HC Deb 15 July 1968 vol 768 cc1041-7
The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Anthony Greenwood)

I should like to make a further statement about the floods.

At my request, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary made a tour of the South West on Friday. He found that the local authorities had gone into action with commendable speed and had the situation well under control. Police and firemen, working very long hours, have made a sterling contribution.

The Army has given invaluable help in the restoration of road communications. The emergency bridge at Fenny Bridges was opened yesterday. A bridge at Marsh on the A303 was opened this morning—a day earlier than expected— and the bridge at Pensford on the A37 was also opened this morning to one lane of traffic. All major routes are now open —a remarkable achievement. The A.A. and the R.A.C. have ably assisted the police in traffic control.

In all the welfare work which has been necessary, the W.R.V.S. and other voluntary organisations have been of great help. They were first alerted in the small hours of Thursday morning and responded as once.

The R.A.F. has supplied equipment for drying out houses. The Home Office has made available Civil Defence equipment.

River authorities' flood warning arrangements were generally effective. But there is great difficulty in working out a reliable warning system for very small catchment areas.

In the South West, about 3,500 houses —about 1,650 in Bristol—have been affected; about 150 families have been rehoused. Water supplies have been maintained, but in Bath householders have been advised to boil drinking water.

In the East and West Midlands, the damage, though less serious than in the South West, was severe in some areas. Five hundred houses in Leicester have had to be dried out.

There will be many cases of personal hardship and a number of flood relief appeal funds have already been set up. The Government welcome this initiative and as on similar previous occasions will be pre- pared to contribute generously to these— and to any other bona fide relief funds which are set up for the purpose—as soon as the extent of the need has been determined. Parliament will be asked to sanction this expenditure by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government by means of a Supplementary Estimate, to be presented in due course. In the meantime, the money will be advanced from the Civil Contingencies Fund.

So far as local authorities' losses are concerned, sympathetic consideration will be given to assistance in the light of the scale of the damage, the availability of specific grants, and insurance cover and the extent of local resources.

I understand from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Social Security that officers of the Supplementary Benefits Commission of the Ministry of Social Security are co-operating with local authorities in ensuring that needs for food and clothing are met and in visiting damaged homes to provide for the replacement of essential household items.

I am sure that the House would wish to join me in congratulating the local authorities and all who have co-operated with them, and in again expressing sympathy with the relatives of those who lost their lives and with all who have suffered from these floods.

Mr. Rippon

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the whole House will join him in expressing appreciation of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary's visit and of the work done by local authorities, the Services, voluntary organisations, and workers in relieving hardship and mitigating damage?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that floods of this kind appear to have been rather more frequent in the West than in other parts of the country during recent years and to have wreaked far greater damage and caused much loss of life and damage to property? Does he contemplate any action to prevent damage on this scale happening again in the future, whether by setting up special machinery, or otherwise?

Finally, will he give the House an assurance that he will bring heavy pressure to bear on the Treasury to ensure that his promise of sympathetic consideration and financial support is turned into effective action as speedily as possible?

Mr. Greenwood

It is always a pleasure to put pressure on the Treasury.

The first part of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's question raises a very important issue. The river boards and local authorities have regular meetings with the Ministry of Agriculture, and a great deal of attention is paid to securing that there is an adequate early warning system. On the whole, on this occasion it seems to have worked well, although in one case it did not work out effectively, but this is something which I shall call to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Dr. John Dunwoody

May I assure my right hon. Friend that his statement will be widely welcomed in the West Country? Can he go further and assure the House that tourist traffic should now be able to travel freely in and out of the region, and that it is unnecessary, and indeed foolish, for anyone to change his holiday plans?

Mr. Greenwood

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having put that supplementary question. I agree completely with what he said. I think that anyone would be most ill-advised if he was dissuaded from going to the West Country because of these events. The West Country has had other blows in the past. It depends to a large extent on its tourist industry, and I hope that the public will bear that in mind in deciding where they will go for their holidays.

Dame Joan Vickers

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether compensation will be paid to farmers for the loss of some of their crops, and whether he will ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to remit the payment of S.E.T. by hotels which have been badly hit?

Mr. Greenwood

I hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will note the second half of the hon. Lady's question.

Farmers who suffer personal distress will be eligible for the same treatment as other people in the same situation. I am happy to tell the House that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture is going to the West Country tomorrow to get a proper assessment of the scale of the damage to agriculture of the area.

Mr. Ellis

Will my right hon. Friend consult the local authority in Bristol and give it some advice on how to dispose of goods which may or may not have been damaged by the floods? Would he also ask the local authority to try to sort out goods which have been damaged from those which have not? The tip in the news is in my constituency. As I understand, there was no consultation with the police, and we have had some rather regrettable incidents there. The matter ought to be looked into a little carefully.

