HC Deb 15 March 1979 vol 964 cc874-86

12.23 a.m.

Mr. Walter Clegg (North Fylde)

Good morning, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry to keep the Minister out of his bed at this unreasonable hour, but I am sure that he accepts that this is one of the hazards of his job. I can hardly conceive of a Consolidated Fund Bill debate going by without the Minister being involved, given the nature of his Department.

I am raising a debate on storm and flood emergency services for a simple reason. In November 1977, due to a high tide backed up by gale-force winds, parts of my constituency were extensively flooded. I was able to see at first hand all the miseries, problems and loss that that flooding caused.

I want to try in this debate to draw from that experience some lessons which could be of value not only to my constituency but to other areas which could face a similar situation. It is worth remembering that until the Thames barrage is completed the Palace of Westminster is very much at risk from flooding after a surge up the Thames from the North Sea. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) has just asked me whether we shall all know what to do when we hear the siren. I hope that it is a sound that we shall never hear, at least until the barrage is completed.

I am not out to score any party points tonight, because I believe that the situation is too serious to take a partisan point of view. My first point is a general one, but it is well illustrated by what happened in North Fylde. The reality is that there is no one Department of State responsible for sea defences in their entirety. As I understand it, the responsibility is shared between the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The DOE has a responsibility where there is a question of coastal erosion, while if there is a question of flooding the responsibility is that of the Ministry of Agriculture.

That, however, is not quite the end of the matter. If coastal erosion is involved, the local authority concerned is the district council, but if flood protection is involved the water authority for the particular area is responsible. I can illustrate this from what happened in North Fylde in the floods of November 1977.

When the sea overwhelmed the wall at Fleetwood and Cleveleys, the direct responsibility for coping with the situation lay on the Wyre borough council, whereas on the same night, when the sea came through the sea wall in the Over Wyre area the responsibility there was that of the North-West water authority. This meant that in the same district two authorities were having to cope with flood situations. If one adds to that the fact that the police, fire and ambulance services are under the control of Lanca- shire county council, it can be seen very clearly that responsibility is diffused. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, I found that it was difficult at times to find out who was doing what and where from.

Therefore, there is good reason to look at the present situation, in which two Government Departments, two local authorities and a water authority are concerned not only with coping with a flood situation but with preventing one arising.

At present, I understand that in my constituency the Wyre borough council is pressing ahead as fast as it can with proposals to strengthen the sea walls at Fleetwood and Cleveleys, while on the other bank of the River Wyre the North-West water authority is planning to rebuild the sea wall to protect Preesall and Pilling. The Wyre borough council has to look to the DOE for finance and for approval of its schemes, while the North-West water authority has to look to the Ministry of Agriculture. I feel that there are dangers in this division of responsibility and authority. The Government should look at this matter with urgency.

Finally on this point, so complex is the situation that at one part of my constituency, Spring Bank on the eastern bank of the River Wyre, erosion is taking place for which no one seems to be responsible. The Wyre borough council declines responsibility. The county council and the North-West water authority decline responsibility. It seems, therefore, that although the parish council is desperately concerned lest the erosion should lead to flooding, no one is taking up the question of what should happen at this particular point. I understand that the matter is outside the terms of the Coast Protection Act, so it is not the responsibility of the DOE.

I now turn to one of the great fears which I found following the flood—the fear of its happening again. This was and still is a very real fear. Every time there is a high tide accompanied by gale-force winds, many of my constituents are in dread of what may happen. There can be only one answer to this problem. That is that the sea defences should be made as secure as possible. There must be the right answer and the answer which, in the long run, will be the most cost-effective. If floods can be prevented, Estimates such as that which we are discussing will not be necessary.

I understand that the Wyre borough council is pressing ahead as fast as it can to strengthen the sea walls at Cleveleys and Fleetwood, and, as I have said, at Over Wyre the North-West water authority is doing the same thing. The sooner this work is done, the better, and the sounder will my constituents sleep in their beds. I hope that the two Ministers concerned will do their best to see that the authorities involved are given all the help and Government grants that can be given.

Improving the sea defences is the prime objective, but it is equally important that preparations should be made in the event of flooding occurring. The Wyre borough council has set up a special committee to study the problems of emergency action and the co-ordination of all the various factors to which I have referred. It has also had talks with many people, including the Fleetwood Flood Association. I believe that clear contingency plans should be made. I hope that the experience of the 1977 flooding will lead to more effective methods of dealing with such a situation again.

