HC Deb 22 July 1958 vol 592 cc377-90

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

10.52 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Kimball (Gainsborough)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to raise this matter on the Adjournment, particularly on a Tuesday night. Any matter raised on the Adjournment later than Tuesday night is unlikely to reach the local county papers of this week, and I think we all appreciate the fact that during a period when the national news has been somewhat demanding on lineage the county papers have paid due attention to everything that has been said in this House on the subject of the recent flooding from which we have suffered.

I suggest to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that he should insert in all the local newspapers a full description of exactly what benefits the farmers can obtain under the present Agricultural Goods and Services Scheme that he has in mind for helping them out of their present difficulties.

I am grateful, also, for the opportunity to raise what is a subject of the greatest importance to us all, a subject which is particularly tragic because most people are of the opinion that the damage which we have suffered could have been avoided by better maintenance and care. It is unfortunate that these floods and this damage should happen at this time of year. Previous floods have usually happened in the autumn or in the spring. We have had these recent floods just when all the crops were sown, and, in fact, when the countryside was looking its very best, and any normal person would have been pardoned if a month ago he had confidently predicted a very good harvest for the whole of the Eastern Counties.

We are thankful that we have not had a national disaster, but that in itself makes it harder for the areas which have been affected. Without a national disaster, there is no chance of national sympathy and a great appeal and money pouring into a Lord Mayor's Fund. It becomes particularly difficult when the excessive damage is restricted to such a small area.

I would like, first, to put some specific questions to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary and then point out to him the two particular areas of flooding, one to the east of Lincoln and one to the north, and say something about what, in my opinion, from personal inspection, and in the opinion of the National Farmers' Union and the local landowners and farmers, appear to be the causes of this flooding and to put forward, very humbly, a few suggested remedies.

To any person who has just seen the fruits of a whole year's labour literally nipped in the bud, as was the case with most of the farmers in the area last week, anything that the Government can do is very little when somebody has lost his all, as most of these people have done. During the last week I have seen, as my hon. Friend has seen, whole farms which have been completely wiped out. The tragedy is that this applies particularly to the very small farms.

I ask my hon. Friend to make it clear whether the Agricultural Goods and Services Scheme will make feeding stuffs available immediately to the very small farmers and whether, if I submit to his office the names of the farmers whom I have in mind, he will arrange for a representative of the Ministry to call on them during the week-end.

One of the peculiar things about this flooding, particularly below a great industrial city like Lincoln, is that a foul chemical has gone down in the river. When the river broke its banks, the chemical was so strong that even all the grassland has gone black. It is a peculiar situation in any flood that the water should completely ruin the grassland for one whole year.

Can my hon. Friend also say whether, when money is made available under the goods and credit scheme, it will have to be paid back, and to what extent, and what proportion of the total loan the first instalments will be? We all appreciate the tax concessions enjoyed by the farming industry in that losses in one year can be carried forward into the next year. This is an important factor for any farmer who has suffered damage when he faces his bank manager, or comes to decide whether he will borrow money from the Government under the Agricultural Goods and Services Scheme, because by this tax concession he knows that when he has a good year after the present bad one, he will be allowed to accumulate money to pay off his debts.

I suggest to my hon. Friend, however, that he might make a tactful suggestion to the local Commissioners of Inland Revenue that they might not press too hard this year's Income Tax demands, which fall due on a reasonably good year last year and will have to be paid after people have suffered the particularly severe losses of the present flooding.

In dealing with the causes of the flooding and the charges of bad maintenance which are current against the river boards in this part of Lincolnshire, I am con- scious that in any criticism of the river boards we are talking about people who do this work entirely voluntarily and without reward. I am certain that in pointing out the difficulties and hardships from which they are suffering I am doing it in no spirit of decrying their work, but drawing attention to those difficulties, in the hope that my hon. Friend can do something to help them. I am also aware that the river boards not only in Lincolnshire but throughout the United Kingdom are faced with what is, after all, a national problem. We all draw grants for our farm drainage, and do everything we can to get the water off our own farms as soon as possible, but we never consider how the river board on which we are dumping all that water is to get rid of it.

My hon. Friend will have to think seriously about the help he is to give them in future to get rid of that mass of water, and I hope he will give me a definite assurance that he will try to sort out the local difficulties of our river board, of which he is fully aware, and will also give me an absolute assurance that he will give priority to any improvement scheme which there may be for the River Witham, which drains this whole area of Lincolnshire. I hope that we shall be able to obtain from him, during the coming Parliamentary year, a progress report, by regular Questions, on how he is getting on with this business.

