HC Deb 26 April 1961 vol 639 cc557-64
Mr. Vane

I beg to move, in page 10, line 38, after "water," to insert "or tidal water."

Perhaps with this Amendment we might also discuss the two following Amendments in lines 40 and 45.

If I in any way disappointed my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sir R. Nugent) when replying to the last Amendment, it will be appreciated by those hon. Members who were members of the Standing Committee which dealt with this Bill that these three Amendments are tabled in response to representations made by my hon. Friend during the Committee stage discussions. In other words, they are a present to him because he expressed doubts whether the Clause as originally worded would give river boards sufficiently precise powers about what they could do in such circumstances as the erection of groynes near a river mouth extending into tidal waters, and works alongside estuaries.

In fact they are virtually drafting Amendments. We had not intended to hamper any river board which needed to construct such a groyne and, since my hon. Friend who has had great experience of working with river boards felt that the wording might have been better, we looked into the matter again, and my right hon. Friend put down these three Amendments. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford will feel that his representations have been met.

Mr. Fletcher

I understand that with the Amendment moved by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary we are also considering the two Amendments proposed by the Minister in lines 40 and 45. I regard these three Amendments as of some importance and I understand that the Minister is proposing them as a gesture to his hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sir R. Nugent).

Mr. Vane

This is not only a gesture to my hon. Friend. The Amendments are moved because my right hon. Friend thought it right.

Mr. Fletcher

I should like the House to consider whether it is right to accept these Amendments. I consider this a matter of some importance. The second of these Amendments proposes that we should insert these words in page 10 at the end of line 40: and for the purposes of this subsection the river board area shall be deemed to extend beyond the low-water mark. What does that mean? How far out to sea is the jurisdiction of river boards to go?

Sir D. Glover

As far as the Continental Shelf.

Mr. Fletcher

I think that was intended as a flippant observation.

This is a matter of great seriousness. It is most important that there should be a clearly delineated mark between the responsibilities of river boards for drainage within their areas, and the responsibility of local authorities for coastal protection. I am concerned about that.

Unfortunately, during the last few years, this country has suffered from certain catastrophes which have resulted in the loss of some life and the destruction of a great deal of property. Some of these calamities have resulted from flooding, others from tidal action, and it is important, before we accept this Amendment, that we should know what effect it will have on the respective responsibilities of those responsible for coastal protection work on the one hand, and those responsible for river drainage operations on the other.

I have always thought that there was a great distinction between those two aspects. One of the relevant considerations is that local authorities with coastal responsibilities have been encouraged, under the 1949 Act which followed the Waverley Report, to undertake work of coastal protection. A large Exchequer grant was provided for that purpose of trying to protect areas against the kind of calamities from which we have suffered in recent years.

I hope that we shall make it clear that there will be no risk of overlapping the responsibilities of local authorities with coastal responsibilities and river board areas. That is why I should be disturbed if we passed the Amendment without a further explanation from the Government. Let us remember that, for the first time, river boards are being given responsibilities beyond the low-water mark. In the White Paper Cmnd. 916, dealing with land drainage, there is a significant footnote on page 4 which states: The working rule for determining these areas that is to say, the areas of drainage operation— is contained in a document known as the 'Medway letter' the effect of which is to include within drainage districts… I need not quote the next section, which is concerned with agricultural land, but the footnote adds: …land in developed urban areas in general up to flood level; or up to tidal levels. The House will be aware that it is difficult to define, in connection with any river area, exactly how far tidal water goes. Whereas I can understand a reference in an Act of Parliament to "sea water", we should be quite clear what we are doing by inserting, as the Minister suggests, "water or tidal water" and, in addition, giving river board areas certain rights and duties beyond the low-water mark.

This is an important matter because the White Paper refers to the history of this subject and, in paragraph 2, tells us that drainage authorities date back to the reign of Henry III. The respective obligations either of coastal areas or of the whole country involving certain national responsibilities, particularly with regard to the coastline, and the maintenance of the Navy is a matter of great constitutional importance. All cases associated with Hampden and ship-money revolved around the question whether the inland areas were liable to contribute to the Navy, or whether that was solely the responsibility of the coastal areas.

Therefore, this matter has a considerable constitutional ancestry behind it, and in view of what happened in recent years we should make it abundantly clear that coastal protection of all kinds is primarily a national responsibility and is something quite different from the responsibility of river boards dealing with their own catchment areas.

That is why I am a little disturbed to find in connection with a Land Drainage Bill dealing primarily with the protection of agricultural land the startling proposal that river boards shall be given rights and duties beyond low-water mark. I want the Minister to tell us what is the significance of this rather startling provision, whether it is intended to have any bearing on the obligations of local authorities under the Coastal Protection Act and whether he is quite sure that the introduction of these words will not introduce some undesirable element of confusion with respect to the responsibilities of these various authorities.

Sir D. Glover

I have listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) and I had a mental picture of sea-walls being eroded by the seas and rivers that make up the bulk of his constituency.

Obviously, there is bound to be some overlapping. If the hon. Member were to watch a river running into the sea he would see that the fresh water and the sea water overlap each other to a considerable distance. I think it is true to say that one can get a cup of fresh water from the sea 500 miles from the mouth of the Amazon. That indicates how difficult this matter is.