I ask the Minister to urge his Department and the Ministry of Agriculture. Fisheries and Food to look at contingency planning in co-operation with local authorities at places where there is a risk of flooding. There are difficult problems to resolve—for example, the giving of early warnings. If these are given too often—if"Wolf"is cried too often—and nothing happens, early warnings will be deprived of being effective when the real emergency occurs. There is much to be be done to co-ordinate these efforts.

I have a strong feeling that natural disasters in this country are treated on an ad hoc basis. The Minister of State, Department of the Environment has the most remarkable powers for conjuring up rain or dissolving snow, but that is not enough.

I was often asked, during the flooding in 1977, whether I could get the area declared as a disaster area. That phrase has often been used on television. As far as I know, we have no method or system for declaring a place as a disaster area. But a possible mode of approach to the problem is to have some special disaster procedure.

I turn now to the question of financial help and compensation in the wake of a flood. I found the situation very complex. I understand that a local authority has power to make grants from its own resources for uninsurable losses, but not for losses which could have been insured beforehand. If a local authority spends more than a penny rate in this way, the Government have discretion to help. In fact, they have in the past helped in such circumstances. I further understand that local authorities can contribute to any relief fund set up to deal with disasters, and the Government have in the past stepped in and contributed where local authorities have done that.

I believe that, instead of the present ad hoc procedure, we should have a standard code of practice when flooding or some other natural disaster takes place so that everyone knows exactly what the position is.

I am particularly concerned about the speed with which financial help reaches people. It would seem, from my experience, that small amounts provided quickly can, in the long term, be less expensive than the delaying of expenditure. Local authorities are sometimes too cautious in assessing damage which has been done in case they make an underestimate, and time goes by without achieving a proper result.

In this regard I was impressed by the Wisbech council, which paid £100 to each family affected by the flood in that area within a week of its happening. I appreciate that, because of scale, that may not always be possible, because many houses can be affected by a tremendous flood. But, in addition to losses which people can revover from their insurance or from the local authority, many losses are uninsurable. Grants towards the cost of getting things dried out, to get electrical equipment put right and so on should be standard practice.

People can and should insure themselves. If not, they run the risk that the local authority to which they turn for help will say that they should have insured and cannot be helped. People should stand on their own feet, but a serious situation should still be met by compensation.

I turn to a heartbreaking case in my constituency. This is not the responsibility of the Minister's Department but I have told him about it. A firm called Sea Spray Roses, at Pilling, grows roses under glass commercially. Its greenhouses were inundated by flooding, which wrecked the heating apparatus, virtually destroyed all the rose stock and put the land in the greenhouses out of action for some time. That business was totally destroyed, the production of roses has had to cease, the firm has had to sell four of its six acres of land to keep the greenhouses intact, and it has had to turn over to growing potatoes. The total loss is about £40,000.

Although there was an uninsurable loss, the compensation payable was very small—a Government grant to put the soil back into condition. One of the problems with the law is that rose trees are treated not as stock but as grassland, and they were not entitled to compensation. That hard case shows what flooding can do. If an authority has a statutory duty to protect an area from flooding, there may be a duty on the authority or the Government to step in when such losses occur.

After flooding—I have known of this in other parts of the country as well—people ask why the planning authority ever allowed building in the area. One clear answer is that if the planning authority believed its sea defences to be adequate, it was justified in doing so. But what if the water authority or the coastal defence authority warns the planners of a serious risk of flooding? Would it be able to veto the development, or would the matter have to go to the Secretary of State on appeal? I come up against this problem again and again in planning matters—that if a local authority permits something, people expect it to be safe. Authorities will have to take account of potential risk when planning.

I now turn to the mystery of the EEC moneys. So far as I know, no moneys have been allocated by the EEC as compensation for the flooding in North Lancashire in November 1977, but in 1978, in the same winter, moneys were allocated by the EEC to the east coast. What part, if any, did the Government play in determining that allocation? What was the money used for? Where was it spent? Did the Treasury put the money in the"kitty"to reduce its own expenditure?

I summarise my points as follows. First, there should be a close look at the present split of responsibility for sea defences. Second, the work of improving them, not only in my constituency but anywhere that people are at risk, should be completed with the utmost speed. Third, firm contingency plans should be made in areas where there is a risk of sea flooding. Fourth, a code of practice for immediate financial and other help in the case of flooding should be established. Fifth, further thought should be given to the treatment of uninsurable losses. Finally, in the longer term thought should be given to a disaster procedure which would include large-scale flooding.

12.41 a.m.

