HC Deb 21 January 1976 vol 903 cc1501-12

11.32 p.m.

Mr. Michael Brotherton (Louth)

I should like to bring to the attention of the House the necessity to build up more strongly the sea defences of this country, particularly following what happened on 2nd and 3rd January this year with the gales and the floods, especially on the East Coast, and what happened in Cleethorpes, in my constituency.

In Cleethorpes 402 houses were flooded and damaged by flood water. I do not know how many hon. Members have seen what has happened in a house when water has come over a nearby sea wall. It is a grotesque, nasty, horrid and revolting sight. On the Monday following the weekend of the floods, I went to look at Oliver Street in Cleethorpes and I saw the most horrifying sights. The damage suffered by people who had, perhaps, just bought their houses, and damage to freezers, new carpets and so on, was immense. The whole thing was mayhem and destruction. I believe that the Louth constituency is entitled to ask that compensation be given to the people in the constituency whose houses were damaged.

The first and most important thing for which we have to ask is that there be built a sea defence wall that is strong enough and high enough so that never again will what happened in 1953 and again this year occur in Cleethorpes, or in Norfolk or anyhere else on the East Coast.

This means a lot of money. In my very short time as a Member of Parliament I have insisted that no public money that could be saved should be spent. The whole of my short life as a parliamentarian has been spent saying that we must not spend more money—except for one thing, and that is defence. I have said that I believe passionately that as a nation we must spend money on defending our people. I regard money spent on the sea wall at Cleethorpes to be just as much a matter of defence as money spent on the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force.

To repair the sea wall at Cleethorpes will cost about £1½ million. That is an enormous sum. If we were to ask the Anglian Water Authority to take over responsibility for repairing the wall, it is possible that the Cleethorpes ratepayers would not have to pay that vast sum. If the authority takes over the responsibility of building the wall, I believe that it will be able to obtain 85 per cent. of the money from the Exchequer. That means that the ratepayers will have to pay only 15 per cent.—namely, a 0.3p rate.

The people in Cleethorpes have suffered enormously. For example, 402 houses have been flooded. The people will have to pay a certain amount, and they are happy to pay the 15 per cent., but I think it fair that the taxpayer should pick up 85 per cent. of the bill if the Anglian Water Authority is prepared to take responsibility.

I pay a tremendous tribute to those who have helped the people in my constituency following the flooding two weeks ago. Royal Air Force personnel from Binbrook gave enormous help to my constituents. The vigilante people who are members of a voluntary organisation also gave help. I was most impressed by the wonderful spirit that prevailed in my constituency and the way in which the people were working to help themselves. It reminded me of when I was a child in 1940, when it was clear that England was a fine country. When things were very bad in my constituency the people showed that they were prepared to help themselves.

On behalf of the local council in Cleethorpes, I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for the Environment. It has been said by some people that the right hon. Gentleman has not answered letters, but he has answered all the letters I have written. He answered the letters sent to him by the chief executive of my council. He granted us an interview yesterday and it proved to be a fruitful discussion. We also had an interview with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Secretary of State for the Environment has done everything in his power to help Cleethorpes. On behalf of the people, I am pleased to be able to thank him very much indeed.

In addition to building the new sea wall strong enough and high enough, we are entitled to ask the Minister what sort of help he will give us in the immediate future. What has happened, for example, to my constituent whose moter car was hit by flood water? The vehicle was insured for third party risk only, and its owner was told by the council that the flood was an act of God and that the council could not help him. We ask the Minister to help the council to look after such cases. The council has spent about £11,000 so far on immediate help to people who have been affected by flooding. In addition, the council spent £90,000 to build up the sea wall. I believe it is possible that the Department of the Environment or the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will give us 50 per cent. of that sum. I hope that the Government will support us if we ask the Anglian Water Authority to build us a wall and that they will also give us the 85 per cent. grant.

While I would not, of course, suggest that ratepayers or taxpayers should finance people who were foolish enough not to insure themselves, I think that the Government could reimburse those, especially the old, who suffered losses through no fault of their own.

We in Cleethorpes know that before the winds come again and the tide gets high it is the duty of ratepayers and taxpayers to help us. Helping the people of Cleethorpes by the provision of a sea wall is just as important as helping those in Wallasey, Norfolk, on the Thames or in any other part of the country. Defending our people from floods is just as important as defending them from the Russians, the Chinese or anybody else.

11.42 p.m.

Mr. Richard Wood (Bridlington)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour across the Humber, the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Brotherton), for allowing me to comment briefly on the subject he has raised.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment—the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell)—is present to listen to the debate, and we are pleased by the distinction recently conferred on him.

