§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 3.34 p.m.
§ The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Christopher Soames)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
In debating the Bill today we are all mindful of the floods that have recently affected so many different parts of the country. We all know how serious they have been in the West Country, along the South Coast, in Kent, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. Many people have suffered severely and the sympathy of the House goes out to them.
Taking England and Wales as a whole, the rainfall for July, August, September and October has been the highest ever recorded. In October alone the average rainfall was nearly 8 inches. With the exception of 1903, this was the wettest October on record. In the West Country some places have had almost four times their normal October rainfall. At Horn-castle, in Lincolnshire, the rainfall was five times the normal. Even in eastern England, where there have been only relatively few reports of flooding, the month's rainfall was double the normal.
Had it not been for the work done in recent years by the river boards and earlier by the catchment boards, the flooding after such a prodigious rainfall would have been far more serious. In the Fen country, for instance, thanks to schemes which have been carried out by the boards, with substantial help from the Government by way of grants, there has been scarcely any general trouble. Farmland has, of course, been badly waterlogged, but the fact that this year's heavy rainfall has been withstood is a measure of the benefit derived from the scheme of the Great Ouse River Board, costing £10 million.
River boards have also carried out flood protection schemes for many towns. Nottingham was a notable one. Others are the comprehensive scheme for the urban parts of the Lee Valley, running through north-east London, Wickford, in Essex, Tonbridge, in Kent, and Petersfield, in Hampshire. Between 35 them the river boards have spent, including grant, in the past ten years about £50 million on capital improvement schemes. Current expenditure on such schemes is around £6 million a year, of which more than half comes from central Government. This is a considerable level of expenditure, but this year has brought vividly to our notice that there are parts of the country where there is a lot yet to be done.
Before discussing the Bill itself, I must say a word about its timing. The fact that it comes before Parliament while the recent flooding is fresh in our minds might lead some people outside to feel that it was these which originated the Bill. The House, of course, realises full well that that is not so. The Bill is the result of long negotiations and it does not spring from any particular incidents of flooding, though it is designed to make a significant contribution towards flood prevention.
For years it has been felt that it is wrong that the lesser watercourses which link the farm ditch to the main river should not be the responsibility of any drainage authority. It was with these watercourses that the main recommendations of the Heneage Committee were concerned. Many miles of them run through farmland which makes no contribution to drainage finance, and there is nothing new in the thought that this is an anomaly which should be rectified.
I do not want to take the House into the details of the Heneage recommendations. The whole Report was most valuable and formed a useful basis for discussion, but, in our view, the recommendations placed too uniform a financial liability on the occupiers of all agricultural land regardless of the differing importance of drainage in different areas.
The first point to be resolved before we could legislate was what was an equitable basis for a charge on agricultural land. Negotiations were entered into with the leaders of interested parties—the River Boards' Association, the N.F.U., the Country Landowners' Association and the Association of Drainage Authorities. The parts of the Bill which deal with the financial contribution to be made by occupiers of agricultural land 36 outside internal drainage districts represent the agreement reached between all these bodies. It could not have been easy to reach such a measure of agreement, for many interests were pulling in different directions, and I would like to pay a tribute—and I know that my right hon. Friend, who was responsible for the negotiations, would like to join me—to the broad-minded approach of all these bodies to this whole delicate problem which has made agreement possible.
I think that it might be helpful, as a background to the Bill, if I said a few words about the land drainage set-up as a whole. There are 32 river boards and two catchment boards for the Thames and the Lee. They cover every main river in the country and they have full powers for land drainage and flood prevention work on their rivers. They get most of their revenue from the county authorities and, through them, from the general ratepayers.
Then there are about 300 internal drainage boards which look after the lowland drainage systems in specific areas within the river board areas. Their income comes from the separate drainage rates drawn from both agricultural and urban communities in the area for which they are responsible, but, as I have said, the intermediate water courses connecting the farm ditch to the main river, which are not in internal drainage districts, are no one's clear responsibility.
The main feature of the Bill is to provide river boards with resources to take over the more important of these watercourses by increasing their income by a new charge on land not already contributing to land drainage. Rateable property is already contributing through the river boards' precepts. Land in internal drainage districts is already contributing through the drainage rate. But the remainder of the agricultural land, about 90 per cent., pays nothing.
Part I of the Bill provides machinery for levying a charge on this land. It accepts the principle that all occupiers of agricultural land should make some contribution, but that there should be a greater degree of flexibility over the amount paid by different occupiers than was recommended by the Heneage Committee. It achieves this by dividing that charge into two parts. The first is the general drainage charge. Where a board 37 decides to levy this charge it will fall on all agricultural land in its area, apart from internal drainage districts. It must be levied at a rate equivalent to the precept rate and no more. It will, of course, go up or down in the same way as the precept rate. It will become part of the general revenue of the river board.
I should like to assure the House that there is a definite understanding with the associations that the money from this charge shall be used for additional land drainage work. This is a fundamental principle which they have accepted. For instance, this money will be used for extension of main river, or doing more work on the existing main river systems, work which may well be necessary as a result of better drainage higher up. For if better drainage systems up-river are not matched by improvements lower down, they can, as we all know, result in worse flooding in the lower reaches.
The second part of the charge is the special drainage charge which will be raised in specified areas to tackle specific drainage schemes of value to the area. This extra money will be spent only in the interests of agriculture. Before any board can make the special charge it will have to submit its proposals for approval by the Minister of the day. But it may well be that such a scheme might, at the same time, deal with a flooding problem in a village or town. In that case, I, as Minister, would expect there to be a contribution either from the local authority concerned or from the river board's general funds.
The principle here is that the special charge should be used only for the benefit of agriculture and it should be raised for particular schemes from those who farm in the area. The Bill lays down that both the general and the special charge together cannot total more than 1s. in the £ on Schedule A values, unless that limit should subsequently be changed by affirmative Resolution of the House. The amount which will be available for special schemes will vary from one river board area to another according to the size of the general charge which will match the precept rate
At present, the average precept rate is 3d. in the £, which is equivalent to about 4½d on Schedule A. The House might like an estimate of how much new revenue the river boards could get under 38 the Bill. The potential revenue from the general drainage charge on the basis of present precept rates is about £500,000 a year. I cannot, of course, foresee how many schemes will be put forward for a special charge, but it could well be that they will eventually produce, say, a further £500,000, which would make a total of £1 million of new revenue, which would represent an increase of about 20 per cent. on the present income of the river boards. Improvement works done by the boards are, as the House knows, eligible for grant from the Exchequer. Taking this into account, the total extra money available after the Bill has been operating for some time may be about £1½ million a year.
The question which I am sure is in all our minds is: how far will the boards take advantage of the new opportunities afforded by the Bill? If the Bill becomes law their position, as the principal land drainage authorities, and their funds, will be appreciably strengthened. We know how they have responded in the past. Since the catastrophic East Coast floods of 1953, the annual rate of expenditure for all capital works, inland and coastal, has doubled, and there is every reason to believe that we shall see a further considerable response to this new Measure.
To turn to Part II of the Bill—
§ Sir John Maitland (Horncastle)
Before my right hon. Friend turns to Part II of the Bill, may I say that it will be extremely difficult and expensive for river boards to get this assessment, and so on? Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the Inland Revenue will give every assistance about the assessment and any help with regard to collecting this charge that it can?
§ Mr. Soames
As to the assessment, I can say categorically, "Yes". I should like notice about the question of the extent that it can give assistance in the collection.
§ Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)
Unless I misunderstood the Minister, I gathered that in a year or two there would be a £1½ million increase from Government grants to the river boards—
§ Mr. Soames
No. I was saying that we might expect—I was hazarding an estimate—the general charge to be about £500,000. Accepting that the special schemes in different river board areas would amount to a further £500,000, of that total of £1 million, about 50 per cent. could be on improvement works which would be available for grant, bringing the total up to about £1½ million.
§ Mr. George Jeger (Goole)
The right hon. Gentleman is basing his estimate on a valuation on the Schedule A assessment. May we take it that this controversial matter has been decided and that Schedule A will continue?
§ Mr. Soames
What the hon. Gentleman must get clear is Schedule A as it stands, compared with what I think he has in mind when referring to Schedule A, namely, Schedule A values. It is not for me to say whether there will be a revaluation under Schedule A, but if there is—the last valuation was before the war—and it is upwards, instead of taking 4½d. as the equivalent of 3d., it will be much less. It does not mean that any more will be taken for drainage from the agricultural community by varying the Schedule A values.
§ Mr. R. H. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)
If Schedule A were abolished there would, of course, be no assessment.
§ Mr. Soames
In the internal drainage districts for many years now the money has been derived from this basis of valuation. If Schedule A tax were abolished, it does not necessarily mean that the valuation would be abolished; but if it were so, a new form of valuation would have to be thought up.
§ Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)
In 1927, a Royal Commission made a recommendation on chargeability and, if I remember rightly, it suggested that upland farms should pay less than lowland farms, and the authority itself should determine the proportion of chargeability. Would the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether this has now been abandoned?
§ Mr. Soames
The arrangement is as set forth in the Bill. There are variations 40 in so far as there is a general and a special scheme. These are presented in the Bill and, in so far as this differs from what the hon. Gentleman was referring to, that is abandoned.
I now turn to Part II of the Bill. There has been no substantial amendment of land drainage law since the Land Drainage Act, 1930. The River Boards Act, 1948, provided for river boards to take over the powers of the then catchment boards, but it made no further major change in drainage law. The Heneage Committee suggested a whole series of secondary amendments to drainage law. These and proposals from other sources have been discussed with the organisations concerned. The varied and somewhat complicated provisions in Part II of the Bill are the outcome.
The objects of this part of the Bill are, in outline, first, to increase and modernise local authority powers for drainage; secondly, to provide for the review of anomalies in drainage rating in internal drainage districts; and thirdly, to improve the machinery of the present law.
Under the first heading, to increase and modernise local authority powers for drainage, there is one entirely new provision which I should like particularly to bring to the notice of the House. There are always likely to be some local problems which it would be sensible for a local authority to deal with. A typical example is flooding in an urban area from a channel or ditch which flows wholly within that area. Action by the local authority could be the most obvious and effective method of dealing with the trouble in a case of this sort. At present, however, the power of local authorities to spend money from the rates on land drainage work is generally not sufficient to allow them to do the work which is necessary and which they may be willing and anxious to do.
We aim to deal with this by empowering county boroughs and borough and district councils to do work themselves and to meet the cast of it out of their rates. It is obviously right—and the Bill provides—that a local authority will have to seek the agreement of the river board on whom the overall responsibility lies or of the internal drainage board, whichever is appropriate. If the board will not agree, it will, under the Bill, still be open to the local authority 41 to appeal to the Minister of Housing and Local Government and myself. Alternatively, it could be that the board would agree that the work was necessary, but might consider it best to undertake it itself with an appropriate contribution from the local authority. It can be handled either way, but I think that the House will agree that this is a sensible and practical arrangement.
Another provision of this kind is that which amends the existing powers of county and county borough councils, under Clause 27, to carry our schemes to improve the drainage of small areas of agricultural land. Under Section 52 of the 1930 Act these councils can promote local improvement schemes for meeting the need of a number of neighbouring owners for special drainage work on their land where it is not practicable to set up an internal drainage district. The cost limit per acre set under the 1930 Act has now become out of date, as have so many cost limits set up in 1930 and before, so this provision is virtually a dead letter. We propose in the Bill to put this right and also to enable river boards, as well as local authorities, to promote such schemes.
The second group of problems dealt with in Part II arises over drainage rates. These apply only to internal drainage districts and have no connection with the new drainage charge in Part I of the Bill. The new provisions are designed to enable a body of drainage ratepayers to have complaints looked at. Boundaries are likely to be the most important point here. When internal drainage districts are set up boundaries are laid down in a scheme submitted by the river board, which, after consideration of objections, may be confirmed by order.
Those who have to pay drainage rates because they live within the boundaries set in the scheme have an opportunity to object at the time, but not after the scheme has been confirmed. Some boundaries were determined many years ago, and anomalies have grown on the incidence of drainage rating. This applies particularly to areas where considerable building developments have taken place since a scheme was confirmed and it is only reasonable that there should be provision for these boundaries to be reviewed from time to time.
The third group of provisions in Part II consists of miscellaneous amendments 42 to the machinery of land drainage legislation. As an example of these, I would just mention the change we are proposing in the procedure for altering or revoking awards under the Inclosure Acts. As a consequence of some of these awards, drainage obligations have been left with people who are not particularly well equipped to carry them out. Section 8 of the 1930 Act already gives a river board power to submit a scheme to vary an award, but the Bill provides that those concerned may appeal to the Minister in cases where a river board refuses to take action.
The first two parts of the Bill deal with the arterial drainage system; that is, the system of main river and intermediate water courses, but not farm ditches. Farm ditches are looked upon as the occupier's responsibility. If he neglects them, his farming suffers. If his neglect causes injury to a neighbour, then it becomes a matter of public concern.
Part III is a self-contained part of the Bill and its aim is to establish a workable procedure for dealing with ditching disputes. Instead of having to take direct action himself in the courts as at present, a farmer will be able to apply to an agricultural land tribunal for an order requiring a neighbour to remedy the neglect of his ditch. If action is not taken, the Minister or a drainage authority appointed for the purpose would have default powers to get the work done.
Part IV of the Bill and the Schedules deal with minor amendments, matters of machinery, and repeals. The most important and, I suppose, the most contentious aspect of the Bill is Part I. There are some who feel that it does not go far enough in that it does not permit a sufficient sum of money to be raised to provide a panacea against all flooding. There is the other school of thought which advances the argument that a farmer should not be asked to contribute towards drainage costs, except in so far as his own particular land benefits.
In answer to the first, I would say that the Bill is designed to strengthen the resources of the river boards by bringing in contributions from agriculture generally. As a result, they will be able to do far more not only to improve land drainage, but also to make a further 43 contribution against flooding. At the same time, as the House will be aware from Friday's debate, the Central Advisory Water Committee is looking into the complementary question of water conservation.
There is a sub-Committee now sitting, set up by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government, whose terms of reference include consideration of methods of conservation so necessary now with the continuing demand for water, not least for farm irrigation. This is a very big subject, and we look forward to getting the Committee's report. Disposal of water is not the only problem. It is just as important that plenty of water should be available in the drier months. The Government realise full well that both these aspects must be considered together.
To those who think that the Bill goes too far in raising a charge on agricultural land, I would make this point. Improved land drainage is a community service. There is broad agreement on the principle that, since good drainage is an essential requirement to agriculture, some financial contribution to our general drainage problem should be made by all agricultural land, and that we have reached the point where it would not be equitable to proceed with the many schemes which are necessary without a contribution from agriculture.
The principles of the Bill have to have the support of the representatives of those who will contribute money and those who will be responsible for the work. It provides the means for river boards, internal drainage boards, local authorities and private individuals to make a further and valuable advance in dealing with our drainage problems, and it is in this spirit that I commend the Bill to the House.
§ 4.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)
I am sure that the House would wish me to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his maiden speech as Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. He spoke with concise lucidity. He set a good example to his colleagues in introducing Bills, and, after all, this is a very complicated and complex 44 Measure. In case I should trespass on controversial ground, I discharge the right hon. Gentleman at once of any responsibility for the Bill. Anything critical that I say will not refer to his part in the Bill.
Also, in anticipation, I look forward to the winding-up speech of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. He used occasionally to express himself on agricultural matters with a refreshing independence, and I hope that that will not now desert him. We shall need it during the Committee stage of the Bill.
I have three broad disappointments to express. The first concerns the long delay in presenting the Bill. Here we have a period of gestation not of nine months, but of nine years. This is a very long time, even for the present Government. I should not like to guess how many Questions my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Mr. Jeger) has asked the Government about the implementation of the Heneage Committee's Report. We must not forget that it was as long ago as February, 1947, that the Heneage Committee was set up, that it sat on 53 occasions and that its Report was unanimously adopted by the main Committee in 1950 and printed in 1951.
I think that this Report was recognised generally as excellent and comprehensive, but it is only today that we get its partial implementation. This is a very great pity. If we cast our memories back eight or nine years, I think it will be remembered that everyone was in favour of the Report, apart from the Country Landowners' Association, which had some reservations. I have often said that this is a landlords' Government, and this seems to be another illustration of that.
The broad point I would make, which I have made before and will go on making as long as we get our problems dealt with in this way, is that this is not an efficient way of conducting Government. I think that all interests would agree that it would have been far better for the country if, seven or eight years ago, the Report of the Heneage Committee had been accepted in its entirety. Considerable work would, by now, have been carried out by such a measure. However, what is absolutely wrong is to set up a Committee like this, 45 to get a comprehensive Report and then to do nothing about it.
As I have said before, the responsibility of Government is on the Front Bench. If a committee is set up—no one complains about this—to look at the technical side of a problem and to produce recommendations, it is the Government's responsibility to consider the resulting report and to take a decision, and not to try to escape responsibility by having interminable discussions with different interests who, as in this case, bad met the committee and the committee had decided upon the views put before it. That is my first disappointment, and I do not want to say any more about it because, at any rate, we have a Bill before us.
The right hon. Gentleman anticipated the second disappointment. This is not a Bill concerned directly with the disasters resulting from the recent widespread floods. I wish that it had been. I should have liked the Government to take this opportunity to take specific action to bring relief and, more important, the promise of relief in such disasters. Admittedly, this would have placed a burden on the Government, but they ought to be vigorous and energetic enough to seize an opportunity like this. It is a pity that it was not taken. Having said that, I do not want to be unrealistic—
§ Major Sir Harry Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)
Does not the hon. Gentleman remember that the big flood protection scheme for the Great Ouse required a Private Bill and the evidence of expert witnesses on oath? Surely it is inevitable for schemes of that kind that there must be local inquiries rather than the introduction of general legislation to deal with flood protection. It is essential to deal with each case on its merits, with expert witnesses, which we could never get here.
§ Mr. Willey
All that the hon. and gallant Gentleman is doing is to re-endorse what I have said about delay in presenting this Bill, but the point which he has made is not relevant to what I propose to say. The Government could have taken action under the present legislation.
I was about to say, to be fair, that we should not exaggerate the situation. We cannot legislate against all disasters, or 46 provide, by legislation, complete immunity against flood risk. I also recognise, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, that over the past years the river boards have done a very good job of work. Fifty million pounds have been spent on capital works in the river board areas, but much more could have been done, and that is recognised by the introduction of the Bill.
I should like to mention one point on which the right hon. Gentleman did not touch. It arises out of the Heneage Report. With that Report we got the Report of a technical panel, which dealt with the question which has been canvassed in the discussions arising from the floods: how far is improved drainage the cause of flooding elsewhere? The technical panel generally recommend that that question should be further examined. I should like to know whether it has been further examined. What resources have been devoted to this? Have we the knowledge that we ought to have about what is happening and the effect of drainage in different areas?
I make no apology for raising, although it has been recently discussed in the House, the urgent question of relief for those who have suffered distressing losses. I think that I express the view of both sides of the House when I say that there is some dissatisfaction about the position of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Housing and Local Government. We want to know how far the Government are prepared effectively to assist with aid. I am not very convinced by the argument of the Government that, if they are very positive about this, then it discourages private people from giving charitable assistance. I agree with the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), who said recently that he who gives quickly gives twice. This is particularly true in present circumstances. We should endeavour to give the help whilst the hardship is being suffered. I mention this because the right hon. Gentleman is Minister of Agriculture. This affects not only householders and local authorities, but it affects the farmer.
Fortunately, there have not been any dramatic losses of livestock, but many farmers are now facing severe losses. There is a shortage of hay and fodder, on top of loss of grazing. The question of root crops was raised, I believe, at 47 Question Time. It would be a good thing if we had from the Government a clear expression of what they were doing to assist in these cases. I have mentioned the farmer because, as I have said many times before, the essential thing in farming is the element of security.
Many farmers want to know what their position is. We should not stand too far behind private charity. There is a different atmosphere about these things today, if for no other reason because of television. People by proxy, fortunately, in the comfort of their homes, shared the distress of people in the flood areas and I do not think that there would be any criticism of the Government if, on their behalf, they came out and said, specifically and positively, "We will help more directly in relieving the present distress."
For that reason—this is a personal view; hon. Members can express their own opinions—I consider it a pity that we have not had something more specific and complete and that the opportunity of the Bill has not been taken to provide for some form of a national disaster fund to ensure to people who suffer from losses which are properly outside the ordinary scope of insurance that in those circumstances they can rely upon getting assistance to see them over their difficulties.
My third disappointment, or criticism, is that, particularly as it was presented so clearly by the right hon. Gentleman, the Bill does not match up to present needs. I should have thought that it was now fairly generally recognised that what we want is a comprehensive Measure about water generally. I know that the complete reorganisation of water featured in my party's General Election programme, but we need not regard this as being a doctrinaire matter. After all, the Farmers' Weekly has been campaigning for a national water policy. In any case, if only on technical grounds, if we consider drainage we must also consider conservation.
In July, I questioned the Minister of Housing and Local Government, and his Parliamentary Secretary, who I am pleased to see with us, replied. He said that the Government had the Report of the Central Advisory Water Committee 48 and that his Department was examining the recommendations urgently. I have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman that, whilst the Department should be urgently examining the problem, it was inundated by the floods. This question is complementary to the problem of the floods.
It is the broad question of the best use that we make of our national resources. I touched upon this in our debate last week and I call the attention of the House again to the Annual Report of the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy. The Report saysWe are satisfied that there is a significant absence of basis research in the scientific assessment of such major problems as the conservation and long-term utilisation of our water supplies.That is why it is disheartening not to learn of any steps that have been taken following the panel's report to the Heneage Committee. This is something that must be tackled. Certainly, if we are talking about science it is rather absurd that in this day and age, with our climatic conditions, we should alternate between drought and shortage of water in the summer and being flooded out in the winter.
§ Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)
Since hon. Friend is dealing with the technical point, we should get this on record. The Minister of Housing and Local Government is concerned in this matter and the Government's attention should be drawn to the fact that when thousands of acres of land become covered with slates or tiles for building the rain is suddenly diverted into huge areas where local authorities and others have not had the opportunity to work it out—and it can be worked out. Much more attention is needed when building takes place and there is likely to be flooding from the roofs of new buildings.
I thoroughly agree. That intervention will enable me to cut short my speech by a little. It is a point which I had anticipated. It is a real factor and must be considered when we are dealing with the whole question of water use and conservation.
The Parliamentary Secretary has told us that the Central Advisory Water Committee is considering generally the question of conservation. I should like to know, when we hear the winding-up 49 speech for the Government tonight, how far this inquiry is going and I should like to be assured that it will be regarded as an urgent matter. If these matters are complementary, if we take action about drainage, the sooner we take action about conservation the better.
I raise this next question with the right hon. Gentleman by way of aside. I notice that there is speculation in the Farmer and Stock-breeder about a Bill being introduced this Session concerning the abstraction of water by farmers. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary can also tell us whether the Government intend to produce an interim Measure about water utilisation.
Even if we confine ourselves to the question of drainage, most people would regard the Bill as disappointing. It is certainly a long way short of the Heneage Report. The Government are doing much less than the Heneage Committee expected to be done. In the light of our flood experience over the last few months—indeed, years—one would have expected that we would get more than the Heneage Committee envisaged. When the Government, in their White Paper, boast that the Bill is permissive in character and is far less sweeping than [...]Heneage Committee recommendations, they are, in effect, saying that it is less effective.
I mention only two particular matters. The fact that this now becomes discretionary will mean long delays. In the light of our experiences, I should have said that this was a matter for urgency, but we still have the spirit of nine years' delay.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)
Would the hon. Member like to enlarge on that and explain how the greater delay will accrue? It is not immediately obvious.
§ Mr. Willey
Of course. If it is permissive, decisions have to be taken and there must be consultations and the rest. This takes time. That should be obvious even to an hon. and learned Member.
§ Mr. Soames
The permissive point of the Bill is that it permits a river board to take over an extra watercourse. That does not mean that there will be any longer time to take it over if it is permissive than if it were compulsory to do so.
§ Mr. Willey
I will not pursue the point further, but I should have thought that it would take longer. We know from experience that when we have permissive powers their implementation, in fact, tends to take longer.
