HC Deb 13 January 1978 vol 941 cc2120-32

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

It is a strange and grim irony that this debate should have been selected for today because the subject is the inadequacy of the sea defences of Whitstable. The irony is that it comes after one of the worst storms in the last 25 years along the whole of our eastern coast. Whitstable was flooded in some parts the other night up to a depth of 3 ft. Many people had to be evacuated in the small hours of the morning.

The whole population of Whitstable and the surrounding towns and area was terribly concerned that the sea wall should not be breached. Great storm damage was done by waves at Herne Bay and hundreds of acres of land were inundated with salt water. The winter wheat crop there has been ruined. Only this morning I had representations from farmers telling me of hundreds of acres which had been so ruined and asking me to raise the matter in the debate, particularly in respect of the question of compensation. I have no time to go into great detail today on the matter, but I have brought it to the Minister's attention at the earliest opportunity.

Whitstable has a history of flooding, and much argument has gone on there about the need to strengthen the defences against the North Sea. This is not the first time that I have raised the matter in the House. I did so on one other occasion because it was so important. That underlines the seriousness of my constituents' anxiety in the matter.

The history is that Whitstable was severely flooded in the great flood of 31st January 1953. Some 1,500 houses were then under 6 ft. to 7 ft. of water, and that happened after the sea wall had been improved and heightened the year before. As a result of this disaster, which in other parts of the country produced a death toll of over 300 people, a new scheme was started at Whitstable in 1954 to heighten the sea wall and improve defences generally. This was completed two years later, and that work constitutes Whitstable's defences against the North Sea today.

The Government were deeply concerned after the 1953 disaster that our North Sea coastline should be proteced against what are known as storm surges. In 1968 the Department of the Environment wrote to every maritime local authority, including the GLC, calling on them to review their sea defences. One result of this initiative is the massive and unique Thames barrage now being built at Woolwich at a cost of about £450 million to protect London from a flood disaster. The review also resulted in improved defences along the whole of the Thames estuary, particularly on the Essex marshes and Canvey Island.

The former Whitstable Urban District Council submitted a new scheme to the Department in 1973, after extensive study and research in which it was advised by the Department's scientists and engineers at the Hydraulics Research Station at Wallingford. It was no casual advice that the Wallingford engineers and scientists gave. They designed an exact model to cope with the exact problems which would be met at Whitstable—and I make that point because it is relevant to my argument.

In the spring of 1975 the Secretary of State set up a public inquiry into the scheme, which cost Canterbury City Council about £60,000 to stage. After a wait of 12 months—now two and a half years after the scheme had first been submitted—the Secretary of State turned it down.

The inspector who carried out the inquiry was helped by an assessor who produced his own report on the technical aspects of the proposals. We are talking about an extremely complex piece of engineering. There seems to be some desire in the Department to deny the existence of such a report from the assessor, although it was referred to in a letter dated 12th August 1976 from the Department to the city engineer. That letter did at least establish that the assessor had produced a report.

However, in a subsequent letter dated 21st September 1976, a month later the Deparment stated that the assessor did not produce a separate report of his own. This, I maintain, is a relevant point, because the assessor's views concerning the engineering plans must have had great influence on the inspector in reaching his decision to recommend to the Secretary of State the rejection of the scheme.

Here we have a situation where a responsible local authority concerned to protect its citizens against another flood disaster, and responding to the Government's prompting to review its defences, produced a complete engineering plan for approval by the Minister. The council had spent £10,000 in fees to the Minister's principal advisers in these matters—the Hydraulics Research Station. All this was in 1973.

In 1976 the plan was turned down flat. Why? That is a good question. It is the normal procedure for any local authority when it fails to get the Minister's approval for any project to ask where it has gone wrong. Canterbury City Council was disappointed, but it did not throw its hands in the air in anger. It knew that it would have to go back to the drawing board, but it thought that before it started that work it should know exactly what engineering points had not been agreed.

The council therefore asked the Department whether it could see the assessor's report to which I have referred. The Department said that the report did not exist. The chief engineer of Canterbury City Council asked 43 questions of the Department, but not one answer was received.

In a letter dated 17th November last the city council was told that the Department could tell the council nothing, and that it must make its own judgment and submit a new scheme formally, with all the costs that that would entail. The Department said that it would then consider the scheme on its merits. Asked whether it could be a little more helpful, the Department replied in a letter dated 19th December 1977: I'm afraid we can say no more on this. What an extraordinary impasse between a Government Department and a local authority in this day and age when we are supposed to co-operate so much from the centre with devolved areas of government. And all the while a dangerous gap remains in the sea defences at Whitstable, and people's lives and property are at risk.

