§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Garel-Jones.]11.24 pm
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
I am most grateful for the opportunity to raise the pressing need for urgent action to be taken to repair the damage that was suffered in the Wildboarclough valley and in a limited number of other areas in my constituency as a result of the devastating cloud burst and flash floods of 24 May. The exceptionally heavy rainfall on the dry baked mountain sides poured off into Todd Brook, which runs north through Kettleshulme and south into Clough Brook which runs through the Wildboarclough valley.
The floods left one man dead, Dr. Donald Hatch, when his car hit a swirling flood of water near Todd Brook and Kettleshulme on the A5002, and was swept into the raging brook. Two brave firemen built a make-shift bridge from three ladders and, with the help of passing drivers, lowered it across the water to the car. Using what I can only describe as that precarious device, the firemen eventually reached the car, sadly, only to find the driver drowned and pinned beneath his car. I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our sympathy to the family and friends of Dr. Hatch.
The main disaster, however, was in the Wildboarclough valley and the effect of the floods upon the area involved was dramatic. Seven road bridges were extensively damaged and two miles of highway were virtually destroyed. It is too early as yet to assess the full impact of the disaster upon the local community, but it is important that we begin now to plan for the future to ensure that the unique character of the beautiful area of the Peak district national park can be properly and fully restored.
The intensity of the rainfall over a period of just 40 minutes caused extensive damage; the total list of which, in fact, includes 13 highway bridges, an unknown number of footbridges, substantial lengths of retaining walls, sections of the highway and hundreds of dry-stone walls. Local farmers, householders and businesses have suffered severe damage not just to the fabric of their buildings, but to their incomes and, what is more, to their whole environment.
Whatever additional resources are offered, it will take many months—perhaps a year or two—before the scars of this freak storm are removed. It was a once-in-a-hundred years storm.
I have visited the affected area and met not just with local residents, farmers and others in business, but with the local councillors and the Cheshire county council director of highways and transportation, whose responsibility it is to co-ordinate much of the response to the damage and to carry out the necessary repairs.
The county will be approaching the Government, with my full support, to ask for special grant aid to help it cope with a repair bill which could, if the valley is to be returned to its former state, come to a staggering £2 million or more. I hope that the Minister will listen sympathetically not just to the request for additional resouces to make good the roads and bridges which have been damaged, but also to repair the dry-stone walls and other damaged property in such a manner as is in keeping with the character of this most scenic and valuable of areas. The dry-stone walling in particular is a hallmark of the 599 countryside of the Peak national park and to replace it, for example, with wire fencing, timber fencing or other more modern materials would be to lose for ever one more piece of our rural heritage, and a piece which is a major tourist feature of the Peak park and east Cheshire.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will take that point and do what he can to reassure local people, and those many thousands more who visit this beautiful area, that every possible step will be taken to restore Wildboarclough to its former state.
I accept quite willingly that some of this assistance may be channelled through the Peak Park joint planning board, not least the grants for the restoration of the dry-stone walling. I make no pretence, however, that I am asking for anything other than a major commitment from the Government. I also understand that it may be necessary, or perhaps wise, to seek additional emergency assistance from the European Community. I am sure that my hon. Friend will do all that he can to advise local authority representatives on the best way to make such an approach and that he will do all that he can to support such an application should it be made at some time in the near future.
So far, however, I have done no more than paint a broad-brush scenario of the situation that has arisen in an important small village in my constituency and the adjoining areas since 24 May. The House will appreciate that such a general picture is nothing compared to the impact upon the individuals who live there and their way of life.
Hill farmers, already facing difficulties, have been seriously affected, Mr. Lionel Belfield of Chambers farm, Macclesfield forest, saw his access drive and the bridge that supported it swept away almost in their entirety. Mr. Mike Richardson of High Ash farm, Wildboarclough, saw many of his trees washed away and his approach road swept away, Mr. John Eardley of Clough house farm saw one of his access roads and bridges completely destroyed. Mr. Derek Wild, a resident and the owner of Edinboro cottages in the centre of Wildboarclough, a superb terrace of stone cottages, saw them awash with flood water which left a legacy of mud and slime.
Mr. Fred Bailey of Brough farm lost a hard core road, the land drains that he had just installed as well as stock. Mr. Will Eardley of School cottage lost a number of ewes and lambs. Mr. Robert Webberley, who had just purchased Dingers Hollow farm from Piers Holmes Smith, who is moving to Scotland, found the flood pouring through his house and farm buildings. Mr. John Bowler found his dry-stone walls demolished, and he lost 34 ewes and 19 lambs from his farm, Torgate.