If we limit finance, we consequently limit the work which the river boards can do. Again, the spirit should be, if anything, a desire to go further than the Heneage Committee recommended and not to do less. I recognise that there are difficulties about raising finance. It is those difficulties, which, perhaps, have caused the Government to be less ambitious than the Heneage Committee were. I should have thought that, even if we accept the general principle about benefits and the avoidance of danger, and even if we accept the principle of no benefit no taxation, there was a case both for spreading the costs and for the Government giving aid to the River Boards with regard to maintenance.
I do not think, again, that we need to be doctrinaire about this. I should have thought that if we looked at the different river boards and the state of their finances and considered what they are doing, it would be seen clearly that some river boards are in difficulties and will remain in difficulties after this Bill becomes law. So that we need not be doctrinaire about this. We have examples such as the trunk roads and the example in this particular case, as the right hon. Gentleman said, of the Government allowing for this by the different percentage grants given for capital works.
I should have thought that they could have gone much further than that, and could have said that here was a case for some formula for equalisation grants to the river boards. That proposal is found in the Heneage Report and also in the Waverley Committee's Report. To be fair, it must be said that they do not envisage that this would be used on a wide scale, though I believe that it could quite properly be used on a wider scale than they envisage.
This difficulty of devising a formula, though I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. C. Hughes) devised one, is so important that I should have thought that it would have had the serious consideration of the Government, and that the right hon. Gentleman would 51 have been able to say today that recognising this difficulty, the Government were prepared to go further. It is a pity that the Government have not been more comforting on one of the major difficulties in ensuring that we have adequate drainage works even under the Bill.
With regard to the provisions of the Bill for raising finance, I am very much impressed with what the River Boards' Association says, which is that a disproportionate amount of the money raised will go on administrative expenses. I always think that this is unfortunate. It is a waste of public money if a good deal of the money raised is spent on raising it. Again, I think it is unfortunate, for that reason, that the Government have made the proposals which they are now making.
I will not say anything more about Schedule A. That subject was anticipated by one of my hon. Friends, but the right hon. Gentleman was not very comforting about this to his hon. Friends who anticipate an early removal of Schedule A. The right hon. Gentleman said—I believe at his Press conference—that the additional charge would be taken into account at the Price Review. I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to be a little more specific about this and say to what extent it will be taken into account. These are the major difficulties about the Bill—the finance which is to be raised—because that will determine what is done.
I do not intend to say very much at all about the other provisions of the Bill. I accept the right hon. Gentleman's general description of Part II, and that is a matter which we can more appropriately discuss in Standing Committee. The right hon. Gentleman has repeated his assurance about the general charge only being used for new works, but I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to satisfy us that it is not possible to put this into the Bill. This is not any reflection on the right hon. Gentleman or his successor, but I think that if such explicit assurances are made it is far better to write them into the Bill.
No one has said anything about the representation of farming interests. I do not know whether this has been 52 agreed with the N.F.U., but, if it has, it is an expression by the N.F.U. of the view that the Bill is only half of what was proposed by the Heneage Committee.
The right hon. Gentleman skirted over the question of ditches, but he knows that we will be prepared to fight to the last ditch about this. Here again, we want to see these powers placed on the bodies which should rightly exercise them—the agricultural executive committees. I can see no reason for any prejudice against these committees, or why the agricultural committees should not deal with ditches.
On local authorities, I noticed—and I raise this again in the hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will say something about it—that in the Economist there was a broad allegation that one of the difficulties about land drainage was the differences between the local authorities and the river boards. I am not personally aware of this, but as it has been alleged, I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to deal with it. I should not have thought myself that there was a case that the river boards had neglected the local authorities. For myself, I welcome power given to local authorities, and I hope they will be able to exercise them. I mention the point raised by my hon. Friend, which is a very real one, that there ought to be greater consultation with the authorities responsible for development, because this can put a very great burden on a drainage authority.
There are many other points which we can discuss in Standing Committee, and I should like to conclude by calling in aid a letter which I have received from the North Hykeham Drainage Rate Protest Committee, which held the largest known meeting held in the parish, and passed a resolution. I am very happy to refer to this, because I commend them on their initiative in calling the attention of Members of Parliament to their decision.
§ Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)
I think that all hon. Members on both sides of the House have received this circular letter. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us whether he knows the political party or allegiance of the secretary to that body?
§ Mr. Willey
I thought that I had already said that I had received a letter. The hon. Gentleman has said that he is 53 aware of the protest. I have no knowledge of the political allegiance of the secretary, but I refer to the fact that the letter makes reference to the largest known meeting in the village.
§ Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)
Since this place is near my constituency and I know all these people very well, may I say that there were 400 people at the meeting, which was very representative. It is perfectly true that the secretary happens to be a member of the Labour Party, but what about the chairman?
I would commend both the chairman and the secretary on their initiative. It is very encouraging that such a body should feel it right and proper to call the attention of Members of Parliament to its views. Its views are these:It is our opinion that the Government should take a national view of the problem of dealing with water. The existing land drainage legislation is out dated and out moded and the Government Bill does little to alleviate the situation. Water conservation, supply and disposal, should be dealt with by some central authority working in co-operation with existing authorities.That is an excellent expression of opinion. I understand that it is an opinion which is shared by the National Association of Parish Councils. I have never been a parish councillor myself, but I have always had an affection for parish pump politics.
These are people to whom floods and drought are very real problems, and I think it is a pity that the Government have not taken the initiative and lead of the North Hykeham Drainage Rate Protest Committee. I hope that as a result of the inquiry which is made into the conservation of water, we may get some recognition of the general problem of water, and the best use of the water resources that we have.
Having said that, I recognise that the Bill, however inadequate it may be in some measure, will help the river boards. We will try to improve the Bill in Standing Committee, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, having expressed himself so impartially and objectively today, will maintain that attitude in Standing Committee, where we may be able to further improve the Bill.
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ Mr. R. H. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)
I should like, on the occasion of the introduction of his first Measure as Minister of Agriculture, to extend congratulations to my right hon. Friend. I know that my constituents all feel that he managed the farms of my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) very well, and are confident that he will manage their farms with equal success. I am very pleased that he has got as Joint Parliamentary Secretary my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane), who has lived for many years in the knowledge of these agricultural problems.
I believe that I have the honour to be the only Member of the House who spoke here on the Land Drainage Bill in 1930. I took a very active part in those days, although I was somewhat younger. I was not altogether satisfied with that Bill, and just after it was passed I got an assurance that it was to be amended. Then I was told that the amending Bill was ready, but in the Ministry's pigeon-hole. I regard this Bill, therefore, as an old friend, a little bit dusty, a little bit dog-eared where successive Ministers of Agriculture have left their fingerprints on it when they took it out of the pigeon-hole and looked at it and put it back again in the pigeon-hole.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) that one has, perhaps, got to ask: is this Bill really up to date? After all, he was not quite accurate when he talked about the Bill having taken a long time, because it is nine years after Heneage reported. The major part of the Bill was drafted twenty-five years ago—twenty-five years ago, when the 1930 Act was not proving very satisfactory and Ministers thought to amend it.
It is an extraordinary thing that, although we live in a temperate climate, half the year we are worried about floods and the other half we are complaining about a shortage of water. We have one set of authorities doing their best to see that what falls from heaven is channelled through the river and gets to the sea as quickly as possible, while another set of authorities do their best to retain the water which falls from heaven and to 55 send it by devious courses to meet different water needs so that it reaches the sea only after as long as possible.
One set of authorities is under the Minister of Agriculture, and the other set of authorities under the Minister of Housing and Local Government. I cannot regard that as a satisfactory way of dealing with the problem. After all, when I first knew, thirty years ago, my right hon. Friend's predecessor, he was Minister of Agriculture. Now the Minister has become a much bigger power and is Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Why cannot he be the Minister of Agriculture, Food, Water and Fish? I would rather it were like that. I hope that whoever has the power will try to give him those additional responsibilities so that that may be put right in due course.
Quite clearly, the important part of this Bill is post-Heneage, the part in which it is now proposed to give river boards the novel right to charge rates. I am alarmed at this, I say quite frankly, because, in my view, we have got quite enough people who collect taxes from the citizen. We have got the worshipful company of bloodsuckers, the Inland Revenue, and borough and district councils, and we have got internal drainage boards. Now the Minister is adding to this company river boards and I cannot believe that to be economic or wise.
It is quite true that the rate-raising power is permissive, but I do not think that that is necessarily a very satisfactory excuse. It is quite true that, although the Bill says that they can charge these rates merely to add to their revenue, we have an assurance, given in the White Paper, and an assurance given by the Minister today, that Clause 1 does not mean what it says, that, in fact, the power is to be used only for additional work. This is an extraordinary position, surely, because it will lay a great burden on citizens. The Bill does not say that the charges will be made only for any additional works. I hope that, whatever happens to the Bill, before it leaves this House it will be made clear that that rate will be not for additional revenue of the river boards but purely for additional works.
Of course, the constituents of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Sunderland, 56 North are not very much involved. After all, Durham is not a river board area, just as part of my constituency is not. They are to be entirely free from having to pay this new rate, but anybody who lives in a river board area is liable under Clause 1.
What worries me about this provision is this. I have in my constituency a high-ish range of hills. On one side of the watershed the little hill farmers there are entirely free from the rate because it is outside the River Ouse River Board. But on the other side a man living up on the moor edge, who suffers untold expense and worry in channelling the torrents which pour down the hillside, in order to save his farmstead and buildings, will gain not one penny of profit out of this. This man will have a new charge which will go for the benefit of his richer neighbour, the farmer who lives farther down in the intermediate watercourse.
That is the danger which I see in this proposal. It will put a great, heavy burden on a lot of very small farmers who are at present, I will assure the Minister, not very prosperous, and, in fact, are, in many cases, receiving a smaller income than agricultural workers. For that reason I ask for that charge to be reconsidered. If it were made a charge on those who live near or on the intermediate watercourse then I would think that it a fair charge—if it were in respect of additional work on the watercourse.
The other problem, which has been touched on in interventions to the Minister, is that this charge is to be based on Schedule A. I got a shock when I read the Bill, because I thought that the Government were intending to abolish Schedule A. It is really no good the Minister saying, "Oh, well, if we do abolish it we shall find a new method of valuation for tax." That really will not do. If this Bill is passed in this form it will be an assurance that Schedule A is to be a permanent feature of our legislation.
At present, Schedule A is the most unequal method of assessment. It is based on a pre-war valuation, except where there has been an improvement to the farmhouse or cottage, or where there has been a revision of boundaries. In those cases the valuation under Schedule A is the existing rent. Therefore, we 57 shall get the effect, if the Bill is passed in this form, that one farmer will be paying Schedule A based on a pre-war valuation, and another farmer, where the farm cottage has been improved under the Act or a farm boundary has been revised, will be paying a double burden, the burden of double the rate, because he has Schedule A at the new rate. What happens is that normally the Inland Revenue takes part of the Income Tax through Schedule A and part through Schedule D on excess rents. That is the position. Therefore, this yardstick which is being used in Part I of the Bill is, unfortunately, very unfair and will not work evenly.
The other worry I have on this first point was touched upon by the hon. Member for Sunderland, North. It is the question of what will be the cost of collecting this rate. The White Paper on Land Drainage in England and Wales gives a figure in paragraph 18 which shows that if a farmer farms 100 acres and the precept is 6d. in the £ he will have to pay 45s. This means that if the precept, as the Minister said, is 4½d. in the £, over half the farmers in the river board areas will have a charge to pay of only 10s. because the vast majority of these farms are very small. What will be the cost of extracting this 10s. out of my constituents living in the upland areas?
I ask the Minister to look at this matter from an economic point of view. I can assure him from my experience of seeing it that people are not very happy to pay drainage rates. I should like the Minister to consider whether Part I of the Bill should not be changed. We all want additional work done on the intermediate watercourses and we are anxious to help him in every way. There are two possible ways of meeting the cost. One is to raise the money by additional precept and let the Minister, if necessary, add to it from his own resources and, if he likes, take that into account in the February Price Review. But let us get away from making the river board people, who are doing excellent work, into rate-collectors running round for money.
If the Minister does not like that method, let him use 'the existing body, the internal drainage boards, and extend their areas so that they take over the intermediate channels. These seem to 58 be two practical ways of dealing with the problem. The work must be done and there is no lack of good will. I do not believe that the Heneage Committee ever had the solution, but I think that this part-Heneage solution is a good deal Worse.
Clause 33 is very important to my constituents and, I believe, to the constituents of other hon. Members. It deals with the areas of the internal drainage boards. These areas were fixed Shortly after 1930, as the Minister said, by what were then the catchment boards. But what is the criterion which determines whether land is within or without a drainage district? It is not an Act of Parliament, but a letter which a Mr. Dobson wrote to a Mr. Baker. It is one of the most extraordinary things in the whole of politics that a person pays a heavy rate not because it has been passed by an Act of Parliament, but because a Mr. Dobson wrote to a Mr. Baker. The "Epistle" has taken command and become the "Gospel". When he is dealing with these problems of drainage I appeal to the Minister to try to get this matter right. As long as we have the whole area of the drainage map based on the Medway Letter we shall suffer from innumerable anomalies and injustices, and land drainage will be a very unpopular thing for a new Minister of Agriculture.
There is in my constituency a place where, on one side of the street, there is a heavy drainage rate while the other side is, fortunately, free from it. The whole street is liable to be flooded and when it is there is danger to both sides. But things are much more complicated even than that. I know of a case where one house is aver 50 feet above sea level and is in the drainage map while another house which is 10 feet below is out of the map. It all depends on when a house was built. It is based on the Medway letter. Agricultural land up to 8 feet above flood level is liable and developed land up to flood level, but if since 1930, a house has been built on agricultural land, it still remains within the drainage area and pays the rate.
This is why the whole of this business of internal drainage areas is in a complete muddle. The rates are also based once again on Schedule A and this leads 59 to some extraordinary situations. I can think of White Rose Avenue, a typical Yorkshire name and a typical Yorkshire avenue in New Earswick. Half that Avenue is made up of exactly similar houses built before the war and rated at £25 and the other half of the avenue consists again of the same type of house built after the war and rated at £75. All the houses are exactly the same and they are all in the drainage area, but because of the Medway letter one house pays £2 10s. a year in drainage rate and an exactly similar house next door pays £7 10s.. It is no wonder that in parts of my constituency people are much more interested in drainage problems than in any other problem that the House discusses. I beg the Minister to clear this matter up. It is high time that this was done.
The Heneage Committee suggested that all these maps should be reviewed every ten years. As they have all been fixed since 1930 and even the Heneage Committee reported as long ago as 1951 it is quite clear that there should be a general review. Unfortunately, my right hon. Friend has not accepted this recommendation by the Heneage Committee. He says, "Oh, yes, we will give them permissive power to review the drainage map if the river board is satisfied that a substantial number of people ask for it," and, curiously enough, that their claim is "not frivolous". It seems a very odd adjective to use if my burdened constituents, who feel that they should not pay drainage rates, are to be accused of frivolity.
Is this the right way to deal with this important problem? The Bill will create even greater anomalies, because once there has been a review people must wait for another ten years. We must look at the whole question of this Medway epistle again and try to find a sensible way of dealing with this matter. If my right hon. Friend deals not only with my constituency but with nearly every built-up area according to the Medway method he will take all the viability away from the internal drainage boards. This is a very awkward issue. If developed areas, which it is true never ought to have been in anyway, are taken out of the internal drainage district, the drainage boards will not have enough money to enable them to operate.
60 I should like to give the Minister two examples which I have looked up. The Marston Moor Internal Drainage Board at present has a rateable value of £65,000. If we applied the Medway letter and brought the Board up to date, its rateable value would be £20,000. It would, thus, lose £45,000 of its £65,000 rateable value. The River Foss Drainage Board today has a rateable value of £41,700. It would lose £15,000 of that rateable value if we took away the properties which ought not to be covered.
We really ought to reconsider the whole system of paying for internal drainage works to look at it dynamically and start anew. I am convinced that we cannot throw the burden of drainage in an internal drainage board area, especially in built-up areas, upon a very few farmers and a very few householders. We must try to spread the burden more widely and more thinly.
I would ask the Minister to consider two ways of putting this matter right. One method is to use the system of precept, which is laid down already, it being provided in Clause 22 that a local authority can make a contribution in order to save an internal drainage board the bother of rate collection. I should have thought that that could be made mandatory, not permissive, in respect of land which was, say, 10 ft. above the flood level, whether it was agricultural or developed land.
I suggest 10 ft. above the flood level because that is a fairly easy figure. If one liked, one could take a higher figure or go back to the Medway 8 ft. Nevertheless, the figure should be in the region of 10 ft. above the flood level. The effect of floods upon soil and foundations must be borne in mind. The amount of the contribution should be a matter of negotiation between local authorities and internal drainage boards.
Let us do away with all this dunning of poor householders for their £2 or 10s., and so on. This is not popular among householders. They do not understand why their neighbour next door does not have to pay when they have to pay and why the chap on the other side pays only half what they do. I beg the 61 Minister to solve the problem either in the way I have suggested or, by bringing in a very much bigger area and letting the internal drainage board act as a rate collector, as it does now.
However, I suggest that the work which internal drainage boards do is so valuable and so important that they ought to be engineers rather than debt collectors. At present, they are for part of their time engaged in collecting debts, going to court to try to collect a debt of, say, £2 which somebody owes them, when they ought really to be working out their engineering problems.
We welcome the Bill, of course—we have waited far too long for it—but I beg the Minister to reconsider some of the problems. Do not let us rush the Bill. There is no party issue in it. We are all anxious to bring our drainage law up to date. I fear that I may not be here in thirty years' time to speak on the next drainage Bill when it is introduced—I expect that it will be about thirty years before we get it—so I wish the present Bill well, although I do not like all its provisions.
§ 4.54 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)
The right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) has relieved me of the task of making a long speech, because so much of what he said at the end of his speech dealt exactly with points that I had sought to make. That that should be so is a matter which the Minister should consider.
In Lincoln, householders are dunned in the way that the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned, and in Lincoln there are anomalies as between householders in that one has to pay the drainage rate while his neighbour does not. There is some lack of understanding among householders why this should be so. It is extremely difficult to explain the problem to one's constituents.
Lincoln has as much a problem, I suppose, as any other city. During the last few years I have raised this subject in the House many times. The hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Emery), who knows something of Lincoln as a result of the General Election before last, will remember that this is a subject which is frequently discussed at political meetings there. This is a matter which should be raised—and I am glad that it has 62 been done today by the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton—in a completely non-party manner. I shall adopt most of the right hon. Gentleman's argument, if I may do so.
Where I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman is that I do not welcome the Bill, because I feel that it will provide an excuse for the Government not to tackle the whole problem of water conservation and drainage together.
There has been general agreement today that abundant rainfall is one of our great national assets. This year the rain has been cursed much more than praised, and it is a. fact that we appreciate our abundant rainfall only when we do not have it. For instance, in the summer of 1959 it was very dry all over the country, except North-West Scotland. Hon. Members representing West Country constituencies have raised the subject of the rainfall this year, and, indeed, we have been given figures by the Minister indicating the heavy rainfall. But, it is, after all, only a few years since there was almost a complete breakdown in the West Country water supply.
As I have mentioned in another context, in Cornwall, where I was on holiday, it was difficult to get drinking water, and a man I met explained that he was forced to have a very expensive holiday because he had to live on gin and tonic. Water is appreciated when one cannot get it.
I remember that when I first came to the House the late Alderman H. Berry, who had been Chairman of the Metropolitan Board, used to spend many hours in the Smoke Room sipping clear water and praising the Metropolitan Water Board, no doubt reflecting on the good work that he had done in the past. He was the only hon. Member I have ever known who really relished a good clean glass of water in the Smoke Room.
In parts of Lincolnshire there has been some improvement in the water supplies in recent years, but we frequently get complaints about it. The last complaint I remember was from a constituent of the hon. Member for Horncastle (Sir J. Maitland), who said that he did not mind that there was no longer any smell to the water—he was getting accustomed to that—but he did not like the water because it was tasteless, having no "bite". 63 It is a fact that water supplies have been improving, and this is appreciated. It is only in times of real scarcity that we are driven to realise its importance.
The Bill strengthens the river boards. It follows the traditional drainage policy since the times of Henry III in regarding water as something which should be pushed off to the sea as soon as possible. I am against the Bill because I believe that it will do more harm than good. It is traditional in its outlook and does not give any sign of new thinking. Also, it is local and not national.
When I refer to "new thinking" I mean the realisation that conservation can no longer be separated from drainage. This problem must be tackled because of the enormous increase in the demand for water. We all know about the increased household demand and the increased industrial demand, but I do not think that all hon. Members realise what is about to happen in agriculture. It is reckoned that in five years out of ten the Eastern half of England is short of water. In East Anglia, it is probable that in nine years out of ten there is a water shortage.
These days we appreciate that there is a need for water. The agricultural community now appreciates the advantages to be obtained from irrigation. A Reading University survey claimed that we could get twice as much yield in grass per acre if it was properly irrigated. The need is there, the realisation of what can be achieved by irrigation is there, and the means of irrigation are available.
I do not know whether any hon. Members went to the Royal Show at Cambridge this summer. I passed the ground today and remembered that one of the most impressive exhibits was equipment for irrigation. One of the officers of the right hon. Gentleman's Department was in Cambridge two weeks ago at an irrigation conference, and he gave a figure showing that thorough irrigation of only 50 acres could use the same amount of water used by a town of 4,000 people.
This problem is becoming national and I ask the Government to think nationally. This is not a new plea. Lord Swinton, some years ago, made a very powerful case. He pointed out that water was the only national asset which was not considered nationally. He called for national 64 commissioners to consider the problem. The right hon. Gentleman referred to Departments of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and of the Ministry of Agriculture which were responsible for water and which overlapped.
The problem is difficult. Perhaps it would be better for the Government to consider having some form of commission to deal with it. It is a technical matter. Inevitably, in a Civil Service system, one gets many changes. This is no reflection on the gentlemen concerned, but I am told that there have been three heads of the Water Department of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in four years. They were all outstanding men, but this is a technical subject.
The view that this should be tackled nationally is widely supported. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North quoted part of a letter from a protest committee in North Hykeham. I will remind the House of what it said in the concluding sentence:Water is a major National asset—losses by Flood and by Drought are considerable. The words 'Land Drainage' are themselves too limiting.We respectfully ask Parliament to think in terms of legislating for water as a wholeVarious organisations such as the British Waterworks Association and the National Association of Parish Councils have also asked for this to be tackled nationally. The considered opinion of the Parish Councils' Association was that the only feasible solution was to treat water as a single problem and that it should be tackled comprehensively by a single system of authorities financed by a uniform method. The Government should also recognise that nearly 100 hon. Members of the House have signed my Motion on this subject, which now stands on the Order Paper.
§ [That this House, sympathising with those who have suffered in the recent floods and believing that much of this flooding can be prevented from happening again, that many drainage schemes are inadequate, that the method of levying the drainage rate is unjust and that the need for water conservation is not fully appreciated, calls upon Her Majesty's Government to introduce legislation to co-ordinate flood prevention, drainage and water conservation and to permit the construction 65 and maintenance of the necessary works and reservoirs at the expense of the country as a whole.]
§ The Minister said that the Bill was designed to strengthen the resources of the river boards. That misses the point. The duty of the river boards is to get rid of the water. He also said that a subcommittee of the Central Advisory Water Committee was inquiring into conservation. I think that it is an insult to those concerned with this problem that the inquiry should be at that level. If this is such a tremendous problem, it should be tackled by nothing less than a high-level committee, perhaps even a Royal Commission.
§ We need to know much more about the problems and the suggested solutions. For instance, a national water council has been suggested. This would study all aspects of the problem. It is technically possible, for example, in certain circumstances to precipitate clouds over this country and even over the sea before they get here. We should know more about that. It is already done commercially in the United States, in Israel and in Spain, and in other parts of the world. We may be able to control the rainfall of this country. One cannot create clouds, but one can precipitate them over one's country or over the sea if there we have too much. This is a matter which should be studied. One cannot ignore these things. All these aspects, such as rainfall and flood control, should be examined.
