§ 4.11 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Greenwood
I wish to raise a matter of urgent and definite national importance. There are many such matters, but one must be singled out on an occasion of this kind. I wish to speak of the floods which have recently taken place, and more especially of the position in the Fen district. If I do not refer to other districts, it is not because I do not realise that they have their problems; but this happens to be an outstanding case where action is needed. It has been my duty to speak against Ministers of Health because there was drought. It now falls to my lot to speak against a Minister of Agriculture because there is too much water. The only things of which I cannot accuse this Government are things which would be described in law as acts of God. Therefore, I blame the Government neither for drought nor for floods. But at least there is a responsibility on the Government of the day to deal with this problem.
Those who have followed the newspapers in recent weeks will have noticed what has been happening in East Anglia—a titanic struggle between man and relentless Nature, a grim fight between the men and women of the countryside and uncontrolled or virtually uncontrolled natural forces. As I have read the newspapers, including the local newspapers of East Anglia, this seems to me to have been one of the heroic struggles of peace time. An epic might be written about it; a master of the pen might write something of this great struggle which would live for all time. I have not the powers to describe what life is like in these days in the Ouse Valley area—the wearing anxiety of the whole population hour by hour, day by day, week by week, the unceasing labour of men and women by day and by night, by night with the aid of flickering oil lamps, working desperately hard under the conditions 2782 of the last Great War, in mud and slime, with water up to the knees, in order to strengthen the banks of the river or to repair a slit for the purpose of saving, their own homes and their own lives.
I think of the life, not during the past three weeks, but for many weeks now, of large numbers of people in that area—isolated cottages surrounded by water; children in some districts not able to go to school for six months and households marooned and unable to provide themselves easily, even with food and other necessities of life. It is a human tragedy of considerable dimensions, and it is complicated by the fact that because of the silting of the outflow, because of defective outflow, the people there dare not pump out the water below the river level. If they dared to do so they might be, so to speak, accessories after the fact of their own suicides. They would be driving water off these waterlogged lands into rivers which might burst, and they might be the agents of their own destruction by drowning. Behind this human tragedy lies the prospect of ruin for thousands of families in this area. Crops are being destroyed, spelling ruin for farmers and unemployment for farm workers. Half a million acres of the richest soil in this country are in constant peril in the winter-time.
It is a problem, obviously, with which Parliament must be concerned. I am glad to see the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Ripon (Major Hills) in his place because he was a member of the Royal Commission which dealt with this problem, and I am sure he will not disagree with me when I say that the present situation is the result of the accumulated neglect of years. As time goes on, the situation becomes more and more critical, and the possibility of an overwhelming disaster comes nearer and nearer. In 1927 the Royal Commission reported. I am not blaming the Government of the day for not having immediately introduced legislation because, naturally, the matter required a good deal of consideration. But in 1930 we got the present Land Drainage Act clue to my right hon. Friend Dr. Addison who is not now in this House. In that Act an attempt was made to give legislative effect to the proposals of the Royal Commission. It is true that Amendments were proposed in Committee upstairs by hon. Members opposite to limit local 2783 responsibilities. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am prepared to deal with that argument, and I hope that hon. Members opposite who, to save local farmers from the responsibility of protecting themselves, put a limitation on the amount of rates which could be levied, and therefore by implication put a greater responsibility on the State, will support me in what I am about to say this afternoon.
I remember the passage of that Act. I remember that the Government of that time, of which I was a Member, took immediate steps to implement the Act. I am not going to quote details about the number of schemes which we established before we left office, but one thing we did was this. In advance of that Act being put into operation, the Labour Government of the day, considering that the problem of the Ouse area was the crucial problem from this point of view, took the trouble to prepare a scheme for that area, which, normally, should have been prepared by the drainage board. The Government paid the cost of the preparation of that scheme. Shortly before we left office, strong representations were made to the Treasury suggesting that this scheme, the first which had ever been worked out in detail for dealing with a problem of this kind, should be put into operation with the aid of a very substantial contribution from the Treasury. Within a few weeks those of us who had been sitting on the benches opposite found ourselves sitting over here.
§ Mr. Greenwood
I am going to deal with that point. If the hon. Member will be a little patient with me, he will find that I am not going to run away from that question. I wish here to pay my tribute to the administrative and technical officers of the right hon. Gentleman's Department in this connection. They realise the importance of this problem. They have a greater knowledge of its national significance than Ministers who come and go. Their approval of the scheme which was produced in 1931 is worth a great deal to people in this House who, on these matters, must be guided by those who possess greater knowledge than them-selves. That scheme, however, came 2784 to nought because of Treasury opposition. That opposition was bound up with the National Economy Act under which, irrespective of national value, all expenditure was mercilessly reduced. It was not that the National Government did not know about the seriousness of the problem to the stricken areas. It was not that a party which is wedded to the agricultural industry, did not realise the importance of the problem, but in a mood of ruthless economy, the steady conquest of nature over man in the Eastern counties was permitted to continue, and in October, 1931, the Ministry of Agriculture sent a circular to all catchment boards constituted under the Land Drainage Act, 1930. The first paragraph of that circular draws attention to "the present need for economy." That was to be expected.
§ Mr. Greenwood
It was 14th October, 1931. I believe at the time the hon. Member was supporting the National Government, but only temporarily. The circular proceeded:It has now been decided that, apart from any scheme in respect of which grants have already been approved and commitments entered into"—Even the National Government would hardly go as far as that—no applications for grants from Catchment Boards can be entertained. Should any exceptional circumstances arise however"—This is a good covering sentence—which call for immediate emergency works in order to avoid further damage, the facts are to be reported to the Ministry in order that consideration may be given to the question of what assistance, if any, can he given.I want the House to note the words "if any." The circular went on in the third paragraph to say that the Minister felt that he could with confidence look to each catchment board carefully to scrutinise the position in its area. That was as direct an instruction as a Government Department could give to a subordinate authority, to spend no more money. It was a direct statement to the effect that the Government did not mean to spend any more money. The amount which has been spent on land drainage in recent years for the whole of Great Britain is insignificant. In 1931—32, for 2785 about one-third of which period I am prepared to take a certain responsibility, because the Government changed when we were one-third of the way through that financial year, the grants allocated for England and Wales to deal with land drainage under the 1930 Act—that being the first full year of its operation—amounted to £250,000. Actually only £195,000 was spent, due in very large measure to the economy operations of the National Government. As regards Scotland—and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will bear this in mind, because although he represents in a very distinguished way an English constituency, we gather from his speech that he comes from north of the Border—as regards Scotland the grant was £54,000, allocated by the last Labour Government and the actual expenditure in Scotland in that year was £25,000.
do not propose to go into details of the expenditure since, but it has been as low as under £20,000 for England and Wales, as far as the Government are concerned. It shrank and shrank. If I remember aright in the 1934–35 Budget the Chancellor of the Exchequer explained that we had left "Bleak House" for "Great Expectations." One might have thought then that the Government would be a little more generous in dealing with this problem. In that year the expenditure was under £20,000. True, it has increased somewhat since, but the estimates for this year are less than half of what they were in 1931–32. As far as one can see, the grants which have been made are relatively insignificant. I do not wish to go into them in detail, but in respect of schemes which are regarded as being urgently required, His Majesty's Government have latterly made grants amounting to £218,000 for works the completion of which, would, according to the information of the Ministry of Agriculture, cost £5,500,000.
I can see no signs of increasing generosity on the part of the Government. Last week a question was put by my hon. Friend the Member for Attercliffe (Mr. C. Wilson), and I heard the right hon. Gentleman opposite reply to that question and to supplementary questions upon it. I was surprised at the right hon. Gentleman's quiet, calm complacency. Here was a problem which was affecting the day-to-day life of thousands of people, a battle which people were fighting night 2786 and day, and the right hon. Gentleman very calmly—whether it is due to his natural characteristics or not I do not know; I should have thought that he would have been much wilder in his youth, as we all were—gave an answer which seemed to betray no realisation of the gravity of the problem. He was asked whether he was aware that in other countries considerable assistance had been given to districts threatened with flooding by calling upon the skill and assistance of regimental engineers; and whether he would consider the advisability of adopting similar measures in this country. I have not had an opportunity of speaking to my hon. Friend who put that question, as to what he had in mind, but I should imagine that he had in mind the floods in the United States. The right hon. Gentleman in his reply referred to the Mississippi, and said that the Government would do everything in their power if the catchment boards felt that their existing resources were inadequate. Later, in reply to supplementary questions, he said:Everything that can be done is being done, but,and I would draw attention to his words:the only way in which you can deal with a situation of this kind is not by last minute efforts, however valuable they may be in an emergency, but by work commenced some time ago. The Ouse Catchment Board has been assisted very considerably by grants."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th March, 1937; col. 2266, Vol. 321.]I have already quoted the grants that they have received to deal with their problem. The right hon. Gentleman paid a tribute to the help that had been given from various sources. It is a little too late to send down Royal Air Force men to establish telephones, when people are in peril of their lives. It is a little late for the right hon. Gentleman, with the approval of the Secretary of State for War, to send lorries to Ely last Sunday for evacuation purposes. The work that has been done to protect the people in that district has been done primarily by the people living there. I have received a letter from Cambridge—I do not know the gentleman who wrote it, but he may be an undergraduate. The right hon. Gentleman admitted the help that the undergraduates of Cambridge had given, but he pointed out that other people had helped as well. The letter says:In spite of a good deal of spasmodic voluntary assistance.2787 Voluntary assistance is always likely to be spasmodic—the brunt of the work has fallen upon the farmers and farm labourers of the Fen district, and many of these are feeling the strain severely after several days and nights on the embankment, in addition to their other work.Why did not the right hon. Gentleman when there was a threat of slips on the banks, when there was a threat of flooding—I am not now dealing with the point that the right hon. Gentleman and his predecessors ought to have been attending to this matter for the last five or six years, but I am dealing with the point when danger became imminent—why did not the right hon. Gentleman make arrangements with the Secretary of State for War to send out engineers to do work which they understand instead of leaving it to the poor, hard-driven, anxious people working day and night to defend their homes against the inflow of water? I do not pretend to have any technical knowledge of how the sappers and engineers work, but I do know that men have been struggling night and day for many days banking up the rivers and trying to patch up slips which have taken place with clay brought from the district. I should have thought that Ministers with any imagination would have organised the transport of the material for repairing the slips and would have provided the necessary men to help and to sec that the material was used. Whatever may be the truth about the Army in war time, they are certainly not overworked in times of peace.
What is the situation with which we are faced? It may be summarised in one paragraph from the report to which I have referred, which was issued at the end of 1927. These statements are based upon technical knowledge:It is estimated by the drainage engineer to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries that the productive value of no less than 4,262,000 acres of land in England and Wales, or approximately one-seventh of the total area of land now used for occupation, is depending for its fertility on arterial drainage. Of this total, 2,892,000 acres are situated in existing drainage areas while the balance of 1470,000 acres is outside any drainage district. The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries has stated, moreover, that at least 1,755,000 acres of land are in immediate need of drainage, and of this area only 285,000 acres are within existing drainage districts. Although much of this land may as regards 2788 field drains and ditches receive proper attention from the individual farmer, his work may be nullified by the absence of that arterial drainage. Of the above area of 1,755,000 acres, 1,279,000 acres are said to suffer from flooding occasioned by defective or obstructed arterial channels, while 476,000 acres consist of land capable of improvement by means of small drainage schemes-for the clearance of main ditches and other small waters.That is a situation of considerable national gravity. I realise the limit of the resources of the catchment authorities. I realise, especially in the Ouse area, the magnitude of the task which has to be faced. In the area covered by the Ouse Drainage Board a rate of 1d. yields just over £12,000. In the Thames Drainage Board area a penny rate yields £60,000, and in the Trent Drainage Board area, where there are many large industrial districts of considerable rateable value, a penny rate yields £88,000. In the Great Ouse area there are no big industrial districts with large rateable value, and they are left with the biggest problem.
I would remind hon. Members opposite that it was their party in 193o who imposed the rate limitation of 2d. in the pound, which means for that big Ouse area that £25,000 is all that they can contribute. I am not going to say that the Ouse Drainage Board area can meet the whole cost of the necessary schemes and I am not going to say that other areas can do so, but I am merely pointing out that hon. Members opposite, having put the embargo upon the enthusiasm of catchment boards, are bound to support us in asking for generosity from the Government in this matter.
I promised that I would refer again to the question of the Ouse scheme. Here we have a scheme which is the work of practical engineers. The Government which was in office for the first part of 1931 took the trouble to pay the cost of having a scheme prepared to deal with the whole of the Ouse area. The scheme was prepared not by inexperienced people, not as a wild-cat scheme, but by Dutch engineers, who are outstanding in this kind of problem. They are obviously the people who know much more about the problem than anybody else. That scheme made provision for dealing with the whole problem in four sections. You cannot deal with this question section by section. It is useless to try to deal with the silting up of tidal rivers unless you deal at the 2789 same time with the water coming from the uplands. It is fantastic to draw a distinction, as the right hon. Gentleman does, between a main river and the tributaries, because the tributaries are a contributing factor to the problem of the main rivers. Therefore, the problem must be treated in a broad and general way.
§ The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. W. S. Morrison)
I do not know what was in the right hon. Gentleman's mind when he said that I drew a distinction.
§ Mr. Greenwood
I will try to make myself clear. The internal drainage boards deal with minor problems. They get no grant from the right hon. Gentleman. They have the power to levy rates for their own purposes, but the rates which they levy are bound to be small because these internal drainage boards cover districts where the rateable value is negligible. In many of these areas a penny rate brings in £4 a year. Some of them have involved themselves in capital expenditure running into four figures, and the interest and sinking fund charges run into three figures.
§ Sir E. Shepperson
In the Middle Level area, which is an internal district, they are providing pumps to pump water from that area into the main Ouse. The cost of those pumps was nearly £200,000, and we are grateful to the Government for having provided nearly one-half that amount.
§ Mr. Greenwood
That is an exceptional situation. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman will agree, broadly speaking, with what I say on this matter. I do not know the details of the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but they might have had the catchment board behind them in obtaining that amount. What is clear is that this problem cannot be dealt with in isolated patches. There are three problems broadly to be dealt with—that of the higher lands from which the water comes, that of the lower lands where the water seeps into the main channel, and that of the tidal part of the river. Those problems can only be dealt with as one; it is hopeless to try to deal with them piecemeal. The scheme which was drawn up in 1931 for Ouse drainage, including dealing with the uplands, would have necessitated at the outset a capital expenditure of £6,500,000. The right hon. Gentleman is a member of a Government 2790 who think in astronomical figures about armaments, and I put it to him whether this amount to save 500,000 acres of the best land in the country might not well be a good national investment. If the scheme had been started in 1931 it would have been completed now, and this dreadful tragedy would never have taken place. It would have employed some thousands of men over that period. I do not mind whether the right hon. Gentleman says it could not have been completed under 10 years. If it had been started, the disaster would never have occurred, but next to nothing has been done to deal with the situation on any scale.
I would like the right hon. Gentleman to publish papers dealing with this problem, and to publish the scheme which was prepared at the instance of the last Labour Government to deal with the Ouse area. The public have a right to know what that scheme was and to know that it is possible to deal with the constant and growing peril of this area. I said in a Debate a week or two ago, when we were discussing the new block grant, that the time is now ripe for a reconsideration of the functions of local authorities and the relations between local authorities and other subsidiary authorities with the State. In this matter, where a scheme would cost £6,000,000, in an area where a penny rate brings in £12,000, where the maximum contribution, apart from other contributions that might be made up to 1s. an acre, is 2d. in the pound, it is utterly impossible for the area from its own resources to do anything to fight this peril which is on their doorstep every winter, a peril which will grow more serious as time goes by because the banks grow worse with age. Many of them are the homes of thousands of moles, and where there are mole runs there are outlets for water from the river. Those banks have been there for 50 years and more, and unless there is substantial capital expenditure on them, we may find ourselves faced with a disaster comparable, having regard to our population and area, to the great Mississippi floods in the United States a month or two ago. We must have regard to the national wellbeing.
This House is always responsive to a human appeal. In the matter of the distressed areas the Government have had 2791 some difficult times, because Members sitting on those benches have very bad consciences in regard to the treatment of the unemployed and of those areas. There are other perils, such as we have now in the Fens. This is a matter where a human appeal ought to be made, an appeal to which the Government should respond. I am not expecting excessive generosity from the Government. None of their Members, as far as I am aware, has been called a squandermaniac, as I was repeatedly called when in office. I am not charging this Government with squandermania. Here, however, is a problem affecting the national well-being and an area which has slowly been recovered from the water for agricultural purposes and which contains some of the richest soil in the land. It is populated by men, women and children who devote their lives to that district and who feel, every time that God's rain falls to the ground, that they may be in grave danger. The appeal is a double one. It is an appeal on grounds of human sympathy and an appeal on grounds of national interest. I hope that the Government will tell us that this policy of restriction is over, and that they are prepared to grapple with this problem by a national policy. I hope, too, that they will agree to publish the scheme which would give hope to hundreds of thousands of people in East Anglia, and that they will tell us they are prepared to do the right and generous thing. I fear that they may not be as generous as we could wish, but if they will do something no voice will be raised on this side of the House against it. The more they are prepared to do to deal with this stricken area, the greater the sympathy which I he right hon. Gentleman and this Government will receive from my hon. Friends.
§ 4.55 p.m.