The New Year gales and the force of the sea demonstrated the inadequacy of sea defences, not only in Louth but also along the coastline of the old East Riding of Yorkshire, more clearly than at any time since the vicious storms that occurred almost exactly 23 year ago tonight. This inadequacy has been shown by the flooding of farmland in my constituency, by the further erosion of long stretches of coastline and by destruction and damage to much property in the north of my constituency.

A letter has already been sent to the Yorkshire Water Authority and I shall write immediately to the Minister with details of the complaints of my constituents. I hope he will be able to give the Government's view of their responsibilities in this matter.

We understand that the creation of invulnerable sea defences along a coastline of 50 or 60 miles is far beyond the capacity of ratepayers and possibly beyond the capacity of taxpayers as well, but the present defences are inadequate and a middle way must therefore be found. We all realise the present restraints on Government aid, but I hope that the Minister can affirm to local authorities and individuals the Government's willingness to discuss a sensible sharing of this immense task so that my constituency, from Flamborough to Spurn, can face future storms with increased confidence.

11.45 p.m.

Mrs. Lynda Chalker (Wallasey)

I am most grateful to hon. Members for allowing me to take part briefly in the debate. I commence with a memory of the 1953 floods in Essex and the excellent preventive work which was done after them. That brings me to our own local authority area of the Wirral, first on the night of 2nd January, which has meant expenditure of some £250,000, and, following the high wind on the tide last night, a further expenditure of £40,000. That is a first estimate, and we reckon that it might well be an underestimate.

All I ask of the Government is that we should set our minds now, as we did with Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe in 1953, to preventive first aid of our sea defences, so that, without bickering and with Government backing we may see that the homes and land which have suffered this time may be protected in the coming storms. Surely we can do the same now as we did in 1953, so that the water authorities, the local authorities and the Government can get together and get the work done. In that way we shall avoid the havoc and expenditure which might otherwise be caused by the coming spring storms.

11.47 p.m.

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

May I preface my remarks by offering the thanks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) to the right hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood) for his congratulations.

I know that many hon. Members whose constituencies were affected by the recent gales are indebted to the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Brotherton) for using the opportunity to debate this topic tonight. I am equally grateful, because it enables me to express to the House the sympathy of my colleagues and myself for those who were distressingly affected by the severe storms during the first weekend of the year. I should also like to say how impressed we were by the way in which all the bodies responsible for essential services handled the immediate problems arising from storms which caused damage and flooding at various places along the coast.

Hon. Members have tonight vividly described the consequences of the flooding in their areas, and the hon. Member for Louth has spoken at some length on the consequences of flooding in and around Cleethorpes resulting from the exceptionally high water level against which the present sea defences were unable to give full protection. As the hon. Member will remember from the meeting which he and the chief executive of Cleethorpes Borough Council had with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and me, Government responsibility for sea defences is administered by my Department.

Before replying to the specific points which have been raised, I should like to deal with the general aspects of the problem. Most of the coast affected by the floods during the evening and night of 3rd January is low-lying and liable to serious flooding if the sea breaks through the sea defences. As the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) reminded us, that was what happened in the disastrous floods of 1953. After those floods a committee was set up under Lord Waverley to examine the causes of the flooding and to make recommendations about action to be taken. Perhaps the most important of that committee's recommendations was that in areas liable to serious damage from flooding the defences should be improved to a standard sufficient to withstand another flood of the same proportions as occurred in January 1953.

Over the years which followed the committee's report, the river boards and their successors, the river authorities, with internal drainage boards where appropriate, took action on the recommendation under the powers given in the Land Drainage Acts for carrying out this kind of work. With help and advice and generous grant aid—up to 85 per cent.—from my Department, virtually all the sea defences were built up to what is known as the Waverley standard. Just as important has been the maintenance of the defences at this standard. This is now the job of the water authorities, which in April 1974 took over responsibility from the river authorities for many miles of sea wall.

I am pleased to say that all the reports indicate that most of the defences stood up well to the tidal surge on 3rd January, which in some places was slightly higher than the 1953 level. There were a few breaches and some of the defences were damaged, but a repetition of the 1953 disaster was averted and I think that the House should express its gratitude to all the engineers and others whose conscientious work over the past 20 years stood up to this test.

I understand that the drainage authorities have already made preliminary assessments of the repair work which needs to be done to restore, or in some cases improve, these defences. My Department will do all it can to help by the provision of advice and, where appropriate, grant aid.

I should perhaps explain that the powers enabling my right hon. Friend the Minister to pay grant aid for flood protection measures are contained in the Land Drainage Acts. In deciding whether particular kinds of work are eligible for grant, we are naturally governed by these statutory provisions. I need not go into all the details now, but it might be helpful to the hon. Member for Louth and others whose constituencies have been similarly affected if I outline the main points.

