Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity in today’s Adjournment debate to raise the subject of the excessive abstraction of water from the river Ver in my constituency. It is a particular pleasure to have responding to the debate my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction whose creative mind, to my great admiration, has been fertile in producing ideas in his main sphere of housing. It is a privilege to have him applying his mind to the rather more narrow but still important matter which concerns me today. I imagine that it causes the Minister some wry amusement to find me complaining about the excessive dryness, rather than the wetness, of the valley in my constituency.

    But, in this matter ideology plays no part.

    The dwindling flow of the river has been of long-standing and intensifying concern to a great many of my constituents, especially those who live in Redbourn and in the city of St. Albans. Evidence of that concern is the large number of people who have written to me on the subject and who have attended public meetings in the constituency on it. I pay tribute to those who have provided me with detailed information from their lifelong experience of the area. I especially pay tribute to the work of the Ver valley society, the members of which have consistently devoted themselves to monitoring the river, improving it and ensuring that it is preserved. They have made its well-being a centre of their activities.

    There is plenty of historical evidence that the river used to be substantial. It is only in recent times that it has declined because of excessive abstraction of water from the sources which feed it. As a result, there has been substantial damage to the ecology and loss of leisure and amenity value.

    St. Albans owes its existence to the river Ver. The Romans built the town of Verulanium where the river broadened and became possible to ford. Archaeological remains show riverside walks which suggest that the river was then substantial enough to take barges bringing merchandise from Londinium.

    The earliest reports of St Alban’s martyrdom are from AD 209 and refer to the size and vigour of the river. Indeed, it was so strong that a miracle was required to cross it. The Turin manuscript records that: “When Alban was led like a lamb to the sacrifice, (he came to a river) whose rapid stream divided the wall from the arena where he was to be executed… The crowd was so numberous that they could hardly get across the bridge by evening… St Alban betook himself to the stream he had to pass to reach the place of martyrdom, and turned his eyes to heaven. Thereupon the river yielded to his footsteps and provided a dry bed”. As Arthur Swinson in his marvellous piece of detective work, “The Quest for St Alban” wrote: “The Ver as we know it today could hardly be described as rapid, and this fact has caused some scholars to argue that Alban was not executed at Verulanium but elsewhere”. However, the writer dismisses that because he rightly acknowledges that: “The river may have flowed more swiftly than today” as, indeed, it did.

    There is ample evidence, too, that for many centuries the river has been an abundant source of fish. Indeed, one of the earliest books on fishing, is called the “Boke of St Albans”. It was written in 1486 by the prioress of the Sopwell nunnery, which is close to the river, and suggests that the Ver was then teeming with trout. The city’s most famous street, Fishpool street, takes its name from the fish farm which was an important source of food for the abbey and local inhabitants.

    The river also used to power several water mills well into this century. One of them still survives intact and in working order at Kingsbury, but, alas, the river’s flow is now so meagre that it is hard to imagine that it ever turned the giant wheels of that mill.

    Most important of all, the river has always supplied household water to the steadily growing population. As early as 1696 the records of the St Albans water company refer to: “water running through young trees hollowed out as pipes”. Even in the previous century Francis Bacon boasted in his apothegms that his house at Gorhambury contained piped water which was carried to every room. Because the source was cut off and he faced an infinite charge to re-establish it, the Lord Chancellor built Verulam house nearer the river saying that since he could not carry water to his house, he would carry his house to the water.

    Although the Ver seems to have remained a flourishing substantial river until the middle of this century, since then it has dwindled in flow, shrunk in length, narrowed in width and become only intermittent upstream. I understand that 19th century explorers who endeavoured in vain to chart the course of the White Nile eventually concluded that it would be easier to pinpoint its destination than its source. That is even truer of the Ver as it seems to move its source from time to time.

    At one time the river is reputed to have begun as far upstream as Whipsnade. By the time the 1976 ordnance survey map was published it had shrivelled up in its higher reaches and started only at the village of Markyate. Now it cannot be traced much north of Redbourn and its flow around and above Redbourn is only intermittent. The nearby springs have already dried up.

    In 1976 the whole river dried up almost as far as St. Albans. Since then in the words of the Ver valley society’s excellent report, the river has “deteriorated to the level of a drainage ditch”. That decline has inevitably damaged the fish, flora and fauna which formerly thrived in the valley. For much of its length there is no longer any fishing. When anglers meet in the local pub and swop tall tales about, “The one that got away” and, “You should have seen how big it was”, they are referring to the river, not the fish.

