HC Deb 05 June 1972 vol 838 cc111-56

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

Mr. Speaker

Before I propose the Question, I should say that I am not selecting the Motion in the names of the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) and the hon. Member for Erith and Cray-ford (Mr. Wellbeloved), That the Bill be considered upon this day six months. The Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Acton, in Clause 36, page 28, line 11, at end insert 'as to the effects of closure of the barrier gates on the flow or regime of the river, or' can be discussed with the main Motion, and, if he wishes a Division on it, he may have it later in the proceedings.

Question proposed, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.

7.21 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Tugendhat (Cities of London and Westminster)

It is a great pleasure to me to propose this Bill on behalf of the Greater London Council for a number of reasons.

It is the first Greater London Council Bill I have had the honour to commend to the House. I am delighted that it is supported by local authorities in Essex and Kent as well. It is a subject which has been dear to my heart for a long time. Before I came into the House I earned my living as a journalist and worked for theFinancial Times. In 1967 I wrote an article about the Thames barrier, and I have had a personal interest in the subject ever since. So for me it is not an ordinary Bill but a Bill in which I personally am extremely interested and about which I am very concerned. Another agreeable feature about the Bill is that it has to a large degree bipartisan support. I realise that it may also be said to have some bipartisan opposition, but it is certainly a Bill which has a good deal of bipartisan support. Finally, and most important of all, it is a Bill which is of immense importance to the people of London as a whole.

The need for a Thames barrier is beyond doubt. Forty-five square miles of London are currently at risk in the sense that they are below the highestrecorded water level; and 45 square miles at risk is a really phenomenal statistic. Within those 45 square miles live 800,000 people and they have 250,000 dwellings. During the day many people come into my constituency from outside, and by day over 1 million people would be at risk in the event of a serious Thames flood. There are 72 Underground stations, 46 miles of Underground track, 17 power stations and even this very Palace of Westminster itself which would be in the firing line. In addition and notto be ignored, much of the artistic and cultural heritage of London, a very large part of the cultural and artistic heritage of this country, the Tate Gallery, the National Gallery and our other important collections, would quite literally go down the drain if the Bill were not passed.

We have recently seen the horror of the floods in Florence. A flood in London would be an infinitely worse catastrophe, both in terms of the money involved and in human suffering, and there would be the terrible tragedy of the destruction of a large part of the country's artistic heritage. The cost is difficult to assess but a figure of £1,000 million has been suggested and that is, if anything, an underestimate, since I do not think one can really put a figure on the value of people's homes and possessions.

In talking about the terrible things which could happen if the Bill were not to go through, I am not being alarmist or trying needlessly to frighten hon. Members into supporting a Bill towards which they might otherwise feel disinclined to support. There is a one in 30 chance in any given year of a serious flood in the middle of London. The raising of the walls and various other flood precaution measures being taken by the Greater London Council and other local authorities will reduce that figure to a one in 200 chance, but that is not good enough.

I give two examples. Before the search for oil in the North Sea began the odds against finding it were 30 to one or thereabouts, but look at how successful we have been in finding oil in the North Sea. I hope we shall not be equally successful in having a Thames flood in London. The 200 to one figure is not quite as long odds as one would like. A horse called Manitoulin is running in the Derby and the odds against its winning were 200 to one against, before Lestor Piggott was given the mount. If one compares Manitoulin's chaces of winning the Derby with the chances of a flood in London one realises the importance of having a flood barrier to guard us against that particular predicament.

The easiest defence against flooding in London would be the building of higher walls, but this is not in itself practicable because London, like Venice, is sinking, so that it would be like a labour of Sisyphus to start building walls to a greater height now when they would not be satisfactory in some years' time, and would have to be topped up again.

In any case, to ensure the safety of central London would mean building walls 6 ft. higher than they are at present between Woolwich Reach and Putney Bridge and one has only to look at, say, the beautiful Terrace we have here at the Palace of Westminster, or walk along the Embankment on either side of the river, to see what would be the terrible effect of building walls 6 ft. higher than they are now. The River Thames would be cut off from the rest of London and a great amenity would be lost to the people. One would then have to build up everything behind the walls and the cost of that would plainly be an unacceptable proposition.

It is the object of this Bill to reduce the risk of flooding in central London to one in 1,000 in the year 2030 A.D. As I say, London is sinking, so of course between now and 2030 the odds will be better than one in 1,000. And a one in 1,000 chance of of our being drowned is better than a one in 30 chance, as it is at present, and better than one in 200 which will in due course result.

It is vital that work under the Bill should begin as soon as possible. The GLC cannot commit itself to the project till the Bill is through and we ought to get the Bill through this House tonight, otherwise there will be a delay of several months. Because of the state of congestion of the parliamentary programme it is not possible to be confident about when another Bill would come before us. As it is, the GLC is thinking in terms of 1978 for the completion of this great project, and when one considers that in sitting here we have a one in 30 chance of being drowned during one of our debates one can perceive that it is a matter of great urgency to get the Bill through. When one considers the suffering and the damage which would be caused to millions of people in London if the Bill were not to go through, I hope very much that hon. Members on both sides of the House will find it possible to support the Bill this evening, or, at any rate, not to oppose it.

By any standards the Thames barrier is a major project even in the age of Concorde. The barrier with its associated works will cost about £75 million at 1970 prices, and when one considers what happens to the value of money over the years one can appreciate that £75 million is likely to be an under-estimate in real money. The Government will pay 65 per cent. of the cost of this and the GLC the rest and the associated works outside the GLC area will be paid for by river authorities, which will get 80 per cent. grant. We are talking of very considerable sums of money indeed. I hope the House will feel it right for me to explain why the decision to proceed in the way that has beenchosen was taken and to say a little more about some of the implications of the Bill, because I know that there are hon. Gentlemen who are interested in this matter.

7.30 p.m.

Mr. J. T. Price (Westhoughton)

As a provincial Member, not wishing to dissent from much of what the hon. Gentleman has said so far, I have to say that we must get the facts right. The £75 million refers only to the engineering work on the barrier. Before that is undertaken it will be necessary to strengthen the banks way downthe river seaward to Erith or beyond. That will almost double the original cost. Whatever comes out in the final analysis, it will obviously exceed the estimated figures. I speak as a provincial Member who has an interest in the Bill from another angle and I feel we had better get the facts right. This will cost the nation much more than £75 million. I am not saying that it is not worth it and that time will not prove it to be worth while.

Dr. Gerard Vaughan (Reading)


Mr. Tugendhat


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

Order. It is better not to have an intervention on an intervention.

Mr. Tugendhat

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading (Dr. Vaughan), who was a distinguished figure in the GLC, will, I am sure, be able to make a useful intervention on this point. I chose my words carefully when I said that this was an order of magnitude. The hon. Gentleman will find that the £75 million covers the barrier and its immediately associated works, in other words the bulk of the work. I accept that there will be other works undertaken as a result of the barrier and that is why I made the point of mentioning that works undertaken by other authorities will also be receiving a substantial grant from the Government I am talking only about the principal project. That there will be other ancillary costs I completely recognise. I think the hon. Gentleman will find that the £75 million covers the principal works related to the barrier, including the raising of the banks and things of that nature directly connected with it. Perhaps we can reurn to that later.

A number of possibilities were discussed. One was a dam but this naturally raises great problems of siltation and pollution. It would also require special facilities for shipping to get past the dam. A moving structure, something which could be taken out of the river altogether, would avoid or at least reduce the principal problems, and that brings us to the question of what sort of moving structure there should be. One possibility considered was a drop gate but the disadvantage of that, as hon. Gentlemen who have followed this matter will know, is that it is limited to a span of 500 feet. That would not suffice as the river is about three times as wide as that at the place in question. There was the possibility of a horizontally retractable structure but the difficulty with that is that in times of crisis when the river is high and the water is moving fast there could easily be a blockage on the bottom of the river which would prevent the gate from being properly closed.

After careful consideration of all the various possibilities the expert advice came down very firmly in favour of what is known as a rising sector gate, or several such gates which are housed in the bottom but whose operating mechanisms are above water. This particular device has a number of important advantages. One is that it does not have so far to travel since it is already in situ and it has only to be raised. Another is that it is less prone to blockages and interruptions and a third advantage is that it fits readily into the river in the circumstances which we find in the Thames.

We must take into account in devising a structure of this sort the interests both of those who are in danger of being drowned and of the shipping which uses the river. There is the necessity, too, to guard against the possibility of error. If there was only one rising gate, obviously if anything went wrong with the works the whole thing would not work properly and the barrier would lose much of its advantage. If the river is divided into multiple openings or sections, rather like a bridge is divided into arches, even if all the gates do not work as perfectly as one would like at the moment of crisis, we can be sure of a fairly substantial margin of safety. That is an important consideration.