Mr. Greenwood

I think that everybody must have been extremely disquieted at some of the pictures on television last night of people scrambling to get materials and foodstuffs salvaged from the floods. If the City of Bristol needs advice, the principal regional officer of the Minister of Housing and Local Government is situated in Bristol and is always ready and available to help any local authority, whether Bristol or any other, in the area.

Mr. Dean

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we in North Somerset much appreciate the visit on Friday of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary? We are also very grateful to the Armed Services for the speedy help they have given us. The right hon. Gentleman said that in the stricken areas we are doing all we can to help ourselves. We in North Somerset have set up a number of local funds to give immediate assistance. Perhaps I might ask the right hon. Gentleman two questions. First, what assistance is he going to give to local funds? Will he tell us the details as soon as possible? Secondly, can he let the local authorities in the stricken areas know, so that they realise what information he requires so that Government assistance which we shall undoubtedly need can come as speedily as possible?

Mr. Greenwood

I expect local authorities will be in touch with me fairly soon and will let me know the extent of the damage which they have suffered.

With regard to the flood relief appeal funds to which the hon. Gentleman referred—and I appreciate his keen interest in this problem—I do not think I can go further than say that we will, as on similar previous occasions, be generous in our contribution, and we hope that the public, too, will be generous in their response.

Mr. Michael Foot

Can my right hon. Friend say what happens in a case such as that which occurred in parts of my constituency where the damage may be very extensive to some householders, but where it may not be on such an extensive scale as to make necessary the establishment of a flood relief fund? How does the householder who may have suffered hundreds of pounds worth of damage in such circumstances make his application—through the council, and, if so, does the council make it to the Government?

Mr. Greenwood

I think that the best way is for the constituent affected in that way to get in touch with the local authority, and no doubt my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will be informed by the local authority.

Mr. Pardoe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the West Country is profoundly thankful to those who have involved themselves in the rescue and salvage operations? Is he aware that there seems to be some difference between those areas which had remote control rain gauges fixed in the catchment areas and those which did not? After all this has died down, will the right hon. Gentleman issue a leaflet to indicate how effective this has been?

Can the right hon. Gentleman also say whether, when the inspection of bridges is carried out, not only is the soundness of the bridge tested, but an estimate is made of how much water can be allowed through?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman, with all the authority of his Department, assure the potential tourist that the West Country has had all the rain it can possibly have in one year, and that from now on it is sunshine all the way?

Mr. Greenwood

I know that the House will welcome the hon. Gentleman's last remark. When we remember that in one valley 7 inches of rain fell in as short a time as seven hours, we realise the magnitude of the task with which local authorities and river boards had to contend.

I think that I am right in saying that the question of remote control gauges is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, and I shall talk to him about that. As I understand, the system worked reasonably well, but the area which was most badly affected was one where there were not the remote control gauges to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

The question of bridges is entirely a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport, who holds the hon. Gentleman in high esteem and will, no doubt, have noted everything he said.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson

The right hon. Gentleman thanked the W.R.V.S. Does not the whole tenor of his answer show that a wider voluntary body would be desirable on a permanent basis to replace the work of this kind done in the past by Civil Defence?

Mr. Greenwood

I mentioned the W.R.V.S. and other voluntary bodies. There is no evidence to suggest that the existing services and voluntary bodies cannot cope with situations like this. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary sees no reason to change his view that the retention of the Civil Defence primarily or solely for the purpose of dealing with peacetime disasters would not be justified.

Mr. Emery

Will the right hon. Gentleman consult his right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport to ensure that the permanent rebuilding of bridges on certain roads is done above flood level in order to obtain major improvements rather than a return to the status quo?

Would he consider whether the loss of crops on smallholdings, which is not normally compensated, but which in certain parts of Devon has been much the most serious financial loss, can in some way rank for compensation, either from the relief fund or from the Government?

Mr. Greenwood

My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport is on the Front Bench with me. He will have noted the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that bridges should be built above flood level.

The second part of the hon. Gentleman's question will be considered after my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has paid his visit to the West Country. It is obviously a most important consideration.

Mr. Peter Mills

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider advising the Ministry of Transport to make a thorough survey of vital bridges into the West Country, so that they can either be rebuilt when the money is available or temporary bridges can be laid alongside them in case of further emergencies?

Mr. Greenwood

I do not think that it is for me to advise my right hon. Friend on a point of that kind, but I am sure that he will have the matter under consideration.