    My constituent, Mr. Gray of Redbourn, who has been keeping observations for many years, said in a letter to me: “My observations at Redbourn show no sightings of the following bird species since 1980: Kingfisher, Yellow Wagtail, Heron and Snipe. Since 1980 the streams at Redbourn have frequently dried up, destroying all the fishes and thus breaking the food chain for many species”. Another constituent, school pupil called Robin Chapman who has a keen interest in conservation wrote: “In the few years I have been living in Redbourn the river Ver has been decreasing rapidly. In 1985 I spent a few whole days clearing out a pond in Redbourn with a conservation group. Now even that has dried up”. A fellow pupil, Josh Harrison, wrote: “I am very disappointed about the number of animals which have been forced to leave the area due to the river gradually losing water”. I am sure that most people share his sentiment. Mr. Kellard, who has been actively concerned with the Ver since giving evidence at the 1951 inquiry and before, tells me that farmers find “the river is sometimes too polluted for cattle to drink”. Apparently, the flow from the pure springs is inadequate to dilute the gunge of surface run-off.

    What has brought about this decline in a once flourishing river? It is certainly not a change in local climate. Unfortunately, the Ver valley has not been basking in dry Mediterranean heat while neighbouring valleys, which have not seen their rivers diminish in the same way continue to receive England’s traditional rains. The reason is simply the sharp increase in the abstraction of water since the last war to supply both a growing population and the industries of Luton. A.P. Herbert neatly reversed the causality when he wrote: “The population’s habit is to grow In every region where the water’s low”. In 1951 Luton corporation applied for a licence to abstract some 3.5 million gallons of water a day from the boreholes of Redbourn. At that time the local water company was already operating boreholes, including ones at Kensworth and Redbourn, which supplied 4.5 million gallons a day for St. Albans’ needs. Therefore, the application was opposed by St. Albans city council, Hertfordshire county council and the Thames water board and an inquiry was held.

    The inquiry was told that Luton’s need was urgent to allow the expansion of factories and the associated population in Luton and Dunstable, particularly for the General Motors works. Nevertheless, the inspector refused the application. His ruling was overruled and a provisional licence was granted by the Minister to abstract an additional 1 million gallons a day.

    In 1961, Parliament passed the Luton Water Order, which permitted that abstraction to be increased to 3.5 million gallons per day, and this licence subsequently passed to the management of the present Thames water authority. Other licences granted since 1961 permit a total of up to 11.2 million gallons per day to be abstracted from the Ver valley, and the actual off take is not far short of that at about 10.5 million gallons. This is more than double the off take at the end of the war and near the maximum that would be permitted.

    What can be done to restore the flow in the ailing River Ver? There are three options. First, and undoubtedly the best in the long term, is to reduce the amount of water abstracted from bore holes in the Ver valley. In the past, it has been suggested that the needs of Luton industry, which must obtain the necessary water to enable it to thrive, might be supplied from the Ouse valley and Graffham water. This should be considered as an alternative to pumping the Ver valley dry.

    Ultimately, there must even be a limit to the amount abstracted for domestic use in St. Albans. The only chance of curbing domestic use is the introduction of metering, once this becomes sufficiently cheap. I note that the Colne valley water authority’s corporate plan shows that metered demand in the area has been declining by 1 per cent. per annum, whereas unmetered demand continues to grow by 2 per cent. per annum. In practice, that is not likely to come about soon, and the population and the amount of housing are expanding.

    Given that we are near the maximum total offtake from existing licences, we shall soon face the crunch and we cannot permit any increase in the abstraction above the total level permitted so far. Pipelines will have to be established to bring water from further afield if that becomes necessary. That would be the perfect opportunity to take off the current excessive pressure from the Ver. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will press the Thames water authority to plan along those lines in its future planning.

    The second option was succinctly put by Richard Morgan, the chairman of the Redbourn parish council, who wrote: “the key to the whole problem lies in the fact that water abstracted from the Ver Valley is used in the Luton area, and then returned to the Lea Valley instead of the Ver”.

    Effluent from industry, if sufficiently purified, could he used to replenish the Ver in its upper reaches, but obviously this would he acceptable only if the used water were free of pollutants. There is already concern in the area about pollution because of the presence of a toxic waste plant at Redbournbury, for which there are proposals for expansion. That is another matter.

    The third option is the only one feasible in the short term. That is to pump compensatory water from elsewhere to the Ver when its level falls too low. The Luton Water Order 1961, which allows the abstraction of up to 3.;5 million gallons per day upstream specifies such action. It says that if the average flow in the Ver at St. Michael’s bridge is below 1 million gallons a day in a 72 hour period, the company may be required to provide up to 700,000 gallons a day of compensatory water to restore the flow to the 1 million gallons a day level.

