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Mains Water Connections: Cost for Rural Communities

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 5 September 2023

I will call Sir Simon Clarke to move the motion. I will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as this is only a 30-minute debate.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the cost of mains water connections for rural communities.

It is a real pleasure to have the chance to talk about this important issue in the House this afternoon, Ms Ali.

Water is life. That is a statement of fact as ancient as civilisation itself, but today I am here to talk about the lack of clean water affecting Aysdalegate, which is a row of cottages that forms part of my Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland constituency. Aysdalegate sits about two miles from Guisborough, the main market town in East Cleveland, just along the A171 road over the moors to Whitby. It is somewhat isolated, but it is not so remote that the problems I am about to relate can reasonably be anticipated. I find it astonishing, living as we do in an age of unparalleled technological advances, that there remain corners of England where something as simple as access to safe running drinking water should even have to be the subject of debate, but here we are.

For the residents of Aysdalegate, their days are marred by an issue that most of us would have thought resolved in the previous century, if not the century before that: their homes are not linked to the mains water network. Instead, they grapple daily with inadequate water quality from a private water supply, and they are told that the cost of connection, a figure that will almost certainly amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds, will fall upon them, should they seek to remedy the situation. This is not some multimillion new build vanity project that we are talking about, or some millionaire seeking to pull a fast one by getting public funds for improvements to a remote sporting lodge or a holiday home. This is a small hamlet in which very normal people are trying to live everyday lives. Aysdalegate represents hard-working families, the elderly and, in some cases, the disabled and the vulnerable.

We should be clear about the conditions my constituents are living in. Over the last decade, Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council has performed drinking water checks nine times at Aysdalegate. On each and every occasion, supplies have been judged unsatisfactory owing to bacterial contamination, including E. coli and enterococci. I am sure everybody is aware of the dangers posed by these organisms. E. coli, which is a bacteria that predominantly resides in the intestines of humans and animals, is a strong indication of recent faecal contamination. It can lead to severe gastrointestinal illness, kidney failure and, in severe cases, death.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. He previously asked about this in Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions. The Minister also replied on that occasion, when I was happy to ask a supplementary question—I understand the issue very well. Does he agree that it is not just the quality of the water, but the cost factor for those who just want to live in the countryside? Does he also agree that sometimes the connections are prohibitive? In the Minister’s response to his question, she seemed to indicate a willingness to assist. Does he feel that the Government perhaps have an important role to play in improving the water quality and in making a connection at a price that is feasible and acceptable?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, which precisely anticipates the line of inquiry I am going to pursue, which is how we improve the quality of the water and address the cost of so doing.

As I was saying, the issue with E. coli and enterococci is really very serious. Enterococci—to follow on from what I was saying about E. coli—is also associated with faecal contamination. Although it is generally less harmful than E. coli, its presence in water can be a precursor to the existence of other, very dangerous pathogens. Repeated exposure to water tainted with these bacteria places residents, as a matter of certain medical fact, at risk of long-term medical harm.

As a result, Redcar and Cleveland council has served a regulation 18 notice specifying that the water needs to be boiled before it can be drunk, which has been in place permanently since December 2017. If only boiling the water solved the problem. Alas, residents have reported to me their disgust at finding tadpoles and evidence of rodents and other animal life in their drinking water. Tadpoles and rodents in their drinking water—let us pause for a moment and think about what that means. A parent will hesitate, even after boiling the water, because they wonder whether it is safe for a child. An elderly resident will, in their lifetime, have witnessed this nation advance enormously yet will still wonder why they are waiting for safe drinking water.

I will read out a response to a survey from Redcar and Cleveland council, which was completed by one of my constituents and forwarded to me. She writes as follows:

“I approached the council and joint meetings were held. Year on year we have been served ‘boil notices’—but I am disgusted by this notice”

and the lack of action. She continues:

“Redcar and Cleveland…are totally aware of the plight me and others have expressed assistance for and at each turn we have been left to it. No-one here has the financial capacity to do anything more than we are currently doing. We are treated appallingly.”

Explaining that she has contacted me as her Member of Parliament, my constituent continues:

“As you know we are now in negotiations over”

the

“successful prompts for Northumbrian Water to finally consider us as a whole row to be mains connected. Though funding has yet to be sourced to cover this cost, none of”

our group

“are holding our breath as this could yet again give us a false hope. I have also recruited the help of our local parish…and spoken to local councillors. I attend parish meetings where our water supply is raised constantly. We know the farm opposite us received grants to have their own private well…so animals, rightly, can be looked after with clean drinking water/bathing water…but we’re considered less than animals.”

My constituent spends “£70 a month” for

“bottled water to drink and cook in”,

and says that there are animals and

“rodents in our water system frequently”.

She says that her

“bath water is always brown/cloudy”

and the system

“has to be visited by trudging over a busy road”,

hiking up a hill and “through woodland.” She is spending hundreds of pounds a month on filtering the water that comes into her home.