§ Another suggestion which should be studied is the development of underground water storage, and yet another scheme is for a national water grid, which was outlined in July in the journal, Engineering. Mr. Pownall developed this plan, which appears to have great advantages, both direct and indirect. There must, however, be some disadvantages, and all this should be investigated. The scheme was outlined at an all-party meeting of hon. Members in a Committee room upstairs in July and I shall recall one or two points made at that meeting.
§ It was suggested that it might be possible to establish a Continental style navigation system and a regional water distribution system, by means of a contour canal designed to bring water from the Pennines and Wales and the West 66 and South-West of England—which have a lot of mainfall—to the East and South-East, serving the chief industrial areas on the way. Its layout would also enable it to collect water from any part of the country which happened to have more than it needed at a particular time.
§ It has long been realised by canal surveyors that a 300 ft. contour canal could travel over a large part of the country. The grid scheme involves the construction of a national canal system at 310 ft. of a size big enough to meet the needs for both water and navigation. Mr. Pownall suggested that it should be 100 ft. wide and 17 ft. deep.
§ Although flood relief has nothing to do with the reason for this scheme, there are some places Where branches of the canal could provide a shorter route to tidal waters. I ask the Government to give this and other suggestions careful study. I do not know whether this national grid scheme is sound either in engineering or financially, but I hope that it will be looked at to see what direct and indirect benefits would come.
§ The first direct benefits would be commercial. We would have a national canal system, with proper wide canals instead of he narrow ones we developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. More water would be brought to industry and, above all, to the Eastern side of England for irrigation for agriculture. The indirect benefits would be very great too. We would have huge inland areas for angling, pleasure-boating, and sport.
§ I fear that the Bill does more harm than good, because it strengthens the river boards in a traditional policy of getting rid of water as if it were without value. I want Her Majesty's Government to tackle the problem nationally, linking drainage with flood control and conservation.
§ 5.10 p.m.
§ Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)
I am particularly glad to have this opportunity of speaking immediately after the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas), who has great knowledge of his constituency's problems in this respect. He mentioned Mr. Pownall's scheme, which is something of which I, too, have some knowledge.
67 Maidstone has suffered considerably in the recent floods, but I did not obtrude myself on the House in last week's debate because I felt that West Country hon. Members and the West Country collectively had suffered much more than Kent. Nevertheless, the population density in Kent is much greater and runs of water to the sea are much shorter and we get floods very swiftly. During the last few weeks the floods have come upon us surprisingly. We have had the worst floods in Kent than at any time during the last sixty years, and my constituents and the inhabitants of neighbouring constituencies will, naturally, keep a close eye on proceedings here this afternoon.
We are very fortunate in having a progressive river board in Kent which has done great work in the last three weeks. However, it needs more strength to its hand. Various hon. Members have cast doubts about the net benefit to river boards of this new method of raising money. I understand from the Kent River Board that it expects that about one-quarter of the cost will go in administration. My right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) asked what the cost would be, and I think that that is a reasonably firm estimate. However, it is much too high and if the figure is to be of that size, I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture to think again about this method of finance, because in those circumstances it must be fundamentally unsound.
Not only is the method of finance unpalatable to many of us. The hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) suggested—and my right hon. Friend seemed to nod in agreement—that for the farmers all would come out in the wash in the February Price Review. However, fruit growers and other producers of agricultural and horticultural commodities not covered in the Price Review are being hard hit and it is no good my right hon. Friend saying that he will make it up to them in February. The Price Review is useless to horticulturists and it is no good the Government saying that the horticultural scheme has helped them, because that does not make much difference to the price of apples.
68 In saying that, I am not straying so far from the subject of land drainage as might be thought, because some of the most important fruit growing areas in the country are land drainage areas and areas directly affected by the Bill. If those farmers are to be expected to pay more towards drainage, they must have some other method of raising revenue. In common with other farmers, horticulturists would like more wages to be paid to their working people, but, although they wish their employees well, the Minister does not seem able to support them as we would like.
The hon. Member for Lincoln said earlier that this should be a non-party debate and I hope that he will forgive my earlier interjection about the North Hykeham letter. I had been given to understand by an hon. Member opposite, not now in his place, that the secretary of the North Hykeham Association was a member of the Communist Party. I know that there has been a correction of that statement, but that is what I was told.
Those who live in the Medway Valley are concerned with improving intermediate water-courses, and, up to a point, we welcome what the Bill proposes. The difficulty is not so much improving intermediate watercourses as getting the water down to the sea. I very much regret that there is nothing in the Bill about dealing with existing road bridges and culverts across main rivers. They are among the causes of bottlenecks in the flow of water. It is suggested that local authorities will be empowered to make improvements to intermediate watercourses, but will they have power to alter culverts and bridges on trunk and other roads maintained by the Ministry of Transport? I do not know what the position is, but there appears to be nothing in the Bill to say what can be done about existing bridges.
In recent years, there have been vast improvements to field drainage, with the result that more and more water has flowed rapidly into main rivers. The water gets off the land more quickly, and that is one of the substantial causes of present-day flooding. At the same time as the improvement to field drainage at farm level, there has been the failure to have intermediate watercourses adequately cleared out.
69 The people who know best about this and similar local matters are the parish councils, whose work has been mentioned by hon. Members opposite. I have today received a letter from a parish councillor in one of the most stricken villages in my constituency. He wants to know what is being done about flood relief. I fully appreciate that this is not the responsibility of the Minister of Agriculture, but flood relief is much in the eye at present. Would it be possible, following on the announcement of the Minister of Housing and Local Government on 2nd November, for information about flood relief to be disseminated through parish councils, the people who are most closely in touch with flood victims and others in difficulties? Parish councils may seem to have few powers, but in country districts they have much influence for giving out information and so on and it would be helpful if information about available relief could go out through them.
In recent months, there has been much comment about water conservation. My hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) put a Question on this subject last week, but the Answer was disappointing to many of us. The Proud-man Committee has been sitting for a long time and we would like to know its recommendations as soon as possible. There is too much talk about conserving water underground. Can we not more closely study the existing canal system and existing possibilities for doing something with our inland waterways?
Even if we cannot have a Minister for Water, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton suggested, if the Minister of Agriculture cannot be given water, can we not have one Minister to deal with the subject, because those of us interested in waterways problems feel that there is confusion because of so many Ministries being involved? There is the Minister of Transport, who looks at waterways as though they were an ugly duckling. There is the Minister of Housing and Local Government who, from time to time, says that money will be forthcoming. There is the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who has offered us his predecessor's Bill. Finally, various other Ministries are concerned with water.
70 I therefore ask that we be given fewer Ministers to deal with this mattes of national importance. Next summer we will have complaints about lack of water for irrigation. There is no doubt that we shall receive such reports in the early summer, and we will then be back to where we were in the past year. The problem in my constituency concerns the apple grower, the pear grower and other horticulturists who do not consider that they will benefit much from this scheme. People living in the chalkland areas of Kent will be asked to pay, but will get no benefit, because their need is irrigation.
I support the Bill because it is better than not having a Bill at all, but, at the same time, I would prefer a wholehearted water conservancy-cum-drainage scheme on a much bigger scale, and the financing of it placed on a different footing.
§ 5.22 p.m.
§ Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)
I think that before the night is out the Minister will get tired of hearing from so many quarters, including myself, that we welcome the Bill because it is better than nothing at all, but—and there are many buts and criticisms. I think that the Minister appreciates how hon. Members feel, because he told us that there would be an additional £500,000 a year available. However, I do not think that he subtracted from that the cost of bringing in that amount of money.
Let us assume that £500,000 a year extra is available. It still seems a small amount to deal with a national problem with a Bill as complicated as this one. For five hundred years we have from time to time had legislation in an attempt to bring about better drainage, and always we have had a multiplication of authorities. I am sure that the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. J. Wells), to whose speech I listened very carefully, will agree that what we are really asking for is a more radical form of Bill which will make it easier to bring in the necessary finance, and will make sure that we get a comprehensive authority, or as few authorities as possible, to cover the whole country.
If, at the same time, it were possible to see that In such a Bill provision was made for avoiding some of the disasters from which we have recently suffered, 71 that would be a great achievement. It would also be a great help if provision could be made in such a Bill to ensure that if we were again threatened with excessive rainfall, such as we received in the last year, we would not suffer from disastrous floods.
Powers and functions vary considerably, and areas of jurisdiction vary too much in size. They are of all sorts of shapes and sizes and there are reviews from time to time. The right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) pointed out that if apparent justice were done some drainage boards would find themselves unable to carry on their work because of the transfer of properties from their areas to other areas.
I do not pretend to speak with any authority, but this is a subject on which an hon. Member from Stoke-on-Trent, with the Trent River Board in his constituency, has a right to say something. I am advised that it was estimated a few years ago that there were 4⅓ million acres of agricultural land which depended for their productive value on efficient arterial drainage, and that one third of that area was not included within the district of any drainage authority. In addition, it was estimated that over 1 million acres were in need of further extensive drainage work.
I know that those estimates were made some years ago, but, if that picture is true, we obviously need a Bill to deal with the situation. We are now discussing a Bill which most of us consider is not good enough. It has been said already that half a Heneage is better than no Heneage at all, but it would have been better to have had it all, and to have laid down the principle that there should be a national scale of levy on agricultural land. That would mean, first, that it would be easier to get the money; secondly, there would be no wastage in getting it in; and thirdly, there would be enough to see that a proper job was done.
Hon. Members who represent urban constituencies and county boroughs depend, in a very real sense, on the countryside. I have never accepted, nor will I ever do so, that the two are divorced. We are dependent one on the other, and the more efficient the farmer is, and the better heart the land is in, 72 the better it is for us all, including those who, like my constituents, live in a city or in my constituency, where there is only one farm.
The need for a truly comprehensive system was not made apparent, say, a hundred years ago, and could not be, because there was a different attitude towards personal responsibility for land drainage. However, that principle apparently no longer suits us today, and we do not think that it can apply. At one time the prevention of flooding and waterlogging was thought to be the responsibility of the owner of the land, and no one else. That is how the system of land drainage grew up. Obviously, in feudal times, when vast tracts of land were under one ownership, that was a proper and feasible method. Later, as land was split into smaller holdings, the obligations which have bedevilled us ever since came into being.
It is worth noting that as drainage was instituted on farms at higher levels—and this has nearly all been done in the last century—water tended to come down to the lower levels more efficiently and at a faster rate than it would otherwise have done. This has increased the risk of floods. We in the towns must not shirk responsibility, for the establishment of towns on rivers, especially near the coastline, makes it more difficult for the water to get away. Therefore, the towns not only benefit because of measures which are to be taken and should be taken, but they have some responsibility for creating the very risk and the danger from which sooner or later some of them suffer. If we in the towns and the local authorities governing the towns accept that, then it is obviously right that we should have some measure of responsibility for bringing about a remedy.
Nevertheless, it is inequitable and cannot now be defended—I think that the Minister will assure us that the Bill puts this right—that the whole cost of land drainage should be charged on land directly affected whether it be land lying at the level of the highest recorded flood or 8 ft. or 10 ft. above it. It is essentially a national matter and it should be so considered. We should not be parochial about it, in my judgment.
I will give the House a simple illustration which affects constituencies like mine. I refer to the problem of subsidence. For a hundred years or more, we 73 have had coal taken out from under our feet. Our houses have cracked and broken. The local authorities have been put to great expense because our sewerage systems have been damaged and faulted. Our gas mains cost three times more than the national average to keep in repair because of constant breakage.
Recently, we have had legislation, saying in effect, "The whole nation, if somewhat indirectly, will accept responsibility. There will be compensation for you, by an increase in price on each ton of coal, and that levy will be used to put right the damage in any part of the country where there is mining subsidence." This seems to suggest that we have, in principle, accepted something in that context which we ought to accept in this Bill, too, namely, that the responsibility should be a national one.
Turning to chargeability, I put this question to the Minister. The Royal Commission of 1927 thought that it might be unfair to charge people in the uplands quite as much as is charged on the richer farms lower down. Perhaps the Minister may care to intervene if he has an answer to this question. As I understand, if we pin the charge to Schedule A, we may, in a way, do it rightly. Perhaps that does bring justice, inasmuch as the upland farms cannot be excessively charged under Schedule A; the charge must really be very little compared with the richer farms down below where the land is richer and the buildings are more expensive and extensive. Perhaps I was not on a good point there.
I am glad that, so far as possible, all farmers will now be brought in. If it is true that £2 5s. for 100 acres of average land will be the annual cost on a 6d. rate, that is, for the general charge apart from the special charge, the burden does not seem very heavy. When the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton was speaking, we were warned that some of the hill farmers are very poor, poorer than the average farm labourer. This is deplorable if true, and an unhappy situation; but I should not think that they are likely to be asked for more than between £2 and £4 for the average hill farm. I may be wrong, but it should not be a very heavy burden for them to face.
I have two specific questions to put to the Minister. First, why are these powers so obviously permissive? We 74 are legislating for something which everyone regards as essential, yet there is no obligation upon the authority to do anything. I am not at this stage—we can discuss it in Committee more closely—asking necessarily that it should be an obligation, because there may be difficulties in making obligatory certain types of work before one knows what they are. Nevertheless, I think that I have a right to ask what the Minister will do to make it quite clear that, in giving these powers to both local authorities and the river boards, we expect them to use them to the full and in the best of all possible ways.
There is a subsidiary point here. The towns will contribute very largely, and, although the towns accept their responsibility for sometimes having contributed to flood risk, they feel that their contribution, by and large, to land drainage is greater than any benefit that they directly receive. A little earlier I took care to point out that they do receive a benefit. Although of a diffuse and wide kind, it is none the less a true benefit which we all receive, and we must all play our part in seeing that agriculture is healthy and strong and that the land is in good condition.
I must, however, warn the Minister, with reference to Clause 14, that the Association of Municipal Corporations feels very unhappy about the fact that he takes power there to add two additional members representing agricultural interests. The grievance which the municipal corporations feel about that is this. They say that there is already a considerable weighting in favour of the agricultural interests on the present river boards, with their average of 40 members, I think.
I was given the example of the Northumberland and Tyneside River Board, where 55 per cent. of the precept comes from county boroughs and the county council, and only 35 per cent. representation is given to them. Now there are to be an extra two, not from their own ranks but from agricultural interests. Whether it makes any serious difference or not, I do not know, but there is always the old principle that if one taxes one should allow for representation and allow it properly. It is put to me quite firmly, and I put it to the Minister, that these additional 75 members should represent the county boroughs rather than the agricultural interests—in other words, the towns and the urban populations.
§ Mr. Soames
Perhaps I could set the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest on that. These two extra members will go on the boards for the very reason that this is a new charge on 90 per cent. of the agricultural land in this country. As he himself says, if one takes in taxation, there should be some form of representation. The two extra members will be put on the river boards for that reason.
§ Dr. Stross
That is a very good answer, so far as it goes. It may be that the grievance that was put to me should have been raised a long time ago with reference to the inadequacy of representation then, and not now.
If there is to be an addition on 90 per cent. of the land, then it would seem that an extra two people representing agriculture is reasonable, as the Minister says. However, it does not seem quite reasonable, if more than half the money is found by the local authorities instead of by agriculture, that the local authorities should have only one-third of the total representation, or, as is now proposed, even less.
The Minister expounded Part II of the Bill very explicitly, and there are many interesting features in it. It contains in Clause 16—this is not a Committee point—a new principle. Clause 16 refers to theContribution by local authority in respect of liabilities transferred to River Board.I am advised that this is, in effect, an entirely new concept in the whole subject of local government finance, for here a board, if it takes over and carries out some duties or responsibilities which were formerly the responsibility of the local authority, can now say, "You must pay so much", and state a sum. If the local authority does not agree, it must go to arbitration, or the Minister will decide what is a fair and equitable amount to be paid.
We heard from the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton that we do not want to add to the number of people who tax us or levy taxes on us. I am sure that the great local authorities do not want to be told by the river boards what they ought to pay. The Minister 76 will remember that in paragraph 9 of the First Schedule, which amends Section 32 of the 1930 Act, local authorities are given ample power. Paragraph 9 says:For subsection (1) of section thirty-two (which enables a local authority to contribute, in certain circumstances, to the expenses of drainage works) there shall be substituted the following subsection:'(1) A local authority may contribute, or undertake to contribute, to the expenses of the execution or maintenance of any drainage works by a drainage authority such an amount as, having regard to the public benefit to be derived therefrom, appears to the local authority to be proper.'That is permissive, but, as I read it, Section 16 is not quite so permissive; it is very much stronger. It would seem that there is a real reason that in Committee, if I am a member of the Committee, I should ask the Minister to delete Section 16 altogether on the ground that there is ample cover and power for the local authority, after discussion, to pay any debt it may have incurred for work done on its behalf.
Recent events have high-lighted the need for vigorous action in this matter. The Minister did not conceal that from us in his opening remarks. All of us accept that it is urgent and necessary and all of us deplore that it has taken so many years before we have had this rather small, although complicated, "mouse" before us.
§ Dr. Stross
Yes, it is not a very powerful animal. The Minister can see how gladly we shall assist him if he wants to put teeth into this mechanical mouse. We do not know how he could put dentures into a mechanical mouse, but in Committee we shall gladly do what we can to assist him in every way.
§ Mr. Soames
The hon. Member talks about mice, but, as I said in my speech, this is adding potentially 20 per cent. to the money available to river boards, which is quite an amount.
§ Dr. Stross
It is quite an amount, but the House does not think that it is enough, or that the Bill is comprehensive or strong enough. We should like it to do more. That is all we are asking of the Minister, and he should be the last to take offence at us telling him this.
77 Our problem in Britain has been a continuing one, going on for hundreds of years, and we are in better fettle than other countries which have not done as much. This matter has been dealt with since the days of Henry III. The first legislation on it passed by this House was in 1531, when the first of the Sewers Bills was presented to Parliament. In the United States there are vast areas of land which need treatment and those responsible have not got round to doing it; but that is a huge continent and they have not been at it for so long.
In this country drainage, irrigation and rescue of land were taking place before America was discovered. The result is that there is not so much to do here. That makes all the more reason why we should complete the job and see to it that it is done as well as possible.
§ Mr. J. Wells
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. When I was speaking earlier I stated that a certain gentleman was a member of the Communist Party. I have since been assured that he quite definitely is not a member of the Communist Party now, and I should like to apologise to him.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Gordon Touche)
No doubt that correction will appear in the OFFICIAL REPORT.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Sir John Maitland (Horncastle)
I was glad that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) seemed to come down eventually on the side of agriculture after rather teetering, as it were, on a tightrope. I am quite certain that his one constituent who is a farmer will be very grateful to him in the end.
My right hon. Friend, whom I congratulate on achieving his great office, I imagine like all other Ministers entering on a new job, wants to make a name for himself about something somewhere. I suggest that he tries to go down to history as the man who was really sensible about water. He has heard today extremely wise advice and has been informed, as I am sure he knows already, of all the problems which water can present. There is the problem of water conservation, of flood prevention, and agricultural drainage with which this Bill deals.
78 This Bill is not especially about flooding. It is true that Clause 31 gives local authorities important powers to take action to prevent floods and—this should be remembered—places very considerable additional responsibility on county councils to ensure that smaller authorities do their duty in that respect. If that is not correct, I should like to be informed. It seems that this places considerable onus upon county councils. The Bill deals with flooding in a rather unfortunate way apart from that. I am not trying to be funny, but there is no doubt that in fact the Bill makes flooding more likely. In case anyone doubts that, I quote from a letter sent to me by the clerk to the drainage board which covers Horncastle, which recently had very serious floods. That letter states:The development of land drainage outside of internal drainage districts as proposed to be provided for in the amending legislation, might quite well prove detrimental and an inconvenience to the internal drainage board's present system and installations, in so far as a great quantity of water will be brought, at a much greater speed, from the higher levels to the lowlands, to be dealt with by internal drainage boards and, there is no doubt that it may considerably overload the existing drainage system, which is already fully extended to deal with water already inside of the drainage area.We know that to our cost in Horncastle.
§ Dr. Stross
I not only agree with the hon. Member, but I wonder if he would take it a step further. Many local authorities, by bringing a vast amount of water to their area from far away, obviously increase the danger and complications.
§ Sir J. Maitland
That is perfectly true and it underlines what I said—rather facetiously, but what I mean seriously—that there is a great task before the present Minister of Agriculture to try to get this water problem on a proper basis. My right hon. Friend is fortunate in those complicated days in being a Minister who really knows he has a job to do, and can see what it is. So often it seems that, with the best will in the world, the best thing to do is not very obvious. In these particular circumstances, this Minister has a target set for him and in that matter he is very lucky.
I want to talk about the Horncastle floods. Everyone realises, I suppose, 79 that one could take action to prevent floods all over the country, but that would be at an inconceivable cost which would put a burden on ratepayers and taxpayers all over the country. Enormous sums would have to be spent to prevent floods in exceptional circumstances. Even then, because the circumstances are sometimes so exceptional, we could not be certain that we had taken measures to prevent them. We should take all reasonable measures. There will have to be further legislation, in accordance with the suggestions in Clause 31, in order to provide further opportunities to examine how far we can prevent floods, but there will always be a considerable area in which it is not a practical proposition to take complete flood preventive measures.
In those circumstances, I agree with the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) that, as the Economist says in this week's issue, we should provide a national disaster fund on which we might draw. I read with interest the report of the debate on Friday and the excellent suggestions made in it, although I noticed that the Parliamentary Secretary rather threw the ball back at the feet of those who had made these suggestions and pointed to the difficulties. Surely that is not enough. The need at the moment is for the Government to form an efficient, small committee—not a Royal Commission or anything of that size, but a good working committee—to see how such a fund might be put into effect. Of course, there is the difficulty of how the contributions should be made, what constitutes an act of flooding, whether it should be one small, isolated incident or a wider incident—all these are problems which have to be discussed. But that is what the country wants, and I hope that the Government will do something about it. I apologise, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for having strayed from the lines of the debate.
May I talk for a moment about the Bill and follow the excellent speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton). Every hon. Member knows how completely arbitrary is the present burden of the drainage rate throughout the community.
§ Sir J. Maitland
It is quite arbitrary at the moment. I want to quote again from the same source, the clerk of the drainage board which covers Horncastle, during the recent disaster. He writes:Your attention is drawn to what might be considered the apparent farcical determination of the boundary of this District for, in many cases, the boundary line passes through the middle of individual buildings, down the centre of roads and streets, slices off the corners of fields, and further, the omission from drainage rating of numerous slightly higher level 'islands' of land although these are situated in low land areas.I quote that because it is the expert's view on this problem; it is not a question of being pressed by one's constituents. I think that the Government should see whether some of these difficulties can be overcome.
Moreover, I am greatly in favour of two excellent recommendations in the Bill, the first being that the burden can be spread by agreement over the local authorities and that urban district councils can pay a lump sum and then levy a general rate over their whole area.
That seems to be eminently fair, but I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, who said he was very doubtful, as indeed I am, whether that ought to be permissive. I served on a local authority for some years. It seems to me that where only a few dwellers in an urban district were drainage ratepayers, there would be a tendency not to levy the general rate, whereas, on the other hand, if a larger percentage, over 50 per cent., were paying a drainage rate, then this permissive power would be used and the load spread. The fact remains that there is no less hardship in one case than in the other and, rather than leave the power permissive, I think that the Government should take the responsibility of making the decision.
§ Sir D. Glover
I agree with a good deal of what my hon. and gallant Friend has said. Is not one danger of leaving the power permissive the fact that there might be two local authorities in one internal drainage board area, one of which implemented the permissive powers and the other of which ignored them?
§ Sir J. Maitland
That is exactly what I had in mind. It will lead to further 81 problems and difficulties. I am not absolutely sure about this, because we are dealing with a new Bill, but the point is worthy of much further consideration before we pass it into law.
