HC Deb 05 March 1957 vol 566 cc309-20

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

10.7 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Nicolson (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

The transition from the subject of the main debate to that of the Adjournment debate will not be as abrupt as usual, for I, too, am going to talk about the sea. I shall be talking about it, however, not as an ally but as a foe. I wish to call attention to the ceaseless attack of the sea on the outer rim of these islands, and to put forward the argument that the cost of erecting the necessary coastal defences to guard against the inroads of the sea is bearing with increasing and unfair hardship upon the coastal authorities whose main responsibility it is.

Until quite a short time ago we took for granted the constant attrition of the land by the combined action of the tides, waves, surface water and the wind, but today we cannot spare the land. We need it for agriculture, and it carries upon its cliff tops valuable buildings which cannot be allowed to collapse into the sea. It is a national duty to guard the coastline against flooding out erosion.

Too little is known of this subject. Even the greatest experts admit that our present knowledge of the causes and cure of coast erosion is in its infancy. I agree with the Report of the Waverley Committee that research into the problem should be pursued with greater vigour. I should like to ask my hon. Friend if he can tell us a little more than is publicly known about the activities of the Hydraulics Research Board of D.S.I.R. which, I gather, is the main body responsible for the task. Since the east coast flood disasters of January, 1953, has the Board increased the intensity of its research into this national problem? Does it give advice, even when it is not asked to do so, to the coast protection authority and river boards which contemplate erecting these extremely costly defence works? Because if there is no expert advice available, if it is left to the partly-amateur approximations of borough surveyors to erect the type of defence most suitable to that part of the coast, mistakes inevitably will be made, and it will not be their fault because they have not had the training or the opportunity to make a special study of this very special subject.

Are works schemes automatically referred to the Hydraulics Research Board before they are passed by the Ministry, and is a study made by the board of the effects of one scheme upon its neighbours? If one thing is known about coast protection works, it is that the erection of works in one area may set up much greater erosion in a neighbouring area; and whenever these problems are considered they should be considered as a unity affecting a whole stretch of coast. The decisions made should not be made in the light of local conditions alone.

The main problem which I wish to raise is that of finance. I was disappointed and rather surprised that the Waverley Committee devoted so little attention to this subject. Perhaps it was because the Committee was set up immediately after the floods of January, 1953, when a 100 per cent. grant was made for the restoration of coast defences in the flooded areas. The Committee seem to have taken it for granted that the areas coming mainly under coast protection authorities were boroughs which were not in such desperate financial need as the river board areas to which large grants had been made in the past. But that is not so.

Those who have taken an interest in this subject over the past few years cannot fail to have noticed that whenever there is a great disaster, such as the East Coast floods, such as the disaster at Lynmouth, the contribution by the Government and by the public is perhaps even excessive in its generosity. It has sometimes exceeded the 100 per cent. But when there is a less dramatic incident, like the slow but none-the-less constant erosion of a cliff line, the grant it attracts from the Government is in some cases infinitesimal. The Minister does not need to alter the 1949 Act in order to be more generous, because under Section 21 of that Act he has power to distribute the cost of these works exactly as he wishes between the four contributors which exist at present.

Those four are: the owners of the land on the affected coastline; the local authority in whose area the land is situated; the county; and the Exchequer. My contention is that far too great a share of the burden of these highly expensive works is falling upon the first two of these four. I wish to deal shortly with each of them in turn. First, the private owner.

The Act says that the owner is obliged to contribute to the cost of defence works the amount of the difference between the value of his house before and after the works are carried out. Suppose a house is trembling on the verge of a cliff, and is therefore completely uninhabitable, and then it is protected by coast protection works. The owner is technically liable to contribute the whole cost of his house, the difference before and after the defence workers were erected. That imposes on the owner, who has perhaps invested his life savings in that property, a burden which he cannot possibly bear.

Moreover the definition of "contributory land" under Section 7 of the Act is highly obscure. Could the Minister now define it more closely?

Let me give an example to show the difficulty. Imagine a road running along the top of a cliff with houses on both sides. At the moment it is usual for the borough to declare that only the houses on the cliff side of the road shall be liable for contribution. The houses on the other side of the road make no contribution. That strikes the owners on the cliff side of the road as unfair. They know that if no coast protection work is carried out their houses will fall into the sea and that the other houses will then be in the front line, and that protection to the first line of houses is also protection to the second. That can be carried ad infinitum.