The interests of the shipping companies, the ports and the docks must also be taken into account and this brings us to the openings of 200 feet. That does not sound much for a ship to go through and there were those who suggested that the opening should be wider than 200 feet. Hon. Gentlemen may be interested to know that Tower Bridge has a single opening of 200 feet and has worked satisfactorily for a long time. Westminster Bridge, which we can all see from the Terrace, has arches which have a span of 110 feet and I do not ever recall seeing any accident there and I imagine that other hon. Members do not recall seeing accidents there. So 200 feet is not at all bad.

There has also been trouble over the site of the proposed barrier. I hope that Silvertown with Woolwich Reach is now generally accepted as a desirable place to put it. It is as near to the sea as possible, which minimises the need for downstream defences, and it also minimises the effect on existing and proposed land usage in other parts along the river. Naturally we do not want to interfere with either development in dockland or proposed housing development. It might be possible to argue that we should have the barrier at the east end of Woolwich Reach, but that would mean that it would be near a bend in the river which would make it difficult for shipping coming upstream. Silvertown is conveniently located and has the other advantage that land is readily available to be purchased by agreement.

The House may also want to know something about how often the barrier will be used in order to assess its impact on river traffic. Obviously the answer to that depends in large part on weather conditions and these are notoriously difficult to predict. In a typical year we could expect to have one closure late on a rising tide for about three or four hours and once every 10 years an early closure of perhaps about 10 hours. There would also be some practice closures to make sure the thing was working and this would naturally take place at a time convenient to shipping.

This brings me to the question of a lock, which is of great interest to the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing), who, as everyone recognises, has great expertise on river matters and has been interested in this for a good deal longer than many other people. I know that be and others like him have felt that a lock would be a desirable advantage. The difficulty about a lock is that the throughput, I am advised by the experts, is about three ships an hour, so that 12 would go through on a short closure and 30 on a long one. The cost of adding a lock to this scheme is £4 million. I know that may not sound a tremendous lot when we are talking about £75 million, but even so it is right that the House should be cautious about spending taxpayers' money needlessly and £4 million is a substantial amount of money. I suggest that the number of ships that would use the lock would not justify this expenditure. I would point out, however, that nothing in the Bill precludes the building of a lock at a later date. In going ahead with the Bill now we are not ruling out a lock should it prove necessary in future.

I turn to the question of half-tide control, which the hon. Member for Acton and others have been considering. For those not familiar with the ways of the river, this means simply using the barrier to hold water upstream so that the mudbanks would be permanently covered. This could be done either on a permanent basis or at weekends. Obviously if we did this we would need a lock because the barrier would be in use so much more than would otherwise be the case. The protagonists of half-tide operation believe that it would enormously increase the amenity value of the river and that is a very good cause indeed, deserving of serious consideration. As we stand on the Terrace we might consider the advantages of seeing the mudbanks covered and the river high all the time.

There are however opposing views. In particular those who are interested in the bird life of our City believe that if the mudbanks were covered it would have a prejudicial effect on the bird life in the middle of London, especially on the gulls and other birds which scavenge on the mudbanks. When we consider the history of our City, the ebb and flow of the tide has been part of the London scene and has led to some of the finest pictures that have been painted of London, from Canaletto onwards. The advantages of half-tide operation are substantial but there are equally, on the amenity side, substantial arguments of artistic and ornithological kinds, as well as other kinds, which deserve to be taken into account. Bird lovers do not always get their due, as we may see with the proposed building of the third London airport at Maplin Sands.

There are other problems concerned with half-tide operation. There are unforeseeable implications with pollution and siltation. I say "unforeseeable" because when that great project the Aswan Dam was built no one appreciated the terrible effects which it would have on the marine life of the River Nile. As those who follow these matters will know, it has had a disastrous effect on the fish in the Nile and ruined the fishing there, in the Delta and in the Mediterranean. I would hardly compare the River Nile with the River Thames, but when one sees the type of unforeseen disasters that have occurred there, or in Lake Victoria as a result of the building of the dam there, one realises that it is not right to proceed in matters of this kind without being extremely sure and certain of the precise ecological results. This is not the kind of thing with which we can take risks.

The River Thames used, after all, to be one of the finest rivers for fish in the whole country. It used to have everything, from salmon to shrimps and lampreys and goodness knows what else. As a result of the sterling efforts of the GLC, and before it the LCC, the Thames is-once again becoming a fish river. We have 57 varieties of fish back in the Thames. Whether we will ever have salmon back remains to be seen, but we are doing very well. It would be a pity to prejudice this in any way. The Port of London, as the responsible authority, naturally wishes to be quite certain about the pollution and siltation results before supporting such a view.

Dr. Vaughan

I apologise for interrupting such a well thought-out and skilful exposition, but I want to ask my hon. Friend whether he can clear up one or two points. He has mentioned figures and we must be clear about this. He has spoken about one in 20 and one in 30. One of the dangers that I have heard is that there is at present a risk of one in 10 of water rising to the statutory defence levels. I shall be pleased to know whether this is correct. On the siltation side, which is the point on which I wanted to come in earlier, am I right in thinking that there has been some unexpected and serious siltation as a result of the changes around the Woolwich Ferry area, with the result that many of us are concerned that even without the rising barrier the installations around the barrier as suggested will lead to a serious siltation problem? Can my hon. Friend reassure us about this?

7.45 p.m.

Mr. Tugendhat

We are not at loggerheads on the figures, as may appear to be the case. There is, as I understand it, a one in 10 chance of the water reaching the highest level against which we have protection. Obviously, if the water reaches that level we are in serious danger and we would hope that the odds could be reduced. It is one in 10 that the water reaches that level and one in 30 that it actually overflows.

My hon. Friend's point concerning siltation is extremely well taken and shows the necessity of being very careful in these matters. The Central Electricity Generating Board is also very worried here because it believes that a continuous flow of tidal water is necessary for its power station operations and that if we do not have tidal water the temperature will rise and this may affect the way in which the power stations operate. None of this means that half-tide operation should be ruled out for all time. What it means is that before committing ourselves to half-tide operation we should be extremely careful about its implications. We should look carefully at all the possibilities on both sides.

The Bill is a matter of supreme urgency. Here we are with a one in 10 chance of crisis and a one in 30 chance of being flooded almost as we stand here.

Mr. John Loveridge (Hornchurch)

I was impressed to hear the care with which my hon. Friend spoke of the possible consequences and the uncertainty which must exist in any project of this nature. However, my constituents lie below the barrier and they are asking whether the use of this barrier will cause a backwash which may extend flooding into Rainham, for example. Can we have some assurances about that?

Mr. Tugendhat

I am delighted to say that the Bill is promoted by the GLC and supported by the Kent and Essex River Authorities. Certainly if the barrier were built without any kind of work taking place on the river it would have harmful effects. However, the barrier is only the centre piece of a whole programme to improve the safety of the river. When the flood defences downstream from the barrier have been completed, the work taking place simultaneously with the work on the barrier, my hon. Friend's constituents will be a great deal safer than they are at present. It was my hon. Friend's constituents and others in that part of the world rather than the people of central London who suffered the greatest loss when the Thames burst its banks in the early 1950s.

That should remind us of the urgency of the Bill. By all means let us consider ways in which it can be improved, by all means let us consider improving the barrier once work has begun. However, this is a Bill to which I ask the House to give a passage this evening.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

I must first congratulate the hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Tugendhat) on his introduction of this Bill. As he said, it is his maiden Bill.

The hon. Gentleman was very kind to me about certain matters in which I have taken an interest, but I must confess that I have a great deal to learn. I, too, have been involved in this matter for a considerable time. In fact, I first took an interest in it in 1953 when I was helping to fill sandbags on the East Coast. There was delay under many Governments and many public bodies who danced round each other like people in a ballroom until 1968, when the GLC really got something going.

I want to assure the House that the Motion in my name which may look dramatic in its intention to hold up the Bill for six months was merely a procedural matter to ensure that the Bill was debated tonight. Whatever we may feel about its merits or demerits, I am sure that we all agree that we ought to debate this very important matter so that its provisions can be scrutinised and so that history will say that the House performed its duty in debating it.

Likewise, the Amendment in my name is a probing one. The words of the Amendment were contained in the Bill when it came before the House and received a formal Second Reading. The Amendment seeks only to put back words which were deleted in Committee. They are not words that I have dreamed up myself. They appeared in the Bill when it came to this House from the GLC, and I have a special reason for wanting them restored.

The hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster said that the history of this Measure had been sometimes in agreement and sometimes controversial. I wish not to oppose its passage but merely to debate certain of its merits.

There are certain omissions. I have in mind the studies which led up to the Bill, and I wish to draw attention to those. The Select Committee which considered the Bill did some excellent work. I am glad to see the Chairman present. I assure him that I have read six of the seven days of the Committee's proceedings. The Committee did a good job. However, it was unaware of some of the wider considerations raised in this House in our earlier debates.

This matter has been under discussion in three debates already. On 9th November, 1970, my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) raised the matter on the Adjournment. He hopes to be here later but at the moment he is serving on the Standing Committee which is considering the Finance Bill. My hon. Friend's debate was followed by debates on 25th May, 1971, and 1st July, 1971, on the Greater London Council Bill, because it was thought right that certain of the matters connected with the Bill should be investigated at an early date. For that reason some hon. Members on this side of the House did not object on Second Reading as they wanted to give it a fair wind.

On the debate of 1st July, 1971,I asked a number of questions about the proposals for the barrier then available to the House. Unfortunately, I do not feel that those questions have been answered very satisfactorily. As I said, if we are to look at this Measure properly, it is right that this should be on the record.

There are three matters which arose out of that debate to which I wish to draw attention. The first is the design of the barrier which has been adopted, and what led up to it. The second is the way in which the navigation authorities concerned were or were not consulted. The third is the fact that we have not had any explanation from the GLC of connections between themselves, the navigation authorities and the Department of the Environment about the statement of the Secretary of State in December, 1970, on the design of the barrier.

The Secretary of State for the Environment announced in a Press statement in December, 1970, that he had decided that the barrier should be of the rising sector type. He said that it was a recommendation of the GLC. I will not rehearse my speech on 1st July, but it is on the record and it is clear that there was no recommendation from the GLC at that stage. As I understand it, the GLC did not approve the design until after the right hon. Gentleman's statement.

I did not think that that is good enough on a matter of this importance. It is not necessarily a matter that I wish to disinter by holding up the Bill. That would be irresponsible. But I have the gravest doubt about the way in which the design was worked out and the consequences of the events which followed. There may be good reasons for the adoption of the design. But the way in which it was done was wrong. There should have been more public knowledge at the time.

The second matter concerns the relationship with the navigation authorities. The hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster referred to Tower Bridge. The vessels which used to move through that bridge are much smaller than those moving up and down Woolwich Reach, they were fewer in number, and they are not under way at speed. The navigation risks attached to the barrier are such that the promoters have agreed to put tugs there on a permanent basis. The opening of 200 feet is less than the navigation authorities wanted. As I said on 1st July, Trinity House wrote saying that it had written to the Secretary of State for the Environment in December, 1970, stating that …a central drop gate opening, with a minimum width of 350 ft., flanked on either side by a 200 ft. rising sector gate was favoured, and that four 200-ft. rising sector gates were not attractive as they would require elaborate fendering. The hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster said that probably multiple gates were desirable. However, it would have been better to have had a direct comparison between four gates of the drop gate type with openings of perhaps 250 or 300 feet and the scheme now adopted. It is about that that I complained. As far as I know, that was never done.

The document suggesting that the rising sector design be adopted is a very thin one. I referred to it in our last debate. It is contained in Volume 3 of the second report of studies, "Barrier gate for 200 ft. clear opening". There is no reference to the GLC's letter. The terms of reference for this design were self-fulfilling. Furthermore, the report is not dated. For all that I know, it could have been the result of a telephone conversation.

This has not been in dispute, and it is not good enough for a design which is supposed to protect London from flooding and which is to cost up to £100 million together with its defence works. I am sorry that the two alternative structures, in both of which technical problems were involved, were not subjected to direct comparison, especially as one was preferred by the navigation authorities, and many very large ships still use Woolwich Reach.

Mr. J. T. Price

I have been following what my hon. Friend has said as diligently as possible. I served on the Select Committee which considered the Bill. The promoters attended all the sittings of the Committee for the best part of three weeks. Their technical advisers gave evidence and were cross-examined thoroughly by those who petitioned against the Bill. What puzzles me is how my hon. Friend explains that the promoters of the Bill were never brought up against the considerations that he now raises. I thought that they were disposed of in Committee. If there had been anything in them, they would have been brought up by those who represented Petitions to the Committee.

Mr. Spearing

I am glad that my hon. Friend raised that point. It illustrates the usefulness of the procedure of this House in having a Committee stage and a consideration. If my reply is somewhat lengthy, perhaps it will be seen in that context.

There were no objections from the navigation authorities. They accepted reluctantly the design imposed upon them, and that occurred at a more private meeting towards the end of 1970 in the Department of the Environment. This is a murky matter. I understand that their arms were twisted. They were told that this design of barrier was not only cheaper but that it could be built more quickly than their alternative. They were told, further, that if they persisted with their objection, they could be said to be stopping the protection of London from flood. Any petitioner who had come before my hon. Friend's Committee at that stage would have been told, "It is too late. We have started designing the chosen type of barrier. It has been under design for two years. The other one was dropped two years previously. If you persist in wanting a wider gate for navigation, you may well be holding up flood protection for London for two years." My suggestion to my hon. Friend is that no petitioner would dare do such a thing, any more than any hon. Member would dare hold up the Bill because of this matter. I hope that that at least satisfies my hon. Friend about what I think happened.

8.0 p.m.

The hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster has kindly outlined the principle of half-tide activity, but he has perhaps left out one of two important phrases, and I should like to mention those next. The half tide principle would not necessarily work all the time, and that is a cardinal point. In a Press release on 20th January, 1970, the GLC said: Provided further investigations show that the problems of delays and siltation can be solved at reasonable cost, a barrier capable of preventing the tide from falling below half tide level upstream could have amenity advantages.' I think that that is universally accepted.

The question now is the way in which the GLC went about considering the problems associated with this scheme, and I agree that there are many. Let us take siltation first. In its report of studies the GLC showed that the silting studies were associated with continuous half-tide working, and in a letter to me the Chairman of the GLC Public Services Committee, Mr. Black, from whom I have received every co-operation as, indeed, I have from all the officers, said: Expert opinion would probably support your supposition that the application of half-tide control on say 50 tides a year at weekends would have comparatively little effect on the pattern of siltation in the river…Our problems, however, are somewhat wider than this", and he stresses the urgency of the matter.

Whilst I agree that continuous half-tide working has many problems, including ground water either side of the river and the power station point which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, when it is used at weekends in the summer, or possibly on public holidays, and every alternate tide—at any rate day tides only—the problems are very much less. Unfortunately, the GLC has not found out what they are. Therefore, it may be that the problems which we have are far in excess of what they would be if half-tide working were confined to those periods when it would be of the greatest advantage.

The GLC was aware of the advantages of half-tide working, and that was stressed in many Council documents. But if one wanted to try that out there would have to be a provision in the Bill to enable one to see whether it worked, whether there were going to be any silting problems associated with it, and whether the barrier could work like that. There was provision in the Bill when it came before the House on Second Reading for those experiments to take place.

I concede at once that it would be inappropriate for the Bill to contain measures for permanent half-tide working, even on the basis of 50 tides a year. Of course, that would need further consideration and another Bill, but that was not what was proposed. What was proposed were powers to close the barrier occasionally for the purpose. It had been the intention of those who support the navigational and half-tide experiment and interest to seek an Amendment, possibly in another place, for powers for the GLC to put in a lock as well, but I understand that that is not now possible because in a Private Bill of this sort one cannot add another "work" which is not in the Bill at the beginning.

This is rather a serious point, because it meant that the GLC contemplated blocking the river for this experiment without putting in a lock at the start. That seems to me to be a major fault in the design of the Bill. It was perhaps a point that was noticed and the view was taken that the proposal would have to be withdrawn anyway as the petitioners rightly petitioned against the provision because of possible effects of silting and blocking of the river. The GLC put it in knowing that it could not reasonably remain because there was no lock which would be concomitant with that provision.

The Bill as presented has misled many people who thought "It is all right. There is provision for experimental working." The GLC must have known that it would not go ahead with a lock because there was no provision for a lock. It is this feature which is perhaps most important of all because if an iron curtain is to be flung across the river at any time the psychological effect on navigation or on people who would use the river for commercial purposes would be considerable.

It is said that the Thames is closed 10 days a year because of fog. It may be, but adding two or three days a year for tidal surge is something tangible. The risk of being held by a barrier without a lock would no doubt be considered by shipping interests and business men as something of a deterrent to the use of the river.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned one day a year, and 3¼ hours. I am surprised that the GLC has said that. I hope that that is what will occur, but there is no guarantee that that will be so. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman has mentioned a one in ten chance. If that is so, the barrier would need to be closed very much more frequently than that.