It would be unfortunate if this debate ended without my drawing the Minister's attention to the excellent work of the duty officer who was at the Ministry of Agriculture at midnight when these floods happened. The chairman of the local drainage authority rang the Ministry of Agriculture at midnight, and spoke to the duty officer, who, by eight o'clock in the morning, had got four Admiralty pumps from Yarmouth, by transport from Peterborough, to the breaks in the fen. Those pumps were in action within six hours of the telephone call being received in London. I hope that my hon. Friend will see that the appropriate entry is made on this officer's record.

When we are saying some nice things about the Ministry, we in Lincolnshire must all say how much we appreciate my hon. Friend's visit to this area, in his capacity as a junior Minister and as the hon. Member for Grantham, and the sympathetic way in which he viewed the damage done and approached the Treasury on our behalf, to try to help us.

Looking at the flooding between Lincoln and Bardney Fen, this is an area which is entirely pump drained, and until the river bank broke the pumps were quite capable of keeping up with any rainfall that had occurred during this period. Some people say that we had an excessive rainfall in Lincolnshire, but there were new pumps put in just before the war and they were keeping pace with any of the water in the pumping area. All was going well—and then, suddenly, the banks broke.

Why did they break? They broke because they were very badly maintained, and they were badly maintained because it is very hard to find out who is actually responsible for maintaining the banks. It is a chaotic state of affairs. The east bank of the river is the responsibility of the Inland Waterways Executive. In 1862, the inland waterway authority contracted out of its responsibility for maintaining the west bank, so one has a river with no authority responsible for maintaining either of the banks.

If my hon. Friend looks at Mr. Wheeler's "History of the Fens," page 170, he will find the west bank has now been sub-divided into two other authorities who are responsible for maintenance. It is a hopeless situation, and I hope that my hon. Friend will give an assurance that before Christmas he will have produced, using his initiative, the power of his Ministry and the work of his regional officers, some uniformity of responsibility for both banks of the River Witham from Lincoln to Boston.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will give me an assurance that he will get his regional engineer to oversee the making of repairs and maintenance. He knows the gap that we have at present. They are making a wonderful job of repairing that with steel piles and lorries and cranes, but he has only to walk along the river another 150 yards to find another break which with another flood would become a gap and cause another disaster. We must see that the banks are uniformly maintained.

While on the subject of split responsibility, I would say that the Ministry must decide on one of the three possible schemes for the improvement of the River Witham which have been canvassed. At present, there are three schemes. They all cost the Government quite a lot of money, they all cost the drainage people quite a lot of money, and somebody has to decide which is the best scheme.

Turning to the other area of flooding, between Gainsborough and Lincoln on the upstream side of the flooded area that we have just been discussing, we see that if we cannot get the water away from Lincoln and Bardney flooding upstream is increased. Between Lincoln and Gains-borough we have a special problem, because the water is drawn into the Foss-dyke Canal which has to be maintained for navigation. If we are to keep the Fossdyke open to navigation and keep up the water level in the Fossdyke we have to maintain its banks. There have been many arguments about this and long consultations between all the drainage boards concerned. What it amounts to is that approximately £20,000 needs to be spent on the Fossdyke banks immediately.

Unless that £20,000 is spent before next winter for the sake of the safety of the agricultural land and land drainage in the area we shall have to lower the level of the Fossdyke and close it to navigation; and we cannot close the Fossdyke to navigation, for it connects the City of Lincoln with the Port of Hull, and Hull has the best strike record of any port in the country. The millers of Lincoln and Gainsborough use the Fossdyke for transport. If the Fossdyke is to be maintained for navigation and the transport of grain we must maintain the banks of the Fossdyke and do it quickly before we have more flooding.

It is all very well, but if we spend £20,000 on maintaining the Fossdyke we must devise a system of ensuring that the barges in the Fossdyke go at a reasonable speed and do not make a tremendous wash and cause all the earth built up on the banks to fall back into the water. There seems to be no control whatever on the speed of barges in these very delicate inland waterways today.

One of the tragedies of the present flooding, which I hope my hon. Friend will use his powers to put right, is that during the whole of the flooding the water in the Fossdyke Canal was 6 ft. higher than the level of the Trent. That was because of the enormous rainfall we had in this area of Lincolnshire. The tragedy was that there were no powers in existence by which the lock at Torksey could be opened and some of the water in the Fossdyke let into the Trent. Trent River Board is a large and powerful authority and has recently erected a new flood control scheme at Nottingham. I hope that in peculiar circumstances like this, when the rainfall in Lincolnshire is so much greater than the rainfall in Derbyshire and Leicestershire, Trent River Board will accept water from the Fossdyke.

I come to two small tributaries, the River Till and the River Cricket Till and to one of the most extraordinary instances of the oddest and most irresponsible behaviour of another Department of the Government. The Air Ministry has built a new aerodrome at Scampton. It has put down literally miles of concrete runways and great concrete drains, and collects an enormous amount of water, but makes absolutely no provision whatever for getting that water from the aerodrome into the River Till.

