HC Deb 27 February 1953 vol 511 cc2507-14

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

4.2 p.m.

Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington, and Hackney, North)

I want now to draw the attention of the House to a purely local problem. One of the great functions of this House is that local problems can be ventilated, and I hope in putting forward this local problem that I may be able to obtain the necessary assistance from the Ministry. On 12th August, 1952, an application was made to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government for loan approval to the cost of the reconstruction of the sewer in Downs Road and Rendlesham Road in my constituency in the sum of £55,200. That was the first part of a flood relief scheme for that area.

The reply of the Ministry on 2nd September, 1952, was that, in view of the Ministry's Circular No. 54/52, the work must be deferred for the time being. The Hackney Borough Council is very gravely concerned at this decision, and, as I hope to show, this is a matter of very serious concern from the public health point of view. The sewer in question is about 100 years old. It is too small in size for the amount of sewage it has to carry, and as a result flooding has taken place in this area over many years. The first report about it was in 1926, but there have been numerous complaints since to the council.

The interesting point about it is that in 1950 a direct complaint was made to the Ministry of Health, and that led to the inspection of the area by one of the Ministry's engineering inspectors. As a result of that inspection, the Ministry of Health themselves wrote to the council and on 12th December, 1950, asked the council to consider the possibility of expediting action in respect of that area. It was as a direct result of that request by the Ministry—one might say at the instance of the Ministry—that the council were prepared to proceed with the scheme immediately.

The scheme was specifically designed to relieve the flooding of dwelling houses in the Rendlesham Road. In fact, the council had been proceeding at that time with another sewer reconstruction scheme where the main railway line running through the Borough was being flooded severely under the lines. The third stage of that scheme was refused by the Ministry, and owing to the need for economy the matter was not pressed. The council then decided on a substitute reconstruction, and decided on the sewer in the Rendlesham Road area with which I am dealing now.

I should now like to draw the attention of the House to the terms of the circular issued by the Ministry to which I have already referred. It speaks about the necessity for economies in the local government service, and it says that it is necessary, in order to relieve the demand on labour and materials, to concentrate on the most vital needs amongst the services on which local authorities require loan sanction or grants from the Ministry. Then it refers to the matters which have first claim, and among those matters is sewerage.

In order to assist authorities further, an appendix to the circular gives examples under the heading "B. Public Health," of schemes which will be considered on account of public health. and among them are: sewerage schemes designed to relieve flooding inside dwelling houses. The Rendlesham Road scheme was specifically designed to relieve flooding of dwelling houses. Therefore, it comes within the schemes put forward by the Ministry itself in that circular as urgent work which should be sanctioned.

I would put to the Ministry and to the House a number of points to be considered carefully in this matter. That the Ministry recognise the importance of the work is shown by their letter of 12th December, 1950, in which they ask for the work to be expedited—it can be said that the scheme was prepared directly at the instance of the Ministry—and, secondly, by the Ministry's circular, to a portion of which I have referred, which shows that the Ministry recognise the essential nature of the work as a scheme which ought to have priority.

I understand that the council will carry out the scheme by direct labour and that there is a trained labour force available to do it. The only controlled materials required are 12 standards of timber. No steel will be required at all. The council have done all they can. They have made repeated applications to the Minister and have seen the Minister in deputation. I have put down a Question, which drew forth an entirely unsatisfactory reply.

This is a matter of very serious concern. The council have the duty of safeguarding the health of the inhabitants of the borough and must, under the Public Health Acts, carry out urgent and necessary work for that purpose. The refusal by the Minister is virtually a veto upon the council's carrying out of the work. The council have to think of the possible results when sewage is allowed to flow back into houses. That would be a serious menace to public health. A further point of importance is that in this vicinity the council are developing an area for housing, following war damage, that will put an additional burden upon this very old sewer. It has been pointed out to the Ministry in a letter from the council that this may lead to difficult questions of legal responsibility if any unfortunate circumstance arises from this state of affairs.

I have tried to put matters as simply as I can. I hope that I have said enough to show how urgent this problem is. and how essential it is that the Minister should approve this scheme so that work can be proceeded with without delay.

4.10 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Ernest Marples)

The hon. Gentleman has raised this matter fairly as far as the facts he has presented are concerned, but by omitting several important factors he has distorted his presentation of the case. Therefore, any impartial person would not be able to form a fair judgment, as I shall seek to show. However, everyone must sympathise with the persons in the Rendlesham Road area, and I am sure they will appreciate his efforts and those of the Hackney Borough Council to put things right.

