HC Deb 21 October 1987 vol 120 cc729-42 3.49 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

I wish to make a statement about the hurricane force winds which hit southern England early last Friday morning. Tragically 19 people were killed. We offer heartfelt condolences to their relatives and friends. There was widespread damage to property and trees; road and rail links were blocked; electricity and telephone lines were brought down on a large scale. Most of the damage was caused by falling trees.

Ever since, emergency teams from the local authorities, the electricity supply industry and the other services affected have been working incessantly, helped greatly by the armed services. They have done a magnificent job. Normal services have now been restored to the great majority of people. They will continue to make every effort. About 4 million electricity consumers have been reconnected, although 168,000 are still without supply. The electricity supply industry is making every effort to reconnect the bulk of them by the weekend, but the extent of the damage in some areas and the continuing adverse weather may result in some consumers not being restored till next week. The industry is working closely with other emergency services to minimise hardship to those still affected.

It is too soon to estimate the overall costs of these events, but I have already announced the Government's decision that the existing financial arrangements to assist local authorities in emergencies—known as the Bellwin scheme — will be available in the areas affected in England for emergency work connected with that storm damage. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will be making a separate statement on those areas of Wales affected by the severe flooding over the last few days.

Prudent local authorities have long provided in their budgets for contingencies and emergencies, but in 1983, after consultation with the local authority associations, the Government issued guidelines To provide special financial assistance to local authorities who, as a consequence of an emergency, would otherwise incur an undue financial burden in providing relief and carrying out immediate works to safeguard life or property or prevent suffering or severe inconvenience to affected communities. Under this scheme, authorities are themselves responsible for the first tranche of expenditure on emergency work. The amount that the authorities most affected will be expected to find from within their existing budgets is likely, on average, to be slightly below 0.5 per cent. of their GRE. I am setting the threshold at expenditure equivalent to the product of an exclusive penny rate for county councils and of 0.15p for shire districts. Expenditure above that will be eligible for 75 per cent. grant assistance from Government. The threshold in London will be based on the product of a 1.15p rate divided between tiers according to GRE shares. The Department is writing today to the local authority associations and to those authorities that initially appear most likely to be affected explaining details of how the scheme will operate. I am placing copies of that letter in the Library and in the Vote Office. It will be up to any authority that considers itself eligible for such assistance to apply to the Department. The scheme does not cover losses that are insurable.

I shall take account, too, of the effect on rate support grant. In response to requests from a number of councils, I propose that where a local authority gains grant assistance under the Bellwin scheme, the proportion of expenditure above the threshold borne by the local authority should be excluded from the definition of total expenditure, and will not, therefore, result in loss of grant. I shall be consulting the local authority associations on the precise terms of the total expenditure exclusion.

Turning to the capital side, insurance payments for loss or damage are anyway outside the capital control system, but to help local authorities with capital works in restoring their buildings the Government will be giving limited additional allocations for expenditure in the current year.

I recognise too, that the public feel deeply about the massive damage that has been done to mature trees. There is a strong feeling that we should replant for the benefit of future generations.

The royal parks are my direct responsibility, and we will press ahead with clearing and appropriate planting as fast as possible. There are already in existence for rural areas Countryside Commission schemes for grant assistance to local authorities and private owners for tree planting. I propose to extend these schemes in three ways to cope specifically with the loss of trees as a result of the hurricane force winds. First, for this temporary purpose, the rate of grant aid for local authority planting will be increased to 90 per cent. Secondly, and also temporarily, these schemes will be extended to cover London and other urban areas. Thirdly, the Countryside Commission will have discretion to grant-aid at a higher rate than under its present scheme historic landscapes of great value where the scale of tree loss justifies this. I shall make extra resources available in the current year for these schemes. These extensions will enable the taxpayer to contribute to restoring our heritage of fine trees for future generations. In addition, my Department will be issuing through the press to householders, guidance on the protection of surviving but damaged trees.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is urgently consulting the European Commission with a view to increasing the rates of grant under the agriculture improvement scheme for shelter belts, hedges and traditional walls in the storm damage areas to 60 per cent., with conifer belts at 30 per cent., until the end of 1988–89. He will also be providing special additional help to Kew gardens and Wakehurst place which suffered severe damage of national and international significance. My right hon. Friend is also arranging for the farm and countryside initiative to provide help to some particularly hard hit rural communities both for tree clearing and tree planting.

