HC Deb 05 April 1967 vol 744 cc411-22

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

11.17 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin (Wanstead and Woodford)

I am glad of the opportunity of raising a matter which is causing increasing distress to hundreds of my constituents near the River Roding, which flows through Wanstead and Woodford. The land affected by frequent flooding comprises an estate of about 280 owner-occupied houses, about half of which are seriously affected. The estate lies to the south and west of the junction of two roads, Snakes Lane and Chigwell Road. The houses were built between 1935 and 1939 by a private developer, who sold to owner-occupiers, many of whom are still living in the houses.

The land lies at the bottom of the Roding Valley and has always been recognised as liable to a flood risk, but, in the early years, solely from the River Roding. In 1928, the then Woodford authority drew up a planning scheme under which the land was zoned for business use, because it was considered unsuitable for housing. However, in 1935 the builder applied to build the houses. His application was rejected by the council. His appeal to the Ministry of Health was allowed and he was allowed to develop the land for residential purposes. However, the council made a byelaw and established a datum line, with the result that the houses and the access roads had to be built on land made up to a depth of five or six feet above the natural level of the ground.

I should like to make it clear that it is not the houses or the access roads which are subject to flooding, but the remainder of the land, comprising the gardens, many with garages on them and in some cases with rear access lanes running behind the houses. These all remain at the original level and are becoming subject increasingly to flooding.

In the early years, there were two forms of flooding which affected the land. From time to time, the River Roding overflowed its banks and flooded the land to a considerable depth. In 1947, the river burst its banks, and no doubt the hon. Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. W. O. J. Robinson), whom I see in his place, will remember the occasion vividly. The gardens in question were flooded, many of them up to six feet in depth, to the top of the steps which lead up from the gardens to the houses. In the following years, the then catchment board straightened the river and raised the banks. As a result, river flooding is no longer a problem.

The second sort of flooding comes from the level of the water table. Whenever there were heavy rains, some lasting a week or more, the water table appeared above the level of the ground by a few inches. However, as soon as the rain stopped, the flooding quickly subsided, and this, however tiresome for the residents, was of no serious concern.

After the war, there was a good deal of development in the area all round the estate in question. Immediately after the war, a council estate was built to the west of the estate we are discussing, on land that again was built up by five or six feet above the natural level. At the same time, a ditch which separated the council estate from the buildings which we are considering was culverted and filled in.

That was followed a few years later by the systematic draining of the Woodford Football Club's ground, and that involved two attempts, one in 1946 and one in 1957. I am informed by the Council that it was all drained into the main sewerage system, and it is unable to understand how it can have affected the problem.

Then there was a field to the east, between the River Roding and the Chigwell Road. There, the level was again raised by dumping rubbish and laying earth on top. Another ditch which hitherto carried away surface water to the river was culverted and filled in.

Finally, about four years ago, a row of dilapidated old cottages was pulled down, and flats were built on the corner of Snakes Lane and Chigwell Road. During the building, there was some difficulty with the level of water. The builders laid an asphalted area which broke up, apparently because of damp, and had to be relaid.

The residents assert and are in no doubt that the increasing flooding problem to which they are now subject is the cumulative effect of all the development which has gone on round their own estate. I accept the evidence, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will, too, that although no readily available explanation has been forthcoming, the situation has deteriorated markedly in the last four years. Before then, it required five to seven days of heavy continuous rain before the water level came above the ground level. Now it happens whenever there is a full day of moderate rain. Formerly, it was only an occasional nuisance. Now, the flooding is frequent and persistent, and some gardens are almost permanently waterlogged. Formerly, it drained away within two to three days of the rain stopping. Now, it seems to last over a week and sometimes ten days, giving rise to pools of stagnant water which emit unpleasant smells.

The change was highlighted for use by one lady to whom I talked during the course of my investigations. She said that before and just after the war her children used to play regularly in her garden, but her grandchildren are almost never able to do so because of the state of the ground.

There are other ills which flow from this. There is increased evidence of rats, and though the residents are very appreciative of the efforts of the council's rodent operatives, they nevertheless feel that this is a consequence of the flooding. One family woke up one morning to find wild ducks swimming all over the lawn. In these circumstances, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that gardening becomes quite impossible. The soil is washed away from the roots of plants, one's bulbs rot, and it is impossible to maintain anything in the way of a lawn.