Before I deal with the present position, let us look at the curious history of this case, because it warrants examination. The hon. Gentleman started his speech by mentioning 12th August, 1952, when, he said. the Hackney Borough Council made application to the Ministry, but the matter first came to the notice of the Department in 1950 when a resident in Rendlesham Road complained through a friend of sewer-surcharging into the basement of his house.

Mr. Weitzman

I referred specifically to that complaint and to the letter sent by the Ministry requiring that this work should be done.

Mr. Marples

Yes, but the hon. and learned Gentleman hinged his argument on 1952. He mentioned the other things in passing, but they did not form the basis of his case. The Minister, who at that time was in the Socialist Administration, sought the views of the borough council on the matter. The town clerk replied that complaints had been received about surcharging of the sewer into Rendlesham Road at times of exceptionally heavy rain. This was because the sewer was too small, but in view of other and more urgent commitments elsewhere, the council were not proposing to reconstruct it for the time being.

The hon. Gentleman said that it had been small and under-sized for many years, but if it was under-sized in 1952 it must have been undersized in 1950, and one wonders why the local council, when they had the opportunity, did not reconstruct the sewer. That is a question to which I have not yet received a satisfactory answer and I myself saw the officials of the Hackney Borough Council on this case.

After that, one of the engineering inspectors of the Ministry, who was in Hackney in another connection, visited Rendlesham Road with officials of the council and saw the position for himself. He was then told by the officials that a remedial scheme for this area was not high up on the council's list of urgent works. The Ministry then wrote to the town clerk in December, 1950, inquiring as to the possibility of expediting remedial action in this matter. The town clerk reiterated that there were other and more urgent jobs and that consequently the sewer in Rendlesham Road could not be given priority in the immediate future. The Minister accepted the opinion of the local authority, and there the matter rested for the time being.

So it will be seen that at the beginning of 1951 the Minister and the Hackney Borough Council accepted the fact that, desirable as the reconstruction of the Rendlesham Road sewer was, it should be deferred in favour of more urgent work elsewhere. The need for a carefully planned programme of public expenditure has not diminished since that time; if anything it has become even more vital because of the large sums of money which will have to be spent on the flooded areas in Eastern England and of the civil engineering contractors and materials which will have to be diverted to ensure that the disaster that overtook us this spring does not overtake us again next autumn. Therefore, the demands on our resources now are greater than they were in 1950 when the council did not want to do the job.

Last summer the Minister circulated all local authorities appealing to them: to realise immediate difficulties and to accept with patience delays which, for the time being, are inevitable on many developments which both they themselves and the Minister would have wished to press forward. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Hackney Borough Council received a copy of that circular.

Nevertheless, in 1952, in spite of the fact that they refused to do it in 1950 thinking it was not important and also that the need for economy was more urgent in 1952 than 1950, the Hackney Borough Council resolved to seek sanction for borrowing £55,000 for a new sewer in Rendlesham Road. They asked the Minister to agree to the immediate execution of the scheme, and they put forward several reasons.

First, they said that the local residents had petitioned for the scheme in 1950. In answer to that, I would point out that the local authority ignored that petition in 1950, and now they use it as a reason for the scheme in 1952. Their second reason was that another local sewerage job had almost been completed and that it was desired to retain the services of the men who had been employed on it. I may be wrong, and I am subject to correction. but in my heart I believe that the real reason Hackney are extremely keen on this job is that they wish to keep together their own direct labour force and to feed into it sufficient work to keep the men employed. In saying that speak as an individual.

The third reason they gave was that surcharging had been recorded in Rendlesham Road sewer at times of heavy rainfall on 11 occasions in the past 26 years. the last occasion being in July, 1951. If the council are really actuated by inconvenience to the inhabitants, one is tempted to ask, quite earnestly, why did they wait for 26 years? Why has it suddenly become urgent in 1952 when they did not want to do it in 1950? Do they desire work for their direct labour force so as to keep on their own labour force even if very important schemes are needed by their next-door neighbours?

