HC Deb 13 February 1978 vol 944 cc203-14

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

11.56 p.m.

Mr. Michael Brotherton (Louth)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the subject of compensation for those who were affected by the recent floods on the East Coast. It is a melancholy thought that on 21st January 1976 I had an Adjournment debate on the same subject. Therefore, twice during my three years in this House I have had to raise the subject of flooding on the East Coast.

In 1976 we were concerned more with the question of strengthening sea defences, although tonight my remarks will be based on the situation in Cleethorpes, which was badly affected. However, I must point out that there are many other places throughout the country which were as badly hit as, and in some ways more badly hit than, we were in Cleethorpes.

In 1976 it was decided that sea defences in Cleethorpes would be taken over by the Anglian Water Authority and that 85 per cent. of the cost of repairing the sea wall would be borne on central Government funds. In 1976 it was not found possible by the then Secretary of State for the Environment, the late Tony Crosland, to provide funds to help councils. In my constituency, in 1976 402 houses were affected by the flooding, whereas on 4th and 5th January this year the figures were very different; 288 houses had their gardens flooded, a further 185 houses were flooded below floor level, and 1,017 houses were flooded above floor level. Therefore, 1,500 houses were affected by the flooding this year.

Let me refer to the mechanics of what happened. I appreciate that this did not occur only in my constituency. The provisions of Section 138 of the Local Government Act 1972, placed the local authority in a difficult situation. Indeed, the Minister came to my constituency, as to others, to see for himself what damage had been caused and to consider what he thought necessary to recommend to the Secretary of State. But all the advice that we were given by the Department at the time of the floods was that under Section 138 local authorities had power to spend money without seeking central Government approval. But it took a month—a very long time indeed—for the Secretary of State to tell the House, as he did last Wednesday, that the Government were now prepared to cover 75 per cent. of all expenditure incurred in excess of a 1p rate.

I think that this time lapse was far too long and that local authorities were placed in the difficult situation of not knowing how much money they could spend, or knowing that they could spend money but not knowing whether it would be possible to recoup that expenditure.

After his statement to the House last week, I asked the Secretary of State what would happen if there were further floods. I am glad that he confirmed that the formula would stand and that the 75 per cent. of the excess over a 1p rate would be paid from Government funds.

Expenditure incurred by the council at cleethorpes already totals £180,000. This has been spent on the sea defences—a measure of which the council is still responsible for—clearing-up operations in private houses, general emergency work and the repair of seaside amenities. Further work is necessary to strengthen the sea defences to prevent further flooding at the southern end of Cleethorpes, and this will cost about £200,000. There are to be discussions between the council and the water authority on the question who will pay this extra expenditure, but if it should fall on the council, will it be covered by the Government's new formula?

It is estimated that £1,600,000 worth of damage has been caused to private property and goods in Cleethorpes. Clearly, a considerable amount of this money will be met from insurances, but there are a number of specific questions that I should like the Minister to answer.

In Cleethorpes, around Suggetts Lane and Oliver Street near the shore and further inland, because of the great pressure on the drainage and sewerage system, many small owner-occupied houses were flooded. Many occupiers are elderly people who are not fully conversant with the nuances of insurance, and I wonder whether help can be given, particularly to these elderly people who are underinsured or not insured. I realise that it is the responsibility of the individual to insure his property, but there have been some sad cases in Cleethorpes, including that of the young couple who had just bought a new £450 three-piece suite. A local councillor told my wife that when he asked the couple why they had not insured the suite, they said that they could not afford it. Of course, in a perfect world they would have spent £25, or whatever, less on the suite and used the money for insurance, but perhaps this would not occur to a young couple buying furniture for their first small home.

The secretary of the Flood Action Committee has written to me about the damage caused to typical homes in Cleethorpes. Nearly every house had a washing machine and a carpet and other floor coverings. Among the items that were lost in the floods were household furniture, fridges, fitted fires and miscellaneous electrical appliances such as irons. The average householder had to pay £80 for a lost fridge and £400 or £500 for new carpets in addition to the cost of redecoration and replacing the food in fridges, and so on.