    Such an order for restoration has been invoked only once, on 19 October 1978. The Colne valley water authority then met the requirement not by pumping in extra water from elsewhere, although a pipeline exists with an outlet at Shafford farm, but by stopping pumping at the Bow bridge pumping station until the river returned to the specified level. It is generally agreed that the flow in the late summer may be only a quarter of the 1 million gallons per day specified in the Luton Water Order 1961. However, action to require compensatory flows is not automatic. It has to be invoked and only St. Albans council can invoke it. It must first measure the flow accurately, but unfortunately the measuring equipment that was used in 1978 is no longer extant, and the telemetric apparatus that the council has been considering was costed at a prohibitive price of £25,000. It is inconceivable that cheaper equipment is not available to accomplish this comparatively simple task.

    There have been unconfirmed reports that portable equipment used in the Chiltern river Misbourne costs only about £400,000. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to make available his Department’s expertise to advise my local council on how to carry out cost-effectively its monitoring role. It would be absurd if, through lack of a measuring system, we lost our river, especially as we have spent £29,000 in recent years upon opening up the Ver valley walkway to enable people to enjoy the benefits of the river. It would be said if people who were out for a pleasant stroll along the bank of the river were to find that the river had vanished.

    If compensatory action were invoked to maintain the flow at St. Michael’s bridge at 1 million gallons a day, that would be only a partial solution. Under the current terms of the 1961 order, any compensatory water is liable to be delivered, or pumping reduced, well downstream of Redbourn, so the most vulnerable part of the river would not be restored.

    Under the Water Resources Act 1963, the Thames water authority has the power to establish minimum flow levels along the river. That is what is needed along the river Ver. I ask my hon. Friend to consider the implications of the Act and to impress upon the water companies the need to consider the environmental implications of their abstraction policy. The Act refers to the water authorities having regard to “in particular any natural beauty which the inland water and its surroundings may possess”.

    The characteristics of the upper reaches of the Ver have certainly been altered by the drying up of the river. The Act requires that that should be taken into account.

    I very much hope that the Thames water authority will decide to set a minimum flow for the Ver, following the study that it announced just before Christmas of the Ver and a number of other similarly vulnerable rivers. I welcome the decision to undertake this study. I believe that that decision was made following the representations that I and the Ver valley society made to it. In the first phase of the study the consultants will seek to establish what the Ver was like in the good old days before the depletion of recent decades. To that end they wish to obtain oral, photographic and written evidence from as many individual sources as possible.

    One of the main reasons for raising this issue today is the hope that the ensuing publicity will encourage those with first-hand or inherited experience of the Ver and its surrounding valley in the early years of the century to contact the consultants. Izaak Walton, who knew the Ver well, quoted the old saying, that
    “rivers and the inhabitants of the watery element were made for wise men to contemplate, and fools to pass by without consideration”.
    Those who have studied the river Ver are certainly among the wise men. I hope that their efforts to preserve and restore it will be rewarded. I am confident that my hon. Friend the Minister will give sympathetic consideration to this problem.

    The Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction (Mr. John Patten): My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Lilley) began by making some very kind remarks about me, which I greatly appreciated. However, there was a sting in the tail—a challenge to bend what intellectual equipment I am left with to this problem and look at it hard. My Department has been doing that, and it will continue to do so. My hon. Friend set many hares running in my mind and used an extremely telling phrase that will remain with me—pumping the Ver valley dry. He and his constituents do not want that to happen; nor does the Thames water authority or I want that to happen. That very important motif ran throughout my hon. Friend’s admirable speech. It will repay close reading.

    The historical arguments were telling, but as one went further and further up the headwaters of time they became more and more ingenious. We are used to being reminded about something that happened in the 19th century, but the reference to Dame Juliana in the 15th century was extremely interesting; and this is the first time that I have answered a debate when the historical evidence surrounding the martyrdom of a saint has been prayed in aid of a particular policy change that was asked for by a right hon. or hon. Member. My hon. Friend has had considerable correspondence with my Department and the Thames water authority in fighting this particular campaign with the co-operation of local residents and parish councils such as the Redbourn parish council. Everything that he has said has made us think more and more about this problem. I am grateful to him for the way he has aired the interests of the people in the valley and those who love the valley, and its environment.

    In replying to the debate I shall not be able to comment in detail on particular solutions, partly because the debate is premature—we do not have the results of the study commission, to which my hon. Friend has referred—and partly because I have to avoid prejudicing the position of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment should he, or any of us, subsequently be required to decide any appeal in connection with abstractions from the river. We do not have a case in front of us at the moment.

    My Department fully appreciates the concern of residents, conservationists and environmentalists in the area. That concern was expressed in a letter from one of my hon. Friend’s constituents about the lack of sightings of birds in recent years—the kingfisher, the snipe and others. That is exactly the kind of valuable evidence—although it is not for me to say—that should go to the engineers who are considering the background to this problem. We take that concern to heart. I was particularly struck by the anxiety of the person still at school who had been doing valuable conservation work, and the parish councils that have been involved, notably Redbourn.