If the drainage channel of a river is altered, some other place on the coast is silted up. Surely if a river board, by driving that channel in a different direction, has altered the coastline, it should have some responsibility for the maintenance of the sea defence work to which this Bill refers. I do not understand what the hon. Member is worrying about. There is bound to be a degree of overlapping, and I only hope that as a result of our discussions he will have no more trouble in his area.

Sir R. Nugent

May I thank my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for implementing the undertaking which he kindly gave in Committee that he would meet the points which I raised relating to instances where the Clause as drafted was not sufficiently clear or did not go quite far enough.

I do not think the House would expect me to deal with the very wide point raised by the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher), but perhaps I can help him a little by reminding him that, in the main, river boards are the authorities responsible for coastal protection. This is because of their responsibility to get the land drained in the areas for which they are responsible. It may seem a little anomalous, but that is the case. The actual coastal protection functions that fall upon local authorities on the coast are quite small.

If the hon. Member will cast his mind back to 1953 when we passed emergency legislation to deal with the flooding following the tidal surge in January of that year, he will recollect that about 99 per cent. of the responsibility fell upon the river boards, especially those on the East Coast, as the agents of Parliament to carry out the large coastal works that were necessary to improve the coastal defences. The apparent suspicion which the hon. Member has that river boards are straying beyond their proper function in dealing with coastal matters is, I think, a misapprehension.

10.30 p.m.

On the specific point about the low-water mark, we were dealing in Standing Committee with a very small matter indeed. Up to now the general belief had been that the jurisdiction of river boards stopped at low-water mark. In fact, it extends beyond that, of necessity, if the boards are to fulfil their function. It was in order to clear the matter up that I asked my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to agree to some Amendment to ensure that river boards would not be in difficulty in future.

The other point is the confusion that arises in estuaries where it is difficult to tell where fresh water ends and sea water begins, because with the movement of tides there is sometimes a mixture of the two. Again, I asked whether my hon. Friend would move an Amendment to deal with this point. Now these matters are left in a satisfactory state as a result of these Amendments on the Order Paper and I hope that the House will agree with them.

Mr. Vane

Although my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sir R. Nugent) has replied very largely to them, the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) addressed some comments to me, I give him the assurance he requested that we are not throwing away the liberties of England here to please my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford.

The Amendments deal with responsibilities for coast defences relating to flooding and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford has said, it is impossible to keep fresh and sea water apart. There is a certain overlap and it is impossible to see how a river board could function effectively if its powers stopped at the point of low-water mark. The hon. Member for Islington. East referred to the Medway letter. I am sure that he will not mind my saying that that letter referred to what property should be in and what property should be outside drainage districts. Here we are concerned with river boards and their powers.

These provisions are designed to make it possible for river boards to exercise their proper functions in ensuring that the danger of flooding is not increased by virtue of tidal movements and to ensure that the boards are not prevented from undertaking sea-defence works upon long groynes because in an estuary or river mouth they extend to tidal or sea water. We consider that the new wording improves the Clause and I hope that the hon. Member for Islington, East will accept my assurance that this is the purpose of the Amendments.

Mr. Willey

I am far from clear about this now. I almost wish that the Amendments had been moved formally. When I first saw them on the Order Paper I thought that I understood their effect. Now I have grave doubts about it. I was disturbed to hear the Joint Parliamentary Secretary agree with the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) about estuaries. The hon. Member spoke about the Amazon running 500 miles out to sea. Apparently if there is an Amazon River Board we are asked to assume that its powers run to that extent.

Mr. Vane

My right hon. Friend is not responsible for the Amazon.

Sir D. Glover

This House having no jurisdiction over estuaries in Brazil, is not this out of order?

Mr. Willey

I am in the usual difficulty in reply to the hon. Member who takes refuge in the argument that what he was saying was out of order. We ought to approach this matter with caution, because we are in enough difficulty about jurisdiction in territorial waters without appearing anxious to extend their extent. That was why I raised a cautionary note on what the Joint Parliamentary Secretary and his hon. Friend had said.

My second point is that in Standing Committee, among the undertakings that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary gave—I recognise that he has endeavoured to honour those he gave when we discussed Clause 18—he said that we should also clear up this matter of where the river ends and the sea begins, thereby enabling a river board to do its job properly."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee A, 15th December, 1960; c.287.] The hon. Gentleman has not accomplished that, because, although we have been told the purpose of the Amendments, there is doubt about their effect.

Having heard my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher), I consider that there is ambiguity in the wording of the Amendment in line 40, which extends the provisions of subsection (1). It states that for the purposes of this subsection the river board area shall be deemed to extend beyond the low-water mark. Where will the area end? What limitation is there upon the effect of the Amendment? My hon. Friend has raised a valid point.

There was reason for my not wanting the House to leave these Amendments with complacency. When we discussed them in Standing Committee, I made the point that we should not create the impression that we were doing much to solve the problem of sea defences. I was supported by, I believe, the hon. Member for Horncastle (Sir J. Maitland). That is why I add the cautionary word that if, in spite of these ambiguities, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is improving the position, nevertheless, in view of reports which we have had, the burden is on the Government to take much more effective steps about our coastal defences and not to create the impression that by meeting these procedural difficulties the Government have done much to effect any greater sea defence.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In page 10, line 40, at end insert: and for the purposes of this subsection the river board area shall be deemed to extend beyond the low-water mark. In line 45, after "water," insert "or tidal water."—[Mr. Vane.]