The first and perhaps most important of the statutory provisions is that grant may be paid only in connection with the improvement of existing defences or the construction of new works. This means that repair and maintenance works do not attract grant. In most cases the difference between the repair of existing sea defences and their improvement is fairly clear-cut, but where the repair may involve some degree of improvement there is room for argument. Each case must be judged on its merits, and I can only suggest that where a drainage authority or local authority has any doubts on this score it should consult my Department's regional engineer. We shall naturally deal with these matters as sympathetically as we can, but it is only right for me to remind hon. Members that we are bound by the statutory provisions and that there will be some cases which, by the nature of those provisions, cannot qualify for grant aid.

The only other provision which I need mention—again in an endeavour to be helpful—is that grant aid cannot be paid unless my Department has given approval to the work before it is undertaken. The reason for this is that we must obviously be given the opportunity to judge whether the proposed works are satisfactory before committing Exchequer funds. Again, my Department's regional engineers will be as helpful as they can in dealing with applications for approval as quickly as possible, but I would urge the authorities concerned to consult them before putting work in hand.

Having dealt with the more general questions, I should now like to turn to the particular problems at Cleethorpes referred to by the hon. Member for Louth. I should first explain that the position at Cleethorpes is slightly unusual in that responsibility for the maintenance of the defences along the sea front rests with the borough council and not with the water authority. There are historical and legal reasons for this which I need not go into.

It means, however, that as matters stand the council will have to bear the full costs of repairing and strengthening the defences, subject to any grant aid for which it may be eligible. I can therefore readily understand why the council has now asked the Anglian Water Authority to accept responsibility for these defences in the future. Whether the Authority will be prepared to do so is entirely a matter for the authority, but I know that the regional land drainage committee of the Authority—which will be responsible for making the decision—will give the request fair and sympathetic consideration.

As the hon. Member knows, there will need to be agreement about the way in which the cost of long-term improvements will be met, but I can perhaps tell the House that the Authority will be eligible for an 85 per cent. grant from my Department for this work. I was pleased to hear that the council will be prepared to pay the remaining 15 per cent.

The other questions raised by the hon. Member referred to the short-term measures for the repair and improvement of the defences. On the question of emergency repairs, I doubt whether the cost will be eligible for grant for the reason I mentioned earlier, namely, because it is unlikely that they can be regarded as an improvement. My Department will, however, be willing to consider this if details are given to the regional engineer.

As to the short-term measures for improvement, the hon. Member knows that these proposals have already been discussed with our regional engineer and that he has agreed that the council should go out to tender on phase 1 of the works. From the information which we have been given, there is every prospect that this work will be eligible for a 50 per cent. grant, but obviously a final decisison cannot be given until we have received the formal application from the council.

The hon. Member also raised the question of financial relief to the council. This is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who is represented here tonight by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. Local authorities have, of course, a general emergency power under the Local Government Act 1972 to incur expenditure. Both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and I have been made fully aware of the anxiety of those authorities most severely affected about financial aid towards the cost of remedying and alleviating the effects of the storm and flood damage.

In his statement on 7th January my right hon. Friend undertook to consider whether the amount and incidence of the expenditure in particular cases calls for some special financial arrangement. He has already promised that such claims will be dealt with expeditiously and sympathetically and I can only suggest that the Cleethorpes Borough Council should supply full details to the Department of the Environment as quickly as possible.

There is also the question of a Government contribution towards the relief fund which has been opened in Cleethorpes. This is something which my right hon. Friend has said that he will look at. I understand that he will need to take into account such matters as the extent of the damage, the total value of the claim on the fund and the amount of money subscribed by the general public and by other local and public authorities. He will, of course, also need to take account of the extent to which the damage could or should have been insured against.

All hon. Members will recognise that these are rather difficult matters when one comes to a decision in a case where a relief fund has been established and where claims are made on an ad hoc basis. It is clear that the Government have to lay down some acceptable criteria in deciding whether financial assistance can be justified, but I am happy to assure the House that where such a relief fund has been set up, and where damage is of the nature described in the debate as having taken place, all the claims will he dealt with sympathetically. Again, the initiative for submitting full details rests with the local councils.

I hope that I have been able to satisfy hon. Members that the Government are ready to do all they can to help the authorities concerned with sea defences. The protection of our coastline—particularly the East Coast, which is subject to these tidal surges—is one of those public services which is too often taken for granted. If tonight's debate has reminded us all of the need for constant vigilance—and, I may add, constant expenditure on maintenance and improvement of the defences—it will have been well worth while.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Twelve o'clock.