So the Air Ministry piped the drains from the aerodrome into an ordinary open ditch which was never designed to take this vast amount of water. It never did anything about sharing the cost of enlarging or clearing that ditch which proceeded to flood all the land between Scampton Aerodrome and the River Till, two parishes. I hope that my hon. Friend will use his powers to make the Air Ministry slightly more responsible about the damage which its great concrete expanses do in the countryside.

In the time available I cannot possibly deal with all the other cases of flooding in Lincolnshire. There are cases of culverts put in by the county council which are not big enough for present drainage needs. There was flooding in the Isle of Axholme, and many other cases of flooding in my own constituency. The tragedy of it all is that there is flooding which appears to be caused by lack of maintenance on the part of the river boards and stupidity by people who put in these new culverts and do not realise that the banks need making up or maintaining.

All of us accept that the sky is the ceiling of our farming industry and that we are subject to these acts of God, these sudden storms and tempests, but it is rather frustrating when, in addition to these sudden storms, we find the river boards faced with a lack of money and an inability on the part of the drainage authority to maintain the water courses. Perhaps it all leads up to the fact that eventually, whatever Government are in power, they will be forced to decide that from the scource to the sea all water must come under one authority. The country must be divided up by watersheds, and the drainage authority must then be empowered to raise sufficient money to get that water away to the sea.

For the moment, I hope that my hon. Friend can give some hope of increasing compensation and better help for the people who have been flooded and some means of improving the existing water courses.

11.13 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. J. B. Godber)

I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) for initiating this debate on this very important topic and for the comments and suggestions that he has put forward.

I know how seriously a number of his constituents have been affected. Indeed, there are even more farmers in my own constituency who have suffered grievous losses. I have myself visited parts of the damaged areas on each of the last three week-ends and know from my own consideration of the problem on the spot how serious have been the losses involved.

My hon. Friend has not left me with all the time I would wish to deal with all the points, but the first one I would like to deal with relates to the aerodrome. My hon. Friend will realise that he has a Question on the Order Paper for answer by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Air tomorrow, which does rather inhibit me from saying anything on this. I would ask him to await that reply.

I would like now to deal with the conditions which led up to the flood. I have obtained records of rainfall and I find that in the area of the Upper Witham the total rainfall beween the beginning of June and 3rd July amounted to over 7¼ inches, of which nearly 4 inches fell in the last four days. These torrential rains fell on land already saturated and, consequently, there was a very rapid runoff.

Due to the late spring, the roding season started late and as weed growth in recent weeks had been very rapid a good many private dykes as well as the board's drains and rivers were partially obstructed by weeds, which may well have had some effect initially in impeding the passage of this very heavy volume of water. The conditions were, however, quite abnormal and I have been unable to trace any comparable rainfall in the area in the last twenty-five years. Because of this, flooding occurred mainly in the valleys of the Brant and Upper Witham, in the area of the Oxpastures drain and the River Till. Below Lincoln the north bank of the Witham gave way at Fiskerton and flooding occurred in Dorrington and Ruskington Fens, while a smaller area in the Kyme Fen was also affected.

The chief drainage engineer of the Ministry visited the affected areas immediately, and all the Ministry's reserve pumping plant was brought into play at the earliest possible moment. I would emphasise that this work was undertaken very rapidly and with the fullest co-operation between my staff and that of the drainage boards concerned. Undoubtedly, it helped to reduce the damage caused by this flooding.

I was very grateful for my hon. Friend's comments about the duty officer at the Ministry, and I will see that they are conveyed to him.

The nearest estimate I can give of the total acreage actually flooded in Lincolnshire is about 12,000 acres. As the greater part of this area was under arable crops, heavy losses have been sustained. There are, of course, other areas where the land was waterlogged and which would have sustained proportionate damage. The most severe losses, in general, will be from potatoes which are, in most cases, a total loss. Some sugar beet has also been ruined and a great deal more will have received a severe check.

Peas, also, are expected to be a total loss. Among cereals, barley has suffered worst and a large acreage has died off. Wheat and oats, on the other hand, have survived far better than at one time seemed possible. Over the whole of these areas losses will undoubtedly be severe and, like my hon. Friend, I am very concerned about the position of many of those farmers who have been worst hit.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has already stated that there are no Government funds from which compensation could be given, and, though I have made inquiries. I am told that the Lord Mayor's Flood Distress Fund has already been wound up, and that, in any case, it had no powers to compensate outside the field for which the funds were collected. I have also been advised by many of those concerned that they are not looking for charity but are more concerned with finding some way in which they can carry on and seek to recover by their own efforts. That is typical of the farming industry.