The measures that I have announced today will provide both for the appropriate short-term assistance to local authorities in their emergency work, and for repairing, as soon as possible, the long-term damage to the environment

The House will wish to join me in thanking the local authorities and all the emergency services for their unstinting efforts, and in offering sympathy on the loss and suffering experienced by people in the areas affected.

3.56 pm
Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

I thank the Secretary of State for responding so promptly to our request for a statement. I associate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself with the condolences that the Secretary of State expressed to the relatives, friends and families of those people who lost loved ones. I also—it is a rare treat for me—reiterate what the right hon. Gentleman said about local authorities. He said, "They have done a magnificent job." That is true, and the real merits and values of good local government and good local authorities have come very much to the forefront in the aftermath of these appalling events.

I also welcome what the right hon. Gentleman said about the damage to our national heritage and the measures that he is taking on tree replanting, grants and associated financial measures for the long term. All those aspects of his statement are very welcome. I should like to ask him a number of specific questions about financial assistance to local authorities. Why is the Secretary of State excluding the product of an exclusive penny rate from the assistance? It will be instructive for the House to know that for Kent county council that will mean an immediate bill of £2 million. For Hampshire, the bill is £2.3 million; for West Sussex, £1.1 million; for Brighton, £253,000; for Reading, £275,000; and for Hove, £151,000. I make that point because the suggestion that the product of a penny rate can be easily met by local authorities in the current financial climate is totally false. The Secretary of State and the Government should be generous and take into account the total costs to local authorities of this unprecedented storm damage and not exclude anything from the calculations.

Why is the Secretary of State not excluding the product of a penny rate from the consequences of penalties? Most of the affected local authorities are in penalty and, although the statement does not make it clear, that expenditure will be affected by the penalties imposed by the Department putting an additional burden on the ratepayers in those areas. Will he reconsider that and be more generous?

In so far as the statement refers to additional capital expenditure in the current financial year, will the Secretary of State reconsider these points? It is abundantly clear that much of the damage has not yet been properly assessed, let alone costed. The financial consequences and the costs of reparation will go well beyond this financial year and probably well beyond the next. The Secretary of State should—and I ask him to consider this point—set up an inquiry or joint working party with the local authorities to consider the full long-term financial implications of the damage for the authorities and the ratepayers, the extent of the damage and the real cost. The Secretary of State is quite right to state that the cost cannot possibly be quantified in the short time that has elapsed since the devastating storms occurred.

I want the Secretary of State to consider the position of individual families who simply may not, even taking their insurance into account, be able to make good the damage to their homes and property. There is a special problem with families in receipt of supplementary benefit who can only be given assistance on schemes costing a maximum of £325. That is nowhere near sufficient to help them to make their homes sound, safe and secure again. Will the Government consider that and let us have a statement from the Secretary of State for Social Services or a further statement from the Secretary of State for the Environment?

It is abundantly clear that the so-called Bellwin measures were not designed to cope with a disaster of this magnitude. They exclude all matters which in the Government's judgment should he covered by insurance. The Secretary of State and the House know full well that in the prevailing financial climate many local authorities are not insured for many of their buildings. Will the Secretary of State consider that and discuss the implications with the local authority associations?

We are grateful for the statement and support much of what the Secretary of State has said on the Government's behalf. However, I have asked five important financial questions concerning local authorities, ratepayers and some individual families, including pensioners. I hope that the Government will look again at those matters and will make a further statement to the House.

