HC Deb 30 April 1968 vol 763 cc1068-78

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

Mr. Speaker

I understand that the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) has indicated to a Minister that he wishes to raise a subject and has given the Minister notice. This is important. Sir Douglas Glover.

6.46 p.m.

Sir Douglas Glover (Ormskirk)

I confirm that, Mr. Speaker. When I found that the debate today looked as if it would terminate at a more reasonable time than usual, I thought this an opportunity to raise a very important matter for my constituents. I have a reputation, I believe, for from time to time keeping the House a little later than it would otherwise be kept. It is therefore appropriate to show how reasonable is the hon. Member for Ormskirk. I have been in this House for 15 years and this is the first Adjournment debate I have had and it is starting at exactly 12 minutes to seven o'clock. That shows how false a reputation an hon. Member can get. Having shown the reasonableness of my attitude towards the Government and the convenience of hon. Members, I hope that my reputation of the past will disappear for good.

When I first became a candidate for the great constituency of Ormskirk, I was told that it was of little use enunciating on the great problems of national politics because the bulk of members of my constituency were interested in only one thing. That was the problem of the drainage rate. The difficulty about the problem of the drainage rate is that I suppose there are only about 10, or at most a dozen, hon. Members of this ancient House who have such a problem in their constituencies, or who even have the slightest idea of to what we are referring when we speak of the problem of the drainage rate. A great many think that we are talking about the ordinary rate, or the water rate. They have no idea that there is another rate which some people have to pay.

It would be reasonable, therefore, particularly from my constituency's point of view, to give the House some history as to how this drainage rate arose originally. My constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) are probably the only two areas in Britain which are more akin to Holland than the rest of the United Kingdom. In 1795 the bulk of my present constituency and the land abutting on to it was virtually all marshland; it was a succession of lakes. At that time there was only one narrow track between Ormskirk and Southport. One had to know one's way very well otherwise one would be drowned en route. The total population of the area was almost nil.

The Hesketh family—one of whom was the Member of Parliament for Southport in recent years—then started to drain the area, much to their own personal benefit and also to the benefit of the agricultural community. The difficulty with such land is that the land itself, the soil and subsoil, contracts and therefore, over the years, the level of the land sinks. In addition to that, the channel of the Ribble was altered and the result was that by the early 1920s the drainage system, which had worked satisfactorily for a very long time on a gravity basis, was rapidly failing because the Ribble had silted up the perimeter of the district. The land had sunk in the middle and we were faced with the problem of a vast saucer, where the land in the middle was below sea level and, because of the silting up, the perimeter was above sea level. The gravity drainage therefore became gradually more and more inefficient.

My predecessors in Ormskirk had had this problem for many years and had not been successful in persuading the Governments of the day to take action. The problem had become so serious that the farmers were being flooded out and were losing their crops on an average of every other year; in 1954 and 1955 it became two years out of three. This was a disaster.

I then had a certain stroke of luck in that I was able to persuade a very great Chancellor of the Exchequer and Minister of Agriculture, the present Lord Amory, to visit my constituency at the height of one of the floods. If I might advise hon. Members—always persuade the Minister to come when a disaster is at its height and not when it has died out, some weeks later. The result was that Lord Amory, as Minister of Agriculture, sanctioned a new drainage scheme for my constituency, costing over £1 million. The Exchequer agreed to pay more than 50 per cent. of the cost. The result was that the farmers think that their present Member of Parliament is by far the most outstanding Member the constituency has ever had!

Nothing in this world is all roses. I must now explain to the House how the system of drainage rate works. The landlord is responsible, under the present drainage legislation for the capital cost of any drainage work, but the tenant is responsible for all the day-to-day running costs or administrative costs. This comes to a higher yearly sum than the repayment of the interest on the capital and the capital projects. My farmers are delighted; they now can be sure that they will harvest the crops from what is some of the richest agricultural land in Britain and they themselves—although they pay an increased drainage rate on the capital side if they are the owners—if they are the tenants their increased income is such that they do not complain about it.

