HC Deb 01 May 1961 vol 639 cc1087-98

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

12.28 a.m.

Commander Harry Pursey (Kingston upon Hull, East)

The subject which I raise is the serious flooding in Hull during the recent spring equinoctial high tide, on the night of 20th March, when the River Hull reached the corporation's datum limit and a serious disaster was averted only by the smallest margin. The major problem in Hull regarding flooding is that large areas are several feet below high water spring tides and, consequently, at every high tide these areas are wholly dependent for immunity on the banks and wharves being properly maintained at the necessary height and impervious to all over-topping seepage or any other flooding effect.

Four parties are concerned, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Hull and East Yorkshire River Board, the Hull Corporation, and the Riperian owners. The owners are entirely responsible, financially and morally, that their banks and wharves do not permit flooding and the board and corporation have powers to ensure that that is the position. Nevertheless, on 20th March, in the darkness and coldness of eight o'clock at night, the river overtopped long lengths of wharves, seeped through several defective ones and seriously flooded many areas. Four wards out of eight in my constituency were affected and dozens of streets and hundreds of houses were flooded. Water rose to four feet in factories and to three feet in homes. Reports appeared in the local papers with pictures of unfortunate householders "mopping up", but what should have been published was photographs of the defective wharves which caused the flooding.

The Parliamentary Secretary in answer to a Question of mine on 17th April stated the official attitude, namely: This flooding was the result of exceptional circumstances."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th April, 1961; Vol. 638, c.787.] With my thirty years' naval experience of tides, I maintain that the only exceptional circumstance was that this tide was only three-eighths of an inch above the 1921 tide and so wharf owners have had forty years in which to make good the deficiencies then exposed. Consequently, there should have been no serious flooding six weeks ago tonight. Moreover, in dealing with freeboard on wharves, one should deal in inches, if not feet, but not eighths of an inch.

Because of the 1921 extensive flooding, in 1925 the corporation, by Act of Parliament, obtained powers to require any riparian owner to execute such works or repairs to prevent the overflow of the River Hull, by raising and maintaining their banks and wharves to the height of 16.5 feet Ordnance Datum at the mouth to 15 feet at the city boundary. I am not going to get bogged down tonight with Ordnance Datum, Newlyn Datum, Town Datum, or any other datum, because three are used in Hull.

The 64,000 dollar mistake for the ensuing thirty-five years is that the 1925 Conservative corporation took powers to raise the level of the wharves only to the 1921 high tide level. It is quite incredible that they obtained no freeboard whatever. Had they done so, this heartrending problem of house flooding would have been solved for all time and there should have been no serious flooding during the last thirty-five years.

Instead, there have been three very serious, but nevertheless unnecessary, floodings in 1953, 1954 and this March, as well as numerous not so serious floodings. Admittedly, since 1953, the River Board has raised and strengthend the earth banks from Wawne to Stonferry, and during the recent high tide there was no threat of overtopping along these banks. The question which arises is why the same continuous freeboard, above the March tide level, has not been obtained throughout the whole length of the River Hull.

In 1954 the board also sponsored a scheme, supported by the corporation, whereby 31 sites, 17 privately owned and 14 owned by the corporation were improved. The question which arises here is: if 31, why not the whole lot of the defective wharves? Furthermore, early last year the board raised the banks north of Hull at a cost of over £100,000, to save North Hull from flooding. The question which arises here is: why has not similar action, at similar expense, been taken in the centre of the city to save Central and East Hull from flooding, once and for all time? The board's policy appears to be one of protecting unoccupied land, at the expense of the most densely populated areas in the heart of the city.

In the winter of 1959–60 serious flooding took place. Certain firms wrote and complained to the Town Clerk and asked for preventative action to be taken. The Town Clerk replied in February last year. I have a copy of the letter, which is headed, "River Hull—Flooding". I quote: Further to my letter of the 2nd February. With regard to your suggestion that steps should be taken to raise the river bank in an effort to prevent a recurrence of the flooding, I have taken this point up with the City Engineer who informs me that following the severe flooding which occurred in 1953 and 1954 many of the lowest quays, wharves and frontages to the River Hull were raised and very much more serious flooding has been prevented thereby. It is proposed to carry out a survey of the whole of the length of the river banks within the City in order to ascertain such other low frontages which it might be necessary to raise with a view to the prevention of further flooding for the future. We now see two main reasons for the continued serious but totally unnecessary flooding in the centre of the city: first, the 1925 Act does not give the corporation sufficient powers compulsorily to obtain the necessary freeboard above flood level for the River Hull, as has the River Humber. Second, numerous negligent riparian owners have failed in their legal obligations to maintain their wharves at the proper height and impervious to seepage and other flooding, and in their moral obligations to raise their wharves when adjoining wharves have been raised to ensure the necessary freeboard.

