§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. Kennedy.]
§ Mr. SHAKESPEARE
I wish to raise, on this Motion, the question of the Ouse drainage. It may be refreshing for Members to leave the stormy and sometimes flippant arena of electoral reform and be taken to the green meadows which are watered—perhaps one should say over-watered—by the Great Ouse. This is a problem which is still unsettled, and seemingly insoluble. It is a problem that has been with us since the days of King John. Oliver Cromwell had a hand in draining the Ouse. For 300 years nothing was done in regard to it, while this country turned its attention to Colonial development. It is only recently, when the party to which I belong drew the attention of the country to the possibility of developing the Empire at home, that the question of the drainage of the Great Ouse has become more prominent.
May I say a word on the problem and on the scheme? The mouth of the Ouse is silting up very fast. The flow of the river takes about three hours and the ebb about nine. The result is that Bang's Lynn, which used to be the sixth port of the country, is rapidly silting up and is becoming more and more difficult of access from the point of view of navigation. Not only that, but there are scores of thousands of acres in the upper reaches which are flooded for two or three months in the year, and, therefore, cannot be cultivated. The river itself is not navigable except for a very short distance. There is imminent danger of the whole area being flooded if there should happen an act of God, and there would be a very great loss of life and permanent damage. A Bill was promoted by the Government in 1927, but it came to a sorry end. It was referred to a Joint Committee, but 168 got no further because the intractable problem of rates came up, and it was dropped. Last year the Government promoted the Land Drainage Act, under which the country was divided up into drainage areas with catchment boards for each area. In January of this year the Ouse Catchment Board was appointed.
It will be sked what is the problem, if the Ouse Catchment Board has only just been appointed and is presumably working out a scheme. There is a scheme which has been worked out to the last detail in conjunction with the engineer to the Board of Agriculture and the engineer of the old drainage board which preceded the present catchment board. I am told on good authority that at least half of it is ready to put into operation to-morrow. Last week it was adopted by the catchment board itself, and there is nothing whatever to prevent its operation but the sanction of the Minister and the necessary financial provision. The scheme itself will cost about £6,000,000, spread over six or seven years, and it will employ about 7,000 persons for six or seven years. Half of the scheme can be started within a week. It will cost about £3,000,000 and will employ 4,000 persons. The main part of it is building up artificial banks for four miles beyond the coast. Although the scheme is ready, nothing will be done, and the problem will still remain unsettled unless the Minister makes up his mind that this is a national scheme which must be tackled in a national way and undertakes to make financial provision for it. The Catchment board is allowed to issue a precept to the county council to levy a rate. Anybody who has had any experience of drainage schemes knows that no owner of land is prepared to pay a drainage rate even for the drainage of the river along whose banks he lives, and if we leave the board to find the finance by a rate the scheme will never go through.
The scheme will cost £6,000,000. Assume that you can borrow that at 4 per cent., the interest will be £240,000. Assume that you can rescue 7,000 men from the dole at £60 a year, the saving to the State in that direction will be £420,000 a year. Therefore, for the first six or seven years, there will be a yearly saving of £180,000, the difference between the interest, on the £6,000,000 loan and £420,000, the saving on the dole. Thereafter, 169 the following assets will accrue. Thousands of acres in the upper reaches which are now uncultivable for two or three months in a year will be rescued. That will mean a very considerable sum added to the capital value of the acres which will come back in taxation. There will be an improvement of the port of King's Lynn, even though it may not regain the position of being the sixth port; the river will become navigable for some distance; 3,000 acres of good fen land will be reclaimed at the mouth of the Ouse; there will be £250,000 in housing and huts, and 7,000 men will be given good employment for six or seven years. That is why I am raising this matter, because in Norfolk, suffering as we are from a high rate of unemployment, especially in Norwich, where we have 6,000 men capable of manual work, we anticipated some of them will be included in the 6,000 or 7,000 men who will be employed on this very essential national scheme. Above all, and this is the main purpose of the scheme, the threat of inundation of the whole Ouse Basin will be removed.