Another problem has arisen. When the drainage rate system was evolved whereby the tenant was responsible for the administrative costs, it was a perfectly reasonable system because the bulk of the people who lived in the area were either directly or indirectly connected with the agricultural industry. It was therefore to the benefit of the owner and the tenant—even if they were cottagers—because they were employed in agriculture. It was in their interests that the drainage system was highly efficient. The system of levying the drainage rate, going back a great number of years, was originally a fairly reasonable thing. My constituency has altered a great deal. It is now, in addition to being an agricultural constituency, a large residential commuting area. People are living in the area as a result of the industrial development in Liverpool and elsewhere. They buy houses; they have never heard of a drainage rate. They are horrified and shocked when, about 12 months later, they get a demand through the post for something about which they have never heard or understood. This certainly does not apply in any part of the country from which they came. Even if they came from as close at hand as Liverpool, I doubt whether they realise there is this problem with the drainage rate. There is always a great deal of ill-feeling amongst those who pay the drainage rate.

It would perhaps not be so sore a point with the people who pay the drainage rate except that this is arbitrarily fixed. One pays the drainage rate only if one is eight feet above a drainage point, and anything above that level is considered to be above the flood level. If one's house happens to be an inch higher than someone else's, one might avoid a drainage rate. A slightly ludicrous situation exists, in that people on one side of the road might pay the drainage rate and people on the other side of the road might not. It is even more ludicrous because the people on the side of the road where they do pay the drainage rate are sometimes on a sandy subsoil which drains very quickly and those on the other side of the road are perhaps on a clay subsoil where the drainage water takes much longer to clear away and yet they do not pay the drainage rate. This is bound to lead to a great sense of injustice among the residents in my constituency.

When Mr. Christopher Soames was the Minister of Agriculture, he alleviated the situation to some degree in his Agriculture Act. It is now permissible for a local authority to levy the drainage rate on all its ratepayers if it so desires and to pay the rate to the drainage board as a lump sum. As I told my right hon. Friend at the time, it really does not operate in practice. It is asking a great deal of local councillors, who have to stand for election from time to time, to have to say in their election programmes that if they are returned to power for the West Lancashire Rural District Council they propose taking half the rate paid by Douglas Glover and putting it on to other ratepayers. The result is that, although there is this permissive power, in practice it certainly does not operate in my constituency. I should be very surprised if it did operate to any great extent anywhere in the country where this drainage rate is involved.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with interest, and I understand his grievance. But if it can be solved only by the local authority or by altering the law, it cannot be discussed on the Adjournment. The hon. Gentleman must suggest something for which the Minister is administratively responsible.

Sir D. Glover

I was giving the background to the case, Mr. Speaker, because I think that it is relevant. Otherwise, the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence) probably would not understand the problem.

I pointed out that the owner pays the capital charges and the tenant pays the administrative charges. I should also make it clear that I am not asking the Minister tonight to make concrete proposals as to how the problem could be solved. I doubt whether there is unanimity on either side of the House among those who understand the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Ely may have something to say about the problem with which I would not agree, and he may disagree with some of the things I say in reviewing the problem. It is so technical and affects so very few people that I think a different approach is needed to it.

I feel that at present the rate is levied over too narrow an area. It would probably be wise to alter the system so that it is levied over the watershed from which the water comes. Ormskirk, which stands up as a sort of small hill in the middle of my constituency, has had an enormous increase in the number of its houses, and it seems to me that the people in those houses have a responsibility which at present they are not meeting. The rain falls on the houses and metal roads and therefore runs very fast. It is down into the drainage area in half an hour, and therefore the whole drainage system must be that much bigger. Now, as a result of Lord Amory's scheme, it is all pumped drainage which is very expensive to run.

The system is based on the historical view in this country that the responsibility is that of the person where the water settles, that wherever one lives on a hill it is only at the lowest common denominator that it becomes one's responsibility. That is the ancient law of this country, but it originated at a time when England was very much more an agricultural community—I do not mean by that the total production of agriculture. Therefore, it is at least a reasonable suggestion that people who get away scot-free today should be considered for liability to pay the rate by altering the area over which it is levied, by altering the system so that it is made more equitable to the community as a whole.