The responsible corporation official, of course, is the City Engineer, Mr. Morris. He has served the corporation for some thirty years; there are some important landmarks in the city to his credit, and, as he is about to retire, it would be uncharitable for me to say more than that he has not been river-minded. It is to be hoped that the new City Engineer will be river-minded and that in a short time we shall see flooding in Hull stopped for ever more.

I have had four days' investigation, by personal observations and interviews on the spot, into the derelict and deficient wharves which caused the recent unnecessary flooding, and into the individual wharf-owners who, by their culpable neglect, inflicted the untold misery and suffering on hundreds of my poor constituents. The derelict wharves include Eagle Oil Mill site, another opposite Air Street, part of the Danish Bacon factory wharf and Cook's wharf, previously owned by William Gillyot. His factory collapsed many years ago and the wharf has since crumbled away.

The deficient wharves on the east bank, working down river, include Hanger's Paints, Good Havercrofts, with two gaps and defective dam boards, probably not put in, Benninga's Mill wharf 9 inches lower than the previous one, British Oil & Cake Mills good wharf overtopped and the wharf next door overtopped.

Earle's Cement is one of the worst wharves on the river. This wealthy firm is making vast profits at the expense of a seriously deficient wharf and the services of the fire brigade to pump them out. Defects include wall breaches filled with cement bags. The height is insufficient and the owners know the wharf will be flooded and have built a dam round their coal to prevent it from being washed away instead of raising the height of the wall.

Slingsby's wharf is one foot below adjoining wharves. Sculcoates Bridge, closed for 1½ hours because of the flooding, has three corner sites, and Scott Street Bridge one, owned by the corporation, which required investigation. There are nine private wharves between this latter site and North Bridge, and this was a seriously flooded area. I wrote to the owners and five replied. Their information largely fortified information received from elsewhere.

Chamber and Fargus over the years have raised their wharf, at this and other sites, to cope with the rising tides, but are flooded from other wharves. International Bulk Liquids wharf is supposed to be up to Corporation requirements but was overtopped. Yorkshire Dry Dock was reported to me, from elsewhere, to have a low frontage and to have been flooded. Yorkshire Hennebique acquired Houltons' wharf last autumn. It was overtopped and is to be raised by 2 ft. plus. This firm is a contractor for wharves. Henry Mead & Co. had raised their wharf by 16 ins., except for 6 ft. only 7 ins., and this length was overtopped.

Four owners did not reply to my inquiries, so presumably they have deficient wharves which flooded—question mark! These are Ellerman Wilson Line, A. E. Woodward, Ready to Lay Concrete, Lincoln and Hull's, and they are all reported to have been overtopped. It is generally understood that the fourth of these four wharves caused the worst flooding in the Lime Street area.

On the west side of the river, Sisson's Paints were flooded, and at Bankside water entered T. Holmes and Sons premises and the Gas Board garages. There is a long run of completely built-up, good wharves hereabouts, but the question is whether it is high enough to stop flooding; or did the river overtop?

Wincolmlee is a serious flood area. Between the railway bridge and Sculcoates bridge, there are some fifteen wharves which I have reported to the Minister for investigation; and among the worst, Major's wharf is reported to have been overtopped by 2 ft. and to have flooded several streets. Johnson Brothers wharf appears to be 15 inches, or more, lower than the next one, Hennebique Ready Mixed Concrete, which is a good wharf; but Rank's wharf also appears to be 15 inches, or more lower than the previous one.

A bad overflow is reported among the five wharves below Sculcoates bridge. The next one, Huetson's, is a bad wharf and a persistent flooding nuisance over the years, with coal dust, sand, and gravel washed into houses. Below Scott Street bridge, Barraclough's is reported as a bad wharf, and Barker's requires investigation. There is also a set of steps here with a serious overflow, eight feet wide, into the street; and a doubt as to ownership and responsibility for prevention of flooding. Yorkshire Hennebique Contracting Company has a good wharf which has been raised above corporation requirements, and which is claimed not to be overtopped by the highest tide and to be impervious to seepage. All wharves should be in this condition.