The second point which I wish to make follows very closely on the first and has been dealt with already. It concerns the boundaries of these drainage rateable areas. As my right hon. Friend said, these are entirely due to the curious document known as the Medway letter, which in the past has been the touchstone of orthodoxy in drainage but which ought now to be reconsidered. It is a sheet anchor, but something ought to be done about it. It is such an admirable excuse; it is so reliable and sounds so good. But the trouble is that my constituents have not read the Medway letter and, when the floods occur, the flood water has not read it, either. If only the floods read the Medway letter they would behave more reasonably. It is difficult to explain to a constituent who has been washed out of his house, after paying a drainage rate for perhaps thirty years, why he has been washed out of his house and, at the same time, why someone quite close to him who also has been badly flooded has not paid a drainage rate. There is a perfectly good reason, but it is not very easy to explain.
I wonder whether Clause 33 could be used for a purpose for which it was, perhaps, not intended. I have read it carefully, and it seems to me that it is intended to deal with small built-up areas which have come into being since the definition of the area. In that case, the appropriate number of qualified ratepayers can appeal in order that the drainage area may be discontinued. That has been explained to me as the basic reason for the Clause. I think it should go further. If forty drainage ratepayers want the boundaries extended, they should be allowed to appeal in the same way. That would overcome many of these difficulties. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to explain the position in this respect so that, if necessary, we may take appropriate action in Committee to make this possible.
Clause 18 raises the vast problem of coast protection. My constituency understands this problem very well after the great floods of a few years ago. I am surprised that the Government have not taken this opportunity to implement 82 one of the proposals of the Waverley Report, to which the hon. Member for Sunderland, North referred, namely, that there should be a grant for maintenance for coast protection work. In the Lincolnshire River Board area, not all of it in my division, £7 million of capital expenses were incurred in putting the sea walls right after those floods. It is true that at the moment the maintenance bills are not very high, for the walls are new and do not need much maintenance. However, the size of maintenance bills paid by a drainage board for work carried out before the floods proves that in a few years maintenance will create tremendous pressure on the river board's finances. It will, incidentally, absorb money which the river board should be spending on other important works, such as agricultural drainage, flood prevention, and so on.
In this case the Government are inclined to be pound foolish and penny wise in avoiding what is at the moment a very small charge, which will eventually become quite large and prevent useful drainage work being carried out properly, for which the River Boards Act and this Bill were designed.
I am glad that Clause 18 has, as it were, made an honest woman of coast protection. Previously it used to be done very much on the side. It was only to protect outfalls of rivers that river boards were allowed to protect a coast.
I wish to pay a tribute to Sir Arthur Heneage. He is a former Member of Parliament Louth, in Lincolnshire, and knows the House very well. Some of his work is at last coming to fruition. Sir Arthur deserves our compliments and thanks for the work he did. He told me recently that it was only at the last minute that he managed to get an Amendment through to the 1930 Act. That shows how useful back bench Members sometimes are. The Amendment gave river boards the power to protect the coast. The whole of the existing coast protection powers of river boards depends fundamentally on that.
I hope that the Waverley Report and its proposals will be considered by the Government before the Bill becomes law. I support the Bill and congratulate the Government on at last being able to get an agreement between the parties concerned. The Government had a difficult 83 task. It would be foolish to play down the great difficulties which any Government would have had. I congratulate them on what they have done. I hope that by the time the Bill reaches the Statute Book it will be a better and wiser Bill.
§ 6.3 p.m.
§ Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)
I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Horncastle (Sir J. Maitland) said, particularly when he strayed from the strict rules of debate and pleaded for greater Government assistance. Fortunately, I now have no direct constituency interest in the debate, because the flooding which used to occur regularly in the Tottenham part of my constituency every time there were severe rainstorms is now coming to an end, thanks to the work carried out by the drainage authority.
The importance of that constituency point is this. From earliest times the High Road of Wood Green was used as an alternative route when the High Road through Tottenham became flooded because of the swelling of the waters of the River Lee. Our distant forefathers were wiser in many ways than we are. They were well aware of the danger of rain in that area and made that alternative provision of roadways.
The drainage scheme for the area is now nearly completed, after generations of great hardship and at great expense. Flooding of homes occurred year after year and caused very great suffering because the whole area is built up. We can see how much wiser it would have been if, before the area was built up, consideration had been given to these problems so as to ensure that drainage was adequate. It would have been better if that had been done before houses were built, roads were laid, and the whole area built up as it is today.
I support what has been said about the necessity for watching the whole problem very closely. Although this is a limited Bill which deals with only one aspect of the land drainage problem, what has been said from both sides of the House about the need for national planning, national conservation of water, and national measures to deal with flooding, was extremely apposite.
As I can see that you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, are about to call me to order 84 for straying from the point, I shall return to the Bill. It has been made abundantly clear that it is a compromise Bill. In the circumstances, because of the diversity of interests involved, it is a necessary compromise. But because it is a compromise, although a necessary one, it does not tackle the problem in the way which many of us desire. Unfortunately, there will not be enough money available from the operation of the Bill to carry out the job in the way it should be done.
The Minister has said that about 20 per cent. additional funds will be available to river boards to carry out the necessary work, but the river boards have made the point—I am sure that the Minister is well aware of it—that the way in which they are to collect the additional funds will be extremely expensive. The 20 per cent. will be considerably curtailed merely by the cost of collection of the moneys which the Bill enables river boards to obtain for carrying out the necessary works.
Some river boards have made a sample examination of the problem. The Hull and East Yorkshire River Board has estimated that it will cost 34 per cent. of income to make the collection; in Lancashire it is estimated to cost 32 per cent.; the Trent River Board has estimated that it will cost 24 per cent.; the Yorkshire Ouse River Board has estimated that it will cost 28 per cent., and the West Sussex River Board has estimated that it will cost 29 per cent. These percentages of the moneys available to those river boards will be absorbed by the cost of collection. They are only estimates. It may prove, in the event, that the river boards have overestimated, but they are very large amounts.
§ Mrs. Butler
Yes. The river boards were trying to discover how the Bill would work before they commented on it. Those are the estimates which they have made. It is clear that the limited finances which will be available to river boards by the Bill will be still further curtailed because of the complications of collecting the money.
85 I ask the Minister to examine that point. I am sure that it will be the subject of considerable discussion in Committee, but it must be very carefully examined before the Bill becomes an Act.
As river boards have been pressing for extended powers for a long time, they welcome the Bill, although they have the difficulty about the cost of collection. They also make the point that, because of the way the collection of finances is arranged, river boards levying a low precept at present will have a corresponding restriction on the amount of the general drainage charge that they can levy. Because of this arrangement of the financial provisions of the Bill, they will be unable to do as much as many of them would possibly like to do. That will restrict the amount of land drainage work they can do.
There is some question, too, in the minds of members of river boards as to exactly how this assessment for Schedule A will work out. It will mean very close relations between the Inland Revenue and the river boards, and although this afternoon we have had the Minister's assurance that that co-operation will be forthcoming from the Inland Revenue and that it should work smoothly, there are possible difficulties there. That, again, is something that will have to be looked at very closely in Committee.
I am very glad that tribute has been paid to the work that the river boards have so far done. They have had a limited term of years. They have lived through some very difficult times but, particularly in the last few years, they have abundantly justified their existence. I think that the mood of the House this afternoon would have welcomed even more resources being given to the boards so that all this work could be speeded up. We do not want to wait for years and years before the necessary schemes are carried out.
In my part of the world, we know how long it has taken to carry out just one scheme. If one multiplies that all over the country, it will be readily appreciated that this job can go on indefinitely while population is increasing rapidly, the need for new homes is increasing rapidly, and pressure on existing land is increasing rapidly. The problem can very quickly get out of hand unless we 86 have legislation to keep up with the demand.
Civilisation is overtaking us in many respects, this is one of them, and we must try to keep up with it. There are all these problems involved in the building up of areas so, although it is outside the scope of the Bill, I express the hope that the Minister will consult the Minister of Housing and Local Government to see what more can be done to cover the wider aspects of the problem which this Bill does not touch at this time.
I am glad that we have this Measure, but I am sorry that it is not a bigger one. I agree with my hon. Friend who said that it is rather a mouse of a Bill when we expected something much bigger. However, I hope that it will be improved in Committee, and that it will prove a useful step towards the much bigger task that hon. Members on both sides have urged the Government to consider.
§ 6.13 p.m.
§ Sir Richard Nugent (Guildford)
I should like, first, to add my congratulations to those already offered to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture on bringing this Bill to the House. Like the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler), I have some interest in river boards and see the value of this Measure to them. I do not feel quite the same regret that she feels that the Bill does not go further. Indeed, we are indebted to my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) for explaining why it does not go further, although his explanation was used as something with which to beat my right hon. Friend the Minister over the head.
The upland farmer, who did not get any direct benefit from land drainage work, if he was in the catchment area, was brought in to pay the general rate and therefore had serious cause for complaint. It is because of this, of course, that it has taken nine years to arrive at an agreed solution with the N.F.U., the C.L.A., the river boards and Uncle Tom Cobley and all, which has given headaches to my right hon. Friend and to all those who have advised on the matter.
I remember the Heneage Report arriving on my desk some nine years ago 87 when I was at the Ministry of Agriculture, and after thumbing it over pretty frequently for the five years that I was there it was still going in and out of pigeon-holes. I am glad that the flood waters have borne on the Minister to the extent that something is to be done about it. This is a useful little Bill. It goes no further because of the difficulty of balancing conflicting interests, and I think that my right hon. Friend has got it about right. It will be of particular help to the poorer river boards who are making the bigger precepts and who will now come in for a bigger rate on this account.
One point on the general subject, and not in the Bill, is the need for a national water policy. I think it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton who said that there were two conflicting sets of authorities; one trying to discharge the water going down the rivers and the other conserving it for the good of the community.
I do not think that that is a true picture. The river boards are co-operating actively with the water supply companies; in London, with the Metropolitan Water Board, the Thames Conservancy and the Lee Conservancy, and there is a similar picture throughout the country according to the different localities. It is not true to suggest that the other is the picture. There is, of course, room to go further. It would be possible to conserve more of the flood waiters and so have a bigger reserve in the summer months when there is a drought, but that has very big implications. It requires enormous reservoirs, which are very expensive. Indeed, it is not only the cost in money but of amenity. To build such reservoirs, one has to dam existing valleys, perhaps drown good farmland in the valleys, and perhaps drown villages as well.
I have only to recall the Enborne Valley scheme for the House to remember how strongly public opinion can react to such proposals. It is not an easy matter. There are possibilities, if I may say so in muted tones, of underground storage which might meet some of our needs in the future. Nevertheless, although it is theoretically possible to go 88 further in the conservation of flood waters against the drought periods, it is a glow process and it is very expensive. It is gradually happening, and will probably have to happen a bit more, and rather faster, but the implications are very great.
I have long agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Horncastle (Sir J. Maitland) that the natural arrangements for dealing with floods are the flood plains. As a rule, difficulties of floods arise because development has taken place in those plains. People have built houses and other buildings there and are then in danger of flood, with loss of life and property.
What is more serious, but not usually understood, is that every house—and I believe that the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies) made this point in the middle of a speech by one of his hon. Friends—every brick and every tile that goes into the flood plain worsens the situation further down because it restricts the spread of the flood in that area. It is therefore not enough to say, "We shall build a building that will not be affected by the flood." It will not be affected there, but the building will deepen the flood for those further down the flood plains. That being so, it is most necessary, as the hon. Lady said, to have the closest possible liaison between river boards and planning authorities in the conservation, as far as possible, of these flood plains, in order to avoid the kind of damage that we have seen in recent months.
There is the question of dealing with floods. When we had the very bad flood in 1947, I was on the Thames Conservancy. We asked our chief engineer to work out how the flood waters of the Thames could be adequately contained to avoid flooding the meadows, villages and towns on the lower banks. He did a sum with all the resources at his command, which showed that in order to contain the flood waters we would need an additional river channel more than twice as wide and deep as the existing Thames. That would be a gigantic job, the cost would be astronomical, and the difficulty of finding the land to carry out the work would be insoluble. It is obviously an impossible task. That emphasises the point that the flood plains are the natural place for the 89 waters to go to, and the planning authorities must be chary of allowing further development to take place in these areas.
Let me say a word about the Bill itself. This general rate charge on farmland is an innovation. In principle, as one interested in farming, I would much sooner not see a general charge on farming areas, but I believe that in this context it is right. It will make a valuable addition to the revenue of river boards. It is not enormous, as the Minister rightly said, but it will produce some additional money for the general work on the rivers and the expansion of that work.
The financially weaker river boards usually have to make a precept of more than 4d. in the £, which means that they have to obtain a specific resolution of the county council members on the river board. As the precept creeps up to 6d. or even 8d. the county council concerned says to the county councillors on the river board, "You are supposed to be looking after our interests and seeing that the river board does not spend too much of our money." This begins to make a difficulty between the river board which wants to do more work on the rivers and the county council which is finding the money.
When these negotiations take place, usually behind closed doors, between the river board and the chairman and clerk of the county council concerned, the argument that is invariably put to the river board is, "It is all very well for you to ask for more money from the general ratepayer, but the farmers who are going to benefit from the work pay nothing towards it." This Bill, by bringing in farmers to pay a small contribution, somewhat comparable to what the ratepayer pays, will put the river board in the position of being able to say, "The farmers are making a small contribution to the general rate and, therefore, there is an equitable share of the burden and it is reasonable to ask you, representing the general ratepayers, if you will agree to this precept." I think this will strengthen the hand of the river boards, especially the poorer river boards, in raising the extra finances that they so much need.
I agree with the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green. I think that some of the richer river boards which make small precepts will be likely to find that 90 the costs of administration are such that, on balance, they may decide not to raise the general rate. But that is a matter of balance for them. Obviously the higher the existing precept, the more likely they are to think it is worth while to raise the general rates.
The special drainage scheme is to be welcomed, as are Parts II and III of the Bill, which include many of the detailed recommendations of the Heneage Report, which will give much valuable assistance in solving the drainage problems on farms with minor water courses.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on introducing the Bill. It will do much valuable work, and I commend him and his advisers for having brought it to the House.
§ 6.24 p.m.
§ Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)
I should like to follow on one of the points which the hon. Baronet the Member for Guildford (Sir R. Nugent) made, and that is that there ought to be very close collaboration between the planning authorities, the local councils and the river boards.
I know of one expensive scheme, arising from flooding, which was carried out on a private enterprise housing estate in Cornwall, the estate having been built on the lower side of the road which I knew very well many years ago and which had springs bubbling up on it every winter after heavy rain. I therefore hope that that sort of problem will be considered. Travelling so many hundreds of miles in the train as we from the south-west have to do, I see many housing projects in valleys which seem likely to be flooded from time to time.
The Bill has been long delayed, and I cannot help but feel that this has been due to the Conservative Government having been too tender towards the susceptibilities of their friends in the Country Landowners' Association. At any rate, the Bill has now been introduced, and I am glad that the Minister has brought it in as his first Bill, because I feel sure that he will try to make as good a job of it as is possible within its limited terms.
The Cornwall River Board covers the whole of the county, the County Borough of Plymouth and part of west Devon. 91 The precept amounts to about a 2d. rate over the whole of those three areas, producing about £58,000 a year. I should like to pay tribute to the work of the river board over the years that it has been in existence, because I know of schemes which it has carried out and which have relieved severe flooding. There are many other schemes on the drawing board which I hope it will be possible to carry through before long.
Insufficient attention is paid to rainfall. The hon. Member for Horncastle (Sir J. Maitland) said that no Bill could provide for exceptional downpours of rain. I disagree. I do not say that we can cover everything, but we can do much more than has been done or is likely to be done under this Bill. The average annual rainfall in Cornwall during the 17 years to 1958 was 47 inches. In 1959 it was 51.16 inches; 1958, 54½ inches; 1954, 54 inches. But two places in mid-Cornwall in 1959 had the exceptional rainfall of 4.7 inches in a single day.
We all recall the Lynton disaster some years ago when 7 or 9 inches fell in half a day. The imagination of the whole of the country was stirred by the Lynton disaster, as also by the floods which have recently occurred. I agree that television has played a very large part in bringing these difficulties home to our people. But since we get these exceptional falls of rain, we must provide for them as far as we can.
In my own town of Redruth, which is in a valley with fairly steep hills all round, we used to get considerable flooding in the lower part. One large school would be flooded in any heavy rainstorm, particularly in the summer, because the main drain through that part of the town was inadequate to carry all the storm water which was cast into it, largely as a result of much house building after the drain was laid. I am glad to say that the urban council has dealt with the difficulty, and I am thankful that very little flooding occurs now in that part of the town. But I stress that it is only because the local authority has taken the matter in hand. In some other places in Cornwall the river board has dealt with flooding very capably.
92 Coming to the present floods, and particularly those in Devonshire, one is bound to say that something more will have to be done by the Government than would be possible under the provisions in this Bill. I should like to quote from the Western Morning News of 10th November, which stated:Expenditure of about £2 million is involved in a comprehensive Devon flood prevention scheme prepared by the county surveyor … in his capacity as chief engineer to the Devon River Board. He estimates the cost of alleviation works at £1,250,000; immediate brook clearance, £50,000; main river clearance, £520,000; and extensions to main rivers and additional work, £180,000. The scheme was presented to the Devon River Board at a meeting at Exeter yesterday when it was decided, before proceeding with any major undertaking, to ask the Ministry of Agriculture to fix the amount of grant it would be prepared to give towards the cost.No doubt some hon. Members who represent Devon constituencies will have something to say about it, but it seems to me that here is an area which was very severely hit, and the appropriate official, competent as he is, estimates that the work which ought to be done will cost £2 million. Quite obviously, the provisions contained in this Bill are not sufficient to deal with anything on that scale.
I wish to make another quotation from a Memorandum of the River Boards' AssociationMuch of the flooding, notably in Exmouth, is caused by relatively minor watercourses over which river boards have no jurisdiction.I take it that this Bill covers the minor watercourses.
The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. W. M. F. Vane)
That is one of the main purposes of the Bill, to deal with the intermediate watercourses.
§ Mr. Hayman
I knew that, and it brings me to a constituency point. In the Penponds River Valley near Cam-borne, there has been serious flooding in some winters during recent years because no one has power to deal with the minor watercourses. I presume that under Clause 16 the local authority can delegate that work to the river board and make a contribution towards the cost.
I feel that the sum of £250,000 a year of Government money envisaged is far too small to meet the great needs of the 93 country as a whole. On top of the drainage work which is becoming a greater difficulty every year, and in addition to the work of the river boards which this Bill expands, we have to consider the dreadful catastrophes in flooded areas which we have experienced in the West Country and which were repeated in many other parts. These are national catastrophes. I am glad that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government is present. I hope he and his right hon. Friend will decide that something can be done to meet the needs of those people who have suffered so severely in the recent floods.
§ 6.35 p.m.
§ Sir Gerald Wills (Bridgwater)
I do not think that anyone would deny, whether or not it be coincidental, that this Bill has come before us at an appropriate time. Although we may disagree whether or not it is adequate for our needs, we shall all agree that some Measure was due, many may think overdue.
The recent flooding which is fresh in the minds of many of us has sharpened our awareness of the loss, trouble and distress caused to so many people by the disasters. We in the West Country, in my constituency and in other parts of the west of England, have seen and experienced this in the past weeks. The local authorities and voluntary organisations have done everything they could to alleviate the trouble but they cannot do anything like enough to compensate those individuals who have suffered from the effect of the floods.
I think it odd when we realise, as we have been made to realise very clearly, that the neglect and lack of foresight of men—perhaps even the Medway letter—has made what is an act of God react most severely on many unhappy and helpless people. I know that my right hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government are well aware of the need for help. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government has undertaken to stand behind the local authorities. I think that should be emphasised even more than it has been, so that those in need of help will know that this is something which is not nebulous, that the help may be given rapidly, and 94 that my right hon. Friend really is standing close behind the local authority with, so to speak, his hand on its shoulder.
This Bill has been presented by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food but I am glad to see that it is backed by my right hon. Friends the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Minister of Transport and my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. If this job is to be done well the help of all of them working together will be needed in a big way.
I wonder whether the work involved in the provisions of Part I of the Bill has been considered adequately. Part I gives additional income to the river boards which they need and which will help them to do more of the valuable work which they are doing at present. But let us see what is imposed upon the river boards. As I understand it, they have to compile rating schedules, track down the occupiers of all the fields in their area, obtain Schedule A amount from the Inspector of Taxes and in cases where the assessments are in large blocks, they must be broken down and each assessment apportioned. That, to start with, will be no small job.
The Somerset River Board, of which I have some knowledge, covers an area of 765,670 acres and there are a lot of fields in all that area. It will not be easy to trace the occupiers. Not only that. The large-scale ordnance survey maps are completely out of date, which means that where any development has taken place, the river board and its responsible officials must correct the maps and bring them up to date. That, again, will be quite a job and inevitably it will take a long time. I hope that the work involved, the length of time it will take and its cost, will produce a resulting worth-while income for the river boards.
I believe that the general drainage charge for work on existing main rivers and the special drainage charge for schemes the board considers necessary in the interests of agriculture require some comment. I underline the words "in the interests of agriculture". I am all in favour of agricultural interests and I have many agriculturists in my constituency. I can think of a number of watercourses in my constituency which should be part of the scheme, but to do 95 work on them would not necessarily be in the interests of agriculture. I am wondering how these fit into the Bill. I can think of a number of streams which have a great bearing on many dozens and hundreds of villagers and townspeople in my division who are not affected by the interests of agriculture. What happens to them? How does this fit in with the Bill?
I could quote a case which has been in my file—a file which is still open—for six years. I have written to successive Ministers of Agriculture and to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government and his predecessor about this case which involves 100 to 200 acres near Porlock in my division. None could agree whether drainage work should be undertaken and the stream regarded as a main river, or whether certain coast protection work should be undertaken. The work has not been done. The river board thought that the expenditure involved was not worth while because the land, agriculturally speaking, was not of great value.
If this work had been done, much of the flooding at Porlock and in other places in my division would not have happened. I hope that the interests of agriculture will be regarded a little more widely than they seem to be in the Bill, and that local authorities will be given power to do work which they think will prevent flooding or to improve drainage in their areas. Now they have either to approach the river board, which is probably the right way, or to approach the Minister, if there is no board responsible. That is all to the good. But it all takes time. There is a "to-ing and fro-ing" which delays the actual operative work which I want to see undertaken as rapidly as possible.
I am glad to see that in the Bill there is power to require ditches and watercourses to be cleaned where that is necessary, and also power to require people to clean out watercourses where they are causing inconvenience or flooding the land around them. Again, I make the point: is this only in the interest of agriculture? I can think of roads, villages and bridges which may suffer because someone does not clean out a watercourse on his land. Let us be quite clear 96 as to whether this comes within the ambit of the Bill.
I would draw my hon. Friend's attention to Clause 40 which says "any land", not necessarily agricultural land.
§ Sir G. Wills
One is to understand that "any land" includes land whether the benefit is to agriculture or not. I am glad to hear that from my hon. Friend. From the remarks that I have made, I hope that my right hon. Friend and his hon. Friend will gather that the Bill is very good so far as it goes, but that I wish it went rather further. I do not think that the amount envisaged in the Bill is enough to do what is really necessary.
We heard my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) on Friday mention that more than £3 million is likely to be needed to deal with conditions in Somerset. It will take a very long time to get £3 million under the provisions of this Bill. Speaking personally, I should have liked to have seen a Bill much wider in scope. It has had a long gestatory period and we know that there are many good and valid reasons why this length of time has been taken, but I should like to see a Bill wider in scope and co-ordinating and simplifying the means of flood prevention, coast protection and coast defence.
I know that Clause 18 does quite a bit towards coast defence but I do not think that it will do enough. It is no good allowing water to come down from the uplands at great speeds only to have it pushed back again when the tide comes in. I have seen many examples of that in the past weeks.
I do not think that it is possible to prevent all flooding. I know that we have had a very heavy rainfall in Somerset and Devon, and while I do not wish to steal any thunder from the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), I think that the defences and arrangements made after the Lynmouth disaster have proved adequate and the defences and arangements made at Exford have proved adequate in spite of a vastly greater rainfall than is normal. Surely it should not take a tragedy every time to cause us to do the same thing in other 97 places. I hear that said many times in the West Country. It is a general feeling which I feel one should voice. I think that we ought to reach a stage, sooner or later, when the highlands which pour water down into the lowlands with such increased velocity, owing to the differences in the surface of the roads and many other reasons, should take some small share in meeting the cost of flood prevention.
