Skip to main content

South West Water Authority

Volume 24: debated on Tuesday 25 May 1982

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Goodlad.]

10.40 pm

I am grateful for this opportunity to put forward some of the problems experienced by my constituents with the South West water authority. To be fair to the authority, it does not have an easy task with all the problems that it is experiencing because of the restrictions on finance and the high cost of capital expenditure. It must also be remembered that it had to take over many small and old water undertakings, let alone the large number of sewerage schemes that are required in the area.

I place on record the courteous way in which the chairman and the staff have always dealt with my queries, but there are fundamental disagreements between us. First, I refer to the problem of the Roadford reservoir. A sad and bad decision has been made. It cannot be right for useful agricultural land to be flooded and homes destroyed when Dartmoor is close at hand, with poor land and no houses. Whatever some people may say, building a reservoir on Dartmoor will not spoil the area. In fact, I think that it will enhance it.

I regret my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's decision and, above all, the failure of the South West water authority to go for a reservoir on the moor. The authority knows that it is the right place, but it lacks the courage to propose it and to push it through. If a poll were taken in the South-West, I am certain that most people would say that the moor should be used rather than deprive people of their living and their homes. I hope that even at this late hour the Secretary of State will think again.

I now come to the comments of the Plymouth chamber of commerce on Roadford. It is sad when urban and city people criticise my stand to protect the farming people and villagers who live in the Roadford area. Mr. Wood, the member of the Plymouth chamber of commerce who gave evidence at the inquiry, is reported in the local press as saying that
"the sacrifice of about 30 farming people has to be balanced against the sacrifices"
of thousands of people in Plymouth. I feel that that is extremely insensitive. There would be a terrific row if this were happening in Plymouth.

If there were no alternative it would be a different story, but there is an alternative. There is land that can be flooded and has been flooded to the benefit of many generations living in Plymouth. The Plymouth chamber of commerce has much to answer for in its attitude.

I was extremely annoyed by the remarks of Mr. David Widdicombe, QC, representing the South West water authority at the recent inquiry. He said that I was irresponsible. I am used to being attacked and got at. I have been called far worse than irresponsible. All that I was doing in regard to Burrator and its future was asking the authority to clarify the rumour that Burrator was to be closed, or the water diverted elsewhere. I have every right to raise at an inquiry or in the House of Commons the views and the fears of my constituents. It is wrong of the QC representing the South West water authority to seek to restrain or stop a Member of Parliament from putting the fair question that I did. I hope that the Minister will look into the matter and obtain an apology from him.

Fortunately, the chairman of the South West water authority, Mr. Hill, has made the SWWA' s position clear in a letter to me. He said:
"May I first assure you that I have never sought and, indeed, would never seek, as a strong believer in parliamentary democracy, to hinder any Member of Parliament horn undertaking his proper duties."
Mr. Mills concluded his letter:
"Finally, I reiterate my total respect for your integrity."
It is important to put on record, for the benefit of future inquiries, that a Member of Parliament must have the right to put forward the fears and views of his constituents. I inquired whether this was a question of privilege but was told that it was not. That should be noted by inspectors in any future inquiries.

I now wish to say something about what I call "leaky mains". This is a serious problem in the South-West, particularly in the Plymouth area. According to the local newspaper, in Plymouth alone estimated leakages in 1978 were 120 litres per head per day. They were actually higher than the estimated domestic use of 110 litres per head per day and the measured use of 101 litres per head per day. That amount of water is leaked every day from our reservoirs. Between 28 and 30 per cent. of all the water produced by my constituency is leaked away and wasted. That is an absolute disgrace.

The Minister will probably say that other areas have similar leakages, but the South-West has a water shortage. If an area has plenty of water it can perhaps afford that level of leakage, but I do not think so. When we have a shortage, it is criminal that this is allowed to continue. The new reservoir at Roadford could be reduced in size if those leaks were repaired.

It is wrong for the South-West water authority to say that we should build another reservoir to overcome the shortage. It does not say that we should repair the leaks. That is mad. My message to the water authority is "Put your house in order first before you build Roadford."

What about the cost to the ratepayers? They are suffering a hard and heavy burden already. If a reservoir is built on the ground, the energy used to pump the water around—and therefore the cost—is very much greater. If it is built on the moor, the water gravitates downwards anti it is, therefore, cheaper to operate. The new reservoir will cost millions of pounds.