Mr. Tugendhat

I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument closely, but I think that there is a non sequitur there. There is a one in ten chance of the river reaching the highest flood prevention level at the moment. Not only are we building walls higher than the barrier itself, but we are preventing the water from rising upstream from the barrier. Therefore, the one in ten chance about which the hon. Gentleman is talking will be obsolete by the time the barrier is complete.

Mr. Spearing

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He did not mention one in ten in relation to the height. Would he not agree that the wall heights are being raised by only 18 inches? If there were a risk of the water rising to 18 feet, the barrier would be closed because nobody would be able to tell what a surge would do as it came up river. This is a point to bear in mind.

One must also bear in mind the point made by the hon. Member for Horn-church (Mr. Loveridge), that the later the barrier is closed the greater the reflecting wave. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford knows this. Therefore, when the GLC says that in a typical year it will be a late closure, it is omitting the fact that in Committee it was emphasised that the important thing to do was to close the barrier as near the previous water level as possible, and that means it is closed for a much longer length of time.

Dr. Vaughan

If the hon. Gentleman accepts that the average closure time per year is 4¼ hours, that is more than the figure given earlier. The other figure is that there is a chance every 10 years of up to 10 hours. Does the hon Gentleman still feel that it is worth while going to the enormous additional expense of putting in a lock?

Mr. Spearing

I am aware that the GLC said in its statement: In a typical year there may be one closure late on the rising tide for, say, 3¼ hours and, in addition, once every 10 years an early closure of, say, 10 hours duration". Those are not firm forecasts. There is a reference to "say, 3¼ hours", which is only 1½ hours each side of high tide. I should have thought that any operator of the barrier would have enough problems if he had to consider the navigational aspects of having to give notice to shipping. He would be in a much better position if there were a lock here because that element of closing the river to navigation would not be present.

The GLC has said that it would cost £4 million. I do not know whether that is an accurate figure. The size of lock need not necessarily be for sea-going ships. That would be very costly and big.

But I was coming to the point about the amount of traffic in the river. The GLC handout is not very realistic. The hon. Member mentioned three lockings an hour for large ships. That gives a very small throughput. The amount of traffic passing through Woolwich Reach at the moment is described in the GLC's table on page 9 of its second report of studies. This shows that in six-and-a-half hours on an average tide—not the maximum—there are 33 river craft and strings of barges passing through. That is not the sort of figure that we have here. The maximum is 53. I assume that this mention of strings of barges means up to seven craft and does not necessarily count each barge as a separate barge.

It goes on: An adjustment should be made to these figures to arrive at a forecast of future traffic levels. It points out that traffic is going down, but, as has been said in the House and frequently in the country, irrespective of whether we enter the Common Market or not, there are new developments in water transport, particularly in intercontinental transport, the new type of LASH lighters might put this figure up

If we accept the figure of an average of 33 craft on an average tide, at least there is more traffic passing through the reach than is supposed in the supporting statement. If we find that half-time working is practicable—the investigations have been unrealistic so far, because they have asked the wrong questions and have put down all the wrong desiderata—it cannot be tried out, because there is no lock.

It is these matters which cause some of us—excellent though many of the technical matters concerned with the Bill are—to pause and say that in certain respects it is wanting. In particular it is wanting because the Bill, due to its private nature, cannot be amended to include powers to construct a lock without going right back to the beginning. In terms of safety this is not possible.

We understand that the silting problem in Woolwich Reach is considerable and that the construction of a lock might introduce many other factors which have not yet been evaluated. But this should be looked at. We should have a direct statement from the GLC. It has conceded that 50 tides a year on intermittent half-time working is not what its investigations considered.

We have here a conflict of interest—the age-old conflict between the navigator and the landsman who requires flood prevention. In this respect, the navigator has been knocked on the head well and truly. Not enough consideration has been given to the design of the barriers or to the possibilities of half-tide working, which would in the end, for leisure purposes certainly, be of advantage, possibly to nagivators in the round.

There was not a properly considered compromise in the type of design. I hope that, in summing up, the Minister or the hon. Member will assure us that in future there will not only be proper consideration of these points but also future legislation, if the way is cleared for the sort of amenities which we feel the Thames deserves.

If nothing else, I hope that this debate will show that there is interest in this subject. If this had not been raised now, it might have been said in later discussion "It went through the Commons and no one raised a cheep". So often, when facilitating Measures in this House, hon. Members do not wish to take up the time of the House or force a vote, and promoters then say that objections have not been raised. That is not true in this case.

Of course we want the Bill to go through, but I at least regret that certain obvious and common sense questions were not asked at the right time, and above all that the sequence of events surrounding the discussions among the Great London Council, the Department of the Environment and the various navigational bodies was most unsatisfactory. I hope that, if a Measure of this sort ever comes before the House again, or if any such structure is built in any other river in this country, the arrangements will better in this respect.

8.15 p.m.

Mr. David James (Dorset, North)

I have great sympathy with the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing). We are both members of the inter-party committee on the recreational use of waterways. He may not know it, but I made my maiden speech on this very subject nearly 13 years ago. He has performed a public service in bringing up this matter as he has.

The hon. Member has paid tribute to the Committee of which the hon. Member for West Houghton (Mr. J. T. Price) and I were members. I have been authorised by the rest to say that we were entirely at one in our decision to grant the case to the promoters, although the hon. Gentleman will recognise that many of the points which he has raised today were not raised in Committee. We could only consider those matters which were raised. One might feel that if people felt very strongly about locks and design and so on, they had ample opportunity. We had 17 petitions to deal with, and another two or three would not have made much difference to us.

The answer to the constitutional problem which the hon. Member has raised is that it is up to petitioners to petition at the right time and not to expect the House—thank God, the hon. Gentleman is not asking this—to reach ad hoc decisions on these matters the day after the recess, when we are of necessity too ill-informed on the technical detail.

So the Committee, composed of two hon. Members from either side of the House, was absolutely unanimous in supporting my hon. Friend the Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Tugendhat) over the extreme urgency of the Bill. I will not quibble with him over the figures. Various estimates have come up, but a simple formula is that for every inch the barometer falls the sea level rises about a foot. Therefore, if the barometer falls from 32 to 27, there is five feet more tide inherent in the situation anyway.

When the barometer prophesies a gale, if the track of the depression across the North Sea is right, that gives rise to a north-easterly gale. Therefore, there is not only an inherently higher level, but the surge meets the counter-surge coming up the Channel, and there are only two places left for it to go; one is the Elbe or the Rhine and the other is the Thames.

This could cause a tragic situation. Whereas in the Middle Ages the Thames was tidal only up to the Pool of London, high tides are now just reaching Teddington Weir. Whether the odds are, as I was led to believe, 60 to 1 against, at this minute, or 30 to 1 against as the hon. Member for Acton said, as this construction will take six years to complete we can divide our figures by six in either event.

I agree with the hon. Member that the prospect of this House, the whole of Green Park, Buckingham Palace, halfway up St. James' Street, Victoria Street and so on being flooded during the next six years on odds which vary from 10 to 1 against in my submission and 5 to 1 against in his—the difference is neither here nor there—is horrifying. I am glad that he recognises that above all we must get on with the Bill.

If one were a film writer, one could write a good script on the subject. One starts to pick up these indications at Wick and they can be tracked down the East coast over a 12-hour period. If one wanted to write one of these "echo of doom" books, one could write a splendid scenario of the disaster to inner London which was correctly predicted at Wick—the depression deepens and the surge increases as they travel down the east coast, and it may reach the Wash with six hours to go, during which people in 45 square miles of London would know that the Underground system had to be evacuated, everyone had to try to get his books, pictures and chattels away from the scene, the House of Commons would be adjourned by you, Sir, and we would all have a "run from school", which we had before only when the Thames flooded the House drains. This is a very real possibility, and I am glad that everyone is seeing it in that way.

Reverting to the recreational use of the Thames, I accept that it would obviously be impossible to introduce a lock other than possibly by negotiation at a later stage. In six years, much can change. I have today consulted informally various users of the Thames about whether this barrage, if used operationally in such a way as to maintain half-time levels during weekends, bank holidays and so on, would prove a difficulty, and I find that the objections are still quite formidable.

No one can predict what will happen in future. At present the future of the King George V Dock is in doubt. However, 12,000-ton liners are still going there, but whether they will continue to do so in the six years while the barrier is being built nobody knows. Coasters are also involved, going up and down the Thames, and they make frequent use of this water at weekends.

