Richard Benyon speech – Future Water conference at the Royal Geographic Society

Richard Benyon speech – Future Water conference at the Royal Geographic Society.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Richard Benyon

The first written account of society dealing with drinking water comes from ancient Mesopotamia in around 200 BC when public sanitation laws required cisterns and wells to be separated by at least 75 feet from cemeteries, tanneries and slaughterhouses.

The Romans were famous for transporting their drinking water via aqueducts to their cities. Nine of these conduits delivered water to ancient Rome. Although the quality of Roman water was poor in comparison to today it was the best quality drinking that humans would use for fourteen centuries. When Rome fell Western civilisation fell too.

It was only in the late 1800s when the science of microbiology and chemistry began to develop that the link was made between pathogens in the water supply and the spread of human disease.

Many people in today’s world continue to struggle to find clean water.

Here in Britain we are lucky.

We enjoy a high quality, safe and reliable water supply to our homes and businesses.

I’m keen to see this continue and offer my support to a water industry that secures a reliable water supply for all our needs today and in the future.

At the same time helping maintain robust protection for our environment.

It’s clear this resource will need to be increasingly cherished.

Particularly set against the backdrop of an increasing population and ever changing climate.

As well as changing lifestyles and energy consumption.

All will contribute to a landscape that will require us  to manage our water supply more efficiently in the future.

It won’t just be about getting through a long dry summer or a few months of torrential rain every other winter.

It will be about long term water management policy.

It will be about effective and sustainable management of demand.

It will be about innovative improvements in water efficiency and influencing behavioural change.

All of which will help reduce inadvertent water wastage and have little or no impact on our quality of life.

We have been facing exceptional circumstances with the driest start to the year in England and Wales for 80 years.
The North West, is currently affected by drought conditions.

I’m confident we have a robust framework in place for dealing with this type of situation.

All of which acts as a backdrop to the need for reform of the water sector.

The Cave Review - is integral to this process.

Focussing on the competition and merger regimes and increasing the innovative capacity of the sector.

We are considering Cave’s recommendations. Implementing these changes would bring new opportunities, for example  enabling large businesses and other customers to switch supplier to seek better prices and customer service.

And in response water companies would need to look to drive down inefficiencies and innovate.

It’s a valuable report.

I hope it will help us develop proposals for reform which will  produce greater efficiencies within the industry.

I hope it will help deliver improved services for all.

And I mean all.

It’s important everyone can afford to have access to a reliable water supply.

The Walker Review highlighted the fact that there are no easy answers to how water should be paid for.

But clearly the bottom line is the protection of those on low incomes.

This issue is of particular importance to people in the South West of the country.

So much so its reaching a political crescendo.

One of the ideas discussed by Anna Walker in her report was the suggestion of raising a levy across the rest of the country to help.

There’s some pretty big ticket items coming down the track. The Thames Tideway for instance.

I want to focus particularly on those who cannot afford to pay.

Ofwat are putting together options for the South West.

I wouldn’t want to pre-empt their advice.

But pressures don’t just exist in the South West.

The demand for new homes in the water stressed South East bring different pressures.

Pressures that include increased demand for water.

Coupled with the need for people to use less water.

The contentious issue of metering is one option. It gives customers information about their water use - information is power, and an incentive to reduce it.
But increased metering brings its own affordability challenges, and we will carefully consider Anna Walker’s recommendations for tackling these.

Long term management of water is not just important for us it’s also important for the natural environment.

Here we’ve made a good deal of progress

Our rivers are cleaner. As are our bathing waters. And our beaches.

This has been achieved through winning the battle with point source pollution.

But diffuse pollution is still an issue.

The Water Framework Directive makes it an even more urgent challenge to address.

It sets ambitious targets for improvements in water quality over the coming years.

From 2012 we estimate the additional future costs of meeting WFD will be £30-50 million each year.

Who will meet these costs? The majority of the cost in the first planning round of the Water Framework Directive falls on water companies.

We need to look for new ways to tackle water pollution at source.

There are excellent local examples of what can be done to fight this problem.

United Utilities own an important agricultural area of moorland in the North West

A vital water catchment area because of its ability to store rainwater.

An area that also had problems with soil erosion, and run-off from farming.

United Utilities developed the Sustainable Catchment and Management Project with local farmers, land managers and the RSPB.

SCaMP, as it is affectionately known, has provided funding to improve the way famers manage the land through simple measures like restoring bogs, peat and woodland habitats.

This sort of approach can be effective at reducing water treatment costs and is the type of thing I want to see become synonymous with good practice in the farming sector.

Because access to a reliable clean water supply underpins our economy.

As a new Government we see this as a vital issue too.

We’re committed to producing a Water White Paper.

It’s the right time to do it.

It’s now twenty years after privatisation of the industry.

It gives us an opportunity to focus on the future challenges.

It provides a steer for the industry and potential investors.

It works in tandem with our other commitments to the natural environment. Particularly on issues such as water quality and availability.

So I’m pleased to announce today our intention to publish this Water White Paper in early summer next year.

It gives us the opportunity to establish a step change in the way water is used and the way it is valued.

It’s clear securing the right change is a joint responsibility. We’ll all benefit if we get it right, we’ll all suffer if we get it wrong.

So to that end I plan to keep the lines of communication open through the development of the Water White Paper.

As part of this process we will also consult on the issues raised in Anna Walker’s Report this autumn

This approach to the water sector will contribute to this Government’s wider goals.

To our economic goals - supporting the sector in building a profitable, innovative and competitive industry.

To developing strong connections between the industry and its customers.

Focussing on social goals with a view to supporting the industry’s wider contribution to the economy.

And environmentally we want to see industry make a positive contribution too.

So as you can see there’s a lot at stake.

The quality of the water we use is paramount to the quality of life we lead.  It’s imperative we secure and maintain this valuable resource. A resource vital not only to the environment and people’s health but to the prosperity of our country.

Thank you.

Published 13 July 2010