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River Wye

Volume 79: debated on Wednesday 22 May 1985

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. Archie Hamilton.]

11.55 pm

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Welsh Office, for coming to the House to take part in a debate on a very important subject for our part of the country. I am delighted to see in their places my hon. Friends the Members for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland) and for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris). The fact that my hon. Friend the Minister of State also has the River Wye going through his constituency and therefore knows it very well gives me confidence that this subject will receive the attention that it deserves.

There is a poignant point that I want to make at this juncture. I received a letter from my late hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Hooson) two days after he died. I know how deeply he felt about this matter because the headwaters of the River Wye ran through his constituency.

The problems to which I wish to refer relate to the whole extent of the River Wye. It is a unique river. For the whole of its length it is a site of special scientific interest and for most of its length it passes through areas of outstanding natural beauty. It is a major asset to my county, Herefordshire, and it gives enormous pleasure to thousands of people through a variety of activities: angling, rowing, canoeing, rafting, birdwatching, or just enjoying nature. People take part in these activities in a spirit of quiet enjoyment.

It has been well known for a long time that there is no co-ordinating authority. These activities have grown up alongside one another, yet with a growing sense of unease that the balance between them may not be sustainable. Until last year the stresses and strains of conflicting interests were accommodated by each recognising the legitimate aspirations of others with, thankfully, an ever-increasing level of understanding, although it would not be entirely correct to say that the use of the River Wye is at present an idyll of harmony.

Those who fish point out that they pay substantial sums of money for their pleasure. In the south Herefordshire district council territory alone they pay £65,000 in rates. If that is extrapolated to cover the entire length of the Wye, we must be talking of well over £160,000 in rates, not to mention about £3,500 in fishery rates to the water authority, on top of which there is another £1,500 in environmental charges—not to mention a cool £52,000 in licensing fees.

Those who enjoy the competitive sport of rafting point with some hard-earned pride to the £50,000, plus, that they raise for so many deserving charities. Those who promote canoeing holidays on the Wye can point to the benefits accruing to the community by the development of the tourist trade. My hon. Friend the Minister of State knows very well that the Wye valley is world renowned in this respect. In addition, the community has an additional interest in the financial aspects of the Wye, in that the declining levels of fish caught, for whatever reasons, are leading to successful appeals against rateable values by fishery owners. It is not unlikely that within a short time there will be a drop in rate income of about 50 per cent.,., which will leave another £80,000 to be borne by other ratepayers.

In 1981 the Welsh water authority recognised the drift of things and made an application for the functions of any navigation authority still in existence to be transferred to it. I was told in response to my inquiries at that time by my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Welsh Office that the matter was complicated and that the Welsh Office was having to examine Acts of Parliament going back as far as 1674. I was assured that before any irrevocable decisions were taken:
"there will be ample notice and opportunity given to all interested parties to enable them to prepare and present their points of view."
I heard nothing further until after I wrote again in January 1983, when I was told that counsel's opinion was being sought and that progress was slow. However, I was assured by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary that he was pursuing the matter further with his officials.

I heard nothing further until I wrote again in March this year, when I was informed that in the light of counsel's opinion the Welsh water authority was having to reconsider its application and decide what action it might need to take. I was also told that the Welsh water authority had commissioned the Middlesex polytechnic to report upon the uses of the River Wye by various recreational groups, and that it had decided to defer making any final decisions until it had considered that report.

What could have been described in 1981 as a routine evolutionary problem has, since last year, erupted into a major and potentially revolutionary problem. I refer to the advent of hovercrafting as a recreational activity on the River Wye. In 1984 six craft were launched from Hohne Lacey and travelled up and down the river from Ross-on-Wye to north of Hereford.

I have no doubt that from the hovercrafters' point of view, it is an attractive place to exercise an excitingly new, advanced, technological recreation. Indeed, in the magazine of the Hovercraft Club of Great Britain it was described in glowing terms. For those who have hitherto utilised the river with quiet enjoyment, this has caused consternation. It became clear to them that the craft were extremely noisy—their drivers wear ear muffs—that they disturb the river and its banks, and I have heard reports that salmon fry have been washed up and left high and dry on the banks. The craft are a serious potential danger to other river users.

