HC Deb 18 April 1946 vol 421 cc2905-28

Question again proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."

12.26 p.m.

Mr. Edward Evans

As I was saying, I was supporting the plea made by the hon. Member for Eastern Norfolk and expressing the concern felt on this question by so many Members in all parts of the House for some time, so much so that we joined together and formed a nonparty committee to examine this problem without any party bias at all. As has been said, this is no new problem; it has been with us for centuries. Until the war it had been kept rather in the back- ground, but war conditions so aggravated the position that it is now catastrophic in a great many parts of the country, particularly on the East Anglian coast. Many hon. Members will recall that about a fortnight ago the picture papers illustrated the extent of damage done on part of the coast in the Division which I represent at Lowestoft, where a great sea wall has been scoured under by currents. It has been due to the fact that access to the beaches has been denied to local authorities, with the result that the position has deteriorated and the channel has been able to reinforce itself by currents undermining the sea wall. It is very important that that aspect of the problem should be tackled, and tackled immediately. Indeed, I could have wished that the subject of this Debate, instead of being "Coast erosion," which is rather the negative aspect of the problem, had been called "Coast defence." We are concerned with the defence of the coast, and we are taking all the steps we can to urge the Government to take such measures as are necessary to prevent what is literally the washing away of the land.

It is only when spectacular damage occurs that people realise what a problem this is, unless, of course, they live there. I suppose our second National Anthem is, "Rule Britannia, Britannia, rule the waves." Very often it is misquoted, but it should be, "Britannia, rule the waves." Now, however, the waves are ruling Britannia. In stressing the point of Britannia ruling the waves, a great many of us consider that this matter is Britannia's responsibility. It is not the responsibility of Caister, Lowestoft, or the Isle of Wight. We think it is Britannia's responsibility to rule waves and to protect her shores, and, therefore, this should be a national responsibility, carried cut on a national basis. With very great respect to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health—and I can assure him that I am one of his most devoted supporters and admirers—I am rather sorry that this has been relegated to his Department to reply for the reasons which have been mentioned by the hon. Member for Eastern Norfolk, that the repercussions of this problem and the importance of the steps necessary to tackle it effectively have for so long devolved upon so many Departments. It is necessary, in my opinion, and in the opinion of many other Members of the House, that there should be an overriding authority to co-ordinate the work of so many Departments. The Departments involved include the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Health—with their close relations with local authorities—the War Office—with their grip on the beaches—the Admiralty, and, ever present in the background, the Treasury. I strongly support the suggestion that an Interdepartmental Committee, or some such authority, should be set up to examine this problem as it affects each one of those Departments. Sporadic activity in this connection can do a great deal of harm. Sometimes one authority goes in for extensive sea works and diversion of current, and adjacent areas suffer. It is, therefore, very important that this problem should be tackled on a much wider scale.

I would like to refer to the great strain imposed on local authorities through expensive sea works on coast defences. In my own locality, the town of Lowestoft has to bear a financial burden of almost £20,000 a year for this work. The little port of Southwold is very much in arrears with its sea defence work, because it has been denied access to the beach during the war. It would cost a 7s. 8d. rate. for 20 years to do all the work that requires to be done. The recent catastrophe at Lowestoft, which affected the sea wall, will cost in the region of £100,000. I know that local authorities get generous grants, but the strain of meeting the cost in these hard hit East Anglian towns, whose main industries suffered during the war, is intolerable. The Government should approach the problem in the widest manner, and delegate powers which would co-ordinate the work of saving agricultural land and dwellings, and provide employment.

12.35 p.m.

Major Tufton Beamish (Lewes)

I am very glad to have this opportunity of making a brief contribution to this Debate, and of supporting fully what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for East Norfolk (Mr. Medlicott), and the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. E. Evans). This is an age old problem which interests many of us, and which is, I am glad to say, above party politics It is a problem which no Government in the past has really faced. It has suffered as much as anything else from the "Passed to you" habit. Indeed, until this very Debate I believe I am right in saying that it was not known who would reply. At one time we thought it would be the Minister of Agriculture, then the Lord Privy Seal, and now we find that it is to be the Minister of Health. That is one example of the divided responsibilities from which this problem has always suffered.

The Minister of Agriculture is interested, in particular, in those parts of our sea defences where drainage areas, or catchment boards, are affected; the Service Departments, particularly the War Office, are interested, and perhaps not much less, the Admiralty. The Board of Trade has a great interest in our groynes and breakwaters; the Minister of Health has always had a paternal interest, which has never been clearly defined, but which I hope he will define a little more clearly today; the Secretary of State for Scotland is interested because Scots will be Scots if for no other reason; the Minister of Transport is interested. particularly where main roads run along the top of sea defences, which they frequently do; the Treasury has a hand in it, naturally, and the Ministries of Supply and Labour are not disinterested. Lastly, the Lord Privy Seal has recently been given an interest in the matter, because of his appointment as the Minister responsible for our coastal areas. Some of us hope that the right hon. Gentleman will keep a keen eye on this problem. The local authorities, of course, are interested. The Sea Defence Commissioners, known in my constituency as the Newhaven and Seaford Sea Defence Commissioners, are composed of the Southern Railway, the Seaford Urban Council, the East Sussex County Council, and the Ouse Lower Navigation. All this goes to show that it is quite unnecessary to give any further explanation as to divided responsibility.

