HC Deb 06 August 1976 vol 916 cc2365-73

2.31 p.m.

Mr. Michael Neubert (Romford)

It may seem ironic, not to say inappropriate, that on the eve of the Summer Recess, in the middle of the worst drought in living memory, I should be seeking the active implementation of flood prevention measures in my constituency. However, by the time that the House resumes its sittings in the autumn, it will be nearly two years since, in November 1974, large numbers of residents and industrial and commercial companies in Mawneys and Collier Row were devastated by flooding twice in the space of one week.

Anyone who has experienced the damage, distress and discomfort of flooding will know what that meant to my constituents. It so happens that I have had the experience twice, and it is not one that I should care to repeat—sodden, ruined carpets, damaged furniture, a smell of dirt and damp that never really goes away, and all the inconvenience that such flooding occasions.

But, in case there should be anyone who does not understand the implications of flooding on this scale for an individual house owner, let me cite one complaint which I have received from a totally disabled ex-Service man on a 100 per cent. war pension. He first wrote to me on 20th November 1974 to complain about these two instances of flooding which had caused such damage and inconveniece to him and his property. Imagine how he felt when he wrote to me again on Saturday 17th May 1975: I am sitting amongst a scene of total desolation. New carpets and furniture ripped up and the house invaded by flood water.… This letter is written under extremely trying conditions, perched on a table above the flood waters. To date nothing has been done, no action taken.… Under these conditions my wife is near mental breakdown and I feel like murder. His letter is headed "Under siege by floods".

His feelings can be well understood when one realises that that letter was written 15 months ago and still the same could be said—that no effective action has been taken, apart from the supervision of culverts and the water course. The River Rom improvement scheme is urgently necessary. It is a matter of acute concern to many of my constituents.

Responsibility for this scheme is divided. Primarily, it is a matter for the local council, the London Borough of Havering. But there are also interested parties in the Thames Water Authority and in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. In any event, where there is divided responsibility there seems almost inevitably to be delay. That in itself is not blameworthy. It is merely an indication of the need to co-ordinate several authorities in a common project. The local council has this scheme under way, and it is in order that it should be implemented as soon as possible that I raise this matter today.

But in the recent past two factors have given me cause for anxiety. When one considers that this is a pressing matter, it is very worrying that there should be any delay at all. Although I have spoken of two incidents of flooding, in November 1974 and in May 1975, there has been flooding on other occasions; for example, in January 1975 and in April 1975. Unfortunately, even the drought is no defence because, a fortnight ago on 20th July, a violent storm once again brought serious flooding to the area. I have submitted photographs to the Minister taken from a local newspaper showing, in North Street, buses and cars proceeding down the road awash in a foot of water and, in the case of a company, Macarthys Pharmaceuticals, crates of their products floating out into their store yard. Such is the devastation and damage caused even in conditions where we have had very little rain.

One does not need to be a qualified meteorologist to observe that there is now an erratic pattern in our weather making us vulnerable to violent thunderstorms, so, in addition to the delay and discomfort already experienced, there is a further risk with which my constituents have to contend, and that is the possibility of such flooding recurring even at the height of summer. I contend that for them this is not a satisfactory state of affairs. It is not reasonable for people, every time black clouds drift over and there is a hint of rain, to fear for their property, especially in a holiday season when they may want to be away from their homes.

There are two factors in the recent past which have given me cause for concern. The first concerns the grant which the Ministry can make towards the cost of this scheme. I say this in no critical sense but merely as an illustration of the time that these matters take that it was in January of this year that application was made by the London Borough of Havering to the Ministry for this grant. Six months have gone by. On 19th July the Minister was able to assure me that a decision would be taken within three weeks, the intervening delay having been caused by the need for certain technical details to be resolved with the different authorities involved. I hope that the Minister will be able to announce some conclusion today.

More importantly, however, the local council announced in a Press release on 17th June, Havering may suffer financially because of overspending by other Councils. Expenditure by Havering Council for the last two years has been in line with government requirements. During the present year Havering budgeted to spend just under 11 per cent. in total above the last year's expenditure. This was in line with the government's guidelines, and took account only of inflation, any other increased costs being met by economies in running existing services. However, other Councils last year appear to have exceeded their estimates and furthermore plan to spend this year more than previously agreed. The government has now said that if this is so all local authorities must now keep to a 9 per cent. increase on last year, which would mean cuts of £800,000 in this year's estimates. 'A cut in our budget of £800,000 this year' said Councillor Jack Moultrie, leader of the council, 'would mean … no capital programme at all.' Subsequently the Press release went on to detail the implications for the present capital programme. It mentions, apart from two other projects in my constituency, the River Rom improvement scheme on which design and administrative work is to proceed so that no delay is caused. The scheme is to be reviewed in the autumn. This is what gives me cause for concern.

