HC Deb 24 March 1947 vol 435 cc856-63
Mr. T. Williams

I am sure the House would wish me to make a statement on the flooding situation in general, from the standpoint of my Department. The quick thaw, following weeks of heavy snow, and frost, and coupled with heavy rainfall in some areas, caused a run-off of abnormal quantities of water from the high ground over land that was frozen or waterlogged. As a result, watercourses over a large area of England, and in many parts of Wales, were substantially overcharged and floods of unprecedented size inevitably took place. These floods have caused the gravest damage. At the present juncture, it is impossible to assess its extent or the loss to food production, but tens of thousands of acres of winter wheat and thousands of tons of potatoes in clamps have been submerged by the flood waters, and much other land will not recover to enable a crop to be sown this spring. In the South Level area of the Great Ouse alone, upwards of 40,000 acres of arable land have been submerged, following breaches in the banks, or for other reasons. The House would, I know, wish me to express its sympathy and that of the Government with those who have suffered as a result of this catastrophe.

The catchment boards and other authorities responsible have striven night and day to limit the extent of the damage and to bring relief to those in the areas affected. All the resources of the Government, both civil and military, have been placed without stint at the disposal of those authorities in their battle against the flood waters. I need hardly say that no reimbursement will be expected in respect of these services which have been freely given in a time of national emergency. In a calamity so national in its character and affecting so many of the nation's interests and activities, it is difficult to pick out special areas for mention. Members will be aware of the flood situation in the valleys of the Thames, the Severn, the Lea, the Trent, the Yorkshire Ouse and others of our great river systems, and the havoc the rising waters have caused. I am sure, however, that Members in all parts of the House will understand if I lay special stress on the flooding in the Fens. The breaching of the banks of the Fen rivers and drainage channels raised many feet above the level of the surrounding land assumes the character of a major disaster.

In these circumstances, my Department have placed all their resources at the disposal of catchment boards in the Fens, and particularly in the Great Ouse area. The position as yet is still critical, and it cannot be said when stability will be reached. But my Department has established a depot at a central point and is assembling emergency pumping equipment there. This equipment will be available to the catchment boards on call so that all assistance can be given when the time comes in removing water from the Fen lands and so saving as many of the inundated areas as possible for spring sowing. The special nature of this disaster in the Fens justifies special measures of Government aid. I am proposing to offer to the catchment boards concerned, in respect of repair works on their embanked channels, grants at 20 per cent. above the normal rate, subject to a maximum of 90 per cent. of their expenditure. In respect of the clearance of internal drains and farm ditches in those areas which have been submerged by the waters, as the result of breaches in flood embankments, I shall be prepared to offer grants at the rate of 75 per cent. as compared with the normal rate of 50 per cent.

Works carried out by catchment boards and other drainage authorities assisted by Government grants, have undoubtedly lessened the extent of the flooding in many areas. I would mention in particular the Keadby pumping station, completed in 1941, which has saved some 40,000 acres of low-lying land in the Trent catchment area, and the Black Sluice pumping station, at Boston, which was completed only last year, and is taking the waters off some 100,000 acres of low-lying land, of which a major part might otherwise have been lost to crops this year. The carrying out of a number of major long-term improvements works was, however, inevitably slowed down by the war. Such schemes are now being resumed. They will receive prompt and sympathetic consideration by my Department, and when approved will attract substantial grants under the Land Drainage Act, 1930.

In the present circumstances, these inundations following, as they have, the delays and losses caused by the autumn rains and the frost and snow of January and February, can only be described as a disaster of the first magnitude, which cannot fail to have the most serious effect on our home food production this year. I am keeping in hourly touch with the situation as it develops, and can assure the House that the Government's action will be on a scale that will match the need. In view of the exceptional efforts that will be needed I am setting up immediately an emergency advisory committee composed of the main agricultural interests concerned, and I am sure I shall have their full co-operation in the urgent tasks that face us.

