Skip to main content

Water Supply

Volume 691: debated on Tuesday 24 April 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What assessment they have made of the availability of water supplies to meet anticipated demand during the rest of 2007.

My Lords, the period from October 2006 to February 2007 was the wettest since 1914. As a result, most reservoir and groundwater levels are normal for the time of year. Consequently, the outlook for water supply is much improved on recent years.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his heartening reply. What assumptions does his response contain about levels of rainfall, water consumption and loss of water through leaks in pipes for the remainder of this year? Does he accept, despite last winter, that, since repeated hot, dry summers now appear more likely in the future than compensating repeated cold, wet winters, highlighting the necessity to use water more sparingly should be the theme of sustained publicity at regular intervals throughout the year by the water companies and Government?

My Lords, my noble friend’s latter point is absolutely right. Water is a scarce resource. There is a programme of planning for new reservoirs and the possibility of water meters becoming compulsory in water-stress areas. On the plans of the water companies on leakage, I understand that most are operating at their economic leakage level except for Thames Water—we all know the disruption its backlog is causing around London, albeit for the right reasons. The Government’s sustainable development programme operates on the basis that government departments will use a lot less water. We are in a healthier position now than at the same time at each of the two previous years.

My Lords, how can the Government anticipate demand for water when they do not prevent the indiscriminate building of houses in, for example, west Kent or Kennett, near Newmarket? These houses are not even occupied. You do not know what kind of families are going to live in them or what the demand for water will be.

My Lords, first, modern houses use a lot less water than traditional houses do; they are designed a lot better. Secondly, the plans, particularly in the Thames Gateway, are such that it is highly likely that an increased number of dwellings there can be built using the same amount of water in total as was used in the past, because they are more efficient in their use of water. I say to the noble Baroness that there is no indiscriminate housebuilding in this country.

My Lords, does the Minister intend to rely mostly on metering in water-scarce areas to reduce consumption? His department’s figures show that consumption has risen in unmetered and metered households in seven out of 10 water company areas.

No, my Lords. As I said, a range of factors is involved. Metering is not the answer because there would not be the capacity to install enough meters. That is why it is being looked at in water-stress areas. We know from the past, and particularly from the recent, effective hosepipe bans—there are no restrictions on water use at present anywhere in England or Wales and there are no plans for any—and from appeals to save water, that such measures can cut consumer demand by 5 to 15 per cent.

The position is that the reservoirs are full. Thames Water reservoirs, which supply London, were 95 per cent full at the end of March. We do not want to be overoptimistic about this but the situation is better than it was in the past two years, following two very dry winters. There then followed, as I said, the wettest winter since 1914. It was the right kind of rain—

My Lords, that is all very well, but the Question is essentially about a short-term situation that might arise but which I am sure we all hope will not. Were this summer to be drier than last, the present happy situation might develop and become very difficult. Bearing in mind that we are referring to the short term, have the Government given thought to taking additional emergency powers over and above those that already exist in order further to restrict water use in such a situation? That would be helpful if we were in a very bad situation.

My Lords, no one says that the situation is perfect. We are subject to the vagaries of the weather, but we have enough water. The 2004-06 period in south-east England was similar in severity to the worst drought of the past 100 years. Drought orders were granted in a few areas to limit or prohibit the non-essential use of water. Only one company—Sutton and East Surrey Water—found it necessary to exercise its powers in the past year, and then not to the full extent possible. One cannot say what will happen this year, but we are confident that with current water supplies we should be okay this summer if the weather is as dry. I do not deny that although reservoirs are full there is still a problem, because if there is no rain there is a problem with crops and so forth. However, the water supply should be okay. The programme of planning for new reservoirs, the water companies’ plans and all the other long-term issues are proceeding as planned.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that by 1997 we had spent some £48 billion on three EU water purification directives? Will he bring us up to date on the money that has since been spent on those directives? Does the noble Lord agree that if we had been wiser and had we spent the money on what really mattered—namely, infrastructure and supply—we would not be in the position that we now face, however much rain we occasionally get and whatever the quality of his rain?

My Lords, I do not think that anyone can criticise. I have not come armed with all the figures on what we have done with the infrastructure in the past 10 years. Billions of pounds have been spent over and above that previously spent. I will find out what has happened to the money that the noble Lord referred to and I will write to him.

My Lords, this House’s Select Committee on Science and Technology, in its report on water management published last year, suggested that the standard for leakage should be based not on an economic measure but on an environmental one. We made that recommendation specifically. Will the Minister take it up?

My Lords, I am assuming that the Government responded to the noble Lord’s Select Committee within the time limit. That would have stated our position. On the other hand, Ofwat is currently leading a review of the methodology used to determine the economic levels of leakage. The other day, I asked how we know what has leaked and I was told, as the noble Lord will recognise, that it is not a simple matter. I was given two interesting ways in which leakage is measured, but it is probably not appropriate that I give them at the Dispatch Box after seven minutes on the Question.