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments at the beginning of his remarks and for the support that he gave to parts of my statement. However, I must pick him up on matters about which he appeared to quibble as there are sound answers to all his points.

First, the Bellwin rules were negotiated with the local authorities in 1983. It was then envisaged by the Government and by the local authorities that local authorities had some responsibility for providing contingency for all sorts of emergencies. Section 138 of the Local Government Act 1972 gives them the power, and indeed, it might be said, places a duty on them, to make spare resources available for emergencies of this nature. It was agreed then that over and above a threshold the Government would come to the rescue, and that is precisely what we are doing. Moreover, I must stress that we have effectively lowered the threshold from the penny rate postulated in 1983 because we have not taken account of inflation on that penny rate. Therefore, the scheme that I have announced today is more generous than the original Bellwin rules.

Within the concept of local authorities having a contingency for emergencies for which presumably they have budgeted, it is not a matter of authorities losing grant if they spend money below the threshold because they have budgeted to spend that money and included it in their accounts. It would be wrong to give a disregard—in the old-fashioned language—for money of that kind or to alter the definition of total expenditure in that way.

With regard to the capital accounts, the hon. Gentleman was fair to say that we have no means now of guesstimating the capital damage. All I have said is that for immediate capital repairs we will make extra allocations available as and when we know the scale of the problem during the current financial year. Of course, if there are knock-on effects in future, we will consider them when we know the scale of the damage and the problem.

With regard to the points raised by the hon. Gentleman about insurance, it cannot be right that some authorities should have prudently taken out insurance while others did not or made no provision for carrying their own insurance. It is wrong that the omission to insure should go without question when providing capital allocations in future.

The hon. Gentleman's final point referred to help for those on benefit who have suffered damage to their homes and property. I confirm that the DHSS has schemes available to help. If anyone has a problem in that respect, the best thing to do is to contact the DHSS or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services as there are arrangements to help in these special circumstances for individual cases.

Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that my constituents and other people in Mid-Sussex are grateful for the work of the emergency teams, local authorities and electricity boards during the disastrous crisis that was inflicted upon them by the storms of Thursday night and Friday morning? Will he confirm that after local authorities have spent the product of a penny rate they will be entitled to receive from the Government 75 per cent. of all additional expenditure and that there will be no clawback as exists under present arrangements?

Will my right hon. Friend also be generous in his acceptance of the claims or requirements of local authority capital expenditure for roofs that have been blown off schools? Finally, will he comment on the devastation caused not only to areas of parkland in public ownership, but to National Trust properties with beautiful gardens in which trees have been blown down?

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and will certainly pass on his remarks about the splendid work of the emergency services. I confirm that over and above the product of a penny rate in shire counties and a 0.15p rate in shire districts—and of course those may be added together for any particular locality — the Government will meet 75 per cent. of the expenditure incurred and that there will be no clawback, as my hon. Friend called it, of the local authority's share of that excess spending.

I note my hon. Friend's comments about capital allocations. I have already mentioned those and we will want to consider the scale, scope and size of claims before we proceed further. However, I acknowledge that extra would be made available this year when the needs are calculated.

What I said about the Countryside Commission having discretion to aid areas such as parkland can be supplemented by a helpful statement that was made this morning by English Heritage. It, too, will be prepared to earmark special funds from its own resources for aiding areas such as parkland. I think that the hon. Gentleman will find also that the National Heritage Memorial Fund can assist such areas. There are three sources of help for the special gardens, parks and other areas of our countryside where the damage has been devastating. I think that we would all like to be sure that adequate funds were available to restore, so far as is possible, by replanting, though it will take generations to restore some of the glories that we have lost.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I join the Secretary of State in expressing condolences to those who have been bereaved and have suffered loss and thank him for his statement, both generally and inasmuch as it reflects the work done by local authorities and statutory services, which is appreciated by all.