During this Parliament, a number of Questions have been put to the Prime Minister on this matter, but little satisfaction has been given to Members on either side of the House by the answers. On 11th April, I asked the right hon. Gentleman a comprehensive Question on this subject, and he replied: I am aware that the country's sea defences have deteriorated, and that repairs would be costly. I am afraid, however, that I am not yet in a position to add to the reply which I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich (Lady Noel-Buxton) on 27th February last "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th April, 1946; Vol. 421, c. 2096 That did not get us very much further. It was disappointing to many of us who felt that the urgency of the problem was, in some sense, lost on the Government.

I would like to say a word or two about the problem as it affects my constituency, not because I am parochially minded, but because Sussex, in common with other parts of the country, has suffered from the effects of the sea. Seaford, which is in my constituency, has suffered worst of all Sussex towns. I am doubtful whether any town in the country has suffered so badly as the result of the winter gales—although there may be competition from other Members on this point. During the winter, the seas frequently came over the parade. The sea wall was smashed, scoured, and undermined in five or six places. Huge blocks of concrete were whipped out to sea as if they had been pebbles. Roads were flooded, and the main road from Brighton through Newhaven, and Seaford to Dover, A259, was closed for a considerable number of days. There was a serious threat to the Southern Railway embankment, which runs a few hundred yards inland, and a considerable number of low lying houses were flooded. Great discomfort was caused to the inhabitants, who were looked after mostly by the efforts of the W.V.S. Large parts of the town were actually saved by a main sewer which runs along under the main road. The damage which would have resulted had the sea gone through at two points, where it nearly did, would have been very heavy. The total number of properties which would have been affected by flooding, or by the cutting off of water supplies, is 1,762.

The question of local finance has been unsatisfactory for many years. Through no fault of their own, local authorities have suffered in this respect. I will quote briefly from a resolution passed at a meeting of the Seaford Urban District Council on 12th November: The information disclosed was that £13,000 was expended during the year ended 15th September. 1945; also the total income of the Commissioners was £2,812, and their present liability to the Southern Railway Company amounted to £29.000. That shows clearly that what I have said is correct. As further proof, I wish to quote a few lines from a most helpful letter from the Ministry of Health, dated 22nd January, in which, among other things, they said: As the Council will be aware, the position at Seaford as a result or the recent gales is very serious. For some time, it has been apparent that extensive rebuilding of the sea wall may be necessary at a very substantial cost, and this may have been necessary quite apart from the recent damage. This long-term programme may entail the complete revision of the financial basis of contribution and other arrangements of the present Sea Defence Commission as set out in the Commissioners' existing Acts of Parliament. Quite apart from the long-term programme, the necessary repairs to make good the recent damage and prevent even further damage may entail very considerable sums and may amount to 630,000 or even more.— In fact, the figure is nearer £50,000— It is clear, however, that the expenditure upon immediate repair may far exceed the resources of the Commissioners The Minister of Health showed commendable energy, and gave great help to Seaford, in January, when conditions there were particularly bad. I am very grateful to him for the way in which he tackled this job which he took on, in his own words, as a blitz job. I hope I have shown some aspects of this urgent national problem. I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health a few definite questions, although they may be of a somewhat general nature. Is one Minister to be appointed to take charge of the co-ordination and examination of the many questions which arise in this connection? Who is he to be, and when is he to be appointed? Is there any point in the Government delaying any longer over this question? Do the Government realise the urgency of this problem? Are they aware that there has never been more need of a solution than there is today, and that this is directly the result of the lack of labour and materials during the war? Are they going to daily over this problem, or face up to it? Who is to meet the very heavy costs that will be entailed? What percentage of those costs can reasonably be made a national charge, and what percentage can more properly remain a local liability? I shall be most grateful if the right hon. Gentleman will give answers to these somewhat general questions and also give us an assurance that the Government will handle the whole problem with energy.

12.44 p.m.

Sir Stanley Holmes (Harwich)

The constituency which I have the privilege of representing is on the East coast, South of that of my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. E. Evans). Probably no part of the coast has suffered more from erosion than the part between Harwich and Clacton-on-Sea. It was because, every time I went along that sea coast in my constituency, I saw the ravages of the sea, that I ventured, in 1939, to introduce a Private Member's Bill entitled, "The Coast Protection Bill." I did not get a place in the Ballot, but by a piece of extraordinarily good luck I was able to get a Second Reacting for the Bill one Friday afternoon, with the result that the Bill obtained the Royal Assent and went on to the Statute Book—the Coast Protection Act, 1939—in July, 1939.

