Fate of Scottish water 'unclear'

First Edition

The fate of Scotland's water industry, at present run by regional councils, will be announced by the Government before the Commons rises in July for the summer recess, it was confirmed yesterday.

The announcement came from the Secretary of State for Scotland, Ian Lang, who admitted openly for the first time that privatisation was the least popular of the options the Government is considering for the industry.

Asked whether full-blown privatisation had emerged as the least popular of eight options to which the Government had sought public response, Mr Lang agreed: 'I don't think that is an understatement.'

His admission came as the Scottish Conservative Party announced the agenda for its annual conference in Edinburgh next month.

Widespread grass-roots support for water privatisation is strikingly absent from the agenda, published yesterday.

Seven motions were tabled on the issue - but none was selected for debate. One encourages the Government to transfer water to the private sector, and two call for it to stay in public ownership. None of the others wholeheartedly endorses privatisation.

The issue will be discussed in a wider-ranging debate on local government reform.

Mr Lang denied that the issue was giving the Government 'difficulties' in Scotland.

He gave no clue as to which of the eight options for the industry's future would be chosen, saying that a decision would be announced before the House rose in July.

He also confirmed that the Government was considering re-drawing Britain's regional aid map, which has prompted Labour fears that parts of Scotland could lose their assisted area status to regions of England more severely damaged by the recession.

Eight Cabinet ministers will address the Tories' three-day conference at Edinburgh's Meadowbank Sports Stadium from 12 to 14 May.

The Prime Minister is to address a rally at the end of the conference.

Other conference speakers will be the Chancellor, Norman Lamont; Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd; President of the Board of Trade, Michael Heseltine; Secretary of State for Transport, John MacGregor; Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke; Secretary of State for Defence, Malcolm Rifkind; and Mr Lang.

The IRA's bombing campaign has guaranteed that the tight security for the conference will be stepped up even more, with Meadowbank likely to resemble an armed fortress.