Is the right hon. Gentleman able to give the House the minimum estimates that have been given to him of the cost to local authorities? Some figures have appeared in the public domain and I should like to know whether he has a figure that he can give to the House. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Bellwin formula was devised before rate capping came into operation and that there are many rate-capped councils, including Brighton, which have suffered the worst of the devastation, along with many in inner London? Will he look favourably on applications for further grants for local authorities, bearing in mind that they are in the second half of the financial year and under considerable financial restraint that was not envisaged when the Bellwin formula was devised? These authorities may need both capital and current allocations.

I thank the Secretary of State especially for extending the grant assistance scheme in rural areas and in inner cities. It is often in urban areas that the natural environment needs the most protection and support.

Mr. Ridley

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any sensible estimate of the revenue costs or capital costs of recent events. The figures that local authorities have been suggesting clearly include both elements, and may include also a few other things that should not be taken into account. It is impossible to give any estimates of costs until we have more information.

All authorities are, in effect, rate capped because once a rate has been fixed it is impossible to raise it. Rate-capped authorities, like other authorities that are not rate-capped, are under a duty to make provision for emergencies, and presumably prudent authorities—some of them are run by the Liberal party—have taken care to establish contingency funds for events of the sort that we are discussing. It would not be right to go back on those matters now. We shall aid any authority that incurs expenditure over and above the threshold, which takes care of the fact that this was an extraordinary and unprecedented event. This aid will be provided by extra grants.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for what he said about planting in inner cities. The damage to trees in our inner cities has been terrible, and I am pleased that the Government have been able to take special measures to give help to private individuals and to local authorities, which are the main owners of urban trees, to ensure that old tree roots that have to be grubbed out can be grubbed out and that new trees are available for planning. In all the circumstances, this is an unprecedented but fully justifiable step to take.

Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central)

My right hon. Friend will know that Suffolk has suffered as badly as any other county from the hurricane. We are grateful for the help that he will give in respect of tree planting, which is extremely necessary. Will he urge local authorities to do their best to advise those who have had their trees blown over in the gale, especially large mature trees, that the fallen timber may have some value? If they make a careful check, they will find that the value of the fallen trees will help to defray the cost of removal and will lead to the timber being put to sensible use.

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I acknowledge what he has said about trees. Many of the trees which have unfortunately been blown down have a considerable timber value provided that they are not cut into short logs. It will be important for those who have lost trees to try to preserve the trunks for the benefit of the furniture trade and for the benefit of their own pockets.

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside)

Does the Secretary of State agree that non rate-capped authorities have the ability in the following year to restore the contingency or reserve funds that they have had to raid to meet the expenditure that will be incurred this year? Does he agree also that there is no logic in exempting authorities over a penny rate or districts over a 0.15p rate in meeting 25 per cent. of the expenditure, against the background of the penalty and clawback system, and not exempting the first penny, which in some cases, as my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) has said, can amount to millions of pounds?

What will the right hon. Gentleman say to his supporters in places such as Hampshire who are asking why they should pay more than £1 for every £1 spent? They did not choose to do so at the beginning of the year when they drew up their budgets, and the damage to the environment will involve them in considerable expenditure. The right hon. Gentleman's absurd penalty and clawback system will force them to pay money to the Exchequer that should go to restoring their environment.

Mr. Ridley

As usual, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. Rate-capped authorities can adjust their budgets for the following year in the same way as non rate-capped authorities. Rate-capped authorities need to cut the rubbish from their budgets and get on with the real spending that is necessary. There is every justification for limiting Government assistance to expenditure over the threshold.