Perhaps in some other Bill, if not in this one, we shall see that done. As to the anomalies in rating, there are many of them in my own constituency. Perhaps they should be dealt with at some other time, too.
Finally, I welcome the Bill but I hope that at a later stage we shall either make it wider in scope—more comprehensive—or that we shall have the promise of another measure so that our legislation matches up to the needs not only of agriculture but of the country and the people as a whole in those areas which are especially liable to flooding.
§ 6.47 p.m.
§ Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)
The only party political task which falls to me is the very pleasant one of wishing the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food well as he unburdens himself of his first Bill, and wishing him well on behalf of the farmers of North Devon. As the hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. P. Browne) will know, the farmers of north Devon and, indeed, Torrington are capable of acts of great ferocity if given just cause at the time of the Price Review.
I should like to take up a point made by the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Sir G. Wills) relating to charges being levied in regard to watercourses in agricultural areas which are not specifically referable to the needs of agriculture, but which may, unless put in good condition, affect villages and hamlets further down. The Parliamentary Secretary gave an undertaking that such schemes should go forward notwithstanding the fact that they were not exclusively referable to the needs of agriculture but needed for the protection of villages.
I do not think that I entirely said that. It was with regard to ditches that I tried to help hon. Members.
§ Mr. Thorpe
I am making the point, which the hon. Member for Bridgwater made, that there are areas in agricultural parts of one's constituency which, unless improved, will adversely affect non-agricultural communities—that is, villages and hamlets further down. That is where I should have thought the Parliamentary Secretary was on weak ground. As I read Clause 3, no special drainage charge may be made unless an areas is designated by the Minister, having seen the scheme, as being an area which needs to be put right in the interests of agriculture.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is confusing the two things. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Sir G. Wills) was referring to ditches. That is a separate point and is dealt with at the beginning of the Bill. The other point is dealt with right at the end.
§ Mr. Thorpe
I cannot speak on behalf of the hon. Member for Bridgwater, and he would not wish me to do so. If that is a point which he did not make, it is a point which I wish to make, because there are definitely areas which need widening and which cannot be justified in the interests of agriculture but can be justified for the protection of villages and inhabitants who live further down.
While accepting the very limited objects of the Bill, I nevertheless suggest that it is a, very tame Measure indeed. It echoes the proposals in the 1959 White Paper which were in themselves a virtual rejection of some of the more outstanding proposals of the Heneage Committee. I want to ask the Minister one or two questions about the financial provisions, but I should say that the most serious criticism is that which was made by the hon. Member for Sunderland. North (Mr. Willey) and the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), namely, that the Government are continuing to suggest the idea that water problems are divisible.
The problems of our watercourses are closely related, and they are fourfold—flood prevention, water conservation, agricultural irrigation and river pollution. It is an incredible state of affairs that we have droughts in the summer, as a result of which we have to go upstairs and appear before the hon. and gallant 99 Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) in order to try to get the water boards rearranged, whereas, on the other hand, we have floods in the winter and have to hammer at the doors of the Ministers of Agriculture and Housing and Local Government. I suggest that the river boards should be charged with the responsibility for water conservation. This would mean a revolution in their functions.
It is also ridiculous to me that one corporation should flood a valley to provide water for its inhabitants, probably denying the people who live around the the valley one drop of that water, and drawing the water out without reference to any other corporation which might have an equal claim to it. To use a word which has not yet been alluded to on this side of the House, we shall not solve our water problems until we have outright nationalisation of water, and the sooner it comes the better. [Interruption.] If I can revive the interest of the Opposition in this subject, I am delighted to play my part in doing so.
I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman what standards of safety he is hoping to achieve as a result of the Bill. What is his target? The hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle (Sir J. Maitland) made the point, with some force, that the better the drainage the greater the possible risk of flooding further down. That is a very sound point. Obviously, it is impossible to have complete safety, and everyone accepts that. It has been suggested that the cost of making our watercourses safe would be about £2,000 million. But what is the right hon. Gentleman's objective? Is it to make our towns and villages proof against flooding? What standard is he adopting for the purpose of this Bill? How long does he think it will take to achieve that state of affairs, if that is his objective? Has he any idea what the total cost is likely to be? Why has he hit upon the figure of 20 per cent. increase in the total income of river boards. I concede at once that this is an estimate and that it is very difficult for the right hon. Gentleman to arrive at a fixed figure, but why 20 per cent.?
The hon. Member for Bridgwater referred to the Lynmouth defences. In order to make Lynmouth safe—and 100 please heaven it is safe now—there was an expenditure of over £1 million. The Government assistance envisaged in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum to the Bill is about £250,000. How has that figure been arrived at? How does the right hon. Gentleman think that that is an adequate figure?
The question of a national distress fund has been mentioned. I agree with all right hon. and hon. Members who have suggested that there should be a fund of this nature, not merely for flood cases but for acts of God generally. As the question of a distress fund has been mentioned, and as the name of Lyn-mouth has cropped up, perhaps I may be allowed to say that the Lynmouth distress fund has been mentioned in this House recently. It is only fair to say that, while £28,000 remains in the fund, the area which it can serve stretches as far as Tiverton, Crediton, Okehampton and Hatherleigh, and I am happy to say that it will be used for relieving distress not only in my constituency but in the constituencies of Tiverton and Torrington. The remaining sum is in fact inadequate to meet the needs of these people. There is no question of Lyn-mouth sitting on a fund and not releasing it for the purpose for which it was originally subscribed.
I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman something about the calculation of the grant. As I see it, the Government are saying, "Prepare a scheme and put it up to us, and we will then advise you about 'the grant we are prepared to make." At the moment, the rough position, as I see it, is that the more a river board spends the greater the percentage grant it may receive. If, for example, as in the County of Devon, it is 1.7d., then there will be a contribution of approximately 20 per cent. If it goes up to 4d., there will be a contribution of 60 to 70 per cent., and if it goes to 8d. or 9d. the contribution is to be about 75 to 85 per cent. This is rather a system of "for whosoever hath, to him shall be given".
I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman has any proposals for fixing the percentage in a rather more equitable way? I should like to feel that there would be a grant for maintenance and not merely for major works. That is the position concerning our highways. The 101 rate of contribution to the maintenance of the highways is similar to that for major works. I should like the right hon. Gentleman to consider that point.
I also suggest that to say, "Increase the precept and then the Government will increase their percentage" is going about the matter the wrong way round. I should have thought that, if anything, this would deter river boards from taking over brooks and streams which they might otherwise be persuaded to take over. I suggest that if we could reach the situation whereby the river board could be regarded as the agent of the Minister of Agriculture, in the same way as county councils are regarded as the agents of the Minister of Transport, with the percentage grant decided, not according to the precept, but according to the importance of the river, classified, not because of its depth or width but because of its geographical significance, then I think that we should have a more equitable form of contribution from the Exchequer. It is suggested by one river board that approximately £2½ million is needed, not the £250,000 which the Government suggest is the appropriate figure.
I should also like to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he feels that the policy under the Bill should not be to take power away from local authorities and hand it over to the river boards which have specialist knowledge. They have far greater technical ability. I do not mean this as criticism of local authorities, but I believe that they would be relieved to have this load taken off their shoulders. I should like any river or brook which has flooded or has caused damage, to be taken over automatically by the appropriate river board. I do not think that it is right that a small authority should be expected to pay for major schemes of maintenance and repair.
In conclusion, I ask the right hon. Gentleman what is the intention of the Bill with regard to safety. Does he think that there are adequate powers in the hands of river boards? Does he think, and if so why, the financial proposals are sufficient in general? As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there are extremely worried people who have been flooded as many as four times in the last month. Many of our rivers are choked with trees and gravel and are 102 silted up, and in many cases a small rainflow can cause the flood waters to flow again. I hope that what has been said this afternoon, from all sides of the House, will convince the Minister that what we want is not piecemeal measures, but a national water policy—in fact, the nationalisation of water.
§ 7.0 p.m.
§ Sir Harry Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)
The hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), had only one contribution of major substance to make, and that was that we should nationalise our water supply. He referred to the fact that from his part of the country a Committee of which I had the honour or duty—I am not sure which it was—of being Chairman considered proposals for reorganising the water supplies of Devon. It is worth recalling that one of the main anxieties expressed before that Select Committee on the Devon Water Bill by those representing the interests of Devonshire was that there would be the most terrible drought this summer and that they would all run out of water and not have enough to drink. That is some indication of the unpredictability of the subject with which we are dealing.
I do not believe that nationalisation is the least bit relevant to the issue. What we must cope with are two things, but unfortunately one of them is not relevant to this debate, although it has been mentioned a great deal, and that is the big, major floods such as we have had this year.
To revert to something I said to the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) when he was opening the debate for the Opposition, I am certain that there is only one way to legislate in connection with that sort of flood, and that is by the area most likely to be affected and most in need of protection to get together to promote a Private Bill to deal with the issue. To attempt, however, to lay down in one general Statute for the whole country the means whereby we should prevent floods would be a waste of time and almost a menace, because it would produce a sense of false security which could not possibly be implemented.
We are dealing here with the ordinary week-by-week, year-by-year maintenance of good land drainage, mainly for our 103 agricultural areas. Tonight, I should like to make something of a constituency speech, because I can at least claim that I am, I think, the only Member in this House whose constituency, although not his home—because my hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Bullard) does me the honour of being my constituent—as it now is would not exist were it not for the existence of internal drainage and river boards.
The Isle of Ely has been a separate authority for over a thousand years, a point of which we are continually reminding the Local Government Boundary Commission but which that body seems all too ready to forget. In its original form, the Isle of Ely was very different from what it is today. It was a little archipelago of islands sticking out of the mists and swamps of the undrained fens, barely 50 ft. above sea level, and surrounded by a morass with a few rivers that were used for fishing by some of the inhabitants of the islands. That is how it began.
Today, it is one of the most fertile areas in the whole world, with wheat, sugar beet, potatoes, celery, all types of fruit, especially strawberries, apples and pears, and flowers. All these things are grown in abundance entirely due to the work of the internal drainage boards and river boards and, formerly, the catchment boards. I should like to begin, therefore, by paying a great tribute to the work which those who serve on those boards have done over the years. They have shown that when what is largely voluntary effort can get together and try to organise the drainage system of a hitherto completely undrained area, it is possible in the end to produce one of the most fertile areas for agricultural production in the whole of the world.
I am trying to speak in this debate as an ordinary back-bench Member representing a constituency such as I have just described. That is my main purpose. I am not attempting, as all too many hon. Members have done in this debate, to pontificate on what the House thinks, what is good for the country and all that sort of thing. All I am trying to give is the point of view which. I believe, is most in the interests of my constituents.
104 I must declare other interests too, not because they are financial, because they are not, but because I happen to be an officer or a member of virtually all the bodies which have been negotiating from the agricultural point of view with the Ministry. I am a vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities, which is the central body of the internal drainage boards. I am vice-president of the River Boards' Association. I was founder-president of the Isle of Ely branch of the Country Landowners' Association and am now a nominated member of the council of that and an elected member of its executive; and for a number of years I have been a member of its land drainage sub-committee.
§ Sir H. Legge-Bourke
The hon. Member might well ask. I do that particularly when I am listening to the views of the Association of Municipal Corporations. On top of that, I was for ten years a member of the Ely branch of the National Farmers' Union and I am now a co-opted member of the county branch of the Isle of Ely. I can therefore truthfully submit that I have some idea of what has been going on behind the scenes in preparation for the Bill.
I entirely endorse what the hon. Member for Sunderland, North said when he protested against the idea that with all these negotiations being done outside this House, as long as agreement is reached before the Bill gets to the House we must automatically accept that agreement. As a Member of the House of Commons, I will not accept that view. Our duty is not simply to act as a rubber stamp for agreements which are arrived at outside. Our duty in this House is to try to think not only of the people immediately led by those organisations, but to think of the taxpayers as a whole and especially those in our constituencies, to think of the effect that there will be upon the general public as well as on the special people affected by the legislation.
Therefore, I hope that nothing which I am about to say in this debate will be taken as necessarily representative of the views of any of the bodies I have mentioned. Let me, however, also say that, although these bodies appear impressive 105 by title, they are not entirely separate from each other. There are people who are members of more than one of them. We have had the picture painted to us of an immense tussle between the organisations, but the real tussle has sometimes been within the membership of each of those bodies. I would agree at once with my right hon. Friend the Minister if he were to suggest that it has not been easy for all these bodies to agree over the Bill, but it has been no more difficult than it has been to get complete agreement within those organisations.
Having been a member of a good many of those organisations, I confess at once that if there is any one person who can be held responsible for having obstructed in every way possible the implementation of the financial proposals of the Heneage Report, it has been myself. I take full blame for it if anybody wants to blame me. The body through which I have done most of my opposing has been the Country Landowners' Association, and I do not mind admitting it. The Country Landowners' Association is not in the least ashamed of admitting that the proposal contained in the Agreed Text in the White Paper first arose as a result of one of its own proposals. As I proceed, however, I hope to be able to make clear to hon. Members what has led to all this.
I hope that the criticism that I shall make of the Bill will not be taken as a criticism of my right hon. Friend and his hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. I wish them all the cordial wishes I can for success in their office and congratulations upon it. I realise that this, what I can only describe as a half-baked artificial egg, has been put in their political incubator by the present Minister of Labour when he was Minister of Agriculture. I say "half-baked" because I welcome Part II of the Bill. Indeed, previous Ministers should know that I pressed for the contents of Part II of the Bill to be brought forward long ago. I believe that it would have gone through the House with the highest measure of agreement that is possible. Certainly, all those who have had to implement the Land Drainage Act, 1930, were screaming for Part II of this Bill.
The obnoxious part of this Bill—I think my right hon. Friend used the 106 word "contentious", and I accept his adjective—is quite definitely in Clauses 1 and 2, and possibly Clause 3. We have to face here a little bit of history, and it is important that the House should know why this came about in the way it did. The previous Minister informed the associations last year that he anticipated introducing legislation in the form of this particular Bill last Session, and although it may be thought that nine years is a long time to give anybody to negotiate, it so happened that the last phase of these negotiations was going at full gallop. In February last year, the Ministry produced a revised outline plan, and in that plan was the proposal that river boards should be allowed to spend the general charge themselves as they wished and not to relate it to new work at all.
As the time-table so worked out, as the result of conferences with the negotiating bodies, in the end there was not time for the full council of the C.L.A. fully to consider any alternative. The chairman of the negotiating committee, Lord de Ramsey, a Member of another place, was in the position in which he had to be empowered by the association to make almost a spot decision on the final matter, and the final decision was the proposal contained in Clause 1 of the Bill.
I wish to make it quite clear that the Country Landowners' Association does not blame the Department for its inclusion and accepts full responsibility for the wording of Clause I, or rather for the text of the agreement, which is an important distinction, which I shall make clear in a moment. The association accepts full responsibility and does not blame the Minister. I do myself, but perhaps that is neither here nor there. I think it was a great pity that, after all the time that had been spent, the last phase had to be rushed as it was. I can well understand that any Department must have difficulties in knowing whether it is to get into the legislative programme or not, and it was essential to pave the way in the last Session for the Bill which was to be introduced in this one.
Now, a word or two about the attitude of the river boards to that proposal. From reading the minutes of what went on at meetings at that time, I gather that 107 the river boards were delighted with the idea of having a general charge which they could spend as they wished. For the last thirty years, however, the river boards have had power to sot up new internal drainage districts, and they have never used that power once. I know why they have not done so, and it is because any attempt to do so would be highly unpopular with at least half the population.
The Minister will learn, if he does not know already, what I was taught a very long time ago by a former Member of this House, the late Sir Ernest Shepperton, who used to live close to the Isle of Ely and farmed many acres there, who sat for Leominster from 1922 to 1945 in this House. I remember how during the 1947 floods he told me that he hoped that I as a young politician would accept the advice of an old politician. "Have nothing whatever to do with land drainage", he said, "because, whatever you do, at least half your constituents will think that you are profoundly wrong."
The Minister will find that that is true. However, I had to reply that I was too far involved, and that I was up to the hips already, and that unless I went on I should sink with all hands. I am up to the neck in it today, and the Minister will find that this is the most abstruse subject and the most difficult on which to win agreement. My own feeling is that the efforts to win agreement outside this House went on far too long, and that the Government must make up their mind and be courageous on whether they believe in this idea contained in Part I of the Bill or not.
My own opposition to Clause 1 dates back to those days when the Labour Party published a dreadful document called "Challenge to Britain" in 1953. Some hon. Members may remember this, and they will find on page 29 the following statement:At present, no rates are paid on agricultural land and buildings. Labour will repeal the derating provisions of the 1929 Local Government Act.When I read that, I was determined to make quite clear to my constituents in 1955 and in subsequent General Elections, which I have done, that I was relentlessly opposed to any form of agri- 108 cultural rerating. I was on record as being opposed to it, and I say to any hon. Member who is on record as saying the same thing to be very careful before he approves of Clause 1. I have always accepted, and will go on accepting, the idea that there is an absolute justification for charging a drainage rate on agricultural areas which derive benefit from the work done. I shall always uphold that, but the moment one departs from that and imposes a general charge regardless of benefits, one is at once entering the field of agricultural rerating.
It is that which is my main opposition to Clause 1. I see in it the thin end of that wedge. Hon. Members may believe that this is only a small amount—a 3d. precept, not very much—but what tax has ever been introduced which has remained at its original figure? It is perfectly true that we are trying to write into the Bill some limit to the sum of the general charge of 1s. in the £ on Schedule A. Suppose we are trying to do that. Does anybody suppose that we shall be able to hold it at that figure? What happens when we get a demand for a bigger contribution from these upland areas, whether there is benefit or not? What will happen? We shall have an increasing demand, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) has very clearly shown, from the point of view of the Association of Municipal Corporations, for bigger representation on the river boards of those in the upland areas, and, in particular, from the urban districts in those upland areas.
I believe that my constituency is what it is today, by way of an agriculturally productive area, mainly because those most reliant upon the work of internal drainage boards have been able to control the river boards. Once the uplands are called upon for so much finance that they can rightly and justifiably establish a case for higher representation upon the river boards, we shall find that the influence of the Fenland internal drainage boards will be weakened.
I well remember what happened in the area of the Great Ouse River Board in the 1947 floods. The chairman of the board invited the whole of the commissioners of that catchment board to have a look at the floods. Out of a possible 29, seven came. The rest could not have cared less what was happening down in 109 the Fens. I know pretty well that if we once allow the share of upland interests in representation on the river boards to become predominant, it will be goodbye to good Fen farming. I wondered a little at my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. J. Wells) referring to the Minister's assurance as "coming out of the wash".
The important rivers coming into the Fen Country are the Great Ouse, the Nene, the Welland, and the Witham, and the contributory rivers to the Great Ouse, in particular, are the Lark, the Little Ouse and the Wissey.
All these rivers could very easily get out of control. It is an immensely fine job which the river boards controlling those four main rivers have done. My own constituency is affected by three of them. They are not affected by the Witham, but all the others affect us. I will do everything in my power to prevent that machinery being upset, because that would upset farming very severely in the Fens.
I have been looking at the minutes of the meetings of the A.M.C. in May and June. I take up a point which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central was making, for I have seen that body does not like the agricultural membership being as high as it is. It wants bigger urban representation.
We are not asking that the urban areas should contribute any more to fen drainage. In fact, I think the stupidest Fen-men are those who say, "The water comes down on us from up there so why not make them pay?" I have always told the Fenmen, and I say again, that it pays the Fenmen every time to pay a bit higher drainage rate and so to keep control of their river board by doing it. I believe that it is absolutely essential for Fenmen to realise that they are wrong who think that just because the uplands do send down water therefore they ought to pay the rates. I always say that, because I believe that it is the administration of the river boards which is absolutely vital to the future of good fen farming.
I think it is very right that I should say that there is a world of difference, as the March Hare once told Alice, between getting what we like and liking what we get. The difference is particularly marked when it is the Minister who gets 110 what he likes while it is the unfortunate back benchers and their constituents who get it just the same whether they like it or not.
I think this Bill emanates from the days when, perhaps, the need was greater for bringing in the not-so-well drained agricultural areas; in other words, from the time of the war. The main need then, regardless of cost, regardless of return on capital outlay, was for bringing in as much agricultural land as possible. Is that case as strong today? I do not for one moment believe it is.
I am only too anxious to find some compromise with the Minister over the Bill, but I must clearly give a warning that either in Committee or on Report or both I shall seek to delete Clauses 1 and 2 of this Bill. I am prepared to take it to a Division. I have to say that. I should be less than frank with him if I did not. I hope that I have made some of my reasons clear.
I deeply regret that the previous Minister did not answer what I particularly asked him to do, to let us have a debate on the White Paper before it came to legislation. I asked that, but that request was completely ignored, and the Government have only the previous Minister and themselves to blame for not having done that, for I think we could have avoided some of this rather acrimonious talk I have had to give the House today.
I am very anxious indeed that we should compromise. If I may suggest it, I would be prepared to see the special agricultural charge very much increased over 1s. if I could be sure that the general charge was going to be eliminated altogether. That is one possibility.
The Medway letter has been referred to. I know it would cause great consternation to the A.D.A. if the Medway letter were to be dropped. I do not believe that we here ought to put over as our own arguments views held by other associations. My feeling is that we ought to look at this. I think we ought to look at the Medway letter.
In my own area, I have got an instance between Whittlesey and Coates similar to that which my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) mentioned, the absurd position of a road being the dividing line, and 111 even on one side of the road the rates vary between virtually identical houses. We have anomalies, but they will not be sorted out while the Medway letter is regarded as holy writ.
I think we ought to get what we want written in the Bill. It is wrong, some hon. Members do genuinely feel, as I do, for us not to write into the law what we want. My final point is that I would myself warmly endorse what hon. Members have said, that the last sentence of the first paragraph of the Text of the Agreed Principles, of the agreement published in the White Paper, ought to be written into the Bill. I regret that it is not written into the Bill.
I can see that we are likely to have acute difficulties arising here. Of course, the easiest thing of all would be to eliminate the general charge altogether and then write it in as for Clause 3 only. In other words, I think the Bill is sensibly drafted in relation to the special agricultural charge. Let me make it perfectly clear to the Minister that I know what will happen if what I suggest comes to pass. The C.L.A. will not like it because it thinks there is a risk of more people being brought in without benefit under the special than under general charge. My feeling is that it is wrong about this. I believe myself that the Minister would be very well advised to look at that point to see if we cannot, by rearranging the machinery whereby the Medway letter is operating, and by eliminating the general charge, ensure, what I am sure we all here want, that all the areas which ought to be brought into this land drainage are brought in.
I was chairman of the ad hoc committee of the Parliamentary Conservative Party Members' Committee when the Heneage Report first came out, and we recommended to the Minister—he will find this somewhere in his files for it was sent to his predecessor, Sir Thomas Dugdale, now Lord Crathorne, as approved by the Committee—that each river board should be under an obligation to carry out a survey of its upland areas to define what are the areas most requiring this sort of work; and, having decided that, schemes should then be put to the Ministry for approval for grant. We stressed—I remember very well stressing it at the time—that what was desirable in 112 general was a sound economic position, not what we had to have in wartime, when we had to be content with bulk and unsound economics. Lord Crathorne thought so, too, though I still regret that we did not have Part II sooner.
I can on sitting down conclude on a conciliatory note by saying that the Association of Drainage Authorities has asked me to thank the Minister for the courtesy it has had in arriving at the drafting of Part II.
§ 7.27 p.m.
§ Mr. A. V. Hilton (Norfolk, South-West)
I had been thinking earlier that this was an ideal occasion for any Member of this House to make a maiden speech, for I expected this to be an uncontroversial case. Until the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) spoke, most people had expressed support of this Bill, and I personally cannot see how I can wax very controversial on it. Although the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely spoke with such authority on drainage—.as we know, he is an authority on it—I do not propose to follow him on the line he has taken.
