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Water Bill


8th September 2003

The opportunity to update our laws on a broad range of water issues is timely, not least because water demand has increased by more than 40 per cent. since the 1970s and massive new house building is likely in the south-east.

8.33 pm

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): The opportunity to update our laws on a broad range of water issues is timely, not least because water demand has increased by more than 40 per cent. since the 1970s and massive new house building is likely in the south-east, an area of relative water shortage.

Gravel quarrying, and therefore water extraction, is a significant industry in Huntingdonshire. I should like to disclose a non-registrable shareholding in Thames Water.

Recently, there seems to have been a significant change in the way in which the public view water-effectively, from its being a given right, to be used without thought, towards its being a relatively scarce resource or even a commodity. Public education has contributed to that, not least through the effects of drought and the loss of rivers.

Privatisation has played its part, because water is now given a monetary value against which use and investment can be measured. There have been improvements, not least in piping, which, helped by decent rainfall earlier in the year, has contributed to there being no hosepipe ban this summer, for which my garden will be eternally thankful.

I accept that large abstractions need to be controlled for the management of drought and flooding, for environmental reasons and to provide equality between abstractors. I note the Environment Agency's fair point that, in some areas where exempt abstractions operate, licensed operators have been unable to take their valid entitlement. Unsurprisingly, given its significant new powers, the agency has been supportive of the Bill, but it will be important to review how the powers work in practice, not least those in clause 27, which allows the agency to revoke or vary abstraction licences after July 2012 if they cause environmental damage.

However, what is now seen as environmental damage is very different from what it was, say, 10 years ago or what it may be by 2012. I recently visited the airbase at Molesworth and was proudly shown the thriving water colonies of great crested newts, which nowadays would prevent any development on that land. However, given that businesses frequently invest on a 25-year or more basis, how will the Government satisfy businesses on their real concerns about losing the ability to trade, possibly with no compensation?

The system of appeals to the Secretary of State seems weak. As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) said earlier, the public sector itself is a large user of water. I ask the Minister whether the agency, which is an arm of Government, and the Secretary of State on appeal, are the right people to judge public sector licence applications. Does that not invite political interference, which the Government are rightly changing in their competition decisions?

Furthermore, I am not entirely satisfied with the accountability of the Environment Agency, which will take significant powers under the Bill, mainly from local government elected members. Decisions on licences will no longer be taken by a committee of elected members, but by an officer of the local agency. I have a good relationship with my local agency staff, but that is not the case everywhere, as hon. Members have said. What happens if the agency gets it wrong? Where is the accountability? I should be grateful if the Minister would address that point.

I have fears that the Bill represents yet another example of the Government's frequent desire for centralisation and of their lack of concern for local democracy. Flooding is a vital issue in my constituency, where all four market towns and 25 of the 50 villages are threatened by flooding annually. The issue, although of course requiring a strategic overview, normally comes down to dealing with the nitty gritty of flood defences village by village, if not street by street. Therefore, I fail to see how local concerns will be better served by the far-off distance of the new regional flood defence committees.

Many businesses, not least the quarries in my constituency, are concerned about the proposed maximum 12-year licences.

Mr. Morley: I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the powers in the Bill are to create more regional flood defence committees. Although the local ones are to be abolished, there will be one tier. We recognise that there is an issue about local democracy and accountability. At the moment, there is a limit on the number of regional committees. We intend to remove that, so that we can have more committees to take that point into account.

Mr. Djanogly: I hear what the Minister says; this will be worth further review in Committee. If removing a level of government is the same as what the Government propose for regional government, I shall still have concerns.

Many businesses, not least quarries, are concerned about the 12-year licences. When that issue was debated in another place, the Minister noted that 12 years was the agency guideline, not a maximum written into the Bill. Indeed, this Minister repeated that today. Presumably, a guideline can be changed at any time, but that is little comfort for businesses that wish to have certainty to invest on a 30-year or more basis, particularly when the agency has been making it clear that the 12-year limit will not be extended.

For that reason, I support the view that licences should be issued for the same period as the planning permission. Not only would that provide certainty to the applicant, it would ensure that the local authority and the agency were forced to work together towards the same objectives. Importantly, it would ensure that a degree of local democracy-and, therefore, accountability-would be retained within the process.

The trading of water rights, as consulted on by the Government, would be environmentally friendly and would improve the efficient sharing of water rights. Will the Minister explain why the Bill does not introduce these measures? I know that many of the examples given by the Government as to how the new licences work do not concentrate on the cost of required environmental reports, which are expensive, quite apart from the costs of any conditions on which the agency would have the right to insist. The implications of those extra costs need to be considered more fully in Committee.

Finally, I wish to refer to fluoridation. Have we really advanced so little that the Government need again to tell us what we have to put in our tea? It is sad that, despite the potential for links with other diseases, the Government seem intent on permitting the indiscriminate mass medication of the country when they are, at best, unsure of the potential consequences. Clearly, tooth decay among children is a problem, but I suggest that the Government should worry more about public health campaigns for teeth and for balanced nutrition and against obesity-and that they sort out the lack of dentists in this country-rather than permitting the spiking of our children's Ribena.

Apart from the nanny state principle of mass medication, the clause is riddled with difficulties. There is not nearly enough explanation as to how it will work.

How much power would a health authority have to compel a water company to include the chemicals? What penalty will the water company face if it refuses? How much local opposition to fluoridation would be sufficient for it to be considered unwanted? If the Bill passes, we can expect to see a raft of statutory instruments in the next few Sessions as this turns into a general debacle.

Fluoride apart, my view is that the Bill is generally good on direction but short on the fine-tuning. I hope that the Government will listen to the valid comments made during the passage of the Bill as much as they have listened to the Environment Agency during the drafting.

8.42 pm



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