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

I thank the hon. Member for North Fylde (Mr. Clegg) for his kind words about my regular attendance as a Minister at these late debates on Consolidated Fund Bills. I suppose that in a sense it is poetic justice that I should attend, because I must confess that as a Back Bencher I often kept Ministers up until a late hour in similar debates.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to debate this subject at a period when, happily, so far as I was aware when I entered the Chamber, the country is not somewhere or other suffering devastation from wind, sea, fire, flood or any of the other hazards that beset us from time to time.

There are two aspects to what the hon. Gentleman said—emergency services and the long-term arrangements for dealing with coastal erosion and flooding. I should perhaps briefly review the broad arrangements for dealing with emergencies, whether they arise from natural causes—the extremes of weather conditions that even our generally equable climate produces—or from major accidents, which by the nature of the hazards, the number and seriousness of the casualties or the disruption to the normal life of the community create problems far beyond what it is reasonable to expect the standing emergency service—police, fire or ambulance—to clear up unaided. The problem of oil pollution is one for the same maritime authorities as suffer from the incursion of the sea in various ways.

It is recognised that the great wealth of practical experience in dealing with these kinds of peacetime emergencies lies with the local and public authorities, and that in particular local authorities are best able to assess the hazards in their own areas, to plan the co-ordination of resources to meet them, to minimise the danger and to alleviate the effects upon their inhabitants. Parliament has given them very wide powers to take whatever action they consider necessary to avert, alleviate or eradicate the effects, or potential effects, of any emergency or disaster.

Under section 138 of the Local Government Act 1972, local authorities have those powers. Unfortunately, the Act gave them the powers but said nothing about Government help with the financial problems that would follow their use.

Local authorities have accepted the responsibility for some years, and have on many occasions discharged it well. But the cost to them can be high, and because of its very nature it is unforeseeable both as to amount and where it will fall on particular districts. For this reason, it cannot be taken into account in the determination and distribution of the general Exchequer assistance to local authorities through the rate support grant.

Therefore, since the beginning of last year we have provided for special financial assistance where, as a result of what the Government accept as an emergency, a local authority has had to incur expenditure which would impose an undue burden on its local resources. In deciding what is an undue burden, we must have regard to the financial resources of each local authority—its own rateable resources.

The well-recognised and convenient measure of those resources is the amount of money an authority can get from a penny rate. It is this amount—the product of a penny rate—that we consider can and should be met by a local authority without Government assistance. Where the additional expenditure attributable to the emergency exceeds the product of a penny rate, the Government will pay 75 per cent. of the excess. This arrangement has so far been without any specific statutory provision. I went up to Cleethorpes, Wisbech and King's Lynn at the beginning of last year, and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture went up to North Lancashire. That was the arrangement that we came to, that my Department would meet that cost. As I say, it has been without statutory provision, and we have been doing it under the authority of the appropriate Act. On Monday last, however, we had the Second Reading of the Local Government Finance Bill, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that we are making provision in that Bill and it will be possible to discuss that in Committee.

Throughout this island's history, the sea has been both our defender and our attacker. I saw an example of the latter when I visited the Yorkshire coast at Humberside a few weeks ago in the very bad weather and saw the erosion which has taken place on that coast. We have to defend ourselves from two dangers of the attacks of the sea—erosion of the coast and flooding of the hinterland.

I take, first, the question of the two Ministries dealing with this matter, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Coast protection works which are a defence against coastal erosion—usually of the higher ground—are the responsibility in the first place of the maritime district councils. They were made coast protection authorities by the Coast Protection Act 1949, which is administered, as the hon. Gentleman said, by my Department. These coastal protection works are designed to prevent the loss of land from erosion or encroachment.

Sea defence works are works designed to protect low-lying land—which, in the main, is what applies in the Fylde—from flooding by the sea. They are land drainage works covered by the land drainage legislation, under which both local authorities and water authorities—it is not simply a matter for water authorities—can act. This comes under the Land Drainage Act 1976, administered by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Bringing those two Acts together has been considered on a number of occasions. It would be administratively tidier, and, indeed, it is proposed to carry out a review of the Acts when circumstances permit. Also, when resources permit, it is the intention to carry out a survey of the whole coastline. As I have, I think, explained to the hon. Gentleman on a previous occasion, there is no defined part of the coast which is Ministry of Agriculture or Department of the Environment responsibility. We want to get on with that survey so that we have detailed information about the whole coast where the two functions arise.

Grant aid under the Coast Protection Act—which is Department of the Environment—is on the basis of a specific grant for a specific scheme, and there is a formula for that. It is related to the cost of the work and the district council's ability to pay—again, the product of a penny rate. All schemes approved under the Act for capital works, including major reconstruction schemes, qualify for loan consent and for grants, and the grants, depending on the wealth of the local council, vary from 24 per cent. to 79 per cent. of the cost. There is also a contribution from the county council.