    Had we more time, I would wish to set my hon. Friend’s remarks in the context of the Water Resources Act 1963, and give legislative chapter and verse to the background. My hon. Friend probably knows more about that Act than I do. I shall write to him in the next week or so in order to set the legislative context of what I am going to say.

    Let me make a few general remarks on the abstractions affecting the Ver. The feature that is of greatest relevance is the existence of the licences of right to which existing abstractors were entitled when the 1963 Act came into effect. My hon. Friend has already alluded to that fact. Those licences could relate to abstractions from ground water or surface water, and were normally granted in perpetuity.

    I understand from the Thames water authority that there are seven major ground water abstractions in the Ver catchment, all for public water supply, operated by water companies. They began before 1963 and have since been covered by licences of right. The total quantity licensed for these sources is 47.8 thousand cu m per day. I understand that abstraction within these limits has tended to increase over the past 15 years and is very close to them now.

    The total licensed quantity for all purposes is 53.4 thousand cu m per day, all ground water. Recharge to ground water resources from rainfall is estimated at 66 thousand cu m per day. Those are the figures and the best state of knowledge that we have before we receive the consultants’ report. The quantity of recharge will always be a debatable figure, because it is hard to work out from rainfall and the geology exactly what is going into the aquifers. No significant increases to licensed quantities have been allowed since licensing took effect in 1965, and no increases have been allowed to public supply abstractions. That is the present situation.

    I am no engineer, but it is obvious to me that the abstraction of water from a river will reduce flow unless all the water is returned upstream at the abstraction point. Where rivers and ground water are directly connected, as is often the case, the abstraction of ground water has the same effect, although it may take time to build up. Many rivers are affected to some degree by ground water abstraction, but how much depletion is acceptable has to be considered in striking a balance between the needs of water supply and the aquatic and associated environment. That is a major factor in assessing new licences.

    I understand from the Thames water authority that in determining new licences it is its policy not to cause new cases of unacceptably depleted rivers and not to exacerbate existing cases. That is its overall policy aim towards which I know that it works.

    However—it is quite a big “however”—in determining licences for right of ground water abstractions, depletion of river flow could not be taken into account unless the pre-existing right included a related condition. That was not usually the case when those rights were granted.

    However, in response to the concern which my hon. Friend and others of his constituents and those interested in the river and its diminishing river valley have expressed over recent years about the river, and some other chalk streams within the Thames area, the Thames water authority has recently commissioned a comprehensive study of the problem and, of course, the possible solutions. It has sought to find out the facts to see what could be done. The project has already started and the final report is scheduled for early 1988.

    The authority is to be commended on commissioning that study. It shows that it is fully alive to the environmental factors, and so it should be—I say that to the authority, as much as to my hon. Friend and his constituents—which my hon. Friend has rightly stressed in his speech. Needless to say, I entirely endorse my hon. Friend’s appeal to local residents, and those who know the valley and the history of the water, to make known their
    views and to give all possible historical and quais-historical evidence that is available to the consulting engineers so that the study can be conducted on as sound a basis as possible.

    However, the consulting engineers and others in the Thames water authority may find themselves a little at sea when we get back to Dame Juliana’s time. However, doubtless medieval historians from one of our great universities—say, Oxford—will be prepared for a fee to undertake some consultancy work.

    We know the objectives of the study. The possible solutions are seen to include such measures as relocating abstractions, providing alternative supplies from outside the affected catchment, redirection of sewage effluence, recirculation of river flows and physical changes to the river channel. Doubtless there are more. Doubtless they are not all self-exclusive. Doubtless a cocktail of all or some of them could in the end be thought suitable. They will not be cheap and the solutions will not be the same for all the rivers and not necessarily for all the rivers up and down the course of each river.

    As an integral part of the study, the authority’s consultants will be consulting interests outside the authority so that the public’s voice will be heard, both through individual suggestions and letters, which, doubtless, my hon. Friend will be passing on to the authority, and, of course, through consultation with the regional recreation and conservation consultative committees.

    I am sorry to hear that St. Albans city council has had difficulty in finding a suitable method of measuring the flow in the river. I suggest that it discusses the problem with the water authority. It might also wish to draw on the expertise of the Institute of Hydrology which is part of the Natural Environment Research Council. Those bodies may be able to help the city council with its problems in obtaining equipment which it can afford.

    I have no doubt that when it takes its decisions on the report, the authority will take full account of the concerns that my hon. Friend has put so lucidly this afternoon on behalf of his constituents and others concerned with the river and its future.