HC Deb 19 July 1938 vol 338 cc1999-2003
Mr. Holmes

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further and better provision for the protection of the coast of the United Kingdom against erosion and for other purposes connected with the matter aforesaid. At the beginning of this year the Members of this House whose constituencies are on the coast of the United Kingdom formed themselves into a Parliamentary group in order to give particular attention to the problems of the coastal towns. One of these problems is that of coast erosion and sea-flooding, and our investigations have brought us to the definite conclusion that in a number of places coast erosion and/or flooding of land has been caused by the removal of

shingle, sand and other material from the seashore. There is no authority which has power to deal with this matter, and the object of the Bill, to which the House is now asked to give a First Reading, is to enable the Board of Trade to prohibit, restrict or impose conditions as to the excavation or removal of the materials which form part of the seashore of the United Kingdom, not including Northern Ireland, if the Board are of opinion that it is desirable to make such an order for the protection of any part of the coast from erosion or for the prevention of damage to any lands by the action of the sea.

While there is no authority which has power to deal with this matter, it has been established in law that no person has the right to remove shingle, sand or other material from the seashore if such removal will cause erosion or flooding. The attention of the House must be directed to a case decided by the Court of Appeal in 1880. The matter came before the court on an action in the nature of an information by the Attorney-General, on behalf of the Crown, and an action by the Secretary of State for War, as plaintiff, against Colonel George Tomline, the Lord of the Manor of Felixstowe Priory, in Suffolk. Colonel Tomline claimed to be owner of the foreshore. A shingle bank on the beach formed a natural barrier which protected the land from the sea and was the only barrier which prevented the sea from encroaching on War Office land. Colonel Tomline had for some years past sold large quantities of the shingle, and the War Office alleged that in consequence of this removal War Office land was in immediate danger of being flooded, and that if the removal of the shingle was continued the whole natural barrier of shingle would be destroyed, the War Office land would be flooded and the stability of a martello tower would be endangered.

Mr. Justice Fry laid it down that it was a part of the duty of the Crown of England to protect the Realm of England from the incursions of the sea by appropriate defences, and that it was no less the duty of the Crown to protect the Realm by leaving unimpaired the natural defences which already existed from time immemorial and probably from periods of remote geological antiquity. He, therefore, held that, it being the duty of the Crown to protect the shingle bank, the bank itself was under the safeguard of the Royal Authority in this sense that any person removing this bank so as to prevent or interfere with the performance by the Crown of this public duty would be committing a wrongful act. It would be as much a wrongful act wilfully to destroy the natural bank which the Crown was bound to protect and maintain, as it would be a wrongful act for any person to interfere with the artificial barrier which the Crown might, out of its own revenues, have set up by the erection of a sea wall. The learned judge continued: Another view might be this. When the land was the land of the Crown, as all land in the country was, or is presumed in point of law to have been at one time, beyond all question it would have been a wrong on the part of the Crown wilfully to have removed this barrier. When the land was transmitted by grant to a subject, the subject could not do that which would have been a wrongful act on the part of the Crown if the land had remained in possession of the Crown. The Court of Appeal, composed of Lord Justices Brett, Cotton and James, approved the principles of law laid down by Mr. Justice Fry. Lord Justice Brett added that although Colonel Tomline was not bound to keep the sea out, he must not do any act which would let the sea in. Lord Justice Cotton said that the duty and obligation of the Crown was to protect the land from the incursions of the sea, and that if there was land which was a natural barrier against the sea, in his opinion the public had a right to say that the Crown could not deal with that in such a way as to deprive the Realm of that natural barrier against the sea.

The judgments in this case established the legal position, but, as no Government Department has power to act, action to prevent any person from destroying a natural bank of shingle or sand can only at present be taken by an individual or by a local authority, and as the onus of proof would vest with the plaintiff, who would have to face the possibility of the case going to the House of Lords, it is not difficult to understand that individuals and local authorities hesitate to commence proceedings. This Bill takes the practical step of enabling the Board of Trade to prohibit, restrict or impose conditions as to the excavation or removal of any materials forming part of the seashore if the Board are of opinion that the coast needs protection.

But the Bill provides adequate safeguards for the owners of these materials. Before making an order the Board of Trade must give notice of their intention, must publish the draft order, must consider objections and may hold a local inquiry. Further, before any order is made, the Board of Trade must obtain by resolution the approval of both Houses of Parliament. After an order has been made, a person who fails to comply with its provisions will be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding£50, and in the case of a continuing offence to an additional fine not exceeding £5 a day. Such are the provisions of the Bill. It may be added that no compensation will be payable to an owner who is affected by an order, since no subject has a right to impede the Crown in the exercise of a primary duty.

Immediately after the Labour Government took office in 1929, its President of the Board of Trade, the late Mr. William Graham, introduced a Coast Protection Bill, which received a Second Reading without a Division. The Bill had actually been drafted by the preceding Conservative Government and would have been presented to the House by Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister, now Lord Swinton, if that Government had remained in office. Clause 3 of that Bill is almost identical with the Bill which is presented to the House to-day. The Bill of 1929 was, however, a very wide and con prehensive Measure, and a study of the Debates shows that the reason it did not reach the Statute Book was that it imposed on the national Exchequer and on local authorities an undefined liability for coast defence and that it was, therefore, opposed by Members of this House and by local authorities in all parts of the country. The Debates, however, do not disclose any opposition to Clause 3, and it does not appear unreasonable to assume that if the Coast Protection Bill of 1929 had merely consisted of Clause 3 it would have become law nine years ago.

Question, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further and better provision for the protection of the coast of the United Kingdom against erosion and for other purposes connected with the matter aforesaid,

put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Holmes, Viscount Elmley, Sir George Courthope, Major Braithwaite, Captain Peter Macdonald, Mr. Ede, Mr. Roland Robinson, Mr. Rowlands, Mr. Loftus, Mr. Harbord, Mr. Owen Evans, and Mr. Haslam.