HC Deb 11 July 1968 vol 768 cc734-9

Mr. Emery (by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Housing and Local Government what action he has taken and what proposals he has to deal with the major problems caused by the severe flooding in East Devon and other parts of the country yesterday.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Anthony Greenwood)

The Ministry's officers at headquarters and in regional offices have been in touch with many local authorities, the police, water undertakings, and the Women's Royal Voluntary Service.

All local services are working efficiently. Voluntary bodies has responded magnificently, and the Armed Forces have given invaluable help in a number of ways.

The main need immediately seems to be for additional dryers for houses and I am helping local authorities to obtain them through the Armed Services.

The Ministry's officers will continue to maintain close contact with the local authorities and give them any help which it is in their power to give.

I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members would wish me to express the deepest sympathy of Her Majesty's Government and of the House with the relatives of those who have lost their lives and with all who have suffered in any way from the floods.

Mr. Emery

I am sure that the House would wish to thank the Minister for that statement and his conveyance of sympathy to the bereaved. Will he also thank the police and local authorities who, often in the darkness of night, have given considerable help?

I should like to ask the Minister two questions. First, will he consult with his right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport to try to ensure that a crash programme is brought forward to overcome the major difficulties caused by weak bridges and roads being swept away, which has made routes to the West Country impassable and a great worry to the tourist industry and to tourists?

Secondly, will the Minister give an assurance to those local authorities which will have to incur major capital expenditure caused by flood damage that perhaps any amount over a 2d. rate will be met by the Exchequer?

Mr. Greenwood

I should like to associate myself with what the hon. Gentleman said about the work of the police and the local authorities. I have great confidence in the local authorities concerned. I know that they will do everything that it is practicably possible to do.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport is closely involved in this matter and is treating it as a matter of urgency. One problem, following the interruption of communications both telephonic and by road and rail, is that it is not easy to know the exact extent of the damage. However, the Ministry of Transport is keeping this under review and will lose no time in taking any necessary action.

I hope that these disasters will not affect the tourist industry and that, before many days are past, the situation will have returned to normal.

If I receive any requests for financial help I will consider them in the light of the scale of the damage, the availability of insurance cover, and the extent of local resources.

Dr. John Dunwoody

While welcoming my right hon. Friend's statement, does he agree that there is a critical situation in many parts of the South West? Has he seen this morning's weather forecast to the effect that more general rain is expected in this region over the next 48 hours? Will my right hon. Friend therefore consider moving emergency services into the region so that they are on the spot should the situation deteriorate?

Mr. Greenwood

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this point. I am expecting further and more detailed reports on the situation later in the day. I shall then decide, if necessary, what further action should be taken.

Mr. Thorpe

I should like to associate myself with the right hon. Gentleman's expression of sympathy and ask him two questions. First, if the report relating to the repair of bridges indicates that the assistance of the Army is needed, will the right hon. Gentleman consider approaching his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence with a view to getting the Royal Engineers to assist?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman find out whether the warning system for floods in these exceptional circumstances is regarded as adequate, or whether assistance might be given by the Meteorological Office?

Mr. Greenwood

Iwill certainly find out how efficiently the flood warning organisation worked on this occasion. I have no information at this stage about how well it operated, but I will take into account what the right hon. Gentleman has said.

The question of help by the Royal Engineers is one which I shall have to discuss with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. Ellis

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the City of Bristol has been gravely affected? Has he been in touch with that local authority? Is my right hon. Friend also aware that the repair of disrupted communications and through links is vital, because, even as we speak, we do not know how bad the situation is?

Mr. Greenwood

I appreciate the point made by my hon. Friend. The Ministry's principal regional officer is located in Bristol and has been in touch with all the local authorities in the immediate area.

I entirely agree about the need for repairing the disruption of communications. This is a matter which we have very much in our mind.

Mr. Graham Page

I should like to associate my right hon. and hon. Friends on these benches with the expressions of sympathy for those who have been bereaved and who have suffered material loss through this disaster. It is, indeed, a national emergency.

Does it not divide itself into two matters: first, the speedy restoration of public services—and in that respect, will the Minister make an early statement which is more specific than he has been able to do this afternoon?—and, secondly, the financial assistance both to local authorities and to individuals who have suffered loss? It is important that they should be put out of doubt as soon as possible. Therefore, will the Minister make an early statement on the amount of assistance he is prepared to give?

Mr. Greenwood

I will certainly look into both these points. I am not quite certain at this stage how quickly it will be possible to make a statement about the restoration of public services. We have yet to ascertain the full extent of the damage which has been done, but I will keep the House informed. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will keep in touch with me about it.

On financial assistance, I do not think that at the moment I can go further than what I said to the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery), but I realise the importance of this to the authorities concerned.

Mr. Dean

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, having spoken to most of the local authorities in my constituency this morning, I know that the damage both to property and to communications is extremely extensive? Will the Minister consider the possibility of co-ordinating the activities of the various Ministries concerned—Housing and Local Government, Defence and Transport—so that one Minister in Whitehall is responsible for giving the maximum assistance to the stricken areas?

Mr. Greenwood

That raises important questions concerning the machinery of government. If the disaster in the West Country is on the scale of a national emergency it will fall to be dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department, who is responsible for Government action in emergencies of that kind. However, I hope that the present co-operation between the Ministries concerned will meet the requirements of the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Will the Minister give particular attention to reconsidering whether civil defence equipment, which is used in disasters of this kind, should not be left in the hands of the local authorities rather than being taken up to 100 miles away to central depots established by the Home Office from which it is not immediately available when wanted?

Mr. Greenwood

I will certainly call the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to the hon. Gentleman's suggestion.

Sir F. Bennett

I should like to make two practical suggestions. First, as there seems to be conflicting evidence about the roads that are open to the West, will the Minister ask his right hon. Friend whether an early announcement should be made about trying to use the A30, the A303, or the A35 this weekend?

Secondly, following the disruption caused by the rail go-slow, the tourist industry has been badly hit. Would it be possible to ask British Railways whether they could run extra train services this weekend so that we do not have another week's or fortnight's loss to the tourist industry?

Mr. Greenwood

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I shall discuss both those points with the Minister of Transport,

Mr. Ogden

Does my right hon. Friend agree that while a speedy return to normal is necessary, this will leave many areas, not only those in the South-West, equally vulnerable to future storms? Is he aware that most local authorities have to base their calculations on a 10-year storm control and damage period? If, in special areas, this could be reduced to five years, we might avoid some of the damage in future.

Mr. Greenwood

That problem has defied solution for quite a long time, but I am interested in my hon. Friend's suggestions. Perhaps I could have further discussions with him about any ideas which he has for a more effective long-term method of dealing with this problem.

Mrs. Knight

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that this is precisely the sort of disaster in which the Civil Defence, now in the process of being disbanded, could have been extremely useful? In view of that, will he talk to his right hon. Friends about the possibility of reversing the earlier decision?

Mr. Greenwood

I have said that I shall draw that suggestion to the attention of the Home Secretary, but I think that we can leave it to local authorities and the competence of the Devonshire County Council to organise their methods of dealing with a situation of this kind. Without necessarily accepting everything that is implied in the hon. Lady's question, I have not necessarily closed my mind to it at this stage.