My hon. Friend has asked me for further details about the Goods and Services Scheme which, as I announced in the House last week, is to be made available to those affected. I pointed out then that any agricultural goods other than buildings, building materials or livestock, were covered, and loans are for a maximum period of three years, with repayment by instalments. These instalments can be so arranged that they are relatively small to start with and heavier in the later stages.

My hon. Friend asked about feeding stuffs. They would be covered, provided the farmers concerned can satisfy my local officers. As to his suggestion that he sends me the names of the farmers, I would be glad to have them, but would suggest that if they were to get in touch with my local officers at Lincoln that would probably be the quickest, way to deal with the matter.

On the question of the interest charged, as I said last week, this is now 6¼ per cent. There is no chance of getting especially low rates which my hon. Friend suggested. I do not pretend that this scheme can do wonders, but it could be the means of helping many hard-hit farmers to carry on. If they will get in touch with my Ministry's local officers in Lincoln they will be only too glad to assist in any way they can. I do not think that it is necessary to advertise this specially in the way my hon. Friend suggests. I am sure that the local Press, who have been very helpful in giving full coverage to this problem, will take note of our debate tonight. I have also written to the county secretary of the N.F.U. informing him that we have made these facilities available.

My hon. Friend mentioned the difficulty of farmers in meeting Income Tax payments which may now be due. I am advised that any farmer who is in difficulty as a result of losses sustained through the flooding should get in touch with his local collector of taxes, who will not be unsympathetic. If my hon. Friend has any particular cases in mind, perhaps he would like to pass them to my hon. and learned Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury.

With regard to the Fossdyke, there are many complications here, chief of which is that navigation could not be stopped without legislation. The maintenance of the banks of the Fossdyke is complicated by the number of authorities concerned. A meeting of these took place some time ago and I hope that it will be possible for them to reach agreement.

I am advised that the doors at Torksey are provided for navigation purposes and are not suitable for controlling the discharge of water into the Trent. Indeed, had they been opened, it might not have been possible to close them later, when the level of the Trent rose considerably above that of the Fossdyke.

I must now just say one word about the allegation made in some quarters that a lot of this trouble was due to the credit squeeze, which had held up urgently needed drainage in the area. It is true that some small schemes have been affected, but, in fact, expenditure by river boards and drainage boards has continued at a high level; and as far as the Lincolnshire River Board is concerned no single major scheme has been turned down by the Ministry on financial grounds. It is simply not true to say that this catastrophe is a result of Government cheese-paring. I do not want to waste time on dealing with allegations of this nature. I am more concerned about seeing what action can be taken to improve the position in the future. But I really must refute charges of this sort, which are groundless.

As to the future, I am glad to assure my hon. Friend that the Lincolnshire River Board already had in mind a major improvement scheme for the River Witham before this flooding occurred. It had submitted a first instalment to my officers and this is being examined. I now understand that at a recent meeting the Board approved the whole of this scheme at a cost of about £900,000 and we shall be examining it urgently in the Ministry. It is very important that the scheme should be considered as a whole and discussions are already taking place about it.

It is important that we should be satisfied not only that the upper reaches of the Witham and the Brant should be fully catered for and that the outlet through Lincoln should be adequate both for these waters and for those entering from the Fossdyke, but, also, that the lower reaches of the Witham should be adequate to take any increased volume of water coming down. My hon. Friend's point in relation to the banks of the Witham is very important there.

As to the financial aspect of these operations, I foresee no difficulty arising about the amount of money which the River Board is likely to be able to spend in the present financial year. I assure my hon. Friend that were it necessary to do so an approach would be made to the Treasury to ensure that any agreed proposals for this river should go forward with the greatest practicable speed.

There has not been time, during this debate, to go fully into all the points arising from this most unfortunate occurrence, but I would remind the House that both the River Board and the drainage boards concerned are autonomous bodies; and while we are most willing and anxious to help with engineering advice, and we also, of course, contribute very largely towards the cost of these boards, we must be guided in the future, as in the past, by their decisions as to schemes which are to be brought forward. I am quite satisfied, however, that there is no question of attaching blame to them any more than to the Ministry for the disastrous results of this quite exceptional spell of heavy rain. The important thing is to try to mitigate the effects if it were to recur, and I hope that what I have said indicates our determination to work towards this end.

There were a number of other points made which I should like to have followed up. My hon. Friend dealt with the problems of the lower Witham, the banks of the Witham and the conflict between different authorities. These are all matters which would take some time to explain, and in the time available to me it is not possible to do so. I hope that what I have said shows the urgency with which we view this matter and the sympathy we have with those concerned. I ask my hon. Friend to accept my assurance that we are doing all we possibly can.

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

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