HC Deb 28 July 1955 vol 544 cc1405-13

2.39 p.m.

Mr. John Baldock (Harborough)

I have taken this opportunity to address the House on the subject of the cleansing of brooks and watercourses because I believe it to be a matter which both the House and the Ministers concerned will find requires more urgent attention than it is receiving now. It has been brought to my notice by one case in my constituency which I think very well exemplifies what is going on in hundreds and probably thousands of villages all over the country. They are suffering regularly year by year from damage through flooding.

It is true that the result of the flooding which occurs through these brooks and watercourses is not so dramatic, dangerous or damaging as when a sea-wall is breached and land is inundated or a major disaster of that kind arises. If the House contemplates the position of every area where hundreds and probably thousands of villages and houses are flooded regularly year by year, it will be seen that it adds up to a considerable amount of damage, destruction and danger to health. It is to my mind remarkable that in a highly integrated and organised society such as ours this situation is permitted to continue year after year. It is time that action was taken.

If I could instance the case which draws attention to the most important aspects of the situation, it is that of a brook at a small village in my constituency called Cosby. I was asked by the parish council to do what I could to help them to have the brook cleared out. It is a typical stream running through a village, and at one time it was well kept and was an asset to the appearance of the village, as well as carrying away the surplus water. Now it is silted up, full of weeds, muck and tin cans and other debris which anyone may happen to throw into it or which may be carried down by the water. The problem is that it is not the responsibility of anyone to clean it out.

For two and a half years now the Parliamentary Secretary and his predecessor, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples), and myself have been battling with this problem together with the local authorities concerned. It seems to me tragic that we have completely wasted our time. Probably it is difficult to make progress without legislation, but I hope to suggest a way in which perhaps some more immediate relief might be afforded.

The basic situation was that if this stream could be regarded as part of the main river of the Trent, into which eventually it runs, the Trent River Board could be held responsible for cleansing it. It is hard to say, however, what is the main river and what is not. There appears to be no definite demarcation line, and conversations and discussions have not been successful in getting the Trent River Board to take responsibility for this stream or for several others like it which have exactly the same effect of flooding their surroundings every winter.

The other possibility seems to be that the rural district council concerned might be able to cleanse it, but it is only permitted to do so, and the district auditor would only allow the charge to go through, if the stream has reached the stage of being a statutory nuisance. On taking counsel's opinion the Rural District Councils' Association has been told that this amounts to a situation in which disease is likely to break out immediately, or possibly has broken out already; in fact, the position must be one of considerable severity.

Ordinary flooding and permanent danger of flooding, the unattractive appearance of the brook and the annoyance to the villagers are not regarded as constituting a statutory nuisance. Therefore the local authority does not feel that it could embark upon cleansing the brook without running the risk of having the charge disallowed and surcharged by the district auditor.

That is how the matter has gone. We started with the Trent River Board, who turned it down. We investigated the possibility of it being regarded as a nuisance and, after advice was taken, that was turned down. We have gone back to the river board, which again has turned it down, and we are back to the district auditor. It is like a dog chasing its tail. We have done this for two and a half years and there is no limit to the time we could go on, while we still have breath and energy left to chase our tails, and so long as there are Ministers in the Department and hon. Members representing this constituency.

While this problem is high-lighted by the village in the case we have been pursuing, it also applies in exactly the same way to a number of other villages, Whetstone, Blaby, and Glenfield, in the same rural district. In another part of my constituency where the Welland River Board would be responsible if these streams were regarded as main rivers, over on the Market Harborough side, we have much the same situation. The village of Lubenham regularly has floods when there is heavy rainfall. It is not only an exceptional winter like last year which brings on this flooding; it is a regular annual event and takes place even in the summer when there is heavy rainfall. It also occurs in Little Bowden, where the Jordan runs into the Welland.

Nobody knows where the responsibility for the River Jordan lies, as it is apparently not the responsibility of the Welland River Board. From lower down at Medbourne, where flooding occurs regularly, only last week I had a letter from an old lady who said, among other things: My cottage was flooded three times last winter, causing me great distress, damage and loss…I am 77 years of age and live alone, and was compelled to have medical help for shock. This kind of thing can be multiplied over and over again, and the instances I have quoted from my own constituency probably occur in nearly every other rural constituency.

It is the case that the Heneage Report was issued in 1951 to the Ministry of Agriculture, and that recommendations were made for dealing with all these problems. The first, and I suppose in this instance the most relevant, recommendation was that the responsibility for watercourses should lie with river boards. If that recommendation were adopted it would mean that every brook and stream would come under the board of the main river into which it eventually runs. In that way the difficulty of deciding where the main river ends and some tributary starts would be overcome, and that would be a move in the right direction. Unfortunately, it requires legislation.

