HC Deb 21 October 1987 vol 120 cc743-51 4.43 pm
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Walker)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the flooding situation in Wales.

Exceptionally high rainfall over last weekend resulted in extensive flooding over a large part of south-west Wales and localised flooding in north Wales. Further minor flooding has occurred overnight in north Wales. Several hundred properities were seriously affected by the floods. There has been widespread flooding of agricultural land, but livestock losses have been minor as flood warnings were given in sufficient time for stock to be moved to higher ground. Communications were disrupted but all trunk roads throughout the Principality are now open. A number of county roads remain closed. Electricity and water supplies were disrupted, but they are being restored as quickly as possible.

Hon. Members will be aware of the tragic train accident in which four people died. The preliminary indications are that the foundations of the bridge were undermined by floodwater. British Rail is conducting its own inquiry and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has ordered an inquiry under the Regulation of Railways Act.

I should like to pay tribute to the work of all those involved in local authorities, the police, the fire service, the water authority and other organisations.

The Government have already made it clear that local authorities, which bear the prime responsibility for dealing with the situation, will he assisted with the extra costs that they incur. All their extra expenditure above a threshold defined as 0.4 per cent. of grant-related expenditure will attract special financial assistance at a rate of 75 per cent. in accordance with the Bellwin scheme, which was drawn up in 1983 in consultation with the local authority associations, including those representing Welsh local authorities. Extra expenditure above the threshold will be excluded from calculations of authorities' total expenditure to ensure that they do not suffer a loss of grant as a result of the unforeseeable extra costs with which they are now faced.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to express its sympathy to the relatives of those who have been tragically killed as a result of this flooding and to all those whose homes have suffered.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House and making the statement. On behalf of the official Opposition I express our sympathy to all those who have suffered as a result of the flooding and we particularly offer our profound condolences to the stricken familes of those who died so tragically.

Like the Secretary of State, I should like to express our thanks and offer our congratulations to the military and civil authorities that responded so magnificently to a crisis that developed rapidly over so widespread an area.

I have welcomed the statement today, but it is three days since the flooding occurred. It is only today, at official level, that the Welsh Office is clarifying the financial position for councils. During those three days those councils and relief organisations have been making decisions involving spending not by the hour but by the minute. They have had to make those decisions in a vaccum. Late on Monday we had a general indication that the Bellwin formula would apply. But until now the councils have not known how far their extra spending would affect their liability to Government penalties for overspending. Therefore, will the Minister confirm and clarify one or two points? In the past, although there is talk of the Government meeting up to 75 per cent. of the cost, in similar situations, because of the way in which the Bellwin formula has operated, councils have had to meet two thirds of the bill of disasters. Does he recognise that that would be a penal cost to some of our poorer local authorities in Wales?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that what he said in his statement is not quite correct? I am sure that he did not intend to mislead anyone when he spoke of all expenditure over the threshold. Will he confirm that there is not an absolute commitment by the Government to 75 per cent. of the cost over the threshold? There is only a commitment to entertain claims, but those claims are judged, and must be judged, against the Bellwin criteria, which are vague and which mean that it will be a long time after decisions have had to be taken that the councils will know whether they have qualified for grant.

Councils need to be as sure as possible of the ground rules as soon as possible. Will the Secretary of State clarify a further two points that have been put to me on behalf of the councils today that underline the fact that they are unsure of these points? Will councils be safe from penalties not only in relation to the initial threshold rate that they will have to spend, but also on the 25 per cent., which I am sure is what the Secretary of State intends? Further, because of the uncertainty about the way in which the Bellwin criteria will operate, will they be safe from penalty in respect of any further necessary costs which were genuinely incurred by them at the time but which are eventually judged to be outside the Bellwin formula? The Secretary of State should understand that that is very important for some local authorities that are particularly involved in the present crisis in Wales. It is important for them that there should be no uncertainty about the penalty situation.

The Secretary of State will be aware that south Pembrokeshire stands to lose £240 of Government grant for every £100 of spending that it accidentally makes outside the Government's criteria. Preseli stands to lose £107 of Government grant for every £100 that it inadvertently spends outside the Government's criteria. It is not merely a matter of semantics; it is a real and serious problem.

