HC Deb 10 July 1990 vol 176 cc188-226

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a further sum, not exceedng £87,366,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to defray charges that will come in the course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1991 for expenditure by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on market support, grants and loans for capital and other improvements, support for agriculture in special areas and compensation for sheep producers, animal health, arterial drainage, flood and coast protection, and certain other services.—[Mr. Patnick.]

4.8 pm

Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)

I am grateful for the opportunity to open this debate on the day when the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs has published its report relating to the breach of sea defences along the north Wales coast on 26 and 27 February this year.

The key point I wish to emphasise in relation to the Estimates is that secure sea defences are crucial. But if freak weather conditions occur and some defences are put at risk, it is vital to recognise that money is not well spent in financing the operations of the Neptune warning system in its present form if, as happened at Towyn, two conditions apply.

The first is that the maritime district authorities do not take seriously—or they even ignore completely—the Neptune warning that they receive from the National Rivers Authority via the police relating to high tide and tidal surge. That information is collected by the Meteorological Office in the form of a storm tide warning service at a cost to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, according to the estimates, of £339,000.

The second is that information on offshore wave heights supplied by the Meteorological Office to the National rivers Authority is not passed to the maritime district authorities, so the information that those authorities receive is incomplete. In other words, the maritime authorities receive only tide and predicted tidal surge levels and do not receive offshore wave levels, information that they require to enable them to determine what they must do under extreme weather conditions.

The extensive flooding along the north Wales coast which followed the severe weather conditions of 26 and 27 February resulted from the simultaneous incidence of three factors: first, a predicted high spring tide of between 4.87 m and 5.07 m above ordnance datum; secondly, a deep depression approaching from the west causing a tidal surge which increased the depth of water approaching the coastline by up to 1.42 m above the predicted level; thirdly, storm to violent storm force winds recorded as 10 to 11 on the Beaufort scale from the north and north-west causing waves up to 6 m high.

As the scale of the damage was greatest in the Colwyn borough council area, where about 5,000 people were evacuated from their homes, I shall direct my remarks largely to that area. It is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer), who is a senior Conservative member of the Select Committee that I chair.

On 14 May this year, the Select Committee visited the areas affected by the flooding along the north Wales coast and met local people in their homes and caravans. On 15 May, the Committee met at the community centre in Towyn to take oral evidence from the borough councils of Colwyn, Delyn and Rhuddlan. We also took evidence at the same venue from members of the British Railways Board, because the sea wall that was breached at Towyn at about midday on 26 February was owned by British Rail. We also received 26 written memoranda. We are grateful to the Ordnance Survey for supplying us with aerial photographs of the coastal belt, and to the Towyn citizens advice bureau for providing us with individual case studies of people who experienced difficulties with insurance companies in making their claims.

The most disturbing aspect of the inquiry must be the ignorance displayed by the most senior local government officers of Colwyn borough council about the Operation Neptune warning which the council received from the police at 08.53 hours on the morning of 26 February. Indeed, on six separate occasions during the oral evidence session in the Towyn community centre, the director of housing and technical services, without any contradiction from his chief executive, the borough treasurer or the assistance chief executive for legal and administrative affairs, emphasised and re-emphasised that the council was not informed of the Neptune warning.

In paragraph 53 of the evidence, the director of housing and technical services said: I do have to say that the Neptune warning system was not received by us on that morning. In paragraph 54, he said: We were not warned of the surge effect on the tide. In paragraph 55, he said: We get the message relayed to us by the local police and we did not get it on that particular day. In paragraph 57, he said: It did not happen on that morning, no. In paragraph 62, he said: I have to report we did not receive our Neptune warning on that morning. It was only by the observation of officers that we saw conditions were of that nature and put everybody on warning. In paragraph 67, he said: There is no record of having received a Neptune warning by our source, which is the North Wales police. The council subsequently informed us in writing that Colwyn borough council received a Neptune warning on the morning of 26 February at 08.53 hours. It must be deeply disturbing to the people of Towyn and, indeed, to all who reside in maritime areas threatened by flooding from the sea, that senior officers of a Welsh local authority did not know six weeks after the dramatic events of 26 February that their local authority had received an Operation Neptune warning. I have little doubt that, had the Select Committee not pursued that line of questioning, Colwyn borough council might still have been under the mistaken impression that no warning was received.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Sir Wyn Roberts)

In fairness to those whom he has criticised, did the hon. Gentleman and his Committee receive any evidence that suggested a lack of reliability on the part of the Neptune system?

Mr. Wardell

No, we did not. As I said earlier, the Meteorological Office conveys to the National Rivers Authority two separate pieces of information. First, it conveys information about the height of the tide and the tidal surge. Secondly, it separately conveys to the NRA information about offshore wave height. One of our fundamental recommendations is that both those pieces of information should be conveyed to the maritime authorities—at the moment, only one piece of information is conveyed. None the less, the Operation Neptune warning was delivered at 08.53 to Colwyn borough council, but its senior officers knew nothing about it. That deplorable situation must not be permitted to recur.

We recommend that the NRA should be made responsible for conveying information on tidal surges and wave heights to the maritime district authorities. Engineers from those authorities and other bodies responsible for major sea defences should be on standby to receive that information. I am sure that that answers the Minister's question. When the hon. Gentleman responds to our recommendations, I hope that he can say that those steps will be taken to meet the problem.

Sir Wyn Roberts

May I clarify that I was seeking to elicit whether there is some doubt about the accuracy and reliability of Neptune warnings?

Mr. Wardell

I am grateful to the Minister for that information, because the evidence that we subsequently received from the Meteorological Office showed that the prediction made in the Neptune warning on the morning of 26 February was surprisingly accurate. I am sure that that fundamentally important point will help the Minister.

It is also disconcerting that the information on tide surges and offshore wave heights was available at 02.30 to the Meteorological Office. The Meteorological Office originally told us that it conveyed that information to the NRA at 02.30, but subsequently it changed its evidence and said that that information was passed on at 03.40—the office of the NRA was not open until 06.00 Because of those delays, as well as delay on the part of the north Wales police, the Operation Neptune warning did not arrive at Colwyn borough council until 08.53—six hours and 23 minutes after the computer prediction was available at the Meteorological Office.

Another vital recommendation of the Committee is that an evacuation standby warning should be given by local authorities in vulnerable areas when a Neptune warning of extremely severe conditions is given. To achieve that, it is obvious that the delays that occurred in the transmission of information to Colwyn borough council must be eliminated.

I have chosen to concentrate on the Operation Neptune warning system, but there are two other crucial recommendations. The first is that the Welsh Office should re-issue the advice to local authorities in circular 15/82 entitled "Development in Flood Risk Areas—Liaison between Planning Authorities and Water Authorities". Paragraph 7 of that circular needs particular emphasis: Land which is protected from inundation by the sea would be extremely vulnerable in the event of any embankment or sea wall being breached. For example, tidal surges might involve the loss of life as well as the destruction of property. Planning authorities are therefore asked to bear this point particularly in mind when considering development for land protected in this way. The Welsh Office will bear a heavy responsibility if it approves structure plans without satisfying itself that maritime local authorities' local plans satisfy the conditions of circular 15/82. I sincerely hope that the Minister will look again at that circular, re-issue it and bear in mind the responsibility that his Department bears when it approves county structure plans.