Families need to put on gumboots to wade out to their garages, and housewives are unable to hang out washing because they cannot put their baskets on the ground. Others who have to get coal from their coal bunkers take the coal from the top because they cannot shovel it out from under the water at the bottom. The situation has now been reached that from being an occasional irritant, it is becoming a serious menace to amenity, and a potential threat to health, and those who think they can remedy the situation by moving out find that it is becoming increasingly difficult to dispose of their houses at an acceptable price.

In those circumstances, it is not surprising that complaints have become increasingly vociferous. In 1962 the residents complained to the then Wanstead and Woodford Council, which expressed the view that it had no responsibility in the matter, and took no action. Complaints continued to multiply, until last year a petition was got up. It was addressed to myself, and was signed by the occupants of more than 120 of the houses which are worst affected by this flooding.

I first sent the matter to the London Borough of Redbridge, which is the successor to the Wanstead and Woodford Council, and I would like to put on record that at all stages I found the officers of the council most helpful, and indeed most sympathetic, but the council decided it was not its responsibility. It defined the cause as being the high level of the water table. The council felt that no responsibility rested on it, and advised the residents to raise the level of their gardens.

At this stage it is right to point out briefly that under existing planning laws these houses would probably never have been built without the whole ground being raised, but under the legislation as it was before the war this was not considered necessary, and perhaps the problem all stems from that.

At that point I wrote to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, as it seemed to be a matter falling within that Ministry's responsibility, but I was told by the Minister of Land and Natural Resources, as he then was, that this was a matter of land drainage and not sewerage, and was the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, and I am delighted and grateful that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is here this evening to reply to this debate.

The Minister replied to my letter and said that the problem was caused by the impervious nature of the soil, that is to say, this was surface water which was not percolating through the soil in the normal way. In other words, this was a different explanation from that offered by the council. The Minister said that it was up to the local council to use the powers it had to remedy the situation, and therefore I was back to square one.

I then asked the Redbridge Council what powers the Minister was referring to, and I was told that there were three powers under the Land Drainage Acts of 1930 and 1961. The first power was that of being able to complain to the Minister. Clearly this was not going to be of much help. The second power was itself to undertake works which ought to be carried out by the drainage boards. The third power was to make a financial contribution to the drainage boards.

It is the second power which seems to be the relevant one. Under Section 34 of the Land Drainage Act, 1961, the Roding lies in the catchment area which is administered by the Essex River Authority which has its headquarters at Chelmsford, but the attitude of the Redbridge Council in relation to Section 34 was that it could not claim that the Essex River Authority had fallen down on its duty, and that there was nothing which would give rise to a justification for a complaint under that section.

I must say that the river authority has taken a somewhat unsympathetic view. It has placed the whole of the blame on the original and what it describes as the ill-advised development—and this could well be. It points out that the roads and houses are well above the normal level of the river, that it has carried out river improvements, and that the problem was, to use the same words as were used by the hon. Gentleman in his letter—or they implied the same meaning—that the soil was impermeable. It was, in the view of the river authority, a matter of surface drainage, and was therefore one for the local authority to deal with and not one for the river authority. Thus, this is nobody's baby. There the matter stands, and that is why I have been driven to raising the matter in the House this evening.

The points at issue seem to be these. First, nobody is able to offer any acceptable explanation of why this problem should have got so much worse in the last three or four years. The residents blame the development—the filling in of ditches, and the other measures I have described—and the local authority does not feel able to confirm or deny that to be the case. Second, there is the dispute as to the cause of the flooding. The council says that it is the water table, and therefore the responsibility of the river authority. The river authority and the Minister say that it is the impervious soil, and that the problem is one of surface water and therefore a matter for the local authority. The attitude of the borough engineer of the local authority is that the soil is not impervious—it is not clay, but alluvial soil—and it is difficult to see how that argument can stand on its feet.

The third issue is the only remedy so far suggested, namely, that the residents should raise the level of the gardens by building them up. This involves extreme difficulties for the residents. First, if some of them do it—and some could, and some have—it has the immediate effect of making the situation worse for their next-door neighbours. There is ample evidence of this even in individual gardens, where residents who have raised the level of the flower beds have found that it has increased flooding of the lawn. The borough engineer, from whom emanated the original suggestion, admitted in a subsequent letter that if some residents were to do it and not others it would make matters worse for those who did not.

