HC Deb 25 November 1947 vol 444 cc1952-60

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Pearson.]

11.45 p.m.

Mr. Edward Evans (Lowestoft)

I apologise for detaining the House at this very late hour, especially as I myself have, unfortunately, lost my last train home. The question I wish to raise is that of the deterioration of the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads. I say Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, because there is a tendency always to refer to them as the Norfolk Broads, and I would remind hon. Members that the Broads overflow a good deal into Suffolk. The subject it not only of local interest as might be inferred from the name I have given it: it has national implications of various kinds, and it is very gratifying to know that the claims made for the Broads to be included in the National Parks scheme have been so warmly endorsed by the Report of the National Parks Committee presented to the Minister of Town and Country Planning. These claims have the very strongest support from those people who live among the Broads; from those who earn their livelihood in the ancient craft of boatbuilding; those who ply their boats for hire and depend very much on the preservation of the Broads; and of all, I am sure, of the many millions of people who have enjoyed the amenities of the Broads as a holiday centre.

Among all the proposed National Parks, the Broads are unique. They provide facilities for relaxation and enjoyment not found in other parts of the country; they have their individual character and a type of scenery and extensive broad waters. It is because they are so well worth preserving as a projected National Park, that I desire to call the attention of the House and of the Minister to the disasters which not only threaten their future as a National Park, but which, if not tackled now, will make them a grave liability, indeed. There can be no doubt that the Broads are deteriorating rapidly as a. holiday centre, as they have already done as a commercial highway. The Norfolk and Suffolk Broads comprise at present about 90 miles of navigable waters to which may be added 2,600 acres of open water in lakes of various sizes and diversity of character. From time immemorial they have been the public means of transport in the area, and until the construction of modern roads and railways they were the only means available for the transport of goods, cattle, farm produce, and, also, of people. But during the last 100 years they have developed into a fine holiday centre, and it is on that aspect that they come into the category of a National Park.

The amenities available are sailing, first of all. Here thousands have learned to manage a sailing craft. Nelson himself, it is said, learned to handle a tiller there. Many who ran the Dunkirk gauntlet and manned the little ships that fetched our soldiers home learned on the Broads how to manage their craft. There are canoeing, fishing—the Broads have been called an angler's paradise—skating in the winter, and ice sports. There is a wealth of flora, and the bird life comprises some of the richest and rarest specimens of wild fowl, including bittern, heron, and many others. All this beauty and all these sports are available at small cost, and are easily accessible from London and other centres of population. About 1,000 craft ply for hire on the Broads in the holiday season, and about 80,000 people use them. About 20,000 can be accommodated in hotels and hostels, and an average of about 50,000 visit the Broads in a season on coach excursions. The value of the tourist traffic is estimated at £600,000 a year. Despite the benefit of all this business to the authorities in the region—the rural district councils, the parish councils, the county council, the catchment boards and drainage boards—not one of these authorities makes any contribution to the upkeep or the expansion of the Broads for recreational purposes. All these amenities are in gravest danger of being seriously restricted through causes which it is well within the capacity of the authorities to prevent.

It should be the aim to develop, extend and improve them and it is disquieting to find that the area still available to the public today is not one half what it was a century ago. The area grows less every year, Those who have known the Broads for 10 and 20 years have only to cast their own memories back to find a marked deterioration in the space available to the public. The loss in acreage open to the public is due to two main causes. The first is the most iniquitous and arbitrary enclosure of certain broads and waterways by private persons, riparian owners and dwellers by the waterways. They have no legal right to have these public waters closed. In my opinion—and I say this having well considered the word—it is nothing less than sheer robbery over the years. Since 1892 over 550 acres of open water and a great number of narrow waterways have been shut to the public. It is a very easy thing to do. A chain is thrown across a narrow waterway, or a heap of stones is gathered and weeds inserted. The history of these enclosures constitute a gross scandal and a disgrace not only to those whose greed and selfishness have made them carry out this robbery, but to the authorities who have permitted them to get away with it. I beg the Minister to consult with the local auhorities to see if something can be done to restore to the public these rights of access.