The second crucial recommendation concerns insurance. It is often the case that people on low incomes naturally neglect to update their insurance policies to ensure that they are completely covered for the impact of flooding on the contents or structure of their property. In that regard, the Select Committee recommends, in its report published today, that local authorities should warn residents in areas at risk from flooding of the need to be fully insured by writing to every resident. That policy should be backed up by regular newspaper advertisements. We also recommend that local searches show solicitors which areas are liable to flooding.

The Select Committee's inquiry into the events of 26 and 27 February left hon. Members in no doubt that, if the British Rail sea wall at Towyn had been breached around midnight on 26 February instead of around midday, lives would have been lost because of the vulnerability of the large numbers of elderly people living in that area. The Select Committee is conscious of the fact that, if present climatic trends continue, the likely problems and danger of flooding of the coast will become greater in future. That is the view of Hydraulic Research Ltd. contained in its memorandum to the Committee.

If the Select Committee's recommendations are accepted by the Government, I am sure that far greater protection will be available against inundation by the sea through the construction of hard and soft defences. We recommend that the current bias in the grant system towards hard defences should be remedied.

The Select Committee has excelled itself in its probing short inquiry. I must thank Professor O'Connor from Liverpool university for his expert advice, and it is my pleasure to acknowledge the work of the Clerk of the Committee, Mr. David Harrison, and his assistant, Mr. McShane, and Emma, who did the typing at the last minute under great stress. I also wish to pay tribute to the energetic and enthusiastic way in which fellow members of the Committee delved and probed into this difficult subject matter.

I hope that the result of our deliberations will comfort people who live in north Wales and in other coastal areas as they face the next winter. I pay a special tribute to the senior Conservative Member of the Committee, the hon. Member for Clwyd North-West, who, throughout a most difficult time, clearly demonstrated his deep care for his constituents. The hon. Gentleman clearly deserves his place in the House—unless, of course, a Labour candidate eases him gently out at the next election. I am grateful to him for his support on the Committee and for the work that he and all members of the Committee have carried out.

4.25 pm
Sir Anthony Meyer (Clwyd, North-West)

The tribute by the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) was quite the nicest kiss of death ever bestowed on me. Apart from the Select Committee's specific recommendations, to which I shall refer later, the debate will focus much needed light on the still woeful plight of nearly 1,000 of my constituents who, six months after the February floods, are unable to return to their badly damaged homes and are living in caravans in their small front gardens or on the road outside. It is no joke looking after small children, elderly infirm relatives or, in some cases, mentally handicapped relatives in a caravan for months on end. lt may even be worse for those who are lodged in old people's homes, separated from friends, neighbours and memories.

The debate will serve to remind the nation and the media how tardy, patchy and short-lived has been their generosity to these unhappy people. They still need help and desperately need to feel that the rest of the country—not just the people of Wales, who have responded magnificently—are aware of and sympathetic to their plight. Here I record my special gratitude to the National Federation of Pensioners Associations, which at its conference passed a resolution expressing support for the people of Towyn and Kinmel bay.

The scope of the report is necessarily limited. We did not have time to cover anything other than sea defences and early-warning issues. We were not able to look into the severe problems faced by farmers, many of whom have lost much stock and whose land is taking a long time to recover from the effects of prolonged soaking by sea water.

I pay special tribute also to my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker), then Secretary of State for Wales, who responded swiftly with lavish supplies of gypsum. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Welsh Office, who immediately visited the affected areas. Above all, I pay what may seem a slightly incestuous tribute to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, the hon. Member for Gower. It is a fairly open secret that he commands the confidence of every member who served on the Committee and those who previously served on it. He and all members of the Committee took endless trouble over the report. I thank them for that, and for meeting and listening to people while they were in north Wales seeing the problems for themselves. I know how affected they were by the continuing distress that surrounded them.

I hope that the report and the debate will restore confidence to my constituents and to all who may face a similar threat. The debate has implications for the whole of the United Kingdom, not just for west-facing coasts. The lessons of the tragedy have been drawn and everything possible will be done to ensure that residents are safe from flooding next winter and for the foreseeable future. If unforeseeable conditions should occur, residents will be given ample warning and there will be provision for escape from death or injury, in their own homes by way of access to an upper floor or, at the very least, roof space, in bungalows—and proper escape and access routes for rescue vehicles will be made available and kept clear.

I am particularly pleased with the recommendation that expenditure by local authorities on the maintenance of sea defences including the vital and continuing replenishment of sloping beaches—should attract Government grant in exactly the same way as, at present, only capital works such as concrete sea walls do. That lesson holds good for the rest of the United Kingdom.

The top priority must be the repair and strengthening of the sea wall. Those who live in the threatened areas must have a categorical assurance that, by next October, the wall and the beach will be able to absorb a storm as violent as that of last February. Such a storm may be a 1:200 year risk. However, as Dr. Robert Kay of the university of East Anglia said in a seminar staged by Clwyd county council, one can say that the odds against it are 1:200, but that is the same as saying that the odds are 200:1 against it happening again next year—horses have won the Grand National on odds only a little shorter than that.

Despite the urgent need to rebuild and strengthen the sea wall, I do not understand why British Rail needs to close off the entire beach along the Towyn area for the whole period of the work. I accept that access to the beach will have to be severely restricted, but it must be possible for British Rail to schedule the work so that some parts can remain open to the public at certain times. Otherwise, it will inflict a crippling blow on the area's hard-hit and struggling tourist industry.

In the course of giving evidence, I asked British Rail about access to the beach. In answer to question 202, Mr. Elliott replied: We would need to liaise with the local authority in providing some form of access. I asked: It will be your responsibility? Mr. Rayner replied: Let me say, Sir, if it is not it will be. If British Rail does not ensure that there is, at least at times, access to the beach for the holiday makers of Towyn, it will cause severe injury to an industry on which a great deal of British Rail's prosperity depends. I ask Mr. Robert Reid to think again about that.

The report has rightly exposed shortcomings, especially in relation to warnings. The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Gower, was severe in his criticism of officials at Colwyn council. I do not want to say too much about Colwyn's failure to react to the Neptune warning. It is unfortunate that the council changed its story, and clearly there was a muddle, but I have not had time to hold the sort of informal discussion that I would normally have had with the Chairman before this debate. It has been an incredible rush, and it is amazing that the report has come out on time.