All those assets will accrue. Anybody can see it is a scheme of very great national importance, not only of benefit to East Anglia and the counties adjoining the Wash, but to the whole country. I believe it would be a priceless investment. The late Minister of Agriculture was very interested in the scheme, and in 1927 he earmarked £2,000,000 for it. What happened to that I do not know, but it was earmarked subject to the approval of this Ouse Drainage Bill. The House will remember that very large reclamation work has been undertaken by the Dutch on the Zuyder Zee, but, owing to the economic blizzard, some of the members of the Upper House have pressed the Government to stop the whole thing. An enterprising Dutch paper asked several prominent Dutchmen whether they thought it would be wise to stop the scheme in view of the financial situation. This was the reply from Sir Henry Deterding:It is far better to invest money in the Zuyder Zee works than to spend it on the dole as we do here in England.This scheme is being carried on. The only snag in the scheme I am advocating is the financial one. The Minister of Agriculture had the reputation of getting things done in the old days when he was 170 at the Ministry of Munitions, and I think he has shown himself more than anybody on that bench capable of getting things through the House. I do not know that is a very great compliment, but I mean it as a compliment, and I do hope he will tackle the Chancellor of the Exchequer or confer with the authorities and get the finances arranged by submitting the scheme to the Unemployment Grants Committee. There is not one chance in a million of the scheme ever going through if it is left to the rates, but, if it is treated as an urgent unemployment scheme which will employ 7,000 men within six months, the scheme will go through and will bring great benefit to the whole country.
I hope that when, 20 years hence, the right hon. Gentleman reads back in history he will find that, just as the name of King John is always mentioned in connection with the Wash, sc his name will be mentioned in connection with the great Ouse, with the footnote, that, whereas the former last his baggage in the Wash, the right hon. Gentleman gained a great reputation.
§ The MINISTER of AGRICULTURE (Dr. Addison)
I am sure that the House has been greatly encouraged and cheered by the speech of the hon. Member, as indeed I have been encouraged and cheered. It is comforting to find that a problem which has baffled kings and other authorities from the time of King John, including Oliver Cromwell, is about to be solved so easily. I am afraid that I am not quite as sanguine as the hon. Member, but perhaps it is because I have gone into the problem. He has not quite taken account of all the important difficulties which necessarily are involved. I am grateful to him for not charging us with any undue delay. As a matter of fact, it is only the passage of the Land Drainage Act of last year which has enabled us to proceed with the matter. As he said, the previous history of attempts to deal with this problem has been most unfortunate. That Act was passed in August, and we proceeded forthwith to map out and de-limit the district, and I may say that we prepared a lot of mapping and survey work in anticipation of the Bill becoming law. The map will be required to be submitted to all the local authorities. The problem involves the whole of the 171 catchment area of the Ouse, a large territory, involving parts of Lincolnshire, Norfolk and elsewhere. A very large part of it is below the level of the river and the danger is great, and, indeed, as time goes on, is becoming greater.
When we are confronted with a great undertaking of this kind, we must deal with it in a proper way. Had it not been for our anticipatory work for the catchment board, which was set up, I think, in record time, seeing the large number of authorities and negotiations and all the rest that had to be dealt with, it would have been necessary in the ordinary course, after that board had been set up, to undertake surveys and prepare plans and so forth. Instead of that, we anticipated those necessities, and arranged in advance, as well as we could, for plans to be prepared with details of what was required. I thank the hon. Member for the tribute he has paid to us in that respect. The scheme is now before the catchment area board.
§ Dr. ADDISON
It is one thing to adopt a scheme on paper, but quite a different thing to get contractors' estimates and precise details of quantities and all the rest of it, and to be satisfied that the estimates are reasonable and to be prepared to criticise the estimates, and come to a suitable arrangement with the internal drainage district, of which I see one doughty champion on the benches behind. I think that the hon. Member has scarcely—
§ It being Eleven of the Clock the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. Kennedy.]