Many of the householders would be unable to meet the cost of this work, which would be something between £50 and £100 per garden, and many of them are too aged and infirm to do-it-yourself. When I point out that some of the houses are in terraces of four or six houses, that one man managed to do the work by carrying buckets of earth from the front, and taking it right through the house in order to dump it at the back, and that it took him some months, while another man took two years to do it, the Parliamentary Secretary may realise that that solution is not really practicable, and I hope that he will not suggest it this evening.

The result is a very unsatisfactory and deteriorating situation with, so far, a complete denial of responsibility by all the relevant authorities. This is a case where the Minister is bound to inter vene and to initiate action. Under Section 81 of the Land Drainage Act, 1930, there is no doubt that it is the Minister of Agriculture who is the Minister responsible for land drainage. Secondly, land drainage is a function that was transferred to the river authorities set up under the Water Resources Act, 1963.

There is no doubt that under the land drainage Acts of 1930 and 1961 these drainage authorities have ample powers to carry out work necessary to improve the drainage of any land within their areas. Furthermore, under Section 107 of the 1963 Water Resources Act the Minister has power to give directions to drainage authorities to carry out works which appear to him to be necessary. In the last resort, under Section 108 he has reserve powers—what one might call default powers—to carry out works himself. There appears no doubt, therefore, that the Minister has both the overall responsiblity for the matter and full powers to act.

What do I suggest the Minister should do? In the first place, what seems to be required is a hydrological survey. The causes of the flooding and the remedies seem matters of doubt, and cannot be determined unless a proper hydrological survey of the area is carried out. That is a matter for the river authority, and if the river authority will not do the work without being directed, it must be directed. If the fault lies in the water table having risen in the last few years as a result of development, it is the responsibility of the river authority to do something to make life habitable once again for these people. This could be done perhaps by deepening the River Roding. That has been done already and could perhaps be done again, or other measures could be taken to lower the level to what it was before. I drew attention to Section 30 of the Land Drainage Act, which gives power for such small schemes to be under taken in such areas.

If all that is impracticable and the only measure which could be taken to alleviate the problem is to raise the levels of the gulleys, it is up to the local authority to work out a scheme whereby this could be done on a collective basis with the cost shared by the local authority, the river authority and residents. Those residents with whom I have spoken recognise that those who could afford it could co-operate—and this is the majority—in making a contribution. But it is quite unrealistic and impossible to expect only residents on an estate of this sort to undertake the work themselves without the support of the authorities. This is the Minister's responsibility and he cannot shuffle it off.

These conditions are already serious and year by year they are becoming intolerable. They are making life increasingly a misery for hundreds of my constituents. These people for the most part have limited means. They look to the elected authorities for help in their problems.

11.38 p.m.

Mr. W. o. J. Robinson (Walthamstow, East)

I intervene in this debate because for 13 years I represented in the council the area of which Brackley Square forms a part. I confirm much of what has been said by the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Patrick Jenkin) about the intolerable conditions in the area. I would have doubted whether it is completely accurate to say that the conditions have worsened in the last four or five years, but it is clear that the responsibility for these conditions is that the land was allowed to be built on. Those who knew the area at the time were astounded that any development should have been allowed on that land without proper site preparation being made to avoid flooding.

Such preparation was possible because the local authority developed on the land and its development has not been menaced by flooding. The primary responsibility was with the developers and with the local authority for not properly supervising the foundations of buildings on the site. However, we have not to cavil over responsibility in the past but to see what can be done to help unfortunate occupiers of these premises. Notwithstanding what responsibility may rest elsewhere, I hope that the Ministry, whose responsibility this is, may assist. I was attracted by the idea that a share of the cost should be borne by a tripartite arrangement, for it would be unfair to expect public funds to be expended to meet the total cost of remedial works. This should rest, in part at least, on the owners and occupiers. I join with the hon. Member in asking that something should be done to relieve their difficulties.

11.40 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Patrick Jenkin) and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. W. O. J. Robinson) have put the case for their constituents very clearly, and I am grateful for the opportunity to explain the constitutional position, which is very complex. I fully appreciate the concern of hon. Members for the problem of the flooding of these gardens. The hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford has painted a fairly grim picture of children not being able to play and of bulbs rotting and so on, and I can appreciate how his constituents feel about this problem which is clearly a major nuisance to them.

In brief, the problem is how the situation can be remedied and who should pay for it. Those are the two issues. The hon. Gentleman pinpointed the problem. The gardens affected lie between the River Roding and the higher ground to the west. They are in an area which forms a natural basin not only for rainwater falling directly on it, but for water draining from higher land. It is maintained that the position has become worse in the last few years. It is difficult to understand why that should be so, although we know that development can create drainage problems. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, most of the water has been drained into the sewers and it is difficult to understand why the problem should arise. I am nevertheless prepared to accept that it does.