Finally, the House will, I am sure, wish me to pay tribute—which I do very sincerely—to all the farmers and farm workers and their many helpers who have laboured unceasingly under appalling conditions during the past few months—and are still doing so at this moment—to save the nation's food Their work has been heroic.

Captain Crookshank

I am sure that we on this side of the House will wish to associate ourselves with the tribute which the right hon. Gentleman has just paid to all on the land, in this very difficult situation. The right hon. Gentleman in his statement referred to the considerably increased grants that were proposed for catchment areas. He will appreciate, of course, that that is not the only problem, and I hope he can give us an assurance that, as very many people engaged in agriculture may turn out to be in grave distress as a result of this flooding, the Government are beginning to formulate plans to deal with them as well.

Mr. Williams

I can assure the right hon. and gallant Gentleman that our immediate problem is to deal with the immediate difficulties. Obviously, any other matters, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said a few moments ago, will have to be given more detailed thought than they have been given up to the moment.

Captain Crookshank

But the distress is caused at once; that is what I am asking the right hon. Gentleman to bear in mind.

Mr. Norman Smith

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the Nottingham area, where this sort of thing is perennial, there is widespread lack of confidence in the Trent catchment board; that people do not believe that they have either the best technical advice or the resources to use that advice when it is forthcoming? Will he have inquiries set afoot to consider the whole problem in its larger aspect, with a view to preventing a recurrence of these calamities?

Mr. Williams

I am not aware that there is any doubt about the technical qualities of the catchment board—

Mr. Smith

It is widespread.

Mr. Williams

The Nottingham city council are represented on that board, and I should have thought that since that board was established, it had put in an enormous amount of useful work, particularly in the Keadby pumping area, to which I have referred—work which has saved 40,000 acres of land.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

Will the right hon. Gentleman keep in mind that the distress caused by the prolonged winter storms on the hills has been as heavy in its immediate incidence, as the disaster in the Fens; and will he take remedial measures, such as providing cows for those whose cattle had to be shot, owing to the absence of food? This matter is quite as urgent as improving conditions in the Fens.

Mr. Williams

Everything humanly possible has been done to assist hill farms, by the use of aeroplanes for transporting food from surplus to deficit areas, and special trains have also been chartered for the same object. Nothing that could have been done to help those who are suffering has been left undone.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

The right hon. Gentleman said that certain grants would be made to local authorities in the case of the Fen lands. Will it be possible to consider something analogous in the hill farm areas, where the heavy losses which have fallen on individuals have not been made good, and according to present impressions, will not be made good, by any national assistance?

Mr. Williams

That is one of those questions which will have to be considered extremely carefully.

Mr. Stubbs

Is the Minister aware that in the Cambridgeshire area, over 150,000 acres of land are out of cultivation, certainly this year and possibly in the greater part of next year, and that the loss of potatoes runs into thousands of tons? Can anything be done to compensate those farmers for their loss? There is in my area a feeling of dissatisfaction among the farmers with regard to the catchment board. There is a feeling that all has not been done that might have been done.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is making a statement instead of asking a question.

Mr. Stubbs

May I ask whether it is intended to set up a committee of inquiry at once to go into this matter of the floods in that area?

Mr. Williams

In my statement I said that I was setting up a small advisory committee representing the various interests in the industry, to review the whole circumstances arising out of the floods and frosts.

Major Legge-Bourke

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that the losses in the Fens, in particular, have been very heavy as regards potatoes, that a lot of the seed reserves have gone as the result of the floods, and, that being the case, will he give special consideration to some rehabilitation in the form of the payment of money to these people who, perhaps, would not have grown those crops or had them stored on their land, if they had not been ordered to do so? May I also endorse what the right hon. Gentleman has said about the activities of his own Ministry. I have seen the magnificent work which they have done, but I think even they would agree that that work cannot compare with the work performed by the people who have been affected by the floods.

Mr. Williams

I can only say that we are collecting from the various areas all the information we can which, of course, will be analysed and sifted later.