It has been observed that, when operating at low speed, the wash is substantial and does not appear to lessen at all until speeds of 20 knots are reached. I dread to think of the hazard to a wading angler or a novice canoeist. The anglers point out that there is frequently a drastic reduction of the swan population where there is an abundance of noisy, powered craft, and they stress that the healthy population of swans on the Wye is, in all probability, due to the absence of powered craft along great stretches of it.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds points out that the Wye carries a number of important breeding colonies of kingfishers, dippers and, as my hon. Friend is probably aware, in recent years we have been privileged to see the return of peregrine falcons breeding at Symonds Yat, not a mile from my home. All of those would not lake kindly to an abundance of hovercraft. In addition, farmers and fishermen alike are concerned about the prospect of oil pollution—something not so far experienced on the Wye, one of the cleanest rivers in the country.

Almost more alarming than anything else was the unco-operative attitude of hovercraft drivers on their first run, who were reported by anglers of the Hereford and District Anglers Association to have had complete disregard for anglers and their tackle. A grain of encouragement can be drawn from the revised stance of the Hovercraft Club of Great Britain, which has indicated that in the light of the present consternation it will not now be organising the proposed weekend expeditions on the Wye this year, and that it does not wish to be seen to operate in such a manner as to be a danger to other users of the river or, indeed, its members.

I welcome that wholeheartedly, but I must reflect with some caution that the Hovercraft Club of Great Britain is but a proprietors' club, interested in promoting hovercrafting. It has no regulatory controls over hovercrafting or over its members or non-members.

We therefore must come to terms with this new situation that has arisen in respect of the River Wye. The door to hovercrafting on the Wye has been shown to be wide open, and it is an activity that is fundamentally inimical to the River Wye as a site of special scientific interest, as an area of outstanding natural beauty and as a recreational asset to so many activities based, as I have said before, on quiet enjoyment. We need to know the precise position concerning navigation on the Wye. I have grave disquiet about the referral of the problem by the Welsh water authority to the Middlesex polytechnic. It has all the hallmarks of a delaying tactic — a kicking for touch, a playing for time. I do not think that that time exists.

Despite the assurances of the Hovercraft Club of Great Britain, the threat of hovercrafting will not go away by itself. Regardless of what the Middlesex polytechnic reports, progress towards resolution of today's problems will have to be based upon the present legal situation. A clear exposition of that position may well give rise to the kind of lateral thought necessary to achieve a satisfactory and fair reconciliation of conflicting interests, and allay the reasonable concerns of many people and organisations.

Finally, I should like a reassurance that there will be an opportunity to enable all interested parties to put their points of view openly before any change is made, as was promised to me in 1981. I think that we owe this to all the interests on the River Wye. If this can be done, I know that it will be appreciated. I think that it will be helpful for the longer term evolution of the quiet enjoyment of the River Wye for many people.

12.6 am

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) for allowing me to participate in the debate. The problem that he has outlined is of considerable interest to my constituents also. My intervention in the debate will come as no surprise to my hon. Friend the Minister who has been subjected to a positive snowstorm of paper on behalf of my constituents to try to find some solution to the problem outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford.

As I represent Gloucestershire, West, the River Wye borders quite a large proportion of my constituency. I have received complaints from the village of Brockweir about the less sociable sports which are now taking place in the River Wye. The complainants have been asking me to whom they should refer in order to try to arrange some framework of law in which everybody can enjoy the sports in which they wish to participate. So far, nobody seems to want to be responsible for working out some arrangements whereby people can live together. The local authority disclaims responsibility, and the Welsh water authority and the Inland Waterways Association Ltd. say that it is not up to them to lay down the law as to who does what on the River Wye. I am confident that, if we can create a framework of law, the majority of these sports can live together. If they are regarded as anti-social by some people who are anxious to pursue the tranquillity of the area, as my hon. Friend has outlined, the noisier sports can surely take place in a different part of the river.

I am grateful for the opportunity to be allowed to participate in the debate, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to throw some light on this difficult problem.

12.10 am

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) for the opportunity that this debate gives me to put a number of matters into their correct context, which, as he said, is a necessary precursor to getting the issues sorted out.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the capable way in which he marshalled the facts relating to the multiplicity of interests involved to ensure a fair and reasonable use of the river, with each following their particular interests with the minimum of disturbance to other users.