I do not know how many hon. Members have seen the effects of flooding. It is a most obscene business. The filth seems to get everywhere and it is the most hopeless sight one can imagine. It looks like the scene of a wartime bombing and one must pay an enormous tribute to people on the East Coast and in other parts of the country who manage so magnificently in these difficulties. In my constituency we are grateful to the Royal Air Force, which came to help from Binbrook and other local stations.

A great deal of expenditure was incurred by most people in extra heating. Every form of heating appliance was pressed into service to try to get houses and other buildings dried out. I went to the two areas most badly affected soon after the flooding occurred. I was told about loss of earnings. The wage earners, the husbands, were having to take time off work to help in the house. The able-bodied who were out of work were helping in their own houses and in the houses of the elderly and those not able to help themselves. I know that there was help available in the form of supplementary benefit, but that in no way compensated for the loss of earnings of those who helped not only themselves but others.

It is a fine thing to be able to say that nearly all the young said "It is all right for us, we are young and healthy and we can start again, but what about others down the road?" There has been great concern for the old.

I hope that the Minister will give consideration to the value of the houses that have been affected. The houses in Cleethorpes down by the sea wall, such as those in Suggetts Lane and Oliver Street, are virtually unsaleable. They have no value as they have been flooded twice in two years. Anyone moving into my part of the country is most unlikely to want to buy a house, or even to think of buying one, that has been flooded twice in two years.

On Radio Humberside we heard recently that the bottom had fallen out of the housing market. That was true of the value of the houses down by the sea wall, the price of which deteriorated to virtually nothing. That had the effect of pushing up the prices of houses in other parts of the town. Leading estate agents in Cleethorpes have said that it is not really worth taking on to their books the houses by the sea wall, because no one would want to buy them and because, as professional advisers, they could not in all conscience advise prospective purchasers to buy a house in the affected area. Even if such a property did get on to an estate agent's books and a purchaser could be found, it is unlikely that any building society, insurance company or bank would lend money to a would-be purchaser.

Although I have talked of the specific, I know that there are many general problems. My constiuency is primarily agri- cultural and the land was not badly affected in the recent floods, but I hope that when the Minister replies he will have something to say for the benefit of those whose land was affected.

The Secretary of State will by now have received a letter from the Grimsby and Cleethorpes Deanery Synod, in which is set out the views of three priests. I refer to their views on the damage that has been caused. They were distressed that no firm assurances had been given about some of the points that I have raised.

I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us, because at present there is a feeling in my constituency that we have suffered twice in two years and that very little has been done centrally to help us. One of the big differences between 1978 and 1976 is that damage has occurred much further inland. There has been damage up to three-quarters of a mile away from the sea wall. Extra expenditure on the drains is required in Brererton Avenue, which suffers flooding not every two years but regularly two or three times a year. Will there be any form of help available from the Government to the Cleethorpes Borough Council, or through the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, for which I know the Minister has no responsibility, to the Anglian Water Authority improve the drainage in that area?

Already this year and last November we have had flooding on the East Coast, but over the past few days there has been great damage in Scotland, from the snows. As a thought for the future, I believe that the Government should give serious consideration to setting up a national disaster fund from which could be drawn the necessary resources to deal with emergencies such as we have suffered this year.

Mr. Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler (Norfolk, North-West)

Before my hon. Friend sits down, may I ask him whether he agrees that the central point here is the adequacy of the provisions of the Local Government Act 1972, in Section 138 of which powers are given to local authorities to give financial assistance at times of public disaster? In Home Office Circular ES/1975 guidance is given to local authorities about their powers under the Act. My hon. Friend may agree that one of the things that we on the East Coast have had brought to our notice in recent weeks is the inadequacy of these provisions for dealing with natural disasters of this kind. I looked back through the debates that led up to the passing of the 1972 Act and discovered that Section 138 was lifted straight out of the previous Local Government Act—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

Order. I am afraid that during an Adjournment debate hon. Members may not discuss proposed legislation.

Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler

I am grateful to you, Sir Myer. I was asking my hon. Friend whether he agreed that there may be general provisions which are not adequate for dealing with the present situation. It is not clear enough to local authorities the extent to which support may come from the Government for the inordinate expenditure which they have to incur at times of natural disasters. I ask the Minister to indicate in the broadest possible terms whether this is a problem that he has in mind. Although local authorities are grateful for the generosity that is provided within current legislation, enabling the Government to contribute up to 75 per cent. of local authority costs over and above a 1p rate, which in an area like mine amounts to about £200,000, they would like an assurance that the Government will consider the adequacy of current legislation. Without pressing for specific proposals now, I ask the Minister whether the Government have in mind considering the need for Government generosity in reimbursing local authorities for the major expenses which have been incurred in the recent floods.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That was a lengthy intervention.

Mr. Brotherton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the point he made. I agree with him. I said at the outset that Section 138 of the Local Government Act was not sufficiently clearly worded for this latest series of disasters. The statement by the Secretary of State about the way in which the formula will stand in the future will be a great help to local authorities. In the light of what happened in January we would like to know of any further expenditure that may be incurred by local authorities which will rank for Government assistance.

12.13 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Marks)

I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Brotherton). I congratulate him on his timing in raising this Adjournment debate and on his Questions in the House. It was in reply to a Question from him that my right hon. Friend set out, last Wednesday, the details of the way in which the Government would help. I know that the hon. Member has expressed his sincere feelings for those whose homes have been inundated, whose property has been destroyed or severely damaged, and whose lives—and in some cases livelihoods—have been impaired. That he should seek to transform this into a tangible form of compensation is understandable.

I should like to take this opportunity to express my sympathy. As the hon. Member knows, this is not based on second-hand reports. On the visits that I have made, I have seen for myself the streets that he spoke of and I have talked to the people living in them.

At the request of my right hon. Friend I visited Cleethorpes, Wisbech and Kings Lynn on 18th January. Before going, I read the debate initiated by the hon. Gentleman in 1976. I cannot say that I saw a great deal of the countryside, as there was a freezing fog throughout the day and the previous evening. I arrived in Cleethorpes a week after the night of the storm. It was suggested that Ministers should have been on the spot. I do not agree. I think that a Minister and his retinue will not be of great help when the action is going on.

I recall the story of a Guards barracks in the regiment that I was in. There was a fire in the NAAFI, and the drill sergeant stopped the men carrying buckets of water to it, saluted the Commanding Officer when he arrived and asked permission to carry on. I think that the timing of my visit was probably right.

I met, the following day, the 35 hon. Members who had been invited to a meeting with me and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I talked to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that day and to the British Insurance Association.

Although when I went there most of the rubble, debris and water had been cleared, there was still widespread evidence of the serious damage. Large RAF blow-heaters were in operation in many houses to assist the drying of the structure. One of the things that struck me about my visit was the tolerance of some of the residents and the gratitude they expressed to the RAF and Army teams and to the Services' and the regular firefighters for their assistance.

While my visit is clear in my mind I want to say that my expressions of sympathy are not hollow words. In this respect I am entirely in accord with the hon. Member for Louth. If I disagree with him later on other aspects of his speech, it is not because I do not share his sympathy with the people.

I welcome this debate because it gives me an opportunity to review the role of government when, fortunately not all that frequently in this country, disasters and emergencies of all kinds happen. When I refer to "government" I mean it in its widest sense, to include local authorities and other public bodies.

The first and paramount function of government in these events must be the protection of life and the prevention or minimising of physical injury. This includes not only the immediate action required while the emergency conditions persist but the provision of food, shelter and the necessaries of life for the period until things return to at least something approaching normality. Nobody would pretend that these services are always provided with no slips or omissions—some are inevitable. I hope that in the areas concerned there will be an examination of the question whether all that needed to be done was done. We need to look at this for the future. However, I do not think that anyone seriously doubts that our emergency services, the local authorities and all organisations concerned perform magnificently when disasters call them into action.

The brunt of the immediate relief work is undoubtedly borne by the local authorities in the areas affected. They are on the spot, they know the local conditions, they will have prepared contingency plans which co-ordinate with those of the police, fire and ambulance services. They are in every respect best able to decide what should be done and to get it done. Local authorities have wide powers to enable them to do what is needed.