Personally, I welcome the Bill, as most hon. Members on both sides of the House have done, although I quite agree it is not all we hoped for and that it has been too long delayed and has been quite rightly described as a compromise Bill. I support any Measure designed to improve land drainage, and I believe that although the Bill does not go as far as many of us would like it to go, it will be of benefit to land drainage. Very few Bills go all the way we would like them to go.
I also support the suggestion which has been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House that there should be a national flood disaster fund. I do not want to labour the point but ever since we had those devastating floods in the past month or so I have felt that such a fund should be set up. I regard our land as our greatest heritage and I believe that it should be preserved in really good condition. It cannot be disputed that land has never been more valuable than it is at present. One has only to think of the high prices being asked and paid for land not only for building but for agricultural purposes to realise its tremendous value today.
113 Too often the real value of land is not brought home to us except in a time of war and a time of adversity such as during the recent flood disasters. My sympathy goes out to all the victims of the recent floods. We in East Anglia have had our share of these disasters in the past. Whether they have experienced personal loss or suffering in other ways, the victims have my sympathy. In areas of Lincolnshire where heavy potato crops are grown, some farmers have been unable to harvest the crops because of the flooded condition of the land. A representative of a sugar factory in Norfolk told me this weekend that many farmers are unable to honour their contracts for the delivery of beet into the factory because they are unable to lift the beet from heavily flooded land.
I sympathise with all these victims. Although we in East Anglia have been spared this time, we have had our share in recent years. One of my earliest recollections is of the disastrous flooding in Norfolk in 1912. I still remember people's fears on that occasion. In 1947 and again in 1953 we had similar flood disasters. One of the reasons why we escaped this time may be the considerable amount of drainage work which has been carried out in the area since the 1953 flood. It is absolutely essential for all land to be properly drained. Hon. Members will remember how in the years of depression in agriculture and industry generally in the 1920s and 1930s much of our land was undrained and neglected. It went out of cultivation and it was not until the outbreak of war in 1939 that once again the importance of the land was realised and it was reclaimed.
In spite of many difficulties, river boards have done a very good job in the past. I hope that the Bill will make their work easier in the future. There is land still waiting to be reclaimed when we have established a better drainage system. I hope that the Bill will help to achieve that end. We ought to make sure that every available acre of land is reclaimed at this time when all of it is so valuable. It seems plain common sense that we should do this, and it is common sense that we should produce from the land right up to the hilt, but to achieve that the land must be effectively drained. I agree that land drainage is a national responsibility, and that the 114 work of the drainage boards should never be restricted for want of sufficient money.
Part III of the Bill refers to ditches and the type of farmer who, for one reason or another, does not keep his ditches in order. My experience is that in the majority of these cases the person responsible would attend to ditches and drains as well as the next man if it were not for the fact that he is prevented by financial reasons from carrying out the work. Part III gives the Minister powers to refer such cases to tribunals. Where necessary, if the owner is not prepared to carry out the work, it can be done and the owner can be required to pay for it. I ask the Minister to consider such cases sympathetically. An hon. Member opposite said that the drainage rate would not be very heavy on small farmers. That is true, but to this type of person even a small rate makes all the difference.
§ Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Cornwall, North)
If my memory serves me, what my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) said was that it would bear extremely heavily on small farmers. I entirely agree, and I ask the hon. Member to get it right if he wishes to refer to that remark.
§ Mr. Hilton
I was not referring to the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton). It was another hon. Member who has now left the Chamber who said that it would not be very hard on the small farmer. I agree with the point which the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) has just made. It is a point that I was going to make. It is a hard burden on these little men, and it is because it is a hard burden that the work is not carried out, and not, in many cases, because the farmer is being difficult about it.
I suppose that most hon. Members have received the letter from the drainage board in the village in Lincolnshire to which reference has been made. The hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. J. Wells) tried to make a rather paltry political point about it. I was glad that afterwards lie apologised. I thought that there was a great deal in the letter with which all hon. Members could agree. It pointed to the difficulties experienced in villages where the people on one side of the road pay a fairly heavy drainage 115 rate and those on the other side do not have to pay anything.
The point that the hon. Gentleman made about the value of water is very important. It is a point which has been made by many hon. Members on both sides of the House. Undoubtedly, in recent years irrigation has played a very great part in increasing production. We have seen instances during the past year or two where the return from some fields would have been just about nil had it not been that the land was irrigated, but with that aid a very good yield has been obtained. Irrigation has undoubtedly come to say, and it will be extended. There is much to be said in support of the point made in the letter about the conservation and control of water. There is no doubt that this will be of very great importance in the future.
As I said at the beginning, there is not very much in the Bill about which to argue the toss, and I support it even though it is regarded as a compromise Bill.
§ 7.41 p.m.
§ Mr. Simon Wingfield Digby (Dorset, West)
The hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hilton) and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) have spoken about conditions in East Anglia and also the flooding problem there. That problem is nothing new to me in west Dorset.
As I have listened to the debate, it has been brought home to me how very different the land drainage problems are in different parts of the country. The Minister has told us that the Bill is not primarily intended to deal with floods. Obviously, it could not be so. However, I feel that in my part of the country it would not be understood that land drainage had nothing to do with our flooding problems. Indeed, the people in my part of the country have been very preoccupied with floods in recent weeks. Whether or not the Minister would have been wise to defer the Bill a little and to amend it to deal with the specific flooding problem, I do not know, but the Bill certainly will not be easily understood in the West Country as having no reference at all to flooding.
§ Mr. Soames
We must get this right. I did not say that the Bill had no relation to floods. What I said was that it was not introduced as the result of any flooding. It certainly has relevance to flooding. As I said in my speech, I hope that the Bill will make a consider able contribution towards the solution of the flooding problem.
§ Mr. Wingfield Digby
I am sorry if what I said was not right. I meant that it had no relation to the recent flooding. I certainly hope that it will make a considerable contribution towards preventing floods.
It has already been mentioned that the Heneage Committee reported ten long years ago—not nine years, as the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) correctly said. Ten years is a long time, but it is not such a long time in agriculture as it is in defence, with which my right hon. Friend was concerned more recently. My right hon. Friend will appreciate that ten years is a long time in defence matters. I certainly would like to join in the congratulations offered to him and wish him the best of luck in agriculture.
However, I seriously suggest to my right hon. Friend, first, that in the last ten years things have changed a bit even in agriculture and land drainage, and also in flooding. Indeed, flood experience over the last ten years has been somewhat different, certainly in my part of the world, from what it was when the Heneage Committee was deliberating and before then.
Secondly, I believe that the pollution problem is worse. Certainly, the problem of pollution by the use of detergents is very much worse than it was when the Heneage Committee was considering these matters. To many of us, detergents are becoming a problem which will have to be dealt with sooner or later.
Thirdly, the increased demand for water is very noticeable, particularly in a part of the country like mine, and that certainly has a bearing on the whole problem.
As has been said by many hon. Members during the debate, the Bill does less than the Heneage Committee thought necessary. To quote one example, the Heneage Committee believed that the additional watercourses only should have 117 spent on them no less than £2 million a year. That seems to me to be very much more than we shall get under the Bill. That leads to the question whether what we shall get from the Bill, welcome though it is, will be sufficient.
Another important respect in which the proposals of the Bill differ from the recommendations of the Heneage Committee is that the river board will not automatically take over the minor watercourses, intermediate watercourses, or whatever one likes to call them. It is those watercourses which have been causing most of the trouble in the recent floods in my constituency. I hope that when the Joint Parliamentary Secretary replies to the debate he will have a little to say about how far it is expected that that river boards will extend their boundaries. The fact of the matter is that in my part of the country the district councils are very small and comparatively poor, and they will be left to shoulder the burden of the responsibility for clearing out the smaller watercourses.
Before I go further into that question, I should like to return to the general issue of the whole of the water problem. Although I appreciate that we have to have a separate Bill for land drainage, we cannot afford to lose sight of the general water problem at the present time. For example, the use of irrigation—extracting water from rivers—is going ahead very fast in my part of the country and is contributing to the very low level of some rivers during the summer time.
That leads to the question whether water conservation is not necessary. Cannot the Minister give some help with conservation, perhaps in making available improvement grants to those who wish to conserve their water for irrigation purposes? There is no doubt in my mind about the value of irrigation for agricultural purposes.
There is also the question of underground water supplies. As far as I can see, we do not really know very much more about this matter than we did at the time of the Romans. There are said to be great supplies of water underneath the Dorset Downs in my constituency. In fact, there is a small stream which is dry throughout the summer but breaks out again into a full stream on almost exactly the same day every year—the Winterbourne.
118 On thing that we are doing today to an increasing extent is moving the water from one watershed to another watershed in order to meet the needs of local authorities. That also enters into the whole problem of the use of water.
I for one, therefore, felt that there was something in it when the Parish Councils Association made a statement the other day—I believe it was reported in the newspaper, on Friday—pointing out that these questions are inter-related. I hope that during the course of the consideration of the Bill more of an effort will be made to relate them. I think it is no coincidence that it should have been the Parish Councils Association which made that protest. My experience is that it is the village which so often suffers, first, from the drought and then from the flooding in turn.
I turn now to those parts of Dorset, west Dorset in particular, which are covered by a river board. For a long time none of my constituency was covered by a river board. It is interesting to turn to the map at the end of the Heneage Committee's Report and see that many of the areas which have been the worst hit by the recent flooding are those which have not been covered by water boards until quite recently. Undoubtedly some of the factors which led to the recent flooding will now come within the purview of the Avon and Dorset River Board, but I must point out that, since the Heneage Report, Bridport's problems, for example, have become very much worse.
Bridport has two rivers converging an it—though they are small, it is true—from two different sides. In 1954 there was severe flooding. In 1955 there was again severe flooding in south and west Dorset, when the county council alone had a bill of £42,000. When we approached the Ministries in Whitehall it was quite impossible to get assistance for that on the ground that it was not exceptional enough.
Again, in 1959 we had serious flooding in the Bridport area. When I approached my right hon. Friend's predecessor, the present Minister of Labour, I was able to get the rivers converging on Bridport regarded as main rivers so that they became eligible far work done by the river board. In 1960 we have had very serious floods again, because the 119 river board has not yet been able to find the money to carry out the necessary repairs and cleaning.
I have had large numbers of letters from constituents complaining bitterly about the position which they had hoped would be better by now. There is one laundry, for example, which was completely flooded to a depth of 3 ft. Much damage was done—£1,000 worth—and the owners were not insured, for they had been advised, after the 1959 flooding, not to insure again. I wonder whether the new drainage charges will be sufficient to enable the Avon and Dorset River Board to put these things right before Bridport has yet a fifth flood within a period of six or seven years.
That leads me to what is an even bigger problem, the watercourses which are, as I see it, to remain outside the purview of the boards under this Bill. The local authorities—the rural districts—will be very glad to have clear powers, which they did not have under the 1930 Act, to take steps to try to improve the position. In so many cases the flooding is due to old disused hatches not being cleared away, and to trunks and trees and debris being allowed to accumulate, as no one has the power, let alone the money, to go in and do something about them.
I hope this will work out, despite the fact that the Heneage proposal for putting these rivers under the river boards is not to be implemented. The cost on the rates will be considerable and I suppose that these local authorities will only be able to do very little at a time. I have received many letters about this. One came from a very charming little village called Piddletrenthide in my division. It complains that there has been constant flooding simply because of these hatches and the letter ends:Dear Sir, we want these hatches removed, thanking you, Sir.They have been waiting a long time for these hatches to be removed. They probably serve no useful purpose—though I do not know these particular ones—but so many water meadows which were excellent things 50 years ago have fallen into disuse. The hatches are still there, however, and it is nobody's job to take them away, so a village like Piddletrenthide with a brook running through it is liable to this flooding.
120 I now turn to the question of raising money for river boards. I appreciate the difficulty that, to do everything that is desirable, considerable money is needed and has to be found somewhere. I do not like the re-rating of agricultural land, but there has been an agreement between all interested parties—and my right hon. Friend's predecessor is to be congratulated on that—and we have to accept it in these circumstances, because I cannot see any other way in which it is to be done. I must add however, that from the point of view of my constituency these new drainage charges—levied only for small areas, it is true—will not make a big contribution to the problem. The principle will have been conceded but we shall not really be very much better off.
I hope that when the Bill reaches the Committee stage, the Minister will agree to make some Amendments. Clearly, when it was drawn up, he could not have foreseen these last floods, but I think that Amendments can be made to the Bill to make it a little better. I would rather have half a loaf than no bread
I am a little apprehensive lest, once the Bill reaches the Statute Book, we shall be told that there is not time to introduce another drainage Bill against floods for a number of years because of a crowded programme. If my right hon. Friend cannot bring the Bill up to date I hope that he will do his best to amend it. I welcome the Bill, but again I stress the urgency of some of the problems of these small rivers in my constituency, which is so unlike the great flat areas of the Fens. The rivers are still there, and the problems will remain until they are clear. In the words of Barnes, the Dorset poet,Rivers don't gie out".
§ 7.57 p.m.
§ Mr. Cledwyn Hughes (Anglesey)
The hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) is not in his place, but I was considerably impressed to hear him propounding Socialist philosophy so effectively when he advocated the nationalisation of water. He must know, as does the whole House, that this is official Labour Party policy, although one must also bear in mind that it is largely an academic issue because the overwhelming number of water undertakings— 121 about 90 per cent.—are held in public hands.
Our emphasis as a party is on the need for national planning in the conservation and distribution of water; it is a matter in which we are deeply interested in Wales, particularly as, at this time, it appears to us that the Government seem intent on pumping water out of the Principality and pumping in beer.
One of the points which must be constantly emphasised in the debate is that it must be made clear that this Bill will not solve the great problem created by the recent floods. Reference to this has been made by practically every speaker. The Bill may help in a small way—it probably will—but the additional money which it will make available to river boards will not be a remedy for the larger problem. This Bill is not an anti-flood charter by any means.
Reference has been made to the Devon River Board's application to the Minister for £2 million for a flood prevention scheme, and £3 million has been mentioned in connection with Somerset. The hon. Member for Devon, North spoke of £1 million spent at Lynmouth, and other areas will no doubt follow suit. That gives some idea of the magnitude of the problem.
The task facing the river boards, if they are expected to confront the problems with the resources now at their disposal, is fantastic. The Bill is not intended to deal with the overall problem of flooding on a large scale. I mention that because in its first paragraph the White Paper speaks of "the loss of life and property through floods," and it would be misleading to the House and the nation if the impression got around that in its present form the Bill will solve the larger problem.
It has been argued on all sides that the Bill falls far short of the recommendations of the Heneage Committee, and that is why the Bill is having such a cool reception. Nine long years have gone by while we have waited for a comprehensive Measure, and now we have this modest Bill. The Government say that the Bill is a compromise between the different interests involved. There is nothing wrong in a compromise and this Legislature is here mostly in order to compromise on various issues.
122 However, nine years have passed since the Heneage Committee reported and we have been told by different Ministers of Agriculture that they have had very difficult negotiations to carry out. The Government have been negotiating with the National Farmers' Union, the River Boards' Association, the Drainage Districts Association and the Country Landowners' Association. Which of those bodies made the negotiations difficult? Why have they taken such a long time?
The negotiations should not have been so very complex. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) said, this was an expert committee, sitting for four years, hearing evidence and then producing a first-class Report with recommendations. It should not have taken nine years for legislation to result. Who has been the nigger in the woodpile? The House now knows who was responsible, after listening to the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke).
As a Welshman, I had realised that the Country Landowners' Association was an important body with substantial influence on a Conservative Government, but I had not known that it could force a delay of nine years upon the Government then influence them in such a way that they produced this niggling little Bill which we are now considering. Now that I understand that it is such an important body I shall deem it my duty to tell my constituents and Welsh people in general that the landlords are raising their heads again, after being relatively quiet for a number of years.
I wonder whether the Country Landowners' Association made any concession in negotiations? The National Farmers' Union favoured the Heneage Report. The rivers boards agreed with it. The Drainage Districts Association liked it very much, but the landlords did not like it. The landlords obviously had the final say and the views of the other interests were overborne. Our chief indictment of the Bill is that it is not a Government but a landlord's Measure. Does the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) disagree?
§ Mr. Scott-Hopkins
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) said that it was the landowners who made the original proposal that there should be a general charge. Surely that is not to the landowners' advantage.
§ Mr. Hughes
The hon. and gallant Member said that it was the proposals of the Country Landowners' Association which were contained in Pant I, the operative part, of the Bill. Therefore, the Government have given in to the Country Landowners' Association all the way. A flat rate charge on all agricultural land, as recommended by the Heneagie Committee, would have been fair and a more sensible way of dealing with the matter in the long run. It would have spread the burden fairly throughout the agricultural community and it would have made more money available.
§ Mr. Soames
In view of what the hon. Member is saying about the C.L.A. and landlords in general, does he appreciate that both the general charge and the special charge are being carried by the occupiers and not the landlords?
§ Mr. Hughes
From their point of view, the landlords have made the best bargain possible. They will benefit more than any other section of the community.
§ Mr. John Mackie (Enfield, East)
I have just spent nine years on a farm in Lincolnshire draining and cleaning ditches and so on—
§ Mr. Mackie
Is my hon. Friend aware that I have just spent nine years draining a farm and cleaning out ditches and so on, but that because of the Agriculture Act, 1958, the landlords are rearing their heads and this year have given me notice to quit?
§ Mr. Hughes
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Mackie) speaks with great authority. I am grateful to him for clarifying the position with an example from his own experience.
I was about to say that the Government do not propose to spend much 124 money. The money has to be found in the affected areas where—as the Minister must know if he approaches this question fairly, as I am sure he will—many small farmers are finding the existing rate burdensome. There is an internal drainage district in my constituency, Mallitraeth Marsh Drainage District, which I frequently visit, where farmers are in great difficulty. They are farming in a difficult area and during the past few years they have had to pay heavy rates. They are finding it difficult to make ends meet and, as at present framed, the Bill will not help them.
§ Mr. Soames
I must make it clear that farmers in internal drainage districts will not pay any extra charge and neither the general charge nor the special charge will apply to them.
§ Mr. Hughes
I know that. The point I was making was that they were already paying a burdensome rate and that the Bill would not relieve them in any way.
It is difficult to say to what extent and how quickly help will be forthcoming as a result of the Bill, but the wealthier river boards will benefit while the poorer boards will still be in difficulties. I cannot see that the less wealthy boards will benefit substantially, notwithstanding that the precept is higher in their case. In the first place, they will have much additional work, for intermediate rivers will now be their responsibility. In the past, when intermediate rivers have caused trouble, the boards have been able to say that they were not main rivers under their schedules.
In the area of the Gwynedd Rivers Board, there are 1,300 miles of intermediate rivers. The board has an enormous job to do and, frankly, I doubt whether the Bill will give it adequate resources to enable it to do this job. This is the basic issue as I see it, we cannot say haw effective the Bill will be unless we know exactly how much additional money each rivers board will get. He mentioned 20 per cent., or £500,000 in general charge; another £500,000 in special charge; and a third £500,000 from another source.
§ Mr. Hughes
The total is £1½ million, and the river board in my area—I have talked with the officials and members— 125 has calculated that the additional money which will be available to it will be about £15,000. That is a rough estimate. They calculate that out of that, about £2,000-£3,000 will go in additional administrative charges, leaving about £12,000 to deal with all the additional work on 1,300 miles of intermediate rivers. How can the board do the work with that amount of money? Some river boards may be able to do it for, as the Minister knows, they are not now spending their 4d. rate and are able to manage on a 3d. or 2d. rate. But we cannot manage on that. I suggest to the Minister that it will be impossible for the poorer areas of the country to manage unless there is some equalisation factor. There should be some additional assistance for the poorer areas.
I want to deal with Clause 18, which is not quite clear. It reads:The powers of a river board to maintain, improve or construct drainage works for the purpose of defence against sea water shall be exercisable anywhere in the river board area irrespective of whether they are works in connection with the main river.How are we to reconcile this Clause with the duties of district councils under the Coast Protection Act? The Minister knows that there have been Motions on the Order Paper, signed by hon. Members from both sides of the House, about the enormous cost of putting coastal protection works in good order. We have the Coast Protection Act and now this Bill. What will be the liaison between the river boards and the local authorities? Is there not a danger that we shall fall between two stools and that neither authority will do the job? I should like some clarification of the Clause, although the Explanatory Memorandum states that this is a clarification. I shall be obliged if I may have some further clarification.
Finally, I want to pay a tribute to the river boards for the work which they have done. They have worked well over the past nine years under great difficulty; although they have spent about £50 million; they have struggled at times when the Government have imposed a credit squeeze. Whatever the Bill may be when it emerges after all its stages in the House, I am sure that the river boards will make the maximum use of it in an effort to improve agricultural drainage in this country.
§ 8.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Denys Bullard (King's Lynn)
I have followed the debate with very great interest because, as he said, I am a constituent of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke). I have lived on very low-lying land for most of my life, I am chairman of one or two internal drainage boards, and I have therefore lived with this problem for a very long time. While I think that there are some objectionable features to the general drainage charge in Clause 1 of the Bill, I think that on the whole the Bill is commendable, and it will at any rate help in furthering land drainage, which is so essential to agriculture.
I know that it has been said that the Bill does not deal with the flooding problem which is so much before us at present. On the flooding problem I would say only this: I do not think that recent Governments can be considered to have been niggardly in this matter. Very close to me there is the new Ouse Flood Prevention Scheme, which I think has cost about £10 million, £9 million of which, or thereabouts, has been contributed out of Exchequer funds. That is a scheme of great magnitude and importance. We should be careful not to suggest that nothing is done about flooding in between successive floods, because, certainly in my area, a great deal has been done with Government assistance.
Several hon. Members have wanted to consider, together with the issue before us, the whole question of water conservation, storage and usage. While it is essential that there should be a clear, overall policy about this, there are problems enough in this limited aspect without waiting for all the other problems to be solved before we do something about it. That is another reason that I think the Bill is, on the whole, a good thing.
I start in my attitude towards land drainage with the idea that it is best if all legislation is aimed at making those who benefit help to pay for it. Some people think that this should be made a national charge, but I feel that if it were a national charge, those who urgently wanted to do something about drainage in their own districts and had the initiative to set about it and to stir things up would not get on so well under that 127 system as they do where there is a degree of local responsibility, which means a degree of local paying. That is why I think that not enough has been said in this debate about the importance of the 300 or more internal drainage boards in the country who do this job in their own areas with great devotion. The members of those boards spend a great deal of time and energy on it and take a great deal of interest in the matter.
As soon as we establish special areas in this way, however, we come up against the boundaries question, and it is these boundary questions, and the inequalities which exist under the present Schedule A assessment basis, which form the nub of the problem of land drainage. I am very sorry to see a new charge based on Schedule A assessments, out of date as they are. I should like to hear an indication from the Minister as to what he thinks the position about these assessments will be over the next ten or twenty years. If they are not revised in that time they will be so sorely out of date that we shall be in terrible trouble about the inequalities of the drainage rate.
I do not think that we have said enough today about the special drainage charge. As I understand it, one of the Bill's main objectives is to extend facilities for land drainage to areas, just outside internal drainage authorities, which are not covered by any satisfactory drainage arrangements at present. I can think of several low-lying, heavy-land areas, badly drained, where the ability to make this special land drainage charge, directed at a particular problem, will be very valuable if it can be used.
In considering the Bill, I have asked myself whether it would have been possible to have confined the charge, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely suggested, to those special areas and to have done away with the general charge. If it had been possible, there would have been much to be said for it, but it is open to the very grave objection that it would give rise to boundary problems of still greater magnitude than those which will arise under my right hon. Friend's scheme. In order to cover the land fully, boundary areas would have to be defined very accurately indeed, if the special charge were a considerable one. Therefore, although my 128 right hon. Friend's proposal for a combination of the special and general charge is not an altogether satisfactory arrangement, it is probably as good an arrangement as could be found.
There was much to be said for the objections which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely had to the general charge. I very much dislike the idea of putting on a new tax—because that is what it is—on a great area of land at this time. It is not a very happy precedent to set. On the whole, river boards are not very suitable authorities to be levying taxes or rates. At present, they collect their income from Government sources and by precept on local authorities, which in turn make the collection. The collection of the rate will present river boards with an enormously complicated problem.
