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Water: National Grid

Volume 736: debated on Wednesday 28 March 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to facilitate the establishment of a national water grid.

My Lords, our water White Paper set out the challenge of ensuring resilient and sustainable water resources in the face of increasing pressure from climate change and population growth. We need to use existing water resources more efficiently, develop new sources and build connectivity across the network. Water companies are already joining up sources of supply to build resilience. We are working closely with Ofwat and the Environment Agency to encourage further connectivity and to promote bulk water trading.

My Lords, by 5 April over half the country will be subject to drought orders. I know that the Minister understands the gravity of the situation but perhaps I may press him further. Will he and his departmental colleagues, as a matter of priority, bring forward a national plan—whether it is called a network or a grid, I really do not mind—so that for the future all parts of the country have an adequate water supply?

As my noble friend is aware, much has already been done by water companies to improve interconnectivity. My noble friend asked about a plan. We are encouraging water companies to include provision for better interconnectivity in the next price review round, which is due to complete in 2014. This is potentially much more cost-effective than creating a national grid and it will help to address the problem of imbalances in water availability across the country. We need Ofwat to get the incentives right so that water trading is economically attractive for water companies.

My Lords, I welcome the statement made by the noble Lord a few hours ago in this Chamber, when he indicated that any proposals to secure additional water supplies from Wales would go ahead only with the agreement of the National Assembly as water is a devolved matter. That being so, will he also confirm that there will be a Barnett consequential for the expenditure undertaken as a result of the Bill passed last night that would be relevant to Wales?

The noble Lord made a valuable contribution to last night’s debate. The point I was making concerned the construction of new reservoir capacity, rather than taking water from existing reservoirs, and I think I should make that clear. I am not fully briefed on how the Barnett formula might apply in respect of the Bill which this House passed last night and any arrangements that might be made with Wales, so I cannot help the noble Lord on that point. However, I shall write to him if he will allow me to do so.

My Lords, is not one of the more obvious benefits of our EU membership the fact that we have been forced to spend at least £65,000 million, or £65 billion, on three EU water purification directives when there was nothing wrong with our water before? No one was getting tummy ache. Would not that sum now be useful for infrastructure and supply?

No, I cannot accept the noble Lord’s premise. The Government owe it to all consumers to make sure that the water is of the highest standards and there can be no derogation from that obligation. The noble Lord is quite right that infrastructure costs money, but the water companies can be incentivised to provide just that.

My Lords, what importance do the Government give to some of the work being undertaken at, for example, the University of Leeds on the development of water-free washing machines and at other institutions on water-free lavatories? Is not the effort on finding ways of using much less water worthy of a great deal of investment?

My noble friend makes a very good point, indicating that water efficiency is one of the key strategies which it is in all our interests to pursue, particularly at this time when drought threatens a good deal of the country. That and water capture and storage are strategies which individuals and businesses can undertake for themselves.

Does the Minister recall that the last time the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, invented a statistic regarding the water directive—in this case, £65 billion—he got his arithmetic wrong, as he subsequently acknowledged, by a factor of 1,000? Does the Minister think that the same is likely to apply on this occasion?

I cannot possibly comment on the accuracy of the mathematics of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. He has placed a figure before the House and, of course, is accountable for what he has suggested, but I cannot comment on it.

Will the noble Lord tell us whether progress has been made on the things that we can change now rather than the things that will take 20, 30 or 40 years? For example, what progress has been made on stopping the leaks, and what proportion of water is actually lost through leakage every year?

My Lords, as part of the Government’s drought summit, water companies are committed to reducing water losses and increasing leakage detection. It is important to say that leakage cannot be eliminated altogether. Even new pipes can leak, but water companies have leakage targets to move them to a sustainable, economic level of leakage. Leakage has fallen by nearly 40 per cent since the mid-1990s and is expected to fall by a further 3 per cent in the next three years.

My Lords, what progress is being made on the proposal to build a new large reservoir in the Abingdon area—I think that it is in Oxfordshire?

I know nothing of that proposal so I am not in a position to answer the noble Lord’s question. Reservoir capacity is important, of course, but even more important is the opportunity to connect up existing river resources and water resources so that they are available across water companies. That is the point that I wanted to make in response to my noble friend’s Question.

My Lords, we pipe and store gas and oil around the country, so why not water? The Roman aqueducts did it 2,000 years ago. The Minister previously cited the difficulty in getting water uphill. Quite so, and no doubt the £30 billion or so cost of establishing a grid is also an issue. Why cannot we use wind turbines to push the water uphill? Is not the provision of water a far greater and essential benefit to one and all, rather than getting a few people to Birmingham a few minutes earlier? We should get our priorities right.

My Lords, it is possible to achieve both but it is not possible to make water flow uphill as my noble friend rightly points out. I would use the analogy that the amount of money that my noble friend is prepared to spend to put petrol in the tank of his motor car is a great deal more than he would be prepared to pay to fill his bath with water. Some of the difficulty comes from the fact that we as a country do not recognise the importance of water and value it enough.