Constant bursts also occur. It is no wonder that the ratepayer is finding it difficult to pay his rates and is annoyed. These matters must be looked at first.

I shall not dwell on this matter for too long, because my case is simple, practical and right. If my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller) catches the eye of the Chair, perhaps he will add to what I have said.

What about the future? At present, all the signs point to a water shortage in the South-West. Already the river levels are extremely low. I do not entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North that we need more water, though in a sense that is true. The extraordinary thing is that we have an abundance of water, but much is wasted and not enough is stored.

I believe that the South West water authority has not made sufficient plans this year to deal with the possible shortage of water. There is already talk in the North Devon area of restrictions, even before the summer has begun. First, the water authority must undertake these repairs and save the 30 per cent. of the supply that is being lost. Secondly, there must be more transportation of water through mains—in other words, better distribution from one area to another. Thirdly, we must use every source of water.

Many water supplies have been abandoned in the interest of major supplies. In Okehampton, the East Ochment and the old Hampton water supply system are not being used. Many of those sites should again be brought into use before a small, new reservoir is built. Why cannot Wimbleball supply the North Devon area? There is much that can be done.

If there is a drought this summer we shall be told that a reservoir is needed. I disagree with that approach. There is a need for a reservoir, but there is also a need to put the house in order and deal with leaks.

I hope that the Minister will endeavour to see that the South West water authority deals with the points that I have raised. I refer especially to the intemperate and disturbing remarks of Mr. David Widdicombe. I am not normally sensitive, but I do not like it when people try to stop me from putting the case that my constituents want me to put in the House or at a public inquiry.

10.50 pm

I wish to associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills), who is also my good neighbour, when he speaks of the particular gentleman making reference to his irresponsibility. I cannot think of an hon. Member less likely to be accused of irresponsibility. That is the kind of phrase that slips out at the wrong moment. I am with my hon. Friend all the way.

The South West water authority comprises a chairman and 15 members. Although it is generally assumed to be the ogre of the south-western world, it is fair to say that nine of its members are appointed by county or district councils. The remedy therefore lies in the hands of the electorate, who seem to think that the water authority, perhaps like other nationalised industries, is something far away and remote.

The key issue in North Devon is not so much where the reservoir should be located as when it should be provided. As my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West has mentioned, the Bideford and North Devon Gazette, the North Devon Journal-Herald and the Advertiser all say that hosepipe restrictions will be coming shortly. This is a trailer that North Devon experiences every year. Only three of the last 19 years have been without some form of water restriction in the area that I represent. This has probably also been the case to a lesser degree in other parts of the South West water authority area. We need water through the taps rather than through the edges of the pipes. We need it now, or at least soon, not to give us some advantage but to allow us to catch up with the rest of the country in normal development.

The development of many parts of North Devon is prevented by lack of water, yet for nine months of the year if falls from the heavens in torrents—sometimes even in summer, although I would not normally admit this except with parliamentary privilege behind me. It is unbelievable that an area surrounded by water and often covered with water should contain folk memories of standpipes and holidaymakers preferring to return home from the West Country rather than queue for a bucket of water.

I do not care from where the water comes so long as there is some water. I believe that investigations have cost £1·5 million at current prices. My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West did not mention the pressure groups that have kept water away from Dartmoor or the national park area. There is no doubt in my mind that the right and logical place for reservoirs is national parks. I do not believe that a reservoir spoils the appearance of an area. On the contrary, the appearance is normally enhanced. While local people and pressure groups fall out, local authorities run short of water. Although, by and large, I do not care where the new reservoir is built, I accept that Roadford is not ideal.

However, the reservoir cannot be located on the sea shore. In past years, a parliamentary Committee has ruled against Dartmoor. This means, I suspect, that the water authority believes that there would be a ruling against Exmoor. If the reservoir cannot be located either on the sea shore or on the moors, that leaves built-up areas—an unreasonable proposition—or farmland.

The problem is that if the water has to be produced in reservoirs and if we cannot get around to stopping unaccounted water, which seems a vast amount, a reservoir had to come somewhere. I and the people whom I represent in Bideford, Northam and Westward Ho! must have water. Please let us have it soon.