In fairness to Colwyn, I would not have been quite so specific as the hon. Member for Gower in picking out Mr. Gough for so much blame. It is arguable that the six-hour delay of the National Rivers Authority was as much a contributory factor as Colwyn's slip-up. That begs the question whether, even if the early warning had been received and acted upon throughout, it would have done that much to avert the tragedy, which was caused not by the over-topping but by the collapse of the wall. We may argue about whether that collapse could have been foreseen, but in my heart I do not believe that it could.

It occured at a point a long way away from where there had been a previous crack, but perhaps I am being unduly complacent. I hope that the media will not fasten exclusively or excessively on that aspect, or indulge in a hunt for scapegoats. Above all, the people of the area need to recover their self-confidence and to rebuild their shattered lives. That means that we must all work together.

I am aware that there have been cowboy builders, but some of the builders whom I have met have been working all the hours that God sends, at nominal levels of profit, out of a sense of commitment to the community in which they live. I cannot find sufficiently high words of praise for the activities of some of the housing associations in the area, which have provided a rescue and advice service for people whose homes were badly affected.

I know that there have been complaints about some of the insurance companies and, perhaps more pertinently, the activities of certain loss adjusters who have been less than prompt in meeting claims. I pay tribute to the Association of British Insurers, which responded instantly to the Select Committee's suggestion that it should provide a once-a-week presence at the community centre in Towyn, where the voluntary and statutory relief agencies provide a devoted service all day every day and where the Select Committee held its hearings.

I know that there are some hard and bitter feelings about the distribution of the pitifully small appeal fund among those who have lost so much. I only wish that it were possible to compensate, in some measure, everyone who has suffered, but a fund as small as that must be used for the relief of those who have lost most and who have the least chance of recovery from statutory agencies or insurance companies. Those who seek to stir up grievances render poor service to the community in which they live.

Knowing my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales as well as I do, I know that he will respond positively and generously, as far as he can, to the recommendations of the Select Committee. He has already shown his concern by his two lengthy visits to the affected areas—one of which took place even before he became Secretary of State—and by his manifest sympathy for all those he met. I am sure that he will give the most careful consideration to our recommendations. In particular, I hope that he will urge the Treasury to think again about the whole system of grant for repair and maintenance work. I hope that, in consultation with his colleagues in the Department of the Environment, he will reconsider both the planning guidelines and the building regulations in areas liable to flooding by sea or from land.

I thank my fellow members of the Select Committee, especially the Chairman, for the immense trouble that they have taken over this matter, which is of such desperate importance to my constituency.

4.37 pm
Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer), who made a typically gracious speech. He had his priorities right, and it was shrewd of him to put the pressure on British Rail.

The report of my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) and his Select Committee has done a public service. It is probably the most important report published by the Select Committee. It is about life and about death. Its findings relate not only to all of Wales, but to all of Britain. It is both a wise and a practical report. The Welsh Office should now go to action stations and respond speedily to it. It is a blueprint for a responsible response from the Government.

I cannot forget that we are discussing a disaster. We all want to ensure that no other part of Wales suffers the same. The Committee was right to concentrate on the warnings about high sea levels, the condition of the sea defences, the responsibility for the sea defences and the planning policy for areas liable to flooding. It is an agenda for the Government, and I urge them to respond as speedily and as seriously as possible.

As regards aims, I hope that we can build on a consensual response to the disaster, and agree upon a policy that can limit risks and protect our people.

Paragraph 15 of the report contains the following chilling sentence: Once the breach occurred then the speed of incursion into the Towyn area was such that very little warning could be given in advance to residents. Another chilling sentence, in paragraph 8, states: However, residents were at risk and children, especially, suffered psychological trauma. People struggled to escape from their bungalows by the window as the water levels rose. That, perhaps unintentionally, hints at a drama by Hitchcock.

Having been to the scene of the disaster, I found the report very accurate. My quotations from it sum up the fear and trauma experienced by those who suffered.

I pay tribute to the police, firemen, council workmen, ambulance men and women and volunteers who did a huge amount of work on the day of the disaster to help and comfort people who were frightened.

To put our debate into context, it is good that the Select Committee made such a practical response, based upon its visit to the scene of the disaster. It was shrewd of the Secretary of State for Wales to visit the area as soon as he could, as it was shrewd of the previous Secretary of State to visit the scene of the disaster. Thanks have been given to the Minister of State for going as soon as any Minister might have done.

I acknowledge the importance of the fact that the Government have improved the Bellwin rules threshold and their cash contribution to the disaster fund. I do not leave out of my tribute the mayors, voluntary organisations in Clwyd and show business stars who have made great efforts to help the people stricken by the disaster.

Sir Anthony Meyer

The hon. Gentleman mentioned show business people. Perhaps he will support my plea to the national media that they should have given nationwide coverage to the appeals instead of broadcasting them in Wales only. The people of Wales have given generously, but the appeals have never been nationally networked.

Mr. Jones

I take my cue from the hon. Gentleman. It was sad that the appeal was not broadcast outside Wales, as I am sure that hearts would have been touched and that the response would have been generous. Indeed, one of the reasons for this debate is to prompt the conscience of the nation. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition went to the scene without a political mission, aiming to help in the way that the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West, has instanced. The hon. Gentleman's work as a Member of Parliament has been exemplary throughout the disaster. He has approached a difficult problem with compassion and consientiousness, he has been consistent and his constituents would wish to thank him.

When my right hon. Friend, Mrs. Kinnock and I visited the scene of the flooding, we were greatly moved. My right hon. Friend instantly resolved to meet the Secretary of State for Wales at the Welsh Office, as he was so appalled at the remaining evidence of the disaster and its cruel impact on local people. He admired their courage and humour.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, like the Secretary of State, received a deputation of people affected by the disaster, when they came to lobby Parliament. Hon. Members who visited the north Wales coast saw the strain and worry, which was all too evident, on the faces of the people whom we met—but I also acknowledge their endurance and dignity.

I have made several visits to the scene of the disaster. I, too, recollect the report by the foster parents of two handicapped children, which was given to me, with my right hon. Friend and Mrs. Kinnock, in a caravan adjacent to a home ruined by the flooding. It had been lovingly enlarged and furnished to care for handicapped children, which is what that humane man and his wife have dedicated their lives to.

Other people told us about the speed of the inundation and of their terror at seeing the sea advance to their homes in broad daylight. Incredibly, the sea swept far inland, blighting local farmers' pasture. The farming community now has a major problem.

I visited a school where youngsters had to stand on their desks on the day of the disaster, and a small council estate far inland that had been flooded to a height of more than 4 ft. It had only recently been built, but was inundated by the cruel sea and partially ruined.

On a later visit, I saw a superb seafront leisure centre, part of which had been smashed to pieces. The ballroom was unrecognisable as the room that I had visited in November last year.

The impact of global warming is difficult to predict, as nobody will deny, but some of the beauty spots along the Welsh coast may fall victim to rising sea levels during the next few decades. Storms and thunderstorms could become more frequent and the hazard of flooding will increase in the valleys of the Rivers Dyfi, Dee, Clwyd, Towy and Wye. What about Borth and Newborough in Anglesey? What assessments have the Ministers made?