§ Mr. C. Hughes
Do they not in some instances also collect for internal drainage districts? In some instances they fulfil the duties of rate collectors.
§ Mr. Bullard
Yes. In some cases, river boards are the internal drainage authority for an area. They collect the rate. If this is to be done over a whole area, it will require a very careful survey of the area. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will correct me if I am wrong, but I do not think that any office of the Inland Revenue will be able to supply a river board with a list of properties in its area with their Schedule A assessments. The river board will have to undertake a survey. Anyone who has tried to tie up the results of a survey on the ground with records built up in an office over a long period of years knows that it is an extremely difficult task. I can see a tremendous administrative problem there.
I did not agree with all that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely said about the two extra representatives from agricultural areas. The provision for extra representation is to be welcomed. If the levy is to be made, the extra representation is right. If additional land is to be made subject to the new general charge, additional representation must be allowed. It will be an advantage in Fenland areas for those in the highlands or uplands—in my part of the world we call them "highlands", meaning all land other 129 than that which is down almost at sea level—to be making a contribution.
The general charge will be very difficult of administration, and the basis of it—namely, Schedule A, which is so much out of date—is to be regretted. Although I find those features extremely objectionable, it is necessary for me to ask myself what I would put in place of it to get the work done if I pressed my opposition to this charge. Having considered the whale matter, I have come to the conclusion that the combination of the special and general charge is, in spite of all the objections, the best means of achieving the object of obtaining an additional amount of land drainage, which is important not only to agriculture but to the community in general.
I have two points of detail to raise with my hon. Friend. The first is with regard to Part III, which is an extremely important Part, to which not sufficient attention has been paid today. It deals with the restoration and improvement of ditches. Having rivers cleaned out is a very laudable undertaking, but it is not much consolation to a householder if a portion of a waterway five or six miles from him has been cleaned out while all the intervening ditches are silted up and no water flows along them.
My right hon. Friend said that the words "any land" cover the garden of a house, for instance.
§ Mr. Bullard
I thought that my right hon. Friend said that the words "any land" included not only agricultural land, but land which might be in the form of a garden.
§ Mr. Bullard
I am not much wiser. There is not a hard division of land into agricultural and developed land. Countless private residents have houses and gardens in areas badly needing drainage. Does Part III merely entitle owners or occupiers of agricultural land to go to the Agricultural Land Tribunal to have intermediate ditches cleaned out, or can owners and occupiers of houses and gardens who are often afflicted with a high water table in their gardens go 130 to the tribunal, if they have a complaint, to get intervening ditches cleaned out?
§ Mr. Bullard
I am glad of my hon. Friend's assurance. I very much hope that it is so.
Part II of the Bill is also very useful. It deals with the revision of drainage board boundaries. I am vice-chairman of a drainage board that is undertaking a scheme up towards the town. We have been advised by our engineers that because of the very sharp run-off from town properties, we have to make the culverts very much bigger than would otherwise be necessary. This drainage board is laying out a large sum of money to do the work. What happens if there is a revision of its boundaries?
There do not seem to be any financial provisions in Clause 33 that would enable such a drainage authority, that had undertaken work and had then suffered an alteration to its boundaries, to get any sort of compensation for the work already undertaken. That is an extremely important matter but it can, perhaps, be better dealt with in Committee. I welcome the Bill as far as it will help land drainage. I still register my objection to the general land drainage charge but, as I find myself unable to offer a better solution, I support the Bill.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Mr. A. E. Oram (East Ham, South)
Quite rightly, and quite obviously, most of today's contributions have had a rural and agricultural tone, and it may seem something of an impertinence for one representing a Metropolitan constituency to intervene. I do so in order to call attention to a rather special but very large important aspect which quite a number of hon. Members have raised—that what happens upstream by way of improved drainage or building development causes flood difficulty in the lower reaches of a river. It is, in a way, ironical that the more effective this Bill turns out to be in agricultural districts, the more difficulty there may be in towns on the estuaries of rivers.
I wish to refer to Greater London and the flooding of the River Thames. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Bullard), who has just said that within the comparatively 131 narrow scope of the Bill there are difficulties enough, and I and other hon. Members have been raising enormous problems which, although outside the scope of the Bill, are important within the general terms of water conservation, flood prevention and the like. We need make no apology for doing so, although I recognise that the contributions of some other hon. Members have been concerned with more detailed problems, and are more particularly relevant to the debate.
A good deal of reference has been made to the urgency that has been brought to our consideration of this Bill by the recent floods, but another great tragedy occurred in 1953. As the White Paper reminds us, the East Coast floods of 1953 were in a way, an even more severe tragedy.
The danger to the Greater London area was then raised in a particularly alarming fashion, but it was the people of Canvey Island who suffered most tragically. The conscience of the nation was roused, as it always is on that sort of occasion. That occurred seven years ago. Much has been said today about the delay in the production of the Bill, but seven years seems to me to be a long time to have elapsed before anything very definite and suitable has been done to meet that problem.
To reinforce my point, I wish to quote from the White Paper associated with this Bill, and from the Waverley Report, produced after the coastal flooding of 1953. Of the flooding in the Thames, paragraph 84 of the Waverley Report, states:Experiments … showed that if a high flood discharge of 20,000 cubic feet per second at Teddington had coincided with the high water of January, 1953, instead of 2,597 cubic feet per second actually recorded, the maximum increase in level in London would have been about 9 inches … Since the level reached in January only just avoided causing serious flooding, it is clear that even a small increase in fresh water flow would have made the position most serious.Now I will quote from paragraph 3 of the White Paper:Improved field drainage on the upland farms; the conversion by drainage works of fen and marsh areas into valuable agricultural land; the disposal of surplus water from the impermeable surfaces in built-up areas; all these contribute to the increased flow of water finding its way through the minor watercourses to the main rivers, and thence to the sea.132 Those are the purposes of the Bill—to get the water off the land more efficiently and quickly into the main rivers and down to the sea.
In relation to the Thames, that must mean an increased prospect of more water coming down, particularly in summers such as we have recently experienced. My own constituency of East Ham was not seriously affected in the 1953 flooding, although neighbouring areas were. But my point is that areas like my own, and indeed riverside constituencies throughout Greater London, could well suffer very serious flooding indeed, unless something is done to counteract this increased flow of water which we can expect.
I stress, as the Waverley Report stressed, that we are not dealing merely with the question of rainfall. Indeed, the words that I just quoted show that rainfall had very little to do with that particular flood seven years ago. It was the coincidence of high tide with a tremendously high wind, producing a surge, which caused the particularly high water. But there is the possibility—perhaps not a very great one—that even worse things could happen if, as is now the case, the River Thames were pretty full and that coincided with a high tide and a high wind. Fortunately, we have escaped that situation so far, but Greater London is in a precarious position according to the evidence that we have had over the years and according to the Waverley Report.
One could find several quotations in the Waverley Report indicating the urgency of the problem. The Waverley Committee put forward a number of proposals, the main one of which was that there should be constructed a Thames flood barrier. During the present year we have had a report on that project, about the technical possibilities of constructing a Thames flood barrier. We are told that it is feasible to construct such a barrier in the Long Reach and that that would go a long way towards solving this problem of the potential flooding of this important area.
My hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. C. Hughes) said that tremendous figures had been quoted in connection with the various projects which have been put forward—figures like £2 million, £1 million and so on. I regret that the hon. 133 Member is not in the Chamber at the moment. I am sure he would be frightened by the figure which is mentioned in connection with the construction of the Thames flood barrier. The lowest estimate of the cost is £13 million. It is quite clear that when we are talking about that sort of project and that sort of figure we are taken well outside the scope of the present Bill and its financial provisions, and, I would suggest, well outside local authority finance as well.
As I have said, six years have passed since this proposal was first put forward. The Report says that once it is started it will take four or five years to finish, so that if we go full steam ahead now it will be ten or twelve years after the warning flood of 1953 before effective action is completed to prevent anything similar from occurring. We are fortunate in that there has not been the same sad coincidence of natural causes which brought about the floods of seven years ago.
I understand that the London County Council is initiating a conference of the local authorities concerned to see whether the project can be launched. It seems to have taken reasonably quick action following the publication of the technical report but I am not convinced—I hope that I can be—that there is a sufficient sense of urgency at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government about this matter. I hope that we may have some assurances about it. I notice that the Minister has just entered the Chamber and that gives me the opportunity to urge the right hon. Gentleman to give consideration to this question of the construction of a Thames flood barrier.
Earlier in the debate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Sir G. Wills) urged the Minister to be vigorous in supporting local authorities in their flood prevention work. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be vigorous in supporting the local authorities concerned with that project. Obviously it will be an extremely expensive matter. Local authorities, including my own, would be favourably disposed to the project although they would, rightly, have to hesitate if they felt that any serious burden would be imposed on the rates.
The prevention of flooding in the Metropolis and the proper care of the London river, with many of the other 134 projects mentioned during the debate are surely national undertakings. I wish to support what has been said by many hon. Members that the major problem is a national one requiring national planning and financing. I hope the Minister will assure the local authorities concerned with the problem of flood prevention in the London area that he desires them to go full steam ahead, that he will help them and that they need not worry unduly about the financial burden.
§ 8.43 p.m.
§ Sir Douglas Glover (Ormskirk)
I am glad to have been called to speak in this debate. At one stage a reference was made to mice. I feel a little like a tortoise, but it is important to arrive in the end.
I agree with a great deal of what was said by the hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram), and with my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), I feel that this is a national problem and that the Bill does not go nearly as far as many of us would like. I do not intend at this stage in the debate to discuss a national water policy. There are arguments on both sides. One must remember that watersheds form natural boundaries and, therefore, haw-ever much of a national water policy we may have, it will have to be met by somebody who looks after a particular watershed, and that is what we have at the present time. A more fruitful line to follow would be that just as we have had equalisation grants for local authorities for many years, so we could have legislation in which some equalisation fund would provide for the necessary finance for land drainage.
I have been wondering throughout the debate today whether it was a good thing to have it at the present time. On balance, I think it would have been an advantage for the Minister to have postponed the Bill for a short period. We are discussing this subject in the mental picture of the national floods. To be brutally frank, there are certain floods which it would not be economic for the nation to spend money trying to stop. One place had serious floods, but it is sixty years since it had a previous flood experience. It would be far cheaper to have a national flood disaster fund, even if it was provided by the Exchequer, 135 than to spend all the money necessary in certain places on producing a situation where floods could not take place. For that reason, I view the idea of some form of national insurance fund to meet this kind of situation with a good deal of favour.
I congratulate the Minister on the clear way in which he introduced the Bill, and I also take this opportunity to thank his Department for the wonderful job of work which the river boards and internal drainage authorities have done, particularly in my constituency which used to be flooded nearly every year. As a result of the scheme sanctioned by my right hon. Friend's predecessor-but-one, the present Viscount Amory, I am glad to say that during the recent very heavy rain my constituency has not been flooded. The river boards and internal drainage authorities are, in fact, carrying out a very useful job of work.
I now come to the more mundane parts of the Bill. I can see a lot of good in Part I. I think that we can justify a special agricultural rate better than we can justify a general rate; but what I am glad about is that all the Ministerial arguments in presenting the Bill rather support the suggestions which I shall make about the internal drainage boards. All the Minister's arguments were that this is an agricultural problem: the whole of the drainage system is based on agriculture, it is all designed to improve the land for agricultural purposes and the general charge will be levied only on the agricultural community. The Minister adds that it will not be levied on the general householders because, after all, they pay the general rate and out of the general rate comes the precept which goes to the river boards. Therefore, it is quite clear and fair that the individual householder in these new areas should not be included—it is to be only the agricultural community.
We have heard this afternoon a great deal about the hardship, injustice and anomalies that are brought about by the Medway letter—the arbitrary point at which drainage levels are fixed, the grave number of anomalies which have grown up between buildings built at the time the 1930 Act was brought into force and the new buildings which my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and 136 Malton mentioned. If all the effects of the Medway letter were now brought into force and modernised within the internal drainage board, most of the internal drainage boards would become non-viable as their income would drop catastrophically.
Another thing that worries me about the Bill is revision of the internal drainage board boundaries. If that means anything, it means that they will be narrowed. It will be left to those in internal drainage board areas to say, "We are X ft. above the maximum flood point. Therefore we ought to be excluded". If that happens the number of people who pay the internal drainage board rate will get smaller and smaller and the burden on them will become greater and greater. Perhaps it will reach the point when the burden upon them becomes absurd.
At present there are many people inside internal drainage board districts who are finding the rate insupportable. Some farm workers in my constituency are paying £8 a year in internal drainage rate, and the rate is rising fantastically fast. It is just not "on", to suggest that an agricultural worker can pay one week's wages in internal drainage rate, in addition to all the expenses which every agricultural worker has to pay, and then expect him to lead a comfortable and decent life.
Here I should like to make a point about favouritism to what I would call the agricultural community, particularly the landowners. Fifty per cent. of the capital cost of a magnificent scheme which was put into operation in my constituency was found by the State. It is the owner who is responsible for capital cost, yet he is assisted by the State to the tune of 50 per cent. The householder who has to pay the administrative cost of running the internal drainage board receives no assistance by way of grant from the State. The person who was best able to pay the burden was assisted. Those least able to pay the burden received no assistance at all. As a result of the scheme, the administrative cost is rising fast year by year. Under the old scheme a great deal of drainage was done by gravity drains. It is now all done by pump drains, and there is more administrative cost by way of fuel, manpower, and so on, and householders 137 are beginning to find the drainage rate an insupportable burden.
All this is due to the matter being considered on the basis of where the water lies. Water lies on the lowest land, and people are supposed to get advantage from draining that. But I am sure that my hon. Friend realises that, as a result of national policy and of encouraging people to have baths in their houses, the internal consumption of water has doubled in the last twenty years, and, because of metalled roads and now housing estates with slate roofs water is rushing from the new estates outside the drainage area through manmade culverts. It gets inside the drainage area within probably half an hour of falling from the heavens. It is therefore absurd, in my opinion, to maintain that no one outside that arbitrary line has any responsibility for paying the cost of internal drainage. Is it only a local problem as is supposed?
In my constituency we produce very good potatoes. If the ground all over the country is flooded, the price of potatoes goes up and the housewives in the towns pay increased prices for their potatoes. If the land is well drained there is an ample supply of potatoes and the housewives get the benefit. They benefit from well-drained land as well as householders in the drainage area.
We have had a full debate on how the necessary money is to be raised. Everyone knows about Schedule A. Even in the internal drainage board the cost of collection is fantastic, and the number of court cases increases year by year as the rate goes up. We have heard of a new general rate from the river board which is to cost 25 to 30 per cent. to collect. My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary should be aware that it reaches that sort of percentage even now in some of the drainage areas. In my view, it is unjust because too few pay and it is levied on too narrow a basis. All the time, and particularly because of their risk of flooding, they are areas which are thinly populated.
In the few minutes that remain to me, I want to make a suggestion to my right hon. Friend the Minister. I feel that the arbitrary delineation of areas under the terms of the Medway letter, the narrowness on which they are based and 138 the fact that as a result of national planning most of these areas are green belts and, therefore, it is unlikely that the population will increase, means that the burden on the existing occupants of those drainage areas will become heavier and heavier.
I suggest the following alteration. In the internal drainage areas all over the country, agricultural land is derated. Therefore, it does not pay any rate to a county council or county borough. To bring justice and fairness into internal drainage, I suggest that the internal drainage board continues to levy the rate which it levies today on farming land in the internal drainage board district but exempts all buildings and that the internal drainage board then should have the right to prescript or to demand on the river board which covers the whole area for the shortfall that would ensue because the internal drainage board would not have collected the rate on the individual hereditament or house in the internal drainage area. The river board should then prescript on to the county council and the county boroughs making up its much wider area the amount that would be necessary to reimburse the internal drainage board.
Under that system, the householder in the internal drainage board district would pay the same increased rate as the remainder of the people in the community pay to ensure that the land is well drained. The farming community, which gains the financial benefit from well-drained land, would continue to pay as it does at present. A great deal would be saved in administrative costs, because we can take it as being generally true that the large amount collected from the farmer is usually easily collected, whereas the small amounts collected from individual householders are much more difficult to collect. In this way, we would widen the basis on which the drainage system was levied to cover an area which is, in fact, the whole of the watershed.
When, as hon. Members have said, one considers what happens further up river or further up a drainage channel, what happens when a housing estate is built and new water rushes into the area, it must surely be accepted that the real responsibility today for any drainage like this, if it is not a national problem, is 139 certainly a watershed problem. Therefore, within the whole of the watershed the individual householder should pay the same general rate which he would do if the river board—I hope I am making this clear—prescripted on to the county council and the county boroughs for the shortfall that the internal drainage board would now be asking for, having itself derated or exempted the householders in its internal drainage area.
I am sure that that is as fair a system as we could evolve. It may sound complicated, but when we work it out on paper, it is very much simpler and with far less administration than at the present time. The river boards already precept on the county council and on the county boroughs for the amount which they have to raise for the river boards' affairs, and all it would mean would be adding a percentage for the purpose of the internal drainage board's affairs, and then handing that on in a lump sum to the one or more internal drainage boards which exist in the area of the river board.
Of course, this is a change in policy, but when we look at this drainage problem and see how widely the whole pattern of the water sheds is altered by building, and if we realise that the establishment of a motor way could alter the whole pattern of drainage in the district, I suggest that it is completely wrong, unjust and unsound to go on as we have been doing in levying this very heavy and increasingly heavy burden on a very narrow area in an internal drainage board district, and particularly on a householder, who gets no increase in income. For instance, a railway signalman who works in the area of an internal drainage board draws the same wages as any other railway signalman anywhere else, but at least one week's pay a year will have to go to the internal drainage board.
It is thoroughly unjust, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will find some way of alleviating this burden, either by means of my suggestion or that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton before we reach Report stage. Otherwise, I must warn 140 him that I am not prepared to let this Bill leave the House without registering my protest in the Division Lobby.
§ 9.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)
I have listened to all the speeches, and, in the main, this has been a debate which has not been about the Bill. I should like to remind the House that what we are dealing with here is not the general position with regard to flooding. I agree with the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) that unfortunately this little Bill has come out at a time when there has just been a national disaster through floods and that therefore it might have been wiser had this been left alone.
I should have liked to have made many points, but I wish to take only two or three minutes because my hon. Friend has to answer the debate. I am grateful, however, for the three minutes which are left. One of the main points I want to make about the Bill concerns Clause 3 about ditches. I hope that when we get into Committee we shall make some of these provisions not merely permissive. I have had scores of examples over the years of cases where there has been a lack of neighbourliness even with local farmers. One farmer away down the contour line, perhaps 60 ft. down—and this really happens—refuses to open up a drain or refuses to enable another farmer who is perhaps 50 ft. higher to improve his ditches, with the result that the local authorities and the two farmers have been unable to come to any agreement whatever. Somebody somewhere should have the power to cut through this Gordian knot, because our land is our heritage.
My second point is that we have thirty-two river boards, which cover only one-twelfth of the area of this country. We also know that nearly 90 per cent. of our water is managed by national undertakings or local authorities, but there are cases where private water companies are building dams when there is no water supply in the immediate vicinity. A mighty dam is being built in a village in my own constituency. It is a mighty piece of civil engineering, and yet 25 yards away the people in the village have no water supply. There are two farmers farming 20 acres each who have been producing tested milk but have no water supply, but they can look through the 141 farmhouse windows, or will be able to do so very soon, and see a reservoir where there is an abundant water supply. All this sort of thing is an anomaly in the twentieth century.
There is one other small point. This not only concerns the countryman, but the townsman too.I come from haunts of coot and hern,I make a sudden sally,And sparkle out among the fern,To bicker down a valley.What a picture of a river about a century ago.And here and there a lusty trout,And here and there a grayling.But what do I find in the streams around Stoke-on-Trent and in my own constituency? An old bedstead, tyres, or even an old car. No "lusty trout or grayling". There must be some power to stop this pollution of our rivers, and I hope we shall see to it in the Committee stage.
As to finance, I believe that this is a national problem and somehow some day the Government must face it. When my party was in power we did not face it, but then we had just come through the war. The present Government have not faced it. Some day the Government, either Conservative or Labour, must face the problem of national finance in matters like this.
It would be unfair to trespass any more on my colleague's time. I am grateful for the two or three minutes in which I have been able to make one or two points. I should very much like to develop them, but I must discipline myself and sit down.
§ 9.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Frederick Peart (Workington)
I should like first of all to express the hope that the Minister has every success in his new post, and the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, too. I know that they both have good qualities, but I must warn them that despite their qualities we shall attack them strongly if we think their policies are wrong. I am not going to indict the Minister so much upon this Bill, but there will be an indictment, because of the delay which we have had preceding this Bill's appearance. However, I wish both the Minister and the Joint Parliamentary Secretary well. I think it is appropriate that the Parliamentary Secretary and I should be dis- 142 cussing water, because we both of us represent constituencies which contain the largest amount of water in England and Wales. He has a lot of lakes; I have a lot of lakes. I think mine are more beautiful than his, but that is by the way.
I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies) that if he comes to my constituency, to the upper valley of Borrowdale, he will still see lusty trout, but I agree with him that the problem of pollution which he mentioned is today a serious one, and, of course, it must be considered. I know that the Minister of Housing and Local Government who was here a little while ago was busy in the previous Session on a Bill which dealt with pollution of another kind. I trust that he will bear in mind what my hon. Friend said so very quickly and briefly.
I was glad that the Minister mentioned at the beginning of his speech that this Bill must be considered in relation to the serious flooding problem, although the Bill would have arrived even without that problem today. Nevertheless, it has been mentioned by many hon. Members. We have had the worst floods and the heaviest rainfall for practically a century. I should like to stress what my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram) stressed earlier, that this problem is not just one of concern to the rural community. Land drainage and this Bill, indeed, are not purely the concern of the farming community. Land drainage affects both urban and rural communities. Indeed, land drainage is not just the concern of the farmer, it is the concern of all; and I hope that it will be in that spirit that we approach this Bill.
It has been mentioned today by hon. Members on both sides, by the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Sir G. Wills), the hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), speaking for the Liberal Party, and also my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South, but I would stress again that there is a big agricultural content in the Bill. Let us remember when we consider flood losses that we have had, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) pointed out, loss of grazing land, that we have a winter feed problem through loss of hay and because of straw in 143 flooded buildings, and that one-third of the potato crop still not lifted. I take the words that were issued the other day, the remarks of the new Director of the National Advisory Service, whom I wish well in his new post, Dr. Emrys Jones, that winter wheat may be killed, there will probably be leaching of soil, and our leys and younger grasses may be damaged. All this shows that there is a special problem, but it is not one which affects the rural areas solely.
I agree with the Minister that the Bill is important. I think it is needed, although I would wish, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) said, that we had here today a much more radical approach to the problem of drainage and, indeed to the problem of our national water supplies.
§ Dr. Stross
Would it be fair, if one made an inspired guess, to say that the cost of the damage this year alone is greater than the amount of money that has gone into the whole of this work in the past ten years?
§ Mr. Peart
I am not a statistician but my hon. Friend's statement may pinpoint the issue. I could not confirm the statement at this stage, but I agree that much of the damage done could have been avoided if we had had a proper water and drainage policy during the last ten years.
The Bill is important but it has defects. The Minister rightly went into detail about the history of land drainage and my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) spoke eloquently about drainage problems in that city and went back to the time of Henry III. I shall go back only to the Land Drainage Act, 1930. That Act worked well despite its limitations. It saved us thousands of acres of land which might not otherwise have been available for food production. The Act, passed by a Labour Government and initiated by a Labour Minister—
§ Mr. Peart
Yes, certainly, thanks to a Royal Commission, but it is to the credit of the Minister and the Government at that time that the Act was 144 passed. Unfortunately, at a later period that Act was partly frustrated by financial stringency in the early 1930s. Then we had an emergency situation when war came. Finally, the post-war Labour Government passed the River Boards Act, 1948, which was concerned with drainage, fisheries and pollution. As hon. Members know, the river boards took over the powers of the catchment boards, the fishery boards and the pollution authorities. They were also charged with collecting important information so that we could plan better our national water supplies.