It is a subject of constant complaint that, although boroughs are subjected to a form of means test by the Treasury, individuals are not, and that what individuals are asked to pay has virtually no relationship to their capacity to pay. Further, are the people who, before the Act of 1949, erected works to protect their property, liable to pay the whole cost of maintenance? If they are, it would be generally considered unfair.

If the burden upon property-owners is great, the burden upon local authorities is much greater. Bournemouth has spent well over £1 million in erecting coastal defence works, not all since the war. Since the war, the amount spent has amounted to at least half that sum. Christchurch has had to pay at least 86 per cent. of the cost of its coast-protection work, amounting to nearly £80,000, or the equivalent to a 4½d. rate. Bournemouth has received no Exchequer contribution whatever.

Commander J. W. Maitland (Horn-castle)

Is that for new work, maintenance work, or both?

Mr. Nicolson

I shall come to the question of maintenance a little later. I was talking of new work. One of the grievances of many coast protection authorities is that they have no idea upon what basis the Minister calculates the grant which is to be given. It is apparently a close secret. The rumour is that the Minister does not pay anything to a local authority if the cost of works is less than the product of a 2d. rate. If that is right, the basis is an unfair one because rate poundage gives no indication of the rate burden. The real basis should be the rate burden per head of the population.

Does the Minister take into account the period of time which has been allowed for the repayment of the capital sum? And are previous works undertaken by the same local authority taken into consideration when considering the size of the grant? We are told that in some cases they are taken into account, and we find that the Government's contribution increases as more work is undertaken. But during the whole time the total burden on the rates increases until it is well nigh intolerable.

Will the Ministry now agree, as it is empowered to do by the 1949 Act, and as the Waverley Committee recommended, to make grants for the maintenance and repair and temporary first-aid to works of coastal defence? Let me take my own borough as an example. In my constituency at Christchurch, steel sheeting which was inserted more than 20 years ago has been worn to wafer thinness owing to the constant attrition of the shingle. Will its replacement qualify as new work? It is claimed that local authorities derive considerable amenity value from coast defences because they are an additional attraction to the town. The borough, if it is wise, will run a promenade along the top of the coast works for that reason; but beach defences are ugly in themselves, and only when an additional amenity is incorporated, should the authority have to pay.

The county contribution is entirely dependent upon the Exchequer contribution, which appears to be wholly at the Minister's discretion. Therefore, in the case of these expensive works, it is an element which is conjectural. Local authorities are unwilling to embark upon these enormously expensive schemes, sometimes running to a cost of £250,000 a mile, for fear that they will not obtain a reasonable grant from the Exchequer. So essential work is neglected or delayed. The Exchequer has paid just over 50 per cent. of the total cost of work since the war ended. I contend that it should pay up to about 80 per cent. I base that upon the policy of my party declared before 1950. I think that in the comparative privacy of an Adjournment debate it might be permissible to read this sentence from the Conservative Agricultural Charter, 1948: We believe that sea-walls and sea-defences should be made a national charge. If I had time I would also read a sentence from a speech of the late Viscount Hudson when he was speaking on the Opposition Front Bench in 1949 and said that it should be substantially a national charge."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th April, 1949; Vol. 463, c. 2363.] I think it should be and I rather wonder what has caused the Government to change their mind on this subject. Too great a burden is being put on local rates. We are dealing with a national responsibility. In time of war we would not think of charging the local ratepayers for pill boxes, barbed wire and mines. Why should we charge them for the great cost of protecting the land from the attacks of the sea? The innermost part of a maritime county are perhaps 40 miles from salt water and nowhere in Great Britain can one get more than 70 miles from the sea. If the maritime counties can pay their share, why cannot the inland counties as well?

I claim that it is time that the administrative policy was changed, that the distribution of these heavy costs was thought out once more, and the burden of protection works in the defence of our national land should be made mainly a national charge.

10.21 p.m.

Mr. E. G. Gooch (Norfolk, North)

am glad to have the opportunity of adding a word or two to what the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. N. Nicolson) has said. The question of coast protection is always in my mind because of the very extensive coastline which bounds my constituency. I call to mind the terrific disaster which the north Norfolk coastline suffered four years ago.