The inspector at the inquiry had said in his report that the 1973 scheme was "over-designed" and that the proposed sea wall was unnecessarily high. That was no doubt fair comment, but by how much was the scheme "over-designed"? The chief engineer of Canterbury went back to the Hydraulics Research Station—to the principal advisers. What did they think?

The Director of that Station wrote to the chief engineer on 30th June 1976 saying that he had discussed the whole matter with his colleagues and … we have no wish to amend any of the reports or recommendations. A week later, on 6th July, the Station wrote again to the chief engineer saying that it had checked the "theoretical overtopping calculations". That means, in more general language, flooding by waves over the top of the wall. The author of the letter said: I checked your calculation sheets and found the method correct in every case. One can accuse Canterbury City Council of being over-cautious in its design and producing a defence against the North Sea when it is at its worst and when a gale such as we have known is blowing. Perhaps the council did over-design the wall and go for a belt and braces solution. The wall was perhaps a massive one by some people's standards. It was 7ft higher than the existing wall. But one certainly cannot accuse the council of not being thorough and of not listening to advice. It relied heavily on the Hydraulics Research Station for guidance, for it was that body which had been involved in the design of the Thames barrage up the estuary, dealing with the same water.

The Canterbury chief engineer has now produced a modified scheme—an informal design, as it is termed and known in departmental parlance—and he has tried to meet what he thinks to be the objections of the inspector. He has taken out one major element of over-design and reduced the increase in height of the sea wall from 7ft. to 3 ft. above the existing wall.

Is that what the Department wants? Or is it going to have second thoughts after the grim floods of the other night? Will it be influenced by its own Hydraulics Research Station? The Canterbury proposals of 1973 were based on what the research station had said, which the station confirmed in 1976.

Of course, it is possible that the Department will say that the city engineer has gone too far and is now guilty of under-designing the scheme. Surely the answer is for the two sides to sit round a table, with all the plans and all the advisers, and no secrets, and let each other know exactly what they think. That would save a lot of ratepayers' money, and we might end by getting improved defences that meet the requirements of safety and environment without any more delay.

I hope that the Under-Secretary of State can give me an assurance that his Department is not deliberately dragging its feet in this matter because someone, somewhere, has ruled that the Coast Protection Act 1949 was not designed to protect our coastline and Whitstable against flooding, but rather to deal with the problems of erosion and encroachment by the sea. I know well enough how interpreters of legislation can make a mountain out of a molehill and say that flooding is not an encroachment and is not an erosion.

I have two rather ominous quotations to make from letters by the Department to the city engineer of Canterbury. One of them, dated 21st September 1976, says: The existing wall —that is, the wall on which we depend today— would appear to be higher than is needed for coast protection purposes, although it was constructed under coast protection powers. What is meant by that ominous statement? Is the Department suggesting that perhaps the wall should not have been authorised by the Department and built at all? A letter of 19th December, only a few weeks ago, from the Department to the chief engineer, says, I am advised that the bulk of the questions to which you seek answers are essentially related to the design criteria for flood protection works and are therefore not appropriate for consideration as a coast protection matter. Is someone trying to get out from under? I am extremely worried by these two ominous quotations, because, when people's lives are in danger, it is no time to fall back on legalistic niceties as an excuse for doing nothing. Something has to be done, and something must be done to protect my citizens and constituents in Whitstable.

4.14 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Guy Barnett)

I have listened to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) with the greatest interest, and I congratulate him on the way in which he put his case, because I, and I am sure others, appreciate very much the concern that he has shown for the welfare of his constituents in Whitstable in the matter of sea defences. This debate could hardly be more appropriately timed in view of the very unfortunate disaster which affected his constituents in Whitstable and, indeed, in view of similar disasters which have affected people in other parts of the country. I hope that he will excuse me if I briefly say a word about them.

I should like to take this opportunity of expressing my sympathy to all those who have suffered in the recent appalling storm, and to those who are now faced with the problems of tackling the aftermath. Local authorities, as always, have to carry the major organisational burden on these occasions, and it may be helpful if I draw attention to powers which local authorities already have to provide speedy help to the victims of emergencies, including flooding.