§ Mr. de Rothschild
I have listened with great interest to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood), and I feel certain that many thousands of people who live in the Fens will be very grateful to him for the defence he has put up in their favour. I should, however, be unworthy of the people of the Fens, for whom I have some claim to speak, if I did not take this opportunity to express the scorn and ridicule with which they have read what has been written about them in the 2792 Press for the last 10 days. Many hon. Members who represent neighbouring constituencies will bear me out in saying that the pictures which have been conjured up of whole villages in a fever of anxiety for their lives, and even in some cases of a panic-stricken population fleeing from their homes and clutching their valuables, are totally untrue and fictitious. When I visited the threatened area a few days ago, conditions were indeed in a striking contrast to the reports of the Press. Of course, there was great anxiety, but things did not appear very different from what happens when I usually go there. The men were working with a calm confidence to save the land which they had tilled and sown. The work may have been of a different kind and the men may have been in gangs closer together than usual, but there was no panic. Any feeling of impatience there may have been was of impatience at the many sightseers, and possibly even the Members of Parliament who went to see them.
I may cite the case of the village of Mepal. A newspaper in thick headlines announced that this village had been evacuated on Tuesday night. On the following Friday a very successful Liberal meeting was held in that village. Liberal feeling and inspiration in Mepal are well known throughout the Fens, but I doubt whether they would have been strong enough to hold the men to that village if their homes, their families and their goods had been threatened. I urge the House to look at the events of last week in their proper perspective. No doubt, in spite of the exaggeration of the Press, the situation is still very grave. There are hundreds of acres which have been sown with wheat in the threatened areas, and if the floods reach those areas the crops will be ruined. In this area no other crop is possible this year. In fact, these lands may have to lie fallow for two years in some cases. Already there can be no doubt that large areas have been lost to cultivation for the time being, areas that have been sown with wheat or where potatoes are lying in graves as at Soham Lode, Aldreth and Little Thetford. I can quote the instance of one farmer whom I know who has lost 70 acres of wheat-sown land and 40 tons of potatoes at £7 per ton. There is another case of a small farmer at Cawdle Fen, between Ely and Little Thetford, who is an ex-service man farm- 2793 ing 84 acres, 74 of which are arable land. Last year the farm was flooded; it has been flooded again this year, and 74 acres are now under water. There is no provision for relief, and such cases are no exception. In fact, I should say that there are many hundreds of cases of the same kind.
It is evident that the actual and potential losses vary from place to place, but I should say that the factors which determine the amount of loss from floods number three: First of all, the proportion of arable land; secondly, the extent to which this land is sown; and, thirdly—a very important point—the length of time that is required to clear the land of the flood water. In some cases it takes six months to get back to the land after it has been flooded; in some cases more. Southery Fen, an area which is still threatened and which was flooded in 1928, took three years to clear, and I need not point out that in that period, owing to the floods, the land loses a good deal of its fertility and, therefore, requires heavier and more expensive applications of fertilisers. If we sum up the average loss from all these factors, trying to be as conservative as possible—on this occasion I do not know that the right hon. Member for Wakefield himself in the estimates that he gave us was quite as conservative as I propose to be—I should say that the potential loss per acre amounts to something like £10, and this I consider a moderate estimate. On highly cultivated land it might be as high as £20 or even more per acre; for instance, on the 20,000 acres of land which extend between the Little Ouse River and the Lark and which at the present time are threatened by the weak- nesses of the river banks. The total area threatened is estimated at something like 100,000 acres, and again I venture to say that this is a moderate estimate. Taking the potential loss at £10 an acre, this gives us a total loss which might have resulted over this area of £1,000,000, and this figure might well be double. I need not point out that there are other considerations which must also be borne in mind, such as, for instance, unemployment. In these flooded fields the work-men cannot find any employment, and the work which is undertaken on the banks is of a different kind and is not always done by the same people. It is impossible for the farmers men to work on water-logged land.
2794 In the face of all these very serious difficulties and grave possibilities, I find that I cannot absolve t le Minister from a certain charge of complacency. Only last Wednesday, in answer to a supplementary question which I put to him, he said that he was satisfied that the catchment board was adequately supplied with men, transport, and equipment. Next day the statement was already falsified. Next day we heard the eye-witness of the British Broadcasting Carporation reporting that the men were dropping off with fatigue on the banks and that they had not slept for 72 hours, and the engineer of the Ouse Catchment Board reported that his men were "dropping like flies." The Minister very considerately did, at my request, send us some men from Mildenhall. When I asked the Minister whether it was possible to get men and transport from Mildenhall, he pointed out that the danger point a: Weiches Dam was too far from Mildenhall, yet on the very next night it was to that spot that the men from Mildenhall were sent. If there had been a major disaster last week, the Government would certainly have been partly responsible. Too much responsibility has been placed on the catchment board itself. After all, the catchment board is there to deal with everyday occurrences, and it has no machinery to deal with such a crisis as has occurred in the last few days. Obviously, there was inadequate transport, and communications were faulty, but those are deficiencies that the Minister could have remedied within 24 hours, yet he waited three days while land and livelihoods were in danger.
As regards the engineers of the Ouse Catchment Board, I can frankly say that they have not spared themselves, and Mr. Taverner, who has been handling the situation at Ely, has been beyond all praise. Also one can say a word of appreciation for the work that has been done by the volunteers, whether they were volunteers from the district or young men who came from the universities. The sugar factory at Ely put its barges and its bargemen at the disposal of the Ouse Catchment Board, and the very real service that they rendered cannot be minimised. At night in those channels it was marvellous how those bargees were able to find their way in the dark and not get banked or ditched. People from other districts were also very helpful, and I particularly want to draw the attention 2795 of the House to the admirable work that was done by the Boy Scouts from Letch-worth School, who came over and worked with heart for a whole day, so much so that at Welches Dam at the end of the day the policeman in charge had to send them away for fear lest they should be overcome by fatigue and exhaustion.
Now, of course, the situation seems easier. Government assistance has helped towards this, and for what they have done there can be no doubt that people in the Fens and I myself, who asked for this assistance, are truly and really grateful. But we were told last night over the wireless by the engineer-in-charge that the danger would continue for another fortnight. There is a possibility of the banks settling when the high tides next week replace the low tides which we have been having over the week-end. Pressure on the banks will then be increased, and that will increase the danger. If this should come about, I hope the Minister will again put his ample resources at the disposal of the catchment board, but I venture to say that it is an unfortunate thing that it should have taken such a serious occurrence and such a crisis to shake up the country and the Government to the realities of the situation. Those realities have been proved by the events of last week, and they have shown that the problem of Fen drainage must be tackled fundamentally and not in pieces and spasmodically.
As the right hon. Member for Wakefield indicated in his speech, the drainage system in the Fens is the result of many hundred years of labour. It was erected at the cost of incalculable expenditure. Old channels have been cleared, and new channels have been cut. The Fenmen who have worked lately on the banks of the rivers which were in danger with such courage, with such determination, and so stoically are men who are the descendants of generations of people who have been used to these aquatic conditions, people who have passed their lives in boats in catching wild fowl. They are used to the water and have no wish to leave it. They are prepared to live in the conditions in which they live at present, but they want safety, and they want some measure of amelioration. To-day we see a position in which three rivers exist where nature made only one river, and that for a distance of 23 miles. These 2796 rivers are now banked high in order to hold a larger volume of water. The banks are built up because the volume of water goes on increasing, and in the same way the banks of the tributaries and the artificial drainage cuts are similarly banked up very high.
In addition to these rivers, between these two main cuts called the Old and the New Bedford Rivers, because they were made by an ancestor of the Duke of Bedford who was head of the Company of Adventurers in the seventeenth century, there is what is known as the wash land. It extends over a distance of 22 miles, and in some places it is nearly three-quarters of a mile wide. This is used as a reservoir for the flood in a period of crisis and of swelling rivers, and 2,000,000 acres are drained by this system, yet on five different occasions in this century alone the floods have reached danger point. But on this last occasion the flood level was 3½ inches higher than it had ever been before. So much so that under present arrangements the safety of the Fens can no longer be guaranteed in time of flood. Indeed, the danger would be greater, if a barrier burst to-day, than it has ever been, because a greater volume of banked-up water would then be released. The reasons for this are the increased speed and volume of discharge into the main river, and this, of course, is owing to the improvement in the internal drainage system. Whereas only a few years ago the drainage system was carried out by means of windmills, to-day it is carried out, as the hon. Member for Leominster (Sir E. Shepperson) has said, by Diesel engines and electrical pumps, and, therefore, the river level is raised very much higher. At the same time, owing to this constant pumping and drainage, which causes a shrinkage of the peat in the soil, the land level is also being constantly lowered. The margin between the mean sea level and the land level is thus constantly being reduced, and the Rector of Manea, the Rev. Mr. Herbert, a relation of the Chairman of Ways and Means, is wont to say that the bed of the wash land is 12 feet higher than the surrounding lands—the bed of the wash which runs between the two Bedford rivers. If you take the 400,000 acres of the catchment area to-day it is, on an average, within 20 feet of the mean 2797 sea level, and 364,000 acres of it are below the high tide level at the present time, and the country round Littleport and Prickwillow, which has been the danger zone, and still is, is only within two or three feet.
The present crisis points out that there can be only one real solution, and that is an increase of the rate of discharge to the sea, the improvement of the outfall, and I urge the Minister that he should tackle this problem without delay. I know that the solution will be costly. After all, we have heard to-night that the scheme will cost something like £6,500,000, and we have heard that it has been before the Government since 1931, and that so far grants have been made only for schemes costing £314,000. I hope the Minister will tell us why this, scheme is not proceeded with at greater speed. Is it a question of finance? Surely that is not insurmountable. I know that the Minister may be tempted to place the whole responsibility on the catchment board, but I beg him to remember, as the right hon. Gentleman has pointed out to him, that land drainage is a vital and a national interest, and if the catchment board itself cannot or will not face the tasks under the Act of 1930, surely it is for the Government to tike the initiative.
The Royal Commission which sat in 1927 and 1928 and reported on land drainage, and on whose report the Act of 1930 was founded, recognised the national importance of efficient drainage. The report stated that special attention was drawn during the War to the serious need for land drainage, and went on to say, that many complaints had been made about the inadequacy of the provision for land drainage, that as the war period lengthened it became more urgent to raise as much food as possible from the land of this country, and that as a problem land drainage then became one of great urgency. It is obvious from that that the Royal Commission regarded drainage improvement as a national issue, and that the views they put forward in their recommendations are based on this attitude to the problem. But the Act of 1930 has not attained its object. It may be that that is the fault of the Act itself. It may also be that the Government have not made the use of it which they might have made. Whatever we may say, there can be no doubt that, whether it 2798 be in the Ouse district or other parts of the country, little progress has been made with land drainage, and the responsibility undoubtedly must rest with the Government.
The right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) included land drainage in the works of national importance which he urged should be undertaken when money was easy, but we know that the Government rejected those schemes with scorn. The country will regret it. After all, the land in the Fens is among the most fertile in the country. That part of England is known as the granary of England. No less than 20 per cent., one-fifth, of the agricultural crops of the country are produced in the five counties of Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, the Isle of Ely, West Suffolk and Huntingdonshire, and nearly one-quarter of this acreage is within the Ouse catchment area, and within that district there is also the Nene Catchment Board. We know that the Members of the Government and politicians of all parties are constantly exhorting agriculturists and farmers to cultivate every available acre, and yet we find that to-day the Government are shunting their responsibility on to the catchment boards.
We on these benches have warned the Government again and again that it was in times of monetary plethora that works such as this should be undertaken. The Government have consistently been deaf and obdurate, and only the other day, at that Box, the Chancellor of the Exchequer ridiculed once more some of our schemes. Yet to-day we find that large areas of land may be overwhelmed, and we are told that this threat will last another fortnight. It is rich, well-cultivated land, bearing abundance of wheat, potatoes and sugar, all of which would be essential in time of war. Will the Government continue to keep their eyes and their ears closed? I hope not. But already the chickens are coming home to roost.
§ 5.23 p.m.
§ Captain Briscoe
I am sure the House will allow me as one who, like my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. de Rothschild), and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Captain Heilgers), has been on the spot during these last critical days, to intervene in this Debate for a few 2799 moments. The information which we have gained comes from a personal experience in the area, and not from the hysterical and sensational reports which apparently are the only source of information of the right hon. Gentleman who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench. I should like to add a word to what the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely said as to the scorn with which the people in those flooded and dangerous areas to-day treat the exaggerations which have appeared in many of the London papers. We are not frightfully concerned about what has happened in the past, but want to know what is to be done for the future. Still, as the right hon. Gentleman has raised the question of the past at some length I would remind him that it was a Conservative Government which in 1927 introduced a Bill which would have enabled £2,500,000 to be spent on the improvement of the main river and the drainage in that part of the country, and that it was not through the failure of that Government that that did not come about, but was due to Parliament itself, that Bill being turned out by a joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament.
Anybody who has been near the danger spots lately cannot lose one moment in congratulating the engineers of the catchment board and of the internal drainage boards and all the other people who have been working night and day during the last 10 days to save a very critical situation, and I would include in that the volunteers who were mentioned by the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely. A great deal of mud-slinging has gone on over this situation, and everybody is being blamed, but what we should realise when criticising action or lack of action is the fact that more water has come down into the rivers, and that there has been a larger run-off of the rivers than had ever been expected by any expert who had ever made an estimate about it. Something has occurred which nobody had ever or could ever have foreseen, and so the authorities have had to deal with a situation which they had no idea would ever occur. That ought to be fully realised before people start casting too much blame on the catchment board and the internal drainage boards. In the critical days of last week, when both the rivers themselves and all the available storage capacity were beginning to trickle 2800 over, if the situation had not been handled with the most masterly skill by the engineers a terribly critical state of affairs would have arisen over a very large area. When the right hon. Gentleman referred to the 1931 scheme he spoke as if that were generally accepted by everybody as a perfect scheme which should be put into operation at once.
§ Captain Briscoe
The right hon. Gentleman seemed to think it was a scheme which was universally accepted. There are a great number of engineers, very competent to judge, who do not believe that the 1931 scheme is a perfect scheme at all. Several years have passed since 1931, and a great deal more investigation has taken place in the interval. Experiments have been taking place with working models, and there is to-day more information about that particular scheme than there was in 1931 and there are a lot of engineers very capable of judging the situation who say that the direction in which the training walls are going to to built out into the Wash shows that no account has been taken of the trend of the current in that part of the Wash. Owing to the fact that they are trying to force water out into the Wash against the natural tendency of the current, that scheme, if put into operation, might do more harm than good.
The essential question is the widening of the river and the strengthening and extending of the training walls from Denver sluice down to the sea. If the Minister cannot see his way to bring into operation the 1931 scheme, which was going to improve the banks of the river from Earith to the sea and might have included the widening of the main river from Denver sluice as well as the extension of the training walls out into the Wash, we should like to have some modification of that scheme brought into operation at the earliest possible moment. That scheme was estimated to cost about £6,000,00o, but perhaps if it were modified the cost could be brought clown to about £2,000,000 or £2,500,000. That would be a perfect arrangement, but if it cannot be done I hope some kind of action 2801 will be initiated, to cost perhaps £1,000,000, just to deal with the existing situation by widening the river and strengthening and extending the training walls from Denver to the outlets into the Wash. That is the least that can be done in order to prevent this situation arising again. The main river from Denver to the sea is at times capable of taking only from one-half to two-thirds of the amount of water poured into it.
I wish to mention two matters affecting my own constituency. In Cambridge a breach has occurred in the banks of the Soharn Lode river, with the result that 1,000 or 1,500 acres are under water. The water is still rushing in, and in order to prevent the flooding of the district a culvert, which is about 300 or 400 yards north of the river, has been closed. The outlet which would allow the water to get away has been partially closed down in order to prevent flooding of other areas. I want to give the House a picture of how the local people feel about that. I was amazed at the moderation with which they view the situation. They say that they fully understand that it may be necessary to keep the water artificially on their land in order to save the land of other people from flooding. They a re not caring at the moment about the closing down of the culvert, and that is very generous of them. Whether it was a legal act to close the culvert I do not know, but although those people are not bothering about it they are asking that the water shall be allowed to run off their land as soon as it is safe to do so, without delay. Is there any reason why preparations should not be made for mending the breach? There is a clay pit about 40 or 50 yards distant from the breach. The men want an assurance from the Minister of Agriculture that not one second's delay shall occur when it is decided that the water can be let off their land.
It is impossible to assess the damage which has been done to the farms. This is good land, farmed by small farmers. They want the Minister to give an assurance that not only will all preparations be made for mending the breaches, but that every possible assistance will be given to them to get the water away by lending them extra pumps or anything which will shorten the time which the water stays on their land. If the water could be got off in about three weeks, that 2802 would be the earliest possible moment, but it will be impossible to assess all the damage that may be done. Probably the whole of the wheat crop will be ruined. About 50 per cent. of the acreage is under wheat. Some of the farmers say that they may be able to save a part of the crop. The question then arises of planting another crop, but it may be too late to do so with certainty of success.
§ Earl Winterton
Has the possibility been put to these people of trying to grow Canadian wheat, which has a very quick maturity? The circumstances are unprecedented, but there are the chances of higher prices.
§ Captain Briscoe
I am much obliged to my Noble Friend, but I could not answer his question. I have grown that wheat myself, but on very different soils. I do not think it could be sown with any certainty of success. Perhaps they might grow sugar-beet or mustard. I am saying only what they tell me. Perhaps, when the water is got off their land, the crop which would show the best chance of success would be potatoes. If it could be shown that that crop would bring the best chance of success, would it be possible to allow them to be relieved of the fine of 5£per acre for this one year? That might be of tremendous assistance.