The whole question of the drainage rate is a very specialised subject. There are many pros and cons, and few people in the House who are knowledgeable on the subject. It affects such a narrow field that I feel strongly that it would be a good idea to call a conference or have a study group on the problem. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be sympathetic to that idea, so that the whole question can be examined and given a bit of the publicity that this sort of discussion inevitably arouses.

It can be said that the drainage rate does not impose any additional burden on the householder, because the value of his property is reduced. That is the theory of those who support the present system. They say that because of the drainage rate the householder's assessment for the general rate is that much lower, and in total he does not pay any more money. That argument would apply in a country with a surplus of houses, but it certainly does not apply in one where there is a shortage. I do not think that there is any difference in the value of the houses in my constituency according to whether they are below the datum point and pay the drainage rate, or above it and do not pay, because both are desirable areas in which people want to live. Some areas may be taken over by a local authority for overspill and that sort of thing. Therefore, the value of those properties is not altered, as they would have been in olden days, because of the additional drainage rate burden.

The hon. Gentleman's Department could do a great deal to investigate the matter, which I do not believe has been investigated for many years, that could investigate the changing pattern of British life and consider the fact that people are living in areas, not by choice, but of necessity, who have no connection with the agricultural community and derive no benefit in more secure employment or increased incomes because of the increased profitability of their crops. The original system was almost entirely devised to deal with the problem of a rural agricultural community. Certainly my area, and I believe in others where there is a drainage rate, is no longer purely an agricultural community but is a large residential community as well. In that residential community is a narrow group of people with all the feelings of injustice that any normal person would experience because of the narrow division between those who do and do not pay.

The time has come for a really deep, searching review of the whole problem so that it can be shown with clarity to those involved that they are not suffering an injustice, or, if I am right in my belief that they are, to produce the evidence which would probably decide the House to take the appropriate steps to put the matter right.

I apologise to the Minister for the very short notice I gave him. I have no criticism if he says that he would sooner answer many of my points by writing to me, but I thought that this was an opportunity to raise the matter in the House, because it is in the interests of my constituents to do so. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his Department will take serious notice of my points.

7.9 p.m.

Sir Harry Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

My hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) is always dutiful and assiduous in seeking to protect the interests of his constituents. I should not in any way wish to criticise his motive in raising the matter this evening, but unfortunately he stopped too soon in his historical summary of land drainage legislation, because in this very Session we have had the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, Part IV of which goes a very long way to meeting his anxieties. If in saying this I inadvertently happen to give credit to the Government, I am sure that the Government will join me in paying tribute to the internal drainage boards for the work they have done in helping the Government to draft the Amendments they have now embodied in legislation.

I declare the unpaid interest of being a Vice-President of the Association of Drainage Authorities. I do this as a labour of love because, without the work that drainage authorities do, my constituency would consist only of the original Isle of Ely and a few other little islands dotted about the Fens. In view of what land drainage can do, care must be taken when dealing with the vexed question of drainage rates not to underestimate what would happen if the internal drainage boards failed to carry out their work.

I believe that the Government are right to assume that to carry out effective drainage work there has to be an element of rough justice; there has to be an element of authoritarianism, otherwise the work would not get done in time. I am certain that the scheme which has been carried out in the constituency of my hon. Friend would never work effectively unless somebody was prepared sometimes to stand up to some public criticism.

All of us recognise that we have in our constituencies, especially where there are internal drainage boards, people who live on the borderline. Sometimes, as frequently occurs in my constituency, they live on the borderline between two separate internal drainage boards each of which levies a different rate. The same type of problem arises there—sometimes a more grievous one—as that which arises between the person who lives below 8 ft. above the highest known flood level and those who live above that level.