Furley's wharf has recently been repaired and raised to corporation requirements, but this is 18 inches below the previous wharf and had little, or no, freeboard in the recent high tide. The result of this investigation shows that some of these Hull wharves are among the worst in the country and that parts of the river are a disgrace to the city.

My main question, therefore, is what immediate action the Minister of Agriculture will take forthwith to bring all the wharves on the River Hull up above the recent high tide level, with complete permanent construction, and so prevent further unnecessary flooding. Seven years have elapsed since the 31 sites were brought up to corporation height and, in the light of the serious March flooding, it is high time for a completely new reappraisal of the whole length of the River Hull by everyone responsible; that is, the Minister, the river board, the corporation, and the owners. There may now be fifty, or even a hundred or more, major defects on the wharves causing overtopping, seepage, and other flooding. I can provide a detailed list of some fifty, or more, deficiencies and defects.

In 1954, the then Minister of Housing and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Duncan Sandys), visited Hull to examine the bad housing conditions resulting from the flooding, and he stated that he would take immediate action. The first requirement now is for the Minister of Agriculture himself to visit Hull and examine the river banks or to be personally aware of what is required in order to bring all wharves up to a sufficient and continuous height. The problem is a wharf one, and not a housing one; because, with no flooding, there will be no flooded houses.

What is required is that the Minister should, in the near future, cruise up and down the river at a daylight spring tide, with his experts, who could point out the obvious defects. I am prepared to accompany him and give the advantage of my investigations, which will disclose more than I have time to disclose now. In fact, I could write a book about defective Hull wharves and provide numerous photographs of those wharves which caused the floods.

The second requirement is to prepare a full list of flooded banks and wharves. I suggest a circular to all riparian owners, with three simple questions: "(1) What is the height of your wharf above datum, and did it completely resist flooding on 20th March by overtopping, seepage or other means? (2) If not, what was the cause, or causes, of flooding? (3) What steps do you propose to take to prevent flooding?".

No help can be expected from the Chamber of Commerce. I wrote to it, but those concerned refused to meet me. I understand that about 50 per cent. of its wharf-owner members have deficient wharves, so it is protecting guilty men.

The problem is how to get the River Hull wharves raised to the height of the River Humber banks at the mouth and the river board's height at Stoneferry. It is quite crazy that there should be three levels in Hull—the River Humber banks, the river board's level, and the corporation level, the corporation level being the lowest one of all three. Nevertheless, as a first step, the corporation should issue compulsory notices to all low wharf owners to bring their wharves up to corporation level. Presumably, the river board also can take action for all wharves to be brought up to its level. Otherwise, we shall have the crazy position of a river board virgin site at one height next door to a corporation site at a lower height and being flooded.

In 1954, certain financial grants were made and it may well be that certain work will now be eligible for grant. But there should be no public money for negligent owners who should have brought their wharves up to corporation requirements during the last thirty-five years, particularly when no public money is available for the flood victims of their neglect.

Time is of the essence of the problem to prevent further flooding. The obviously defective wharves can be dealt with forthwith, even if a second list has to follow. Both banks of the river should be wholly completed by the autumn equinoctial high tide on 23rd September, when the Minister should be able to unveil a plaque in a prominent place in Hull recording that all the banks have been completed in the summer of 1961. We shall then have no more nonsense about "the river overflowed the wharf" when, in fact, the wharf failed to keep the river out.

I shall continue my crusade by questions, Press statements, public meetings, and every means open to me until the guilty men who own the deficient wharves have made good their deficiencies, and my poor constituents, in humble homes, no longer have to contend throughout a dark, cold, winter's night with a river flood which is a major disaster for every house flooded out.

12.49 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. W. M. F. Vane)

The hon. and gallant Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Commander Pursey) was very courteous and he gave me notice of some of the points he intended to raise this evening. I shall gladly try to give him as much information as I can. I acknowledge at the outset his great experience of these matters. I make no pretence to expert knowledge of tides, but I have seen floods in a town in my constituency and I realise the misery as well as the damage which can result.

Let me say at the outset that my Department stands ready to give any help in its power to the local bodies who are charged with the responsibility of dealing with this problem, namely, the Hull and East Yorkshire River Board and the Hull City Corporation. There is, of course, an overlap in membership between these two authorities, and so liaison ought not to be difficult. The river board has full powers under the Land Drainage Act, 1930, to undertake land drainage work, including works of protection against flooding, whether from inland water or from the tide, in connection with its designated main rivers, the chief of which is the River Hull.

