultation is satisfactory, but that it was not properly used on this occasion.

I hope that it can be said that this was a rare and indeed a unique occasion when housing and water needs got out of phase. I very much regret that about 50 householders in my hon. Friend's constituency will suffer for a period of months yet before the remedy is available for them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.