Wyre borough council has suffered from storm damage, particularly in the autumn of 1977 and especially on one estate, I think the Larkhome estate. The council is at present considering works estimated at £3 million for its western seaboard defence. The council itself is doubtful whether the works should be carried out under the coast protection or the land drainage legislation. I am sure that it is considering which is the best way of getting the job done and which would be better financially for the council.

Officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and the North-West water authority had a meeting with Wyre borough council in January. My Department discussed the situation in February with the officers of the Wyre borough council, and they arranged a meeting on site to consider whether there is any coast protection element in what has to be done. An agreement has been made that the council should arrange a meeting, inviting representatives of the water authority, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of the Environment and the county. We are still waiting for the council to take action on that.

The Lancashire authorities suffered general damage in November 1977 and had to meet the cost which fell to be considered for the special financial assistance. Only one of the Lancashire councils—Wyre district council—claimed to have incurred expenditure greater than a penny rate product. But we have not been able to accept the claim because of an important principle. In order to maintain equity of treatment of all local authorities, we must adhere to the principle that the Government should not contribute towards normally insurable losses. The question involves insurance for local authority property. That is for each local authority to decide.

When, for whatever reason, a local authority decides not to insure its own property, it decides to bear the risk itself in preference to paying insurance premiums. It cannot expect to reap from the Government an advantage over local authorities which take out insurance. Wyre district council's expenditure of £190,000 included £50,753 for repairs to council-owned houses which were not insured. Thus, the eligible expenditure amounts to less than a penny rate.

We leave the decision about declaring a disaster area to the councils. They decide and inform us. Local authorities are now getting the hang of the procedure. Section 138 of the 1972 Act was clear. Everybody in Wisbech, for instance, whose ground floor was flooded was given £100. We accepted that as part of the council's expenditure. The council decided on that. The scheme is flexible enough for the Government not to have to announce a disaster area.

I was also asked about the aid given by the EEC following the winter's storms. This amounted to 1 million European units of account, or £630,000, for England and Wales. The Government decided that this aid should be used partly to contribute to a fund for compensating farmers suffering heavy livestock losses and partly for local authorities.

The EEC originally said that the money was to be used only to help those suffering from the February floods. But it agreed that it should be made available to the areas of England and Wales which had suffered in the gales of November 1977 and January 1978 and the blizzard of 1978. On 1 August 1978, the Secretary of State announced that about £440,000 was to be distributed to local authorities which demonstrated their need by incurring exceptional expenditure above a penny rate. The money will be distributed according to the severity of the burden remaining to be borne by the local authorities which spent more than a penny rate and had some Government grant but which are still eligible for more.

Planning is a matter for the local authorities. Often the public find it hard to understand that once a local authority approves a planning application, that is it and there is no appeal to the Secretary of State. Only when an authority refuses an application is there such an appeal. I know of cases where a water authority has recommended to planning authorities that because of flood danger it should not build in an area. My Department sometimes recommends that building should not take place too near the coast where there is heavy erosion. Sometimes local authorities go ahead and give permission. As a result, there have been instances of flooding. We sometimes get the argument that Whitehall does not know best and that the local people on site know best.

There has been some improvement in the early warning system. There was concern in North Norfolk last year, but I think that more recently there has been a better approach. We are working on this at the moment. We hope to be able to flash messages on to television screens. In addition, local radio has a part to play.

The suggestion was made that we should treat disasters on an ad hoc basis. Disasters tend to be ad hoc. None of us expected that we would get such bad weather this winter. While I have heard people criticising local councils for not having dozens of snow ploughs and gritting machines ready, it is probably true to say that very few of those who have complained had chains for the wheels of their cars.

When a local authority decides to declare a disaster area, Government Departments act rapidly. In the cases that we had last year, the Department of Health and Social Security set up special facilities in the affected areas. My own Department promptly had people on the spot, as did the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Ministry of Defence plays a most prominent part. The drying-out of houses is one of its functions. The RAF is able to bring its huge hangar heaters into play, which dry out a house in a short time.

All this work has to be paid for. The Ministry of Defence charges for the job. But the charge can go on to the emergency spending bill of the local authority, which is eligible for relief. The system is not perfect. We reached the 75 per cent. figure by making a rapid judgment last year to help local authorities. Surprisingly few local authorities have submitted claims. There were only eight of the maritime local authorities in 1977 and 1978 which submitted claims. We believe that we are on the way to achieving a combination of local initiative to do the work, assistance from Government Departments and financial help from the Government when the need arises.