I confirm what my hon. Friend—and my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland)— said about there being a multiplicity of interests. Not only is there the age-old use of an exceptionally fine game fishery, but also that of coarse fishing. Such quiet pursuits can obviously be disturbed by the passage of craft of one sort or another, such as a ferry—to which reference was not made, but there is one — a leisure cruiser, or by rowing, canoeing, raft racing—with the added benefit of raising funds for charity—and, in the lower reaches of the river, water skiing, which is of particular interest to myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West, and the even more vexed question of the modern invention of the hovercraft.

I do not dispute the claims of my hon. Friends that these will have a varying effect on the natural life found in the river and along the banks. The amount of use which a particular interest makes of the river will determine the level and severity of any nuisance or damage.

The nub of the problem is the element of control which is perceived to be needed to ensure that no one user causes irreparable damage or accidentally usurps the rights of other users. Like its predecessors — the Wye river authority — the Welsh water authority has examined carefully how it should exercise its responsibilities in relation to the River Wye. The Water Resources Act 1963, which provided for the establishment of river authorities and, inter alia, the protection and proper use of inland water, recognised that for the protection of water resources a river authority may need to make byelaws to prohibit the use, or regulate the manner in which the waters may be used, for boating, swimming or other recreational purposes, which functions are now exercised by water authorities.

The provisions of that Act specified that such byelaws would not apply to any tidal waters, or to any inland water in respect of which functions are exercisable by a navigation authority, harbour authority or conservancy authority. I am spelling these matters out carefully because I want them to be on the record so that we can proceed to a satisfactory solution.

Byelaws made by a water authority under the 1963 Act are subject to procedural provisions before confirmation by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. These would almost certainly involve the holding of a local inquiry at which all interested persons could give their views.

In the case of the River Wye, there is an existing navigation authority which precludes the Welsh water authority from making byelaws for that stretch of the river over which the functions of the navigation authority could be exercisable.

In 1809, a navigation authority known as "The Company of the Proprietors of the Rivers Wye and Lugg Navigation and Horse Towing-path" was created by local Act of Parliament. Despite extensive research, it would seem that that company, although it has long ceased to exercise any functions, cannot in law be assumed to be dissolved. Indeed, my Department has sought counsel's opinion on the matter.

However, the Welsh water authority can seek an order under section 82 of the 1963 Act to have transferred to it the functions of a navigation authority. Thus, in February 1981, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford said, and no doubt as a result of his zealous efforts on behalf of his constituents, the Welsh water authority made application to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales for an Order under section 82 of the 1963 Act to have transferred to it the functions and property of the navigation authority. That has given rise to a substantial volume of correspondence from interested persons and organisations seeking to object to the proposals.

Before the provisions of schedule 10 to the Water Resources Act 1963 were set in motion — that is, publicising the intention to make a transfer order, an action which could well entail the subsequent holding of a public local inquiry into any objections—my Department late in 1983 drew the authority's attention to counsel's opinion which indicated some limitation as to the authority's power within the context of section 79(3) of the Water Resources Act 1963 for the byelaws which it might have in mind. Counsel also drew to the attention of the Department the probability that there may well also exist certain common law rights in respect of use of the river. At this point the House will be aware of the complexity of the matter.

The Welsh water authority, having noted the limitations, chose to reconsider its original application for the section 82 order and in early 1984 commissioned the Middlesex polytechnic to carry out a survey of all recreational use of the River Wye. I do not think this was dilatory or in any way delaying tactics. The facts have to be established before we can proceed through the legal jungle. The water authority now awaits the final report, which it is scheduled to consider later in the year. The authority is quite reasonably exploring all possibilities of areas of conflicting interest before deciding what action it can reasonably take.

I am well aware of the criticism levelled at both the authority and my Department for the length of time being taken to process what some might see as a simple operation. After that part of my speech, I do not think the House will regard it as a simple operation; I know hon. Members realise that it is complex. My hon. Friends will appreciate, if they had not done so before today, that the matter is one of the more complex problems that the authority has had to consider; indeed, its predecessor bodies had in years gone by not come to grips with the problem, and I do not entirely blame them.

We as a Department also appreciate the complexities. However, for the water authority, not only is there the question of drafting suitable byelaws, always assuming it has the power so to do; also, it has to consider the question of cost, which could arise under three headings. First, how much will it cost it to have the necessary byelaws approved? That cost could well include public inquiries. Secondly, even assuming that my right hon. Friend was able to approve the appropriate byelaws, in order to he effective there would be the cost of implementation. My hon. Friend referred to the fact that many riparian owners find some of the charges high already. Thirdly, if the authority assumes the functions of the navigation authority, it could be faced with additional costs related to those very functions—for example, maintenance of channels and towpaths.

