HC Deb 22 December 1954 vol 535 cc2839-47

3.59 p.m.

Mr. S. P. Viant (Willesden, West)

I desire to speak this afternoon on the effects of the tornado or whirlwind, as it is called, which struck the suburbs of West London on 8th December. It struck my constituency, West Willesden, at 5 o'clock in the afternoon or just afterwards.

The force of that wind was responsible for hurling a large number of chimney stacks through the roofs of many houses. I received a telephone call about 5.30 p.m. asking me to go home, but I found it difficult to do so because the train service was delayed. I arrived in the vicinity about 7.15 and I found about six or seven fire brigades in the locality distributing tarpaulins.

It reminded me of the days of the blitz. I saw tiles and debris everywhere and it aroused painful memories of the war. I understand that, after surviving the shock, a number of people got in touch with the town hall and asked for assistance. They were informed by those in authority that similar calls had been made from those who occupied requisitioned and council property and of necessity those in authority were compelled to attend to those requirements first. Then those affected got in touch with the fire brigade. The fire brigade worked through Wednesday night and until the early hours of Thursday. It did the same on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and even Sunday. It rendered signal service.

I should like to avail myself of the opportunity of expressing my gratitude, and that of those affected, for the signal service rendered by the fire brigade. It did a remarkable job in exceedingly dangerous circumstances, when one considers that some of the chimney stacks were overlaying on the roofs to the extent of three or four feet. They were a danger to anyone who attempted to go out of doors. The fire brigade had no easy task in dealing with the situation, but, none the less, so far as it was able, it supplied those in need with tarpaulins to render first-aid to their property. A large number of houses are still in that situation.

On the Thursday afternoon, I got in touch with the Minister of Works, explained the situation to him, and asked whether any tarpaulins were available. He said, "There are plenty, but, first, you better get in touch with the Minister of Housing and Local Government." Unfortunately, that Minister was in conference. I placed all the particulars before his secretary. I presume that at the end of the conference the facts were laid before the Minister. I had no reply that evening as, unfortunately, it was sent here. Next morning I telephoned the office and was informed that an official of the Department would be in the vicinity that day and, no doubt, would visit the town hall. That did not help me much in getting tarpaulins.

Probably I had assumed too much by assuming that, having made my request, the machine would get to work. I am not desirous of apportioning blame either to the Minister, or the Department, or to my local authority. What I am concerned about is that there should be some liaison between local authorities and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government so that if such an incident occurred again the requisite aid should be given to the local authority and, through the local authority, to those affected.

During the war we always had a Civil Defence Corps upon which to depend. We did not have that on this occasion but we are very grateful for all the services which were rendered by the fire brigade. When the officials of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government attended the Town Hall he informed the local authority that it would be permitted to carry out first-aid repairs, but that the whole of the expenditure must fall upon the local ratepayers. I was concerned that the necessary tarpaulins should have been available and placed at the disposal of the victims of these incidents as speedily as possible and I had hoped that the machine would have been put into operation in that way. I hope that as a result of raising the matter today the machine will operate more rapidly should incidents of this kind occur again.

We find ourselves in this position. The local authority has decided to grant loans to those who are not covered by insurance, but I find that the majority of people are only insured against fire. The policy covering storm and tempest is quite a modern policy which has only become known or been made effective in recent years. Quite a large number of the owner-occupiers were not aware that it was possible to obtain such a policy.

The builders' estimates are now coming in and I find that in many cases they amount to£190,£250 and£300 and even£500, so great was the damage. I can speak of my own house, for which the builder's estimate is£195, but, fortunately, I had taken out the improved policy about three years ago. Three houses away from mine there is an old lady of 84 years of age, an old-age pensioner, receiving a supplementary allowance from the National Assistance Board. The estimate of the damage done to her house is£300. There are a number of similar cases. It would be quite impossible for many of these people to take the load. I hope that the Minister will be able to render some assistance to the local authorities. Not only Willesden but Acton and Chiswick and local authority areas in the western suburbs have been affected.

I saw in "The Times" of yesterday some facts about the Lord Mayor's National Flood and Tempest Distress Fund. The facts are that the public subscribed£5,149,000 and it will be remembered that when this fund was launched the House supported the Government in their proposal to give£ for£. If the Government carried out the undertaking which was supported by this House they would have subscribed an equal amount of£5,149,000. But according to the figures that are given here in "The Times," though the Government promised£ for£ donation, so far the Tresury have been called on to provide only£1,750,000. A sum of£6,800,000 has been spent.