There is specific provision in Section 138 of the Local Government Act 1972 which, provided that councils are satisfied that the emergency affects their area and inhabitants, allows the local authority to make grants or loans to help those who have suffered. The Act allows a local authority to take action at once without having to obtain prior consent or to inform the Secretary of State. But the council must tell the Secretary of State as soon as possible of any action it has taken under Section 138, and he can direct the council to cease or to modify the action it has already initiated.

I thought it might be helpful to make that statement publicly, because I know that many local authorities at the moment are obviously worried by the situation they face. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that.

Generally speaking, sea defence works are works designed to protect low-lying areas from flooding by the sea. On the other hand, coast protection works, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, are designed to prevent the loss of land which is not necessarily at risk from flooding but which is liable to erosion and encroachment by the sea. Sea defence works are in fact land drainage works covered by land drainage legislation under which both local authorities and water authorities are empowered to act. Coast protection works are the concern in the first place of maritime district councils which were made coast protection authorities by the Coast Protection Act 1949. That Act was administered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

During the debate on Whitstable's sea defences in 1976, the hon. Gentleman, in raising the question of responsibility for sea defences, suggested that the Government should foot the whole bill and that the distinction which I have just outlined is quite illogical and leads to inequities. He cast some doubts on this in the speech he has just made I do not think that I need now repeat the points made during that debate, when my right hon. Friend the Minister of State explained in some detail how the financing of works was shared between central Government and local government. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that it is still my right hon. Friend's intention to re-examine the case when resources permit, but the force of the argument that financing should reflect the distinct interests has twice convinced two distinguished investigating bodies—the Royal Commission of 1911, and the Waverley Committee of 1953.

I now turn to the particular issue of the defences at Whitstable. The hon. Gentleman has referred to the public inquiry which took place in 1975 into the proposals for the new defences which were put forward by Canterbury City Council. The decision on that case—to reject the proposals—was made public in May 1976.

The hon. Gentleman has referred to whether or not the assessor in that inquiry produced a report. All I can say is that my information is that there was no report and that the inspector relied, as is not uncommon, upon the advice of the assessor in coming to his conclusion. In coming to his conclusion, he would have to take into account a number of factors which would come out during such an inquiry. It was on the basis of the inspector's report that my right hon. Friend took his decision.

The public inquiry turned essentially on the question of flooding. Considerable technical evidence was taken at the inquiry, and in the light of it the inspector's conclusions, which were made available to all parties to the inquiry, clearly stated that the proposed works were considerably over-designed and taken to an unnecessary height.

The assessor's view was that the existing wall would be adequate for coast protection purposes and as a protection against reasonable flooding risk if it were stabilised and completed with an adequate beach maintained in front of the wall and supplemented in the harbour area by new walls to the same height as the existing wall, that is, 19 ft. above ordnance datum.

The inspector's report also referred to the considerable planning and environmental objections to the proposed walls and to the amount of local opinion which appeared to be opposed to the projects put forward by the Canterbury City Council.

I want to say more in a moment about some of the technical criteria which are significant in this case. At the time the decision letter was issued in May 1976 the local authority's proposals had been rejected. But the decision letter suggested that if the council wished to put forward new proposals there were two courses of action which it might wish to consider: first, modified plans for stabilising the existing wall as a coast protection matter and, secondly, a modified sea defence scheme which would avoid the planning and environmental difficulties inherent in the original proposals. The initiative therefore lay with the council to decide which action it wished to follow.

Since then, I understand there have been a number of informal consultations between the officials of the council, my Department and the Ministry of Agriculture. If my advice is correct, the plea which the hon. Gentleman has made that people should get round the table has been answered and the council has, I understand, been given advice on a number of matters.

But what is required is, of course, a question for the judgment of the local authority, in the first place, taking into account the local nature of the problem. We have, as the hon. Gentleman knows, not yet received any proposals for the stabilisation of the existing wall under the Coast Protection Act 1949. We shall be very pleased to consider any such proposals on their merits whenever received.

Any formal proposals submitted under the Coast Protection Act would be considered on their merits, but if those proposals turned out to be for the purpose of flood prevention then they would not be covered by legislation concerned with matters of erosion and encroachment by the sea.

This brings me to the second option which I mentioned which was put forward in the decision letter. That was for a modified sea defence scheme which would avoid the planning and environmental difficulties inherent in the original proposals. If this option were followed, the major objective would presumably be the prevention of flooding. This is really a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, but it might be helpful if I were to explain some of the criteria which he would apply should an application be made to him under the Land Drainage Act 1976.

