HC Deb 07 May 1975 vol 891 cc1580-6

10.40 p.m.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

I am grateful to have this opportunity of ventilating on the Floor of the House a most extraordinary example of official delay and unwillingness to help in a case where, clearly, the public authorities have responsibility.

Over the past 15 years or so, owners of houses and nearby council house tenants in the Howley Grange district of Lapal, Halesowen, have been concerned about damp inside their homes, and their permanently waterlogged gardens. The privately-owned houses were built between 1934 and 1936 and for some years the houseowners were able to enjoy their homes and gardens, grow their own vegetables and generally make the most of their environment in this pleasant part of Halesowen. There were several springs flowing through the surrounding fields where children could play, but the streams were not a nuisance because they were free and had an outlet.

After the last war Halesowen council built a housing estate, roads were made up—and then the trouble started. The brooks which were previously in evidence disappeared when houses were built where they used to flow. Gardens began to be flooded, killing trees and shrubs and making cultivation impossible. Householders say they cannot dig their gardens now as they dig up sludge which is foul-smelling. On the advice of the Holesowen council, residents dug deep trenches in their gardens, but these merely filled with water which went stagnant. Several householders have, at consider-about damp inside their homes, and their land—but to no avail.

Then came the construction of the M5 motorway, when the problem really got out of hand as the damp began to penetrate into the houses, ruining the plastering and making it necessary to renew floor boards. I have photographs available showing 12 in. of water underneath the floorboards of one home. Two residents have set up electric pumps in their front gardens. Householders are concerned that these conditions are detrimental to health, many of them having lived there since the houses were built and being now elderly.

Residents in the area are convinced that the motorway, which cuts through the surrounding land near their homes, is forming a dam to the springs and diverting the water back on to their property. Representatives of the Department of the Environment inspected the motorway and reported that it was quite adequately drained. It has never been claimed that the actual motorway was flooded, but householders wonder where the surplus water is drained to, as the immediately surrounding fields are very bog-like. This is illustrated by the fact that Dudley council has recently offered an eight-acre field as a public playing field near the side of the motorway, but it is too waterlogged to be used for most of the year.

The history of this sorry story over the past two and a half years is as follows: in January 1973 residents in the Howley Grange area approached the Lapal District Residents' Association for help with the problem of their damp houses and waterlogged gardens. The association has been most energetic in taking up with the local councils and with me as its Member of Parliament a matter which has become extremely burdensome to it. In 1973 and 1974 the residents' association repeatedly approached the then Halesowen Borough Council, which was fully aware of the problem and had in fact, over the years, advised residents to lay land drains and dig trenches. This the householders did, often at considerable expense, but the trenches quickly filled with water and became stagnant, and drainage pipes had little effect.

In October 1973, Halesowen Borough Council, in conjunction with the Worcestershire County Council, had boreholes taken in the affected area. These proved that water entered very fast at 3 ft. below ground level, indicating that water was still attempting to flow along natural courses. After several more consultations with Halesowen council, it became apparent that the intention was to leave the solution of the problem to the new Dudley Metropolitan Council. It was at this stage that I was asked to help.

I approached the Department of the Environment, which inspected the nearby motorway and reported that drainage was adequate. The Department stated … there is no sign that the system has ever been overloaded or indeed worked to anywhere near its full capacity". This completely missed the point that it was the existence of the motorway and its banks which caused the water to flow back on to the surrounding land—the motorway acting as a dam.

In March, the Department of the Environment referred the matter to the Ministry of Agriculture, pointing out its responsibility for land drainage. It was stated that the local authority had permissive powers under Section 34 of the Land Drainage Act 1961 to undertake works to prevent flooding. The letter from the Ministry, dated 25th March 1974, said: If this Council wants to exercise their powers we would be prepared to consider paying a grant towards the cost of a scheme provided it was technically and economically sound. The matter was referred again to the Ministry of Agriculture and to Dudley council. In July, the council met representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture on the site. Dudley council informed me that the Ministry criteria could not be met and that it proposed to take no further action. It also refused further representations from the residents' association. I then agreed to take a deputation to the Ministry of Agriculture. This unfortunately was refused. Dudley council has given no support. Incidentally, its contention that only the gardens are flooded and not the houses is not correct.