We come back to the point of what can be done at the present moment. The previous Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing summed it up in this way over a year ago: There is no drainage board responsible for this brook, nor is it a 'main river' for which the River Trent Board would be responsible. This question of the maintenance of small water courses arises in many places, where the work cannot be tackled by riparian owners, and I am afraid the existing law does not place clear responsibilities on any authority to carry out the maintenance work. In the absence of new legislation, the problem is a difficult one. I believe that the House and the Minister would not want to leave the matter where it is and where it would appear to have to lie at the present time. I hope that the district auditors can be prevailed upon by the Minister—I am not sure how great his powers are in this case—to interpret the expression "nuisance" in a more commonsense and wider way than is being done at the present time.

If we were able to interpret as a "nuisance" regular flooding—and by any commonsense interpretation of the word it does constitute a nuisance if people's homes are regularly damaged year by year—then the local authority could do something about it. Most of the local authorities want to do something about it. They do not want to see the houses of their ratepayers and citizens regularly damaged, and frequently their own council houses inundated, in this way year by year. They are anxious to help, but they are blocked by this one word "nuisance." Is it possible, therefore, for the Minister of Housing to send a circular, or in any other way to communicate with district auditors, asking them to interpret the word "nuisance" a little more widely? If so, the considerable suffering, damage, inconvenience and inefficiency—because it is remarkably inefficient to tolerate this—which is going on year by year could be overcome until a more permanent and effective solution could be found.

2.48 p.m.

Wing Commander Eric Bullus (Wembley, North)

I am glad to support my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Baldock), even briefly, in his plea to the Minister for some guidance or even a decision in this matter. Though not a fascinating subject, it is an important one, and it is certainly an involved one. I confess to some sympathy with the Minister when he replies. I, like my hon. Friend, have also been subjected to a "passing of the buck" from one local authority to another and back to the Ministry, and the Minister would greatly assist house owners affected by flooding, as well as local authorities, if he would give guidance, and more especially decision, to local authorities on this subject.

Some of my constituents in the Borough of Wembley are affected by periodic flooding of otherwise small streams when rainfall is only slightly above normal. I have been in communication with the Minister during the past eight months, and I should be grateful if the proceedings could be speeded up. I know it is an involved problem, but need we take so long in reaching a solution?

One affected constituent of mine complains that after flooding a thick, black sludge is left behind and there is a potential danger to health, especially to the health of her young children. That is confirmed by the local medical officer of health. Because her garden is at a low level compared with others nearby, the town clerk suggests that as riparian owner she might carry out protective work but, "he hesitates to advise the raising of the level of the garden if the result is likely to cause neighbouring land to be flooded." Obviously if one householder raises a wall or makes some protection for her own particular property, someone else has to suffer. That is why I hope that the Minister will take some decision in this matter.

Because of recent housing development in adjoining boroughs, the surface water which formerly sank into the ground now quickly swells the small streams, with consequent damage to other local authority areas; and the county council also comes into this matter. In my own particular case, the Middlesex County Council, the Harrow Borough Council and the Wembley Borough Council are concerned, and even if one authority were disposed to compensate another authority, it is doubtful whether it would have the statutory power to do so. I would ask the Minister to clear up this matter, and to get the local authorities to speed up any negotiations.

Another of my constituents writes that he has felt very frustrated for years because of the excuses which have been given such as: "The matter has been held up for further consideration," or "This cannot be done because of the restriction on capital expenditure," or, finally, "Because we are awaiting the decision of other boroughs." Can the Minister please speed up these proceedings, because any steps which he can take in this matter will be fully appreciated by a large number of people?

2.51 p.m.

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

A few weeks ago, at a meeting of a local government association, I was asked a direct question on the subject which my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Baldock) has raised, and I confess that I was stumped. I found myself quite ignorant of this very complicated subject of brooks and watercourses. It is a subject upon which I have since then tried to improve my education, and the decision of my hon. Friend to raise this matter today has perhaps helped.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) thought that this was not a fascinating subject. I think that it is, but it is not a straightforward issue, and I shall not be able to resolve all the complications to which both hon. Members have referred today.

May I say a word first about the general responsibilities involved, before I turn to the particular problems raised by my hon. Friend? Watercourses, rivers and streams, broadly speaking, fall under two headings. The first is rivers as drainage channels. As I think my hon. Friend appreciates, the laws of drainage go back to Tudor times or beyond. They are as old as almost any of our laws, and they are now the responsibility of the Minister of Agriculture.

