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Water: Wales and England

Volume 830: debated on Wednesday 7 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what discussions, if any, they have had with Welsh Government Ministers concerning proposals to secure greater quantities of water for use in south-east England from sources in Wales and from rivers running from Wales to England.

Under the intergovernmental protocol, Defra and the Welsh Government collaborate on water resources management. Water companies have a statutory duty to provide clean and reliable water to customers. They have been consulting on their new water resources management plans, including the water infrastructure needed to meet their water-supply duties. The plans will be referred to the Secretary of State and Welsh Ministers for decisions on whether the plans can be finalised later this year.

My Lords, as this is the first Wales-specific opportunity in the House since the sad death of Lord Morris of Aberavon, I pay tribute on behalf of Plaid Cymru to his lifelong work for Wales. We extend our sympathy to his family.

We in Wales fully recognise the needs of south-east England for adequate supplies of drinking water, and that it may need additional capacity from Welsh reservoirs and agreed flows of waters down rivers emanating from Wales. However, will the Minister accept that it is not unreasonable for Wales to receive fair financial benefit for such water supplies and that development control over any such projects in Wales should be in the hands of Senedd Cymru and the relevant local authority?

I think that we all concur with the noble Lord on his condolences for Lord Morris.

There is a long-established protocol for transferring water from water-rich parts of the United Kingdom to areas where it is needed. Wales has been providing water to Liverpool and other cities in the north-west, and there are plans that water can now reach the Thames through a new arrangement. On charging, there are a number of existing transfers where water companies receive money from water companies in England for water that they have received from Wales, and that will continue. Additionally, there are investments in the Welsh catchments which protect water quality, support biodiversity and sequester carbon, and that finance does flow into those schemes.

As somebody of Welsh ancestry, who could have played rugby for Wales—although it is unlikely I would ever have caught the selector’s eye— I welcome how the water that falls on the beloved islands of the United Kingdom is used for the benefit of everybody in the United Kingdom. We thank the Welsh for storing water in Wales, but I understand that people on the Welsh side of the border use hospital services in Shropshire and elsewhere. Surely we should be grateful that we are a United Kingdom and that all members of the United Kingdom can use water and hospital services to their benefit.

I agree with my noble friend. There are a number of different actions in the Wales Act which will see more control over these issues in the Senedd when Section 48 is put into place—that is under negotiation now. On a small island such as this, there is a free-flowing use of services by businesses and individuals, and that will always continue.

My Lords, it is very sad that there is not more messaging around how precious and finite a commodity water is. When the British public were asked how much they use, they guessed between 20 and 40 litres a day; in actual fact, it is 145 litres a day. The Environment Act set a target of a 20% reduction within the next 10 years, but last year our use went up by 3.7%. What are the Government going to do in terms of public messaging to encourage people to use less of this precious stuff, whether we get it from Wales or from the water-stressed east?

The noble Baroness raises a crucial point. Household consumption amounts, on average, to 60% of public water supply and has decreased 5.2% since last year from 152 to 144 litres per person per day. This remains above the forecast of 136, but our environment improvement plan gives very strict targets for further reduction. Some of that is about communication, but it is also about demand-led measures, which can cause the dramatic reductions that we want to promote.

My Lords, in 2020 the Government reported that 3 billion litres—a huge 20% of the UK’s total supply—are lost every day through leakage from the pipes. Last month, Ofwat expressed concerns that some water companies do not have plans to meet the minimum requirement of a 50% reduction over the period 2017-18 to 2050. Can the Minister explain what urgent action is being taken to make sure that the water companies address this really serious concern?

Through our direction to Ofwat, the Government have made this an absolute priority. The latest figures show that three-quarters of companies are meeting their leakage targets and some have reduced leakage by more than 10% in the past two years. We will continue to crack down on the amount of water lost through leaks with targets; we expect leakage to reduce by 16% by 2025.

The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, is obviously right when she says that water supplies are limited and finite. On the other hand, if the water companies stopped all their leaks and if we built more reservoirs when there is surplus water, we would not have a problem.

There are plans for more reservoirs. A reservoir in East Anglia has increased in size and, I hope, we will very soon see plans being brought forward by Thames Water for a major reservoir that will resolve many of these issues. The reservoirs in London were closed because a ring main was created, which is sometimes quoted erroneously in this case.

My Lords, water is an essential resource, but we have seen it being polluted on a grand scale through legal sewage overflows. This week, we have also seen that the water network of Ukraine is vulnerable to catastrophic attack, causing great personal distress and huge environmental damage. The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, has highlighted the need to move water around the country, from areas of plenty to those suffering scarcity. Is the Minister confident that, nationwide, we have sufficient water resources to meet the current population’s demands?

If you draw a rough line from the Bristol Channel to the Wash, all that is north and west of it has a surfeit of water, but there are areas that are south and east of it where rainfall is often below that of some countries in sub-Saharan Africa. That is why our environment improvement plan sets a clear reduction of demand, halving leakage rates, developing new supplies, moving water to where it is needed and reducing the need for drought measures that can harm the environment.

My Lords, we all appreciate the urgency of ensuring sustainable water supplies for the entire country. However, 60 years on from the flooding of Capel Celyn, the sensitivities of the reallocation of Welsh water resources to English cities needs to be understood. As not a single reservoir has been built since privatisation in 1989, will the Minister update the House on what recent meetings Ministers have held with Thames Water, the National Infrastructure Commission and the relevant local authorities to discuss the proposed Abingdon reservoir and associated schemes?

The Abingdon reservoir was brought to Ministers over a decade ago, and the case made by Thames Water was not correctly put forward. We told them to go back and do it again. They have, and this will now be part of their water resources management plan, which will go to Ministers this year. I hope that we can learn from this. It should not take two to three decades for really important infra- structure to be built.

My Lords, my noble friend knows of my affection for the Wye, that glorious river. Can he give any encouragement on the cleaning up and reduction of pollution in that river since his last answer?

Agricultural pollution, primarily through slurry spreading and the use of inorganic fertilisers, was responsible for roughly 70% of the phosphate pollution in that extraordinarily beautiful river. My Secretary of State has made this a personal mission: she hosted a round table in Hereford, bringing together all the stakeholders, where the main focus was to find the best ways to restore this river to a favourable condition. She identified a key point: one local authority, which was then run by the Greens and independents, had not even looked at, let alone refused, the application for a phosphate-stripping plant, which was put in by a company that was using chicken manure to produce energy. We really need to make sure that we are joining things up so that local authorities, the Government, the regulators, water companies and farmers are all working together to save this river.

My Lords, I am grateful for the answers. I note the way that a question about a Welsh resource rapidly turned into an exchange of views about water in general. In asking my question, I pay fulsome tribute to my noble friend Lord Wigley in persistently asking for a listening ear for real Welsh concerns. It is not a question of generosity; Wales is happy to be generous. At the heart of my noble friend’s Question was a co-ordinated and focused policy with proper consultations and with a key role for the Senedd especially. I would like some reassurance that, of all the questions asked, that one was noted by the Minister.

The noble Lords, Lord Griffiths and Lord Wigley, are totally sincere in the points that they make. We are very keen that there should be an understanding of the need for fairness in all such discussions, whether we are talking about cross-border issues relating to water, the health service or the needs of a catchment such as the Wye, which we were just discussing. We treat these negotiations with the Welsh Government, Welsh organisations and local authorities very seriously and, I hope, with respect.