The main point which has been stressed and which I desire to stress is the financial aspect of the question. The hon. Member referred to the fact that the average contribution made is about 50 per cent. of the total cost of the works. I want to be fair and to say that under the Coast Protection Act in my constituency a grant has been made as high as 90 per cent. towards the cost of works undertaken. I imagine that the formula adopted by the Ministry in deciding the extent of the grant is one which the hon. Gentleman would be prepared to disclose to us. Where a district shows that it is so poor that it cannot afford to undertake the complete cost of the work, the Ministry has been very generous in coming forward with a substantial contribution towards the cost.

I wish to join the hon. Member in saying that we have to think again upon whom the main burden of the cost of coast defence should rest, and to state the opinion in favour of the cost being a national charge. There is no doubt that many district councils have to initiate schemes but are so poor that when they have done so their rate-raising capacity is not sufficient to enable them to go to the Ministry and ask for a grant to enable the scheme to be put through.

I know of a case in my constituency at a place called Ostend in North Norfolk where certain work has been done, but the work is inadequate. I imagine that the district council takes the view that it is inadequate because of the lack of financial resources of the local authority, and I hope that in his reply tonight the Parliamentary Secretary will give an assurance that in such cases, where the local authority's rate-raising capacity is so small as to deter it from putting forward schemes, the Ministry will come forward with a very attractive grant which will enable these substantial schemes to be carried out. I also hope that the Government will be prepared to look at the possibility of the State making itself responsible for the total cost of sea defence.

10.26 p.m.

Sir Lancelot Joynson-Hicks (Chichester)

I want very briefly to support the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. N. Nicolson), the whole of which I adopt, in order to impress upon the Parliamentary Secretary how exceedingly seriously we who represent coastal constituencies regard this matter.

I do not propose to repeat the points to which my hon. Friend referred, but there are two administrative points on which the Parliamentary Secretary can help very considerably. They concern the waste of time and money which is caused to us in the coastal areas by the delays in his Department in approving schemes and in paying out the grants, bearing in mind that we have to pay interest on the moneys before we can obtain the grant in recompense for the payments which we have made. That adds considerably to the burden which we have to bear.

The delays in approving schemes, resulting from the negotiations with my hon. Friend's Department, very often carry us through an additional winter, as a result of which considerable additional parts of England are lost to the sea, and the cost of the scheme as previously approved has to be reconsidered and substantially increased. It is a false economy on the part of his Department to try to niggle about these matters. If it would give greater attention to the reports which it receives from the people on the spot and deal with them more promptly, in the long run that would be an economy to the taxpayer.

10.27 p.m.

Captain Richard Pilkington (Poole)

Before the Minister replies to what has already been said, I should like to tell him that Poole and its neighbour Bournemouth are completely united on this matter, as are all other coastal resorts. It seems that the whole House, so far as it is represented here tonight, is also agreed. I ask the Government to look at this matter very carefully and to consider Bournemouth's request. I would particularly emphasise the last point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Sir L. Joynson-Hicks); the longer this matter is left the more it will cost in the long run.

10.28 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. J. R. Bevins)

I saw the pictures in one of the newspapers a few days ago of the damage to the sea defences at Southbourne, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. N. Nicolson), and I am therefore not surprised that he has raised this question on the Adjournment. Indeed, I am grateful to him, to my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Sir L. JoynsonHicks) and Poole (Captain Pilkington), and to the hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch), for having taken part in this short discussion. Obviously, I shall not have the opportunity of dealing with all the detailed questions which they have raised, but I assure the House that we shall study at the Ministry during the next few days those questions which I do not cover in the course of my very short reply, and we shall see what we can do.

One point should be made at the start. The burden of what has been said is that there are many local authorities throughout the country, maritime local authorities, which have this large problem of the defence of their coastal areas from the ravages of the sea. That is perfectly true, and it is also perfectly true that it becomes a costly business for many local authorities. One must, however, keep this subject in reasonable perspective. After all, many local authorities throughout the country are faced with special problems, not always coastal problems but nevertheless special problems involving extraordinary expense, for instance on difficult sewerage schemes or in obtaining and providing water for their inhabitants. Therefore, I think that it would be a mistake to say at the start that there is any obligation on the central Government to provide 100 per cent. financial support for all of these schemes, whatever they may be.

