Scottish Tories urge rethink of water plan

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THE GOVERNMENT is facing mounting pressure to amend proposals to remove the Scottish water industry from local authority control after a referendum revealed that more than 97 per cent of voters in Strathclyde oppose the plan.

Ministers have dismissed the referendum as irrelevant but the chairman of Scottish Conservatives, Sir Michael Hirst, says they are wrong to do so. Tory councillors are now urging the Government to ensure that elected councillors form majorities on the new water boards which will be set up to run water and sewerage services.

Under government proposals, control of water services will be transferred from regional and island councils to three water boards, whose members will be appointed by Ian Lang, the Secretary of State for Scotland. The restructuring, ministers say, complements the planned reform of local government in Scotland.

But the results of last month's referendum, carried out by the Electoral Reform Society for Strathclyde Regional Council, show that 97.2 per cent oppose the plan. Some 1.2 million people - more than 70 per cent of those polled - took part in the referendum.

With opinion polls showing that support for the Conservatives north of the border has slumped to a record low of 13 per cent, Scottish Tories are urging ministers to re-examine the proposals.

Ian Hutchison, leader of the Tory group on the Convention of Scottish Authorities, said the proposals should be changed to ensure that elected councillors are appointed to the new boards. 'Board members should be directly responsible to the local electorate. I don't believe it is good enough for the Secretary of State to say they are responsible to him and through him to Parliament,' he said.

Although Cabinet ministers have rejected the pounds 700,000 referendum as an expensive and irrelevant stunt, Sir Michael said it was wrong 'to dismiss a result where 71 per cent of people chose to return their ballot papers'.

Labour says Sir Michael's remarks show the Tories are deeply split on the issue. George Robertson, Labour spokesman on Scottish affairs, said: 'The Conservative Party in Scotland is in turmoil. I am glad that at least some Tories recognise the voice of the people should be heard.

'Perhaps ministers are now going to be told that if they are going to survive they will have to change policy.'