In a written answer on 24 April, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Grist), told my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells): All coastal regions that lie below the highest sea level in their vicinity are at some risk of being inundated by sea water in the event of breaches of sea defences. The most significant such areas in Wales are parts of the north Wales coast, the Caldicot and Wentlooge levels and lands bordering the major estuaries, for example, Afon Glaslyn, Afon Mawddach, Afon Dyfi and Lougher inlet."—[Official Report, 24 April 1990; Vol. 171, c. 142.] One cannot be franker than that, and it was a fair response to a serious question.

Sir Wyn Roberts

It might be helpful to the hon. Gentleman if I assured him that the National Rivers Authority has already embarked upon a full survey of coastal defences in Wales.

Mr. Jones

I look foward to an expanded reply on that matter from the Minister of State—he knows that it is his duty.

We know that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is increasing its expenditure over the next three years. The east coast must be a priority. I expect to hear the Minister of State tell us that his Department has obtained a large enough budget to meet Wales's need for sea defences.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) asked a question, because on the same day of the terrible floods at Towyn there was serious flooding in his constituency at Peterstone and St. Bride's, where the sea overtopped the sea wall, and at Caerleon and Newport. He asked the Minister: In view of the certainty of global warming raising sea levels, and because the area has many fine homes and new high technology enterprises, will he guarantee that in the future the area will be fully protected by new flood defences?"—[Official Report, 18 June 1990: Vol. 174, c. 671.] I mention that question because sea defences concern the whole of Wales; the problem is not confined to the coast of Clwyd, which received such a fearful battering in February.

What research will the Welsh office sponsor to assess the implications of global warming on storm frequency and flood risk along the Welsh coast? What will be the impact on Liverpool bay of global warming and an increase in sea level? The hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West touched on housing, and I shall mention it briefly too. The Daily Post—once the Liverpool Daily Post—reported on 7 July that between 800 and 1,300 flood victims were still unable to return to their homes six months after the disaster. The report estimated that more than 200 people are living in caravans and mobile homes next to their properties. Others are living in guest houses and hotels.

Will the Minister of State study the decision of the DSS not to give community care grants to pensioners and families with children who do not get income support? 1 hat means test, in a unique disaster, penalises those who have been thrifty; I say without too much venom that it penalises the very people whom the Government say they want to encourage. The needs of the victims are still immense, and loans will not help them.

Will the Minister of State provide one-off central Government funding for a social work team? The professionals believe that such a team will be needed for a long time. There are people with mental health problems over and above the typical strain and stress. It is a truism to say of this disaster that families are under stress. These families have children in their midst, and the social workers of Clwyd county are doing a good job in the wake of disaster, but they have been taken away from other important work in the county.

I also want the Government to extend the time limit on the Bellwin rules, perhaps even into next year, as has been urged by Clwyd county. The Government's rejection of central Government funding for a social work team has caused great anxiety.

I want to take up the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Gower about the storm tidal warning service. The estimates include an allowance of £339,000 for that service in the financial year 1990–91. The estimates also mention the costs of tide gauges for the east and west coasts. They mention capital expenditure on them of £42,500. In paragraph 24, the Select Committee recommends an additional tide gauge for the coast of north Wales. Does the £42,500 cover the cost of an additional tide gauge, or how much would one cost? There is no tide gauge between Holyhead and Hilbre on the estuary of the River Dee. We need one urgently, and we await an outright commitment—today—from the Minister that a gauge will be provided and installed as soon as possible. The lack of a gauge between Holyhead and the mouth of the Dee is a glaring omission, a weakness that must be rectified, and I call on the Minister of State to guarantee—

Sir Wyn Roberts

May I relieve the hon. Gentleman by assuring him that we are giving active consideration to the provision of a tide gauge for the north Wales coast?

Mr. Jones

I shall take that as an absolute guarantee that a gauge will be put in at the earliest opportunity. I also take it that the money will be provided; before the end of the debate. I want the Minister of State to tell me precisely how much such a gauge costs and whether the figure relates to the £42,500 in the estimates. If it does not, the Government have been lazy since February.

It is now the Government's duty to proclaim a strategy, backed by research, expertise and funding, on sea defences. Wales has a major interest in the Government tackling that growing problem. The Government must be determined and imaginative. How great is the danger? What decisions will be taken to defend and protect our people and our shoreline? How soon will those decisions be implemented? The Minister owes us an outline of his policy, especially on the north Wales floods.

It would appear in the end that even these Ministers did not acknowledge soon enough that a disaster of serious proportions had taken place. All of us thank God that it happened in broad daylight, but after six months much remains to be done and the pace must be quickened. Ministers must get a grip on matters and show more leadership. They must reassure public opinion. If they do not show leadership and determination I am sorry to tell the Minister of State that the suffering and fear of those who were flooded will have been in vain.

4.58 pm
Mr. Keith Raffan (Delyn)

It is sad that the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) concluded with party political points, which were too petty for a debate such as this on a serious disaster. I hope to make points which are above the party political level, like the admirable speeches made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) -I may call him that in this context, since he is the Chairman of the Select Committee—and by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer).

I am delighted that we are holding this debate on the breach of the sea defences on 26 and 27 February along the north Wales coast. As I said in yesterday's debate, initiated by Plaid Cymru, we hold far too few debates on Welsh affairs on the Floor of the House. [Interruption.] I had the courtesy to listen in silence to the speech of the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones). As he is so concerned about this disaster—his concern came through in his speech—I hope that he will be courteous enough to listen to my speech without trying to interrupt me or causing distractions by muttering from a sedentary position.

Far too few debates are held on the Floor of the House on Welsh affairs. The Government's responses to the Welsh Select Committee's reports are seldom debated. That is sad. I agree with the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Coleman), the Chairman of the Welsh Grand Committee, that, as a matter of form, the Welsh Grand Committee should debate regularly the reports produced by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. That would save us having to go round the same old circuit discussing the same old issues—the Government choosing the subject on one occasion, the Opposition choosing it the next—with nobody showing any imagination about what to debate.

There is a backlog of reports prepared by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs that the Welsh Grand Committee could debate and discuss. I hope that both the Minister of State and the usual channels will take that point on board. I have been accused, even by members of my own party, of being too much of a Welsh Member of Parliament. I regard that not as a criticism but as a label which I wear with pride. I hope that all of us together, above party politics, will press for more debates on Welsh issues—on the Floor of the House and in the Welsh Grand Committee.

The question that dominated the inquiry by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs and that is dominating this debate was posed to us, as Members of the Select Committee, by the people of Towyn and Ffynnongroyw when we visited those places before taking evidence at Towyn: "How can our communities return to normal life until we are sure, until we are certain that we are safe and secure behind our sea walls?" I hope that the House will bear with me if I make a few points that relate directly to my constituency before I deal with the Select Committee's report.

