HC Deb 09 April 1965 vol 710 cc913-22

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

4.14 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Chataway (Lewisham, North)

I am very glad to have the opportunity of raising with the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the subject of the flooding of the River Quaggy, in my constituency of North Lewisham. I have for some time tried to secure an opportunity to raise the matter in the House, and I am glad to see the hon. Gentleman in his place this afternoon to hear what I have to say.

In North Lewisham, we do not have many direct dealings with the Ministry of Agriculture. The Parliamentary Secretary will not find crowds of angry farmers marching from North Lewisham to his Ministry, nor will he be presented with squawking chickens by my constituents, because we do not have any farmers and by the time the chickens get to my constituency they are no longer live or squawking. But by one of those curious administrative quirks, as it would seem to most people, it is to the Ministry of Agriculture that we have to come to complain about the flooding of a number of very troublesome rivers and streams which run through south-east London.

During the six years that I have been the Member for North Lewisham, I have had a mountain of correspondence with the Parliamentary Secretary's Ministry, and particularly with the London County Council, about the recurrent flooding caused by these streams.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, whose first concern is obviously with the great farming industry, will not think that this is a very small or trivial matter, since there are people in my constituency who live in a perpetual state of anxiety because of the danger of flooding—people who have seen their gardens ruined on many occasions; people who know what it is to have their lower rooms inundated with filthy muddy water; people who in heavy rain watch nervously the level of the stream at the bottom of their garden; people who have had to endure all manner of smells and all kinds of rubbish clogging up the rivers and rendering them at times more like open sewers than anything else.

People who have had to endure all this find it very hard to accept the delays and the talk of long-term projects, and I therefore hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, in this short debate, will be be able to do two things: first, to assure me that the comprehensive scheme of improvement for the rivers Ravens-bourne and Quaggy and other tributaries will go forward with all speed; and, secondly, that urgent attention will be given to areas of special difficulty.

I appreciate that it is not always possible to deal with a particularly bad stretch of a stream out of sequence and that there has to be an overall strategy; otherwise improvement work upstream may cause worse flooding lower down. But this is not always the case. We are in the early stages of a vast improvement scheme on these little rivers in southeast London and Kent. The whole scheme will, I think, cost £4 million in London and £1½ million in Kent and will stretch over seven or eight years. That we have an overall plan, that it is now, since the reorganisation of London government, the concern of one authority, the Greater London Council and that the scheme has at last been agreed and started—all this is excellent. But—and this is what I want to impress on the Parliamentary Secretary—it is not enough just to plough steadily on stage by stage, year by year with this large improvement scheme. There must be flexibility and a readiness to deal with emergencies and urgent threats in particular areas at once and out of sequence.

This is not impossible. In 1962, after several years of bad flooding and after a number of representations to the L.C.C. and to the Ministry, we got the Manor Lane tributary of the River Quaggy dealt with. The residents there had had a nightmare existence for some time, some of them staying up all night to ensure that the grating in the river by the bottom of their house was kept clear; and, in advance of the general scheme, the L.C.C. culverted the Quaggy at this point and rendered it comparatively safe.

I understand—and the Parliamentary Secretary will perhaps be able to confirm this—that the general Quaggy improvement scheme is not scheduled to start until April, 1968, and that it comes into the third phase of the general improvement scheme and is a full three years away. Work on the first stage at the lower Ravensbourne has started and the second stage at the upper Ravensbourne gets under way in September, 1966. But, as I say, I understand that a full three years will elapse before major work starts on the Quaggy.

Is this so? Need it be so long? I would be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary would say whether there is any prospect of the third stage getting started sooner, and, if not, whether he would explain why we have to wait for so long. If the hon. Gentleman cannot offer any hope of an earlier start than this on the Quaggy stage, I hope that he will give a firm undertaking that bad flood spots will, none the less, be dealt with immediately.

My main concern at present is the stretch of the Quaggy which has caused hardship and anxiety for many years in the Eastdown Park and Leahurst Road area. About 30 exasperated residents sent me a petition last autumn. As ratepayers, making ever-larger contributions each year, they just do not see why they should be asked to live in fear of this wretched stream.

It is two years since the last major flooding, but they have seen the water rise on a number of occasions, right up to the back entrances of their houses. The council has recently, after our representations, sandbagged gaps in the walls through which flood water has streamed in the past. I hope that this will go some way to meeting the difficulty, but I want an assurance that work on the general scheme will not stand in the way of urgent alleviation jobs such as this.

There are two other points to which I will refer—briefly since I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) wishes to speak. Regular clearance of these streams would prevent a lot of the difficulty. Responsibility for this now rests with just one authority, the Greater London Council, which is clearly a change for the better. The Council at present has two gangs continually at work. Can we expect, therefore, that rubbish will be cleared more regularly and that blockages will be dealt with more quickly than in the past?