The Welsh water authority has sensibly made inquiry of other water authorities who have navigation functions and found that the cost, after deduction of income, can be considerable. These costs would have to be recovered from consumers generally and thus have the effect of increasing water charges.

In addition to the possibilities of seeking powers under the 1963 Act, both the authority and the Department have examined other legislation which might enable control to be exercised over activities on the river. At present. there appear to be no other byelaw-making powers readily available to the water authority. Action may be considered by the authority under the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975 if there is wilful disturbance to spawning fish. My Department has also been examining possible powers which may be available to other bodies to control the various uses which are made of the river. Hereford city council has a Private Bill, shortly to be considered by the House, to re-enact and extend local enactments and to make provision with regard to the health, local government and improvement of the city. As one element of that Bill, it is seeking powers to make byelaws over that stretch of river that lies within the limits of the city.

Under the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980, local authorities may in certain circumstances be able to make byelaws regulating the use of boats within their area. This is of course a matter for each district council to consider.

Under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976, certain powers may also be available to local authorities to regulate boating in coastal waters adjacent to their area.

Powers existing under the Local Government Act 1933 which enabled local authorities to make miscellaneous byelaws for good rule and government. Indeed, these powers were used by the then county of Monmouthshire and borough of Monmouth, which I have the honour to represent, to make byelaws in 1948 to control the manner in which vessels used the River Wye within their respective boundaries. These byelaws would still appear to be in force today and could be exercisable by the Monmouth district council under provisions of the Local Government Act 1972, sections 235 and 262. From contacts with my Department it would seem that Gwent county council is also investigating the existence and possible use of these byelaws. I can say that my Department is actively researching with other Government Departments the existence of other local byelaws which may affect the River Wye.

Another source of legal provision which may lead to the making of byelaws is through the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. Hon. Members may recall that in 1978 the River Wye was notified as a site of special scientific interest. I am advised that re-notification under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 has yet to be completed, but the SSSI status remains unaffected.

However, I make no apology for having to introduce once again a limitation. The 1949 Act powers are vested in local authorities in areas of outstanding natural beauty. That provision might provide a means of controlling hovercraft on the stretches of the river so designated, but such byelaws can be made only where the local authority is the riparian owner or where the land adjacent to the river or the waterway itself is subject to an access agreement order. There would be a need for the Home Office to confirm any byelaws made and Welsh Office Ministers would be involved if there had to be an access order. At this time, it would not be proper for me to comment further. However, my officials will be pursuing this and other relevant aspects.

Two specific problems have regularly been drawn to my attention. The first is a problem over water skiing in the lower reaches of the Wye, which border the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West and my own. The Gloucester harbour trustees have jurisdiction in the upper reach of the River Wye tideway to Bigs weir and it may be possible for them to make byelaws under their existing powers for the regulation of the river in that part. My Department has already written to the harbour trustees seeking clarification of its powers and I will write to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West when my inquiries are completed.

Secondly, there is the problem of hovercraft using the non-tidal stretch of the river. I am pleased to say that following discussions between the Welsh water authority and the chairman of the board of the Hovercraft Club of Great Britain, the club has agreed not to hold any events on the Wye in view of the biological and scientific importance of the river. I am sure that all Members will join with me in welcoming this most responsible and enlightened attitude on the part of the hovercraft club. Indeed, this sort of joint voluntary approach is a much more sensible solution to the problem of conflicting interests among users of the River Wye. Each of us as a user should respect the wishes, or rights, of other users to enjoy the privileges of this beautiful river, be it for fishing, boating, rowing, canoeing, swimming or other similar uses. That is to exercise self-control—perhaps through an owners' grouping — and reach agreement on limitations as to times of use, number of occasions of use and the planning of activities having regard to the balance that needs to be maintained between man and nature. I would encourage all users to have due regard to the enjoyment of others using this beautiful river and ask them to seek ways in which responsible co-operative use of the river can be extended.

I have advised the House that there is a complex problem to be solved. I have said that the solution is not easy to find and I hope that hon. Members will accept my assurance that the Welsh water authority and Welsh Office ministers are well aware of the difficulties. Nevertheless, officials will continue to search for a satisfactory solution, which will be of benefit to all those having rights of use and those wishing to use the recreational facility provided by one of our supreme natural assets.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Twelve o'clock.