Another area which has been flooded for almost 8,000 acres is situated in Bottisham and Swaffham. This is a completely different situation. The land has been flooded four times, in 1911, 1919, 1928 and this year. The flooding is due to two facts. One of the pumping stations at Upwell is not powerful enough to take away the water according to the view of the inhabitants. Actually there was a pumping plant in existence, but the boiler of the plant was condemned this year. If it had not been condemned it would have been in action at the present time, and a great deal of the flooding in the area might have been prevented. Much of this land is very poor. The local internal drainage board, owing to lack of funds, appears to be unable to maintain sufficient drains or pumping capacity for the area. I would ask the Minister whether the catchment board could go to their assistance and put them on their feet again.
One point which has been put to me on many occasions in the locality, and, I have no doubt, to the hon. Member for 2803 the Isle of Ely also—there is a great deal of feeling about it—is that there ought to be a more powerful pump at Denver sluice, similar to the one at St. Germans. It may well be that if a powerful pump were put at Denver sluice the river below Denver sluice would not be capable of taking the water. It may also be that the money which we hope will be spent on the river below Denver sluice in the widening of the banks, would make it unnecessary to have more powerful pumping apparatus at Denver sluice. I would ask the Minister whether a more powerful engine could be put at Denver sluice and whether that would be possible or desirable. I apologise for putting to the House points that are rather local, but they are of great importance. Many of the men have lost all chance of a livelihood this year and their crops are ruined. Many farm workers may be going to lose their employment. It is desirable that the greatest sympathy of this House and the country should be shown to these people who have displayed tremendous forbearance in difficult times. They show the fullest recognition of the assistance which they have received from the drainage authority.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) and the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely raised the question of troops. My experience in the most difficult parts of Cambridgeshire has been that troops are not required. The people have told me that they would rather get on with the job themselves, as they are quite capable of doing it. It will mean immensely hard work, but they have local knowledge which probably makes it easier for them. They can do the job better. They would like an assurance from the Minister that if there is a biggish job to do they might have the assistance of the Department.
§ 5.44 P.m.
§ Mr. Maxwell
Unlike the last two speakers I do not represent an area which has suffered immediately from flooding of the Fens, but one which is adjoining and has been referred to to-day as of vital importance to any future operations in the draining of the Fens. I mean that part of the Ouse which flows between Denver and the sea. I am sure that the House has listened with great interest to the speeches of the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. de Rothschild) and of 2804 my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Captain Briscoe), who were able to give us their personal experience. My visit was rather shorter than theirs, because of urgent private reasons, but I gained a considerable impression of what is happening in those areas, and I must say that, after my experience, I was rather surprised to hear the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely inveighing so strongly against the Government because he thought that assistance was not forthcoming soon enough.
As regards troops, my experience confirms the remark of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cam-bridgeshire that the people of the Fens are extremely independent-minded, and when I saw them they thought they were perfectly capable, as far as personnel was concerned, of coping with the situation as it existed. I have no doubt that later on they got tired, and it was necessary to draft troops. This was done, and I think that for practical purposes the Government acted in time. As regards communications, it is very easy to say that there ought to have been lorries to take men and goods from one part of the Fens to another, but I think that all hon. Members who know the Fens will realise that transport is an extraordinarily difficult issue. In nearly all cases the repairing of banks with clay had to be done from barges along the watercourses themselves, and it really was not a question as to whether there were enough lorries or not.
I do not think that anyone would wish to minimise the plight of the Fen dwellers, but I was very glad to hear the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely say how much he deprecated sensationalism in the Press in regard to this matter. At the same time, I hope hon. Members will realise how very unpleasant, and, indeed horrifying, it can be to live in a house, as some of these people do, within a few yards of an enormously high bank brim-full of menacing water, knowing that if that bank were to give way, as it might easily do, their homes would be gone, and their livelihood also. Every sympathy can and should be extended to them. I am glad to say that the danger has to some extent passed, though I believe not entirely.
One is very much tempted to look about to see if one can lay the blame 2805 somewhere for these circumstances, and, of course, it is always the line of least resistance to say that the Government are entirely responsible. We can always say that the Government either have not done those things which they might have done or have done those things which they might not have done. But I want to reiterate what my hon. and gallant Friend said about the unprecedented circumstances which have arisen in the last fortnight. Such a flow of water has been coming down the Ouse Catchment Board area as has never, I think, been contemplated before, and we are, to some extent at any rate, the victims of bad luck in that we have been caught by this tremendous, unprecedented flow of water when we were not entirely prepared for it. We might have gone on for a good many years with conditions existing as they are to-day without any trouble arising whatsoever. At the same time, I think there can be no question that there is some ground for blame in the fact that there has been such a long wasted period with absence of co-operation between the internal drainage boards and the bigger catchment areas.
It was not until 1930 that co-operation was really put into effect, by, I admit, hon. Members opposite, and had it not been for circumstances in which I might also say hon. Members opposite had some part, the National Government, when it came into power, would have been able to put into operation the Act of 1930 and to obviate a great deal of the trouble that we are having now. But since 1934 the Government have attempted to make up for lost time. I am just as prepared as anyone else to blame the Government if I think they ought to be blamed, but we must not forget that they are contributing 75 per cent. to any scheme which the catchment board are likely to produce, and that is a bigger percentage than has ever been given to the catchment board before. Since 1934, the catchment board have made applications for schemes costing £314,000, and, in addition to that, we ought to remember that the South Level Drainage Board had already spent, a few years previously, £143,000 odd. That makes a total of £458,000 odd. Moreover, a few years ago, in the Middle Level, as we heard this afternoon, a pumping station was put in at St. Germans which cost £250,000, and to which the Government subscribed about 62 per cent. of the cost. 2806 Therefore, £680,000 odd has been spent in the last few years.
The point I want to make is that, out of that £680,000, only £115,000 has been expended on what I would call the out-fall, that is to say, the part of the river below Denver Sluice which takes the whole of the waters of the Ouse to the sea at the Wash. It is, I think, the shortage of expenditure on that particular part of the river that is largely responsible for the troubles which we are experiencing to-day. The more money that is spent on the upper reaches—the better the drainage of the upper reaches—the more water comes down the river and has to be dealt with at the outlet to the Wash. Therefore, it is really a waste of time and money to spend enormous amounts on the upper reaches until the outfall has been put into proper condition. I was discussing it with someone down there the other day, and he said that it was a very elementary principle—that you always start your drain on the side of a field nearest the ditch, and not on the far side. That is a very good illustration of how this matter works. I hope hon. Members will not think, when I say this, that I am urging expenditure on that part of the river because it happens to be the only bit that is in my constituency. I can quote what was said in the report of a Commission appointed in 1926 by the Minister of Agriculture. They said:The problem of draining the Ouse catchment area is rendered particularly difficult owing to the unsatisfactory nature of the out-fall of the river.They recommended that a sum of about £830,000 should be expended in enlarging the outfall and improving the channel, and they also recommended that £1,000,000 odd should be expended on the channel between Denver and the sea. That they regarded as being extremely important, and I think it is worth noting that in their report they say:We are unanimously of opinion that the works above recommended are absolutely necessary to place the river and its tributaries in a satisfactory condition. If the work is not done, we are of opinion that inundation sooner or later is inevitable.Those are rather strong words, and I think it is necessary to emphasise the fact that danger must continue until that work is completed. It is, therefore, of vital importance that something should be done, and I think it is up to the Government now to insist that the catch- 2807 ment board should, either by finance which it produces itself, if that is possible, or by finance from the Government, carry out these operations which we all agree are so essential. I think the Minister has power to do that under Section 12 of the Act of 1930.
I do not insist, as some people do, that this should become altogether a national charge. I think that the benefit, although of national importance, is very largely local, and that, therefore, any moneys which can reasonably be raised locally should be so raised. But the fact remains that there is a limit to the amount which can be raised locally. As we have already heard, the contribution from the drainage boards only produces £33,000 a year, and the contribution from county rates produces about £27,000.
I should like to say a word about the contribution from the drainage boards. I notice that the rates of these drainage boards vary very considerably; sometimes they are only about 2s. in the pound, but they go up to even 20S. in the pound, whereas the amount which these boards pay to the catchment board varies from about 4½d. to 1s. 8d. in the pound. I am not suggesting that in many cases it would be at all possible to raise the contributions of these drainage areas, because I think that in nearly every case the rates are as much as can possibly be paid at the moment by the people occupying the land. At the same time, however, I should like to know whether the Minister has anything to say on the enormous variation between 2s. and 20S. in the rates in different areas. As to the contributions from the county councils and county boroughs, it is very easy to say that they should increase their contributions beyond the 2d. in the pound which they pay at present, but at the, same time I think it is only fair to point out that in these days, when agricultural land has been de-rated, the majority of the people who pay this drainage rate are the people who live in the towns, and who do not, therefore, visibly get much benefit out of the drainage system which they support, although of course they get an indirect benefit because of the prosperity of the area in the Fens. Nevertheless, it is a very indirect benefit, and they cannot be expected to take lying down an enormous increase in the burden of their rates.
§ Captain Briscoe
They do not take it lying down. They only take it if they vote for it. If the majority of the councils in the area did not vote for it, there would never be a grant.
§ Mr. Maxwell
I quite see my hon. Friend's point, and I have no doubt that that is the practical way of looking at it. The Government would be quite right to investigate every means whereby an increased expenditure by local bodies could justifiably be imposed. If and when they do not find enough, it is up to them to increase their 75 per cent. contribution as much as is necessary to carry out the work which should be in hand. It will, after all, provide employment. I know it is an old argument but it would be a very useful way of employing some of the men from the Special Areas. I think in the end it will save money, because a flood like this costs an enormous amount and the cost of repairing the banks is going to be very serious indeed. In nearly every case there is bound to be a weakening of the banks caused by the incessant pressure of water over a period of some 10 weeks, and anything that we can do to obviate a recurrence of the disaster will mean a saving of money in the end. I do not want hon. Members to think that we who come from that part of England are making an unnecessary fuss about this. They may, from what they have seen in the newspapers, be tempted to compare it with flood disasters in America or something equally fantastic. I do not want anyone to do that, but I want hon. Members to realise that it is our duty to make every effort to complete the drainage scheme that was started in the reign of Charles I, and it is a reasonable tribute to the way in which the men of the Fens have stood up to their trials in the past few days that we should make every effort towards that goal.
§ 6.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Quibell
All of us on this side of the House sympathise very deeply with the victims of this disaster in the Fen country. We also agree with the previous speaker that it has been largely caused by lack of co-operation. The Government can also be charged with contributing very largely to it by reason of the fact that it has not made grants in sufficient amount to enable the authorities to carry out such schemes as would give 2809 them security in case of floods. The Government have power to make grants to the extent of 80 per cent. for approved schemes. It is not only in the Fen area where danger arises. In many other parts of the country large tracts to-day are under water. In these districts there may be little pettifogging authorities. One may carry out very well the duties imposed upon it by the Act, but it only requires one to refuse, for one reason or another, to co-operate, and that negatives all the advantages and improvements which have been carried out by the others.
The River Trent on numerous occasions has overflowed, even into my constituency, and I am not without some practical experience and knowledge of the damage that can be done. Fortunately, under an Act which we passed, the Main Drainage Board can carry out large schemes, because it can borrow at least £500,000 in order to carry out improvements on the tributaries and the main River Trent. One of the greatest causes of trouble is that, when you get a heavy fall of snow or rain, it is into the drains and sewers in a very few hours. Formerly it took five or six times as long to get into the main river. We have to take the water of the large cities, Birmingham, Nottingham, Leicester and the Potteries, and our little tributaries cannot get the water from our land into the main river.
Complaint is made of the 2d. rate imposed on the big towns, but it is part of the price that they have to pay for emptying their waters in a few hours into our rivers, which causes a good deal of the trouble. I should like to say what I could say about the administration of the Act, but it would be difficult for me to express myself as I should like to do. The present Minister is not absolved, because he has been made acquainted with some of our grievances in regard to the incidence of rating. I disagree entirely with the Royal Commission. I have yet to learn that, simply because a Royal Commission has sat on a particular subject, everything that it publishes about it is law and must be carried out and there is nothing else to be said. I am not standing for that. The lowlander in the Trent Valley who takes the uplander's water not only has to suffer flooding, but has to pay for the pumping, and an additional rate on top of that. The incidence of the rating under this Act is grossly unfair. The other man says: "Before, 2810 it was a question of the degree of benefit; now it is a question of the flooded area," and they take a theodolite and take a new level to determine whether a man shall be responsible for the payment of a rate to get rid of the drainage water. That is a philosophy to which I cannot subscribe. There are places in the Isle of Axholme, which were reclaimed by one of the famous Dutch engineers, where the drainage rate on the farms is actually in excess of the rent. A friend of mine bought his farm, but he overlooked the drainage rate, which is in excess of the rent that he paid for the farm before he bought it. He got rid of one master and hoisted another on to his shoulders. No one can justify a state of affairs like that. It is entirely wrong.
Many schemes would have been carried out but for the fact that the financial resources of some of these little boards are not equal to the task that has been imposed upon them. What has the Minister done? He knew very well that in some areas resources were sufficient to carry out these big schemes and in others they were not. The Committee well understood the problem and made provision in the Act for 80 per cent. of the money to be granted in order to aid authorities which had not sufficient financial resources. It takes a catastrophe like this to arouse the Government to a sense of their responsibility and induce them to do their duty. I hope this will arouse them from the usual lethargy of the Agricultural Department, which usually is the last to get consideration from the Treasury. This is not a new thing. You have had a few years to consider it from the time the Act of 1930 was passed, with all its limitations. There is even a provision that where, on the complaint of a county council, the drainage board does not carry out its work the Minister may compel it to carry out a scheme. There will be no complaint from county councils in rural parts of the country. Usually they are composed of landlords who are afraid of being called upon to pay some share of the cost of improvement schemes. In some districts they have been the strongest opponents of progress in this direction.
Some of us have contended that it should be a matter of the degree of benefit and the last speaker admitted that principle. I distinctly remember that 2811 when we were passing the Bill the then Member for Bury St. Edmunds moved an Amendment which was all too readily accepted on this side. There is sometimes too much co-operation between this bench and the bench opposite. The Amendment, which was accepted by the Minister, took it off land and put it on to annual value.
§ Sir E. Shepperson
I would remind the hon. Member that on that Amendment I was the only opponent in Committee, and the whole of the rest of the Members on both sides were against me on that Amendment.
§ Mr. Quibell
The hon. Gentleman is really a little too previous. I was going to pay him the compliment of being the only sensible man on the Committee. It placed the burden on annual value, and the consequence is that some people have been charged rates which are disgraceful, while others are escaping payment except where they pay the twopence as the precept for the main drainage board. I could take the right hon. Gentleman opposite to areas which are flooded and which are cold and low-lying, and prove to him the necessity of widening the entrances to the tributaries of the rivers so that the water can get away. The entrances in the Trent Valley are as they were a century ago, yet the water flows into them faster than ever before. It is no good having land drainage, unless the main drains are attended to.
I think that the Minister will agree that it is high time some Amendment of the Act was made, if needs be, but if not, there should be more vigorous action on the part of the Department in the administration of the Act. If the county councils themselves do not draw the attention of the Ministry to the laxity prevailing in some of the internal drainage areas, the Ministry should call for a general report from all over these areas which are subject to flooding and where the value of land has depreciated and some of the smaller farmers are being ruined. The Minister should call for a report of a general survey, and should then come to the House with a recommendation in order that this problem may be tackled in a thorough and businesslike way.
§ 6.20 p.m.
Like the hon. Gentleman the Member for Brigg (Mr. Quibell), I 2812 sympathise greatly with the area which has suffered this lamentable disaster, and, like him, I believe that some Amendment of the Act of 1930 is required. I do not agree with all he said about the Royal Commission. I gather that he did not like it, but I should like to tell the House what we did. We personally inspected England very carefully, especially the area under discussion. We also went to Holland where we gained some valuable information, for the problem in Holland is the same as this problem, only multiplied many times. Continual pumping is required in order to keep the water level down, so that the water does not rise too high and spoil the cultivation of the land. We found, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) said, that one-seventh of agricultural England was affected very severely. The cultivation and the production of food were being seriously prejudiced. We found also that there were over the country, leaving out the Fen district for the moment, various drainage areas and drainage boards, many of which dated from very far back. There was a chaotic situation, with different systems of rating covering conditions, which, in some cases, have passed away.
The evil of flooding is two-fold. You may have the land flooded by water and have great damage done to property and to agriculture, but an even more serious evil is the rising water level over a large part of the country. Owing to neglect either of main channels or of tributaries, a great part of our country is waterlogged, and a good deal of land has gone back to rough grass, rushes and reeds. I know that in that I shall have the sympathy of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), for he has always made a great point of the national wealth which is lost through the neglect of main drainage. In that I entirely agree with him.
I agree. I came to the conclusion that in 1927, when we investigated and reported upon the matter, the country was less fitted for war than it was in 1914. The production of food would have been smaller in 1927 than it was in 1914. We worked on the theory that all areas drained by a river of a certain size or its 2813 tributaries ought to be under one catchment board, and then we came to the consideration as to who should pay. The Fen problem is quite a different one. Over a large part of the country we considered that, if the main channel was cleared and certain works begun, the water would flow away of itself, and we also came to that conclusion about the district in which the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) is interested. All we wanted there were certain clearances in order to get the water away and also to get a lower level of water under the surface of the ground.