River boards' schemes on their main rivers are financed by levying a precept on county councils and county borough councils within the river boards' areas, the cost being divided in proportion to the rateable values of properties within the councils' areas. The Hull Corporation provides roughly two-thirds of the Hull and East Yorkshire River Board's precept revenue. My Ministry pays grants to river boards in aid of works of improvement and new works, the rates of grant varying according to the financial position of each board. That is the test. We cannot apply the test suggested by the hon. and gallant Member. In the case of the Hull and East Yorkshire River Board, the rate is 55 per cent. for tidal defence works. That is a not inconsiderable proportion.

The Hull Corporation also has power, under its 1925 Act, to which the hon. and gallant Member referred, to require riparian owners to raise their banks to the maximum level prescribed by the Act—the hon. and gallant Member said that the level was not high enough—and in default to execute the work themselves and recover the cost. There is no provision enabling Government grant to be given for work done under the powers of the 1925 Act.

It can be seen, therefore, that there are two lines of defence in Hull, one of which is the city corporation, which was far-sighted when it took these powers before the Land Drainage Act, 1930. With the two lines of defence, it should be possible to make doubly sure that the work is done. The fact that there is divided responsibility should not be an obstacle in view of the fact that there is the overlap of members on the two authorities.

Coastal flooding is caused by a combination of adverse conditions of tide and wind and fresh-water flow which produce abnormally high water levels. That is what happened in the Thames, when there was a flood warning in the City of Westminster not so long ago. Seepage may also have played a part, because, as the hon. and gallant Member said, a number of the wharves are probably not in the condition which they should be. Such combinations may occur two or three times in quick succession or may not occur for a long time, but flooding in this part of Hull has occurred periodically for a long time.

Before last month's flooding, there was serious flooding towards the end of 1954. My Ministry then discussed with the river board and the Hull Corporation the question of how these two bodies might best use the powers available to them to ensure that the flood alleviation works were undertaken—in other words, what we are considering again today. I understand that the basis on which the matter was then discussed was that the river board would consider promoting a comprehensive scheme while the corporation would co-operate to secure the agreement of the riparian owners either to raise their frontages to conform with the board's scheme or to allow the board to do the work, the owners contributing to the cost. The owners were to be required to forgo any claim for compensation and to agree to maintain the works under the board's supervision. So far so good, but only some £5,000 worth of emergency work was done. This certainly improved the position, but the major proposals have not been undertaken.

A comprehensive survey of the banks of the River Hull was begun by the corporation in 1959, a survey such as the hon. and gallant Member has mentioned, but I am informed that this was suspended because of other urgent work. Thus, no up-to-date estimate of the likely cost can be prepared until this survey has been completed. I am, however, advised that it should not take very long. Although it is not an easy operation to conduct, it does not present insuperable difficulties to competent technical men.

I cannot speak for the river board or for the corporation, both of which have extensive powers. It may be—I do not know—that the board has in mind the possibility that action by it in connection with wharves might result in compensation claims. The board may also have in mind the possibility that the levels prescribed in the Corporation's 1925 Act might now prove inadequate for exceptional floods. As the hon. Member has said, it is a matter of inches. Although the whole of the works are a substantial undertaking the levels we are considering are not in feet but inches, but, none the less, vital inches. Whatever arrangements the board and the corporation may wish to come to between themselves, what I wish to emphasise is that the powers are there under the Land Drainage Act, 1930, for whatever work is necessary to deal with the flooding, and the financial resources are there under that Act to enable the work to be done, and it is for the responsible local authorities to decide whether and how they will use those powers and resources.

I do not propose to follow the hon. Member into all the details he has given me about recent floods. I do not think he would expect me to refer to all those individual properties. Nor would I want to lay charges against any firm or against any individual. I am quite prepared to accept his general account, however, though again these are questions for the responsible authorities to consider locally. I am sure that they will take note of what has been said here tonight. The particulars supplied by the hon. Member will certainly assist us in our consideration of any proposals which may be submitted by the river board for our approvel, and, of course, grant.

My right hon. Friend wishes me to say he is ready to support the hon. Member's endeavours to get something done speedily to alleviate recurrent flooding in Hull and that his officers are at the disposal of the responsible bodies for any help or advice they may need. The river board and the city corporation are aware of my Department's readiness to advise, and they are aware that the Ministry is prepared to consider comprehensive proposals submitted to it for grant aid at the level warranted by the financial circumstances of the board. I sincerely hope we may soon see some progress in this direction.

Commander Pursey

Thank you.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to One o'clock.