That Act gave to the Board of Trade the right to make orders to prevent coast erosion. Most of the coast erosion in this country has been caused by the removal of sand, gravel or other substances by the owners of that particular part of the coast, with the result that the sea has either rushed into that part or, as a result of a change in the coast, has attacked the coast some distance away. The Coast Protection Act gave the Board of Trade the right to make orders to prevent the removal of substances which had caused, or was likely to cause, erosion.

One hon. Member said that no Government had done anything towards this problem. I would, however, remind the House that the Labour Government of 1929 made an attempt to do so. The late Mr. William Graham, who was then President of the Board of Trade, brought in a very comprehensive Bill in that year. If that Bill had become an Act, the effect would have been undefined financial liability on every local authority which was concerned and also upon the National Exchequer. Every local authority in the country that had territory on the coast protested against the Measure, and I believe there was a protest also from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The result was that the Bill was dropped. The Act that was passed in 1939 was Clause 3 of Mr. William Graham's Bill. In 1929 no objection was raised to the provisions of Clause 3 of that Bill of that year, which would probably have gone through in 1929 if it had been the only Clause In the Bill, as it was in my Bill in 1939. I want now to say a few words about the division of authority with regard to coast erosion. My hon. Friend the Member for East Norfolk (Mr. Medlicott) intended to raise this matter on the Adjournment about a month ago, but it was postponed. On that occasion, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture was to have replied. A fortnight ago I put a Question with regard to the Coast Protection Act, 1939: To ask the President of the Board of Trade to what extent he is using his powers under the Coast Protection Act, 1939, to prevent coast erosion.— I was asked by the Clerk at the Table to direct this Question to the Minister of Transport, and the Minister of Transport gave me an answer on Tuesday, 9th April, which commenced: The Act to which the hon. Member refers empowers me to prohibit, restrict — OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th April. 1946; vol. 421; c. 304..] When I received that answer, I addressed a letter to the Minister of Transport and asked him by what Act or Order had the power in the 1939 Act been transferred to him. I have not heard from the Minister of Transport, so perhaps the Minister of Health will be able to tell me today. Other hon. Members have mentioned different authorities who deal with coast erosion. So far, nobody has mentioned the Minister of Transport. The Board of Trade seems to have disappeared as an authority in this matter, although it was the Board of Trade that was mentioned in the 1939 Act, and it was the President of the Board of Trade who brought in the Labour Party's Coast Protection Bill in 1929. If in 1929 that Bill had gone through, undoubtedly a tremendous amount would have been done to save very valuable parts of our sea coast. But 17 years have passed since then, and, savagely and inexorably, the sea has been attacking the coast and, particularly, the East coast. I join with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Major Beamish) in asking the Minister of Health, who is to reply today, to tell us that one Minister is to he responsible for coast erosion, and that something is really going to be done to prevent any further damage by the sea.

12.51 p.m.

Mr. Gooch (Norfolk, Northern)

I welcome the opportunity to take part in this Debate and to thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Norfolk (Mr. Medlicott) for initiating it. I am very much concerned with the problem of coast erosion, and in my constituency there is a long stretch of coast line which is affected. These front line towns and villages have many problems. They are concerned with rehabilitation and want to get going again. They want to get their hotels and boarding houses restocked and to recondition their premises. But in many areas, and in my own in particular, the relentless enemy, the sea, is still doing its worst. There are many places on the Norfolk coast where the sea threatens to destroy very large areas and may prove a menace to the county's capital, Norwich.

Coast defence at Mundesley has deteriorated to such an extent that there is a danger of irretrievable disaster unless erosion is checked. The defences have gone during the war years, and many properties and the main road through the village will soon go. I have had the opportunity of reading some observations of the chief engineer of the East Norfolk Catchment Board, who is very familiar with the problem in my county, and he says in his report that at Mundesley the position is worse than at Caister. The defences of the hotels have been recently completely smashed up. The whole front, he says, is in imminent danger. The whole village is outflanked on either side. The Erpingham Rural District Council was warned, and advised to carry out works to cost £31,000, but have been able to put in only one temporary groyne, which is, of course, inadequate. Farther North there has been constant attrition of the cliff edge to Overstrand, where the southern flank of the village is in great danger.

The residents of those parts have been enduring trials for six years of war, and I think they should, if at all possible, be spared the horror of seeing their homes and means of livelihood disappearing over the edge of the cliff. The prospect is a very real one. The whole county feels the Government should know of its plight and agree, if possible, to the principle of making sea defence a national charge.

