HC Deb 31 May 1962 vol 660 cc1668-76

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

7.13 p.m.

Mr. Brian Harrison (Maldon)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to raise the matter of the refusal of the Ministry of Agriculture to give the Essex River Board a grant to carry out the Mundon Wash and Lime Brook drainage scheme. I am also grateful to hon. Members who have rushed through the other business this afternoon, and so enabled me to have ample time to put my case.

Although the case specifically refers to one part of my constituency, and to one area occupied by a score or so of farmers, it is one also which has attached to it a general physical principle which I find the Ministry somewhat reluctant to appreciate. The principle is that water flows downhill. There seems to be some doubt in the Ministry about where the water goes when a drainage scheme is carried out. I can assure the Ministry, on the best possible advice, that it does run downhill, and it is because of that that special drainage schemes are necessary near the sea walls.

The present trouble is caused by the very success of the grant-aided drainage schemes on upland farms. Over the years, one of the most outstanding, useful and lasting improvements in agriculture has been the Government-assisted farm drainage schemes. They have been immensely successful in improving the productivity of farmland and, by putting something permanent on the land, they have also contributed to the national wealth.

The trouble about the Mundon Wash and Lime Brook scheme is that the upland drainage has not yet been completed, and unless something is done to bring in this scheme, or the same scheme only very slightly modified, the situation of the farmers in the lower land—that is, below the 6-ft contour—will continue to deteriorate. Now that we have improved pipe drainage and mole drainage, storm water runs off extremely rapidly and accumulates on the lower land, and some of my constituents face an increasing deterioration of their farms and a consequent reduction in their livelihood.

The project, of which the refusal was announced in reply to a Question I put on 9th May, really consists of two closely-related schemes affecting the Mundon and Latchingdon areas— the Lime Brook scheme and the Mundon Wash scheme. The catchment area of the two schemes—and this is a figure that should be considered when appraising the grant— consists of nearly 6,000 acres of upland, and 1,200 acres of lowland— a total of 7,159 acres.

The proposed scheme consists of a high-level channel to carry the water straight through from the upland areas to the sea wall, a storage reservoir, the clearing of some water courses, and the construction of a number of new sluices. There is, in addition, a sea-defence element costing some £ 17,000, so that the total cost of the scheme must not be considered as applying only to a drainage scheme.

Two plans have been put forward to deal with the flooding of the low land—a gravity scheme, and what is called a partial pumping scheme. The gravity scheme has been recommended by the river board, and is the one submitted to the Ministry. In his reply, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary suggested that an alternative scheme should be looked at, so plans were prepared for a partial pumping scheme. That scheme would, as far as can be seen at the moment, cost approximately the same amount to carry out, but would be more expensive to maintain, because the pumps would have to be run, and the cost of running them must be taken into account.

The gravity scheme, excluding land, is estimated to cost £131,400, with an annual maintenance cost of about £830. The pumping scheme would cost slightly more—as far as can be estimated £ 134,000—but the maintenance would be exactly double each year. The land permanently retained with the partial pumping scheme would be greater than that required for the gravity scheme—14715 acres as against 1272.

The catchment area affected by the scheme is mostly agricultural land, with some woodland, and there are also 59 acres of land in respect of which outline planning permission for building has been given. Nevertheless, it is essentially an agricultural and forestry scheme. The land is particularly rich—good alluvial soil, on a basis of impervious London clay. It is regarded locally, in Essex, as good wheat and beet land, which requires skilful farming and good drainage. I have seen farming in this area for eight or ten years, and I know how skilful it must be in order to catch the land at exactly the right time. Unless the land is adequately drained a complete crop may be lost for a whole season.