In the Fen area it is a totally different problem, and it was in that respect that we gained such immense value from our investigations in Holland. Then there was the quarrel between the uplander and the lowlander. The uplander sends down the water and does not get flooded. The lowlander is flooded by the water; he has to pay. I think that we came to a reasonable compromise, but when the quarrel arose over the Ouse Bill, I saw that it was a problem which aroused bitter controversy, and, indeed, it was that quarrel which, if I remember aright, wrecked the Bill to which my hon. and gallant Friend referred; it caused the Joint Select Committee to throw out the Bill and prevented a large sum of money being spent in the actual area which we are now discussing. The uplander said, "I am not being flooded and waterlogged, therefore, why should I be taxed?" That is what my constituents said when they were taxed for the purpose of preventing the constituency represented by the hon. Member for Don Valley from being flooded. It was a constituency with which they had no contact at all and no community of interest. Still, I think that you have to work on the system of treating the catchment area as a single area. I do not see how you can do anything else. It is merely a question of apportioning the charge.
The Royal Commission was clear upon one point. You could not lay all the charge upon the area itself. It would place a burden on the farmer and landowner in those districts which would be too heavy for them to bear, and our report was written on the assumption that Government aid would be given. In 1930, when the Bill was passed, Dr. Addison, who was in charge of the Bill, gave a distinct promise that the Govern- 2814 ment would spend a large amount of money. Political difficulties arose and in 1931 money was scarce, and there is not a shadow of doubt that, if we had known that money would be cut off as it was in 1931, we should have reported quite differently. The Act went through on the promise of Dr. Addison that a large amount of money would be given.
What are we to do now? I believe that the country has to make up its mind upon a pretty substantial expenditure. I do not say that the landowner should get his land drained for nothing, but we are wasting national wealth. Look at the loss which has happened in that part of the country represented by the hon. Gentleman the Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. de Rothschild). It is a terrible loss. It is wonderful country. We were astonished at the productivity of it and the extraordinary way the water was got off the soil and how cultivation was assisted in every way. Now we have this great work of human intelligence, which goes back three centuries, damaged by the incursion of water. It is more than a loss to the farmers and the landlords; it is a loss of national wealth. Surely it should not be beyond the wit of man to devise some plan whereby, if there is wealth to be recovered and increased by Government expenditure, a fair burden shall be laid on the taxpayer and the landlord. I do not think they can pay very much, but surely as far as there is a benefit it should be paid for, and it is absurd to allow land to go to waste merely because there is some difference of opinion as to the proper division of the charge.
Look what Holland has done. They have spent millions of money in reclaiming an area of the Zuyder Zee, a most extraordinary feat of water engineering, and the land which has been recovered has been let out to farmers at an ordinary rent. Of course the cost was more than the interest represented by the rent received, but yet it paid them as a nation; they have increased their national wealth and productivity. We must not consider this entirely as a matter of pounds, shillings and pence. In 1931 I felt that more money should be spent on drainage to increase our national wealth although money was scarce. I belong to a school of political economy which thinks that in bad times instead of restricting expenditure you should increase it. I thought 2815 we should have spent more money in 1931 and then perhaps we might have started the revival sooner. Such expenditure is not all loss. You do not get all the gain in the actual return on the money. You may start a wave of prosperity which might not otherwise have been started. In the case of Holland they consider that it paid them to spend more money in making new land than the land was worth.
There is another very important matter, and that is that all these water questions must be considered as one. We are spending a lot of money getting water off the land and a lot in getting water out of the land for drinking and agricultural purposes. Drainage, navigation, water-supply, fisheries, power, are all one question. Do not let us spend a lot of money in hurrying the water down to the sea. We shall want that same water in times of drought to help cultivation. I do not know what is the answer. The obvious one, of course, is to make large lakes for storing water. It is a question for the water engineer. I was much impresed by a statement which a speaker made at a conference which I attended and which was not contradicted, that all the great moor areas for picking up the water supplies for our big towns are getting exhausted and that in the future our great towns will have to rely on rivers which flow through them or near them for their water supply. We ought to consider all these water questions as one, and if we do that we shall get a very different outlook so far as the water supplies of the country are concerned.
§ 6.35 p.m.
Mr. Lloyd George
I want to say a few words in support of the suggestive and constructive speech of the right hon. and gallant Member for Ripon (Major Hills). I agree with him entirely that this is a great national problem and should not be treated merely as a local problem, however important it may be to the locality. It is a problem of our national wealth, national prosperity and national security. These floods have called the attention of the nation to this matter in a way for which we might be grateful later on. It has seemed little use to talk about these things and the appeals which have been made to improve the resources of our soil in the interests of production have been listened to and then passed over for more 2816 exciting topics. One day the Government may find it much more exciting than they wish. Hitherto we have not had any serious floods making a call on the attention of the newspapers. Year after year we have seen scores and hundreds and thousands of acres damaged by floods, but it has not provided headlines for the newspapers and therefore the problem has been neglected. Then comes the deluge. I predict that the same thing will happen if we neglect our food problems. We go on year after year, nothing exciting happens, hundreds of acres go out of cultivation, people leave the land, but the Government do not see what is happening. It is not really the dykes of Bedfordshire which are being undermined but the dykes of this country, and the flood which will come sweeping down will destroy the decaying walls of this country. This is a national problem. I think the Commissioners in their report said that 1,750,000 acres had been damaged as the result of defective drainage. That figure is under-estimated, because although it deals with defective field drainage, it under-estimates the number of acres which have gone out of cultivation since the War. It went on during the War, but it has gone on ever since. There was some excuse during the War because we had no labour to spare, but since the War it has continued and is still going on.
We had a report made by one of the ablest agricultural experts in this country, Professor Stapleton, on some parts of Wales, and he said that largely as a result of defective drainage only 40 per cent. of the cultivable land in Wales was doing its duty. I do not want to appear as an apologist for the landlords, but I must do so on this occasion. There was a farm in Wales which was run by a very independent agriculturist and owned by one of the best owners in the country. They reclaimed some land; that was before the War. After the War the drains got out of order and they had to be continually renewed. The land was going back to its original condition because the drainage was defective. The farmer said that he had applied to the landlord, who told him that he could only set aside a certain portion of his income for improvements each year, and that he had spent a considerable portion of his income on improvements. In that respect he was about the 2817 best landlord in the county, but he could not spend quite as much as was necessary on account of Income Tax and Death Duties. He had no money to spare. That answer was a perfectly good answer, and in addition the cost of doing the actual drainage had doubled.
I say that if such a thing happened in the case of a first-class farmer and a first-class landlord, it must happen in tens of thousands of cases throughout the country; and it does. The result is that the fanner is concentrating on the best land. He cannot spend money on keeping up second-rate land, and this land is going out of production. I think that the security of this country is seriously menaced by that fact. It seems that we are the only country which is neglecting this problem. We cannot expect the farmers to do it or the landlords, because they have not the necessary resources. This is a national duty and it ought to be a national contribution, and not on the miserable scale of the last few years. You cannot drain one farm properly with the money that has been devoted to this purpose.
Take the case of Germany. In Germany, rather a poor country and certainly a country with no spare resources, they are not only spending enormous sums of money on rearmament but they are not slacking in the draining of their land. I saw one huge tract which was referred to in a document issued by the Overseas Trade Department, which pointed out that in three years Germany has undertaken the reclamation of 4,000,000 acres. I went to see these experiments and they were perfectly amazing. I saw parts which had been reclaimed and which are now under cultivation, and I bought as good potatoes as I can produce myself. All sorts of vegetables were being grown there. That waterlogged area contained good soil and sometimes the very best soil. Flooding enriches the soil, as long as the land is drained afterwards. In that case, the draining was done by the resources of the country.
What is the result? Under the Treaty of Versailles they lost very productive territories, and some of their best agricultural land was taken away from them. They are now working not merely to get back as much as they had, but more, because they know the part that food starvation plays in a war—a more deadly 2818 part than a good many of the machines that we are turning out. Even in Spain now, it is very largely a food fight, for they are fighting to capture the producing areas, and are cutting off land and sea communications with them. In Spain it is very largely a fight of starvation, and so will the next war be, if ever we have one. I am sorry to say that we cannot rule out that possibility; nobody rules it out, and everybody is preparing. If you are going to prepare, do prepare against a great famine in time of war.
I ask the Government once more to take warning from what is happening here. I do not know what will be the effect of my warning, but I know the effect upon production of land being waterlogged. It deteriorates production, and it rots even the seed which has been sown during the winter. Even on land which is not usually waterlogged, owing to the heavy rains the seeds have rotted in the soil, and have had to be resown, and therefore will be late. Think of what is the effect on people who are dependent on an early market where they get the best prices. That is happening all over the country. The soil is being rotted and poisoned. By neglecting it, you are allowing land to fall into decay and destroying the most important national wealth at our disposal, the richest soil in Europe.
Certainly I am not blaming the Minister of Agriculture, for he has only just come into office. I am talking to him, repeating what I have said to I do not know how many Ministers of Agriculture sitting on that Bench, and with not very much success. But I hope that all the speeches that have been made to-day, with the assistance of the roaring floods of the Fens, will make an impression on the Celtic imagination of the Minister of Agriculture. He has a very great opportunity, not only of making a really substantial contribution to the problem of unemployment, but of strengthening the security of this country by bringing to the doors of the poorest people the most vital food that you could ever have in time of war. They are living now, I will not say on putrid, but frozen and chilled products from the ends of the world, whereas at their own doors they have all the vitamins that heaven has ever planted in the soil, ready and available if only there is organised first of all production 2819 and afterwards distribution, which is equally important. That can only be done by State action. It is of no use blaming the farmers, or even the landlords, for they have not the means at their disposal. Moreover, it is not a landlord's problem, or a farmer's problem: it is a national problem, a problem of the strength and security of this great country which, in my heart, I believe is a country upon which the future of civilisation depends.
§ 6.52 p.m.
§ Sir Murdoch Macdonald
While listening to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), there passed through my mind thoughts of what happened in Biblical times, when vindictive people threatened to scatter salt over other people's fields in order to destroy their fertility. In the Fen district, unwittingly the uplanders have been producing that effect on the land of the lowlanders. I have no doubt that when the first adventurers laid out their fields, built up the banks and erected pumps to keep out the waters, they made ample protection against that which nature might in those days have encompassed; that is to say, they provided for all the floods that might come. With the passage of time, with intensive cultivation in the upper regions, with the pouring down of more and more water, not only from the fields which were better cultivated, but also from urban areas which discharged their storm waters into the drains and streams that eventually passed down into the lowlands, the low-lying lands had to carry an ever-increasing burden of water.
Consequently, it seems reasonable that the uplanders should bear, if not all, at least a very great share of the difference between the original cost and the present cost to the lowlanders of protecting their fields in the way in which they ought to be protected. But when serious calamities occur—natural convulsions and great storms such as there have been in the Fen district—it is reasonable for the remainder of the country to come to the aid of both the parties. The view that ought to be taken is that, since the district concerned has hitherto met all reasonable and normal circumstances and since the lowlander has paid as much as he could reasonably be expected to pay 2820 and the uplander has paid as much as he could afford to pay, it now falls to the remainder of the country to come to the rescue. I think it devolves upon the Minister of Agriculture so to move the Treasury that it will provide the necessary funds to put the banks of the Ouse in particular and the Fen district into such a condition that in future the waters from any storms of a nature comparable with those that have hitherto occurred may be safely carried away. Therefore, I reinforce the plea that has been made from a number of quarters this afternoon that the Government should provide still further funds for the protection of this great area.
I need hardly say that I have the greatest sympathy with the remarks made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs about drainage in general. When the Derating Act was passed, I believed, as did a great many other hon. Members, that farmers were to be given something which would put them in a position in which they could cultivate to the full extent the land at their disposal. Unfortunately, the depression into which farming fell has been far greater than any Derating Act could meet and other help has had to be given to the farmers; but other people who were affected by the Derating Act have been inclined very naturally to complain about that which they have had to contribute.
Therefore, it seems to me that the time has come when the Government should consider a general policy for helping farmers to get on to their feet in order to be able to cultivate every acre that can be cultivated. As the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs said, there are vast numbers of acres which are now out of cultivation because the farmers and the landlords cannot afford to bring them into cultivation. In the present state of the world, that is a very serious matter for Great Britain. I earnestly reinforce the plea made to the Minister of Agriculture that he should get as much money as he can from the Treasury in order to put right the Great Ouse and to prevent that particular area from suffering in future from disasters such as it has been suffering from recently.
§ 6.57 p.m.
§ Mr. W. S. Morrison
It might meet the convenience of the House if at this stage I endeavoured to reply to some of the 2821 questions that have been put to me, and for that purpose I will, first of all, divide the subject into the two matters that have been raised. In the first place, the Debate was restricted to the sad events in the Fen district and the problem of land drainage was introduced by hon. Members with particular and almost exclusive reference to that area of England; but the advent of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) and my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ripon (Major Hills) tended to make a breach in the river banks, and the Debate has flooded over the very wide area of the general question of the production of food in this country. The general lecture which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs gave me was of so kindly a nature that I will not at this stage endeavour to follow him into all the things which have afflicted agriculture, including the policy of free trade and the taxation of landlords. It is not my intention or desire to deal with the past, a past for which, owing to the difference in our years, responsibility is unequally divided; but at the same time, I think we have to face the situation as it is.
Anybody who is cognisant of the conditions of agricultural production will not deny for a moment that adequate drainage of the land is an essential feature. Beyond saying that, and assuring the House that I am entirely in agreement with the views that have been expressed as to the essential nature of drainage for agricultural production, I propose to leave the general question of food production to a later stage when it can be dealt with in detail. At the same time, in spite of the changed conditions in which we find ourselves to-day as a result of the past, it is as well to notice that food production in this country has actually increased by some 14 per cent. during the last six years. I do not claim that as being anything miraculous, but it is as well that the House should not go away with the impression that it has decreased.
I should like to deal with the general question of land drainage in so far as it is concerned with the prevention of floods. I have just said how much I agree with the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs in regarding drainage for agricultural purposes as an essential element if food production is to be 2822 satisfactory. There are other elements, such as the maintenance of a market which gives a reasonable remuneration to those who have risked their capital and devoted their toil to this essential feature of society. But to deal with this particular matter of the Fens, there is no doubt that the House is fully aware that this was a very unprecedented situation. I have tables of rainfall and snowfall in this district with which I will not weary the House, but it was a very abnormal rush of water which came from the higher ground on to this particular district. It is very easy always to be wise after the event, and because something unusual has occurred to say that it should have been anticipated. I think it is agreed on all sides that this was a very exceptional circumstance in the accumulation of flood water which swept down on these highly artificial works. In some degree we ought to be very thankful that the works have stood up as well as they have. It is a tribute to the ingenuity of those in charge of the system. It was a marvellous tussle, a trial of strength between this system and the waters, and though the situation cannot yet be described as entirely safe, it is easier, and so far in the struggle the works have withstood the shock.
But the actual position in the Fens is so peculiar that hon. Members who are not acquainted with that district should try to form a picture of it, and I will try to put the situation in simple language as well as I can without reference to a map. All the waters of the Fen district finally get out to the sea at the Wash, and they rise in the higher ground which lies to the west and south, and to some extent to the north of this basin. In the Middle Ages this water flowed off the hills and filled up this great depression which was, in fact, a lake. It is below sea level. It was not until the time of the great Dutch engineer whose name has been mentioned, Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, that the situation was curbed. What he did was to change the course of many of the rivers, in particular of the Great Ouse, which flowed on until it came into this depression, and then more or less some went down into the lake, but the rest wandered round the extremity of the lake. Instead of allowing the water to do that, he carried it bodily straight over the depression in a great overhead water-carrying drain until it joined the rest of the 2823 river nearer to its mouth. You have the main waters of the River Ouse carried straight across for 20 miles between high banks, and in parts at the top nearly a mile wide, in two streams at places, and flowing over the whole width—known as the Washes—in times of floods. That is the situation. It is a very artificial and difficult one. This long carrying drain, 20 miles long, at the Denver Sluice meets the waters of the old River Ouse. It meets also the tide, which sweeps up and down, and there the effect is that the waters from the old river cannot pass out until the level of the water on the sea side of the sluice is so low that it can do so. That is what really complicates the situation very much.
The position being as it is, hon. Members will realise the one thing that did at once strike me when I was called on hurriedly to deal administratively with this situation. Like most hon. Members I thought of supplying them with what they seemed to lack, the services of skilled engineers, and the services of troops and members of His Majesty's Forces. The hon. and gallant Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Captain Heilgers) made certain valuable suggestions at Question Time the other day. When one reflects on the matter, it becomes evident that the control of this highly complicated system cannot be undertaken by any man, however eminent, who is not intimately acquainted with the details of the system, because what one man does at one part of the system vitally affects what another man may be doing at another part of the system. Unless there is coordination, there is no hope of dealing with the situation. It is for that reason that I think the House will agree that the engineers of the Ouse Catchment Board were the people to deal with it. They had been working at it for years and they are familiar with every vagary of the floods in that area. But I took steps at once when the situation became serious to ask my own chief drainage officer to go there, and I have been told by the catchment board of his great assistance in the matter.