May I say a word about the difficulty of getting any one Department to face up to this problem? I have had extreme difficulty in getting any one Department to consider the problem with a view to doing anything. I have tried in an individual capacity to secure the interest of four Government Departments and four Ministers. I welcomed very much the decision earlier on of the Minister of Health, in response to an appeal I made, to send one of his engineering inspectors to visit and report on the position at Thundersley. I asked the Minister of Agriculture if he would consider incorporating the whole of the area in question in the jurisdiction of the East Norfolk Catchment Board. The Minister replied he would arrange for certain districts to be inspected but if he found that any land drainage interests were involved he would bring the matter to the notice of the drainage authorities concerned. The chairman of the East Norfolk Rivers Catchment Board has stated he would like to see the whole of the area incorporated in the Catchment Board's jurisdiction so that the Board could get a national grant.

I did try later on to interest the Lord Privy Seal who, I understand, takes on all sorts of odd jobs for the Government. He suggested I should write to the Lord President of the Council, as he believed that his office would be dealing with the subject. The Lord President of the Council sent me back to the Minister of Agriculture, and the Minister of Agriculture, in a letter I have here, has sent me back to the Minister of Health. I am glad the Minister of Health is here today to answer the points put up. But this has been going on too long, and I hope we are going to get some very definite statement from the Minister today with regard to the intention of the Government in this connection. I welcome very much the announcement that the Government are considering the question of greater concentration of responsibility in regard to this matter, and I hope a decision will be reached so that the homes of the people and the livelihood of the people in many parts of Britain can be preserved, and that huge chunks of old England will be prevented from falling into the sea.

The Highways Committee of the Norfolk County Council have appointed a representative sub-committee, with power to consult other authorities, with a view to obtaining Government assistance; and by a recent decision of the Catchment Board, the Board is to convene a conference of representatives of the authorities concerned, with local Members of Parliament, and Members of the Norwich City Council. Can this conference have an assurance that their representations will be considered by the responsible Minister, and that there will be no further "passing of the baby" from one Department to another? Such an assurance will, at least, give heart to a large number of people who are up against a tremendous problem.

12.58 p.m.

Mr. Baker White (Canterbury)

Like other hon. Members who have spoken I should like to stress the urgency of this problem. The fact that it is hundreds of years old does not make it any less urgent. It does seem of paramount importance that there should be one Minister responsible for dealing with coast erosion and coast defence in all its forms and aspects. May I illustrate the point by telling, very briefly, the story of what is happening in a place in the constituency I have the honour to represent? It is called Studd Hill, between Herne Bay and Whitstable. That piece of land was first developed for human habitation in 1932. The land was sold in 20-ft. plots for building weekend bungalows and chalets so that people of modest means might have their own little places by the sea. Sewers were put in. Studd Hill has ceased to be just a weekend resort. Under the stress of the housing shortage it has become a place of permanent residence for a large number of people, with a permanent, stable community. Erosion in the shape of cliffs falling has been accelerated by the draining of the surface water from the cliff, and has become a serious problem. Year by year, month by month, and now almost day by day, it has increased in gravity and extent.

Before the war the following facts were established: first, that it was not the responsibility of the local district council to deal with this coast erosion. Even if it had been they could not possibly have found the money It is calculated that to deal properly with this erosion will now cost something in the neighbourhood of £300,000. The second point established was that, as it was not in the Kent Rivers Catchment Board area, it was not their responsibility, though Studd Hill pays the catchment board rate. The Kent County Council did not commit themselves to any responsibility in the matter, and a most important point in the situation is that the Minister of Health could not then see his way to give any assistance to deal with the problem. The war came and stopped the building of groynes, which might have given some relief, and erosion has continued. Today it is worse than ever. I had a telephone call last Saturday to say that another 500 tons of cliff had fallen.

I was in London during the worst of the bombing. I had three V.2s within Boo yards of my house in Essex. I have seen damage and destruction through North Africa and the Middle East, and I suppose by now I should be hardened to it, but I cannot help being moved when go to a place like Studd Hill or any other part of the East coast and see houses falling to pieces over the cliffs. The last time I was there was a fine sunny day. The houses were tidy and well kept. A lot of people had got busy with paint pot and brush to make the best of it. The gardens were bright with daffodils and spring flowers. The lawns were well kept and well mown. But down at the edge of the cliff, bungalows were being taken down because otherwise they would fall over. If one looked over the cliff, one saw pieces of brick, mortar and wood which represented what had been somebody's house. All the time there is hanging over that community of people, like a dark shadow, the fear that tomorrow morning, tomorrow night or the next day somebody else's house may go over. They are hoping against hope that this Government will do something to help them. There is something much more than just houses going over the cliff. Life savings are going over the cliff. It is easy to say that those houses should never have been built, because that was not a suitable place—it is always easy to be wise after the event—but the fact of the matter is that these houses are threatened more and more, every week with destruction.