For local businesses the difficulties have not finished there. With the damage to local roads has come an interruption to the passing trade which was the lifeblood of many local men and women. The Crag inn, run by Mr. and Mrs. Woodward, has had virtually no custom since the disaster struck. Through no fault of their own—their customers—ramblers, sightseers, lovers of the countryside simply do not pass through the village any more and their trade joins them in their absence. The Higton family of the Brookside cafe are suffering the same fate as is the landlord of the Stanley Arms inn. I have sampled the hospitality of all three places, and I can recommend their hospitality and their fare to anyone who would call.
600 With road signs saying "Road closed" on all approach roads to the village and valley, business is now almost non-existent except for the locals, who account for no more than 20 per cent. of usual trade.
Throughout the crisis the people of Wildboarclough have stood together and have sought to help each other. The local parish council, chaired by Mr. John Bowler, a much-respected local farmer—I have already mentioned the losses he has sustained—supported by the clerk of the parish council, Mr. Robert Ashley, has served as an excellent co-ordinating body. It has ensured that the problems experienced by local people have been drawn urgently to the attention of the officers of the Cheshire county council and the Macclesfield borough council, which are the responsible local authorities. It has also drawn those problems to the attention of the Peak Park joint planning board. The local branch of the National Farmers Union and its secretary, Mrs. Sally Hodgson, have done their best to advise and to help all the farmers who have been affected.
I must tonight make mention of Mr. Bill Livesley, the local borough councillor, and Mr. David Palmer, the local county councillor, both of whom I have worked with closely. They have visited Wildboarclough to see first hand the damage which has been done, and we have arranged a public meeting tomorrow evening in the Old School Room in Wildboarclough at which all those involved in the many different roles can exchange information about the precise work which needs to be done, its likely cost, the period during which it will be carried out and the possible sources of financial assistance. I am sure that, this evening, my hon. Friend will want to send a clear message and indication to that meeting that he is aware of the problems and that all possible action will be taken to provide the necessary financial and technical assistance to restore life to its normal pattern.
The list of those to whom special acknowledgement is due would not be complete without reference to the local police force, the fire brigade, and the officers and men of the two local authorities, the Cheshire county council and the Macclesfield borough council. I wish to pay particular tribute to the officers and councillors of Cheshire county council under the chairmanship of their newly installed chairman, because they made a thorough site inspection a few days after the disaster to see for themselves precisely what had happened in that valley.
I am sure that the House will be interested if I refer briefly to the extract from the report prepared for the county council and me by the director of highways and transportation, Mr. Brian Nielson, for whom I have the greatest regard and who has certainly left no stone unturned to try to help the people of Wildboarclough. His report states:On Wednesday 24th May at approximately 14.15 hours a radio call was received at the Macclesfield Area Office from an Area Supervisor in the Wincle area—Wincle is an adjoining village—that heavy rainfall was occurring and causing extensive flooding in Wincle and Wildboarclough and that assistance would be required to clear these floods from the carriageway.Up to lunchtime of 24th May the weather had been hot, dry and sunny and this type of weather pattern had been existing in this area since 27th April and therefore ground conditions on the hillsides at the time of the storm were exceedingly dry …Further reports were received from members of the public that severe storm damage had occurred in the 601 Wildboarclough area and it was becoming apparent that damage to highways, culverts and bridge structures had occurred.At 15.50 hours a report was received from the Cheshire police that severe flooding was occurring at Reed Bridge, Kettleshulme, some miles from Wildboarclough and that a car had been swept off the carriageway into adjoining farmland by the severity of the flood at this location. Acting on this information from the Police the B5470 was temporarily closed. Immediately Direct Labour Organisation personnel were instructed to proceed to Kettleshulme area to erect suitable barriers to warn traffic of the road closure at this location.The report continues:Reports were now being received by radio from County personnel that extreme severe storm damage had occurred in the Wilboarclough area and that extensive damage to bridge structures, culverts and carriageways had occurred. Also on the A537 in the area of Shining Tor, landslides had taken place partially closing the carriageway.At approximately 16.30 hours the Bridges Section of the County Highways Department were informed of damage which had occurred to structures and a request was made for Bridge Engineers to be despatched to the Macclesfield area immediately. Direct Labour had been put on to full mobility for providing barriers to roads in the Macclesfield Forest, Wildboarclough, Saltersford and Kettleshulme areas as these roads were impassable.All the bridges crossing the Clough stream had been extensively damaged. It was also noticed that culvert head walls, highway boundary walls and the highway structure had either been severely damaged or washed away completely.At 22.00 hours a sweeper from Macclesfield Borough Council was organised to commence clearing up heavy deposits of gravel from the main A537 Buxton Road and Old Buxton Road, Macclesfield Forest. DLO gangs were deployed to commence clearing roads of heavy deposits of stone walling particularly in the Clough road from the Stanley Arms Public House to High Ash Farm where extensive flooding had occurred. Contact was also made with the residents of Edinboro Cottages who requested assistance in clearing up flood damage to their premises.That is a record of some of the action taken by the end of that first day, 24 May. The work continued over the following days and was matched by sterling efforts from the police, the fire brigade and the borough council.