I am delighted by the assurance that I received today from British Rail that, contrary to rumour, it is to replace the sea wall at Mostyn West, otherwise known as Ffynnongroyw, before the onset of winter. The contract has been let. Work is to start next week and will be completed by the end of September. That will greatly assure the 45 or so families in Ffynnongroyw who were so severely affected by the floods of 26 and 27 February.

I ask the Welsh Office, through its consultant, Hydraulics Research Ltd., to look closely at the design of the new sea wall that British Rail has produced. It is important that the people of Ffynnongroyw should be given every possible assurance. We should therefore have a second opinion on the design.

I also ask the Welsh Office and its consultant, Hydraulics Research Ltd., to look at the Holywell embankment. It was reinstated promptly—I pay tribute to British Rail for that—after the February floods with 25,000 tonnes of demolition material of rock and armour stone, which raised the height of the embankment by about 1 m.

However, as our specialist adviser pointed out to me and to the other Members of the Select Committee when we visited the embankment, there is a danger of the sea entering the gaps between the loose rock and sucking out sand and shingle, which could result in subsidence. Therefore, he suggested—as I did, when we took evidence from British Rail at Towyn—that there should be a filter layer under the wall. British Rail has said in a letter that it is still reviewing the need for a filter layer. Therefore, it would be helpful once again to have a second opinion from Hydraulics Research Ltd.

Under the Coast Protection Act 1949, certain bodies, including British Rail, are exempt from having to obtain consent for sea defence works. All exemptions should come to an end; I see no reason for them. It is important that British Rail should have to obtain consent for its sea defence works from the coastal protection authority.

The contrast between British Rail's approach and that of the coastal protection authorities is starkly highlighted in my constituency. In the borough of Delyn, the Ffynnongroyw embankment, otherwise known as Mostyn West, is owned by British Rail. It was constructed in 1830 and modified in 1845 and 1920. The Mostyn dock wall was constructed in 1830. The Mostyn embankment was constructed in 1840 and modified in 1920. The Holywell embankment was constructed in 1830. All these sea walls and embankments are also owned by British Rail.

In Rhuddlan, where the local district council is the owner of and therefore responsible for, all sea defences, a totally different situation prevails. Since 1983, £4.5 million has been spent on coast protection. There have been three schemes—phases 1 and 2 at Ffrith beach and phase 3 at central beach. During the next three years, a further £5.6 million will be spent. That illustrates the marked contrast between a maritime district authority—a coastal protection authority—that is directly responsible for its own sea defences—and British Rail, which is a step removed from sea defences, with its headquarters in the south. It is not so fully aware at first hand of the need for sea defences to be modified and renewed regularly.

The Welsh Office has made Rhuddlan borough council's expenditure possible by means of a generous special capital allocation. I pay tribute to the Welsh Office. As Mr. Andrew Rhodes, the former borough surveyor of Rhuddlan, pointed out when he gave evidence to us at Towyn, at one stage a third of all the special capital allocation to Welsh district councils was going to Rhuddlan borough council for its sea defence work. The remaining work needs to be accelerated and completed as soon as possible, thus ensuring that the people of Prestatyn are safe and secure behind their sea defences.

I hope that the Welsh Office will allow the remaining three-year programme to be compressed into two years. Andrew Rhodes, who has just moved from Rhuddlan to the Wirral, believes it to be practicable. I hope that the Minister of State will respond to that point—if not in his reply to the debate then in a letter to me.

I also press the Welsh Office for help in the reconstruction of the Nova complex in Prestatyn. It was devastated by the storms. Rhuddlan borough council is not asking for cash but for permission to spend. It is asking for a capital allocation for excess costs over insurance coverage. The Minister of State will be only too well aware that the Nova complex is central to Prestatyn's economy and its principal industry, tourism. Rhuddlan borough council is in a catch-22 situation. For the complex to be reinsured, it must be redesigned on the seaward side. Insurance will cover only rebuilding, like for like. It will cover replacement, not betterment. Essential design changes will cost at least £200,000 if the external walls are to be rebuilt in reinforced concrete rather than brick.

The council cannot and should not be asked to accommodate that expenditure within its existing capital programme. That would require a reordering of its priorities. I hope that the Minister of State and the Secretary of State for Wales will look again sympathetically at that matter. I was slightly disappointed by the letter that I received from the Secretary of State on this issue. I realise that, at £200,000, the cost of betterment works would fall well below the cost threshold for special projects and would therefore not be eligible for support through the top slice arrangements. I hope that the Welsh Office will make an exemption in this case, so that the council does not have to reorder its priorities, which would result in the people of Rhuddlan and Prestatyn losing out on their capital programme.

Now turning to the Select Committee's report, I urge the Government to introduce in the next Session of Parliament a sea defences Bill. That is what we need. As they approach general elections, I know that Governments like to look for non-contentious issues that will command support on all sides of the House so that those who are interested in a particular issue can come to the House, while those who are not can nurse their constituencies and campaign in them.

Dr. Darydd Elis Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

And lose.

Mr. Raffan

I hope that the Plaid Cymru Members will help me once again, as they did in the previous two general elections, by putting up a candidate in my constituency, so ensuring my victory. But I can assure them that, if a sea defences Bill is brought before the House, I shall be regular in my attendance and would hope to be on the Standing Committee examining it clause by clause and line by line. The Government should seriously consider introducing a sea defences Bill. It should have three objectives.

First, it should consolidate in one piece of legislation the multiplicity of Acts concerning coastal protection and coastal defences. It should consolidate and rationalise the Coast Protection Act 1949, the Land Drainage Act 1976, the Water Act 1989 and nine other minor Acts which relate to sea defences. Secondly, it should designate a single authority, which our report suggests should be the National Rivers Authority, to co-ordinate and, if necessary, enforce responsibilities relating to coastal protection and flood prevention. It was quite clear during the February floods that co-ordination was not satisfactory. There is an overwhelming need for one authority to assume overall control and responsibility for our sea defences.

I am sorry that Andrew Rhodes, the former borough surveyor of Rhuddlan, has departed to the Wirral, as he is an extremely good borough surveyor and is also extremely quotable. He said in his evidence to us at Towyn: The forces of nature do not recognise individual borough boundaries. I accept that the maritime district authorities as the coastal protection authorities have the essential local knowledge and that improvements may have to be funded in part locally. I do not want to deprive them of their powers but to ensure that they use them. I am advocating not centralisation, but effective supervision.

The Select Committee considers the National Rivers Authority to be the natural co-ordinating enforcement body. The Water Act 1989 requires the NRA to exercise a general supervision over all matters relating to flood defence. The NRA has already declared its intention to exercise those powers with regard to all sea defences. It has already approached some maritime district authorities and British Rail. If it took on that role, the NRA would have a massive task and it must be adequately funded. I hope that my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench will take that on board.