May I illustrate that by giving one figure? The average speed of erosion of the cliff at Studd Hill is 12 feet per month. That may not sound very much here, but it is a lot if it is 12 feet a month off somebody's garden, or measured in length across the living room of somebody's house. I hope the Government realise the urgency of the problem, that they will appoint a Minister to be responsible for it, in all its aspects, and that he will go round our coasts and see for himself what is happening and take urgent steps to prevent what I think is in danger of becoming a national tragedy.

1.4 p.m.

Squadron - Leader Kinghorn (Great Yarmouth)

I want to speak for a few moments on this national problem. I hope that the shades of the ancestors of my constituents will not think I am showing gross ingratitude when I speak in favour of measures against coast erosion, because if it had not been for the carelessness of Governments in the days of the early Britons, Yarmouth, which arose from the sea owing to coast erosion, would riot be here at all. However, despite the fact that we in our little peninsula have arisen from the sea, there is a danger in these days that the sea is going to reclaim its own. I cannot narrate to the House harrowing stories of neighbours of mine watching their garden utensils disappearing over the cliff, but only yards away from my constituency—in East Norfolk, North Norfolk, Suffolk and Lowestoft—the sea is rapidly reclaiming its own. The figure of 12 feet a month which we have just been given is staggering, and it must be staggering to all Members if we think that bits of this great little island of ours—in one of its finest agricultural districts and one of its most important fishing districts—is receding into the sea at that rate each month. Obviously it is a great national problem, and it is no consolation to ask what previous Governments have been doing That does not allay the feelings of our constituents who see their houses disappearing over the cliff, as has been happening during the last few weeks. Constituents have come to see us in the Lobby and have told us harrowing stories.

Something must be clone, not only for these people whose houses are disappearing and whose land is falling into the sea, but for people in other parts of the country who, perhaps without knowing it, are in danger of invasion from the sea. It was enlightening to hear at the beginning of the Debate that this matter was first brought up on 27th February, when a Question was put, to the Prime Minister by, of all people, the hon. Member for Norwich (Lady Noel-Buxton). I rather thought Norwich was regarded as an inland town, and yet here an inland town is so much concerned about coast erosion that a Question was put by its Member to the Prime Minister. The fact of the matter is that if this coast erosion goes on without any measures being taken against it, the very existence of a town like Norwich is threatened by the sea, however far inland it may be. It is the same with my own town. I am told that last year when the sea was threatening the constituencies of my colleagues, there was danger to my own town. There might have been a break-through through the constituencies of my colleagues, and if the wind had kept up the velocity which it had at one time, and if the tide had been coming in instead of ebbing, there was every prospect of my own constituency being inundated. These are the perils and dangers facing towns which we regard as inland towns and which we consider to have very little to do with coast erosion.

That is another reason why I hope that other Members of this House, who may be far more occupied with other matters at this moment and think coast erosion does not concern them, will read the Debate and contact us, and realise that we need a big national effort supported by other Members of the House, who perhaps do not face the dangers of coast erosion as our friends in Norfolk do, but who later may be faced with the dangers that we in Yarmouth and Norwich now have to face. I reinforce the plea for a focal point where we people who are interested in coast erosion—and there are a lot—can turn to when we want some measures taken. We have all gone through the experience of contacting, say, the Ministry of Transport, then the Board of Trade, then the Ministry of Health, and then the Service Departments and so on, and finding that we cannot get any satisfaction because the machinery of Government so far is not focused at one central point. We have not got one Department which can deal with probably our greatest national danger—land disappearing into the sea from which it arose.

I hope we shall get an answer to the effect that there will be some centralising force, so that in future we shall know where we can go to tackle this great problem. The problem is a national one and requires national administration. We have catchment boards, but recently I talked to an important member of the catchment board in my district, and we realised after two minutes' conversation that this question of coast erosion is far too big for any catchment board. A catchment board may take all the measures possible within its own area, but the sea may come in 50 miles away, in the area of another catchment board and undo all the work, costing thousands of pounds, done by the first catchment board in their own district. It is as national a problem as national defence against the Luftwaffe, and we must have the administration centralised. The same is true of finance. There is no catchment board, there Is no county council—especially the rather poorer county council which has no great industrial areas—which can put its hands into the ratepayers' pockets and bring out anything like the amount of money needed to take great national measures to protect our natural fortifications against this great enemy the sea.

I suggest to the House that there is a great body of expert opinion and craftsmanship in certain parts of the world which could help us to deal with this problem. Staying in a house in my constituency last week, I was told that one of its former owners had been a Dutch-roan, who came over to Yarmouth at the request of Queen Elizabeth, at the princely salary of 4d. a day. He had begun to put right the defences of the town, and had helped us in our first efforts to combat coast erosion. We know what a wonderful job of work the Dutch have done in revitalising their country since the war, and we know that they are experts. If we have not enough competent people in our own country, we should call on them to help us to survey the land, and use them as we used them in days gone by.