While the message is "Get on with it," the problem arises of how long the nation can go on with its pipes becoming more elderly, the cracks becoming larger and the leaks increasing. If the amount of money to be spent on a reservoir were spent in detection of loss, we could avoid the need for a reservoir. In the House we often set ourselves up as engineers, architects, town planners and so on. I require water because North Devon requires water. I hope that we will get it soon. I do not think that the water authority is as black as it is sometimes painted. I fear that if we do not get on soon, we will not have the water. There will be one more standpipe year, and there will be little tourist industry left.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to state that water will come to us soon. I wish to have the reservoir. I care not too much where. My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West says that we should make savings. Without the water that we need, we will lag further and further behind in prosperity, jobs and housing.
"Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink."
is the theme tune sometimes in North Devon.

It is clear that my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) is extremely anxious about the siting of the reservoir and my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller) is less anxious about the siting but wants the water. There is a general fear that the needs of the area will not be met on time. It is in that tangled web that I have to try to weave a consistent thread.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West raised two points. He referred first to leakage. I agree that it is not a satisfactory state of affairs to have as large a leakage problem as that in the south-western area. My hon. Friend was absolutely right. Through the National Water Council, the Government are urging the regional water authorities to do all that they can to reduce the waste of resources. I have written recently to the chairman of the National Water Council, Sir Robert Marshall, a letter which I think will be of interest to my hon. Friend. I wrote to him on 19 May:
"You will be aware, as I am, of the fierce public criticism of water undertakers over what is seen as excessive leakage from water supply systems. The topic has been of major importance in a number of recent public inquiries into proposed reservoir projects and the Department have made it plain that new reservoirs will not be authorised unless cost-effective measures, including leakage detection and waste prevention, have first been taken in the supply area."
I entirely accept my hon. Friend's point, so as recently as 19 May I wrote in those terms. I said, further:
"I should be grateful if, in co-operation with the water authorities, you would produce a comprehensive report on leakage control describing the steps taken by each water authority, the progress made and the difficulties encountered."
The leakage in Plymouth is severe. My hon. Friend quoted the figure of about 34 per cent. of total supply, but the authority is already working hard to reduce that. There are now two full-time teams working on detection and reparation of loss. Their target figure is a 28 per cent. leakage figure. That compares with targets of about 25 per cent. in the local area. It compares not unfavourably with the national average of 24 per cent. and a figure of about 29 per cent. for unaccounted flow in the neighbouring Wessex water authority.

I ashamedly give those figures because I want the House to understand how severe is the national problem of leakage from the distribution system of the water supply. It is for those reasons that I take the strongest possible view of the action needed to deal with the problem. It is not a problem peculiar to Plymouth or to the South West water authority, but it is a national problem and national action must be taken to correct it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West then referred to the Roadford inquiry itself. The proposal has been the subject of a previous inquiry when the inspector accepted that the main advantages of the Roadford scheme would be that the single new source at Roadford would meet the needs of the whole of the water supply for the Plymouth area, South-West Devon and North Devon. That will give a desirable operational flexibility to the scheme.

Another advantage is that the Roadford scheme will give greater benefit in the augmentation of rivers. A further advantage is that the alternatives would be potentially more damaging to the fisheries. The inspector recommended that the scheme should be approved. There were continuing objections to the proposal and concern was expressed about the loss of some 1,000 acres of farmland. That has been the main burden of the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West. The case was referred to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for a decision. He sought further evidence on the need for the scheme, and in view of the submissions that he received he decided that another inquiry should be held. That inquiry was held last month and looked only at the size of the proposed reservoir.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West has questioned whether that was a legal step for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to take. We took legal advice on the matter, and we are fully satisfied that we were and are acting intra vires to limit the terms of the inquiry. My hon. Friend then referred to an incident that occurred in evidence given by Mr. David Widdiconbe, QC, who appeared on behalf of the South West water authority.

The chairman of the water authority wrote to my hon. Friend on 22 May. He said that my hon. Friend had left after giving evidence but that the problem about Mr. Widdicombe's remarks may have arisen because the point was raised in terms which required that the rumour that came up in evidence should be robustly rebutted. Mr. Widdicombe made the remark which appeared in press reports and caused my hon. Friend such anxiety.