There are desirable schemes for the Metropolitan Water Board and the London County Council to deal with situations which are far worse than they are in Rendlesham Road. Would the hon. and learned Member prefer that Hackney should keep their labour force to do a job which is less essential at the expense of an adjoining borough which has a worse case? Knowing him as I do. and knowing his passion for fairness, I do not think he would agree to that.

We must look at every case in reasonable perspective. My right hon. Friend accepts that the reconstruction of this sewer is necessary. When a sewer surcharges into the basements of people's houses, even though it is only occasionally. it is quite right that the local authority should prepare schemes for remedying the situation as soon as possible, and the Minister places schemes of this kind high in the scale of priorities which has to be applied as long as our economic difficulties persist.

We are told that the Rendlesham Road scheme would cost £55,000, or £44,000 if a little of the work is left over for the time being. Obviously, there is a limit to the resources, financial as well as physical, which can be devoted to works on water supply and sewerage. Those resources have been diminished even further by the recent disaster. At the moment, because of the pressing needs for new housing, industrial expansion and areas without any services at all, let alone an unsatisfactory service. my right hon Friend is of the opinion that it is impossible to devote as much expenditure as he would like to works which are required to stop such surcharging as that which takes place in Rendlesham Road in times of abnormal rainfall. It was possibly because of these reasons, amongst others, that the Metropolitan Borough Council did not undertake the work in their own borough and the reconstruction of the Rendlesham Road sewer when complaints were made in 1950.

All these reasons were explained by my right hon. Friend to the town clerk in correspondence. I believe the hon. Member received a copy of the letter. They were explained, too, at a meeting in the Department with a deputation from the council. The council's views have been fully ventilated and considered.

It is, of course, appreciated that these reasons for the temporary deferment of the scheme do not dispose of the trouble which has been experienced in and near Rendlesham Road. The hon. Member said the sewer was 100 years old, and we realise that as time goes on the difficulties will become worse and that the situation will be aggravated if new buildings add new loads to the existing sewer. There is no question of the scheme going on the shelf it has not been refused but merely postponed. Later on—I would not like to say when, but perhaps not so far off as the hon. and learned Member thinks, and I would not like to commit myself further than that when a further review can be carried out of the more urgent sewerage schemes awaiting authorisation, the council may be invited to report on the position and, if necessary, every effort will be made to find a place for their scheme in the investment programme in the very near future.

They can rest assured that the Minister realises their anxiety and we are all grateful to tile hon. Member for raising this matter, which is of great urgency and importance to his constituents. We must remember that not only have we the obligation to install new sewerage in those parts of the country which have none at all, but to face the fact that we must maintain existing sewers in a reasonable state of repair.

The hon. and learned Member made as his main point that in the circular from the Ministry we said we had to conserve labour and materials but that sewerage was high on the programme. I would say in reply to that main point that it depends on the state of the sewer, how much is to be spent, and how much would accrue from it. Do we wish to spend quite a lot of money on a few people. especially if there are worse cases nearby? It is a question of balancing the demands and requests of Hackney with the demands and requests of other districts and, while each individual case may require consideration for renewal, if there are other places which are worse where a small amount of money expended on remedial measures will secure a greater benefit, I am sure the hon. and learned Member would be the last to deny that the money should be spent where it will he most effective.

Mr. Weitzman

I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that I am sure the members of the Hackney Borough Council and myself clearly recognise the need for economy and the fact that this is only one case among many. I am grateful for the words he used when he referred to the very near future and I hope that that will be translated into actual practice.

I am sorry about one thing. He referred to the fact that there were a number of reasons and made the criticism of this finding work for the direct labour force. It is true that certain letters were written to the council and I received copies, but I do not recall any occasion on which I saw reference to the criticism that the borough council desired the work done in order to find employment for some people. If reference had been made to it, I might have been able to find an answer, but I have no answer to it because I have not heard that criticism put forward before. The work is clearly essential and urgent and that is recognised by the Ministry. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look at this carefully, sympathetically and urgently so that something can be done in the very near future.

Mr. Marples

In reply to what was almost a second speech, I should say that I was in no way criticising Hackney Borough Council. But every reason the hon. and learned Member put forward today for carrying out this sewer work was in existence in 1950 when the council could have done it At that time the direct labour force was busy and it is not busy today. That is not a criticism in any way and must not be taken as such, but all the reasons the hon and learned Member put forward so cogently and fluently existed then, and I ask why they did not do it then.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-four Minutes past Four o'Clock.