We shall be discussing reparations in this House in the near future, I have no doubt. I do not know whether I am a heretic, but I have seen so much damage caused by our enemies during the war that I have formed the opinion that perhaps they might be expected to put right some of it, by such work as rebuilding our houses, and so on. I think we might use them for putting right our coastal defences as well. We have all seen on the films, if not in Germany, those great parades of German labour trained under the Nazis before the war—young men stripped to the waist carrying shovels. We have probably seen pictures of these men building up sea defences of Northern Germany, and making a good job of it. There is an excellent body of workmen there, and there must be expert individuals who organised that work under the Nazis in Germany. If we are short of labour and experts, and have not built up a tradition of that kind, then let us use those Germans who are still left.

Those are the points I wish to put before the House. I conclude by expressing the hope and conviction that, with this Labour Government, we shall have a centralisation of function, and perhaps the Minister will send us off with a good Easter present by enabling us to tell our constituents that soon, everything in the garden will really be lovely.

1.13 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Walter Smiles (Down)

I took care to be present at this Debate today because the constituency which I represent now has one of the longest coast lines of any constituency represented in this Parliament. It is quite true that the sea coast in County Down is not suffering from coastal erosion in anything like the way it is in a place like Mundesley, and I cannot understand the people of Norfolk having been so patient for generations. From the time I visited among them first, I think 50 or 100 houses at least have been swept into the sea, and the people seem to be content to allow the sea to take its toll. The hon. and gallant Member for Great Yarmouth (Squadron-Leader Kinghorn) mentioned the Nazi labour gangs before the war. I saw with my own eyes these boys stripped to the waist doing this work in Germany in 1933 or 1934. When I came back here, I made tentative proposals in this House that we should start seaside camps on a similar scale and idea here; the young men who were out of work should go down to the sea coast in the summer time and work on coastal erosion, getting good food and decent wages, and they would be doing themselves good in the sea air and also good to the country. The proposal was not well received. Even the good things about Hitler's administration were scorned, and it was not accepted. Soon after that, we had little unemployment and had to work as hard as we could to make munitions. Would the Minister of Health tell us who exactly is responsible for the coast in Northern Ireland? I have had complaints from my constituents that sand and gravel are being removed from the coast and they do not know to whom to apply to stop it.

Sir S. Holmes

Will my hon. and gallant Friend allow me to interrupt, and say that at the request of the Northern Ireland Members, the Coast Erosion Act of 1939 did not include Northern Ireland?

Sir W. Smiles

I am grateful to the hon. Member, but I still hope that the Minister will spare a minute or two in replying to put on record in HANSARD very definitely the answer to this question, because we were told to apply to the Board of Trade on this subject and to complain to the coastguards. If this is not the right channel of approach, I should be extremely grateful to the Minister of Health if he will let us know to whom we should apply.

As far as I have seen, a great deal of the coastal erosion in my own constituency has definitely started through people who wanted sand to help make mortar for a house, or some gravel for a road face, bringing their carts down to the shore. Eventually, one or two carts start a chain of vehicles and tons of material are removed. That is what starts coastal erosion, and leads to a great deal of expense in restoring roads which have been washed into the sea, and drains, and even houses. I think it should be made a civil offence to remove sand and gravel from any shore without a definite permit from the Board of Trade or some Government authority. I hope the Minister of Health will give me some information on the points I have raised.

1.17 p.m.

Sir Henry Morris-Jones (Denbigh)

This is not a subject that lends itself to a great deal of discussion. Most of the points I had in mind have been made by other hon. Members already, but no one has spoken in this Debate from the Principality of Wales, which is very considerably affected by coast erosion. The coast of South Wales is well known to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health, and I need not say anything about it. North Wales which is, of course, by far the most beautiful coast in Wales, is very considerably affected. Flintshire, Denbighshire, Caernarvonshire and Merioneth —especially the town of Colwyn Bay, which was the headquarters of the Ministry of Food during the whole of the war—are witnesses to the depredations of the sea in that area. The borough of Colwyn Bay alone has spent thousands of pounds in recent years just maintaining the promenades, let alone any other sea erosion which takes place in the vicinity. I witnessed a short time back some of the depredations and havoc of the sea. I went into more than eight houses which had been flooded. I saw a whole subway track for a distance of about 400 yards washed away, and I was amazed by the damage effected in such a short time as two or three hours.

The North Wales authorities have combined but, as has been mentioned, they are quite incapable of completing the task which is so vast and expensive. I am not anticipating that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us that we are to have another Minister. I hesitate to ask for another Minister. I ask for a centralised department which might come under the existing Minister. After all, there is not a local authority in the land which is not under his jurisdiction, and this matter primarily affects the local authorities. I have been in this House 17 years now, and this matter cropped up almost every year before the war, and even during the war. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to make some effective reply this afternoon in order to give definite encouragement to places around our coasts which are very much affected.

1.21 p.m.