One must also bear in mind the barge traffic, details of which the Committee was given. I am told by one barge company which I consulted informally that it tries to do away with weekend working but requires to use the water about one weekend in four. I am informed that a string of six barges had to go up on the tide yesterday.

A question which escaped my notice and that of a number of others is the fact that companies operating barges and tugs do most of their maintenance work at weekends; and if there is a half-tide situation above the barrage at weekends, it will be impossible for them to dry out their barges and tugs to enable them to be repaired. There are, therefore, some formidable operational difficulties.

At the same time the situation is quite fluid in relation to traffic flow on the Thames. This situation is changing from year to year. We may find that what is a great operational problem today will be a negligible one in six years' time owing to greater use being made of Tilbury and Felixstowe and because of changes generally which will have taken place by them. I suggest that the best course open to the House is to give the Bill a fair wind, bearing in mind the unparallelled disaster that could take place unless it gets through tonight.

Let us see what common sense and negotiation can do. I can speak on behalf of all members of the Committee when I say that the GLC has been anxious to meet people's points of view Thirteen out of 17 petitions were settled out of court, as it were. There is a real wish to help, and I believe that anything that was not brought before the Committee can be settled by negotiation in the next few months.

My hon. Friend the Member for Horn-church (Mr. Loveridge) expressed worry about the counter-surge effects. We went into this in considerable detail, and the answer is that at the point where the barrage will be built the counter-surge effect could be of the order of 6 ft. By the time one gets right down the Thames it has been reduced to 3 ins. and everyone—the Essex, Kent and other local authorities—involved in raising defences knows exactly what the counter-surge could be at each particular point.

While I commend the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter, which is of extreme importance, I assure him that everything put before the Committee was gone into very seriously. Possibly in future it might be better if more matters were laid before the Committee. We spent 28 hours on the Bill. We were the first Committee ever to go to the site of one of these projects, and that was due to the initiative of the Chairman of Ways and Means. It is at that point that matters of this sort should be raised, rather than on the Floor of the House.

I commend the Bill and hope that it receives a speedy and safe passage.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

I am glad to be able to support the Bill, not only as an hon. Member of this House but also as a member of the Greater London Council, as I am proud to be.

I was glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. David James) praise the GLC and its colleagues in promoting the Bill for the way the matter had been conducted before the Committee. As I have often said, this barrier is urgently needed.

I wish, first, to refer to the effects of the barrier on my constituency before commenting on the graver risks in central London. In East Twickenham, in my constituency, the GLC two years ago built flood walls as an interim emergency measure to save a considerable number of local residents who live on low-lying ground nearby, some in basements, from the risk of being drowned and also to prevent damage to houses in the area.

The cost of that work was only £60,000, which in my view was abundantly justified even if the work is required for only about eight years, until the main barrier is built. Of that sum about 80 per cent. was carried by the Exchequer and the remaining £12,000 went on the GLC rates, which meant that only between £300 and £500 fell on the ratepayers of the Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames.

Other parts of Twickenham still suffer from floods. I refer to those parts not covered by the walls, such as the Embankment and Riverside area of the constituency where still several times each winter roads can be blocked, houses cut off, cars damaged and gardens harmed. The Bill will stop the worst of these floods in six years' time.

The risks in central London are very much greater. I am advised that the risk of a flood over-topping the Victoria Embankment wall in any one year is one in 10 but that the risk of its being overtopped by water 1 ft. higher than the level of the walls is one in 30. If that were to happen, there would be a risk of London's Underground system being flooded.

The risk to life is uncertain. The last flood in which lives were lost came from a North Sea surge in 1953 when a hump of water of the type described by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North came down the North Sea and drowned 250 people at Mablethorpe and Skegness in Lincolnshire, and I imagine that was the incident to which the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) was referring when he spoke of heaping sandbags. In the same surge in 1953, 50 people were drowned at Canvey Island in Essex. There were then no fatal effects in central London, where the last fatal accident from such a surge occurred in 1928, when 14 people were drowned. That led to the raising of the present walls to the level at which most of them now stand.

The risk of such a surge coming up the Thames is increasing every year because London is sinking relative to the level of the sea and also because of the channels that are made in the Thames Estuary by dredgers facilitating supertankers coming up the estuary, helping surges to flow upstream. It is absolutely right that the Bill should go ahead at full speed.

8.30 p.m.

It is pertinent to refer to the report four years ago of Professor Bondi, who was then Professor of Mathematics at the University of London. He was commissioned by the last Government in 1966 to write a report on the risks of flooding in central London. The gist of his report was that there was an unacceptable risk, increasing year by year, of a major flood catastrophe. He reported that the damage would be so severe in human and economic terms that action was imperative. He assessed the economic costs as being of the order of £1,000 million. That was presumably at 1966 prices, so it is now perhaps one-third as much again.

Professor Bondi said that if the London Underground were flooded it would probably be a period of six to eight months before it could be restored to action again. He described this as being a knock-out blow to the nerve centre of the country.

Mr. James Well beloved (Erith and Crayford)

In the hon. Gentleman's study of the Bondi Report, did he note that section which recommended that, because of the grave danger to London's Underground, a trial evacuation should be carried out to test the defences of the Underground? That recommendation has never been put into effect. Therefore, are not the present Government and their predecessors responsible for having taken a risk with the population of London who use the Underground?

Mr. Jessel

I did read that part of Professor Bondi's report, although not recently. I recall that there was some connected mention of warning systems I imagine that such an evacuation of the Underground has been thought unnecessary because the warning system would operate many hours ahead. My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North said that these flood surges could be detected as far north as Wick and this would make it possible for many hours of warning of any risk to be available to the London Underground.

That means the risk to human life in the Underground would be virtually removed, but the risk of the Underground getting flooded would not be removed. Therefore, the damage to the Underground would be economic rather than danger to life. The damage that would be suffered economically from the closure of the Underground from six to eight months would be great. A large proportion of people who work in greater London depend on the Underground to get to work. Our road system could not cope with all the traffic, and the efficiency of business, Government, local government and all commercial and manufacturing institutions would be gravely reduced. That would cause economic harm not only to people based in greater London but to the country as a whole. This would happen in any country if its capital were throttled in any way.

Mr. J. T. Price

In case this debate causes unnecessary alarm and despondency if it is reported in the Press, I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that, although I sat on the Committee for several weeks and listened to the technical experts discussing the grave risk of the flooding of the Underground, there are heavily armoured bulkhead gates to protect the Underground system against flooding providing that proper warning is given from the Wick station in the north of Scotland. We can shut off large sections of the Underground with powerful steel gates that have been erected for that purpose. That should be known for the comfort of people who ride on the Underground.

Mr. Jessel

I imagine that London Transport has improved the bulkheads since the writing of the Bondi Report. However, a certain amount of alarm and despondency should be created. I have here a letter from Lord Bowden, Principal of the Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, which appeared in The Times about 18 months ago. He said: The matter is so grave that the public should be fully informed. It is necessary that the public should appreciate the dangers arising in London from the flood risk so that they will more easily accept the decision of the Government, the Greater London Council and the other authorities to spend such a large sum as £75 million on flood prevention. Unless a certain amount of alarm and despondency is aroused it will be difficult to get the public to accept expenditure of so large a sum.

Mr. David James

Further to the point raised by the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. J. T. Price), my understanding is that the heavy gates to protect the Underground system were installed during the war to prevent the Underground system being breached by bombs falling in the Thames. If I am right what is there to prevent all the water going down the station beyond New Palace Yard after a surge of the type we are discussing? There are no measures to prevent it going down the staircase.

Mr. Jessel

That point seems to be valid. It would apply also to Temple station and to several other stations not far from the river. The peril is so great to people in central London that anyone who attempted to delay this project, even for only one winter season, would carry a very heavy responsibility.

The hon. Member for Acton said that he will not obstruct the Bill or delay the project but that he would like to see it improved. I again quote from Lord Bowden's letter to The Times of 18 months ago: I doubt if any impending disaster has been so completely studied, or if so much thought over a period of 17 years has ever led to so little action. I suspect that far too much time has been spent in trying to decide on the best possible solution to the problem. I believe it to be a profound mistake to try to find the best solution…The best may never be found and the second best may come too late to save us. I entirely support what Lord Bowden said; and for goodness sake let us get on with it.

Mr. Spearing

I wish to make it quite clear that I do not wish to stop the Bill at this stage. I have not said that we should find a better solution and take longer about it. What I have said is that in the course of arriving at this solution certain obvious questions which should have been asked were not asked, particularly about half-tide working, and that the recommendations, the investigations and the constitutional proceedures between various bodies were not as they should have been. I should not like the hon. Gentleman to think that I wish to delay the Bill or the project. I say simply that what should have been done has not been done.