From time immemorial local authorities have provided for emergencies of all sorts, be it snow, flood, frost or gale, and it is only when the expenditure that they incur is above normal contingency provision that the Government have come to their aid. On this occasion we have come to their aid with more generous help than they would have expected under the Bellwin rules by not revaluing the penny rate for inflation and by giving an extra allowance for district councils as well as county councils. I expected the hon. Gentleman to give a greater welcome to my statement but I recognise that he has no constituency interest in this matter.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we in south Hampshire experienced the first blast of the hurricane and an effective partnership between all public services and we the amateur public, to which I feel insufficient attention has been drawn? Is my right hon. Friend aware also that the heat and burden of subsequent days has fallen especially on the Southern Electricity Board and its admirable linesmen, who have been out in all weathers, and not so much on the local authority? What is my right hon. Friend offering to the electricity boards, which I believe have a greater claim on the public purse than local authorities?

Mr. Ridley

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that the co-operation and partnership that developed in the wake of the hurricane force winds was marvellous. I agree also that electricity supply workers have made a marvellous contribution to restoring power to millions of people whose supply was cut off. I, too, pay tribute to them. It is perhaps an example to local authorities that, as I understand it, the electricity supply industry, has decided that it should take the costs of restoration itself. It will not be specially rewarded for the great work and enormous cost that it has incurred in restoring supplies.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Will the Secretary of State pay tribute to the direct labour organisations of London Labour authorities, particularly the London borough of Ealing? That authority was able to get its DLOs out by 3 am on Friday 16 October, when private contractors could still not be found. The DLOs made a sterling effort to clear up the damage caused by the storm.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that many London boroughs, particularly the Labour boroughs, have not the contingency reserves to deal with the problem that they now face? Will he tell the House what he calculates that the Government's contribution will be, if he has any figure in his head? Will he also tell us what his Department is doing to monitor closely the full impact of the storm on London boroughs, and whether he will be making a further announcement?

Mr. Ridley

I do not wish to play politics with what has been a national tragedy, as the hon. Gentleman has done. I pay tribute to both direct labour organisations and private contractors, and to individuals of all sorts who contributed to the relief of the distress of Friday morning. I do not wish to distinguish between them.

I have no idea of the ultimate costs. The Government have entered into a commitment to aid local authorities without a precise figure in mind, and I am sure that that is how the House would wish it.

We shall, of course, monitor the costs, on both the revenue and the capital sides, and when information on the likely cost of last Friday's events is available we shall give it to the House. At present, however, I cannot give any estimation of it.

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and welcome it as being of considerable help to the most hard-pressed authorities which have been the worst hit by the storm. However, I have considerable concern about his references to the contingency arrangements that he expects local authorities to have made in planning for problems of this nature. Does he appreciate that the amount needed is far beyond any normal expectations? Is he aware of the extent of the damage, and will he assure us that he is giving due attention to the prudent authorities that are dealing with a problem that is beyond any reasonable and sensible expectation?

Mr. Ridley

Prudent authorities—of which I am sure his is one — will have made some provision for emergencies. I believe that nearly all authorities make such provision. Where such provision has been exhausted by the nature and extent of the damage and its resulting costs, the Government are meeting all demand above the threshold that we have set with grant assistance at the rate of 75 per cent. That acknowledges that there has been an unprecedented and expensive event. I should have thought that my hon. Friend would consider that a proper partnership between local authorities—which are, after all, not creatures of the Government and which can and should make their own provision for emergencies—and central Government, whose proper role is to come to the rescue when costs are way beyond what could have been expected or forecast.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

If the Secretary of State is serious about not playing politics with a national tragedy, will he have a word with those Tory Members who have sought in the past five days to make the Meteorological Office the scapegoat of that national tragedy? Will he arrange for the Secretary of State for Defence, who is responsible for the service, to point out that in the last 10 years 1,000 jobs have gone, that the staff are working with an old computer, and that there has been a reduction in ocean-going weather ships? Is the pressure of cost cutting and of shuffling staff around like a stage army to continue?

While a restoration of adequate manning levels in the Met Office would not prevent such a national tragedy from occurring again, it might improve the odds of more early warnings, so that local authorities and the people in the areas who have suffered would not have to go through the same experience. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell that to the Tory Members who have been playing politics during the past five days?