Commander Maitland (Horncastle)

I think the whole House owes a debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for East Norfolk (Mr. Medlicott) for raising this question today. The matter seems to divide into two main problems, erosion of cliffs, which is perhaps the more spectacular, and the breaking through of sea walls to land which has been recovered from the sea in the past.

I represent a constituency in Lincolnshire which has some of the most fertile land in England protected from the sea by a sea wall. In that area the worst devastation can happen owing to a break through in the sea wall. Although not so spectacular, the damage lasts for a longer time, and remains long after the water has been pumped away. Salt water backs up the drains and is probably drunk by stock: a great deal of damage is also done in that way. I entirely agree with the proposition that this problem needs to be dealt with centrally. I disagree with the hon. 'Member for Denbigh (Sir H. Morris-Jones). We need a separate Minister, and I hope he will not be the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health, who has enough on his plate already. I hope we have a Minister to deal specially with this problem and that when he co-ordinates the system affecting various departments and considers the various problems he will remember the question of the sinews of war, finance. The fact that this has had to be raised from different sources has been one of the main difficulties in solving this problem in the past.

Centralisation is most important in controlling what the sea does. I draw the attention of the House to what was said during the Debate and would point out that the erecting of a breakwater may mean devastation 20 miles away. That is a most important point and a very strong argument for centralisation. I sincerely hope that when the right hon. Gentleman replies, he may be able to give us the answer we are all wanting, that the Government are taking this matter really seriously and wish to help all who live on the edge of England.

1.24 p.m.

The Minister of Health (Mr. Aneurin Bevan)

I believe all who have been present this afternoon will agree that we have had a most useful discussion and a very informed concentration of experience and knowledge upon a problem of considerable gravity and complexity. I appreciate very much the advice which we have received, and I also appreciate the anxiety that lies behind the speeches we have heard.

The defence of our coastline against encroachment by the sea must be a consideration not only for those on the sea coast itself, but for the whole population of the country. Parts of the country, of course, suffer very much more than others. East Anglia in particular is a very considerable victim in this matter. The Government are fully conscious of the seriousness of the situation. I was made conscious of it last winter, and shall probably be made conscious of it every winter, because whenever a break through takes place the local authority and the local Member of Parliament rush to the Ministry of Health for the purpose of getting them out of their difficulties. That, perhaps, is partly the reason why the responsibility has been placed on me to reply to the Debate today.

There is a great division of responsibility—far too great a division. The Ministry of Transport are responsible for protecting roads and railways, catchment boards are responsible for protecting agricultural land, which represents about 53 per cent. of the coast line, and local authorities arc limited to the protection of their own property, while the landlords, the foreshore owners, are responsible for the remainder. Whenever one of these authorities takes a step to protect its own property, it may have the effect of imperilling property somewhere else. The very useful little Act to which reference has been made, which gives the Board of Trade power to make orders to prevent persons from taking material from the seashore which might result in inundation, applies particularly to this point. Not only would inundation be caused by the removal of material at that particular point but it might also have the effect of causing inundation at a distant point. Obviously, unless we have an overall picture with someone responsible for seeing to it that overall considerations are kept in mind, piecemeal defence is of no use at all. These considerations are very present in the mind of the Government. But, because these various authorities were responsible for this and that aspect of the situation, it was decided, in the meantime, that the first thing to do was to make a Minister responsible for answering Questions in the House, and it was decided that the Minister of Health should be responsible. That was because the Ministry of Health, having engineers and being responsible to local authorities, and having obligations at different points, was probably the most useful focal point available at the moment. But it does not follow that the Ministry of Health is going to be responsible permanently. An investigation is going to take place, and has indeed already begun, to see where responsibility should be placed. When that investigation is complete, it will then be the responsibility of whatever Minister is decided upon, to consider what action should be taken to deal with the problem.

The first consideration must be to establish responsibility, and that will need some inquiry. There are many interdepartmental considerations involved which will have to be determined before the House is in a position to call for action from a particular Department, or a particular Minister. In reply to the hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland), I doubt very much if there will be a special Minister appointed for this task. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is anxious not to add to the number of Ministers.

Commander Maitland

I am sorry if I gave a wrong impression. I did not mean a special Minister, I meant that the responsibility should be the special responsibility of a Minister.

Mr. Bevan

That is the purpose of the inquiry which has now been set on foot in order to try to fix the responsibility. Once that has been done then the Minister, whoever he may be, will be answerable to the House of Commons for any action or inaction of which he may be guilty.

I have been trying to discover who is responsible for the defence of the coastline of Northern Ireland, but apparently the coastline of Northern Ireland is not known to the law. It may be when further attempts are made sometime in the future to include the coastline of Northern Ireland there will be Members from Northern Ireland who will be more receptive to the invitations of this House. [An HON. MEMBER: "They are always receptive."] They were rather distant on the last occasion when it was sought to bring the coastline under our care. When I came to the House first, I found a Coast Erosion Bill had been introduced, as an hon. Member reminded the House just now, by the late Mr. Willie Graham, who was President of the Board of Trade. The Labour Government of that time had almost as many preoccupations as the present one but amid those preoccupations they thought it necessary to defend the coastline of England against the sea.

