HC Deb 15 November 1977 vol 939 cc537-46

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Tinn.]

3.34 a.m.

Mr. William Molloy (Ealing, North)

The subject matter of this debate is one of the most distressing, annoying and frustrating events to afflict part of my constituency since I have had the honour to represent it. I shall relate the grim story.

On the night of 16th August last and continuing into the morning of 17th August a tremendous rainstorm hit North-West London. Parts of my constituency suffered severe flooding, particularly Coston Avenue, Costons Lane and Bridge Avenue, in the Greenford and Hanwell areas in my constituency. Over 300 homes, a school and old-age pensioner flats known as Brent Lodge were flooded to a depth of over 3 ft. Services were completely disrupted. Telephone services did not work. Tradesmen could not get to the areas afflicted.

There was considerable damage and upset, and, to some degree, a risk to life, as well as tremendous loss of property. There has been amazing and enormous misery and fright which has to this day stayed with those of my constituents who suffered from the effects of the storm, and incredible degrees of what would appear to be maladministration on the part of various administrations concerned with this matter, to which I shall refer later.

I shall briefly explain the cause. The River Brent runs through Greenford and Hanwell and discharges into the Thames. At the time of the storm the high level of the tide in the Thames restricted the discharge of the River Brent into it. The rainfall at the time was exceptionally high, all that night and morning. Because of that, the Welsh Harp reservoir in the London borough of Brent also stood in danger of bursting its banks. If that had happened, it would have truly been a most disastrous event. A decision was therefore taken to raise the sluice gates of the Welsh Harp and so prevent the Brent Valley being flooded.

However, because of the raising of the sluice gates at the Welsh Harp, there was a massive increase of water in the River Brent, which flowed down through to Greenford and Hanwell, so the River Brent burst its banks, and, in addition to that, the Costons Brook contributed to the flooding. If there is to be any investigation and inquiry, not only must the flooding of the River Brent be taken into consideration but so also must the flooding that was caused by Costons Brook. All this must be part of the inquiry.

I now come to the most distressing feature of this matter other than the flooding itself. That is the fact that when the decision to open the sluice gates of the Welsh Harp reservoir was taken, no warning was given to Ealing Council or the police. British Waterways claims that it had only to warn the GLC but could not contact the GLC because it had changed the relevant emergency telephone numbers and had not informed British Waterways. This meant that the Ealing authorities were not given the vital opportunity to take preventive and alleviatory measures.

I submit that this gross negligence carries with it a responsibility to pay compensation to my constituents whose homes suffered, and to Ealing Council whose property was damaged. I want an assurance that such a crass and dangerous muddle can never recur. The Secretary of State for the Environment must co-operate with the Ealing Council and the GLC to make funds available to compensate and help my constituents who suffered remarkable loss. Further, to prevent a terrible recurrence, I have to demand a public inquiry to ascertain all the facts involved, concerning such things as alleged technical and administrative failures in warning systems and other matters. My constituents have suffered brutally from the elements and, it would appear, maladministration, particularly on the part of the GLC.

From what I can gather, Ealing Council responded swiftly on the night in question and carried out prompt alleviation measures. Nevertheless, the people who had their homes damaged, and in some cases had their lives threatened, are angry because of the failure of the warning system. They believe that the public inquiry will provide a guarantee that failures of this sort will never happen again.

I ask the Minister whether, in conjunction with the GLC and the Thames Water Authority, he will seek to make a reality of the Brent flood alleviation scheme as a matter of urgent importance. People in Greenford and Hanwell are angry and apprehensive. They demand to know the truth and so they turn to the highest legislature in the land, the House of Commons. I believe that they have a perfect right so to do. I agree with their demand, which is why I raise this matter tonight.

I am pleased to see that, despite the late hour, my two parliamentary colleagues who represent, with me, the London borough of Ealing, the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell), have remained to give me their support and demonstrate their great concern over what happened on this eventful night. They hope, with me, that we can make the case for a public inquiry.

I do not wish to hear any arguments from the Minister, such as I have heard when discussing this matter with other administrations. I do not want to hear infuriating submissions dealing with statutory permissions and permissive features of regulations. This is annoying to the folk who lost their homes and in some cases came near to losing their lives in these massive floods. We think that we have a justifiable case in view of the various stories, explanations and reasons given by British Waterways, the Thames Water Authority and the GLC. Everyone who has been involved so far has been engaged in that ancient exercise of passing the buck. I hope that the buck will stop here, on the Floor of the House of Commons, and that appropriate action will be taken to institute a full inquiry.

The people want a public inquiry. I believe that both my parliamentary colleagues will support me in that demand for a public inquiry. The councillors of the wards concerned support me in that demand. I hope that my hon. Friend will give it full consideration so that this House will then restore the peace of mind and sense of justice to which my constituents are entitled.