Mr. Ridley

I can make no comment about the Met Office. However, I understand from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence that the Director-General of the Met Office, Professor John Houghton, has already instituted an internal inquiry into the weather forecasts made by the Met Office in the period preceding the storm. My right hon. Friend has today invited Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, the chairman of the University Grants Committee, and Professor Robert Pearce, the head of the department of meteorology at Reading university, to consider the findings of the internal inquiry when they are available and to report their conclusions to him. My right hon. Friend will, of course, inform the House further as that inquiry proceeds.

Mr. Terence Higgins (Worthing)

I join in congratulating the emergency services on their rapid and effective response. I particularly welcome my right hon. Friend's proposals for the replanting of trees, which have been badly hit in coastal areas such as my own. But will my right hon. Friend cut through the financial jargon and make one point clear? If a prudent local authority has had to spend an extra pound on dealing with the crisis, is it true that it will have to spend—in the case of Worthing, anyway—an extra 40p with every pound because of withdrawal of grant? Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that that will not happen?

Mr. Ridley

I agree with my right hon. Friend's tribute to the emergency services. But most local authorities have, or at any rate should have, budgeted for a certain contingency and taken into account the grant consequences of allowing that amount of contingency money to lie in their budgets. It is not a forfeit of grant if they have to expend what they have allowed. They may have made a gain in grant if they have had a fortunate year with no emergency, and thus no contingency money having to be spent. The Government's assistance starts over and above the threshold.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

Is the Secretary of State aware that in my area, Waltham Forest, the local authority has already been notified of 700 dangerous structures, and trees have been destroyed in virtually every road in the borough? Does not the right hon. Gentleman's statement mean that the local authority will still be forced to pay out a significant sum towards repair? Does it not also mean, because of the paucity of the right hon. Gentleman's response and because the authority is rate capped, that paying for the storm damage will necessitate direct cuts in social services, housing and education being forced on the area?

Mr. Ridley

I do not know the cost of the work in the hon. Gentleman's borough, and I do not know how much is capital and how much revenue expenditure. However, I imagine that any prudent borough—I do not know whether that includes the hon. Gentleman's borough—will have put aside a certain sum to make allowance for such contingencies. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not saying that Waltham Forest has made no contingency plans. That really would be an irresponsible thing to do.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. However, hon. Members may think that the south of England bore the brunt of the storm: I leave them to imagine what happened to the Isle of Wight. We are running very short of roofing material and scaffolding. I draw my right hon. Friend's attention particularly to a decision made by the regional office of the Manpower Services Commission, as it used to be called, not to allow staff on community programmes to help in the clearing-up operations. I find that extremely frustrating, and I ask my right hon. Friend to take up the matter with the Secretary of State for Employment and seek an early clarification. The position is impossible with unemployed people on community programmes not being allowed to take part in this work.

I also ask my right hon. Friend to commission an early study to find out whether there is any relationship between the damage done to dwellings for which an improvement grant has been received and cases in which such a grant has not been received.

Mr. Ridley

I sympathise with my hon. Friend. The Isle of Wight has indeed had a very severe time. I shall certainly look into the point that he raised about the shortage of building materials and will take up the MSC point with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, who is responsible for such matters, and I shall ensure that an answer is sent to my hon. Friend immediately.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Patently it will not be possible to call every hon. Member who wishes to ask a question. We have another statement after this, as well as a series of Standing Order No. 20 applications, followed by two major debates. I shall allow questions to continue for a further 10 minutes; then we must move on. I ask hon. Members not to repeat questions that have been asked before, and to put their questions briefly. I also ask the hon. Members whose constituencies have been most affected to rise.