The second cause is the neglect by the authorities to deal effectively with the growth of weeds and other aquatic vegetation. The waterways are steadily becoming choked with weeds, some of which spread hundreds of yards. The total area lost in this way cannot be less than 1,200 acres. Another danger to the enjoyment and, indeed, to the health of the people, is the pollution by sewage from craft and riverside dwellings. Breydon Water suffers, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Squadron-Leader Kinghorn) will tell the House, by the backwash of sewage from that town. For many years the use of the river bank and. open waters for towing and mooring was a common right and it was stipulated in the leases granted by the Drainage Commissioners to dwelling holders on the bank that as far as nine feet wide in front of the house should be available for common mooring and towing. These rights have been gradually filched away. Now there are notices everywhere, "No mooring" and "Private mooring." This grave abuse is quite illegal and indefensible.

There is no proper repair and maintenance of. stages and landing places, with the result that timbers break away and great baulks are allowed to drift out into the waterways and are not taken out. Many of the waterways are overhung with trees. All sailors in narrow waterways know of the terrific loss in sails torn by overhanging vegetation. Another consideration that might engage the attention of the Minister and those who want to preserve the amenities of the Broads is he regulation of the size, speed and type of craft. There is great danger that the backwash of those almost ocean-going motor and house boats which career up and down the Broads will gradually disintegrate the banks. There is also the danger of submerged stones, wrecks and fallen trees. It seems to be nobody's business to clear these away. A visit to the Broads, instead of being an invigorating, inspiring holiday, is almost one of the saddest spectacles of wilful neglect it is possible to see.

Our greatest enemy is time. That is why we are anxious to have these facts put before the Minister. Every year the cumulative effect of neglect makes the position worse. If the Broads are to play their full part in the scheme of National Parks, these abuses and dangers must be dealt with without delay. The Broads form a natural playground for our people in the best British tradition. Immense rewards, economic, physical and social, are to be gained from them. But these rewards may be lost through neglect and greed. I have been fortunate in securing a collection of photographs which emphasise much more forcibly than I can, what this deterioration means, and I hope that hon. Members, and particularly the Minister, will take the opportunity of seeing them in the Library. I do ask the Minister to give all the attention he can to this very vital danger of the almost complete deterioration of the Broads if the trouble is allowed to go on as now.

11.57 p.m.

Mr. Medlicott (Norfolk, Eastern)

I welcome this opportunity to intervene for a moment or two, because just as the whole of the Suffolk Broads are, I believe, within the constituency of the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans), so the whole of the Norfolk Broads happen to fall within the constituency which I have the honour to represent. I am glad he has raised the matter at this moment, because there is no doubt that the Broads are quite seriously being lessened in area, and the rate of lessening is going to accelerate as the years go on. But I cannot join the hon. Member for Lowestoft in laying any great part of the blame upon the enclosing of certain Broads by private owners. In any case, he has referred to the loss of some 550 acres, but there are some 2,600 acres of Broads still open to the public, so that enclosure is only a relatively small part of the problem. I suggest, also, that whatever has been done has been carried out in strict accordance with the rights of the riparian owners. I cannot agree that there has been any departure from the law by owners of land surrounding the Broads.

It is, however, an important matter that the fullest use should be made of the Broads in the interests of holiday-makers. We shall have fewer opportunities to go overseas for some years to come, and this is a magnificent place for holidays at home. But there are two things which must be borne in mind. First of all, the channels must be cleared, because there are large stretches of water which are no longer navigable. Those channels must be cleared by the most efficacious means which can be adopted. There are other matters which perhaps fall outside the purview of the Minister of Town and Country Planning. For instance, there is need for the provision of riverside hostels and other forms of accommodation, because, although we are anxious to make this into an even greater holiday resort, we do not want it to become a "Coney Island." The natural beauty of the surroundings must be preserved from commercialisation, and it would never do to have a vast additional number of people attracted into this area unless there were proper accommodation for them. These two things need to be harmonised—the need to increase the river accommodation, and, at the same time, to increase the accommodation for people to stay.

The other point I wish to make is of equal importance. We are asking for help and guidance from the central Government. We shall need finance especially, because the cost of dredging the silted channels cannot be borne by the local authorities alone. But we do ask that whatever plans are carried out shall be carried out under the advice of, and very largely by, local people. Local knowledge is essential in carrying out the work if this problem is to be tackled properly. There are certain local residents who know more about the Broads than all the Ministry's officials would learn in many years, and I urge upon the Minister to see that Norfolk people and residents are consulted and allowed to have a say in whatever is done to cope with this pressing problem.

12 m.