Incidentally, I think that my hon. Friend was not quite correct in his definition of this question of 8 ft. above the highest known flood level. A person can live at any level below 8 ft. above the highest known flood level to be rated and those who live above 8 ft. above the highest known flood level are not on the ordinary drainage rate, but subject to the general charge. I think that river authorities have a duty to report to the House each year the amount of the special drainage charge or general drainage charge which they raise on areas outside those covered by the internal drainage board. As my hon. Friend rightly said, Mr. Christopher Soames, when he was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, brought in the general charge, about which some of us have grave doubts. The decisions which have been taken and embodied in Part IV of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill have gone a long way to meet our anxieties on that point.

I recognise that there is a continuing grievance about differentials in drainage rates, but I call my hon. Friend's attention to Clauses 30 to 33 of the new Measure. I am not quite certain where the Bill is at the moment, because there is no copy of the Act available. I do not know whether their Lordships have finished with it and whether we shall now get a copy of the Act.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate either the Bill or the Act tonight.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

I entirely accept that, Mr. Speaker. My point merely is that it is very difficult for hon. Members to know the state of the law if there is not yet a printed copy of the Act in the Vote Office. The Measure contains appeal machinery which will enable all the grievances to which my hon. Friend referred to be aired.

7.14 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) has raised an interesting point tnoight. The hon. Gentleman's reputation has certainly been enhanced by his raising this subject and his fear that because he detained the House his reputation would suffer is groundless. I thank him for telling me that he does not expect me to have readily available all the answers on how the problem can be solved.

I know of the problem of drainage rates. When an area moves from being an agricultural one to being a mixed one or, in some cases, to becoming completely urban this changes the situation entirely from that which obtained when the area was first drained. I was interested to hear the history of the hon. Gentleman's area, but I assure him and the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge Bourke) that theirs are not the only areas which are thus affected. There are many other areas. The Ministry's mailbag on this subject indicates not only the size of the problem but where the difficulties arise.

The hon. Member for Ormskirk said that he had pressed Governments for a long time but little action had been taken. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Isle of Ely for saying that action has been taken all along the line—not so much on the point raised by the hon. Member for Ormskirk, although the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which is now going through another place, contains a provision which will alleviate the problem raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Sir D. Glover

I do not want to be misquoted. I did not say that I had approached the Government and that little action had been taken. After all, I got £1 million. I said that my predecessors had made those approaches.

Mr. Mackie

I am sorry if I misunderstood the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Gentleman will realise that the cost of land drainage works carried out by river authorities is met by the general ratepayer through the river authority's precept on local authorities. Special areas with drainage boards are rated additionally to pay for special conditions.

The hon. Member for Isle of Ely said that Mr. Christopher Soames when he was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had alleviated the position by giving local authorities permissive powers but that they were not being sufficiently used. I believe that some authorities are now taking advantage of those powers and seeking to alleviate the position. I am not sure whether this is enough, and I will certainly study that question, but this is the duty of local authorities and they have the powers.

I take the point made about a local councillor, who, like us, may be seeking re-election. But he could say "these people down in the hollow below the 8 ft. mark are being hard done by and we must spread the load". The way to make it more equitable is for councils to use the permissive powers that they have.

I agree that the issue is very complicated, but many people understand the drainage situation, particularly people coming from agricultural and flood areas. The Ministry's postbag suggests that many Members take an interest in this matter. I will consider having a conference, as has been suggested, to review this problem and see if we can do something to alleviate a problem which has caused a lot of ill-feeling in some areas.

I was amused that the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely was loth to give the Government some credit. I thank him for mentioning the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, although he gave the strong impression that he was loth to give any credit. On Third Reading of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill my hon. Friend dealt with the point he made. It would be worth reading the OFFICIAL REPORT again to see what the new Measure does on this vexed question.

I agreed that there must be problems of people falling on either side of a drainage board area line. Where there is any local government or local drainage board there must be a line between the two. It is then inevitable that there are differences. In any agricultural legislation—for instance, hill farming—lines have to be drawn and these create anomalies.

I do not think I need say anything more except to thank the hon. Member for raising this matter, and to promise that I will look into the problem and write to him. He will appreciate that to do anything further would require legislation, and I understand that that is not allowed to be suggested in an Adjournment debate. We will certainly look at this problem again.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Seven o'clock.