Sir Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

While recognising the primacy of local authorities in tackling the problem, may I ask my right hon. Friend to cast his mind back to the last time that we lost many trees, through Dutch elm disease? There was created then a large voluntary effort called "Plant a tree in '73, and plant some more in '74." Will he seek to enthuse not only local authorities but businesses, schools and many people to get together and see that our old friends, the trees that have been destroyed, are replaced by voluntary effort as well as by local authority assistance?

Mr. Ridley

The significance of my announcement—that the Countryside Commission is to begin a major programme of tree planting and replacement — is considerable. It will provide an opportunity not only for the work to be done and to be grant aided but for it to be accompanied by a considerable publicity campaign. The total cost of the measures that I have announced for replacing trees, to be borne by my Department as opposed to that of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, could be as much as £3 million. That shows the measure of the Government's determination to provide the necessary funds.

Ms. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

The Secretary of State seeks to rest his case on what is a prudent authority. In a national emergency of this kind, surely he should not be making a judgment about what is a prudent authority: he should be considering the needs of the people whose homes and environment have been damaged. My constituency lies within the London borough of Lewisham, and already we know of 400 damaged homes, of 500 trees that have been brought down and of 2,000 trees that have been damaged. There has also been dam age to pavements. That damage has been caused in an environment to which the Government have already agreed priority should be given — the inner city. Lewisham is putting its house in order and is trying to meet the Government's budget requirements. How will it be able to do that job with the kind of debt that it will further incur as a result of the measures that the Government have announced?

Mr. Ridley

I have no doubt that Lewisham is a prudent authority that has made provision for such events. I am delighted to be able to help Lewisham by grant-aiding the amount of the expense that is beyond what any prudent authority could have forecast.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

The admirable work that was carried out over the weekend by Kent county council, Thanet district council, Canterbury city council and the emergency services was augmented by the community, in particular by the farming community. Many of those who did most and who gave most are also those who have lost most. Some of that loss will be a matter for the Ministry of Agriculture and the Treasury. However, may I express to my right hon. Friend the hope that the response to this genuine emergency will be interdepartmental and that it will be swift, sympathetic and flexible? Will he assure the House that the worst fears that were expressed by the leader of Kent county council on the "Today" programme yesterday morning and on "Coast to Coast" last night are entirely unfounded?

Mr. Ridley

I think that my hon. Friend will agree that the Government's response has been swift, co-ordinated and flexible. We have covered all aspects of the matter in one statement. It is very early in the day for us to be able to present to the House such a comprehensive package of measures to help, and, as I have already said, if further can be done as more becomes known, further will be done. My hon. Friend was right to pay tribute to all the people in his area who gave so much help during the emergency.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)

My right hon. Friend has commended the excellent work that was done by the local authority emergency teams. Is he aware that some of those teams quickly ran out of essential equipment and supplies because of the enormity of the task that they faced but that they could not get hold of any central Government co-ordinator to pass on their requests to other parts of the country that were less badly affected? Does not my right hon. Friend think that there are important lessons about emergency co-ordination to be learnt from this unhappy experience?

Mr. Ridley

Many people and large amounts of equipment were moved rapidly across the country from areas where they were not needed to areas where they were. Many people came down from the north to help to repair electricity lines, and many pieces of equipment were passed from people who did not need them to people who did. The Ministry of Defence provided large amounts of equipment as well as manpower. The response of those who were luckily not affected by the storm in supplying help to those areas that were affected by it was magnificent. However, my hon. Friend has to remember that many of the roads and railways were blocked and that it was not always possible for people to reach the areas that they would have liked to reach.

Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham)

Will the Secretary of State explain to the House how local authorities could have been expected to predict the hurricane when professional weather forecasters could not do so? Is he aware that the borough of Haringey inherited a number of parks — for example, Finsbury park — from the Greater London council that his Government abolished? The result is that the borough will incur additional costs in clearing up storm-damaged trees, costs that nobody could have forecast. Will he give the House a guarantee that any expenditure that is incurred in clearing up the damage or in planting new trees will not result in penalties?