Mr. Deer

Would my right hon. Friend say whether the urban interests will be represented on the committee of inquiry in order to deal with the problem of the flooded towns where thousands of houses are under water? Further, what steps will be taken to reconsider the Land Drainage Act in order to deal with the internal drainage boards, which appear to be in an impossible position with regard to doing the work, or spending the money?

Mr. Williams

The first part of my hon. Friend's question raises a totally different matter from that of agriculture, and presumably will be dealt with by some other authority. With regard to the drainage law, an advisory committee was set up and commenced its sittings about two weeks ago. I hope that as a result of the committee's report, some amendments may be made in the original Drainage Act.

Captain Marsden

Is the Minister seeking any advice from Holland? The Dutch have unrivalled experience in the work of holding back floodwaters.

Mr. Williams

I believe we have more than one Dutch expert in this country at the moment giving such advice and guidance as he is able to give.

Mr. Harold Davies

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is of immediate importance, owing to the havoc caused by the floods, frost and snow, for the farmers to get the services of mechanics, and will he make arrangements with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War to obtain welding materials and to permit Army mechanics to go to the assistance of the farmers?

Mr. Williams

I can assure my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State for War has unreservedly placed at the disposal of the affected areas not only engineers but all those whom he can muster to come to the aid of the farmers

Mr. Harold Davies

I specifically mentioned welding plant

Mr. Vane

In spite of all that has been done, there is concern among hill farmers about the shortage of hay; and can the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that there is enough hay in the country, provided distribution can be arranged?

Mr. Williams

I cannot give the hon. Member the assurance he seeks. I can assure him that the county executives are co-operating as between surplus areas and deficit areas, and that by all manner of means we are trying to bring the two together in cases where hay is needed.

Mr. Berry

Will my right hon. Friend consider the early introduction of the long overdue River Boards Bill, the operation of which would do much to prevent this sort of thing occurring in the future?

Mr. Williams

That has not completely dropped out of our minds.

Mr. Baldwin

While appreciating the damage done to the Fens, is the Minister aware that the last two months' weather, on the top of the bad harvest last autumn, have brought many farmers to the stage of bankruptcy; and does he not think it is time that his colleague the Chancellor of the Exchequer should allow prices to rise, and pump more money into the industry, so that farmers may be able to meet these cases instead of having to resort to charity?

Mr. James Callaghan

May I ask my right hon. Friend how the short-term immediate distress is being dealt with? Is there a system similar to that which operated during the blitz, whereby people who are short of money may get assistance straight away? How are these people able to meet their immediate day-to-day needs?

Mr. Williams

I think my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister answered that very question.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

May we expect a similar statement from the Secretary of State for Scotland in connection with our particular trouble?

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Westwood)

I have not the slightest idea that Scotland has been afflicted with the same tragedy as England in connection with flooding.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

I said "in connection with our particular trouble," which is that of snow on the hills. I did not say flooding.

Mr. Awbery

Is my right hon. Friend aware that what the people who have suffered from this disaster desire more than anything else, is an assurance from the Government that early financial assistance will be given to them; and can we have an assurance from the Government that at a very early date such assistance will be given?

Lieut.-Colonel Elliott

May I press the Secretary of State for Scotland on the point which has been raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Perth (Colonel Gomme-Duncan) concerning the disaster in Scotland, which is comparable with the disaster in the Fens? [An HON. MEMBER: "Nonsense."] That is a matter of opinion. The disaster in Scotland is a major disaster which will be felt for many years. I am asking the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will indicate that steps comparable with those taken by the Minister of Agriculture for England, will be taken by him for Scotland.

Mr. Westwood

When I was dealing with the problem in Scotland in connection with the snow, I indicated that we were trying to collect all the information that was necessary for dealing with this problem. I can assure the right hon. and gallant Gentleman that we have been collecting all the information, and it will certainly be considered, with a view to doing what is reasonable and possible.

Mr. Maclay

Is the Secretary of State aware that when the heavy snow lying in Scotland begins to melt, there is bound to be risk of flooding in certain areas; and is he satisfied that necessary precautions are being taken which might minimise damage if the threat of flooding develops?