Under the heading of rivers as drainage channels, I would say, briefly, that there are two types of authority which have powers under the Land Drainage Act, 1930, to carry out works to maintain or improve streams as drainage channels. One is river boards, whose powers extend to main rivers only, and the other is internal drainage boards with powers over individual streams. The county councils also have certain powers, but they are not relevant to what we are now discussing.

The second heading under which we consider this subject is rivers as possible dangers to public health; that is, streams which are blocked and liable to flooding and which can then be regarded as a danger to the health of those living nearby. The Public Health Act, 1936, empowers local authorities to take action in such cases by putting them in the category of statutory nuisances.

That means that the local authority has, first, the duty of finding out who is responsible for the state of affairs and requiring him, if he can be found, to abate the nuisance. If the local authority cannot find him, or if the causes are natural, the local authority can itself, in certain circumstances, do the remedial work. It is fair to say, as both my hon. Friends have suggested, that the Land Drainage Act and the Public Health Act are limited in their application. They do not go as far as certain local authorities, on certain occasions, would wish for. In fact they go as far as Parliament intended that they should go.

I appreciate that there are circumstances, mentioned by my hon. Friend, in which the local authorities appear to fall between two stools and it may not be very easy to cover action by one Act or the other or even by a combination of both. My hon. Friend is, I think, aware that the Land Drainage Legislation Sub-Committee of the Central Advisory Water Committee, the Chairman of which was Sir Arthur Heneage, recommended, among other things, that, except for farm ditches, all watercourses should be brought under the jurisdiction of either river boards or internal drainage boards. I cannot go far into that aspect now because, apart from anything else, it is the responsibility of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

I do want to say something, however, on the point raised by my hon. Friend about the district auditor, and I hope I can offer some guidance which might be helpful. He raised the question how far local authorities may feel able to go in remedying statutory nuisances. There are doubts on occasions as to what a statutory nuisance may be. I accept his point that there may be doubts as to precisely what this expression covers. I think that he knows that where expenditure is incurred which the district auditor considers outside the strict terms of the Act in any specific instance, such expenditure could be, and would be, challenged by the district auditor. In these circumstances, the authority could apply to my right hon. Friend to validate such expenditure by special dispensation under Section 228 of the Local Government Act, 1933.

It may be of help to my hon. Friend if I say that if this work has been carried out by the local authority in the bona fide belief that it is covered by the Act, we should take a sympathetic view of any such application. There is, therefore, no reason why any local authority, confronted by a task which appears to be covered by the Act, should fear that action would involve it in a surcharge by the district auditor.

I am making no offer to be generous in saying this, but we can undertake to be sympathetic. Nothing that I have said relieves the rural district council from the responsibility of examining very carefully the powers given by the Public Health Act, nor, I should stress, can there be any question of the Minister, as my hon. Friend suggested, giving instructions or guidance to the district auditor as to whether he should question any given item of expenditure. It is most important to stress the position of the district auditor, and that he is independent of the council and of the Minister. Councils can, however, always apply to the Minister, provided there is no question of recurring expenditure which may be taken as a substitute for legislation, and in that way special instances can be covered. I hope that on that point my hon. Friend may find assistance.

My hon. Friend raised in particular the local difficulty of Cosby Brook, and he gave a fair summary of what has happened there. It is fair to say that we did originally suggest to the rural district council that it should consider its powers to remedy the statutory nuisance, and if a nuisance existed the Minister would be prepared to consider sanction under Section 228 if the district auditor thought the expenditure was illegal but otherwise reasonable. That covers the contingency which I have just foreseen.

The council, no doubt for good reasons of its own, perhaps thinking that its prospects of success were not very great, asked the Trent River Board to take responsibility for Cosby Brook and Whetstone Brook. It applied about May, 1954, and was refused about April, 1955. The ground was that neither the size nor the importance of the brooks compared with many other large rivers and brooks in the board's area. I feel that that was a fair and reasonable ground for refusing the application. It lies now with the local authorities to attempt the first course that we suggested. In the light of what I have said, I hope that the result of so doing may end this very prolonged negotiation.

To sum up, we are sympathetic towards the council's problems. It is true that this is a complicated matter and that we have tended on occasions to go round in a circle a little. I cannot speak for that part of the problem which lies within the province of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who is making a comprehensive study of land drainage law, but I have gone as far as I can in meeting what I think is, in the mind of my hon. Friend, the principal doubt and difficulty of the rural district council in considering how far it can take action for itself. I hope that this may be a contribution, if only a small one, towards resolving this undoubtedly rather complicated statutory set-up.