The severity of the storm and the extensive damage which occurred has had a devastating effect on the local community, especially the farmers within the area. Several have land on either side of bridges which are now impassable and are having to do a considerable mileage in detours to be able to feed and attend to their livestock, tend their land and receive winter feed and other deliveries. One farmer in particular, Mr. George Turnock of Lower Barn farm, Wildboarclough, is experiencing difficulties in gaining access to his premises as the only road in at the present time is alongside the Clough stream which is very narrow and in a dangerous condition in many places and exposed to any further flooding which may occur. Unless access is facilitated in the very near future for his winter fodder and to enable him to transport his beasts to market, he will suffer severe financial loss.
Wildboarclough was a picturesque valley in the Peak national park, and is a popular area for visitors, for walkers, for cyclists, for school parties and many others who love the beautiful countryside of the Peak Park and east Cheshire. The devastation caused by the flash flood has to some extent been exacerbated because of the environmental need to restore the valley, including the highway, to its former condition. Rebuilding the highway does not present major engineering difficulties, but the cost 602 will be substantial if the retaining walls, culverts and so on are to be restored, as I hope that they will be, to their original character and specification.
It is in this major task that the people of Wildboarclough, few in number but important none the less, need the assistance of Government at all levels, perhaps from the European Community, from the Countryside Commission, from the North-West water board and from the Groundwork Trust, in addition to the many bodies to which I have already referred. Wildboarclough and the Clough valley may be unknown to many people, but to the people of Cheshire and the north-west it is a delightful spot. We want to restore it. I hope that the Government will respond positively to my request on behalf of my constituents.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Richard Ryder)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) for initiating this short debate. He has most movingly and clearly described the extent of the devastation caused by the flash floods in Wildboarclough valley on 24 May, I have seen his photographs and those taken by my officials of the devastation caused on that day.
Let me first offer my most sincere condolences to him and to the family and friends of Dr. Hatch who was so tragically killed in this disaster. Clearly the effect of this sudden storm on the local community has been devastating and I offer it all my sympathy in the difficulties that it now faces. I must also say that the initiatives that the local community has taken to itemise the damage and seek assistance in repairing it are first class. I would particularly like to single out the contribution of Mr. John Bowler, the chairman of the parish council who has personally suffered a good deal but who has, none the less, given a lead in the recovery effort.
My hon. Friend underlined that point. I have the impression of a strong and compassionate local community which has responded with great fortitude and speed to an entirely unforeseen disaster. It has my admiration as well as my sympathy and the promise that Government will do what they can within their powers to help put right the damage.
Clearly, a great responsibility here rests on the local community, the local authority and other organisations in the area as well as a number of Departments of State. Though I shall want to concentrate tonight on the assistance that my Department can offer and on its involvement so far in advising farmers, perhaps I can first address myself to the question of local authority assistance and repairs to the damaged highway. As my hon. Friend has said, there has been significant damage to the main access road through the valley. I know that he has already written to my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Transport, to bring to his attention the sad events in Wildboarclough. He has now, I believe, received a reply to his letter. The position on this, as I understand it, is as follows.
The primary responsibility for dealing with emergencies like the devastation in Kettleshulme and Wildboarclough and, in particular, damage to major roads, lies with the local authorities. They have wide discretionary powers to 603 spend money for such purposes under section 138 of the Local Government Act 1972 and normally include an amount in their budgets for such contingencies.
At the same time, however, the Government recognise that it would be unreasonable to expect the entire burden of this extra local authority expenditure to fall on the ratepayer.
Under a model scheme designed to deal with extraordinary costs arising from emergencies, known as "the Bellwin Scheme", my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment can in certain circumstances, provide special financial assistance to local authorities. These circumstances include a situation where, as a consequence of an emergency, authorities would otherwise incur an undue financial burden in carrying out immediate works to safeguard life and property or prevent suffering and severe inconvenience to affected communities. That burden is defined as expenditure above and beyond a threshold which represents what the local authority might normally be expected to budget for.
The Bellwin scheme has been used only twice so far. Once, following the emergencies created by the severe weather during the winter of 1986–87 and, again, after the great storm of 1987. If the county council considers it has a case for assistance of this kind, then I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment would be prepared to look at a detailed and fully costed application.
Clearly, in an emergency of this kind, it is essential to be able to make an early estimate of the extent of the damage and disruption and to identify all those organisations which may be able to assist in putting things right. My hon. Friend has already told us that a meeting has been arranged for tomorrow evening in Wildboarclough. I understand that representatives of the county council, the borough council, the Peak Park board, the Countryside Commission, the North West water authority rivers division, and the Groundwork Trust have been invited together with my hon. Friend and a representative from Lord Derby's estate. I shall be very happy to ensure that a record of our debate tonight goes to the chairmen of these organisations. I am also delighted to say that officials from my own Department will be attending tomorrow's meeting as will representatives of the National Farmers Union. I look forward to seeing a full report from my officials. I would here echo my hon. Friend's tribute to the role which Mrs. Sally Hodgson the secretary of the Macclesfield branch of the NFU has played in advising and helping farmers in the wake of catastrophe.