These little rivers, have been a curse and an eyesore ever since Lewisham was suddenly transformed at the turn of the century from a rural community into an urban area. We have a chance now to turn them into really attractive features of a modern town environment. In places they will disappear underground and Londoners will forget that they ever existed. Elsewhere they could be laid out so that we have pleasant walks and paths, playgrounds and parks alongside clear and attractive streams and small rivers.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary may say that this is not his responsibility but that of town planning. So it is, but I hope that he will do his best to ensure that this costly improvement will result not just in immunity from flooding for residents who have suffered in the past, but also in an improvement in the environment. The amount of £4 million is a huge sum. Part of its value will be lost if we do not also make these streams and rivers something of real amenity value. Properly looked after and skilfully laid out they could make South-East London a pleasanter place in which to live.

I have not sought to make any party political point this afternoon. Three years ago I was, I am afraid, rather rude at Question Time to one of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary's predecessors. I have not laid any blame upon him today. I am glad that the scheme is approved. I am glad that we now have one authority, with clear and overall responsibility, and I wish the chief engineer of the new Greater London Council and the members of his department every success in their new task.

From the Joint Parliamentary Secretary I ask for four undertakings; that the grand design will be implemented at maximum speed, that it will not prejudice urgent relief work, that the day-to-day clearance work will be improved and that the potential amenity value of these streams will be recognised.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

In flood prevention, full interdependence is a fact of life which cannot be ignored and the River Quaggy scheme which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. Chataway) has spoken about so eloquently is connected with the Ravensbourne River improvement scheme which will, I hope, have quite a major impact on a considerable number of my constituents who also suffer from fear of having their gardens destroyed and their furniture threatened every time heavy rain falls.

Indeed, in this area, drainage improvements in Croydon will increase the amount of water flowing into Beckenham and at the same time drainage plans for Crystal Palace, put forward by the old Urban District Council of Penge, will also send a great deal of water plunging into Beckenham and then on, alas, into Lewisham itself.

All this makes the implementation of our part of the Ravensbourne improvement scheme a matter of greater urgency. On 25th November, I asked the Joint Parliamentary Secretary whether a decision on the size of the grant would soon be forthcoming. He replied that this was being considered urgently and that a decision would be expedited.

When the Borough of Beckenham, at the beginning of April, was merged into the Greater London Borough of Bromley, nothing had then been heard of a decision and perhaps the hon. Gentleman can tell us now whether a decision has been taken or when we can expect one, because the matter is of considerable urgency.

4.17 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Mackie)

I am glad the hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. Chataway) has given me the opportunity to report on the present position of the flood prevention scheme for the improvement of the River Ravensbourne and its tributaries, including the River Quaggy.

When the file was brought to me and I saw what the hon. Member had been doing in the past to dig into what was happening, I felt that the River Quaggy, as it is designated, was worth a look. This morning, therefore, I went there to look at it. I am sorry that I did not have time to tell the hon. Gentleman that I was in his constituency. I must admit that it is a disheartening sight to see the mess.

The difficulty about this so-called river—I noticed that, in the middle of his speech, the hon. Gentleman called it a wretched stream, which is a better description—is that, over the years, because of housing and other developments, the stream has been totally incapable of carrying all the extra water put into it. There have even been developments into the river itself—narrowing it at places and creating sharp bends. All this has made it impossible to get rid of surplus water from heavy rainfall.

This scheme for improvement was put forward in two parts by the London County Council and the Kent County Council and is estimated to cost some £5.2 million. It is phased over a number of years. We hope that prices will be kept stable for the scheme but we all know that, when schemes take some years, very often there is increase in the cost.

On 1st April this year, the Greater London Council took over responsibility for the scheme. The Ministry has approved the scheme in principle and has agreed to pay a grant of 33⅓ per cent. on sections of the scheme formally approved, subject to certain conditions.

The hon. Member would like an assurance that the general scheme will go forward as soon as possible. The first major section—stage one—is for the improvement of the lower Ravensbourne between its outfall at Deptford Creek down to Riverdale, at Lewisham. The Ministry gave approval to the acceptance of a tender of some £828,000 for these works in November, 1964, and I understand that the contractors started work on 29th March and that this section should be completed in about three years.

Stage 2, which comprises further works on the Ravensbourne and works on the Pool River—that is, the upper part of the Ravensbourne—is scheduled to start in September, 1966, and to be completed in 1969. Stage 3, which is the improvement of the River Quaggy, and the one with which the hon. Gentleman is particularly concerned, is scheduled to start in April, 1968, which appears to be a long time ahead considering the amount of flooding there has been. It is now two years since there was major flooding, although, as the hon. Gentleman said, more recently the river has been rising again with heavy rain. We never know when there may be more flooding. This stage is due to be completed in 1971. This will prevent flooding such as occurred in September, 1958, and May, 1961, which affected properties in Lewisham High Street, Lee High Road, Eastdown Park, Burnt Ash Road and other roads in the area, which I saw this morning. Seeing the river in such a low state it is difficult to imagine it affecting all that area, but I understand that it was quite alarming.