The Coastal Engineering Research Advisory Committee reckons that there are more than 240 separate authorities in the United Kingdom responsible for coast protection, sea defences and port and harbour works. In Wales alone, there are 22 maritime district authorities or coast protection authorities with the power to serve notice on the owners of sea defences to maintain and repair sea defence works.

I see the NRA as a co-ordinating enforcement authority with the following responsibilities: first, drawing up and ensuring the implementation of national strategies; secondly, overall supervision of the Operation Neptune warning system; thirdly, co-ordination and dissemination of coastal engineering research; fourthly, laying down standards of design for sea defences, as CERAC says, to minimise the adverse effects so evident today as a result of the hotch-potch of design and protection methods along the coast. Fifthly, the NRA should ensure that coastal protection authority inspections of sea defences are carried out regularly and effectively.

During the evidence session at Towyn, I asked British Rail how regularly its sea defences were monitored by the CPAs and whether monitoring varied from one CPA to another, British Rail responded that it was not aware of monitoring. When I asked whether British Rail regularly met individual coastal protection authorities, the representative of British Rail responded, "Not to my understanding." That is totally unsatisfactory. There must be regular and effective liaison between CPAs and British Rail and other owners of sea defences, and that must be enforced by the NRA as the co-ordinating and enforcement body. Finally, the NRA should have the authority to ensure that CPAs used their powers where necessary to direct the owners of sea defences to upgrade and repair them.

Let me summarise the second important point, that one authority must assume overall control and responsibility for our sea defences. The current Welsh Office approach is far too laid back. It is not enough for the Welsh Office to say: There is nothing in the present arrangements to prevent local interests grouping together to ensure that the wider interests of their coast are taken into account". That is too lackadaisical.

Dr. Thomas

I support the hon. Gentleman and suggest that he might like to ask the Minister of State a direct question about the Government's likely response to the NRA survey. It is one thing to talk about the NRA survey, but, as the hon. Gentleman has said so eloquently, those of us who have visited Towyn are aware of the residual fears about the future. We must be assured that the survey on sea defences will result in action and funding to ensure that all areas that might be susceptible to the inundation that occurred at Towyn will be defended.

Mr. Raffan

My hon. Friend the Minister of State will have heard the hon. Gentleman, and I am sure that he will respond to that point.

I reiterate that the present arrangements are far too informal. The informal gatherings of officers and agencies on a coastal cell basis are quite inadequate. We understand from their evidence to us at Towyn that they meet informally only twice a year. Co-ordination must be formalised, and we look to the Welsh Office to do that now. There should be no more delay. If there are further storms and inundations of our sea defences and ineffective co-ordination, we shall hold the Welsh Office responsible. It must act promptly and effectively.

I know that it is rather late in the session to start talking about a new Bill in the next one, but if the Government do not introduce a sea defences Bill, we expect them to act by order and to provide guidance circulars through the Welsh Office.

The third part of a sea defences Bill should involve a revision of the grant system. Currently, grant aid is available for capital work, but not for maintenance renewal and replenishment works. The system now in operation militates in favour of hard defences, which require little maintenance or renewal, and against the extension of soft defences, which require constant maintenance and renewal. For example, when the sea has washed shingle and sand to one end of the beach, lorries have to be brought in to truck that sand and shingle back to the other end of the beach, but that is not eligible for grant aid.

To a large extent, hard defences have been discredited. In Prestatyn in my constituency, millions of pounds were spent in the 1930s and 1940s on replacing sand dunes, nature's defences, with hard concrete walls. Unlike the dunes, the hard defences reflect waves; they do not absorb them. As a result, the beach level dropped dramatically and the waves took the beach away with them and undermined the walls. Now, in the 1980s and 1990s, millions of pounds are being spent on replacing the hard defences with soft defences. It would have been better had we never tampered with nature. Those soft defences will absorb waves rather than reflect them, so we hope that the beach levels will rise and be restored.

The Chairman of the Select Committee opened the evidence session at Towyn with a Chinese proverb, and if he will allow me, I shall quote it today: Nothing under heaven is softer or more yielding than water, but when it attacks things hard and resistant not one of them can prevail. We cannot master nature and we cannot master the sea with concrete and stone. We can defeat it only by emulating nature and mirroring the effect of sand dunes.

Britain has been much slower than other maritime countries to construct soft defences and to employ nature's methods to keep the sea at bay. The Dutch regularly create sand dunes 200 m deep in front of clay-earth embankments. We must change our financing rules so as not to discourage soft defences. That would also—this will appeal to the Treasury Bench—make the Government's money go further.

The cost of sea defences is considerable. In capital terms, hard defences are much more expensive than soft defences. Prestatyn has spent £4.5 million and will spend a further £5.6 million in the next three years on soft defences; restoring existing hard defences would have cost infinitely more. The inquiry was told that British Rail will spend £6 million on replacing sea walls at Mostyn and Towyn.

The cost of sea defences will rise quite dramatically in forthcoming years and the Government must allow for that. The initial capital outlay on soft defences will be less than for hard defences, and I believe that it is a far better investment to protect our coastline.

My constituency was not so severely affected as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West. I worked out that 2,800 properties were flooded to some extent in and around Towyn, and a further 98 in Rhyl. A total of about 80 properties were affected in Ffynnongroyw, Prestatyn and Bagillt in my constituency.

It is not however, a question of the quantity of properties that were invaded by the sea, because the human suffering to each family, and the scale of it, is the same. I visited Ffynnongroyw, Bagillt and Prestatyn in the immediate aftermath of the floods and could see the damage that the sea had wreaked, not just to property but to people's morale and mental state. There is a responsibility on people to ensure that their properties and their contents are insured, but equally there is a responsibility on Government and their agencies to ensure that these events are not repeated.

We look to the Welsh Office for a positive and prompt response to the report. We do not want weeks and months to pass. The Select Committee worked very hard to publish the report today, and we want a response from the Government quickly and promptly—not after the summer recess but before it. I accept that the Minister of State will have had little time to read the report before today's debate, but I hope that he will press on our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has shown his deep concern and caring, which is shared in all parts of the House, the fact that we look to him, if at all possible, for a statement before the House rises for the summer recess so that we can further cross-examine the Government on the positive, constructive measures that they propose in response to this very good report that the Chairman of the Select Committee and its other members have produced.

Sir Wyn Roberts

I intend to comment on the report that was published today, but I do not think that my hon. Friend will necessarily regard that as a definitive Government response; he will have to wait at least some days for that.

Mr. Raffan

My hon. Friend took the words out of my mouth. In my usual generous way, I said that we do not expect a definitive response today, but it is not too much for us to ask at least for a partial statement on the Government's proposals before the House rises for the summer recess.

I know that the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West are concerned. My constituents in Ffynnongroyw are concerned and are holding a further meeting next week because of unfounded rumours that British Rail are not to carry out work to replace the sea wall at Ffynnongroyw by September. Their concern is evident and we look to Ministers to respond directly.