Mr. Ridley

I agree with the hon. Member that nobody could have been expected to predict the hurricane. That is why the Government are grant aiding expenditure over and above the threshold of what it might have been prudent to set aside. The hon. Member may not have heard me say that the Countryside Commission will be able to grant-aid local authorities in replacing damaged trees to the extent of 90 per cent. as opposed to the present 50 per cent., and that that grant is to be extended into London and other urban areas. That has never been done before, and it will be of massive help to local authorities that are seeking to replace the trees that have been lost.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be quite wrong to penalise local authorities on account of additional expenditure that they have incurred exclusively for repairing hurricane damage? With regard to uninsured and under-insured losses that have been suffered by private individuals, does he not agree that the time has come for the establishment of a national disaster fund to which the Government ought to make a generous donation?

Mr. Ridley

The purpose of my statement today is to make it clear that the Government are not seeking to penalise authorities and that we are coming forward with help. As for the private sector, we have to think very carefully before departing from the normal practice that private individuals are responsible for insuring and repairing their own property. It would be right, I believe, for the Government to leave it at that.

Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings and Rye)

As my right hon. Friend knows, there were many tragic casualties, including people who were killed, in my constituency, and 75 per cent. of the houses have been damaged. May I thank him for the prompt response that his private office gave last Friday morning when it was asked for help, and may I ask him kindly to keep his door open? Although timber may be saleable at some time in the future, we have the problem of thousands of trees that simply cannot be moved. Will he kindly look at the enormous problem that is facing private householders, against which there is no insurance?

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I can assure him that my door is always open, if he wishes to come and see me. There is no need to dispose of the mature timber that was blown down in the hurricane. It will keep for several years and it will not lose its saleability and marketability. If the market will not take immediately all the timber that has been lost, private individuals can keep some of the timber for later use.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

As the whole tone of the Minister's rather lofty remarks is that all local authorities should have a hurricane contingency fund, will he confirm that his own Department has set an example and that such a fund exists within his own Department? Will he also tell us how much money is in that fund?

Mr. Ridley

The basic premise of the hon. Gentleman's question was wrong. I said that all authorities should have a fund for contingencies. The point of the Bellwin scheme is that authorities receive help over and above that level when the costs exceed the threshold. The hon. Gentleman may be deliberately trying not to understand or hear. If that is the case, the second part of his question does not arise because he muffed the first part.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Is the Minister aware that in Southend-on-Sea, where 25,000 houses have been damaged, the problem is the shortage of basic building materials? Can his regional housing officers play some part in co-ordinating the activities for making good the shortage? Will he say how on earth the EEC can contemplate offering help when it is overspending its legal budget for this year by £7 billion?

Mr. Ridley

At the time of the storms supplies of building materials were short, mainly because of the large amount of building that is taking place under the Government's housing and other programmes. Thus, there is a shortage of some building materials. I shall do all that I can to ensure that supplies are available to those who need to repair damage to their houses. The point about the European Community falls to my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am well aware of the frustrations of the hon. Members I have been unable to call. Almost every constituency was affected by the storm. I shall give hon. Members who have not been called priority when the matter is next discussed.

Dr. Cunningham

I urge the Secretary of State to reconsider what he has said. Of course local authorities should be prudent, but how can he expect an inner-city borough such as Greenwich to spend the product of a penny rate, £408,000, or, in the case of Lewisham, £385,000, and then spend its contingency reserve and pay penalty on that in the face of this totally unprecedented damage? Should not the Government be grant-aiding all of that expenditure? If local authorities should, as he urges, spend all their contingency reserves now, what will they do for the rest of the winter?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman is continually urging on the Government the need to treat local authorities as responsible organs of government. Any responsible organ of government would make provision for contingencies. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has a contingency fund. How else does the hon. Gentleman think that we accommodate the overspending of Labour local authorities, except out of the contingency fund?

Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I cannot take points of order now. I must take them at the proper time.

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