Section 138 of the Local Government Act 1972 enables local authorities to incur such expenditure as they consider necessary to avert, alleviate or eradicate in their area or among its inhabitants the effects of an emergency or disaster. They may make grants or loans to other persons or bodies in respect of any such action taken by those persons or bodies. They need no approval of the Government to exercise these powers or to spend the money necessary to do so. They can and do call on Government Departments, particularly the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health and Social Security. Regional offices of my own Department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Industry are available at an early stage. Water authority emergency services are also there.

Often the local authority itself is the owner of property and facilities which are as liable to damage or destruction in a disaster as are any others in the area. The local authority's emergency expenditure under Section 138, the restoration of services and the repair of its own property, can add up to a heavy bill.

By the very nature of its cause this expenditure is unexpected and can constitute a very heavy burden on local resources. Again, because of its nature, the expenditure for any one disaster is usually concentrated on relatively few local authorities. While all local authorities are, over a period, liable to suffer from one kind of emergency or another, happily that is a long period. I know that Cleethorpes is an exception, because it suffered twice in three years. Of course the coastal areas are specially prone to the ravages of the sea and storms, and low-lying areas to floods.

The normal methods whereby Exchequer assistance is given to local authorities are not appropriate to this kind of expenditure. The basis of the rate support grant for a year is the expenditure of local authorities, which will be incurred in that year over the country as a whole. It is a block grant.

Emergency expenditure, because it cannot be estimated in advance, cannot normally be taken into account, nor would the distribution machinery of rate support grant ensure that those authorities bearing emergency expenditure would receive an appropriate additional share of grant.

A specific grant towards emergency expenditure would not be appropriate, since, in order to safeguard the Exchequer, there would have to be controls of one kind or another over a local authority's emergency services. There are no such controls under this Act. This would restrict the authority's freedom and stultify one of the essential features of Section 138. For these reasons the Government have had to adopt a different approach.

The basis of this, as it was explained by my right hon. Friend, is that Government assistance would be provided to a local authority if its emergency expenditure would place an undue burden on local resources. What is an undue burden at any time will depend upon the circumstances. Certainly one vital factor will be the strength of the local authority's financial resources.

It has become increasingly evident of late that this general undertaking of Government support has left local authorities uncertain of the amount of assistance that they can expect to receive. This, in turn, has made it difficult for some to decide how much they can, with proper financial prudence, afford to spend. It was to remove this difficulty that my right hon. Friend announced further on 8th February that the assistance to each local authority affected by the gales and floods in November and January will be 75 per cent. of the amount of their emergency expenditure in excess of the product of a 1p rate. As the hon. Member said, my right hon. Friend has pointed to that as a guideline for the future.

I want to say something about insurance, because in his previous Adjournment debate the hon. Member made it clear that he would not expect the Government or taxpayers to provide assistance to people who have insured.

Let us consider the practicalities. Why stop at compensation for property lost or damaged in floods? If it is right for the Government to compensate in this case, it would be right to do so in all disasters. What is a disaster? It is as much a loss to a man whose house, alone in a street or town or even wider area, has been damaged by, say, lightning, as it would be to him if every house in his street were damaged to the same extent by flood, a whirlwind, a fire, or anything else which on that scale could be described as a disaster. An owner of property—be it his dwelling, a business or an industry and all that goes with it—is himself responsible for safeguarding it or its value to him.

As I said during my visit to Cleethorpes and other areas, local authorities are empowered, in such a situation as they have recently suffered, to incur whatever expenditure they consider necessary, without the prior consent of the Secretary of State. This power includes the making of grants or loans to individuals. We accept the local authority's word on this. Since we are giving it the task of deciding, there is not a great deal that the Secretary of State can say afterwards.

I repeat the assurance given by my right hon. Friend to the House last Wednesday when he said that a local authority that has incurred, as a direct result of these floods and gales, net additional expenditure in excess of its product of a 1p rate, will receive, by way of special financial assistance, 75 per cent. of that excess.

Advice on the application of this formula will be given to local authorities and they will be requested to submit to my Department claims for consideration. My Department has, however, no powers to make grants to individual persons.

We appreciate the problems caused by non-insurance. I have heard the expression "non-insurable properties", but according to the Insurance Association that is a doubtful assertion. I assure hon. Members that we shall continue to look at this matter to see what further advice we can give to local authorities should a similar disaster occur in future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Twelve o'clock.