I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to all those involved in ensuring that this disaster did not become a tragedy with loss of life. All the emergency services—the ambulance, fire and police services—deserve our thanks and gratitude for all that they did.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Gower, who has done a service not just to the House and to its reputation in this constructive debate but to our constituents by allowing the Select Committee to proceed with the suggestion that my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West and I made for an inquiry into sea defences in North Wales to be carried out promptly, efficiently and effectively. That was, as he quite rightly said, made possible by the eminent specialist adviser whom we were able to engage to help us—Professor O'Connor—and by the Clerk and his assistants, David Harrison and Frank McShane. It has been an example of Parliament and the House at its best. I only wish the work of the Select Committee and its Chairman were emulated more frequently by fellow hon. Members.

5.24 pm
Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan) on an objective speech and the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer), whose constituents suffered much as a result of what happened last February at Towyn.

The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell), gave a tremendous account of the Committee's work. The Committee was fortunate to have a geographer as its Chairman, because he was able to deal with many of the relevant points.

Events at Towyn on 26 February were not easy to predict. They were caused by environmental changes such as global warming and changes in weather patterns, particularly those related to the greenhouse effect. We cannot predict exactly what will happen in the future, but the events of 26 February took many by surprise. We all remember the gales, which, alarmingly, occurred almost every week last February, in Wales and the rest of Britain. They blew down trees around my house that had been standing for many years.

It is easy, with hindsight, to be critical about measures that should have been taken at that time but were not. Although such events cannot be prevented, their effects can at least be alleviated by proper use of the emergency procedures.

The reason for the debate is the flooding of land, much of which was below sea level, in Towyn, Kinmel Bay, Rhyl and Ffynnongroyw on 26 February 1990. The devastation that occurred made a deep impression on me. I paid two visits to the area, and on my first visit in March I saw people who had been made homeless and pathetic skips of ruined possessions piled high in their backyards. Eight hundred people are still not back in their own homes, some of which were gutted to the brickwork, with floors removed as a result of damage to woodwork. It was a pathetic sight indeed.

The fact that many of those people were not properly insured—it is estimated that 40 per cent. were not insured for personal possessions—is a commentary on the fact that they were pensioners who had little capital and could not insure adequately. That is covered in the report.

The state of readiness of the emergency services is rightly addressed by the report. We need to remind ourselves that it was not only individuals and their properties that were affected. I came across one business that had lost £1 million-worth of assets in the flooding, which has had a serious effect on small businesses in the area, as well as on farms and farmland. The state of readiness could have been better. I am puzzled that references have been made time and again to the fact that this was a one-in-200-years occurrence. However, when we look at the detail, we find that there were storms and flooding in 1975, again in 1983 and finally, the catastrophic floods in 1990. That suggests that there is a seven-year cycle. Weather changes and environmental changes must be having an effect.

The role of the local authorities, of the National Rivers Authority, of the police and of other emergency services, such as the fire and ambulance services, should be tremendously praised. We may be critical about what happened, but there is no doubt that the fact that not one person lost his life at the time is a great credit to the emergency services. Sadly, as a result of trauma and shock, some infirm people passed away later.

Clearly, the emergency procedures broke down in this case. The Chairman of the Select Committee has put his finger on some of the issues that need to be examined. I noted in the report—indeed, there was evidence of this—that at some point in the middle of the night, a fax machine in one of the police headquarters broke down. If that was the only line of communication, communications were inadequate. There should have been a double-check, fail-safe system in which there were dual warnings. The fact remains that it took six hours and 23 minutes for the information to get through to Colwyn borough council. As we know, matters that should have been dealt with were not dealt with at that time. In mitigation, we must say that these circumstances were exceptional and had not been experienced before. We can learn from them.

The delays that occurred were dual. They occurred first, in the chain of command of the Neptune system and secondly through the Meteorological Office, the NRA, the police and in the local authorities themselves. Both aspects need to be put right.

Mr. Gareth Wardell

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is vital to emphasise that the North Wales police fax machine—to which he referred—which broke down should have relayed a message to the Delyn borough council area. It was not the same message that was being relayed to the Colwyn borough council area, which was received at 8.53 am on 26 February.

Mr. Livsey

I accept, as the Chairman has said, that there may be a different system. That points to the need for consistency in communications.

Can such a disaster happen again? That is the great fear of everyone in the area. The fact that high tides are due in October was on the lips of almost everyone whom I met in the area.

This was a major disaster, but because people did not lose their lives, it has not been sufficiently acknowledged as such. The morale of the people is poor as a result of the past six months' delay in putting their houses right—much, but not all, of which is understandable. It is strange that the Prime Minister has not visited the victims of the disaster. I do not know the reasons for that as she has visited most other disaster organisations. Not long ago, I was handed a card that said, "Please do not visit me, Prime Minister, if I am involved in a disaster." I do not necessarily accept that, but it seems strange that she did not visit the site and the people involved.

I am glad that British Rail has decided to spend £6 million on the repair to the sea wall. That is a good response and needs to be acknowledged.

It is especially important to note that the report stresses that there should be only one co-ordinating body. The report is right in its conclusion that the NRA should be that body. That single authority must have a clear duty to inform everyone in the emergency services that trouble is on the way. The only problem is that the NRA has only about £6 million a year for sea defences throughout the United Kingdom. That is an inadequate sum in view of the damage on this one occasion.

Another important point in the report is the softer defences, which have been mentioned by several hon. Members. We need defences that run in with the environment and that will absorb the impact of the sea, which, as all hon. Members know, is a powerful force. The sting needs to be taken out the sea and hard defences are not necessarily the best devices for that.

The maintenance grants recommended in the report are especially important. The problem is that vast sums are needed for maintenance. What will the Minister do about prioritising that money? What are the priority points in Wales where money should first be spent? Where are the problems greatest?

If strategic plans allow houses to be built below sea level, planning must be carefully monitored. I spoke to the daughter of a former councillor in the Colwyn area. Her father had been a councillor in the 1950s and 1960s. She told me that at that time, planning permission was solidly refused in the area where houses have now been built. It is because of the overturn of a Welsh Office appeal that some of those houses have been allowed to be built. On visiting Towyn, I was also told that it was strange that it had taken until the middle of the 20th century for houses to be built in that area when the medieval Welsh had not built on those low-level sites. There are lessons to be learned there. The report contains the seeds of reform that will put people who are vulnerable to sea flooding in a far better position.

The cost of the disaster has had an impact on local authorities. The Government have assisted local authorities by upping the Bellwin formula from 75 per cent. to 85 per cent. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), the leader of my party, received a letter from the Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend visited the site about three weeks ago and saw the position for himself. He wrote to the Prime Minister on his return and she replied: On current estimates `Bellwin' is expected to produce a Government contribution to the costs incurred by local authorities of almost £1½m". Towards the end of the letter, the Prime Minister said:

In total it is expected that the Government contribution to the cost of alleviating the problems caused by the flooding will be in the order of £4m and could well exceed that figure. My information, from discussions with the local authorities up there, and especially with Colwyn district council, is that the total cost might be £6 million. It looks as though there will be a shortfall of about £2 million in the costs incurred. It is implicit that local authorities will have to find 15 per cent. of the funding, given the 85 per cent. revised Bellwin formula. A lot of money is at stake for the local authorities, and it might result in increased poll tax charges—

Sir Wyn Roberts

May I correct the hon. Gentleman by assuring him that the amount that will be met under the Bellwin formula is 95 per cent.?