My own officials have also been deeply involved. They have already written to all the farmers concerned asking them to state exactly the amount of the damage which they have experienced. They have also ensured that all these farmers are fully familiar with the farm and conservation grant scheme provisions since we believe that under this scheme a good deal of useful assistance will be available towards repairing the damage.
My hon. Friend has already said that this is an area of particular beauty and that the dry-stone walling which is a characteristic feature of the landscape contributes greatly to its beauty. The floods have wrought particular devastation here. My hon. Friend has said that to replace those dry stone walls with wire or timber fencing would mean the loss of a precious part of our rural heritage. I am entirely at one with him on this. As he will know, we as a 604 Government, attach very high importance to assisting farmers to build and maintain traditional stone walls and to plant and lay hedges. That is why the highest rates of grant available under our new farm and conservation grant scheme are precisely for this kind of work. Fencing, by comparison, attracts a very much lower rate of grant.
Because Wildboarclough is in a less favoured area we are able to offer grants to the farmers concerned of 50 per cent. of the costs involved in reinstating the stone walls. Those grants may also cover incidental items such as gates, stiles and footbridges. It is also possible under our capital grant arrangements for farmers, if they wish, to charge for the cost of their own labour in rebuilding the stone walls. I am sure that this facility to charge at a standard cost rate will prove helpful to those concerned.
In addition to the grants which we are able to offer, the national park authorities have discretion to top-up the amount available to a maximum of 80 per cent. of the full cost of the work. We have been holding exploratory discussions with the Peak Park board to see whether it is able to contribute in this way and I very much hope that these will be successful. We understand from the local NFU that there may be some concern that the farmers involved will have already exhausted their entitlement to grant-aidable investment work. My officials have looked into this aspect and I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that we do not expect any difficulty on this score. If I may, I would like then to advise all the farmers concerned to contact the ministry as soon as they can with a full survey of the rebuilding work which is necessary. It is of course important that they seek Ministry advice before embarking upon significant expenditure on which they hope to get grant.
There is one other aspect of the capital grant arrangements where I trust that we may be able to offer some flexibility to assist the farmers concerned. This relates to farmers who hold an improvement plan qualifying for Ministry grant aid. In ordinary circumstances, the content of such plans constitutes a contract between the farmer and the Ministry. The work in the plan may not be significantly varied and the farmer is obliged to complete all the investments set out in that plan. In these exceptional circumstances, however we shall look sympathetically at any individual cases in which a farmer is now unable to complete his approved plan because of the effect of the floods. The farmer will then be free to withdraw from his plan without penalty, or to change it to include new investments made necessary as a result of the impact of the flood damage. For farmers holding plans under the agriculture and horticulture development scheme or the agriculture improvement scheme, this could include some work on the rebuilding of farm roads and related items. Again, if there are any farmers who may stand to benefit from this flexibility, I urge them to seek advice and help from local Ministry staff as soon as possible.
I hope that I have been able to demonstrate to my hon. Friend that we are anxious to play the fullest part that we can in a co-ordinated effort to remedy the devastation caused in one of our most beautiful areas.
My hon. Friend has also suggested that an application should be made to the European Community for assistance from its disaster fund. On this I have to say that I am rather less sanguine. The Commission's criteria for offering assistance are extremely tight. It is generally prepared to intervene only in cases of very large-scale 605 damage rendering many people homeless. For example, in 1987 we received some limited funding from the Community in the aftermath of the October storms. However, that was allocated to individuals and families, and to the Red Cross for emergency feeding and housing. In other cases, such as the Arkengarthdale floods in 1986, where the damage was similar to that in Wildboarclough but much more widespread, we were unable to attract Commission assistance. I can give my hon. Friend the commitment that we will help if we can on this, but we must not raise our hopes too high.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the Government are unable to intervene to pay compensation towards losses which could have been insured. That would, I fear, rule out compensation for the loss of livestock and damage to private housing.
606 However, that said, there are a number of other ways in which Government can help through other departments, and I have outlined some of those this evening. I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that we will work closely at the local level with those affected and with all other organisations involved in the repair work. I again extend my sympathies to all those who have been adversely affected and my congratulations on the positive way in which the local community has responded. My Department will do everything within its powers to contribute to the vital task of restoring this area and to reinstating it as a place much loved, not only by those who live there but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, by the many visitors there too. My hon. Friend has, as ever, done a great service to his constituents by raising this issue in the House tonight.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Twelve o'clock.