Working out these figures, I find there should be a balance of£3,498,000, let us say,£3 million. I endeavoured to put a Question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer within a few days after these incidents had occurred, to ask that representations might be made to the administrators of this Fund whereby a grant could be made from it to assist the people affected by this tornado. But owing to the fact that the Government had given this grant unconditionally the Table was unable to accept my Question.

I am now asking for the help of the Minister of Housing and Local Government so that representations may be made that some of the surplus in this Fund may be put at the disposal of local authorities to assist the victims of these incidents. I want to leave time for my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks) to say a few words on behalf of his constituency. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will seriously consider the points which I have made.

4.13 p.m.

Mr. J. A. Sparks (Acton)

I am very pleased to have the opportunity of associating my constituency with the appeal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Viant), because we in Acton also suffered the effects of the tornado which struck us on 8th December. In addition to ploughing up part of Willesden, it passed through my constituency, where it did damage to 429 houses. Of these, 119 were council property, 60 were requisitioned houses, and the remaining 250 were private houses.

It is quite true, as my hon. Friend has said, that this occurrence almost equalled some of the major air raids during the war. In fact, there were many air raids that left behind very much less damage than this tornado. Although in many cases the most of the damage is of a minor character, a good deal of it will cost a good deal of money to put right. In seven cases alone the damage to private houses means an expenditure of£500 to effect the necessary repairs, and, while many of the householders concerned will be covered by insurance policies, there are quite a few who are small people, owner-occupiers living in their little houses, who have not the means to find anything from£50 up to£500 to repair the damage.

I ask the Minister to give special consideration to this problem because, as far as we can find out, there is no source of assistance available which could be utilised to help the people who are now in distress to repair their damaged property. I ask the hon. Gentleman to remember that the worst of the winter months are beginning to come upon us—January, February and March—and that most of these damaged houses are now covered by tarpaulins. It can therefore, be imagined what kind of life people will have in a house, half of the roof of which is blown off and the walls of which are blown out. A tarpaulin or two over such a house does not keep out all the wet, and certainly does not keep out the wind.

Unless the hon. Gentleman can find means of speeding up the repair of these properties, a considerable number of people will have to suffer directly this winter as a consequence of the tornado. Although the hon. Gentleman may not be able to give an answer in regard to my own constituency, I can assure him that this matter affects many people who live in the neighbourhood of West London. I hope he will be able to expedite the repair of these damaged houses so that people living in them may not have to go through the experiences of winter under the conditions I have outlined.

4.17 p.m.

Mr. Malcolm McCorquodale (Epsom)

I want to add my plea to that of the hon. Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Viant). It was 25 years ago that I fought an election in that area, but I can well remember that portion of the constituency, which is occupied largely by the best type of small owner-occupiers, and I can well understand the distress that has been caused. It seems to me that there is a real gap in our national financial arrangements in circumstances of this kind, and if my hon. Friend can offer any help, I am sure he will be rendering a valuable service.

4.18 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. W. F. Deedes)

I want to begin by expressing on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government sincere sympathy for those in this part of South Middlesex whose homes suffered damage to a greater or lesser extent by this freak storm. Whatever administrative action is or is not taken, it is inevitable that some families will not spend Christmas in the comfortable surroundings to which most of us are looking forward, and that is obviously a matter for condolence and sympathy.

May I, first, summarise what happened on the night of 8th December. The violent windstorm of that night affected about 800 houses, with widely differing results. In Willesden, the estimate is that six were seriously damaged, 20 were medium-damaged and 300 were slightly damaged. In Acton, it is estimated that 50 were seriously damaged and perhaps 300 were slightly damaged. In Brentford and Chiswick, six were seriously damaged and 150 suffered medium and slight damage. I have seen the detailed reports on this damaged property made by our own staff and also accounts of the first-aid provided immediately by local resources. I have also studied the report of proceedings of the Willesden General Purposes Committee, which met on 14th December.

From what the hon. Members for Willesden, West (Mr. Viant) and Acton (Mr. Sparks) have said, it seems that I have here two issues to meet. The first is the immediate action of local authorities, supplemented, if necessary, by national resources, and their adequacy or otherwise. The second is financial provisions for meeting the cost of the damage. One might be termed the short-term and the other the long-term aspect of the matter.

It really cannot be said that emergency resources were lacking for immediate action or that the Ministry failed to offer promptly to supplement them. On the point raised by the hon. Member for Willesden, West, I have to say that an adequate supply of tarpaulins, with the assistance of the Ministry of Works, who actually produced them, was made available to Acton, Brentford and Chiswick and offered to Willesden, but the offer was refused by Willesden. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not realise that when he mentioned the point.