The right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) accused me of complacency. I find it difficult to satisfy the right hon. Gentleman with my appear- 2824 ance. I remember once during an all-night sitting in this House, not so long ago, about three o'clock in the morning he accused me of being "dishevelled." He used it as an argument to buttress his contention that the Minister in charge, as I was, had been knocked out by the right hon. Gentleman's own skill in debate. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that at no time during these anxious days have I felt complacent about the situation, and if I do not display evidences of alarm, consternation and collapse sufficient to make the right hon. Gentleman feel that I was thinking about it, I am sorry. I can assure him and the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. de Rothschild) that I have never felt in the least degree complacent about it. I thought we were doing what we could, and I thought it right to say so. When we come to the question of labour, we find similar circumstances. There has been no time during this dangerous period when if they had wanted soldiers they could not have got them at once, but when I went into it I found that the Fen man is the man who is best for dealing with these situations. He has been trained to the work from his boyhood. There are continually little breaches in dams which have to be repaired. Even the cutting of the clay and the application of it, though it looks a manual operation of the crudest kind, requires some skill if it is to be done effectively. Both by temperament and by being used to the difficulties of this occupation, as miners and mariners are to the difficulties of their own callings, these men are better able to cope with it in a moment of emergency than troops, however gallant, who have never seen it.
The matter does not end there. Reference has been made in many quarters to the disturbing effect caused by crowds of sightseers who go there not to help but to gratify their own curiosity. It is a feature of this flood repair work that you cannot get a large number of men to the vital spot. Very often a breach, though of the maximum importance, occurs in a place physically limited in size. It will take only a certain number of men, and there is great danger of impeding the progress of these men who are doing the work by cluttering up all the roads by unwanted persons, whether they be soldiers or sightseers. That is the situation, and when the hon. Gentleman asked me the other day why it would not have 2825 been better to get airmen from Mildenhall, as a matter of fact the answer I gave him was, I think, correct. It was better and easier, and more productive of public safety, for the Ouse Board to utilise the services of Fen men in the vicinity who were used to the work rather than at that stage to bring men from Mildenhall, because if a situation had developed that night in a way which at one time seemed to threaten, it might have been difficult for people from Mildenhall to get to the area. But when that particular day passed we did get great assistance from Mildenhall, and for the succeeding night they were there. That assistance was not so much labour as communications.
The danger of a situation of that kind getting out of hand is greatly increased if anything goes wrong with your communications. The whole system having to be co-ordinated, if anything had gone wrong with the telegraph or telephone systems, it would have been a serious thing. For that reason I asked for assistance from the Corps of Signals and the Air Force, who could maintain, if the worst came to the worst, by their wireless apparatus communications which might not otherwise have existed. Perhaps I can leave that aspect. At no time has there been anything lacking in the judgment of men on the spot that could be done to help, and nothing they have asked for and suggested that has not been instantly forthcoming in their difficulties.
I would like to say a word about the great scheme of 1931. What happened was that the scheme was put up in May or June to the Treasury. The Treasury, of course, if I know anything of their ways, did not object to the scheme. What they objected to—a matter which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield did not tell the House—was that there was a grant at the rate of 95 per cent. to come from public funds. I do not know whether the Treasury were right or wrong. These are matters of opinion, but, at any rate, the Government of the day did not sanction the scheme. When the National Government took office in 1931 we inherited the Chancellor of the Exchequer of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite. He remained at his post, and we may assume that any action which he took a few weeks after the National Government was formed, he 2826 would equally have taken with hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite round him to assist him in his duties. Let it not be forgotten that this was a time of great financial stress. It was not only after the National Government had been formed but prior to that time, that Mr. Snowden, as he then was, uttered some very grim and menacing messages to hon. Members opposite as to what they must expect. So I think we can leave matters in this shape, that although the scheme was suggested and put up during the period of office of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite, they did not sanction it, and it is not a question of the Labour Government having approved of any scheme to which we subsequently objected. I wish to make that statement officially in order that the facts may be known and no confusion left in anybody's mind as a result of what has been said to-day.
There is one other point arising out of the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield to which I wish to refer. He mentioned certain figures of assistance which had been given, and said that they were trivial. It is very difficult to compare the current Vote of the Ministry with Votes relating to the pre-1930 Act expenditure. Expenditure follows a different course now from what it followed then. Before the 1930 Act this expenditure consisted mostly of outright grants of capital for certain schemes. Under the present system part of these grants are for loan charges and the size of the estimate for loan charges does not, unless you work it out, give an idea of the money which it represents. If you take the Vote for 1936–37 the figure shown is £26,500 for loan charges. That represents the Ministry's share which, taking the average, is 45 per cent. of the total and it will thus be seen that this £26,500 for loan charges represents about £1,100,000 of actual expenditure on the works in question.
§ Mr. Morrison
That one cannot say. All I can say is that it has been sanctioned, or arrangements have been made for the loan charges in connection with it.
§ Mr. Morrison
As I have said, that is the figure for 1936–37, and hon. Members can satisfy themselves as to the figures for other years.
§ Mr. Morrison
Not necessarily. Each year carries its own burden of expenditure, and the expenditure which has been started in other years is being carried out now, but hon. Members can see from these figures—if they remember to add to the figure shown in the Estimate, what it represents in actual money—that the work which has been done is more considerable than hon. Members opposite may at first have supposed. I wish to thank shortly the hon. and gallant Member for Cambridgeshire (Captain Briscoe) and the hon. Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Maxwell) for their very valuable speeches to which I listened with great interest. I shall certainly take all their suggestions into consideration and see what I can do to assist them in the matters which they mention. I would like to tell the hon. and gallant Member for Cambridgeshire that the question of the breach in the Soham Lode is before me, and anything that I can do to relieve the situation will be done. As regards the question of growing potatoes, I would point out that the Potato Marketing Board has the power to remit levies where special circumstances are responsible for excess acreage, and I shall communicate with them and see what can be done to assist in cases of hardship in that connection.
I must point out that the 1930 Act is what we are working on now, and it is not a matter in regard to which either side can raise party issues. There was a good deal of agreement during its passage through the House and, as has been pointed out, it was the outcome of a Royal Commission which had been appointed by the Conservative Government in 1927. But the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield accused some of us on this side of having bad consciences in regard to certain matters in it. I hope our consciences will always be sufficiently active where we have the sense of having done anything wrong, but the right hon. Gentleman does not appear to suffer from any disability of that sort and when he was criticising the provisions 2828 of the Act, he accused us on this side of having been responsible for what he alleged to be its shortcomings. But, after all, he and his friends constituted the Government of the day, and it is a very convenient method of preserving their consciences untroubled to accuse the Opposition of responsibility for every piece of legislation which has not turned out as well as they expected. I do not accept that position. I think the Government of the day ought to take responsibility for an Act passed by them, with all its Amendments and all its imperfections on its head.
§ Mr. Greenwood
But is it not a fact that these Amendments were passed against the wishes of those who now sit on this side of the House—that provisions which were no part of the Bill originally were imposed upon us by the fact that we were in a minority?
§ Mr. Morrison
As to that I cannot say. I know that one aspect of that legislation which has been brought to my notice frequently and forcibly by the hon. Member for Brigg (Mr. Quibell), was accepted by the Minister in charge of the Bill. How far other things were forced against the wish of the Government I cannot say, but I would say this about the Act that it is on it we have to work and it is by means of its machinery that this question must be tackled by any Government. The Act raises one very important question. Its machinery is that the Government can make grants, but a local responsibility is left for raising funds in the districts concerned. There is no doubt about the fact that you must regard a matter of this kind as being, in some degree, a local matter. It is all very well to say that this is a very important part of England and that very rich agricultural land is involved. That is true, but at the same time there must be a limit to what you can ask the general taxpayer to contribute towards what is primarily a focal affair. Imagine asking taxpayers in the North of Scotland or in Cornwall what share they would contribute to improve conditions in the Fen country.
What we have clone has been to contribute to two recent schemes of importance no less than 75 per cent. from the taxpayers, leaving only 25 per cent. to be borne by the locality. That is exceptional. No other catchment board in 2829 the country gets a grant of that figure, and the figure fixed was high because we realised the exceptional difficulties of the area concerned. We have done better. We have told the catchment board that any scheme they put forward which is approved will attract 75 per cent. of grant and that is a considerable assistance. The House is familiar with the method of finance in connection with these boards and I shall not go into it. Reference has been made to what is called the 2d. rate limit. I should point out that if consents are obtained from those representing the county councils that limit can be exceeded. It is not for me to suggest what those responsible should do, but I would say this—that if they did agree to raise the rate, they would be more than amply repaid in the improvement in conditions. We are told that there are already very heavy rates for various services, but a lot of people in this country do not yet, I think, appreciate the importance of drainage. There are, it is true, all sorts of services. There is an education service, but what is the good of it if the children cannot get to the schools on account of the floods? There is a road service, but if the roads are under water, expenditure upon them is in vain. I would urge upon those concerned the necessity of putting into its proper place of priority, flood prevention rating.
§ Captain Briscoe
My right hon. Friend says that the 2d. rate can be increased if there is a majority of the county council representatives in favour of it. That may hold good with regard to most of the catchment boards, and in fact, I believe, there are some where the increase has already taken place. In the case of this particular catchment board, however, that does not mean very much, because there are 12 county councils concerned and the majority of them are interested only in a very minor degree, and I think the Minister is optimistic if he hopes that there would ever be a majority of those councils in favour of raising the rate.
§ Mr. Morrison
I know the difficulty to which my hon. and gallant Friend refers, and that in the past people in that district have not always seen eye to eye with each other on the question of drainage rates. But I am making an appeal that 2830 the common responsibility should be considered, in order to see whether some agreement cannot be reached. May I point out what the effect of action of this character would be? Suppose the catchment board were to raise by precept on the county councils, a further halfpenny rate. That would produce nearly £7,000 and would automatically attract £21,000 from the State—enough to pay the loan charges over 30 years on £550,000 worth of work. I think if these figures are understood people will realise how important it would be to make even a small contribution towards dealing with an urgent local necessity, when the expenditure is being so generously buttressed up by Government grants. A rate of one penny in the pound similarly would produce £14,000, which would automatically qualify for another £42,000 from the Government, making up a total which would enable loan charges to be discharged on a scheme which would cost £1,100,000. I hope these things will be taken into account.
I thoroughly agree with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire that it would be all very well to lament what had happened in the past, if the scheme had perished in the financial difficulties of some years ago, but it has not perished. It is still in existence and some of the work which we have done is a part of the scheme. I further agree with my hon. and gallant Friend when he says "If we cannot get the whole thing, let us do what we can." Every single step taken has improved the position. The works done in the last three or four years have been very considerable, with the aid of very considerable grants, and I express it as the opinion formed by observers on the spot that if those works had not been in existence catastrophe might have overtaken the Fens at this time of trial. It is a common thing to say that because you cannot have some gigantic scheme you should do nothing. I do not agree with that. What has been done in the last three or four years has, I repeat, saved the Fens at this time, and I hope that hon. Members will put that point of view before all those who are concerned.
I think I have covered all the matters that have been raised. I cannot go into every single particular, but I would say, in conclusion, that the fact that the works 2831 done have stood up to the waters is a great tribute to the works and to the men who designed and supervised them. Everyone during the crisis deserves credit and admiration. I should like to express publicly my thanks to the members of His Majesty's Forces and to the War Office and Air Ministry for the very admirable work they did, and the ready way they met my requests for assistance.
§ 7.32 p.m.
§ Captain Heilgers
We have listened to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman with very great interest, and I should like to endorse from my own personal knowledge, because I spent most of last week-end in the Fens, what he said about the soldiers. The principal danger spot last week-end was in my constituency. When one went down to the danger spot one found it at the end of a very long road to which the communications were impossible. The only way of dealing with the cracks was to use pontoons, three at a time facing the cracks, and to shovel mud on to the banks. Only 10 men could be employed in one pontoon. Therefore, it would have been absolutely useless to crowd soldiers in any great numbers in the areas. The soldiers available for wireless signal purposes have certainly been extremely useful.
I think the Minister a little overstated the case when he said that the work done in the Fens during the last three or four years had resulted in saving the Fens. I admit that very useful work has been done, but I think my right hon. Friend put it too high.
§ Sir E. Shepperson
I should like to endorse the statement made by my right hon. Friend. During the last three years the barrier bank between Earith and Denver Sluice, which was the danger spot, has been raised. Therefore the Minister was right in saying that the recent work carried out saved the Fens during the floods.
§ Mr. W. S. Morrison
I said that if the work had not been done, catastrophe might have overtaken the Fens.
§ Captain Heilgers
I am very glad to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Sir E. Shepperson) said, because he knows the Fens very well, and I am willing to take his explanation of the Minister's statement. I think, 2832 also, the Minister was a little over optimistic in expecting that the county councils are likely to raise more than the 2d. rate. I would remind him of the letter from the chairman of the Ouse Catchment Board, which appeared in the "Times," I think the day before yesterday, in which he said:To the facile case that may be made that county councils should contribute more than the twopenny rate, their reply is that in many instances the ratepayers' liability, apart from the district and parish rates, is in the neighbourhood of 12s. in the pound, to which they hesitate to add.I should like to approach the matter from another angle. There are five great catchment areas in the country, and the difference between their receipts is simply amazing. I have here a statement of the amounts received by the catchment boards as the result of a rate of 2d. in the pound per mile of main river. The five big catchment boards are the Severn, the Ouse, the Trent, the Thames and the Yorkshire Ouse. The largest receipt is that of the Trent Board, E483 per mile of main river. The Yorkshire Ouse Board comes next with £374 per mile of main river. The Thames Board's receipts are 228, the Severn £100, and the Great Ouse, about which we are talking tonight, only 543 per mile of main river. Therefore, the Great Ouse Board gets under one-ninth of the receipts per mile of main river that the Trent Catchment Board receives. That is a very great disadvantage to the Great Ouse Board when they are endeavouring to put their house in order.
The Great Ouse Catchment Board is at great disadvantage in another way. Incidentally I might mention all the five big catchment boards have 2,000,000 acres or over to deal with. No other catchment board has more than 1,000,000 acres to deal with. All the rest of the five boards have harbour or estuary boards, which deal with the outfall, the Ouse has to tackle the outfall itself, and it is a most difficult task owing to the shifting sands of the Wash. I agree with what has been said that the great difficulty is in the outfall, especially from Denver Sluice along 12 miles of the river to King's Lynn. Everyone that I met in the Fens confirmed that view and said that the widening of that stretch of the river was the only possible remedy. I think my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Captain Briscoe) said 2833 that pumps at Denver Sluice might be useful, but I am told on the very highest engineering authority that such a proposition is impracticable.
There is also the question of the river banks. The river banks in the middle levels are very much better than they are in the south levels. In the past the Middle Level Board has been extremely efficient but the south level has never had anybody comparable to the Middle Level Board. Much work is needed in the south levels, especially in the strengthening of banks. We had breaches in 1912, 1915, 1919 and 1928, and unless we can get bigger maintenance grants and we can get these banks made with the solidity of roads, we shall be in very great danger of the banks cracking whenever any great pressure is applied in the future.
Another point to which I would refer concerns the relations between the catchment boards and the internal drainage boards. There are about 80 or 90 internal drainage boards in the Great Ouse Catchment area. Many of them have been constituted under special Acts passed 200 years ago. Some of them have administered their areas for 300 years or more. Many of them are very efficient. Their job is to drain their own particular area and to put the water into the main river. That is why in a time of flood like this we have the paradox that the internal drainage boards are pumping water into the main river as hard as they can and filling it up, while at the same time the one thing that the catchment board does not want is the river filled up. But the catchment board has no power to do anything more in that case than to give advice. They gave advice on this occasion and broadcast an appeal to all the internal drainage boards to stop pumping into the river at a certain time. The internal drainage boards responded very well, but it is an unhappy situation where you have to wait on the good will of 80 or 90 boards. I think the catchment board ought to be given power if necessary to give orders as to the regulation of the flow from the Internal Drainage Board into the main rivers.
Another point relates to the precepts. A lot of the funds for the Ouse and other catchment boards are raised by means of precepts of the internal drainage boards. In the internal drainage boards which work under special Acts the commissioners are very often large ratepayers, 2834 and it often happens that they tend to levy insufficient rates. The result is that the drainage is bad and the small owners very often get annoyed because they do not get sufficient value for the very high drainage rates they pay. Consequently, there is considerable friction. I suggest that the best way to go about it would be to turn the whole thing round. Would it not be far better for the internal drainage boards to raise their rates as they do now and for the catchment board to make grants to the internal drainage boards when they have performed their drainage duties efficiently? If the thing was done in that way I think we should see a great improvement in the work of the internal drainage boards.
§ Captain Heilgers
That is my next point. I have said that certain things ought to be done. Every hon. Member who is familiar with the problem has said that the widening of the bottom of the river from Denver Sluice down to the sea is a necessity. We are agreed on that, and, in spite of what the Minister has said, I maintain that it is a national matter and ought to get a 100 per cent. grant. Then the Government should contribute to maintenance grants, particularly for river banks. This comes to the point with which I was dealing, because that would enable the catchment board to make grants to the internal drainage board. I agree with the hon. and gallant Member for Cambridgeshire as to the difficulty of getting the county councils to raise more than the 2d. rate, especially when, as in the Great Ouse area, there are 12 different county councils to be dealt with. I think, however, that there is a chance that we might get them to move on such lines as the Minister suggested if the Government would increase their grants pari passu with any increase in the rates of the county councils.
I should like to say something about what I saw in the Fens. I was very glad that. the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. de Rothschild) and other hon. Members stated that a good deal of what was written in the newspapers was considerably exaggerated. I saw floods at two places only, one of which never got into the papers. At Lakenheath I 2835 saw considerable floods which were caused by the closing of a particular drain by another drainage board. I saw floods at Ely but most of them were in the Wash lands. I drove through the Fens for two days and I did not see in the main part of the Fens as much flooding as in the uplands. If the actual damage is exaggerated, I feel that the potential damage has not been overstated, and by drawing attention to these dangers the Press has performed a useful service to the eastern counties. As regards the problem in general, the position is far better than it was. I should like to add my word of praise for the extraordinarily good work that has been done by the Ouse Catchment Board. They have never lost their heads and have had complete control of the situation. It was remarkable when the loads of mud to reinforce the banks were exhausted, to see that at that very moment tugs came down with fresh pontoons carrying more mud. There was never any mistake on the part of the board at any time.