My right hon. Friend's policy is based largely on the recommendations of the Waverley Committee on Coastal Flooding which was set up following the disastrous East Coast floods of 1953. In its report the Committee stressed that the primary consideration must be the protection of human life, and that first priority must therefore be given to the setting up of effective warning systems to enable those at risk to get to safety before flooding takes place. The Committee also recognised the need for authorities to be encouraged to give as much protection as is economically reasonable to areas which are at risk from flooding. It recommended that, where flooding would lead to serious damage to property of a high value such as important industrial premises or compact residential areas, steps should be taken to provide a standard of defence which would protect them against a flood of the January 1953 level.

The implementation of those recommendation has led to the policy which has been followed for many years, the keystone of which is the need to demonstrate that the cost of the construction or improvement of sea defences to the 1953 standard can be justified by the benefits, both tangible and intangible, to the area at risk. Where this can be shown, grant aid at an appropriate rate is made available to the authority responsible for the defences. Grant is also available towards the cost of installing flood warning systems.

If, therefore, the council or the water authority—and I shall come to the question of differences in grant arrrangement shortly—wish to consider putting in an application for grant aid under the Land Drainage Act, their first step should be to consider how much expenditure can be justified in terms of the benefit that will be given to the areas art risk of flooding. At the same time, consideration could be given to the part which should be played by a flood warning system or other measures to deal with particularly high risk situations.

The hon. Member drew attention to the standards of sea defence elsewhere. It is true that in parts of the Thames estuary standards higher than those recommended in the Waverley Report are being provided. There are two reasons for this. First, these sea defences are all part of the Thames tidal defences which are based on the high standard of protection which will be provided for London when the Thames barrier at Silvertown is completed. They therefore have to take account of the effect of the reflected wave from the barrier. Second, some of the areas, such as Canvey Island, where a large number of lives were lost in the 1963 flood, are very vulnerable, whilst others include industrial premises—oil refineries, power stations, and so on—which justify a high level of expenditure on defence. So the Thames is a special case compared with the whole of the East Coast from Yorkshire southwards where the general level of protection is to the 1953 standard.

The question of grant arrangements for sea defence works was covered in some detail in the last Adjournment debate when the hon. Gentleman raised the question of differing grant rates for water authorities and local authorities, but it may help if I briefly recapitulate the main points of this aspect of the provision of sea defences.

As I have explained, both water authorities and local authorities have powers to undertake sea defence works, but because of the special engineering problems they pose, sea defence projects are generally best undertaken by the former. Grants are available to water authorities at an appropriate rate plus a 15 per cent. supplement for sea defences—subject to an overall maximum of 85 per cent.

It is, of course, open to local authorities to apply direct for grant if they wish to carry out sea defence works. Grants towards the cost of these works undertaken by local authorities depend on the financial resources of the local authority and the burden imposed by the works in question and other land drainage expenditure, including the precept paid through the county council to the water authority. The maximum grant payable under these arrangements is 50 per cent. plus the 15 per cent. supplement for sea defences.

I understand from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture that no application for assistance under the Land Drainage Act 1976 has been made so far by Canterbury City Council or by the Southern Water Authority in respect of sea defences at Whitstable.

I have already referred to the distinction between flood prevention and coast protection. Naturally there are borderline cases, and where these arise it is necessary to look in detail at the plans, drawings and levels in order to decide on the merits of each case. It has therefore been regarded as a "coast protection" wall and is maintained as such. This is one of the reasons why the council was invited to consider stabilisation of that wall as a coast protection matter in the decision letter following the inspector's report of 1975. But proposals to build a new wall or to increase the height of the existing wall, if it appears to have prevention of flooding as its prime objective would, as I have said, not be covered by the Coast Protection Act.

It is for the council to decide what sort of scheme it wants and I can assure the hon. Member that there is no foot dragging and that there is an agreement by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and, indeed, by my Department to do whatever we can as promptly as possible in view of the situation that has arisen in the past and has arisen again only recently. Indeed, if I may defend my Department, I should like to inform the hon. Member that yesterday a superintendent engineer went to Whitstable and inspected the whole situation.

I should like to end my remarks by again expressing my sympathy to those constituents of the hon. Member whose homes were flooded as a consequence of this disaster. I hope that this matter may be cleared up as soon as possible and that we can make sure that they do not live in fear of a similar disaster occurring again.

Mr. Crouch

I am grateful for the sentiments that the Under-Secretary has expressed about my constituents and for his very constructive and helpful answer.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.