I wrote to the Department of the Environment and received the following reassurance from the Under-Secretary of State the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett) in a letter of 20th July. He said: I should emphasise that the advice given in Circular 45/76 about a 9 per cent. increase from out-turn 1975–76 to out-turn 1976–77 is no more than a guideline. It is not intended to apply rigorously to each local authority. We know that, for demographic and other reasons, it would be quite in accordance with the Government's policies on individual services for certain local authorities to increase their expenditure by more than 9 per cent. On the other hand we know that there are authorities that should be increasing their expenditure by less than that. But these are decisions which each autthority must take in the light of its own local circumstances and knowing the spirit of the Government's guidance. I agree with the Department that it would be wrong to interfere with the autonomy of authorities in local government to make their own decisions within their discretion. I hope that this project will be regarded by all concerned as something which ought to have the highest priority for the reasons I have outlined.

We have reached the point at this time in the Session when at least some of the obstacles have been cleared away. The Thames Water Authority has confirmed to me in a letter of 21st June that it has supplied the information necessary to the Ministry. It comprises a report on flooding on all the River Rom and River Beam and a cost-benefit analysis in justification of the Borough of Havering's scheme and future works in the Thames Water Authority's five-year capital works programme. The Thames Water Authority has already approved the technical aspects of the borough's scheme and it is now up to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to decide whether to approve the borough's application.

It is easy to see the amount of coordination and correspondence that is involved. My file on this is one-inch thick. That obstacle is now on one side. I hope that the Minister will have something favourable to report about the awarding of the grant, which will be another aid to the implementation of this scheme. If that is so, it would be up to the council to press ahead with the scheme as fast as possible, given that it makes the decision to allocate the necessary resources. I hope that it will do so and that it will be able to find, within the guidance given by the Department of the Environment, the opportunity to proceed with this scheme, which is in no way an improvement to the amenities but is simply to prevent the flooding of this area which is happening with increasing frequency.

I shall look to the council to take the necessary action as soon as possible. I am grateful to the Minister of State for his attendance and attention to this matter. If he is able to assist by approving a grant for this scheme it will be for the local authority to proceed. It would be intolerable for residents of Romford to have to continue to live under this constant threat of flooding. I shall hope for some encouragement from the Minister. My constituents have surely suffered enough.

2.45 p.m.

The Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. E. S. Bishop)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) for giving me the opportunity to talk about the Rover Rom improvement scheme. Land drainage is an important subject and does not always receive the public attention that it deserves. The River Rom is a tributary of the Thames at Dagenham and flows through Romford downstream until it becomes "main river" when it is the responsibility of the Thames Water Authority.

Upstream of Romford the river is the responsibility of either the riparian owners or the local authority, which is the London Borough of Havering. As the hon. Member has pointed out, extensive flooding occurred in November 1974 and May 1975 on the borough's section of the river. Previous floods occurred in 1947, 1958 and 1968. In 1970, the Essex River Authority worked out proposals for partially alleviating the flooding but, following the reorganisation of water authorities in April 1974, the TWA, which had taken over the river, decided not to proceed with those proposals.

The hon. Member has already explained in graphic terms the need for a flood alleviation scheme in the area. He has been pressing for some time to get action. Clearly, where there is divided responsibility there will be problems of co-ordination. There has been no undue delay between all of the authorities concerned, including my Ministry. The hon. Member has mentioned some of the problems which have occurred because of the need for these improvement works. He has referred to the distressing cases that have arisen. I am sure that there will be general sympathy with all concerned. Equally, the House will be anxious to know what action can be taken.

The difficulty here has been to find a method of dealing with the problem which did not result in flooding downstream. The London Borough of Havering submitted its proposals to us in September last year. It left a number of questions unanswered. In particular it did not deal with the potential problems downstream. I make no criticism of the borough council about that. It clearly wanted to get ahead with work to protect people and the property in and around Romford. It was not responsible for the downstream works which are the responsibility of the TWA.