I want to pay tribute, too, to the farmers, their sons and the farm workers who have worked for 10 days or a fortnight, some of them not having been in bed for more than one night in a week. There has been no complaint and every one has been cheerful. They put their backs into it from the beginning. Only the Fen men on the spot were capable of saving the situation. I would like to mention how little panic there was in any direction. It was marvellous to see houses just under these great 25-foot banks. At the Mildenhall crack there was a road running up to it and there must have been 10 or 15 farms and at least 30 smaller houses within To feet of the banks. No one seemed the least worried, and I noticed that even the horses and stock at the farms had been carefully littered with straw. The stoicism of the people has been marvellous. The Fens provide the only kind of business agriculture in this country. They provide the greatest possible reserve of food supply and I feel that they are called upon to pay an undue proportion of the protection that is necessary. That protection is a national problem and the Fens are a national asset. They ought, therefore, to receive a far greater measure of national assistance.
§ 7.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Muff
Like the hon. and gallant Member who has just spoken, I should like to pay my tribute to the men and women of the countryside in the Fen-lands for their quite courage, and to the silent unceasing industry of the engineers in endeaouring to prevent a great catastrophe. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) did not put his tribute a scrap too high when he spoke. I am disappointed with the reply of the Minister of Agriculture because, while he chided the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) for looking backwards, the Minister in practically the whole of his speech was also looking backwards when he might have acted on the text to leave the things that are behind, and to press forward to a new mark with a little more courage. I was in the House when the 1930 Drainage Act was passed, and I did not think it was the last word. We live and learn. The Minister might have indicated that there were possibilities of amendments to the Act, and I wish I could press him to reconsider the Act in the light of our experiences in the last few years since we have tried to administer it. Knowing the Minister, I am certain he will consider the problem with an open mind, and, knowing him also after a few years of friendship, I know that he will not consider it with an empty mind.
I want to pay my tribute as a member of a catchment board to the Ouse Catchment Board. I serve on the Yorkshire Ouse Catchment Board, which is the second largest catchment board in the Kingdom. While the great Ouse catchment drains 2,000,000 acres, the Yorkshire Ouse catchment drains 2,600,000 acres and is only exceeded by the Severn catchment. As a member of the Yorkshire Ouse Catchment Board which is trying to face the problems of the 1930 Act, and especially the problems which have been thrust upon us by the Minister of Agriculture, I want to appeal to him to endeavour to see the difficulties of that board. The last time the question of floods was raised in this House was in connection with the overflowing of the River Don, when hundreds of families were rendered homeless and helpless at Bentley, near Doncaster. The Yorkshire Ouse Catchment Board has had a similar 2837 problem, but it has been intensified owing to the abnormal rain and the continual subsidence of the land in that district, which is a colliery area. We have saved the right hon. Gentleman the problem of sending help to Bentley, but I wish that his Department would not think that the problem is done with.
This is not a Press stunt. I have not had handed to me Press photographs of floods. I have, however, photographs here of the day-to-day work of our engineers of the Yorkshire Catchment Board. I wish to pay my tribute to them and to their labourers for what they have been able to do to save the South Yorkshire countryside from inundation once more. They have not been entirely successful. The River Don is in flood over hundreds of acres near Doncaster. I have a photograph here showing the floods at Kirk Bromley and of the River Don at Wadehouse. I have other photographs of floods which are all in a day's work for our engineers. I wish the right hon. Gentleman had time to look at the photographs I have here of the River Derwent showing miles of flooded land. These are no Press photographs, but photographs taken by our engineers and their colleagues while quietly doing their job.
The right hon. Gentleman's Ministry made an appeal to the Yorkshire Catchment Board. The board responded, but the Ministry let it down badly. I hope that, with the advent of the right hon. Gentleman, the old Mussolini spirit of his Department will once and for all depart and that there will be a change of heart. The Department said to the West Riding county boroughs and the county council, "Will you prepare a scheme and guarantee that there shall be no more Bentleys and floodings in similar industrial areas?" These councils gave that guarantee. They are not lacking in initiative or interest and they came forward to the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor with a scheme for the expenditure of £1,250,000. The scheme was passed and it included the River Derwent, which is the most dangerous river of the lot. It has its source in the North Riding and comes through the East Riding, but. owing to the fact that somewhere near Howden, near Selby, it enters itself into the River Ouse, it does not touch the West Riding. Because, however, it comes into the River Ouse it is a responsibility 2838 of Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, Doncaster, Barnsley and the West Riding County Council.
We do not mind shouldering that responsibility, because we know that the East Riding County Council is as poor in pocket as it is in spirit. When the Department asked us if we would help, we said that we would spend £200,000 upon the River Derwent, not a pint of the water of which touches the West Riding. Then the right hon. Gentleman's brilliant Department, with its Mussolini leader, constituted the board in such a way that Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield, Barnsley and Doncaster would largely foot the bill, but could not call the tune that they wished for. They placed in the hands of some twopenny-halfpenny places like Barnbyon-the-Marsh—I forget the names—the power to outvote the county boroughs which had to foot most of the bill. The county boroughs said, "We will help, notwithstanding."
There are grave consequences of this, and this is the opportunity that I have to put the point to the right hon. Gentleman. The county boroughs of the West Riding of Yorkshire had to raise most of the money, and then the Minister said, "We will give you 33⅓ per cent. towards the cost of carrying out your £1,250,000 scheme," including this £200,000 scheme in the East Riding and the North Riding of Yorkshire and also, I would remind the Minister, including a place called Scalby Court, which is somewhere, I believe, near Scarborough, which was the most Gilbertian situation that his precious Department could have presented to a reasonable body of local administrators. But again we said, "We will take you on," but we think the 33⅓ per cent. is too little. When the right hon. Gentleman was mentioning his 75 per cent., my mouth watered, and. I want to tell him that we West Riding folk do not want his 75 per cent. We are ready to carry a reasonable amount of our own burden. Does the right hon. Gentleman think it a square deal for these West Riding people to have to foot the bill to the tune of £200,000 for something which is a North Riding and an East Riding problem? Then the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor came and said, "Oh, yes, but you have passed a resolution in favour of the 331 per cent." The right hon. Gentleman's predecessor got these representatives from these little places some- 2839 where in Yorkshire to come up and vote. We had the money; they had the votes. Here we are, faced with this situation, suffering from a sense of grievance so far as the county borough Members are concerned.
Just before the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor resigned there was a meeting in this House, upstairs, not only of the Yorkshire Ouse Catchment Board, but also of the Trent Catchment Board, and, led by one of the Conservative friends of the right hon. Gentleman, a stay-out strike was proposed. Actually one of the right hon. Gentleman's Conservative leaders in Yorkshire was able to carry out his threat, and there was a stay-out strike of the county borough Members, but we met again, and we said," Notwithstanding the attitude of the right hon. Gentleman's dictatorial predecessor, we have a larger duty to the community than we have to our own selfish private interests," so we decided, notwithstanding that the late Minister had said." I have sold my horse, and why should I reopen the bargain with you?"—he sold it entirely by the votes of those people who could outvote the large boroughs—that we would not follow the advice of this Conservative friend of the present Minister's, and that we would co-operate.
We are co-operating, and the result is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) will be able to show later, that, so far as Bentley is concerned, the people can sleep safely in their houses to-night without any danger of being swept away. In the constituency of the hon. Member for Don Valley we have this grave state of affairs of hundreds of thousands of acres being inundated, but we have been able to avoid the major catastrophe. I want to impress upon the right hon. Gentleman that, so far as the Yorkshire Ouse Catchment Board is concerned, we wish to co-operate. The county boroughs in the West Riding wish to co-operate, and are ready to foot the bill, and even to help with his River Derwent, which, I emphasise, is not in their constituency at all. But if they come forward to the Ministry of Agriculture, they have a right to expect that, just as there is a change in the Minister of the Crown who occupies the seat in the principal room at the Ministry of Agriculture, so there shall be a change of heart and a different spirit.
2840 In closing, I want to say that we are proud of our engineers and of our labourers, and we are even proud to be able to pay a wage bill of several hundreds, and that half of the wage bill goes to men who are working in this River Derwent. I am certain, knowing the right hon. Gentleman as I do, that with the spirit of sweet reasonableness which is such a marked feature of his personality, he will not slam the door in the face of what is a reasonable request, but that he will leave" the things which are behind "—I know that he knows his Scripture—and will not bang the door against this spirit of co-operation which is being evinced by the second largest catchment board in this country. I hope that he will come to us in the same spirit of friendship as that in which we come to him, and say, "You shall write out the cheque, and we will do the rest." I close again by appealling to the right hon. Gentleman, if he is approached by the catchment board from Yorkshire, that he will give to any request that they have to make his serious consideration.
§ 8.10 p.m.
§ Sir E. Shepperson
I hope the House will forgive me if I bring consideration back, away from the Little Ouse of Yorkshire, to the Great Ouse of Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire. This question is to me a personal one and not one that has anything to do with my constituency. It has been stated by many hon. Members to-day that they have visited the area in which these floods have occurred. I have not only visited it, but I have lived among these people for the greater part of my life. I and my ancestors have owned land in the threatened area for the past 200 years, and in these circumstances the Fen drainage has been always to us an acute concern. Last Sunday I was standing on the barrier bank which runs between Earith and Denver Sluice, one of the danger spots that has been mentioned in the papers in these recent days. This bank was two or three yards wide, and on one side of me was a sheet of water three-quarters of a mile wide, 15 feet deep, and 20 miles long. On the other side of me was a drop of from 15 to 20 feet to the Fenland below me. That land was dry, but between that dry land and that sea was the mere bank that I was standing on. At no great distance were farm buildings, horses, cattle, pigs, and so on. They 2841 were mine, and it was a terrible sight to see that sheet of water, but to me, I can assure the House, it was not merely a terrible sight, but an anxious one as well.
The whole question of Fen drainage has been an acute concern, and I have been a member at one time and another of most of the drainage bodies in my area. Owing to the daily papers, Fenland has recently become news, and I have read a great many of the articles which have been written, some of which have been mentioned by hon. Members this evening. I am confident that Members of this House who depend for their knowledge of the situation on what they have read in the papers must have a very confused impression of that situation. I will attempt to clarify the situation. Fenland, as I think most Members know, is adjacent to the Wash, and is really, as a matter of fact, a part of the Wash which was reclaimed in the past. Hon. Members have been informed that the bulk of Fenland is three feet below high water mark, but that is not correct. The truth is that much of Fenland is five feet below mean sea water level. As the water at King's Lynn has a rise and fall of 24 feet, half of that, 72, would be the mean sea level, and the land in the Fens may therefore be, on an average, some 15 feet below sea high water mark. That will make hon. Members realise the problem which had to be tackled in keeping the sea from inundating the land.
But the sea was not the greatest enemy in the recent crisis. Three main rivers, the Ouse, the Nene and the Welland, run through the Fens and they create the greatest problem in the drainage of the land. With regard to the sea, sea walls have been built and the main channels banked up to keep the high tides from the land; but the three rivers I have mentioned bring down the upland waters. The Ouse, with which we are mainly concerned, comes down through Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire and enters the Fen country at Earith. From here, as the Minister has said, it meanders round to Denver Sluice. Vermuyden, in his successful attempt to drain the Fens in the time of Charles I, cut a channel on each side of it from a half to three-quarters of a mile wide and enclosed that channel by high banks, so that the water corning down from Oxfordshire and Bed- 2842 fordshire into the Fens instead of flooding the whole Fens simply flooded the basin between those two banks, and thus the water was carried on to Denver Sluice. In the Fen area itself, some artificial drains were cut, and by means of windmills and engines the water was pumped from them into the main channels.
That is the situation at the present time, and it has been more or less satisfactory for many years. Why, then, has the situation become a critical one? If they are to be informed about this problem, hon. Members must realise that changes take place; nothing remains constant except, perhaps, the height of the sea itself. Those changes can be considered under four main heads. The first change is that the mouth of the Ouse, where it runs into the Wash, is constantly silting up, clue to the fact that the flow of the tide upwards takes place in three hours and the ebb occupies nine hours. The tide from the Wash flowing rapidly up the Ouse brings up silt and the much slower ebb tide deposits that silt at the mouth of the Ouse itself. Another change is seen in the greater efficiency of the internal drainage system. At one time wind was the power which was used for lifting the water from the drains into the main channels, but that gave place to steam power, and now steam has given way to the internal combustion engine, with the result that the water is now pumped from the district drains into the main river in a much shorter time and the river finds it difficult to deal with the water. Therefore, we are really suffering from efficiency.
Another change in that the Fen land itself is sinking due to the effects of cultivation and drainage. In a spot not far from my place, a post was put down through the Fen land and into the clay underneath it some 100 years ago. At that time the top of the post was level with the soil. To-day that post is projecting nine feet above the soil, showing that the land has sunk nine feet.
§ Mr. E. J. Williams
Apart from the sinking of the land, that post might probably have risen as the result of side pressure on it forcing it upwards.
§ Sir E. Shepperson
No, the post was put into the clay underneath and it is firmly in the clay, and the fact that the 2843 top of it is now so high above the land, is due to the shrinkage of the peat soil. Another change is the greater efficiency in the agricultural operations in the upland areas. Fifty or 100 years ago the water from the uplands of Oxfordshire and Bedfordshire would make its way slowly and gradually down into the Fen country and into the river. To-day, owing to the efficiency of hollotv draining and mole draining, the cleansing of the ditches at the side of the hedges and the cleansing of the tributary streams, the water gets down to the rivers much more rapidly. The improvement in our roads is another factor. Instead of the old gravel roads we now have tar-macadam roads of double the width, and the water from them gets more quickly to the rivers. There is also the efficient work of the Ouse Catchment Board in cleansing the upper reaches of the river, which allows the water to get more readily into the Fen country.
The problem, therefore, arises from the rapidity with which the water gets down to the Fen country and to the rivers. What is the solution? We cannot tell the Fen men, who are draining their land, that they must stop doing so, because if they did they would be hampered in the efficient management of their land. We cannot say to the upland farmer who is hollow draining and mole draining his land that he must stop doing so because it is letting the water come down too quickly. We cannot say to the highway surveyors of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire that they must stop tarring their roads, because that is doing damage to the Fen country. We cannot say to the inhabitants of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire that they must not have baths, because when they have baths it means so much more water going down into the rivers. But there still remains the fact that the water is coming down from the upland country with constantly increasing rapidity, and the acceleration is going on. We shall have to deal with a great deal of water.
How are we to meet that problem? We shall have to make sure that the outlet of the River Ouse is not impeded by silting. Secondly, we shall have to deal with more water that is coming down rapidly to our Fenland county. The banks which contain the reservoirs 2844 must be strengthened on both sides to prevent the water going over the top. I was very pleased to hear the Minister say to-night that he was prepared to assist with 75 per cent. of the cost of this work. That is a generous offer. In the Fen country we do a great deal of the work ourselves, but we are justified in asking the State to bear some of the cost, partly because a great deal of the water comes from outside our area. The statement of the Minister in ill cause great satisfaction. I would like to know whether that 75 per cent. offer is made also to the internal drainage boards or only as to the expense borne by the catchment board? The expenses of the Fenland district are far in excess of those borne by the catchment board. I am confident that the catchment board will take full advantage of the Minister's offer. I hope that the Minister will be equally generous to the more efficient Fen districts of the Midlands. I thank him and the officials of the Ministry for the help they have given us in our trouble. I would thank also the War Office for the help which they have given, and I would express on behalf of our people our very deep and sincere appreciation.
§ 8.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Croom-Johnson
Hon. Members who sit for flooded areas will be delighted that the subject has been raised in the House to-day. We are well acquainted in the county of Somerset with this problem. We have at the moment, under the Somerset Rivers Catchment Board, no fewer than 6o,000 acres under water. We have had three bursts since the 15th of this month, but because we have not been in the news no particular attention has been directed to us, in the struggle which we have carried on all through this winter. In the last few days, we had been in imminent danger of having another io,000 acres added to the flooded area. In addition, we have an enormous area which has become so waterlogged that it is incapable of use; I am told by the engineers of the catchment board, who have sent me a report on the matter, that in all probability it will be of no use for agricultural operations for something like seven months.
I call attention to these figures in order to emphasise that part of the Debate I have listened to all of it—which arises out of the speech made by the right hon. 2845 Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George). We do quite rightly to pay attention to the particular area which has got into the news, but I am pointing out that there are whole districts whose agriculture is threatened and to some extent destroyed, not merely by the persistence of floods winter by winter but by exceptional floods whenever an excessive amount of rain falls. We had the same experience in 1929 of misery and distress in my area, so much so that we raised a fund for alleviating local distress, and it amounted to about £30,000. Years before that, when I was a boy, in 1898, whole areas of the district were under water, with the resulting distress. We do all we can in the county, but we are extremely poor. For restoring, preparing and shoring up the banks of the big main arteries through which water is discharged, requires not less than £570,000, a sum of money which makes us shiver. The Minister has been good enough to offer us, as a contribution to that figure, a grant of 6o per cent. That leaves us with 40 per cent., but that 40 per cent., if we embarked upon the scheme, would have the effect of making the county contribution to the drainage rate, not merely the 2d., but 3W., and that in an agricultural district which is already a poor one.