In those circumstances, does the Secretary of State not consider it appalling that as recently as lunch-time today the Welsh councils that are directly involved in this relief operation and the Welsh Office still seem to be confused about the Government's intentions? I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman's Department did not want him to be aware of the fact that throughout the three days councils have received conflicting advice—which is worse that -no advice. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will deplore that as much as I do. At 12.20 today the treasurer for an authority covering one of the worst affected areas, part of which is still under water, received the third version of the threshold figure for his authority from Welsh Office officials. Is the Secretary of State aware that the versions differed by as much as £100,000? At one time the treasurer to whom I referred was told that his authority might be responsible for a 3p rate before it received assistance from the Government. Subsequently he was told that the figure had been downgraded to 0.5p. He was given three conflicting versions in 24 hours.

If the system is so complicated that the Welsh Office cannot get it right, what hope have the councils had in the last three days when they have had to make spot decisions? At official level the Welsh Office has been a shambles. Perhaps it is just as well that the local authorities and not the Welsh Office had to deal with the flood crisis.

I welcome the extra money provided to help the worst-hit areas, but those areas will still be hard pressed to meet the remaining share of the cost of the flooding.

The system was devised in 1982. By now the Government should have devised a scheme which could be announced immediately an emergency strikes and which can be easily understood not just by the councils, but by the Government themselves.

Mr. Walker

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's expressions of sympathy for the sufferers. They will be shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The right hon. Gentleman criticised the Welsh Office. I do not praise myself but I do praise officials at the Welsh Office, who set up the co-ordinating machinery. They worked 24 hours a day, and appreciation has been expressed in all parts of the country for the advice and guidance that they have given. I deeply resent the suggestion that those officials represent a shambles. The only case that the right hon. Gentleman cited was of a local authority querying its threshold. Some official probably made a guess and then corrected himself. I totally praise those officials and I hope that the House will do the same.

The flooding took place over the weekend and on Monday evening it was announced that a scheme which had been negotiated with the Welsh local authorities would be introduced. It is a new scheme. The Welsh local authorities were not ignored when that scheme was drawn up and they know its details. As soon as the size of the problem was known I went to my colleagues in the Cabinet and they agreed that we should make an immediate announcement that the emergency would come under the Bellwin scheme.

The right hon. Gentleman is critical of the speed at which the announcement was made. He should look back to the emergencies when he was a Minister, to the severe weather conditions in 1977–78 and 1978–79. There was a longer delay before an announcement was made and no known scheme was available. People complain about our lack of generosity, but when the right hon. Gentleman was in power the scheme operated involved 75 per cent. of additional expenditure above a threshold defined in terms almost identical to those which are being used now. The generosity of the Labour Government scheme in similar conditions was somewhat slower, less understood but of the same dimensions.

I shall send all local authorities a detailed letter describing the Bellwin rules and we shall answer any queries from local authorities.

Mr. Keith Raffan (Delyn)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and I join in his praise for the emergency services, the local authorities and the admirably prompt action by his officials at the Welsh Office.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the main practical problems involves the division of responsibility? Will he review the maintenance of water courses to make it clear who is responsible so that necessary remedial action is not delayed by disputes between county, borough and water authorities?

Mr. Walker

Yes. I welcome my hon. Friend's remarks. I should like him to give me examples of any problems in his constituency and I shall look into them to see whether lessons can be learnt.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

I associate my party with all the remarks about bereavement and I thank all those who worked so hard. My constituency contains places such as Criccieth, Pentrefelin, Llanberis, Cwmyglo and Rhostryfan which were flooded. I welcome the Secretary of State's response and his visits to Wales this week.

May we clarify the details of the compensation? For example, if costs run over to 1988–89, will they be covered, particularly if there are capital implications such as bridges collapsing and requiring capital expenditure? If further tragedies or bad weather occur this winter, will they be covered by the Bellwin definition and will local authorities again have to meet the first tranche of expenditure? Will the Secretary of State organise a review of the emergency services to ensure that they have adequate equipment to respond quickly?

Mr. Walker

If a bridge is weakened as a result of the flooding we shall have to consider what happens on a case-by-case basis. A bridge might be scheduled for strengthening and so it would not qualify. I shall consider any long-term capital problems that arise. I do not know whether another penny rate will be involved if a second emergency arises. I shall check on that and let the hon. Gentleman know.