§ Dr. ADDISON
I think the hon. Member has scarcely recognised the nature of the problem, which must be dealt with as expeditiously as possible, before the finance of the scheme is settled. A considerable number of internal drainage districts, some of which are very powerful, and in regard to which the conditions are very complicated, are included in whatever is proposed. The scheme in a number of sections is a vast project, but 172 because of the anticipatory work it was got ready almost as soon as the board was constituted. Now that it has to be discussed financially, various issues will arise with the different authorities concerned. The work will have to be put up to tender and we shall have to make sure that the prices proposed for the undertaking are fair prices in the public interest. When you are dealing with vast undertakings of this kind, which have baffled people from King John down to myself—I do not admit that I am baffled—you cannot expect that a scheme which was only considered by the board the other day can be started to-morrow. Who is going to start it to-morrow? Someone must be responsible for starting the work, assembling the apparatus, getting out the contracts, arranging for the supply of materials. The work will certainly be of a prodigious character for a scheme of this kind. It is not quite proper for the hon. Member to expect me to agree when he says that the scheme could be started next week or to-morrow.
§ Mr. SHAKESPEARE
I am told by the people who have studied the scheme very closely that that is the actual fact, subject to the tenders being got out and the financial provisions being made.
§ Dr. ADDISON
I am intimately acquainted with the facts, but this is a stage where I do not feel able publicly to speak with perhaps as much freedom as may be the case later on. The hon. Member knows that if you have great public works to deal with, you must prepare your plans and estimates—in that respect a great deal has been done—put them out to tender, give a reasonable time, and specify the conditions. All that takes time. I can assure the hon. Member and the House that, just as we have anticipated the possibilities, we shall lose no time and spare no effort in making progress as rapidly as we can. We are nearly nine months ahead of scheduled time, if this had been treated as an ordinary enterprise. The question still has to be decided, as to who is going to pay for it, how much is it going to cost, and in what proportions are the different parties going to pay. Those are issues which are not going to be settled overnight. He is much more sanguine than I as to the finances of this great project.
173 It would be quite easy if I were in the position of being able to say "Yes, we will pay for it," but I am not; and I am afraid that we cannot approach this question in that light spirit. It must be conducted and prosecuted on sound businesslike lines, which any economist can defend. It will cost a lot of money, and we must secure that it is done properly and that every precaution is taken to see that no more money is spent than ought to be spent. We have to remember that under the Land Drainage Act provision is made for contributions from those in the area, and I hope that the hon. Member will use his influence in the district to secure that these contributions are as handsome as possible and that he will not look to myself or the Chancellor of the Exchequer to do more than can be fairly expected. All these considerations have to be borne in mind, and I am sure that the hon. Member and the House will believe me when I say that we are doing everything we can to press forward with this scheme. We have gone ahead with the preparation of the necessary details, but we are not committed to any undertaking with regard to finance. We have not yet reached that stage, but the matter is receiving and will receive our closest attention.
§ Mr. de ROTHSCHILD
I have listened with great interest to the speech of the Minister of Agriculture and I conclude from it one thing—that he is going to do the job. He has said so; but he does not know when, and he does not know how. I should like to urge him to hasten on with the work. He knows that the project was sent by the Ministry of Agriculture to the Ouse Drainage Board last Thursday and thoroughly approved by them. They ask that the work should be carried out and that it should be financed to the extent of 95 per cent. That figure may sound excessive to the right hon. Gentleman at the present moment, but I should like to remind him of what he said when the Land Drainage Bill was under discussion:should not rule out any figure at the moment.I hope that he has not changed his mind. I want to point out to him that the scheme is no less urgent now than it was a year ago when be said: 174unless the river is deepened and the water carried out into the Wash, sooner or later a catastrophe must occur over one of the richest districts in the country.If such a catastrophe does occur the cost that will fall on the Treasury will be far greater than the cost of the work which is before the Ministry at the present time. As regards the State contribution, the right hon. Gentleman on the Second Reading of the Land Drainage Bill said:We recognise that it must be a generous and adequate contribution.And the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture in the last Government when discussing the Ouse Drainage Bill said much the same thing. The special reasons for generosity in this case are, to my mind, the high cost, coupled with the agricultural depression. The cost will fall mainly on agricultural districts: only a few towns, Bedford being the possible exception, come within the area. Secondly, the land reclaimed will be the property of the State under Section 76 of the Land Drainage Act.