The 1948 Act did not amend legislation affecting drainage law covered by the 1930 Act, but it prepared the machinery for a major advance. That point should be understood in this debate. The Act set up 29 river boards and today the Minister has paid tribute to the work of those boards under that legislation. The right hon. Gentleman quoted the amount of money spent on capital expenditure from 1951 to 1959, amounting approximately to £50 million, but actually much more substantial amounts have been spent on maintenance. I merely mention that in passing, but I repeat that the 1948 Act was a major step forward in the sense that it created the administrative structure which is the basis of this Bill. When that Act was going through its stages in the House of Commons an important principle was stressed which we should relate to our discussion of drainage rating today.
The then Minister, the Right Hon. Tom Williams, saidThe provisions of Clause 1 mean that all parts of the country, whatever their situation, will contribute through rates to the expenses of the river boards, and that implies that some areas will contribute for the first time to the cost of drainage in this country. We think"—that was a Labour Minister,—and I hope the House agrees, that it is just and fair for all the community to contribute to these services, just as they contribute to the health and highways services and other communal services in the country."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th February, 1948; Vol. 447, c. 1956.]That was our approach in 1948—indeed, right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite did not disagree with that principle—and I hope that, despite the views of certain hon. Members opposite, that will be our approach when we discuss the Bill during the Committee stage.
145 In other words, I am asking that we should have a national approach to drainage problems. I know that the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke), to whom I always listen with great respect, rightly spoke in detail about his constituency. He said that he thought only of his constituents' problems, or, at any rate, he gave me that impression. I hope that in our further discussions of the Bill we shall consider drainage problems in relation to the nation's needs and not just the needs of agriculture, not just the needs of the country landowners and other organisations, and not just the interests of those who represent river boards, drainage authorities and local authorities.
We must consider what is best for the country and examine the Bill in that spirit. That was why I approved so much of the speech by the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), who, I know, has an intimate knowledge of agriculture and certainly an intimate knowledge, as revealed by his speech, of the problems of his own area in this matter. We must look at the Bill in that spirit, and then ask whether the Bill is really up to date.
The right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton said that the Bill was long overdue. We must ask why there has been delay. Has there been any fault on the part of Ministers? The hon. Member for Guildford (Sir R. Nugent), who served in the Ministry—he was a very successful Joint Parliamentary Secretary—indicated the frustrations which he had experienced in relation to the Heneage Report and the need for drainage.
There has been delay—after all, the Heneage Report was issued in 1951—and the Government must accept responsibility for that delay. Of course there have been conflicting interests; but, after all, the Government must lead. I was glad that the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely was courageous enough to tell the Government that it is not their job to wait till there is agreement between conflicting interests. It is certainly the Government's job to hear evidence, but in the end it is their job to make decisions and then come to the House with legislation giving effect to their decisions. I suspect that there have been conflicting interests in the Ministry of Agriculture for a long period 146 and that the Government have not been courageous enough to make up their mind about their legislative policy in respect of the drainage problem. Otherwise, Why has there been delay? I have never yet had an explanation.
Therefore, tonight, despite what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Leek, I make no apology for being political. A minority Labour Government in 1930, faced with great difficulties, produced a major land drainage Measure. The post-war Labour Government, although preoccupied with a major agricultural Measure, the 1947 Act, introduced the river boards Measure. The Ministers then responsible—Tom Williams was the Minister, and the then Parliamentary Secretary is now the Deputy-Leader of the Opposition—prepared the way for legislation. I notice that my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown), the then Parliamentary Secretary, has just entered the Chamber. His entrance was nicely timed. Indeed, the Heneage Committee was appointed by the Central Water Advisory Committee on 21st February, 1947, at the request of a Labour Minister of Agriculture. We must never forget that. I believe that a Labour Government, had it been in power, would have acted on that Report.
Members opposite must bear some responsibility for the delay and the lethargy in all this. They used to jibe at Members on this side. I have that strange document, the Agricultural Charter, which was issued by the Conservative Party in 1948. That established a principle—or I hope it did—in saying:For all these reasons Conservatives view a comprehensive rural water programme as of the greatest possible importance and urgency. A piecemeal approach is not practicable. Water supply and drainage must be considered as a whole and a broad policy of improvement energetically pursued.Members opposite know very well that when they became the Government they did not energetically pursue that policy. Indeed, there has been a strange silence about land drainage law and the desire for a proper water policy. This silence is reflected in the policies of the right hon. Gentleman. I do not want to weary the House by producing some of the main policy documents issued by the Tory Central Office, but I have one here which was one of their principal 147 documents in 1955. There was no mention in it of a water policy or of a comprehensive system of land drainage. Nor did their "Campaign Guide"—as they called it—of 1959, which was a unique political reference book, contain any mention of land drainage.
There has been undue delay, and Ministers—not the right hon. Gentleman but those who were previously responsible for Government agricultural policy—have today been indicted not by Members on this side of the House but by spokesmen on their own side. I shall be charitable this evening, if the right hon. Gentleman will bear with me. I have lauded his qualities and those of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, and I hope that there is now a wind of change in the Ministry of Agriculture. I trust that we are now to end the lethargy. I hope that this period of proposal and counterproposal, which has lasted ten years, is now over and, although the Bill does represent a compromise, that the administration of it will be energetically carried out.
I recognise, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, that there are obviously two principles here which even go right across party lines. I will not weary the House with details, but the Heneage Report came down for a flat-rate charge on all agricultural land throughout England and Wales outside existing rated drainage districts, irrespective of geographical location or proximity to drainage problems, in order to improve our intermediate watercourses for which no drainage authority or occupier of land was responsible. That was the main principle put forward by Heneage. In other words, the principal was that we should have a national charge on all agricultural land.
I am in sympathy with that point of view and I do of hesitate to say so. I was glad today that we had endorsement of that view by the hon. Member for Devon, North who was not only speaking for himself but also for the Liberal Party. As against that, there is the other principle summed up in a phrase which is quoted so often, "No benefit, no taxation." The White Paper which preceded this Bill is obviously a compromise, but I stress that there is grave danger that the powers in the Bill 148 itself are only permissible. That was the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North—I know that he was chided by the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell)—and I believe that it is one of the fundamental weaknesses of the Bill. It is no good the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South, ignoring the fact that in the White Paper itself it is stated that the powers are permissive. Paragraph 10 of the White Paper says:The agreed principles differ from the Heneage Report in being permissive in character and far less sweeping. They permit river boards to extend their land drainage responsibilities, if they so desire.…It is admitted by the Government themselves that their proposals are not so sweeping and not so vigorous as those which were put forward by the experts of the Heneage Committee in 1951. Moreover, the river boards may act only if they think fit in certain cases. That is a weakness and that is why the Bill will not achieve all that is desired.
What did the Heneage Committee want? Dealing with finance, the Heneage Report said:The financial recommendations in this chapter are designed to secure that no river board or internal drainage board shall with justification be able to plead that they are prevented, through lack of funds, from doing works which are locally or nationally worthwhile, or that they are unable to assume the full responsibilities involved by our recommendations.Every hon. Member must agree with that aim. My only concern is that the Bill will not meet the objectives laid down by the Heneage Committee.
Although it is not opposed to it, in its statement on the Bill the National Farmers' Union shows a tinge of pessimism. In its document, issued by Agriculture House and dated 12th November, the Union says:The Union therefore welcomes the Bill as a modest but real contribution towards the problem of effective land drainage and flooding prevention. It would be unwise, however, to expect any rapid or dramatic results from the legislation.Even the farmers are not optimisticabout the Bill achieving what is desired—a major reform in land drainage and a great surge forward so that the river boards can proceed with great schemes of capital expenditure which will help not only rural but urban areas and prevent the sort of flood damage which we 149 have seen in only the last few weeks. The Bill must not be frustrated by the financial arrangements made for its implementation
The Minister said that the general rate charge would give approximately an extra £½ million each year and the special charge £½ million, a total of £1 million. I think that that will be inadequate for improving immediate watercourses, for example, and that view is shared by many hon. Members. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will answer questions about collection, which was stressed by the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton and by my hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. C. Hughes) and others.
Like other hon. Members, I have been sent a memorandum prepared by the secretaries of the River Boards' Association. In Cumberland, the river board estimates that its income will be £9,420. The cost of preparing the charge roll will be £1,550. It is estimated that the annual cost of collection will be £1,950. In other words, the amount available for land drainage work will be £7,470. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give us an effective reply to this question, because it would be very wrong if there were created in any drainage area a bureaucracy for the collection of rates. The right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton has already stated that they should be engineers rather than rate collectors or debt collectors.
There are many other points with which I should have liked to deal, including the problem of ditches. I should have preferred the agricultural executive committees to be responsible for enforcing those provisions in Part III of the Bill. That is certainly the view of the farming community—at least, of the National Farmers' Union. That would have been a better approach than that which is laid down in the Bill.
By agreement with the Parliamentary Secretary I have been allowed a few more minutes, but I will shortly conclude. I welcome the need for co-operation with the local authorities. It has been stressed today that if we are to avoid flooding, this must be treated as both a rural and an urban problem. There must be co-operation about land 150 drainage at all stages. This is laid down in the Bill, and it has been stressed by the Minister that there must be a partnership. When we debated the River Boards Bill hon. Members opposite tried to reduce local government representation and moved an Amendment on Report to alter our proposals that representation on the river boards should be no more than two-thirds or no less than three-fifths. They sought to reduce it to a half.
Despite that, hon. Members on both sides agree that there must be co-operation between all the local authorities as well as with such statutory bodies as water undertakings. We have to plan a national water policy, and I hope that the Bill is an early stage towards it. My worry is that the Minister will not have enough time to administer the Act if he does everything which he is expected to do in it. I have listed the work which he must do, and it makes a formidable task for a Minister and the Ministry. As I read through the various Clauses and note where the Minister has to make regulations, to approve of this and that scheme, and to take note of this and that, it seems to me that he will have a very big job.
I take the view that many of these problems could be taken out of the hands of Government Departments. I argued that, as the Minister of Housing and Local Government knows only too well, when we discussed the Radioactive Substances Bill, which dealt with river and water pollution and which has a bearing on this Bill. I argued then for a central authority, and I still think that we must come to that in the end. My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln argued for a Commission, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) asked for a national policy and a national plan. I am certain that we can achieve a national plan only if we have a national approach. This piecemeal aproach by which one Department produces a small Measure which affects other Departments is not the way to do it.
In conclusion, I wish the Bill well, despite its limitations, and I hope that the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary will carry it out vigorously in their administrative acts.
§ 9.34 p.m.
The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. W. M. F. Vane)
I should first like to thank the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) for the kind words he said about my right hon. Friend and myself. He went on to devote a large part of his speech to showing that we have taken a very long time to introduce the Bill. I admit that the time is not short, but we have been trying—I think that we have succeeded—to get a very large measure of agreement over a field where I hope it will mean in the end smoother working and better results, perhaps even better than if more of the provisions of the Bill had been mandatory, as the hon. Gentleman suggested. My right hon. Friend certainly wants to see action and also the maximum co-operation with local authorities.
Apart from the special attention drawn to the Bill by the recent floods, I expected that it would create a wide interest, because land drainage is not a tedious subject. It is obvious from today's speeches that for some time there has been a growing feeling that the legislation on the subject should be brought up to date. It is thirty years since the passing of the last Land Drainage Act. That general feeling is undoubtedly reinforced by strong agricultural opinion. That is natural, because agriculture of all industries is the one which stands to benefit the most. There is a growing recognition among farmers that it is worth trying to seek for better drainage when it can be found, provided that it is on a fair and workable basis.
We claim that we have found that basis. We have found it on the agreed principles. I admit that they are a compromise, but they are a good compromise and are arrived at after a long discussion between the associations most closely interested. We should pay tribute to the way that they have narrowed their differences during discussions over the last few years and made it possible in the end for us to draft the Bill.
We shall obviously have a long discussion in Committee on many points. While I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) that hon. Members should not be rubber stamps, simply approving 152 any and every form of agreement made outside the House, the fact is that the majority of hon. Members support the agreed principles. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will not endeavour to undermine the Bill. If so, we shall not see the early progress which I think most of us want.
My hon. Friend and other hon. Members said that the wording of Clause 1 did not accurately reflect certain sentences in the letter which we call "the agreed principles". My right hon. Friend said today, "I should like to assure the House that there is a definite understanding with the associations that the money for this charge"—that is, the general charge—" shall be used for additional land drainage work."
§ Mr. de Freitas
Will the hon. Gentle-man make it clear that the Water Works Association and the Parish Councils Association have nothing to do with this?
It is clear that the Water Works Association is not a party to the agreement. I do not want to do the Parish Councils Association an injustice, but I believe that its members never came to discuss the proposals with my Department.
A number of speeches have illustrated the different interests between the upland and the lowland farmer. Those views are traditional and understandable. My hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely, who has very great experience of drainage organisations, made that point. In few, if any, drainage schemes can it be said that everyone benefits equally. They do not. It is an over-simplification to say that the upland derives no benefit from the great majority of drainage operations on the lower ground, even though they clearly derive less benefit than many who are lower down the valley. Recently I have seen two serious floods, both bringing considerable damage in their train, at high altitudes in different counties. In both cases a great deal less damage would have been done if more work had been carried out on the intermediate watercourses, which is what we want to see under the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely spoke of the membership of river boards and said that he feared that 153 the fenmen would no longer enjoy full and fair representation. I hope that he will bear in mind that only two additional members can be added to a river board. They will be agricultural and not have an urban background. Already a very large proportion of river board representation is found from members of local authorities.
There has been two-way criticism of the money that is proposed to be raised under the Bill. Some have said that it is not enough, others that it is too much, but we must bear in mind, again, that the agreement to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred was that the general charge should be no more than the equivalent of the river boards' precepts, and that the general charge and any special charge together should not amount to more than 1s. on the Schedule A value. This is fundamental to the drafting of the Bill.
At the present time, the average is a precept of about 3d., which means 4½d. in the £ on Schedule A. It can easily be argued that that will not allow certain river boards to carry out all the work that they would like to do, looking down the years, but although it is not intended that the power should be used at all lightly, the fact is that in Clause 4, as hon. Members will know, there are powers, in exceptional cases, for the ceiling to be raised—subject, I think, to an affirmative Resolution of the House.
A number of hon. Members questioned the Schedule A basis of the general charge, and some spoke of it as novel. It is, of course, not at all novel. It is already used by the internal drainage boards as the basis of their drainage rate. We must be realistic. If we wish to act on the lines of the Bill we must have some basis on which to assess charges, and Schedule A valuation, with all the disadvantages it may have—bearing in mind that it has not been revised for a number of years—is the only possible basis.
Broadly, that basis reflects land values. There are, of course, considerable anomalies in certain circumstances, and both my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Mahon (Mr. Turton) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) mentioned them. In particular, we know that these anomalies are 154 found in reference to the existing assessments of drainage rates, but I hope that I can help by saying that we are now looking into this to see whether it is possible to grid any way of ameliorating the position.
The view has been strongly expressed, also on both sides of the House, that the Bill is on too small a scale to deal with the other problem of flooding. I want to make clear once again that this Measure has not been introduced now just because some areas recently suffered grievous damage and roused public concern. Towards the end of our debate, one hon. Member said that in order to be quite clear about that it might have been better to have delayed introducing the Bill until what might be called the emotional element was not so strong. On the other hand, I feel that the problem we face is so big, and has such an element of urgency, in spite of the delays of which mention has been made, that, on balance, it is better to introduce it now rather than to wait.
There are flood provisions in the Bill, because land drainage and flooding are inseparable. The Government recognise that. There has been previous legislation on flooding, and it is now thought right to add to the powers of local authorities and river boards, which are already considerable and have allowed them to do a good deal of work, and this Bill will do much to help in that way. It must, however, be remembered that it is impossible to provide protection against every excess of nature.
The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) spoke of excessive rainfall. From time to time we have these freak rainstorms. Unfortunately they do not always occur in the same place, and I am afraid that we must expect, with these excesses of nature that very frequently do create a problem, that it is quite impossible for us, in the ordinary run of administration, to foresee them and protect ourselves against them.
It is not logical or precise for us to say here exactly what all our objectives are but, bearing in mind the fact that we cannot deal with these particular forms of excess, what we want to see is fair protection in all but the most exceptional circumstances—
§ Mr. Hayman
If the hon. Gentleman will read my speech in HANSARD tomorrow he will find that I said that although one could not expect this Bill to deal with excessive rainfall over a short time, the Government should make more provision for disasters of that kind.
I will read the hon. Member's speech with interest, but I think that is another question which does not come under this Bill.
It was stated more than once that the additional income which will accrue to the river boards is too small to enable them to carry out even their immediate tasks. In fact, more than once underestimates were made of what the river boards' income will be. I think my right hon. Friend said that these could be estimates only, and that the general charge could add £500,000 to the river boards' income. A special charge might add something of the same sort and an Exchequer grant might also add something of the same kind—£1,500,000 in all, something more than a 20 per cent. increase on their present resources. But when we consider how those resources are going to be used, we must not suppose that all capital expenditure is going to be found out of that £1,500,000. A great deal of that money will be used to service new loans, and this additional income will enable river boards with big capital programmes ahead of them to increase their borrowing and they will use this income in a proper way to service those loans.
On the suggestion that it will be a very expensive business to collect some of this money, admittedly it is not going to be cheap. The figures quoted were at the more expensive end of the scale, and they were based on the general charge alone. Where we have a special charge and a general charge, of course, the percentage of the costs of administration will go down. But hon. Members must also bear in mind that we are here raising a small charge on a section of the community which is not at present paying normal rates. If agriculture had continued to be rated and this was simply another item of precept, a charge like the administrative costs would not have amounted to anything like the same thing. But it has been thought fair to broaden the basis on which the drainage costs are met, and 156 one must face the fact that we are now doing a rather special operation. I should imagine, too, that after the first year the costs of administration will substantially decrease.
This Bill, in spite of what has been said about the limited extent of its encouragement, is not just exhortation. It is, in fact, a considerable encouragement with the additional grant aid and the additional income, and the possibility of putting in hand many works which have been planned under the older Acts but which it was thought could not be considered for a long time.
It has been put forward during the debate that the Exchequer grant should be extended in order to cover maintenance and should not just be limited to new work. That would introduce an entirely new principle. We have felt that the available money is really best spent on grant towards the big capital jobs which the river boards have to undertake and probably, too, on grant aiding these capital works while leaving the river boards themselves to be responsible for their maintenance, in the end reducing time and administrative costs, because when a central Government aids some particular work by grant, whether it be big or small, it must exercise some responsibility over the planning of the execution of the job. I should have thought that it would be simpler in this case for the grant to be confined to substantial capital expenditure It is also suggested that it might have been possible for us to bring the work of drainage and flooding more immediately under the control of the Minister. I do not think that in the end that would bring much in the way of immediate economies. The same technical staff, more or less, would be needed by drainage boards in the field. We need some local priorities as well as national priorities. River boards with their special knowledge of the local conditions, which are not the same from one part of England to another, present a special problem. They are responsible authorities who have shown over the years that they can do their work enthusiastically and well, and I should have thought that we ought to encourage that rather than try to bring them too tightly together under the control of one or another Minister.
157 The hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) and other bon. Members raised a number of points, mostly of a technical nature. I am afraid that it will be impossible for me to answer more than a fraction of them. The hon. Gentleman said that he hoped there would be a further examination of the liaison between drainage and flood interests. I can tell him that it is going on all the time. He asked whether we had any plans for dealing with irrigation and water conservation. The main problem before the Central Advisory Water Sub-Committee is the demand for water. The terms of reference of the Committee have been extended to include conservation. This is a high-level sub-committee. Some hon. Members have referred to it as though it were of lesser importance, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is a high-level committee. I imagine that the Royal Commission which he suggested as an alternative would be far too slow and cumbrous an inquiry, bearing in mind the fact that we want to see results fairly quickly.
We have had an intermediate report from the Central Advisory Water Sub-Committee recommending the control of abstractions for irrigation. This is under consideration and being discussed by the organisations concerned. Irrigation is something relatively new to agriculture in this country. As the hon. Member said, it is immensely costly. The use of water in this connection is different from other industrial uses, in that the water used does not return to the river only a short distance downstream as is the case with most other industrial uses. The problem is quite different. It can return only through precipitation.
§ Mr. Willey
Before the hon. Member leaves the question of the high-level inquiry which is being held, will he tell the House whether this is comprehensive in the sense that the Heneage inquiry was comprehensive, and whether a report will be made available generally following the inquiry?
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that a report will be published, but I cannot, I am afraid, tell him exactly what will be in it.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of maintenance and I think I have answered that. He also asked about 158 costly methods of collection, and a pertinent question about how far these drainage charges would be taken into account in the annual Price Review. This is rather technical. I can tell him that the whole of this accounting is highly technical. These payments are for a new service and will not rank for inclusion in the figure of the aggregate cost changes, but they will be taken into account in the estimate of a farmer's net income as and when they are incurred.
§ Sir D. Glover
Will my hon. Friend tell the House how that will help farmers who are little affected by the Price Review, particularly those in the horticultural industry?
I can only say that horticulture is outside the Price Review, as my hon. Friend probably knows. This will not affect everyone in exactly the same way, which is also something that he probably knows as well as I do.
A further point of the hon. Member for Sunderland, North related to the question of cleaning ditches. There have not been many cases where there has been trouble in the past, because neighbours usually get on well together. But there have been instances where they have not got on well together. It has been suggested that the agricultural executive committees would be better bodies for this purpose. That is a question of opinion. When the recommendation was originally made different circumstances prevailed. Agricultural executive committees did a whole range of different work, and it seemed to us that it was better that this should be part of the responsibility of the agricultural land tribunals.
I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sir R. Nugent) made an excellent speech and did a great deal to help put the whole of this problem of co-ordination in all its aspects into proportion. From the way the debate was running it might have been thought that it is an easy matter to link up the question of conservation, floods and land drainage and the rest. My hon. Friend showed that the task is very far from easy and that we have different interests which are in conflict. That does not mean that we should not try to bring these interests closer. I think that my 159 hon. Friend made a valuable contribution and we know that he has great experience as a member of the Thames Conservancy.
It was suggested by the hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) that the logical development would be to treat all the river boards somewhat in the way that the Ministry of Transport treats county and main roads. On reconsideration, I hope that he will see that they are not comparable, because each river board area is really a catchment area. Its main river runs from its source down to the sea, whereas roads are all connected together. Therefore, it is much easier to classify work on roads of different sorts. We are dealing here with work which would be very much more difficult to put into different grades and so could be treated for grant according to different scales. Since the present river board organisation and finance has worked satisfactorily it would be better to leave it with the independence which it has for a long time enjoyed. It is difficult to compare rivers with trunk roads which are linked up across the country.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle (Sir J. Maitland) and others spoke about changing the boundaries of internal drainage boards. This Bill makes it easier. The boundaries are not fixed like the laws of the Medes and Persians, which changeth not. Admittedly we are bound by the 1930 Statute which states that districts shall be such areas as can derive benefit or avoid danger. There is no reason why one should not vary boundaries but it would be, I think, a mistake to impose a duty on river boards of revising all boundaries, because whereas some clearly need revision others do not. The Whole spirit of the Bill is to allow the river boards to put in hand first the work they consider as the highest priority.
Finally, I would say that if the Bill is not revolutionary, at least it is not a small one and it is of special interest to agriculture. It has been drafted after long negotiations, it attempts to carry forward land drainage legislation, tidies up a number of administrative points, aims at making the machinery work more smoothly, gives the local authority 160 new powers to undertake flood prevention works and does not overlook the individual, because it gives him more power of initiation to vary the internal drainage board boundaries. It also allows him, if frustrated by a neighbour who refuses to clean out his ditches, a fair remedy. That is not limited to the occupiers and owners of agricultural land.
I know that a great many more points will be discussed in Committee, but I am sure that the House will support the general principles and give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 38 (Committal of Bills).