One must learn lessons from such incidents. On my visits I was very impressed by the speed and co-ordination of the emergency services. Co-ordination at Welsh Office and local authority level is important. I was impressed with the way in which local authorities took action so quickly. I am also full of praise for a group of individuals who are not often praised. I talk of the people involved in services such as the helicopter pilots from the Army Flying Corps who did a remarkable job visiting farms to ensure that everything was all right.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke)

I thank my right hon. Friend for congratulating the emergency services. I was in my constituency on Sunday when the flooding was at its height. The fire brigade acted in a most admirable manner, pumping out private buildings and shops and helping to relieve distress. The RAF Brawdy search and rescue helicopters, which are under threat of being removed from the area, also did excellent work in rescuing farmers and livestock.

I should also like to pay tribute to the amateur radio enthusiasts who set up a radio link with the neighbouring constituency of Carmarthen in the Pembrokeshire district council offices. It was the only communication link at that time and local authorities were thus able to co-ordinate their action.

I spoke to my right hon. Friend on Monday about my next question. I refer to the A40 at Haverfordwest, which is the subject of a major road scheme. There is some question that, because of the scheme, the water course of the river Claddau has been altered dramatically and that that may have caused the flooding. How are the inquiries going on that matter?

Mr. Walker

I appreciate that that last matter is of considerable concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) and his constituents. I believe that the nature of the flooding in the area was different from what had taken place in previous circumstances. Therefore, examination must be made by the water authority as to what, if anything, affected the area in a particular way when the flooding took place, I have consulted the chairman of the water authority on this matter and action is being taken to see that that examination takes place.

I note with interest the point my hon. Friend has made about people using amateur radio links. I was asked whether there would be a review of the emergency procedures and I believe that there are lessons to be learnt. For example in Carmarthen, where the telephone exchange was immediately put out of operation due to the flooding, there were considerable problems with regard to emergency calls and the telephone services. We shall have to consider methods whereby such calls can be effectively delivered to the emergency services when such incidences occur. In Carmarthen, the local radio experts were of considerable help to the police.

Mr. Donald Coleman (Neath)

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that it was not only flooding that caused problems during the weekend's heavy rain. Has the right hon. Gentleman been advised of the damage that has been done at Panteg in the Swansea valley as a result of the mountain slippage caused by the heavy rains? Will the Secretary of State consult the Lliw Valley borough council and other local authorities in Wales that have to contend with difficulties and slippages of this nature with a view to drawing up legislation that will enable local authorities to take early action in respect of these dangerous geological conditions? Will the damage at Panteg attract Government assistance as a means of helping to resolve that problem? Finally, I pay tribute to the work of the people at Swansea Sound and BBC Radio who alerted people to what was happening at the weekend.

Mr. Walker

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning his thanks to the media for conveying the flood warnings that, I am glad to say, the water authority gave in good time. Had those flood warnings not been given, many more cattle, sheep and perhaps people would have been injured. With regard to the mountain slippage, I cannot give any assurance about payment, but I promise to look into the matter immediately and consult the local authorities. I shall let him know the outcome.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and, on behalf of my party, may I extend sympathy to those who have been affected by this great tragedy.

I believe that it is the elderly as well as the farming community and those in business in certain parts of Wales who have been most affected and suffered grievously as a result of this flooding.

Will the Secretary of State consider especially the problems of those areas most affected in Dyfed and Gwynedd and ask himself whether the Bellwin formula is adequate when those authorities are already in extreme difficulties with their budgets?

Secondly, as regards the Glanrhyd accident and the tragic loss of life, will he pressurise British Rail and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to ensure that the bridge is replaced at the soonest possible moment because the possible closure of the central Wales railway line will have severe effects on the economy of central Wales? Will the Secretary of State ask the Welsh water authority what research it has done, subsequent to the flooding, because six inches of rain fell in the area of Llyn Brianne? It should consider whether some of the flooding in the Towy valley was a result of excess water coming from the Llyn Brianne dam.

Mr. Walker

I shall study, together with the water authority, its detailed examination of what has taken place. The rainfall was incredible when one considers that in 25 hours more rain fell than normally falls in the month of October. Therefore, substantial problems were bound to arise. From my point of view, one of the most interesting things has been discussing with the water authority where it was disappointed in the sense that it had carried out flood prevention work but floods had still occurred, and also where that flood prevention work had succeeded. I am pleased to say that, in many locations where the authority had carried out important work, such work succeeded. In those places where the prevention work was not successful, it was due to the degree of flooding and the downpour. However, I shall raise the hon. Gentleman's question with the water authority.