If we could drain even a part of this area, the rateable value of which has been declining for some time, we have no doubt at all that the natural fertility of our own soil would be such that it would be of great advantage to the nation as a whole. We feel that the nation, if it came to the rescue with a larger grant, a grant which would enable us to embark on this scheme, would itself derive benefit. I have been struck during this Debate by the omission to call attention to the fact that, if you improve the drainage and improve the value of the land, the nation will benefit by reason of the increased assessments for both Schedule A and Schedule B Income Tax, which would help the nation to recoup in some measure the money that it spends on what, in my respectful submission to the House, is, after all, a national duty and a national task.
I do not want to take up a lot of time in pointing out our own difficulties; I am not using our own difficulties in order to get favour in the House or to get 2846 sympathy from the House. We fight our own battles in Somerset as far as we can. But when one looks at the pictures and goes and sees the state to which some of the main arteries which have been made for the carrying away of water have fallen in process of time, one can see that it is money that is needed in order to try to restore the flow-away of the water which comes down to us from the hills. In this part of the country we have no fewer than six rivers, which are there for the purpose, presumably, of carrying away water, but most of those rivers are nine or 10 feet above the level of the land through which they go. We have pumping machinery, rather out of date because we cannot afford anything better; we have all sorts of sluices and all sorts of drains for the purpose of trying to cure things; but the one thing that is needed in order to put the situation right is the thing which has been referred to so often in the course of this Debate—the provision of money over and above that which the local people are willing to provide according to their means and all the troubles which they have been going through as an essentially agricultural community.
We have no large industrial area in the whole county. We have had de-rating of agricultural land, and the result, of course, necessarily is that the contributions which have to be paid for the relief of the drainage problem fall on a number of small towns, which are already struggling because they suffer when agriculture suffers, just as is the case in other parts of the country. Therefore, so far as I desire to make an appeal to the Minister at all, it Would be an appeal to him that, in view of our own local difficulties and of our attempt to tackle this problem for years, we too should have the opportunity of obtaining a grant in aid of our scheme which should not be limited to the 60 per cent. It is a very large area. I dare say a great many Members of this House have had the melancholy privilege of seeing some small part of it winter after winter under water, if they have happened to go down by the Great Western Railway as far as Taunton, and I am sure they will realise that there is land there which could be put to good purpose but which at present is not being put to good purpose, which, indeed, is positively deteriorating under 2847 this constant flooding winter after winter. This winter happens to be a singularly bad one.
In 1929 I had the opportunity, when we had floods, and when we had a big break in one of our banks, of going over the flooded area of, I think, at that time, about 100,000 acres, in a small boat and visiting the unhappy people whose little possessions had been destroyed, whose agricultural pursuits and little stocks had been interfered with; and I cannot help thinking, now that attention has been pointedly called to this question in the House, that the public who do not happen to live in a flooded area or a district which is subject to floods, and only learn about them when the Press happens to take the matter up and give us some pictures, will be ready and willing to come to our help, realising, as I am sure they will, that at the same time they are striking a good shrewd blow for themselves in the shape of increased national prosperity and increased opportunities for the production of more foodstuffs. That is the appeal which I make to the Government. I do not know, and it is curious that in the course of this Debate we have not been told, what is the total amount of the grants which have been made by the Government during the last five years. It is a figure which I think the House would like to know, in order to ascertain how much has been done for something which is a national problem, and a national problem which, in a wet winter such as we happen to have had, has been accentuated and brought vividly to our attention.
The Government have received us in Somerset, the Minister of Agriculture has received us in Somerset, with sympathy and attention. We have no complaint to make. We do not agree, and I certainly do not agree, that when we have had occasion to go to the Minister of Agriculture or anybody in the Ministry the matter has been treated with complacency, or with anything other than the closest attention. But, while sympathy is a very good thing, sympathy after a time should, I think, be translated into the only action which is of real utility in this matter, and that is by the Government undertaking to shoulder a larger part of the burden—certainly so 2848 much of it as the local authorities cannot undertake for themselves. Let me say once more, on behalf of my own county, how much we feel that our own circumstances merit an increase in the amount of the grant, so that we may get on with at least one of the schemes which we have in mind. But at the same time I hope it will not be thought that we are in the least unmindful of the wants of others, or That, because I have called attention to our own needs to-day, we are in the least unmindful of the anxieties, the fears and the distresses of those unfortunte people in the Fens whose difficulties and troubles have really enabled us to call attention to a matter which is one of prime importance.
§ 8.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Price
The hon. and learned Gentleman has certainly made out a very good case for his county receiving a more generous measure of support. I know the district too, and I have thought that long periods of heavy rainfall might produce very serious consequences indeed. That time has come and on a smaller scale his county has repeated the far greater tragedy of East Anglia. I come from the neighbouring county, further up the Bristol Channel, where we are not so seriously affected. We are suffering from floods but in a comparatively mild degree. I hope it will not be thought that we are less interested in the misfortunes of other districts which have been struck so hard by this misfortune. In this country we are benefiting to-day from what our forefathers did on the land. Our fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers drained land that was below sea level. In the Ouse catchment area it started far away back in the times of the Stuarts. I believe the great Oliver Cromwell sat in this House for the borough of Cambridge, and he was elected because he had so strenuously fought for the interests of the Fenlanders, for the drainage of the area and for the rights of the little men in that country.
Of course, the struggle with water has gone on for several centuries, but only perhaps in the last century has any great attempt been made to deal with it on a large scale. It has now got to a point where the nation as a whole must take up the work. What the farmer owners originally dealt with themselves must now be dealt with on a national scale. That, 2849 of course, was the reason for the Drainage Act which Dr. Addison piloted through the House in 1930 and which started the process of absorbing various small drainage boards into larger catchment boards. For many years I was a member of one of those small boards in the Severn Valley which started originally, I understand, in the reign of King John. It dealt with only one tributary flowing into the Severn. I remember that when I first joined it they used to say, "What is the use of our doing anything here if the outlet lower down on the Severn is not dealt with as well?' Unless it is, our money will be uselessly spent." Some co-operation was necessary and, of course, no cooperation was possible until Dr. Addison's Bill reached the Statute Book. Now we have a fairly reasonable unification of control.
I was surprised to hear that in the catchment area of the Ouse there is still a good deal of lack of unification. There are still, it seems, a lot of small drainage boards acting somewhat on their own. In the Severn catchment area we have much more unification. The board to which I belonged has been absorbed and all our functions have been merged in the larger Severn Catchment Board. Moreover, the county council has been helpful in this respect. There are areas further up, above the flood line, which are not within the jurisdiction of the catchment board, but here also watercourses have to be cleaned out. Private owners are often unable to do it for various reasons, so we have had schemes in recent years under which the unemployed have been put to work by the county council. The consequence is that no very serious flooding has taken place this time. I know districts where, when there was a rainfall anything approaching what we have just experienced, we got highways flooded for days and whole areas inundated for a very long time. That has not taken place this time and it is mainly due to the operations of the catchment board.
I admit that in the Valley of the Severn drainage is much easier than it is in some districts in East Anglia and in those mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Bridgwater (Mr. CroomJohnson). We have not got the problem of large areas under the high tide level, though the bottom of the river near the mouth is considerably above the level of 2850 the bed 20 or 30 miles higher up. That is a somewhat different problem which causes a certain amount of difficulty. We have now to pay the bill and we are getting our assessments, and I can quite see that there are many occupiers who, in the present condition of agriculture, may be hard put to it to pay their rate. I think, however, that on the whole the assessment of the drainage rate is not unreasonable. I cannot quite agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg (Mr. Quibell)—I know it has been for a long time a sore point with him and his constituents—that the Land Drainage Act did the wrong thing in basing the drainage assessments upon rateable value rather than upon acreage. I think that upon the whole the Act is justified in what it is doing.
In the Severn Catchment Board area our assessments are based upon our Income Tax assessment for the land. There has been no rating of agricultural land since the 1929 Act, so it is based on the Schedule A assessment. We have various differential rates levied and deductions made from the main assessment according to whether the land is near the flood level, above it, or very much below it. It is all based upon old drainage maps, which are being brought up to date at the present time. At the same time, Government grants are needed to enable proper work to be carried out. Even yet nothing like enough has been done in the Severn Valley Catchment Board area, and in view of the financial stringency and of the fact that what has been done is only just now being paid for, very necessary work will hardly be carried out in the future unless there is assistance from the Government.
I realise that there are far greater and more serious problems facing catchment boards than that in the Severn Valley, and that large grants up to 100 per cent. are necessary. In particular the hon. Member for Leominster (Sir E. Shepperson), who is not now in his place, referred to the necessity for a no per cent. grant for clearing the Wash of silt, although I think it was the hon. and gallant Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Captain Heilgers) who mentioned that that really is a case where a 100 per cent. grant is necessary. It is a matter which affects such a wide area, even outside the area of the catchment board of the Ouse, and this is now less 2851 difficult in view of the financial position of the country. It is very unfortunate indeed that the work begun by Dr. Addison, when he passed the Drainage Act of 1930 through this House, and prepared plans at the Ministry of Agriculture for large-scale drainage, the whole thing should have to be cut in the financial crisis of 1931. It has already been mentioned in this Debate how unfortunate that was. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Ripon (Major Hills), to whose interesting speech I listened, referred to it being due to the fact that money at that time was scarce. My answer to that is that money was not scarce, but was made scarce. Money was made scarce by the financial policy at that time of deflation, of remaining on the Gold Standard. However, that is a controversial matter, and in this Debate I do not want to introduce controversy. Although we are entitled to refer to it, nevertheless, I do not want to elaborate it too far. I hope that the Government will take courage and not allow matters, of financial stringency to cause them to fail in their duty towards these areas for adequate and properly planned drainage.
I can feel, indeed, for the misfortunes of the Fenland. When I was at Cambridge a good many years ago I used to go down to the very districts which are being disastrously affected, to Wickham Fen and Soham Lode Fen. I know that part very well, and I realise the seriousness of the situation caused by the bursting of the banks on the Soham Lode Fen, thus causing all that district to be flooded. No doubt in a month's time the water will have gone, and I am not altogether without hope that it will be possible even yet to get some spring crops planted for this year. The University of Cambridge has a very fine agricultural school. I had the honour to be one of the first students who studied there some years ago, and various professors there, especially Professor Biffin, of the Department of Agricultural Botany, have been producing varieties of wheat and other agricultural crops which stand all sorts of conditions. I have very little doubt that the department there can find a crop which may be planted late, when the water has gone off the land, which will even yet yield a harvest during the coming autumn.
2852 I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) said as to the importance of dealing with this problem from the point of view of the production of the land. In many districts which I know in the West of England you can see where once upon a time corn grew, where the ridge and the furrow are still to be seen, and where rushes are now growing where the ditches are all silted up. That is our problem in the West, which is mainly a pasture country. Also in the land of the birth of the right hon. Gentleman, in Wales, where, as Professor Stapleton has shown at Aberstwyth University, very large areas of the upland country have been rendered not valueless, but very much lower in value in account of the waterlogged condition which has gradually been growing up.
I cannot altogether share the admiration of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs for what is being done in Germany. I know that the Hitler regime there is doing a great deal in draining the land, but it began a long time ago. It was started by Frederick the Great, and when I used to go across Germany a few years ago when I lived there I used often to come across the drainage works started by Old Fritz, as he is still called, which the present regime in Germany is only carrying on. They are only carrying it on really because it is part and parcel of their policy to separate Germany from the rest of the world and to become increasingly self-sufficient and so cut her off from international trade. Anyway, this is a problem which perhaps we can deal with later.
I was particularly struck by the speech of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Ripon (Major Hills) and the remarks which he made about the close connection between water supply and drainage. That is very true, and he no doubt noticed that when he was a member of the Royal Commission that reported on drainage. It is a remarkable fact that during the periods of drought which we had a few years ago we heard it constantly said that the water level over a large part of the country was steadily going down. At one end we have the phenomenon that large tracts of country are in danger of being waterlogged at certain times of the year, and at the other 2853 end the phenomenon that the water level is not able to supply the springs and wells with water. It indicates that some planning is necessary to develop our water supplies on the one hand and our drainage system on the other.
Local authorities, municipalities and large cities, are now drawing their water direct from the rivers, thanks to the methods of purification which are now adopted. In Gloucestershire, my own county, one important municipality is drawing its water supply largely from the Severn. The great waterways are becoming increasingly important now not only as a receptacle for the surplus water from the land but also as reservoirs to supply water for consumption. These two problems should be considered together. I remember reading the Debate in the last Parliament on the question of water supplies, and the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood), who opened the discussion, complained of the inadequacy of Government support in assisting water supplies. I remember some of the comments in certain organs of the Press, and the phrase "Under the Greenwood Tree, who loves to cry with roe." It has been realised in recent years how important it is to deal with the question of water supplies on the lines which the right hon. Gentleman advocated then and which he has advocated to-day—namely, that the two questions should be taken together if we are to have the problem adequately dealt with.
The Debate has shown an amount of agreement between all sides of the House, and I hope it will do something to forward the development of drainage plans as between one area and another and as between the Government and different areas, and that it will speed up the process of unifying drainage authorities within the catchment areas, which has not fully taken place, but which is necessary if we are to get organised planning.
§ 9.9 p.m.
§ Mr. Leckie
This has been a most interesting Debate on catchment areas and, naturally, it has largely ranged around the catchment area in the Fen lands—and rightly so. We all sincerely sympathise with the terrible ordeal through which the farmers and the inhabitants of this area have been passing and we trust 2854 that as a result of this Debate steps will be taken to prevent such a terrible ordeal occurring in that area in the future. I shall confine myself to another area, the Trent catchment area. Unhappily, the town I represent, Walsall, is linked up with that area, and we are not at all pleased about it. The contribution of water from Walsall is a small river, the Tame, which is little more than a brook. It rises three miles out of the town and yet we have to pay no less than a rid. rate to the catchment board, which this year has amounted to f3,643. Walsall has not a single representative on that catchment board. We share the representation of one-fourth, but we have never had actually our own representative. Other areas in the district are associated with us in selecting one representative.
It is as true to-day as it was when it was uttered, that taxation without representation is tyranny and I can assure the House that there is a great deal of feeling in my area and throughout the whole of the West Midlands at the unhappy position in which we are placed in connection with the Trent catchment area. We have to pay this rate of 1¾d. willy-nilly, while the county districts in the Trent area, which reap the benefit of the work, get off with a very small contribution indeed. I was glad that the Minister of Agriculture emphasised that this flooding was to some extent largely a local affair. We are situate many miles away from the area where any flooding takes place, yet we are mulcted from time to time in this large sum. It would be different if my constituency was a wealthy area, but it is purely an industrial area, with heavy rates of 15s. 6d. in the pound, high public assistance, and high education rates, and we can ill afford to pay such a large sum for work which really does not affect us to any great extent. That is a great hardship, and I hope something will be done to bring about a more equitable state of things.
We have to protect ourselves in Walsall from our own flooding. In past days we have had considerable floods and the cellars of poor houses have been flooded, many hundreds of them, and we have spent many thousands of pounds in sewering to carry away the extra water. We did not get any grant from the Government; we did it off our own bat, and we 2855 think it is very hard that we in Walsall and all the other West Midland areas should have to pay such large sums of money. I should like to emphasise that I am not speaking only for Walsall but for the whole West Midland area, which has been agitating for a more equitable treatment in this matter. We have had many discussions and many meetings and have come to the conclusion that a national scheme is the only solution of this question. The Association of West Midland Local Authorities, in which all the local authorities are represented, carried unanimously the following resolution on 15th January:That in view ofI wholeheartedly support that resolution, which has already been sent to the Government. I have not yet heard what is their decision regarding it, but I strongly commend it to them as a solution of the difficulty. A national scheme is the only solution for all these problems, and I think that has been emphasised in various speeches which we have had. An argument in favour of a national basis instead of a sectional basis such as we have now is the enormous geographical areas of these catchment boards. I think the Trent Catchment Board is one of the largest, stretching from West Worcestershire right across to Lincolnshire, an area of 2,573,000 acres. Another argument is the inability of the areas most affected, that is to say, the agricultural areas, to finance capital work themselves, 2856 and the inequity of putting the cost on boroughs and urban districts in the uplands. The third argument, which is a very strong one and one that is, I am sure, backed up by many hon. Members, is that if this work were taken over nationally, in times of depression, when works for the relief of unemployment were necessary, national control would be an enormous advantage.
this Association of West Midland Local Authorities respectfully urges His Majesty's Government to take early steps for a reexamination of the whole problem of flood prevention measures, with a view to the introduction of amending legislation and the establishment upon a national basis of the administration of the Land Drainage Acts; and that in the meantime provision should be forthwith made (a) for more adequate grants towards the expenditure of the boards; and (b) for more adequate representation of urban areas on such boards.
- (a) the serious burden imposed on urban authorities by the Land Drainage Act, 1930;
- (b) the inequitable basis on which the expenses of Catchment Boards are chargeable to the constituent authorities;
- (c) the inadequacy and uncertainty of Government grants in aid of works carried out under the Act; and
- (d) the inadequacy of the representation on Catchment Boards of the urban authorities who are required to provide the greater part of the income of such boards;
I hope the Government will consider the representations which have been made by this very influential body representing all the largest towns and urban districts in the West Midlands. It seems to me that a central authority should be created to take over the work of the various catchment boards and to carry it out on a proper national basis. I do not think it would cost as much as some people imagine, but whether that is so or not, clearly it is the duty of the Government to tackle the problem on a national basis and to have the work organised by experts who know a great deal about it. Although I do not wish to make a comparison, I would remind the House that in the United States of America the flood problem is now a Federal matter, as it was found to be too big even for the States to deal with. While our problem is not by any means as great, the same principle applies, and I would like to see the Government tackle the problem on the lines suggested by the Resolution which I have read.