I understand that the chief reason for turning down the scheme is its cost. I wonder how the cost was calculated. We must consider the drainage area as a whole, because the water is running off the upland farms into the lower area. The cost must be spread over the whole area, and not merely the benefit area. The total catchment area concerned amounts to over 7,000 acres. It is worth comparing this with some of the other schemes which have recently been approved by the Ministry. For instance, nearby there is the Asheldon Brook scheme, which had a benefit area of 640 acres, at an estimated cost of £ 60,000 which works out at … 94 per benefit acre. A little further north, up the coast, there is the Ramsey River—on the Stour— scheme, with a benefit area of 621 acres, costing approximately £ 48,000, the cost per benefit acre being approximately £

The scheme that we are now discussing has a benefit area considerably in excess of either of those two, but the approximate cost per acre would be only £60. The benefit acreage of these examples were all calculated similarly, using a 6-ft. contour

The scheme is not merely a drainage scheme; it has a sea defence element of about £17,000. It cannot be said that the scheme is being carried out extravagantly. The standards applied are those arrived at by a committee set up with the encouragement of the land drainage branch of the Ministry of Agriculture, consequent upon the very wet summer of 1958. It was a very commonsense and widely representative committee, fully versed in local conditions. On it were representatives of the river board, local authorities, the agricultural executive committee, the C.L.A. and the National Farmers' Union.

The standards they decided as being appropriate were that a tile drain, at 3 ft., should not be submerged for longer than forty-eight hours, which is reasonable under the conditions, and that a mole drain 22 inches deep should not be submerged for more than twelve hours. These cannot be considered as anything but practical suggestions. On the construction side, the board has taken into account the fact that some soil is London clay, and has made the angle of repose of the improved channels as steep as it safely can.

Some of the farmers living in the Mundon Wash area will be seriously affected. Some already have been, especially those who have tried to bring in drainage schemes of their own. Mr. Binder, of South House Farm, had a scheme refused by the Ministry because it would be obsolete the moment the main drainage scheme that we are discussing was approved. He is now in the position of having a scheme pending, awaiting the outcome of this major drainage scheme.

Mr. Saines, of Halfway House, had a ditch cleaned out under the Small Farmer Scheme. It is now merely collecting the back run from the river board's ditch. This cannot be righted until the scheme is implemented. Mr. Eric Lane, a large farmer, had his scheme criticised by the Ministry, and the 'agricultural executive committee was also criticised for allowing the scheme, because it would not be properly effective until the major scheme was carried out. Mr. Lane told me last Monday that the water has certainly been in the moles for more than twelve hours on a number of occasions.

Another farmer, a Mr. Taylor, has 100 acres that are undrainable until the river board carries out the scheme, and many other farmers are in a similar position. These people earn their livelihood by the land, but they are unable to utilise it profitably and to the full because of the lack of a comprehensive drainage scheme in this area. It is extremely distressing to them to know that as the upland drainage continues to improve so the situation on their farms will continue to deteriorate.

I ask my hon. Friend to see whether he can review the scheme and give us a favourable answer, or persuade his friends at the Treasury—who, I suspect, may have something to do with the refusal of the scheme—that it is a natural corollary to the success of other drainage schemes. I hope that the 200 man-weeks spent by the river board on preparing the scheme will not be wasted, and that it will not be necessary to wait for another 70 man-weeks for the Department to give its approval.

7.30 p.m.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. B. Harrison) has presented his case with great clarity. I begin by saying that I do not for a moment contest his principle that water flows downhill. I would like to think that he learned that principle when he was P.P.S. to my right hon. Friend's predecessor and hence was, in a sense, responsible for land drainage. As a result of the time he spent with the Department he will know of the great trouble that is taken about all the schemes, small as well as large, which are put up to us.

I know about the efforts he has made in regard to this particular scheme on his constituents' behalf and I know that the river board and the internal drainage board together are anxious to effect substantial improvements. I can assure my hon. Friend that we never lightly reject any scheme, big or small. I sympathise with them, but I hope that I can give them some hope this evening as well as sympathy.

My hon. Friend will appreciate that we have to apply certain standards to all proposals and we have, as he knows, felt unable to help them over this particular scheme at this particular time. The proposals which were submitted to us by the Essex River Board, who act also as the internal drainage board for the Mundon and Latchington Drainage District, were to provide for the improvement of the drainage of an area of about 2,350 acres of farmland on the right bank of the River Blackwater and also for the improvement of part of the tidal defences.

When considering drainage schemes we must think of the upland as well as the lowland and also the tidal defences. We cannot divide these into parts and we are today speaking of a scheme which the board estimated would cost about £140,000 and for which it has applied for grant aid for this work. The total grant aid would have been about £106,000. Parliament has authorised the Minister to pay grant, in agreement with the Treasury, in respect of expenditure on the improvement of existing works or the construction of new works, but not, of course, on maintenance work.