Mr. Jessel

I remember the question of a lock being discussed several times in committees of the Greater London Council. I was not a member of the relevant committee, but I sat in on it sometimes. I believe that the case for a lock has not been demonstrated. From a shipping point of view when the barriers are down, which is about 99½ per cent. of the time, there is no need for a lock anyway, because the ships can just go through where the barrier is. Therefore, there is no need for a lock from a shipping point of view. It is purely a recreational and amenity concept.

The recreational aspect of the Thames can, perhaps, be divided into two parts. One is floating about on it and the other is looking at it. People seem to manage to float about on it successfuly now, although the water level rises and falls. As to looking at the Thames, it is all very well to hope that it will look nice but, as my hon. Friend the Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Tugendhat) said, there are some people who like to look at the mudflats. My hon. Friend conjured up a picture of seagulls strutting about amid the flotsam and jetsam and said that someone had painted a good picture of the mudflats. I do not dispute this view, but I rather prefer to see the river looking full of water, as it is in my constituency because of the half lock at Richmond which keeps the water in the river upstream from Richmond to where the tidal part ends at Teddington.

I cannot see that the case for a half lock is so compelling as to justify the expenditure of well over £4 million on it. Further, the port is gradually moving downstream. The docks closer to the centre of London are closing. In 20, 30 or 40 years' time they will nearly all be downstream from Silvertown and then the time may be right to consider spending £4 million to £10 million on a lock to keep the river looking nice and full.

There are so many compelling social needs in housing, health and education that I cannot believe that a predilection for looking at the river when it is nice and full of water justifies spending £4 million to £10 million on it, when the Central Electricity Generating Board, the Port of London Authority and so many other bodies concerned see so many objections to it.

I support the Bill as it stands. I hope that it will go through Parliament lickety-spit without further delay.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Peter Mills)

Perhaps I may intervene in the debate at this juncture to put the Government's point of view, which might be helpful. Before I do so, I congratulate the Committee on the way that it dealt with these matters. I have tried to do my homework over the weekend and have read much of what went on, looking at the brochure and so on, and I imagine that it was one of the most interesting Committees.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. David James) on the way he has conducted his affairs. Even though there are times when one feels that one never wants to get on to a Committee, from all that I have read and all that I have heard in the debate I feel that it must have been a very interesting Committee; far more interesting, perhaps, than some of the usual Committees on which one has to sit.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Tugendhat) on his introduction and the way that he presented the case. So far we have had a very interesting debate.

The Government's views are simply these. The Government have always welcomed the Bill; and I am happy to say that there is nothing in it, as amended, to make it any less welcome.

The main purpose of the Bill is to assist the promoters in implementing the Thames Tidal Flood Protection Scheme. This project, which I have already implied has the Government's full approval, is designed to protect from tidal flooding extensive areas along the estuarial Thames, including Central London—and, indeed, this House, which is something very important to us here. The Government have agreed, subject to the approval of Parliament, that the Greater London Council should construct a movable tidal exclusion barrier in the Thames, rather than a fixed barrier or an extensive and massive wall raised along the length of the river; that this barrier should be of the rising sector type rather than the more familiar drop gate variety; and that the structure should be sited at Silver-town rather than the several other sites which had been considered. To complement the barrier the Government have also agreed to the consequent improvement to the riverside defences downstream and, pending completion of the barrier, to interim works for the protection of Central London. This is most necessary when one remembers that this is the national capital and that London is part of our heritage. Therefore, it is absolutely vital that this should be protected.

The different phases of the scheme are still in the various stages of design, but the Government have shown their approval by agreeing to grant-aid the capital expenditure of the GLC and the Lee Conservancy at a rate of 65 per cent. and that of the Essex and Kent River Authorities at a rate of 80 per cent.

Mr. Peter Trew (Dartford)

On the question of the 80 per cent. grant to downstream authorities, my hon. Friend will know that the downstream flood defences have to be raised for two reasons, namely, the reflected wave effect of the barrier and changing tidal conditions. Does the 80 per cent. grant apply only to that part of the raising of flood defences attributable to the Thames flood barrier or does it also apply to the raising of flood defences for changing tidal conditions?

Mr. Mills

Frankly, I am not too sure about that. If my hon. Friend would allow me to continue, he would see that this is an estimate and that much more will probably have to be done and other matters will have to be examined. If I can finish my speech my hon. Friend may find this matter covered.

The capital cost of the works in connection with which powers are being sought in the Bill is currently estimated at £58 million. Grant on costs of this order would amount to £40 million. The House will wish to know that the works covered by the Bill form only part of the scheme as a whole. Works already permissible under existing land drainage legislation are at present estimated to cost £67 million, grant on which would amount to £49 million. The whole scheme, therefore, is estimated to cost about £125 million, of which grant would be about £89 million. I emphasise, however, that these figures can be no more than very tentative estimates based on current costs, and this is important. As I have already said, the scheme is still in the design stage, and some aspects, particularly the downstream works, are only at the preliminary planning stage. Investigations at present being undertaken will allow needs to be assessed precisely, and this in turn will permit better estimates to be made. I am sure that the House will agree that we must look into these matters very carefully and be precise about them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading (Dr. Vaughan) mentioned the question of siltation—silting, as I call it. There is provision in the Bill for dredging by the GLC to counter any siltation due to the barrier. Alternatively, compensation can be paid. Both are covered by grant arrangements. I am told that it is a matter of dispute in the courts as to whether Woolwich Ferry is subject to siltation. Trials have been undertaken with a model on these problems and difficulties, but we need to carry out further investigations into cost.

These are very large sums of money. But the cost of the only alternative to a barrier—raising the existing defences, along almost the full length of the tidal Thames—would be even higher, not only in money but also in environmental terms. I feel certainthat all of us who love our capital city would prefer to see a barrier rather than river walls which deprived us of a view of our great river.

Mr. Well beloved

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us whether the rising sector gate type barrier has been in operation in any other part of the world or whether the proposals in the Bill relate to a completely untried scheme which is merely an engineering dream?

Mr. Mills

These matters have been looked at very carefully. I am sure that the engineers have taken all the problems into account. This is such an important scheme of tremendous cost that they would not deal with these matters lightly. They believe that what is suggested is right and feasible, and we must rely on their judgment. After all, they are qualified engineers.

The House will know that there is an increasing danger of the Thames overflowing its banks and flooding substantial parts of inner London. We have had some serious warnings from my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North, who talked about "Doomwatch". After what he said, I think that he may well be asked to write a script for it. The cost of such a disaster as the Thames overflowing in terms of loss of life, damage to property, and disruption to the everyday life of the capital would be incalculable. The Government are satisfied that the powers sought in the Bill are necessary and that the cost of the works covered by the Bill is justified. I have no hesitation therefore in recommending to the House that the Committee's report be accepted.

The hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) made a constructive and interesting speech. Obviously he has a firm grasp of the problem. The Government would not have been very happy with his Amendment because they believe that the primary purpose of the barrier must be to prevent flooding. I understand, however, that the Government would have no objection in principle to providing in later legislation for half-tide control if that were proved to be feasible.

This is a very important Bill, and I hope that the House will welcome it, because the task is urgent. I commend the Bill to the House.

8.50 p.m.

Mr. Peter Trew (Dartford)

I would like to say a little more about the downstream flood defences to which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary referred. I accept entirely the great risk to which London is exposed and the absolute necessity for getting on with the Thames flood barrier as quickly as possible. The Government and the Greater London Council are to be congratulated on the speed at which they are bringing this great and imaginative scheme to fruition. But as my hon. Friend has already told us there is a vast amount of work to be done downstream. Provisional estimates show that while the flood barrier itself will cost £39 million, the downstream flood defences will cost £77 million.

The raising of the flood defences is needed for two reasons. The first is the reflected wave from the barrier which is effective for about 20 miles downstream. The second is that this corner of England is sinking and tidal conditions are changing. The combined result is that for 20 miles downstream on either bank the flood defences will have to be raised by between 3 ft. and 6 ft. In spite of many assurances from the Government and the drainage authorities there is still concern in downstream areas about the time it will take to complete the work. The concern arises because of the complexity of the task. The raising of the flood defences to the extent necessary is in itself an enormous task of civil engineering. It is complicated on the Essex side because of the many creeks and islands. On the Kent side, while the coastline is more straightforward, a great deal of structural work is required. On both sides the question is raised of the capacity of the subsoil to take flood defences. Therefore, in the purely technical sense it is a task of great complexity.