We need to do better than this. Private supplies do not have to be below standard. In fact, last year, only 3.8% of tests from private water supplies across the UK were positive for faecal contamination, but where they are dangerous, we need to have viable options for mains water connection. When I raised the issue at DEFRA questions, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, I was advised that

“it is right that the legislation allows a water company to charge for the cost of making a new connection, because otherwise it would impact on all customers’ bills.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2023; Vol. 735, c. 916.]

I simply do not see how that can be considered an acceptable response. According to the Government’s figures on our official development assistance, between 2020 and 2021, the UK spent £188 million to help provide clean water to disadvantaged people across the globe, and we should be very proud of that. However, our pride in our humanitarianism should be tempered when here at home we are telling a number of my constituents that, if they do not like boiling tadpole and rat-infested water, “That is just your problem and the bill’s on you”. DEFRA asserts that that is just how the system works. I am sorry, but the system clearly does not work, and it certainly does not work for the people of Aysdalegate.

Thankfully, it is not all bad news. Northumbrian Water’s process for exploratory work towards connecting communities to the mains network involves network assessments, evaluating existing infrastructure capacity and ensuring that new connections do not impact existing ones. All that obviously comes at a cost. I am glad to report that, after I had spoken to it, the company rose to the occasion by waiving its fees to quantify how to connect Aysdalegate to the water main and at what cost. That report is expected shortly, but informally, a cost of between £150,000 and £200,000 has been suggested to me. That is obviously a very large sum for a group of nine homes, many of which do not have significant household income.

I would have seen no route to resolution if it had not been for the exceptional action taken by Northumbrian Water, but we will shortly need a plan to deliver the requisite infrastructure. There can be only very few poor isolated communities such as these that fall into this category. I suspect that there are not many Aysdalegates in the UK in 2023. I believe DEFRA needs to consider a special fund to enable work of this nature to proceed in truly exceptional circumstances.

This seems to be a classic example of a case where the associated infrastructure cost needs to be socialised. Ultimately, doing that for a small number of homes would have a minimal impact on wider bill payers’ costs. Lest we forget, we live in a society where we talk proudly about having a universal service obligation for broadband; under the rural broadband scheme, we offer vouchers that, at points in recent years, have been worth up to £10,000 per household. How can we have less than that for clean drinking water?

I believe that my constituents’ experience proves the case for a comprehensive plan and, if necessary, a change to legislation, although I hope that the problem can be remedied by direct ministerial action. I ask the Minister to set out in her reply what the Government will do to ensure that the residents of Aysdalegate, and others like them across the country, can connect to the most basic of necessities and the most fundamental of resources: safe drinking water. Although they are few in number, their plight is very serious. We cannot apply to them a rule that feels better suited to isolated larger homes or farms, which are in a far better position to deal with the cost of connection than my constituents. They are effectively a marginalised and isolated handful of people who, through no fault of their own, live somewhere where even a reasonable quality of life is simply not possible. They cannot remedy their situation through their own means. I do not believe that the council has the funds to help them. I can see no recourse other than to the guarantor of last resort in our society: the Government. These people pay their taxes; they have a right to expect the Government to look after them.

We must accept in this House that for people to have to live without safe drinking water in 2023 is unconscionable. For people of normal means to be told they should foot an unaffordable bill, and for the Government to wash their hands of them now, would be unacceptable. I hope that this afternoon we can work out the genesis of a plan to ensure that when Northumbrian Water reports back with the cost of connection—as I said, it is likely to be a six-figure sum, but not a high six-figure sum—we can try to work out what recourse there can be to public funding to resolve this very dangerous and upsetting situation.

It is a pleasure to serve under you this afternoon, Ms Ali. I must begin by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Sir Simon Clarke) for bringing this matter before the House, and for championing those in his constituency, who he speaks about so clearly and with a great deal of compassion. I obviously realise on hearing his words—we have talked about this before—that there are some real challenges in this case. I welcome this opportunity to air the subject. I will talk generally about private water supplies, which will not surprise him, and then come on to his specific case about the cottages.

As my right hon. Friend will know, drinking water policy is devolved—we had a comment from Northern Ireland earlier—so these comments will apply only to England. Obviously, private water supplies generally originate from a range of local sources, whether they are boreholes, natural springs, brooks or becks. I grew up on a farm. We had our own private water supply for some parts of the farm, and for some cottages. Over the years, all that sort of changed according to how the situation was going. It is something that I have a bit of background knowledge on.

According to the Drinking Water Inspectorate, 1.7% of the population in England get their water from a private supply as of 2022. I am pleased to say that, overall, the compliance of private supplies with the drinking water standards has been steadily improving. According to the Drinking Water Inspectorate’s annual report summarising the data from all local authorities, the compliance rate was 96.4% in 2022, up from 91.4% in 2010. That is a pretty good record; it is improving.