The work on the former Kent section of the scheme is scheduled to begin in 1965. I shall come back to this point later when I deal with the remarks of the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Good-hart). Clearly a scheme of this magnitude will take some years to complete, but work is now going ahead. The hon. Member for Lewisham, North asked whether it need be so long as 1968. It would be a pointless operation to do any major length of the Quaggy unless the outlet through the Ravensbourne were done first. It must be phased that way, not so much because of particular areas, but because of the technical plan. Unless the outlet is correct, it is no use doing anything further up. That is the main reason. This is a big scheme. It would be much more costly to go ahead with it all at once, and that is the reason why it must be phased. As this is a big scheme, it would take that amount of time.

As regards taking remedial action should flooding start, this would naturally be done, as it was done in the Manor Park area. Stage 1, the outfall section, must be done first. After this, priority is to be given to the sections where there is most flooding. Again I understand that the Ravensbourne and the Pool have had slightly more flooding than the Quaggy and they come under Stage 2. The Quaggy is next in Stage 3. I can assure the hon. Member that the general scheme will not prevent the urgent relief work he would like.

Although the major works have only just started, other urgent works have already been carried out, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, particularly plugging the wall at Eastdown Park with cement sacks, which I saw this morning, and preliminary clearance work and culverting of its Manor Park branch, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, all of which was necessary as an emergency. The Ravensbourne was also realigned at the Watermead Estate, Lewisham. Other urgent works have been carried out on the Kent section.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Council has two maintenance gangs working full-time constantly clearing debris and carrying out regrading and general maintenance work. I understand that this work is going well but that it is made more difficult by the rubbish that people are continually dumping into the Quaggy, which impedes the flow of the river. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman should do a little propaganda work on his constituents and try to stop them from using the river as a rubbish dump.

This morning I saw the workmen at work with very expensive equipment. Many sections are difficult to get at. The amount and variety of the stuff they were taking from the river was staggering—beds and bedding, every conceivable article of furniture, and about 10 yards of chestnut fencing. If people could be persuaded that it is not helping local interests if stuff is thrown into the river, because it costs them more on the rates, about which the hon. Gentleman is worried, it would help considerably. I noticed that the portions which have been cleaned and cemented are much clearer of rubbish. They clear more quickly and they are easier to clean. It is obvious that more must be done of this character and the bed of the river concreted so that vehicles can go up it and so that cleaning will be possible.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the amenity value. At the moment it has anything but amenity value, but the Council has confirmed that works will be carried out with due regard to the amenities of the area. It does not propose, however, to carry out special works for amenity purposes, for example by using coloured or special expensive facing bricks unless local councils themselves are prepared to pay for such works, but I should tell them that they will get no grant from our Ministry for that. That is not our job. If the councils want these special facilities, they can probably be arranged, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman should arrange that with his council. I do not know whether a grant could be obtained from the Arts or Amenities Council, but it certainly could not be obtained from the Ministry of Agriculture.

In the parts that I saw, particularly where the river went through parks and open spaces and at the bottom of gardens, there was considerable scope for the residents themselves, apart from the councils, getting an amenity at the bottom of their gardens, second to none in the town, and yet it was noticeable that people were using the river as a dumping ground for rubbish from their gardens. I think that this is a ridiculous situation.

The hon. Gentleman said that there was delay. I do not think that there was. The London County Council and others have done their best. This is a big scheme. We cannot hand out grants without being satisfied that everything is in order. Although it appears that it took a long time to get things done, when one considers the amount of survey work that had to be done, and all the other jobs that had to be carried out before the final costing, one realises that a tremendous amount of work was involved, and there was no delay either on our side or on the part of the council.

I turn now to the question of flooding in the Kent area in the upper reaches of the Ravensbourne river, to which the hon. Member for Beckenham referred. He said that the scheme would have a major impact. I thought that flooding always had a major impact. There are parts of the hon. Gentleman's constituency, in the former Kent section of the scheme, where works should be carried out as quickly as possible to alleviate the situation there. These works in the Kent section include work on the Pool river and Chaffinch Brook from Cator Park, Beckenham, to Clockhouse and works on the Penge stream from Cator Park to Kings Hall Road. Both these works should give considerable relief from flooding in Beckenham, particularly in the Clockhouse area. These works, which together with some in the Shortlands area of Bromley, comprise the first stage of the former Kent section of the scheme and are estimated to cost about £200,000, should be started in about six months' time. In addition, I should mention that clearance gangs will be employed in the former Kent section to remove debris and carry out general maintenance work as well.

I hope that, over these years which I have mentioned when this work is to take place in this big scheme, we do not have major floods which create havoc. I do not know whether the hon. Gentlemen are countrymen, but we read about a scarcity of water. We cannot have it both ways. We hope that whoever control these things will not allow floods to occur at Lewisham and Beckenham.

I hope that I have satisfied hon. Gentlemen that this business is being carried on. Our Ministry has done its job of passing the grant, and I hope that their constituents will be in a happier frame of mind when they realise things are moving as quickly as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.