Mr. Neubert

Could the Minister expand his reply to take account of this wider problem involving the TWA? It is possible that the TWA might have proposals for making the River Rom part of what it calls the main river and thus taking it within its responsibility. The problem has been that the necessary procedure for doing that would take as long as 12 months. In turn, that would prejudice the likelihood of financial contributions to the scheme since, if the River Rom became the responsibility of the TWA, it would have complete financial responsibility and would not wish to advance money before that time.

Mr. Bishop

Without knowing the exact details of the point to which the hon. Member refers, all I can say is that such approval as has been given has been based upon the proposals submitted to us. The hon. Member will realise that when the Ministry has to consider a scheme for grant aid under the Land Drainage Acts, it must be sure that the problem is dealt with as a whole. We had to wait until the council and the water authority had discussed the proposal in more detail and come forward with a joint scheme covering the whole river.

I should mention that one of the major difficulties was that the Land Drainage Committee of the Thames Water Authority, which is responsible for all land drainage and flood prevention works in the area, had fully committed its capital resources over the next three or four years—mainly on works associated with the Thames barrier—and was unable to undertake any additional commitments. However, the two authorities were finally able to agree on joint action and submitted a comprehensive scheme for approval on 15th June last. That is less than two months ago.

Therefore, the Ministry has had only that short period in which to assess this comprehensive development with the parties concerned and to reach a conclusion. There has not been undue delay there. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has not suggested that there has. The scheme will involve the council in expenditure of £400,000 on that part of the river known as the Cedar Road section, which is higher up than the part which is the responsibility of the Thames Water Authority, and about £150,000 on further work upstream. The authority will then need to spend about £660,000 on work downstream, including a flood reservoir at Dagenham. The total cost of the scheme will be about £1¼ million. The council will be eligible for a grant of 50 per cent. on its share, while the water authority will qualify for a slightly higher rate.

There is one difficulty. As I have explained, it is essential to look at the river as a whole and not to cure flooding in one part at the expense of another. I understand that the council is anxious to get ahead with its work, but, as I said, the water authority will be unable to make a start on the work downstream for possibly three or four years. Therefore, as a temporary measure, and in order to avoid flooding downstream, it will be necessary to construct a throttle device to restrict the flow of water in the event of floods taking place before the water authority's part of the scheme has been completed. Inevitably, that will mean that the full benefits of the council's scheme will not be felt until the water authority's work is completed. We realise that this is not a very satisfactory solution, but, on the basis that half a loaf is better than no bread, it is the best that can be done.

The hon. Gentleman has naturally been pressing us for some time to give approval to this scheme. I fully understand and accept that. Part of the job that a Member is elected to carry out is to prod Ministers and their Departments from time to time. I am sure that for his part the hon. Gentleman will also realise that it is our job to ensure that public money is not spent on work until we are fully satisfied that it will achieve the necessary results. That is why I have pointed to some of the problems. The fact is that work on the Cedar Road part, higher up the river, could create problems for the downstream area unless a throttle device were installed. Therefore, we had to wait until agreement was reached between the borough council and the water authority before we could examine the scheme as a whole.

I am glad to tell the hon. Gentleman that, having examined the scheme, we are satisfied that it is technically sound and fully justifiable in terms of the likely cost and benefit. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that in these days that is a matter which needs particular care in the assessment not only of the technical aspects, but of the financial costings, and there is the further complication of the number of authorities involved. Therefore, I am pleased to say that we shall be writing to the authorities early next week giving approval in principle to the whole scheme and telling the borough that it may go out to tender on the Cedar Road section straight away.

I recognise the point made by the hon. Gentleman about the effects of Government guidance on local authority spending. However, I stress, as he did, that the Department of the Environment circular was a guideline only. It is for the local authority to decide its priorities.

I am sure that the news of the Ministry's approval will be welcomed by the hon. Gentleman's constituents who, as he rightly said, have suffered from flooding over many years. I can only express the hope that the work will now go ahead quickly to afford them as much protection as possible before the next flood occurs.

I am sure that the local authority and those concerned will also take into account some of the other aspects—the price which will have to be paid if the work is not carried out, the effects of flooding, the distress, damage, and so on. That is a matter on which I cannot give guidance. The local authority and those involved must decide their own priorities.

I am sure that there will be general pleasure that, after only two months' assessment by the Ministry of the background, the technical aspects and the general costings, we have been able to give the kind of message that we have given to the House and to the hon. Gentleman this afternoon. I hope that those concerned will go ahead as quickly as possible to assist the people who have been so greatly affected by flooding in the past.

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