A short Bill was introduced giving effect to the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry of 1911. I was a Member of the Standing Joint Committee which considered that Bill. It received a not very enthusiastic reception from hon. Members opposite. I think we spent three weeks on the first line. The right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) batted very well on that occasion. He displayed the most extraordinary Parliamentary virtuosity. I have never known so many speeches made on so narrow a piece of territory as those which the right hon. and gallant Gentleman succeeded in making. The total effect was to kill the Bill The Bill was not withdrawn. We were anxious to get the Bill. But there were 325 Amendments, I believe, to the first three Clauses. The Bill was killed and nothing had been done since then. Indeed, the right hon. and gallant Gentleman was anxious to follow up his victory because he put a Question at that time to the then Prime Minister asking if he had yet decided whether he intended to proceed further with the Coast Protection Bill. The Prime Minister said he could add nothing to what he had already said in reply to questions on this subject and that the position was still unchanged.

Captain Crookshank (Gainsborough)

That was very informative.

Mr. Bevan

Very informative indeed. The Prime Minister added that if there was to be a cessation of the opposition to the Measure, communications would be made through the usual channels. In other words, the Government of the day were prepared to discuss, through the usual channels, the dropping of the opposition to the Measure in order that it might become law. If I remember correctly, there was no great opposition to the general principles of the Bill but hon. Members opposite did not see fit to provide Parliamentary facilities to enable the Bill to go through. The result was that the Bill had to be dropped. I think that was a lamentable result. I admit at once that the report of the 1911 inquiry is rather dated. Even that Bill of 1929 would not have been entirely satisfactory but it would have gone some way towards meeting the position. It would have fixed responsibility. Local authorities would perhaps have been responsible and then the question would have been simplified into a matter of how much of the burden should he borne by local authorities and how much by the Treasury. Unfortunately, as I say, that was not done. I do not want to rake this up now merely for the purpose of being contrary but, as it was within my recollection and as it was my first experience on a Standing Committee of the extraordinary skill with which the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Gainsborough led his troops into action, I make no apology for recalling it at this moment.

Captain Crookshank

What was the date?

Mr. Bevan

It was in 1929.

Captain Crookshank

Could the Minister give any explanation of why the Labour Government did not reintroduce the Bill and try again in the next year?

Mr. Bevan

Because the same thing would have occurred again. This obviously was a case of blocking the Bill and, therefore, we could not proceed with it. However, I understand why the right hon. and gallant Gentleman cannot recall the occasion. He had so many crimes of a similar nature to his discredit at that time that he cannot recall them all today. As hon. Members will appreciate I cannot give definite replies to considerations of policy. Policy has not been determined. I can, however, give them the assurance that this matter will now be given active examination. A responsible Minister will be determined upon and a general survey will take place in order to decide as to what measures should be taken to deal with the problem which gives natural anxiety to those in the areas affected and which ought to be the preoccupation of the country as a whole.

1.36 p.m.

Captain Crookshank (Gainsborough)

I am quite sure my hon. Friends who have been concerned with this Debate will be relieved to hear that the Minister is now going to give serious thought to what is a serious problem and, as a result of the neglect during the war, a growing problem. We are all very grateful for that. I do not see why the Minister should have brought up the history of 1929 at this particular moment. When one does that kind of thing it is done to defend oneself against something and to try to put the blame on to somebody else. That is the usual procedure of the right hon. Gentleman. I wondered what sins of omission on his part he was trying to cover up by making this very vigorous attack. I waited to hear, and I can only suppose it is that in the months that he has been in office he has completely neglected to do anything at all about coast erosion. Having so neglected, he thinks it is a good excuse to try and make out that in 1929, I, and my hon. Friends who were working with me, offered opposition to what was no doubt a bad Bill. I cannot recollect the de- tails but, coming from the stable from which it apparently emerged and sponsored by a Labour Minister at that time, it could not have been all that good Therefore, having failed utterly to do anything to deal with this problem since he has been in office he has to reply in this manner. There was a complimentary remark by the hon. and gallant Member for Lewes (Major Beamish) about what he had done for Seaford. I agree—but he did not do anything like enough.

Having practically ignored this problem for all this time, when challenged on the Easter Adjournment about it, all he can say is that the Government are going to pay attention to it. For that remark, 1 say, we are very grateful. In order, however, to make it a little easier, the right hon. Gentleman takes it upon himself to attack the right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough. I am very pleased to think he has had a little bit of fun at my expense. I look forward to the many occasions on which I shall have far better grounds, far stronger reasons, for returning the compliment.