To show how we are looking ahead and are not cutting back—since my hon. Friend brought the Treasury into his argument later in his speech— in 1960–61 a total of just under £3 million was paid to river boards in grants. Last year, it was just under £3½ million and our current estimates concern a figure of about £4 million. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will agree that we are trying to press ahead with essential works. These are not insignificant increases and they certainly show a steadily upward trend.

This expenditure is, I am sure, fully justified because of the importance of encouraging improvements and new works affecting land drainage and flood protection throughout the country. However, the total amounts available in this, as in every aspect of Government expenditure, are limited and it is necessary for us to examine very carefully all the schemes that are put before us and to make sure that not only are we satisfied with the proposals on engineering grounds, but are also satisfied that the utilisation of national resources in this way is fully justified and the proper priorities are established as between the many claimants.

We do our best, therefore, to see that the money spent in grant is used in those cases where the maximum benefit can be achieved from the expenditure involved. There is an element of personal opinion in all of this, as it must be when the Minister's discretion is involved. We do, of course, find it necessary sometimes to refuse grants where we are not satisfied that the cost is reasonable in relation to the benefit. It is a little misleading to try to calculate exact figures, as my hon. Friend did, because when dealing with big schemes of this sort, social implications and many other things are involved. In some cases we ask for revision and in others we say that we feel that the costs are more than would be reasonable, bearing in mind that there are always other schemes to be considered.

I can assure my hon. Friend that we looked at this case most carefully. We were impressed with the fact that the scheme was undoubtedly complex. My hon. Friend spoke about coast protection work and of a small reservoir to help his gravity plans. It was, therefore, expensive. The estimated cost was about £140,000. That is not a really small amount when thinking in terms of the call on our national resources because there is considerable consequential expenditure on the part of the landowners and farmers concerned if the scheme's full value is to be drawn. In this connection my hon. Friend showed the cir cumstances by quoting the cases of a number of his constituents.

We appreciate that to a certain degree tidal defences are involved, but it seemed to us difficult to justify capital expenditure of this order on this scheme. By this, I mean that it did not seem to us a strong enough case to warrant a place near the head of the queue. Reference has been made to the fact that some time ago the board had two schemes approved for grant where the cost per acre was more than in the Mundon Wash scheme.

We have no fixed figure per acre which we apply to assess the relationship between cost and benefit. The circumstances between one county and another and even between a part of a county and another vary considerably and we attach great importance to ensuring that we are going to get real benefit which will justify the expenditure in every case. We always take into account all the benefits from a scheme before reaching a decision, not least because of the increasing number of schemes, many of them large, which are being put forward by river boards.

We have not by any means ruled out all and every scheme. What we are saying is that this particular scheme is too expensive in relation to the likely benefit and that in its present form we would not be justified in putting it to the head of the list of schemes throughout the country. It may be that the board will be able to produce an amended scheme which we can accept. My hon. Friend mentioned two schemes, gravity and pumping, and it might be that a revision would be able to produce something which we would feel could be given a higher priority.

My hon. Friend referred to the time taken to give a decision. It is true that this case took longer than normal, but it is a complex, costly and rather exceptional scheme. It must always take time to examine all the aspects of such a scheme and in this case, as my hon. Friend knows, we spent a long time in making sure that we got a proper appreciation of the financial and engineering aspects.

It may interest the House to know that at any one time we have at least a dozen major schemes like this one under consideration. In all, we have about 1,000 schemes of varying importance annually to consider and assess for priority. We are reviewing our policy on grant-aid to land drainage works, one object being to streamline the procedure for dealing with cases of this kind, and I hope that we shall soon be in a position to discuss our proposals with the River Boards' Association.

We did not find it easy to reach a decision about this scheme, but I hope that it will be possible for a less costly one to be prepared which, although it may not do all that the present scheme would have done will, nevertheless, be such that we can approve it for grant. The Ministry's Chief Engineer has recently been in touch with the board's engineer and offered to co-operate with him to see what could be devised.

I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that we are not just turning this down out of hand. We would like to help him all we can, and the river board, to see whether something can be devised which is acceptable. I am not without hope that something of the sort can be devised and my hon. Friend need not be without hope, either.