The hon. Gentleman used the word "flooding". We know that there was flooding in 1946 and that the banks of the river were raised in 1947 to prevent what is generally accepted as flooding. However, this seems to be a slightly different situation. The hon. Gentleman said that after a day's rain one could see surface water running into gardens around the ends of houses, or staying on the surface because the land was impervious and always soggy because the rainwater could not get away.

The hon. Gentleman asked for a hydrological survey. The council has already made offers of help in the raising of the gardens and I am sure that my Department will help in having a look at the situation, if there is something which has happened since we last looked and about which we do not now know, to see whether something can be done.

As the hon. Gentleman said, because of the situation which it knew to exist, the council refused permission in 1934 for building on this site, but that permission was ultimately given by the Minister of Health, although byelaws provided that the houses, but not their gardens, had to be above flood level. It might seem that there is no technical difficulty in dealing with this problem, other than the difficulty of carrying bucketfuls or barrowfuls of earth through houses which have no side access from front to rear. The technical problem of raising the surface level is quite simple, if it can be done cheaply. In this case, however, it might cost quite a lot and that might not prove to be effective. The effective way, of course, would be to pipe the water away, but such a scheme might prove to be very expensive, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

This brings us to the crux of the matter, which is who should be responsible not only for undertaking, but, more important, for paying for the remedial work. The River Roding, which lies close to these properties, is a "main river" of the Essex River Authority but there is no record of the river overflowing since 1947. Therefore, this does not seem to be in any sense an arterial drainage problem within the responsibility of the river authority. The hon. Gentleman has not insisted that it should be so regarded and he appreciates that the problem is one of surface draining.

The Redbridge Council has power, under Section 34 of the Land Drainage Act, 1961, to undertake drainage works to prevent flooding or to remedy or mitigate damage from flooding, and the Minister of Agriculture has power under Section 15 of the Agriculture Act, 1937, to pay grant of up to 50 per cent. of the cost of drainage schemes submitted by the council. The hon. Gentleman quoted from various Acts about powers to complain, but I think that every Act allows every citizen the power to complain about things. However, both the power to undertake works and the power to grant aid are discretionary. As the hon. Gentleman knows, all river authorities are autonomous bodies and I am advised that there is considerable doubt about whether raising the level of the gardens above the flood line would constitute a drainage work within the terms of this legislation. As regards payment of grant, the Minister would consider on its merits any proposal put to him by a council, provided that he was satisfied that it fell within the terms of the legislation. But he would approve a scheme for grant only if it met our criteria for land drainage schemes, including the criteria of technical soundness, and, in particular, if it could be shown that the expenditure was justified by the benefit to be derived from the works. We have always to observe these criteria, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

The residents in these properties petitioned the Redbridge Council last year to take remedial measures—I have a copy of the petition here, and I have had correspondence with the hon. Gentleman about it—but the council declined to assume responsibility for any remedial work, although it did offer the help of its surveyor in advising on levels and on obtaining materials if the residents themselves wished to raise the level of their gardens. We have already mentioned this, and, as the hon. Gentleman said, it would be rather expensive, particularly for old people, in this area which, I understand, is not a particularly wealthy one.

As the hon. Gentleman has made clear, the suggestions which have been made so far have not satisfied the owners and occupiers of the houses, and this is why we are debating the matter tonight. I am sorry to say that I have little comfort to offer on the subject. Parliament has advisedly conferred complete discretion in this matter on the local authorities, which must determine for themselves whether it is appropriate to require their ratepayers to pay for works to alleviate this kind of problem. It is not a matter in which the Minister can or should intervene. In spite of what the hon. Gentleman said about the powers of the Minister, I must emphasise that we cannot intervene in these matters. The river and other authorities are autonomous bodies. Local councils, as the hon. Gentleman knows, do not like interference from Ministers, and we really do not have the power to intervene.

Nevertheless, we appreciate the nature and extent of the problem. It is about a year now since our technical people looked at it. The hon. Gentleman has raised certain new points, particularly the suggestion that things have got worse in the last few years, which, perhaps, cast new light on the matter. I think that, with the help of the council's advice and the advice of some of our technical people, we might look at this rather difficult problem again.

The Question having been proposed after half-past Nine o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at thirteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.