I feel that for this situation to have been tolerated for so long is a disgrace. I am well known as a strong opponent of overspending either by central or local government, but this case, I believe, should have priority over less essential capital projects. It is incredible that in 1975, when men have been to the moon and when Governments spend millions of pounds on non-essential matters, these householders should have to live in such disagreeable conditions. I appeal to the Minister to intervene with Dudley council to put a scheme in hand to relieve my constituents of an intolerable nuisance.

10.50 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes) has given us a full history of this unfortunate state of affairs, as he sees it. I must say at the outset that although I certainly have every sympathy with the problems and anxieties of the residents in this area this is not the sort of problem in which the Government can or should intervene directly.

We shall do what we can to assist the local authority, but basically this is a local matter, for which a local solution must be found. We have said that we shall consider an application for grant but so far we do not have one to consider.

Before dealing with the question of grant I must say something about the technical problems with which we are involved. I have had a report from one of our local engineers. He has visited the area twice, once in July last year and again in January of this year, accompanied by one of the council's officers. The report confirms that the gardens suffer from waterlogging and that this also affects some houses below floor level.

The difficulty is that surface and spring water cannot drain away because of an impervious layer near the surface. Such natural drainage as existed has been impeded by development which has taken place since the war. A technical solution to intercept soil water might he possible but would require careful investigation. The built-up nature of the area would make the location and construction of interception drains difficult and the work would inevitably be expensive.

We have powers to pay grants towards the cost of drainage improvement works carried out by councils or drainage authorities. We cannot pay grants to individuals. We are prepared to consider any land drainage scheme for grant aid provided the proposed works are economically and technically sound. To qualify on economic grounds we would need to be sure that the potential benefits, generally assessed in terms of damage to property were commensurate with the cost.

The hon. Member would no doubt agree that this is the right test to apply where resources are limited so that the grant available goes to the places where it is needed most. In his discussions with officials of the council our regional engineer has explained that on an engineering basis the cost of remedial work seems likely to be high in relation to the benefits.

What I have said is rather different from a categoric statement, either oral or in writing, from the Ministry that the criteria could not be met, which was the phrase used by the hon. Gentleman.

The regional engineer went on to suggest that if the council decided to go ahead with a scheme it would be well advised to seek advice from a firm of consultants who specialise in soil water problems. He might have added that in assessing the potential benefit of remedial work we are ready to take into account evidence about intangible benefits such as the risks to public health, which were not apparent from his inspection of the site. For our part, we remain ready to give sympathetic consideration to an application for grant aid if the council wish to put one to us.

The Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council has adequate powers under the Land Drainage Acts to deal with flooding problems. These include the maintenance and improvement of existing drainage works and the construction of new works. The hon. Member will be aware that these powers are permissive. The Government cannot issue directives to the council, nor would they wish to do so. The decision whether to carry out drainage work therefore rests with the council and it is not for the Government to defend the decision we understand it has taken in the light of its detailed knowledge of local conditions.

The hon. Member has suggested that the construction of the M5 has been a contributory factor, to put it at its most modest. As he acknowledged, the advice which the Department of the Environment has given us is that it could find no evidence that the construction of the M5 had adversely affected conditions. It is not always easy to foresee the effects on drainage of building in a particular area.

It is for the council to decide how it will exercise its permissive powers. It must make its decisions in the light of its assessment of local resources and priorities. This is the type of problem with which many hon. Members are familiar. I could cite a number of cases in my constituency where the decision to carry out certain expenditure or to embark on a local project is for the local authority. If the hon. Gentleman, as a constituency Member, wants action on the matter, he must first persuade his local councillors—his local authority—that it is so important that it demands a high priority in their overall expenditure plans.

There are enormous demands on local authorities. I know that the situation in England and Wales is somewhat different from that in Scotland, where, next week, we are to begin the reformed set-up. We have had all the upheaval of the transition. There is enormous electoral pressure on any local authority, whether Labour-controlled or Conservative-controlled, to keep the rates down.

It is not for me to comment on the priorities that a local council should have, but it is only fair to express our sympathy with and understanding for local authorities because of the difficult decisions they must make. We are prepared to consider any application for grant for the purposes of alleviating the flooding, but until we receive an application there is no action that we can usefully take.

Mr. Stokes

I am most grateful to the Minister for what he has said. I shall take his advice and pursue the matter further with the Dudley council.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Eleven o'clock.