It is also complex from the administrative and the financial points of view. Administratively it is complex because about 1,000 frontages, each under different ownership, some owned by local authorities but most owned by private individuals, are involved. Some of these privately-owned frontages are at the moment unprotected by the river authorities. In a Written Answer on 17th May last my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary told me that there were 70 such privately-owned frontages on the Kent side. I would like to know what powers the river authorities have to compel the owners of these privately-owned frontages to raise their defences. If they have no such powers and if the owners cannot be persuaded to raise their frontages there is a great risk that the flood defences will be breached. There may be various reasons why the owners may not be amenable to raising their frontages. The erection of flood defences in certain positions might interfere with their businesses, or they might find the cost prohibitive, even the comparatively small proportion of the cost that they would have to contribute. This problem is one about which I would like an answer.

Even in the case of the private frontages which are protected by the river authorities the question arises of what powers the authorities possess to enter upon those frontages and to carry out further works. There are also the financial implications and the negotiations that will stem from them. When I intervened while my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary was speaking I raised the question of the rate of grant that was applicable to the raising of flood defences. It is generally known and accepted that there is an 80 per cent. grant attributable to the raising of the walls within the reflected wave area.

A considerable proportion of the work, however, is due to changes in tidal conditions. I believe that this will attract only the normal rate of grant aid applicable to river authority work. If this is so, I envisage long and protracted negotiations on the exact rate of grant applicable to a given stretch of flood wall. If a lower rate of grant is applicable to the normal flood defences and a higher rate of grant is applicable to that proportion which can be attributed to the Thames flood barrier, the owner will do his best to try to persuade whoever is paying out the money that most of the work is due to the Thames flood barrier. This possibly will increase delays in starting work and getting the flood defences built.

I can think of one example where there is considerable scope for argument. I refer to the situation in Dartford Creek on one of the boundaries of my constituency. Half of Dartford Creek is in the greater London area where the rate of grant is 65 per cent.; the other half of the creek is in the Kent River Authority area where the rate of grant is 80 per cent. I understand that this applies only to work necessary in terms of the reflected wave effect of the barrier, and not to work due to changing tidal conditions. It is proposed to build in the creek a mini-barrier costing £2¼ million, but before this can be built the question of how much grant is payable in respect of which part of the mini-barrier has to be resolved. There are understandable fears in these areas that this will greatly delay the start of the work.

I have said that assurances have been given and that the downstream areas will not be unprotected.

Mr. Tugendhat

My hon. Friend might like to know that I have managed to obtain some information on the points which were concerning him. The downstream authorities do not have powers to compel, but they can undertake the work themselves. It is envisaged that, in circumstances in which the riparian owners will be the people most immediately threatened, co-operation will be the order of the day in most cases. On the question of grant it would be helpful to have a little more time to deal with this problem, but for the normal river defences the grant will be 80 per cent. If my hon. Friend has any more detailed queries, they can be taken up with the sponsors of the Bill.

Mr. Trew

I am grateful for that information. The point which I made earlier when suggesting that the matter still has to be resolved and is one of great complexity which could involve protracted negotiations is still valid. This is one reason why there is still considerable concern in downstream areas on the question of whether the flood defences will be completed before the Thames flood barrier is in operation.

I tabled a Question on this subject on 17th May, and my hon. Friend replied in a Written Answer to the effect that the downstream defences for those areas of comparable importance to London and those areas where there is appreciable risk of loss of life or damage to property would be completed by the time the barrier was in operation. He said that repeated assurances had been given to this effect. That is true, but my hon. Friend would agree that it is fair to say that as time has passed those assurances have tended to become increasingly qualified. Indeed my hon. Friend has qualified them by saying that they would apply to areas of comparable risk to London and areas with a high risk to life and property.

What people in the downstream areas want to know is who is to be the arbiter of which areas are at risk and must be protected, and which areas are not at risk and can be left unprotected. When are we to know these matters? All those who live in the downstream areas are entitled to know in which category they are to be placed. I do not expect an answer now, but it is right that I should voice these fears so that we may have answers to them as soon as possible.

I conclude by saying that I accept it is absolutely imperative for the Thames flood barrier to be built as quickly as possible, but we in the downstream areas have legitimate fears and look forward to hearing answers to these fears as soon as possible.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. Wellbeloved

I make no apology for having been jointly responsible with my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) for the Motion which has led to this debate. It would have been outrageous if a Bill containing proposals of this magnitude and importance for our capital city had slipped through Parliament without a debate.

The hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Tugendhat) and the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) reminded the House of the enormous risk which now prevails in London from the threat of a Thames flood. I come from the constituency of Erith and Crayford in the London Borough of Bexley, which has a flood plain that was engulfed in the 1953 flood because of a breach in the river wall. A wall of water several feet high swept across the Erith marshes flooding up to Belvedere railway station. So I share their views of the danger involved.

One of my complaints is that the very land engulfed in 1953, the Erith marshes, is now land upon which the Greater London Council's dream town of Thames mead is being built. It was originally conceived to hold 60,000 people, but I understand that this has been reduced to about 45,000. All of these people are being put upon land known to be subject to flood risk.

When the proposals for a Thames flood barrier were first being mooted, it was suggested that the best site would be at the edge of the GLC's area at a site called Crayfordness. At a public inquiry held by the Minister of Housing and Local Government in 1967 into the Thamesmead proposals, the GLC gave solemn evidence to the inspector, and through him to the Minister, that in its view the best site for a Thames flood barrier would be downstream from Thamesmead. It is one of my complaints that that promise to ensure that the people being put upon this flood plain would have the maximum possible protection that a barrier could give has been betrayed by the GLC.

I hasten to add that this does not mean that it is my intention now or at any other stage of the progress of the Bill to hold it up or in any way prevent its passage into law, because I share the view that, despite all the disappointments and despite the sense of betrayal rightly held in that area, it is now essential that the project should go ahead because of the dangers to London as a whole.

The hon. Member for Twickenham dealt with the situation in respect of the London Underground. He referred to Professor Herman Bondi's report. This was one of several reports but a most important one, and it contained a clear evaluation of the danger that exists to the London Underground system and the very grave loss of life that could take place if there were a breach in the river wall. As we meet here in Parliament tonight, the river wall has been raised at many parts of the embankment, certainly at the Houses of Parliament and other places, and the work is also progressing in my constituency.

But if, by some unforeseen circumstance, before the barrier is erected the river wall should be breached—and this is not beyond the bounds of possibility—we could have a flood of London's Underground system. It is my view that my own Government when in office failed in their responsibility to give effect to Professor Bondi's recommendation for a trial evacuation in working circumstances on the Underground. I really believe that, faced with this debate this evening, the Parliamentary Secretary has a responsibility to reconsider Bondi's recommendation and to carry out that trial evacuation, because it would be a tragedy if a breach occurred and the Underground were flooded and if loss of life should occur because of the inadequacies of the emergency arrangements.

Mr. Peter Mills

I have been listening with great interest to what the hon. Gentleman has been saying, but surely, to reassure people, he will agree that there is an adequate warning system which could be put into operation, so that the situation is not quite as serious as he suggests? I think that ought to be said.

Mr. Well beloved

I do not wish to be alarmist, but I believe the situation to be so grave that we have in this debate a duty to spell out the risk, without wishing to be unnecessarily alarmist. When the hon. Gentleman says that there is a warning system, he is correct, and it is a much improved warning system. I accept that, and the public to that degree can be reassured, but I say again that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that in a period of high surge, when warning has gone out and the Underground authorities have to put across the entrances to the Underground the planks of wood, the baulks of timber, which are the first defences to stop water going down into the Underground, there could still be, till the barrier is in position, a breach of the river wall, an overtopping of the river wall, and that it could engulf the Underground, because the water could pass over the bulkheads, which are not all in position, and the provisions have not been properly tried on the Underground.

Even so, with the bulkheads in position, the Underground has to be evacuated. I am satisfied that the London Underground authorities have effective contingency plans ready to put into operation, but Professor Bondi was also aware of those contingency plans, and yet, despite that, he believed, on his evaluation, that there should be a trial evacuation. I share his view, and I charge the Parliamentary Secretary to review the situation and to take a decision to carry out that recommendation by Professor Bondi. I leave that subject at that.

The hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Trew) has rendered a service to downstream authorities by bringing with such clarity to the House this evening the problems which confront them not only on the basis of the reflective wave but also in normal river flood protection. My constituency is faced with problems similar to those which hon. Members from the Kent area have. Not only my local authority, but also many of the frontages to the river are concerned about the cost of the scheme and how it is to be applied.

It is not only a question of the percentage which the Government rightly should bear—and that percentage should be as high as it is possible to squeeze from the Treasury; but it is also a question of straight compensation for operators on the river who are disturbed in their normal occupations in carrying out their industry or commerce while banks are being raised and strengthened.