§ Mr. de ROTHSCHILD
I am referring to the land at the mouth of the Ouse, the 3,000 acres which will be reclaimed. I need not stress the point of the saving in unemployment benefit, but there is one more point that I want to put. So far as the Ouse Board does require to borrow for this scheme, it will require the Minister's sanction. That is under Section 46 of the Land Drainage Act. In giving such sanction, I hope the Minister will give due consideration to the question how far certain districts within the catchment area, which will not benefit by the scheme, will be burdened with the liability of these loans.
§ Mr. WELLS
I opposed this Ouse drainage scheme in 1927 and also when the last Act was passed because in the uplands we were called upon to pay for benefits from which we received no advantage. That is one of the great difficulties with which I think the Minister will be faced in the raising of money. I know that there will be a limit on the county councils, beyond which they may not go in raising money. I believe it is a twopenny rate. But even then the county from which I come will not receive any benefit.
§ Mr. WELLS
There are 11 counties in the Ouse drainage area. There are certain upland counties which, we have claimed in the past, do not receive benefit in return for what they will be called upon to pay. In North Bedfordshire we look upon our grass lands that are subject to flood as some of the most valuable lands that we have. They are grazing lands. They are more valuable to-day than the "arable lands. In North Bedfordshire the arable land is very poor and cold land, and the value is very low. Yet we are to be called upon to pay something towards this scheme of drainage which, after all, brings benefits to some of the richest land in the country. We have objected throughout to spending large sums of money on Ouse drainage. The hon. Member for Norwich (Mr. Shakespeare) mentioned that King John lost his baggage in the Wash. We shall probably lose a great deal more treasure in the Wash. We claim in the uplands that we do an immense amount of good for the river. It is our floods that clean the channel.
§ Mr. WELLS
I have been to the mouth of the Ouse and have seen the sand coming up with the tide, which rises 25 feet in three hours. The tide brings an immense quantity of sand with it. It is the water flowing down the river that clears the channel; otherwise the channel would be blocked in 48 hours. The expense would then be enormous. The Minister very wisely did not mention what the total cost would be. In 1920 it was put at about £240,000. In 1927 It was put at between £2,000,000 and £3,000,000. We have heard from the hon. Member for Norwich (Mr. Shakespeare) that it is now anticipated that it will be £6,000,000. At that rate, in another three or four years it will have risen to £16,000,000. Once you start to bank the channel out to the sea, the cost is going to be enormous. When you get the channel three or four miles out, you will find it necessary to take in two or three more miles before 176 reaching deep water and gaining the advantage that you want. I know there are great difficulties. It will take a great deal of money in the future to clear the channel. On behalf of the upland areas I object to being called upon to pay money to clear the mouth of the Ouse for the benefit of the fen areas when receiving no benefit ourselves.
§ Sir ERNEST SHEPPERSON
I cannot allow the speech of the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Wells) to go unchallenged. He has said that the uplanders will get no advantage from any activities on the Ouse and that all the benefit will go to the lowland or fen areas. At the moment, in the opinion of those in the fens, those areas are not in immediate danger. The work on the Ouse which will be done by the catchment board, will benefit the upland areas equally with the fen areas. It has been suggested that the activities on the Ouse are solely to protect the fen areas from being flooded and that the upland area should not bear any responsibility for what happens to the water which comes down to the fen areas in the ordinary course of nature. The fen areas can deal with the water which comes down as nature ordained it should come down, slowly and steadily. We have dealt with it in the past and can deal with it in the future, but the water is not coming down as nature meant. There are activities in the uplands—houses and streets being made, and macadam roads and land drainage—all of which have this result—that an inch of rainfall, instead of taking a week or a fortnight to get into the river, goes into the river in one or two days. It is that fact which causes the difficulty in the fen area, and for that reason we say that we are justified in asking a contribution from the upland areas. There is a silting-up at the mouth of the Ouse, but the hon. Member for Bedford may not know about the experience of three men in a boat—three Members of Parliament—who got stranded at the mouth of the Ouse at low tide. Their boat was stuck, not on a sandbank, but on a bank of weeds and the weeds came from the upland area. It is the weeds coming from the upland area and settling down in the Wash that cause the silting up of the Wash, and we 177 ask you to contribute something towards removing it.