With regard to the repair of the bridge, I shall certainly convey to British Rail the importance of the line to a range of people in Wales. Having seen what was going on yesterday, it is obvious that a great deal of work has been carried out immediately to deal with the train and the totally collapsed bridge. I am afraid that there is unlikely to be a quick solution when one considers the size of the problem, but I agree that it should have a high priority.

With regard to the existing formula, I agree that when a scheme is put into operation any Government must consider how effective it is. A great deal of work went into creating the formula, in close consultation with local authorities, including the Welsh local authorities.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Does the Secretary of State intend to apply to the EEC disaster fund as there are good precedents for assistance with flood damage? Further, with regard to the Glanrhyd bridge disaster, does the Secretary of State believe that the repairs should be borne wholly out of British Rail's resources, or are there special contingency funds available from central Government for the repair of that bridge?

Mr. Walker

On the hon. Gentleman's latter question, I cannot be certain but I would guess that that repair would be part of the overall operations of British Rail. I am not responsible for British Rail, but I would guess that, as a result of the spread of the risks throughout the United Kingdom, British Rail is self-insured for hazards and risks such as the bridge disaster. In terms of capital investment of that description, when compared with the whole of its capital investment programme and its current position, I do not believe that the repair of the bridge wil be a major problem to British Rail.

As regards the EEC disaster fund, I gather talks have taken place between the Foreign Office and the European Commission about the availability of such grants and I presume that some conclusion will be reached.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

May I ask the Secretary of State to instruct the Welsh water authority to look again at its flood prevention scheme for Carmarthen? In 1979 we had a massive flood in Carmarthen — the worst in living memory and the worst for 100 years. Following that flood, the Welsh water authority set up a flood prevention scheme and invested about £600,000 in various defences. We were told then that that scheme would cover a flood as bad as 1979—we did not expect such a flood for another 100 years. However, within eight years that flood has occurred.

In particular, the Welsh water authority should look at the southern bypass and its big embankment that acts as a dam holding water back. It should consider a new bridge for Carmarthen at the eastern bypass. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) has already said, there is concern about what happened at Llyn Brianne during the course of Sunday night. Llyn Brianne is a massive reservoir at the head of the Towy and it was discharging enormous volumes of water. At this time of the year, no reservoir should be full, but it is clear that that reservoir was discharging enormous volumes of water. Will the Secretary of State ask the water authority to look into these matters?

Mr. Walker

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I visited his constituency yesterday with the chairman of the Welsh water authority. Since 1979, that authority has spent £650,000 to try to improve flood prevention. Given the circumstances of the 1979 flood and any flood in the past 100 years, that prevention work was, in the authority's view, totally effective. Unfortunately, the scale of the recent flood was unprecedented. When I spoke to some of the hon. Gentleman's constituents yesterday, some of the more elderly constituents told me about the flood of 1930 as well as the 1979 flood. All were in agreement that the problems associated with the recent flood were greater than any could remember.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, the nature of that flood prevention was the building of a wall which now acts as a dam. I am told that when the river level falls further, it will be automatically drained from there but the present levels have created a dam. I am sure that the water authority will review the situation and consider whether there are lessons to be learnt. I discussed with the engineers and the chairman of the water authority all the known criteria of 1979 and the prevention methods they used were sensible and correct. They did not take into account the freak flood of the dimensions that took place. Obviously when something as tragic as this has taken place, full examination must be made to consider whether any lessons should be learnt.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

Does the Secretary of State accept that the wine of generosity that has been poured out on previous occasions by his predecessors has turned to vinegar on the tongue on many occasions because of the way in which detail has been treated a long time after the event? For instance, elements of expenditure have been argued one way and another over a long period, which makes it difficult for local authorities to know where they stand. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the much greater and tighter controls on local authorities nowadays make that even more important and difficult to cope with? Will he seek to arrange a way of making sure that things are as clear as possible as soon as possible, and ensure that things are not passed from one local authority to another because of the knock-on effect of decisions in Wales?