It is vital that that be done so that we can say to our constituents "You have endured grave frustration, you have endured hardship, but if there is any misconception any argument or any buck-passing at other levels of public administration in the land, this House of Commons will see that the truth emerges so that nothing like this can happen again and that all preventive measures necessary are taken to ensure that your peace of mind is never disturbed in this way again."

3.46 a.m.

Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)

I compliment the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) on the way in which he has addressed himself to this matter, which has aroused deep concern in the borough, and I thank him for allowing me a little time to intervene briefly in this short debate.

I attended a public meeting in Green-ford a few days ago—the hon. Gentleman was unfortunately precluded from attending because of ill health—and the high degree of public concern about this matter was very clear. This is especially so among my constituents living in Cleveley Crescent, which runs close to the River Brent. At that meeting one was presented with the unedifying spectacle of members of one public body trying to pass the buck to other members of another public body, and the sound reverberated as the buck whistled from one to another.

What we need is a public inquiry but, more important, it should be an independent inquiry, because we have had a large number of representations from the various authorities concerned, each seeking to exempt itself from responsibility. It would be helpful for those who live in the London borough of Ealing to have an independent inquiry into this matter just to establish where responsibility lies.

More important still, we must look ahead. The people in Ealing want an assurance that such a disaster will not happen again. This aspect of the matter can be divided into the long-term solution and the short-term solution. The long-term solution, I fear, involves some public expenditure in terms of flood prevention measures, and I consider that the GLC should address itself to the long-term problem. But in the short term, as the hon. Gentleman said, we need a better information and early warning system. Those who live in the danger area must receive some warning that floods are imminent if there is ever a recurrence of such a combination of freak circumstances.

A public inquiry could deal with the broad question of what went wrong and whose fault it was, but it could also, perhaps, produce some solutions which could commend themselves to the various bodies concerned, and all those who represent Ealing, in Parliament or on the borough council, could use their influence to ensure that they were adopted.

3.50 a.m.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) on the way in which he put the case on behalf of the sorely pressed people of the London borough of Ealing.

On this night in August, at the invitation of the London borough of Ealing, I attended the meeting held just over the border in my hon. Friend's constituency. I think that the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) will agree that at that meeting there was public anxiety of a kind that we had never previously found at any assembly in our political experience. There was great concern that what had occurred that night must never happen again.

It remains for me to underscore the demand for an inquiry. These are frightened people, and they wonder whether there will be a repetition of what they suffered on that night. I do not think that their fears can be allayed other than by an independent inquiry.

People from my part of the London borough of Ealing were not affected to anything like the extent suffered by hundreds of householders in the constituencies of my two parliamentary colleagues. That three of us are present in the Chamber at this unusual hour is an indication of the local anxiety, and it can be cleared up only by the Government acceding to the request for an independent inquiry.

3.51 a.m.

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

Let me first express my deep sympathy for those constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) and others whose homes and property suffered in the flooding on 17th August. My hon. Friend has left no stone unturned in his efforts to bring home to the authorities the plight of his constituents and his determination to secure action on their behalf.

My hon. Friend will know from our correspondence and from the meetings that I have had with him on this issue that I fully share his concern that the people of Greenford and the other affected areas should not have to live with the threat of a recurrence. But sympathy by itself is not enough, and my hon. Friend has indicated—and he is right to do so—that he expects prompt and positive action.

Before I respond to the points that have been made perhaps I can briefly run over the facts of the situation and current developments. There is no doubt that the rainfall on 16th–17th August was of exceptional intensity in North-West London—over 4 ins. were recorded in the Brent catchment in the 24. hours. It proved altogether too much for a number of the watercourses and channels which drain the area. In particular, the lower reaches of the River Brent and a number of its tributaries experienced very heavy flows. The worst-affected areas included parts of my hon. Friend's constituency. A total of 1,100 houses, as well as other property, were flooded to depths of up to 5 ft. Another factor was that the existing incomplete flood warning system proved ineffective because a number of rain gauges failed to operate.

The Greater London Council, which is the land drainage authority for most of the affected area, has since carried out a detailed investigation into the causes and the circumstances of the flooding and has agreed to immediate action to improve the flood warning system. It has also announced its intention of bringing forward its programme of flood alleviation works for high-risk areas. I understand that the council committee concerned will consider detailed proposals later this month.

Mr. Molloy

If, as my hon. Friend says, steps are to be taken to improve the flood warning system, that must indicate that there is something wrong with it, or that it is not at top efficiency.