The occasion for the remark was the fact that other witnesses had elaborated on the point that my hon. Friend had made about the Burrator reservoir. I believe that the remark of which my hon. Friend complains is a matter for the learned gentleman himself to correct. I should merely opine, as my hon. Friends have done, that no one can have acted with more responsibility than my hon. Friend. I believe that the whole House will recognise that to be the case.

I also endorse the view, which the chairman of the water authority clearly expresses, that in relation to his constituents and the evidence he gave at the inquiry my hon. Friend acted as he always does with perfect correctness and with the interests of his constituents at heart.

The question of the Roadford reservoir includes the resources in the South West water authority area. My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North is concerned that those resources should be augmented. The cost of the development is about £19 million. My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West is concerned about the costs that will be incurred by his constituents and the consumers. The percentage increase in bills in the South West water authority area for the year 1982–83 is 8·6 per cent., compared with a national average of 11·5 per cent. and with movements in the retail price index of 9·4 per cent.

There is no suggestion that the water authority is doing anything other than operate an extremely tight and efficient control of its financial resources. The capital investment that is being made is substantial, but I trust that both my hon. Friends will be aware that the capital investment plans of that authority are £23 million in 1981–82, and £28·6 million in 1983–84. That size of investment is to be expected if we are to provide a substantial increase in resources for that region.

There have been recurring problems of water shortage in the South-West. It is a difficult problem. The water authority is faced with the need to conserve diminishing water supplies during the summer months when there is low rainfall. That is when there is a substantial increase in population, and therefore in consumption. Today the rivers in North Devon are at only a quarter of their normal height after an unusual period of low rainfall over the past six weeks. That means that from Friday of this week a hosepipe ban will be introduced in North Devon.

Further and more extensive measures may need to be taken if the weather continues to be drier than average. These problems demonstrate the need to establish once and for all a strategic water supply that is satisfactory for the full all-the-year-round demand in the South-West, irrespective of the leakage problems to which my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West has drawn the attention of the House so vividly.

I reassure my hon. Friend that his interests are being served——

Is the Minister aware that in many areas the pipes are not large enough to get the water to the villages even when it is available?

I am well aware of that and the hon. Gentleman is right to make the point. In most systems we are dealing with a distribution network that is no longer satisfactory to carry the weight of water which demand requires. This requires continuous and substantial expenditure in the form of capital reinvestment. That must be undertaken by each authority as a long-term aim.

I assure my hon. Friend that the construction of Roadford reservoir will mark the completion of the authority's strategic plan for water supply. A plan that involves three new large reservoirs is a significant injection into the economy of the region. It will provide jobs and considerable income during construction, and once completed it will release a constraint on industry and agriculture that has been far too evident and far too frequent. I hope that it will reduce the number of occasions on which restraints are imposed upon the public of the South-West. It will enable farmers and industrialists to adopt newer and, where appropriate, more extensive methods of working.

Plymouth and North Devon will be well served by the new Roadford reservoir, with South-West Devon reaping a small reward also. These are substantial gains, of which the Roadford reservoir is an intergral and essential part.

I understand my hon. Friend's anxiety on behalf of his constituents that minimal disruption should occur in the creation of a reservoir on the site that my right hon. Friend has selected. It is for that reason alone that a second inquiry is being held, to reduce the valuable land take to the minimum that is required. In the assessment of the need and in the calculations that are to be undertaken to determine the size of the reservoir that is ultimately to be built, the problems that my hon. Friend has raised, such as leakage control and ultimate demand, will form a significant part. In arriving at his ultimate decision my right hon. Friend will bear these matters in mind.

I hope that my hon. Friend will take it from me that we shall grapple with leakage and that every effort will be made to deal with the problem.

I hope also that my hon. Friend will accept that the chairman of the water authority has made it clear that there is no possibility in the Roadford inquiry of the Burrator reservoir being declared redundant as a result of the new investment, and that with those remarks he will feel that, despite the regularity with which he has raised the issue, the importance of the Roadford reservoir and the potential benefit to those in the South-West, including the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North, will outweigh the significant disadvantages which my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West has raised so responsibly.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past Eleven o' clock.