Mr. Walker

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. Before I send the letter explaining in detail how the scheme operates I shall urge local authorities, if they are in doubt about any form of expenditure, to consult officials in my Department so that quick clarification can be given.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

When the Secretary of State is pondering the lessons taught by the severe weather for the future, will he ask his officials to examine the extent to which trunk roads and other major roads in Wales, especially mid-Wales, were flooded? Will he bear it in mind in particular that the A483 road on either side of Welshpool and the A487 at Dyfi bridge flood in far less severe weather than in the past few days? The floods were simply worse this time. Will the right hon. Gentleman seek solutions to the persistent flooding that occurs on those roads and severely disrupts industry in mid-Wales?

Mr. Walker

I can undertake only to look into the problems that the hon. and learned Gentleman has drawn to my attention and see whether there are solutions to them. From a previous incarnation, when I was Secretary of State for the Environment, when transport came under that Department, I know that there are problems of road flooding that are impossible to solve without gigantic expense. Because of cost-effectiveness, on occasions flooding cannot be avoided. I shall certainly look at the two cases mentioned by the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

Will the Secretary of State clarify the position for some riparian owners following my discussions with Welsh water authority officials? They have explained that their responsibility in many cases is for the beds, not the banks of rivers. Riparian owners, whether private individuals or companies, are responsible for repairs to what, in some cases, can be described only as severe structural damage. There is always the possibility of insuring against that risk, but is the Secretary of State aware that some of those people have been flooded so often this year that certain insurance companies are not prepared to insure them against that risk? Will he explain to the House whether it is possible to find resources for those people if it can be shown that there has been severe structural damage and they have been unable to insure themselves against such damage?

Mr. Walker

If someone finds that he is uninsured against such a risk, in principle it is unlikely for the Government to take on that risk on his behalf. However, if the hon. Gentleman can give me specific examples of where that is a problem, I shall look into them.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)

In his discussions with the chairman of the Welsh water authority during his tour, did the Secretary of State discover whether the Llyn Brianne was fuller than it should have been and, when the five inches of rain fell in the head waters of the river Towy, whether it could not hold back the head waters and thus allowed a greater rush of water down the river Towy, knocking out the bridge at Glanrhyd? Was the rush of water greater than might have been the case had the Llyn Brianne had the spare capacity to hold that five inches of rainfall?

Mr. Walker

I did not discuss that with the chairman of the Welsh water authority. If it had been the case, it would have been mentioned as a factor in the briefings and reports that were given to me by the water authority. As the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter, I shall immediately have it raised with the water authority and let him know the position.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that we in the Labour party recognise the splendid efforts of the emergency services? However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) stated, there has been unnecessary concern and anxiety over the past three days because of the Welsh Office's indecisive attitude over the financial support that is to be made available to alleviate all the damage that has been caused. It is still not clear whether local authorities are to be penalised for expenditure that is incurred but is subsequently deemed to fall outside the Bellwin criteria. Will the right hon. Gentleman clear up that point? Does he further appreciate that positive and genuine financial support is needed for our local authorities, and particularly for individuals whose homes have been wrecked and who are in poor circumstances and on social security?

Will the right hon. Gentleman remind his Cabinet colleagues that he is dealing with impoverished south Wales, which should be dealt with differently from the prosperous south-east of England? What about the bridges in Dyfed alone—1,400 of them? A pre-flood inspection showed that it would cost £12 million to bring them up to standard. Surely a revised figure now would be far higher. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that more stringent precautions are necessary following the Glanrhyd bridge tragedy? I should like to add my sympathy to the relatives of those who so tragically lost their lives. What steps are being taken in conjunction with British Rail to ensure the speedy reopening of that important rail link, which is the lifeline of mid-Wales?

Mr. Walker

On the latter point, British Rail is putting all its resources into clearing away the debris. It will then restore the service as quickly as possible. I am sure that it recognises the importance of that service to mid-Wales. The inquiry will take place under the Regulation Railways Act. I am sure that the facts of the tragedy will be made known when the report of the inquiry is made public.

The hon. Gentleman referred to speed. I defy him to find another case such as this. Serious flooding took place on Sunday night primarily and through Monday morning, and on Monday evening the Government announced the financial services that would be made available. It is absurd to make criticisms. We have heard the cry,. "Shouldn't you have bigger grants for impoverished south Wales than for London and south-east England?" Even if there was a case for that, such a case was never conceded by the previous Labour Government when they gave similar grants to similar local authorities.