My hon. Friend will know that it is for Ofwat, as the independent economic regulator of the water industry, to approve water companies’ charging schemes. However, to give him some reassurance, I can say that we are very aware of the problem of affordability faced by some customers as a result of the switch to site area charging for surface water drainage, and we are actively looking at what can be done.
I am grateful for that answer. Throughout the north-west, sports and social clubs are receiving from United Utilities water rate bills that include a new surface area water drainage charge that is resulting in an increase of about 400 per cent. in the three-year transitional period. In discussing this matter with Ofwat, will my hon. Friend remind it of the guidance that was given following the passage of the Water Industry Act 1999? It said:
“It would be inappropriate to charge all customers as if they were businesses.”
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. It is worth reiterating the advice issued by the then Secretary of State in 2000, which said of that guidance:
“those making similar demands on services should be charged on the same basis… surface water drainage charges”
for non-household customers
“should be set in a way that is sensitive to the actual use of the service by different premises. Premises with large grounds, such as burial grounds, schools, hospitals”—
and playing fields—
“may have a large proportion of their land not draining to a public sewer. Companies should be prepared to set their charges…accordingly”.
It is worth reiterating that advice on the guidance. As I say, we are actively considering what may be done.
I fully support every word uttered by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). Will the Minister go further than he so far has in dealing with this grotesquely unfair charge, which could put a number of social clubs, sporting clubs and—yes, I shall mention them—churches in grave financial difficulty? I hope he will indicate that he will approach Ofwat and ask it to review the whole basis of the charge. It is a licence for the water companies, particularly United Utilities, to print money, and we want to stop it. It is unfair. Will he give a firmer assurance about the action that the Government will take?
Once again, I thank all hon. Members who have raised this issue, which is vital for their constituents and for small organisations, churches, sports clubs and so on in their areas. I hope that I have made it clear to the hon. Gentleman and others just how seriously we take this matter, and that we will examine what can be done. I cannot go further than that today, but we are actively considering it.
It is worth stating that Ofwat’s approach is that in principle, site area-based charging is overall the fairest means of charging for surface water drainage. However, the charge relates only to areas draining into a public sewer from impermeable surfaces such as the roofs of buildings or car parks. Grassy areas such as sports fields, burial grounds and so on will not be liable to charges. Ofwat is making that clear to companies, and I glad to restate it today.
At the risk of repeating what the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) said, may I focus on the application of the new surface water charges to ancient cathedrals and churches with huge roof spaces? They will be adversely affected, and some are already struggling. I had better declare an interest: I am an honorary lay canon of Bradford cathedral.
I thank my hon. Friend. I am more than happy, on the basis of the comments that have been made today and other representations that have been made, to examine individual cases. It is worth my saying also that if a customer is of the view that he or she has been charged for permeable areas, in the first instance they should raise the matter with the water company, bearing in mind the guidance that is on record and has been reiterated today. Failing that, they should raise it with the Consumer Council for Water. I reassure Members that we are taking concerns seriously and actively considering what can be done.
The Minister will be aware that the Government rightly applaud the work of faith-based and other voluntary sector groups such as sports clubs, the guides and the scouts. The gross increase in charges that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) pointed out could not come to such volunteer-based organisations at a worse time than this time of economic hardship. Will the Minister intervene and ask what economic and financial impact assessment has been done and whether it was done during or before the economic crisis? May we please have a moratorium on the charges until such an assessment has been carried out?
I cannot offer the hon. Lady a moratorium on the charges, but I can assure her that as part of our examination of what is currently going on and our undertaking to review how the charges are rolled out, we will take into consideration the factors that she has mentioned, including the economic impact.
This is an opportune moment to say that Ofwat is encouraging churches and other customers to double-check their chargeable area, to ensure that those who are entitled to a lower bill by virtue of a small permeable area are receiving one. I have been made aware of instances where that has not happened, so I thank the hon. Lady for raising the matter.