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Water Rating System

Volume 973: debated on Wednesday 14 November 1979

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asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has for reforming the water rating system.

I appreciate that there is a good deal of concern about how water charges are raised and about their impact on particular groups of consumers. I am considering with the National Water Council a number of aspects of the way in which the system works, but I am not yet in a position to announce any conclusion.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that the water rating system is even more unfair to householders than the domestic rating system, as water authorities do not benefit from the rate support grant? Will he consider the universal installation of water meters, which, at £10 per household, would result in a substantial reduction in water charges for the vast majority of house owners?

One must accept that there are unfairnesses in the way in which water charges are raised. At the same time, it is a relatively economic way of obtaining water funds. However, I should like details from my hon. Friend of his £10 meter, because the figures that I have are considerably in excess of that. Although there would obviously be attractions in moving to that system, the latest estimate that I have is that it would cost more than £1,000 million to move to universal water metering, and that charge would have to be recovered from consumers. This is a difficult issue, but we are studying it intensely.

Does the Minister accept that the policy advocated by his hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) would, if it were carried out, be the most retrograde step in public health policy in the last 100 years?

That is a concept which I should like further time to consider. If it is really suggested that there could be circumstances in which the demand for water took some account of the cost of its production that might have some impact on the overall demand and on what would otherwise be a continuing demand for reservoirs, with the resultant loss of good productive land.

Will my right hon. Friend consider that a greater degree of accountability by water authorities to himself or to some elected body might help in assessing what were the best rates, the best system of charging those rates and other actions by water authorities?

I have no proposals to change the present system, under which the majority of boards and water authorities are elected members of local authorities. I should not propose a change which would mean more national control.

Does the Minister's answer mean that he is changing the view and policy announced by the Under-Secretary of State earlier in the Session? Is he aware that the Opposition will reject any proposals to tax—which is what it would mean—the poorest and largest families in the country through the installation of water meters? It would be a most retrograde step. In addition to the cost of metering there would need to be a meter reader service, which would be a further financial imposition upon householders. Will the Minister therefore drop this crazy idea?

Obviously, the right hon. Gentleman's thoughts have not advanced beyond the penny-farthing stage in the context of the technology of what might be possible in water meter reading. I should like the right hon. Gentleman to consider that the sums that have been discussed in this context are not on a scale that would represent a massive imposition on the poor.