Mr. Strang

I think there can be no question that what my hon. Friend says is correct. The flood warning system was unsatisfactory. The rain gauges in some areas—as is brought out in the GLC report—were inoperative or were malfunctioning. Further, it is true, as my hon. Friend said, that the British Waterways Board employee who operated the sluice gate was unable to make contact with the GLC. He did not have the telephone number of the hydrologist—he was on duty at his home—and clearly a great deal was wrong with the flood warning arrangements on that night. I also understand that the committee is actively considering the possibility of paying compensation to the victims under its general powers under the Local Government Act.

I recognise that these bare facts indicate little of the impact of the flooding on the unfortunate residents, but they serve as background to my comments on the specific points my hon. Friend has raised. I shall be as constructive as I can.

My hon. Friend has expressed legitimate concern over the failure to give any useful warning of flooding. As I have mentioned, the GLC's investigations have established that the existing incomplete warning equipment did not function properly. I understand that this was at least partly due to lack of maintenance arising from the cutback in council expenditure in this field. These failures are very regrettable and I am glad to note that the council's public services and safety committee has decided on an urgent programme of improvements to the warning system. No doubt the other authorities concerned will be reviewing their own arrangements for such contingencies.

I should make it clear that, because of the rapid run-off in this built-up area, the time lapse between heavy rainfall and flooding is extremely short. I understand that even if all the equipment works well and the emergency staff react promptly there can be no more than a 13-minute warning

My hon. Friend, supported by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell), has also argued the case for a full public inquiry into the flooding. My right hon. Friend has certain powers to hold inquiries for the purposes of the Land Drainage Act 1976. However, that same Act gives the GLC sole responsibility for land drainage in the "London excluded area"—approximating to Greater London.

If my right hon. Friend were to hold a public inquiry, it would be inquiring into matters in which the GLC had no statutory obligations. We must also bear in mind that any inquiry under the Land Drainage Act would be limited in scope to matters covered in that Act. It could not, for example, cover the question of compensation or the duties or responsibilities of the British Waterways Board. As hon. Members are aware, the GLC is answerable to its electorate and its ratepayers. This applied to its decision earlier to cut back on land drainage expenditure and to reduce its maintenance gangs; it applies equally to the council's response to the situation which has now arisen.

The council's director of public health engineering has produced a full report on the flooding. This report of events on the night of 16th to 17th August was a committee document and was thus made available not only to members of the council but also to the Press and the public. However, it would appear from what hon. Members have said that either the contents of this report are not widely known or the report fails to reflect the facts of the situation experienced by the local residents. In the light of this, if my hon. Friend feels that the GLC report does not adequately meet the circumstances, the Government will give serious consideration to his request for a further investigation.

Technical problems and long-term solutions apart, it is entirely understandable that my hon. Friend should emphasise the present difficulties of those who suffered serious loss or damage to their property in the flooding. The first point that I should make, to avoid any misunderstanding, is that there is no statutory liability on the GLC or on any drainage authority to pay compensation for damage or loss caused by flooding. However, the council as a local authority is in a position to consider what response is called for under Section 138 of the Local Government Act 1972, which deals with the relief of local emergencies. This section leaves the initiative on the question of compensation with the local authority, the only constraint being that if it incurs expenditure it must notify my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment as soon as practicable so that he can consider whether to issue a direction under the powers laid down in the Act.

As I said earlier, the council is now considering the question of compensation, and I am sure my hon. Friend and his constituents will welcome this response by the council to the representations it has received.

The most important consideration for present and future residents in Green-ford and the other affected areas is some assurance of early improvements to the flood defences concerned. I hope that they will be reassured by the GLC's decision to carry out an immediate review of its capital works programme with particular reference to these high-risk areas.

Capital works will, of course, take time, the more so in this area because improvements to the river inevitably involve interference with adjacent properties. I hope those residents whose property may be affected will co-operate fully with the council when the time comes. But I note that it is intended to achieve significant improvements in the interim by a more intensive maintenance programme. For my part I can assure my hon. Friend that my officials will give prompt and favourable consideration to any application by the GLC for grant aid in respect of expenditure on flood protection schemes or on flood warning equipment. The level of such aid had already been the subject of an approach to the Ministry by the GLC before the August flooding and this is due to be discussed later this week. I hope that the outcome will assist the council in bringing forward its flood defence programme.

This debate is not the end of the matter. It has given the opportunity to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, supported by his hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall and the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton, to raise and focus attention on a matter that is obviously of great importance and concern to many of his constituents. Although it is true that my Ministry does not have direct responsibility in initiating flood protection or flood warning schemes in the area, it is not to be questioned that we shall want financially to support any schemes that the GLC brings forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North referred to the Brent alleviation scheme, and we shall obviously be anxious to provide all the financial support that we can to measures of that nature.

I hope I have responded to the points of principal concern to my hon. Friends and the hon. Gentleman. I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured that I share his desire to see an early solution to the problem of flooding in this part of London.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Four o'clock a.m.