§ 9.20 p.m.
§ Sir John Mellor
The hon. Member for Walsall (Mr. Leckie), whose constituency lies in the same catchment area as mine, has anticipated many of the points which I wanted to make. The Minister of Agriculture, in the course of his speech, said that the finance of land drainage must be partly a local question. I think that much turns upon what one means by the word "local." Before the Land Drainage Act, 1930, the cost of drainage schemes was charged to those areas directly concerned, but since that Act was passed, the cost has been spread over the local authorities within the catchment areas. That has involved a certain conflict of interests between the uplands and the lowlands. I cannot see why the uplands within the catchment area should necessarily be held specially responsible. I do not suggest that the low-lying areas should bear the whole cost of a scheme for in my view the 2857 cost of the scheme should be shared by the areas directly concerned and the Government, and I do not see why the uplands within the catchment area should necessarily have to contribute. There seems to be no logical reason for their doing so, unless it is on account of the habit of water to run downhill.
There are advantages and disadvantages in the uplands and in the lowlands. Certainly all the advantages do not lie in the uplands, for the lowlands enjoy many advantages, especially with regard to the soil, since they have acquired a richness of soil through the centuries by the process of water carrying down soil from the uplands. The hon. Member for Walsall referred particularly to the position in the Trent catchment area, and in that area there is no doubt that, as far as the local authorities have to bear the cost of schemes, it is mainly borne by the boroughs and urban districts in the West Midland area, especially in the neighbourhood of Birmingham where the rateable values are high. It is true that the contributions are limited to the produce of a 2d. rate, with an exception in the following cases: the limit may in any year be exceeded with the consent of the majority of the representatives on the board appointed by the councils of county boroughs and counties; and again, with like consent, the limit may be exceeded to any amount during the currency of any loan raised by the catchrnent board. These exceptions mean that the liability is unlimited.
The Minister of Agriculture says that in his view it would be to the great advantage of local authorities if they would agree to the 2d. rate contribution being exceeded, but I would like to ask to whose advantage it would be? It certainly might well be to the advantage of an area liable to floods, and it might well be to the advantage of the nation, because, for reasons to which I will refer in a moment or two, I think it is a matter in which we are all concerned; but I cannot see that it is a matter with which the uplands within a given catchment area are specially concerned. I would never underestimate the importance of land drainage in this country. It it a very big problem and one that should be tackled in a big way. I am merely discussing the question as to where the contributions should come from 2858 and to what they should amount in each case.
The matter should be dealt with on a national basis, and I will give the reasons. There were two reasons mentioned by the right hon. and gallant Member for Ripon (Major Hills), water conservation and river pollution, which are extremely important, but in addition we must bear in mind that the extent of areas liable to floods is very large, and that those areas being agricultural have a small rateable value and cannot be expected to bear all the cost of drainage. For the reason that they are agricultural areas this is inevitably a national problem. I have always taken the view that we cannot look on agriculture as a purely economic question. It is also a strategic question, and therefore must be treated nationally. In the event of depression in a district subject to floods, drainage offers in the form of relief works an admirable opportunity of providing work for unemployed men. I urge the Minister to examine this question carefully from the point of view of finance, and to consider whether it would not be far more just and more satisfactory if, instead of all the local authorities within a catchment area being liable to contribute, only those authorities directly concerned should contribute and the rest of the burden be spread over the nation as a whole.
§ 9.27 p.m.
§ Mr. T. Smith
If there is one thing this Debate has brought out, it is a complete change of attitude among the supporters of the Government. I remember in 1934, and I believe in 1935, the hon. Members for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) and Wentworth (Mr. Paling), and one or two more of us, raising the question of flooding in Yorkshire, and we found supporters of the Government opposed to big grants being given to the catchment board. It is very refreshing to listen to this change of policy. It almost reminds one of mining history. It usually took a big explosion to get legislation, and it appears to have taken the floods in the Fenlands to rouse supporters of the Government to a realisation of the position. The charge of the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood), that the flooding in the Fens and the other parts of the country stands as a monument to the Government's neglect of the problem, has 2859 not been refuted. The Minister of Agriculture is new to his job, and therefore is absolved from this charge.
At Bentley three or four years ago there was flooding to such an extent that people lost their furniture and water reached the upper windows of the houses. It is true that this year it has not been so bad, but in the Don Valley this month there have been floods and anxiety. When we asked for the assistance from the Government towards the Don improvement work, we got an offer of 10 per cent. When pressure was brought to bear it was increased to 20 per cent. of the loan charges. There were deputations to the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, and we finally got it to 33 per cent. An hon. Member opposite was talking glibly to-day about 75 per cent. of the cost of this work being borne by the State, but the Minister knows that the Don improvement work did not get anything like that. The work would have been proceeded with more rapidly if the catchment board could have got even 50 per cent.
In my opinion it is time that land drainage was tackled. The circular that went out in 1931—I think it was 14th October—was a mistake. Money should have been provided. In these days, when we talk about £400,000,000 in a certain direction, to talk about refusing to put into operation schemes costing £5,000,000 or £6,000,000 is playing with the problem. The hon. Member for Brigg (Mr. Quibell) remembers the Debate of 1930, and he has said that in his opinion there should be new legislation and the 1930 Act should be amended. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not be deaf to the appeals which have been made from all parts of the House that he should look into this problem and see whether something cannot be done. The right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) said that unemployment works could not be ruled out. Who are more efficient to do work like land drainage than some of our unemployed miners? Any county surveyor will say that in road-making the unemployed mine workers proved to be good workers, and some county councils admit that they got more work out of them than they expected. I hope that as a result of this Debate we are not going to have merely the usual sympathetic utterances, but that the right hon. Gentleman will face the problem of 2860 getting the work going and giving people in the localities a little more support than they have at present.
§ 9.32 p.m.
§ Mr. T. Williams
In my own division in 1931 we had a flood, due to the negligence of Government after Government, which put at least 1, 000 men, women and children out of their homes, and they had to be maintained in elementary schools between two and three months. Thousands of acres of good land went out of cultivation, crops were flowing from the Doncaster area to Goole, and the whole of the efforts of farmers in that area for 12 months went to nought. At that moment we were appealing to the then Government to put in hand some drainage scheme or schemes. It took us a long time before we were able to move the National Government at all. Even this year, although a good deal of remedial work has been undertaken and a scheme which will ultimately cost £1,250,000 is well on the way, we are still having hundreds of acres flooded in parts of the Don Valley division. The right hon. Gentleman said that we were suffering from an unprecedented situation in the Fenland area. I want to tell him that we are doing nothing of the kind. The situation from which we are suffering to-day is a natural development of conditions that have been growing up for a number of years, and that time and again this House has had an opportunity to deal with the Fenland area and other areas.
I do not think it would be out of place to look back and see exactly how this drainage problem has developed. It is well known that for years Tory and Liberal Governments, and combinations of Tories and Liberals, have neglected drainage problems. A Commission was set up which reported in 1927. The then Tory Government looked at the report, and that was as far as they went. In 1930 a Labour Government came into office, a minority Government, and they set out to give effect to the recommendations of that Commission. I need not repeat what the Commission said except to remind the right hon. Gentleman that it was found that 4,325.000 acres of land were dependent for their fertility upon arterial drainage, and over 1,750,000 acres were more or less out of cultivation, as a result of the absence of drainage measures in years gone by.
2861 An Act was placed on the Statute Book to give catchment boards at least the opportunity of undertaking the work which had been neglected for such a long time, but in August, 1931, the Labour Government departed and were replaced by the combination of all the wise men who formed the first National Government—the greatest patriots of all times who loved their own country more than anybody else's. One of the first things they did was to issue a circular which said among other things, that no application for grants from catchment boards could be entertained. Although the Act was on the Statute Book and power was in the hands of the Government to initiate and encourage drainage schemes on a large scale, the first thing they did was to stifle the activities of the catchment boards and discourage them from undertaking arterial drainage. In April, 1932, the then Minister of Agriculture, reviewing the economies effected in the Ministry of Agriculture made this statement:These reductions involved drastic economies and curtailment of powers among local authorities, and I am grateful indeed for the helpful spirit in which county councils drainage authorities, institutions, colleges and other bodies have co-operated with the Government in bringing about these very necessary reductions. I think the Committee will agree that on these figures the Ministry of Agriculture have contributed a reasonable and indeed a good example of economy in our present difficulties."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th April, 1932; cols. 590–591, Vol. 265.]What had the Government done after their first year of office? Drainage expenditure in 1931 before the catchment boards could commence to function was £340,000, but the National Government in their first Budget reduced that figure to £72,000 and the then Minister of Agriculture prided himself and congratulated local authorities, including drainage authorities, on helping to effect those economies. Not content with that reduction in 1931–32 his successor in 1933–34 not only refrained from encouraging the catchment boards to get on with the job of restoring thousands of acres to fertility, but made another cut in the sums available for drainage. He reduced the £72,000 to £61,000.
Then the right hon. Gentleman said this afternoon that the Fenland situation was unprecedented and that nobody could have visualised it. I can tell him that the problem had been visualised. One of his own hon. Friends, the hon. and gallant 2862 Member for Cambridgeshire (Captain Briscoe) said this afternoon that a Bill had been introduced in 1927 to deal with the Great Ouse area. That Bill was turned down, although the Royal Commission which investigated the problem saw the possibility of the destruction of fertility over a wide area, the loss of home-grown food, the loss of employment and the loss of a goodly number of healthy population. The Conservative Government did nothing to amend the proposed Measure of 1927 or to make it acceptable so that the work could be undertaken. Again the right hon. Gentleman told us that in 1931 another scheme was proposed to the Government—so that the danger was well-known that this Fen-land problem would become more acute as time went on. That scheme did not receive the blessing of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer—the same Chancellor of the Exchequer that the National Government took over. He did not give his blessing to anything, except the National Government, and it did not take him long to withdraw his blessing from them.
The fact of the matter is that this Fen-land drainage problem has been in existtence for a long time, and if the Conservative Government had desired to put up the funds—I do not say 100 per cent. but whatever sum was requisite in the light of the local circumstances, we would not now be confronted with the problem in the Fenland area that we have to-day. My point is that the Fenland is only a small part of this country. It is a very important part at the moment, because, as the hon. and learned Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Croom-Johnson) said, it has caught the eye of the publicists. The cinematograph people have been hovering over it and now we know something about it. If there had been the will on the part of the National Governments, either No. 1 or No. 2, that problem would have been dealt with long since. Speaking in this House in 1933 I said:The Don Valley is not the only valley in this country.[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] It is the only one of any consequence, however.
In 1929 there were schemes at the Ministry of Agriculture, affecting not only the Don Valley but the Great Ouse, the Ouse in Yorkshire, the Thames, the Trent and the Stour."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, nth July, 1933; col. 965, Vol. 280.]2863 Far from this being, as the right hon. Gentleman said, an unprecedented situation, it is a situation which has been visualised for a number of years.
§ Mr. W. S. Morrison
When I said that this situation could be regarded as, in a sense, unprecedented, I was referring entirely to the weather conditions which have been extremely severe.
§ Mr. Williams
I concede that the weathercocks have been busier this winter than for many winters for a long time past, but every time I leave my home to travel to London to attend this workshop, I see what is almost an open sea to the north of Huntingdon and also to the south of Huntingdon. It seems tragic to those of us who desire to retain on the land the maximum number of workers, and to see the maximum use made of our own country. While we have from 1,600,000 to 2,600,000 unemployed it seems tragic that so many acres should he out of cultivation merely because no Government will put up the funds and get on with the job. The Fen-land area, I repeat, presents only one of many problems. The problem in the Don Valley areas was brought to the notice of the House frequently during 1932 and 1933. We not only had one flood which put 1,000 men, women and children out of their homes for two or three months, but we had three similar floods in 18 months, and when we came to the House of Commons and invited the Minister of Agriculture and the Government to show a wee hit of generosity, what did the predecessor of the right hon. Gentleman say and do? On 8th July, 1933, he sent a message to the Ouse Catchment Board and, with real Scotch generosity, he made the marvellous offer of £10,000 to help them to solve their great problem. Here was a scheme which the engineers said would require a minimum of £1,250,000 to carry through, and the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor said that he had already offered them £10,000. He even expected the House to give him a vote of thanks for that marvellous offer made to the Yorkshire Ouse Catchment Board.
From the moment the National Government came into office they have discouraged every catchment board in the country. The hon. and gallant Member for Cambridgeshire blessed the Govern- 2864 ment and thanked them for what they have done. He also told the right hon. Gentleman that there was a million to one chance that the county councils of the Great Ouse area would ever accept the grant that had been offered, and then he pleaded for help in the way of more pumps—anything for remedial but nothing for curative treatment. The hon. and learned Member for Bridgwater has been speaking while the Minister of Agriculture has been having his bread and cheese, and has been telling us that in Somerset, in the Bridgwater district, vast areas of land are slowly but surely becoming waterlogged, and that each winter there is a worse situation than the last. The agricultural value is being lowered and destroyed and the hon. and learned Member almost shed tears over the painful situation that he can see developing in that area. There is nothing unprecedented in that situation. Yet the hon. and learned Member has been supporting the National Government since 1931. When we on this side attacked the Government in 1932–33 for not being more generous to the catchment boards, I noticed that the hon. and learned Member was not in his place and did not cast a vote either for or against the National Government. He has been supporting the Government and their policy throughout. I hope that the appeal he made to the Minister this afternoon will be followed by vigorous action as and when the opportunity presents itself.
I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that every element that produced the existing floods in the Fenland area has been in existence for a long time. All the elements that have produced the floods in the Don Valley have been in existence for a long time. The elements that have produced the disturbing situation in Somerset have been in existence for a long time, and unless the Government are going to be more generous to some areas than they have so far been, I am sure that not only shall we not get the work effectively started and undertaken, but we shall continue to have large areas out of cultivation which ought to be used for the production of a greater quantity of food. The hon. and gallant Member for Cambridgeshire chided my right hon. Friend who opened the Debate for what he called hysterical sensationalism. If the hon. and gallant Member had been in my division in 1931 and 2865 1932 he might have received his deserts by being tipped into the water. I and my colleagues from this House got into a boat there and rowed across dozens of fields without seeing the hedges. There is no need for hysterical sensationalism when that situation develops every few years.
The action of the Government in 1931 in issuing the circular to which I have referred, their action in 1932 in reducing drainage expenditure from £340,000 to £72,000 and their action in 1933 in reducing expenditure from £72,500 to £61,000 were all calculated to discourage drainage authorities from getting on with the job, and the situation confronting us now is exactly as the National Government have allowed it to develop.
A good deal has been said about the financial responsibilities of the Government if they were to fulfil every pledge given by my right hon. Friend Dr. Addison when he negotiated the Drainage Bill through the House. In an area such as the Ouse area in Yorkshire, including large county boroughs, with highly industrialised areas, where the rateable value is very high, it may be that a 5o per cent. grant there is not too large, or it may be that it is large enough; but in an area similar to the Great Ouse area, where rateable value is so exceedingly small, it may very well be that a 90 per cent. grant is not too large. I am not suggesting that a 90 per cent. grant is the equitable thing, but I suggest that there must be a fair deal between the taxpayer and the local residents. Is the Ministry going to sit by and wait for the catchment board to send in further proposals?
The offer to-day is 75 per cent. of the total cost. Are we to understand that that 75 per cent. offer is for the £6,500,000 scheme? Was that the intention of the offer of the right hon. Gentleman, or did he simply mean a 75 per cent. offer in respect of small schemes for £100,000 or £150,000 for internal drainage purposes? If his offer of 75 per cent. was intended for the total cost of the £6,500,000 scheme, and the catchment board are unwilling to bear the remaining 25 per cent. of the cost, and there is no further talk about it, we shall have more Fenland trouble, and we shall be calling the military and Air Force and using the wireless again in the years that lie ahead. Is it not better for the Government in association with 2866 the catchment boards to take action, bearing in mind the local responsibilities and the obvious improvement in the fertility and value of the land once a drainage scheme is carried through? Is it not time that the Ministry's representatives and the catchment boards should come together so that they can ultimately find a fair way of dealing between the taxpayer and the local people? Unless they are prepared to do that and to move from the 75 per cent. offer, either up or down, and to act promptly where the scheme is fair and equitable, we shall have floods similar to the one we have now.
I am convinced that if the will is there the problem is not an impossible one. The right hon. and gallant Member for Ripon (Major Hills) told us of the Commission's visit to Holland and the marvellous engineering problems they have solved there. The right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) told us of what he saw in Holland and Germany. I do not think there is anything either in Holland or Germany that we cannot do in this country if the Government are willing to put up the money in order that the scheme can be carried through; but if the Government are to be content to offer £10,000 for a £1,250,000 scheme, and expect a vote of thanks for their offer, we are not going to make a lot of progress with our drainage problem. I suggest, therefore, that the record of the National Government and of the Conservative Government that preceded it is a very bad one. They have nothing about which to pat themselves on the back. They allowed these problems to grow year by year through sheer neglect. The Commissioners at least pointed the way out. The Government want schemes to provide people with useful productive work. They want to make the country more self-sufficient from the point of view of food production. Here is an opportunity, and I hope that, as a result of this Debate and the support we have had from almost every hon. Member who spoke from the Government Benches, we shall find greater drainage activity, less financial stringency, and greater realism as far as this problem is concerned.