Private water supplies, as my right hon. Friend will know, are regulated under the Water Industry Act 1991 and the Private Water Supplies (England) Regulations 2016. Local authorities are the regulators of private supplies and are responsible for identifying the risks to the quality of the water. They may serve a notice if they determine that the supply is, was, or is likely to be unwholesome or insufficient, and they must serve a notice if they consider there to be a potential risk to human health. My right hon. Friend mentioned that the water had been sampled a number of times by the local authority. He also mentioned what had been flagged as a result, and the advice given.

Local authorities can recover the costs incurred for the duties that they perform from those responsible for the supply—a point I will come back to. Although private water suppliers are found across most regions of England, the highest number are in rural areas. In my constituency and wider Somerset, it is not uncommon to have a private water supply. Often farmers supply their own water, but some of them supply other houses, although there can be other providers. In many cases, people can and want to remain on their private supply, and that is their right.

We recognise that in some cases property owners wish to connect to the mains water network. In such cases, water companies have a duty under the Water Industry Act to make supplies available where it is feasible to do so. They obviously check capacity and so forth. The water company that has distribution mains closest to the property would then check that there is capacity in the network and so forth. However, water companies do not need to provide a mains connection free of charge. We understand that the costs of connection can be high, but it is right that the legislation should allow a water company to charge to make a new connection. Otherwise, the cost of such connections would need to be absorbed by all the existing customers, who do not benefit from new people connecting, and there would be a knock-on impact on people’s bills. I think people understand the point about whether others should carry the can for the cost of someone joining.

When it comes to connections to the mains, the role of Government, via the economic regulator Ofwat, is to ensure that water companies act responsibly and transparently in the services they provide and the fees they charge. That is why Ofwat requires water companies to set charges that reflect the cost of undertaking the work. That has to be clear and transparent. Ofwat also requires them to publish up front the charges for most of the new mains and connection services they provide, and to provide worked examples, so that customers can understand how the charges are calculated. On top of that, there is an element of competition in the market, which might help to reduce connection costs. Customers have the option of contracting with third-party providers, known as self-lay providers, who compete for the work against the water companies.

There are also avenues for recourse when people on private supplies are not happy with the costs quoted by the water companies. They can complain to the water company in the first instance. If that does not resolve the concern, they can ask the Consumer Council for Water to look at the case. Although the Consumer Council for Water has no formal responsibility to review charges for connection, it will challenge companies to provide clarity and review their charges where it considers that appropriate. That might be another avenue to explore further. Ofwat is responsible for enforcement if a water company is not complying with the expected charges, and can issue directions if companies do not comply with Ofwat’s charging rules. Constituents therefore also have the option of contacting Ofwat with their concerns.

On Aysdalegate cottages, the example being talked about today, officials from DEFRA and the Drinking Water Inspectorate were in contact recently with the local authority, Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council, to discuss the case. I understand there are nine households supplied by a beck located on third-party land—the third party is a local livestock farmer. I understand that the local authority has in the past proposed a number of options as part of its risk assessment, including: improving the existing supply; exploring a new water source, such as a borehole; and mains connection.

I was pleased to hear that the water company has stepped up to say that it will pay for the cost of exploring the options, and it should be thanked for that, because it is not an insignificant amount of money that it has committed to, so I am pleased about that. Installation of high-quality filtration and UV treatment equipment at the point of use in each household is likely to significantly improve the quality of the supply. The Drinking Water Inspectorate provides guidance on UV treatment on its website and recommends that any UV system used for this purpose be tested by an accredited laboratory. The inspectorate was at pains to explain to me that it is really important that the right kit be used if that road is taken, because some kit would not be as good.

I understand from my officials’ discussions with the local authority that, to date, not all residents at these properties have wanted to connect to the mains. Ultimately, the householders will need to reach a consensus on what joint action they want to take to improve their water supply.

I thank the Minister for her helpful reply. From my conversations with the residents, I think that they have in some cases indicated a lack of willingness to connect precisely because the costs are anticipated to be beyond their means. This goes to the fundamental point that I was driving at: there is a mechanism, but it is effectively out of reach for, in this case, a very deprived group of people.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says and thank him for clarifying. I obviously sympathise with the challenges faced by people on private supplies.

My right hon. Friend might be interested to hear that the Drinking Water Inspectorate has recently commissioned a research project to review the impact of the current private supplies regulatory framework on public health. To be honest, the inspectorate considers that some areas may need to be looked at forensically, and it will return with its results early in 2024—not too long away. As with all legislation, the Government will keep the regulatory framework for private water supplies under review, but we look forward to hearing what the inspectorate comes back with, because it may well have some synergy with some of my right hon. Friend’s points. As for individual cases, the Drinking Water Inspectorate can provide technical advice to local authorities, and that facility should be made full use of. My office would be happy to provide all the details and contacts if my right hon. Friend does not have them.

I cannot give my right hon. Friend exactly what he has asked for, but he has raised an important issue. I think the review will be helpful in directing us, so we look forward to its outcome. I thank him again for bringing the matter to the attention of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.