I agree with my hon. Friend that we want to get on with this activity at the mouth of the Ouse, and the Minister desires to get on with it. I can inform him very definitely that there is only one way in which that work will be proceeded with, and that way is by his finding the money for the purpose. under the recent Land Drainage Act the Ouse Catchment Board is now functioning, and the receipts of the board are from two sources. The first is from a precept on the county council for a certain sum which is limited, unless the council agree otherwise, to 2d. in the £. There is no limit to the second source of income, which is a precept upon the internal drainage authority. If this work is done, and if it is not paid for by the State, the amount will have to be borne by the Ouse Catchment Board, who are limited in their precept from the upland area, with an unlimited precept in the lowland area. I want to inform the Minister that such is the condition of agriculture in the lowland area that they cannot bear to-day the precept that will come upon them, so I ask him not to proceed with that activity, not to urge the Ouse Catchment Board to proceed with it in connection with this scheme, until he can give a definite assurance that he is prepared, at any rate, to subscribe a sum equal to that which has been asked for by my own Member in this House, the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. de Rothschild).
§ Mr. BEAUMONT
I have had a certain amount of experience of this question as a member of a county council and a local authority, which has been in it almost violently from the beginning, and I want to join in the appeals to the Minister, to which he seems only too ready to respond, to hasten slowly. It would be undesirable to cause this Debate to develop into a dispute between upland and lowland areas. I admit that there is something to be said for both sides. It may be true that the upland areas have some responsibility in the matter. It is equally true that they certainly, as far as the extreme upland areas are concerned, would derive no benefit; but I do not think the Minister would demand an unreasonable contribution from them, 178 and I am reinforced in that hope by the fact that both the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. de Rothschild) and the Minister himself would be forced, I understand, to pay a portion of any increased contribution that fell on the upland areas, because they both live in Buckinghamshire and it is upon Buckinghamshire that an unjust demand would most severely fall. I suggest that this is a matter that needs the most extreme care. Every kind of conflicting interest is involved. It is desirable that no injustice be done, and while I, though a representative of one of the upland areas, am extremely anxious to see the scheme go through, as I think on the whole it would be of national benefit, I appeal to the right hon. Member not to be led away by his desire to defeat the various great men who have been baffled by the scheme. He will not make any progress until he is certain that the best scheme has been brought forward, and that the minimum of injustice will be done.
§ Mr. WARDLAW-MILNE
There is one question which I should like to ask the Minister, and I ask it, in view of what he said, with considerable diffidence, and if he does not feel that he can reply I shall not press it. It has been pretty generally reported that the Minister has had put before him a definite and satisfactory scheme, and also that, though tenders may not have been formally before him, he has in fact got tenders which, so far as they have been examined, are satisfactory. Is he in a position to say that the scheme is satisfactorily settled to that extent, and that the only real trouble is the question of finance? I do not press the question in view of the many difficulties in settling these matters, but it will be interesting to know whether finance is really the only thing that is stopping the scheme.
§ Dr. ADDISON
I am not in a position to give details, and I do not think it would be advantageous that I should. The hon. Member courteously recognised that in advance. We have had before us, as he is aware, very considerable details, with various provisional figures attached to them, but I do not think that at this time it would be advantageous for me to say more than that.
§ Mr. W. B. TAYLOR
I would like to congratulate the Minister upon the grip 179 he has got upon this very grave and critical position in regard to the Ouse drainage. A very large portion of the constituency which I have the honour to represent is vitally affected by it, and I should be sorry if it were to go forth from this House that it is considered in any way practicable to start the scheme next week. It would create in the minds of our local people, without the knowledge of the facts, an impression that would be quite erroneous in face of the actual gravity of this intricate problem. There are two factors which are more favourable than hitherto. The first is that there is a unanimity of opinion amongst those interested in the 180 catchment area on this great question of drainage, and on the new catchment area board a better feeling than there has been for a great many years in regard to the main problem to be faced. We have just had one or two sidelights on the real difficulties which will emerge, but judging from the spirit displayed to-night and the assurances given by the Minister I feel that we have reached a stage where we might recognise quite frankly that nothing more can be done than the Minister is doing to expedite the business.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Eleven o'clock.