There are questions about cranes which at the moment are able to lift goods from barges on to land by having to go over walls of only relatively small height. If another three or six feet is put on it may be that new cranes will have to be installed, new ramps may have to be built. All sorts of things will have to be done to enable these Thames companies to survive. As far as I am aware from advice given to me, there is still grave doubt and serious uncertainty about the type of compensation to be paid for loss of operational ability.

Mr. J. T. Price

Before that argument is followed any further perhaps I might be allowed to remind my hon. Friend that all the petitions orginally lodged by the frontagers, the commercial operators who have wharfages and river frontages, were disposed of by negotiation during Committee stage. I have heard nothing to support the contention being advanced that there is grave doubt about this. The GLC and those responsible for the promotion of the Bill have given ample assurance to those petitioners, and it is not right to say that there is still grave doubt.

Mr. Wellbeloved

My hon. Friend had the privilege of serving on that Committee and is familiar with its proceedings. He may take it from me that the general public do not share his familiarity with the details of the Bill. This is why we should have this kind of debate so that the promoters, the Government and my hon. Friend can spell out to a wider audience what went on in the relative calm—I will not say secrecy, because it was not a secret Committee—of that Committee.

I am sure that if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friend may be able to enlighten my constituents about the true facts. At present there is this apprehension in my area, and it is my responsibility to voice it. The Government or the promoters have a duty to spell out in more detail the proposals for compensation and not simply confine their remarks to the proposals dealing with the owners of industry on the river banks.

There is a chance that a considerable number of jobs belonging to ordinary decent Londoners may be lost while the raising of the banks is carried out. Those citizens of London are also entitled to compensation for loss of employment while this work is taking place. The GLC and the Government have a responsibility to finance that compensation. I hope that we will hear more of this. Although I am anxious to see a speedy passage for this Bill, the House will understand that we cannot give it a speedy passage if some of these vital matters are left unanswered.

9.15 p.m.

I turn to the question of silting. The position below the barrier could be serious. The Parliamentary Secretary referred to Woolwich Reach. Right down to Erith Reach and the Rands the silting pattern could be disturbed. There is serious worry about the effect on the riverfront users of the changes in the régime of the river that will result from the construction of the barrier. Although this may have been covered in Committee, it should be spelled out to a wider audience this evening. It is no good relying upon what took place in the quietness of the Committee. These vital matters need to be dealt with publicly on the Floor of the House so that they are more readily available to the population.

I intervened in the Parliamentary Secretary's speech to ask him about the rising sector type of barrier and whether he could give an illustration of anywhere in the world where such a scheme is in operation. I am worried that there may be difficulties when the thing is complete. When we have spent this vast amount of money what real guarantees exist that the Thames flood barrier will operate as it is designed to operate and as it is hoped it will operate? It is a new and untried design. We need a little more assurance about its certainty of operation.

I have voiced some of the fears and worries of the people I represent. I hope that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Tugendhat) will have an opportunity of saying a few words before the debate ends to cover the points I have raised. The passage of the Bill can only be expedited if there is the fullest public disclosure of all the facts.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles (Winchester)

It is not often that we have such an interesting debate considering large engineering works which, as it were, alter the face of Nature. A debate of this kind is a great deal more profitable than the picking out of one another's eyes that we so often indulge in in this Chamber.

As regards the risk, some hon. Members on both sides of the House seem to want us to blow up our lifebelts right away. However, I have seen the Operations Room in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food with its clicking machines giving warning of likely floods, and I know that there is a projected siren warning scheme. However, this should be made more widely known. Otherwise, if a siren should blow one sunny afternoon, the public will go about their business imagining that a television company is making yet another film of the Battle of Britain. If this warning system exists, its existence should be made more widely known than it is at present.

The more significant point that I wish to raise before giving my support to the Bill is a matter for my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. He indicated that the Government had a benevolent attitude to this. However, the important question is whether we are taking a big enough bite at the cherry.

Arguments have been put forward in favour of a Thames dam, for a vast reclaimed area below the dam and for a canal to the heart of London. We need a new deep water port. We need a huge new London airport complex. We need vast new areas of land for industrial and housing development. On the other side of the North Sea the Dutch are increasing the area of their country enormously by means of such schemes. It has been suggested that we could reclaim huge areas in the Thames Estuary. Can my hon. Friend say whether these much bigger schemes have been considered and rejected. Can we be assured that we are thinking big enough and positively enough on this very important subject?

Mr. Tugendhat

With the permission of the House, I should like to reply. I cannot answer on behalf of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary the significant point raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles). However, I am sure that his point has been noted and the Ministry will provide an answer on a more direct basis.

I want to try to take up one or two of the points raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. In doing so, I hope that it is recognised that the sponsor of a Private Bill is at a disadvantage compared with a Miinster. A Minister has a direct link with his advisers and can be refreshed with information as and when required. Though my advisers on this occasion are present, they are in an inaccessible position. As a result, I think it is best to say that many of the points raised in the debate have been noted and hon. Members will be communicated with on a direct basis.

I take up first one of the points made by the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing). He made a number of points which, though very strong, have in a sense been overtaken by the passage of time. He spoke about past events which he would not like to see happen again and which do not affect the Bill as it stands at present. However, the hon. Gentleman referred to navigation, and there is one point in that connection which it is worth making.

As envisaged, the barrier will be able to accommodate ships of up to 14,000 tons. Given the present developing pattern of the international merchant marine, this is a fairly significant figure. Today, as a result of the bulk transportation of oil and raw materials and the development of containerisation, we have very much larger ships than we have seen hitherto. In no circumstances would ships of 100,000, 200,000 and 300,000 tons have come up the Thames. However, in conjunction with them we have a pattern of smaller ships plying the shorter and coastal routes. With the main London docks moving downstream towards the North Sea, I think that 14,000-ton ships will prove sufficient for our needs.

Another point raised concerned compensation. Hon. Members will be aware that in this extremely formidable looking Bill, there is specific reference to compensation in Clause 16, which goes into the matter in considerable detail.

I accept completely the point made by the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Well beloved) that what goes on in a Private Bill Committee and what is published in a Bill are not always readily accessible to those most affected. In fact one of the matters that we are learning about every aspect of government, both local and central, as it affects the lives of ordinary people is that even though authority may not have too much power, often it seems to have because people do not know what is going on and what is being planned. One sees this especially in planning applications. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's point is well taken and that the maximum publicity to these provisions ought to be given. I am certain that the GLC will bear it in mind.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Trew) also raised a point about payments and compensations. I attempted to meet one of his queries in an intervention when I pointed out that the river authorities would be able to get 80 per cent. grant. I should have added—this will help to put his mind at rest—that the GLC will be paying the full costof the effects of reflected wave. In other words, it is not the case that the GLC will be putting up a barrier, creating difficulties for others and leaving them to deal with those as best they can. Reflected wave which is a direct result of the barrier will be paid for by the GLC.

Mr. Trew

If I have understood my hon. Friend correctly, along the length of the wall there will be attracted grant worth 80 per cent. or 100 per cent. This is bound to make negotiations complicated because of the need to decide which portion qualifies for which rate of grant.

Mr. Tugendhat

The fact that complicated negotiations are likely to arise is indeed the case. I know that my hon. Friend would not wish me to attempt to commit the GLC or any other authority to any particular course of action at this stage. The point he makes about negotiations being complicated must receive serious consideration and I agree that work on that should be started as soon as possible.

These were some of the main points which emerged from the debate. It is right that we should have devoted so much time, even in a busy parliamentary programme, to a Bill which will cost the nation anything from £70 million to £100 million. These sums should not be spent lightly and without due consideration. As the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Well beloved), like me, is playing truant from the Standing Committee on the Finance Bill, I know that he and I are at one on that.

I know too that the GLC will appreciate the kind words that have been said about it by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I am glad that on this, the first occasion on which I have introduced a Bill for the GLC, the House has agreed with the necessity of getting this Measure forward as quickly as possible. I am sure that in return for the co-operation which hon. Members have shown and the many interesting and salient points they have raised, full consideration will be given to their observations.

Mr. Well beloved

Will the GLC be writing to each hon. Member answering the various points that have been raised so that we may be in a position to put a complete answer to our constituents?

Mr. Tugendhat

Not only will the GLC be writing to the hon. Gentleman and others who have raised matters, but I am assured by my ministerial colleagues that the Government will do so as well. In other words, hon. Members can expect two letters on each point. With that assurance I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill, as amended, considered accordingly.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Does the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) wish to move his Amendment?

Mr. Spearing

No, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Bill to be read the Third time.