The offer was telephoned on 9th December, the day after the night of the storm. On 10th December the Ministry architect toured the area and inspected the damage. It is clear that local action had the immediate situation under control within 24 hours. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman referred to the Fire Service, which acted with its invariable promptitude in rendering first-aid repairs and setting the tarpaulins, a difficult but useful function.

There is a point about dangerous buildings which is important. Under Section 58 of the Public Health Act, 1936, a local authority can apply to a court of summary jurisdiction to make an order calling upon the owner to render a dangerous building safe, and where the owner fails to do the work, the local authority can do it and charge the owner. If there is danger to the public, subsection (3) of that Section enables a local authority to take immediate action to shore up a building and recover the cost.

It is not disputed that local builders had the material and labour to meet requirements without any supplementary resources being brought in from the outside. The county council, which was not called upon, had welfare powers for dealing with homeless and for feeding where necessary. Happily, very few cases arose in this instance. Those powers for feeding facilities would have been available if called upon.

I want now to meet the second, and perhaps more difficult point—the financial provisions for meeting the cost of the damage. I do not think it is disputed by either hon. Gentlemen opposite that the chief difficulty arises because in some cases of damage—it is difficult to say how many—the owners were insured only for fire and not for flood or tempest. No difficulty arises over local authority housing. It is only with the owner-occupiers that we are concerned.

One hon. Gentleman opposite said that many were unconscious of their obligations and of the wisdom of so insuring. I feel bound to add that I think it will be accepted that normal prudence, particularly in view of what has happened during the past two or three years, might suggest to house owners that it is wise to insure against these risks. It is not altogether an obligation on others—

Mr. Viant

Some of the owner-occupiers were unaware that it was possible to obtain such a policy and others took it for granted that they were covered for these risks until they were informed that that was not the case. That is the important point.

Mr. Deedes

I do not dispute that for a moment, but if one is a house owner and has responsibility for one's home, one has some obligation to cover one's risk as a house owner.

It is this contingency which gives rise to the feeling of hon. Gentlemen opposite that the Lord Mayor's Flood and Tempest Distress Fund or national resources ought to be available. It is obvious that I can make no comment about the Lord Mayor's Fund, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not expect me to make any indication in that respect. With two exceptions, which I shall mention, such charges have never been national, but have always fallen on the local authorities concerned. The two exceptions were the war damage legislation, which no longer operates, and distress on the scale of the Lynton-Lynmouth and East Coast floods of recent years.

In such cases as those, all national feeling apart, it may be held that the magnitude of the disaster has swamped local financial resources. It is important to draw that distinction because, clearly, that is not the case in South Middlesex. I am speaking here of local authority finance.

Mr. Sparks

Is the hon. Member now saying that local authorities may make a contribution from the rates?

Mr. Deedes

If the hon. Member will wait, I am coming to that point. It is quite clearly not the case in South Middlesex that the magnitude of the disaster has overwhelmed local resources. I have not seen a final figure, but from the general survey of the damage we know, within reasonable limits, what it is likely to be.

It must be quite clear that the Minister has no statutory power—and it does not lie with us on this occasion to discuss what statutory provision there should be—to give blanket sanction for expenditure. What he can do is to indicate that where the local authorities incur expenditure on private property and subsequently fail to recover the cost he will give the necessary dispensation under Section 228 of the Local Government Act, 1933, which prevents what is called the surcharge by the district auditor. That is the normal method of dealing with emergency expenditure of this kind and in this case such dispensation, I understand, has already been indicated to the local authorities concerned. Hon. Members may take it that there will be no difficulty on that point.

Repairs done on behalf of private householders are an act of grace, as it were, by the local authority and, in the absence of an insurance policy, that is probably what will have to happen. I understand that the local authority has requested leave to make advances under Section 4 of the Housing Act, 1949, and with certain modifications, which are not unreasonable, we have approved that course of action. The local authority received a letter to that effect within 48 hours of its writing to the Minister.

There has not been, on anyone's behalf, a lack of promptitude or help within statutory limitations. It is questionable whether it is desirable to create powers to deal with every possible contingency of this kind, or whether indeed it is even possible. We do not as a nation lack either resourcefulness or good will to meet such emergencies. Perhaps we should congratulate ourselves on having a climate which, mercifully, gives rise to these disasters at very infrequent intervals.