Squadron-Leader Kinghorn (Great Yarmouth)

In the three minutes allowed to me I hope to add my own little weight of evidence to that of the various speakers on his subject. It is true that technically my constituency is not in the Broads, but its second name after "The Herring Port "is" The Gateway to the Broads." It is from there that the holiday makers set out on their travels around these water-ways, which are unique. We have a great responsibility now that we are faced with the situation which has been outlined by my hon Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans). I hope tonight we are going to start a small T.V.A. scheme, a sort of regional tackling of the problem which will lead to the danger being overcome.

Further, I should like to remind the Minister that Members drawn from both sides of the House have been sitting for two years on a Committee which is tackling the question of coast erosion, and these things are inter-related. A small village which is very near to my constituency is in danger of being inundated by the sea. It is a few minutes from the Broads and it may be that the drains will be drained, the Broads made more acceptable to tourists and able to accommodate better boats and then coastal erosion will upset the whole scheme. I hope the Minister will have consultations with the Minister of Health on this subject so that they can tackle the trouble together. In my constituency we have the Breydon Water, which is a large lake with a bottleneck outlet under a bridge. The water in that lake ebbs and flows with the tide and would be most suitable for a lock to control the waters. That is a practical way of lessening the flooding in that area. With these few words I will close my remarks as we all want to hear what the Minister has to say.

12.3 a.m.

Mr. Gooch (Norfolk, Northern)

As a representative of another Norfolk constituency greatly interested in this question, I should like to call the Minister's attention to one point. I have spent a good many happy days on the Broads myself, and as a member of the Norfolk County Council I know of what great concern to the members of that Council is any effort to ensure that everything possible is done to preserve the amenities there. A short time ago we held a general conference in Norwich at which were representatives of all interests. Out of that conference a Broads Committee was established to deal further with that question. A report has been issued by that committee and I want to ask that it be considered by the Minister. I should like the Minister to indicate if the report will receive consideration as I am sure it will, and that he will give it very careful thought, because suggestions are embodied therein with the object of promoting the welfare and development of the Broads area. I hope the Minister will be prepared to assist the Broads committee to carry out the suggestions which have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) who initiated this Debate.

12.5 a.m.

The Minister of Town and Country Planning (Mr. Silkin)

On one point we shall all agree, and that is on the unique character of the scenery of the landscape of the Broads. Everyone who knows the Broads must recognise that there is something there which is very special indeed in English scenery.

The Broads are, indeed, very difficult to know. The outstanding impression oh my mind is the difficulty of finding the Broads, and of getting to them at all. But the Broads have been recognised in the report of the National Parks Commission as one of the important scenic areas in this country, and while I am not in a position tonight to say what action the Government can take on this report, or when it may be able to do so, I can at any rate say that the Government, if able to undertake legislation, regard the Broads as one of the National Park areas. The House will not expect me in the limited time I have to discuss in detail the points raised tonight. We have had a Broads Preservation Committee, which sat for some time and has reported, and broadly my Ministry would agree with the recommendations of that Committee. We are aware that there has been a considerable reduction in the facilities open to the public, but I am not able to say if that is due to the causes suggested by the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans), namely, the closing of the waterways with no moral or legal claim, or whether it is due to the fact that, since a number of these Broads are private property, the owners have only been carrying out their rights.

Mr. Maclay (Montrose Burghs)

Will the Minister remember that there also arises the important question of the preservation of wild bird life to which the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) referred? There is the case of the bittern, and I think something ought to be done in this matter.

Mr. Silkin

I am not prepared to answer in detail the individual points that have been raised, nor have I the time to do so. But they are all points meriting attention, although some of them are matters for which I have no special responsibility. Those responsibilities range over a wide field, and are not confined to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning. My right hon. Friends the Minister of Health, the Minister of Agriculture, and even, I think, the Minister of Transport, have responsibilities on this subject, and some of the matters raised tonight would require legislation to deal with them. But I do promise to examine all these points very carefully indeed, and then I will give a formal and definite reply to the hon. Member who raised the subject, and let him know the position specifically about each of the points which have been raised. I hope I may satisfy him when I say that if I do not deal with all these points tonight, it is not because of a lack of appreciation of the subject. I am personally most grateful to him for having raised this question of the Broads. It is a late hour at which to raise a question of this type but, on the other hand, it is always a pleasure to have a question of amenities raised in this House at any time of the night, and those hon. Members who are not here will, I am sure, read about this discussion with interest. So I hope my hon. Friend will realise that he has rendered service to the cause he has at heart, and when he receives, in due course, the information I will give him, he will know that he has justified his intervention.

Adjourned accordingly at Ten Minutes past Twelve o'Clock.