Having said that, I want to add that the responsibilities of my right hon. Friend are confined in this matter to work which is carried out by local authorities under the Coast Protection Act, 1949. There are nearly 300 maritime authorities in England and Wales which possess powers under that Act. Since the war, they have, altogether, embarked upon capital works of sea defence estimated to cost about £10½ million. By far the greater part of that work has been made possible by the provisions of that Act, and Exchequer grants of almost £6 million have been promised to the various local authorities.

That means, as my hon. Friend said, that rather more than half of the total cost is being reimbursed to them by the Treasury. To that we have to add the work which has also been undertaken by the drainage authorities. These authorities, of which the river boards are the most important, operate under my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture. During the last ten years their expenditure on sea defence works has been about £30 million.

There has been reference to the possibility of unifying Ministerial responsibility in this matter. That question was considered by a Royal Commission as far back as 1906. It was looked at again when the Coast Protection Act was in contemplation. It was further reviewed by the Waverley Committee. In all cases the decision was against the idea that unified administration departmentally was feasible, although I agree that, on paper, it looks very attractive.

On the question of Exchequer grants, it may be that, as my hon. Friend said, some political manifesto issued several years ago held out certain very rosy hopes. Political manifestos issued by all political parties do that from time to time, but circumstances change—and so do parties.

I was rather surprised at my hon. Friend's suggestion that the Government should find the full 100 per cent. towards the cost of these schemes. That, of course, would involve legislation, and, therefore, I do not think that it would be quite proper for me to discuss it tonight.

Mr. N. Nicolson

I must correct that, if I may. I said 80 per cent.

Mr. Bevins

I beg my hon. Friend's pardon. I thought he was asking that it should be made a completely national charge.

I must say, and I say it with all the good will in the world to my hon. Friend, that I do not think that there is any doubt at all that, as coastal protection is essentially a local problem, at least some part of the cost ought to be borne by the local authorities of the areas where the problems arise. I have already said that the Treasury has been paying an average of more than half of the capital cost of all coast protection works carried out by local authorities since the end of the war. In some cases, the proportion has been as high as 85 per cent., but I agree that, at the other end of the scale, where the financial incidence on the rates has been very small, it has not been thought necessary to offer any grant.

My information, which I believe to be correct, is that the effect of coastal protection on the Bournemouth rates works out at rather more than 1d. on the rate poundage year by year. In the case of Christchurch, in which I think my hon. Friend is interested, it conies to about 2¾d. on the rates. Whilst that may be difficult, in one sense, for the people of Christchurch and Bournemouth, I think that my hon. Friend's constituents have many compensations. The behaviour of the weather at Bournemouth is some compensation for the ravages of the sea.

By and large, the fact of the matter is that grants go where, in our considered view, they are most needed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch has said, it is true that there are no hard and fast rules about the calculation of these grants, but we do try to take into account all the factors which affect a local authority's ability to pay. For example, the Minister would certainly take into account the level of the rates in a particular locality and the amount by which they would be increased by the proposed works, together with, of course, the burden already being borne by the authority for past sea defence works.

In the case of Bournemouth itself, as I think my hon. Friend will know, four schemes were carried out in the South-bourne area in about 1952, which cost about £270,000. The gross rate burden was rather less than 2d., and in consequence of that no grant was given by the Treasury. More recently, a further scheme has been undertaken at a cost of about £87,000, but in that case the council has made no application for a grant at all, and I think that is probably because the effect on the rates would be between ½d. and ¾d.

I should like to say a word on the question of research into coast protection problems. I assure the House that this is a matter which has exercised the minds, not only of the members of the Waverley Committee, but also of my right hon. Friend and his advisers. An Advisory Committee on Sea Defence Research was set up, as my hon. Friend probably knows, about two years ago. That committee has issued two reports, one dealing mainly with embankments on estuaries and the other with the movement of beach materials. I shall be very happy to let my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch, or any other hon. Member, have copies of these reports. At the present time, the Advisory Committee is considering the effect of vegetation——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-three minutes to Eleven o'clock.