Mr. Livsey

I am pleased to hear that. I acknowledge that information.

Finally, despite what the Minister has just said, there is a considerable shortfall of funding in many senses. I hope that the Welsh Office will take it upon itself completely to make good any shortfall that the maritime local authorities in north Wales might face. They should not have to pick up the bill for these exceptional circumstances. I commend to the House the report of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. I urge the Government to accept it rapidly and to act on it quickly.

5.40 pm
Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

Although the debate has been billed and trailed as concerned primarily with Wales, and especially with north Wales—that is quite right and proper—the documents on which it is based include the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food estimates on coastal protection, which cover England. I am grateful for this oppo'rtunity to participate in the debate and wish first to express sympathy to the residents of Towyn from fellow sufferers from flooding and sea damage in Cornwall. We were all moved by their dreadful experiences during that storm.

It is sad that it requires a tragedy on that scale—one can think back 37 years to the tragedy that occurred in East Anglia—to remind us that the sea is always capable of causing damage, and to focus the attention of all of us on what needs to be done in such circumstances. I emphasise "all of us" because, like other hon. Members, I wish to refer later to the multiplicity of agencies and services, from the Government downwards, that are involved in coping with that problem when it occurs and—perhaps more importantly—in trying to prevent it.

The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) was absolutely right to point out that the rest of the country can learn from what happened in north Wales. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) referred to the dangers of global warming. Frankly, I do not know whether global warming will present a serious problem. I suspect that it will, but I do not know, and, if we are honest, not one of us can say that we know. However, what I do know is that, at this very moment, cliffs are being eroded in my own constituency. Only last Friday, I visited a lady who had lost 12 ft of her front garden into the sea. She is desperately worried that. before too long, perhaps over a period of years—she does not know, I do not know, nobody knows—her bungalow could end up in the sea. That is the awfulness of this situation.

Although the winter storms are now over, the fear that they caused remains. It remains for the lady I visited. Whenever the wind gets up and the sea rises, especially if the wind is blowing in a particular direction and there is a spring tide, she will be worried stiff. Exactly the same goes for people who happen to live near the sea in north Wales, East Anglia or elsewhere in Cornwall, part of which I represent. My constituency juts out into the Atlantic. There is sea on both sides. It takes the brunt of all the bad weather coming in from the Atlantic. So many parts of it are at risk right now.

It is therefore of the utmost importance that the House, the Government and all the agencies involved should turn their attention to this problem. I am glad that they are doing so. Since the storm last winter, I have been involved in talks with a number of agencies. Only last Friday, Baroness Trumpington, the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in another place, visited my constituency and saw things there for herself. She could not believe what she saw or the damage that had been caused by the sea towering up to swamp houses. She visited Porthleven, pictures of which went around the world just before Christmas, showing the immense seas. I was there on the Sunday, and had never seen such seas before in my life. As I have said, people like the villagers and townspeople of Porthleven always feel that fear when the wind blows and the sea rises. That is the problem we face.

My part-time hobby is walking the coastal path in my constituency. At place after place, I have seen areas of cliff—and communities—exposed. The village at Coverack was in danger of being cut in two. Thank goodness, steps have been taken in recent months to avoid that happening. All around the Lizard, areas are exposed. I have already mentioned Porthleven which took the brunt of the pre-Christmas storms. Again, at Praa Sands, whole areas have been undermined by the sea. It is the same story at Marazion, and Newlyn is also at risk. Floods poured in just before Christmas. At Mousehole, the harbour defences were badly battered and part of the car park disappeared. Around the other coast at Sennen, a road could now well be in danger. A whole area is exposed and would have suffered serious problems if the tide had been in a different direction.

The scale of the problem is enormous. I have spoken only about my constituency, which is perhaps dramatically affected, but other constituencies in Cornwall face similar problems. As we have heard, parts of Wales, East Anglia and other areas of our coast line are at risk.

What can be done about it? I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan). I shall not embarrass my boss, the Leader of the House and Lord President of the Council, by saying that I think a sea defences Bill should be introduced in the next Session. As his parliamentary private secretary, it would not be for me to suggest such timing. However, I believe that the introduction of legislation to bring together all the miscellaneous bits of legislation is long overdue. We also need to try to clear up the hotch-potch of agencies and organisations involved in this matter. Perhaps we cannot do so entirely, but I echo what has already been said, that the National Rivers Authority is the right organisation to take the lead in this matter.

At the moment, district councils have the prime responsibility for promoting coast protection schemes. I wonder how long that will continue, given the pressure on district councils, especially those that are hard-pressed because of the extent of the problem to which I have referred. The Government must reconsider the organisation and financing of coastal protection.

Financing such protection is complex and complicated. I attended a seminar for councillors on this subject by the NRA and MAFF. One had to listen with great care to try to understand all the different layers of grants that might apply in different circumstances. As far as possible, we should simplify this whole procedure—the organisation, legislation and finance. It will not be easy, but I urge the Government to take an urgent look at the matter.

I am delighted that our former colleague in the House, Lord Crickhowell, the chairman of the NRA, has taken a lead on this issue. Speaking in Exeter in March this year, following the winter storms, he announced the start of a major NRA survey of the sea defences around the coastline of England and Wales.

That is a good start, but we must go further. In Cornwall, the NRA has taken a lead—I pay the authority tribute for its efforts—by calling the councils together. As a result of a meeting at county hall a few weeks ago, an advisory or co-ordinating committee will be established to bring the various organisations together. But we must go even further and introduce the type of legislation to which reference has been made.

We had an excellent debate late at night last March initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) on the whole question of coastal defences. In concluding his remarks, he pressed on the Government the acronym "CRAC" which, he said, stood for coordination, research, action and cash. I echo those sentiments.

I applaud those who have taken part in today's debate for their constructive remarks. I pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee. Like other hon. Members, I urge the Government—I am sure that they are seized of the importance of the matter—to implement CRAC and to crack on with it.

5.51 pm
Mr Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mon)

I represent an island constituency that has 125 miles of coastline. My constituents are well aware of the dangers and power of the sea. Hon. Members in all parts of the House will be aware that many in my constituency have suffered as a result of the power of the sea over the generations, and they will sympathise with the plight of the people of Towyn and Abergele following the storms last February. Indeed, one of my forebears was drowned at sea. That family tragedy came back to me forcibly when I visited the area with the Welsh Select Committee in May.

The memory of that visit will stay with me for ever. I was struck by the desperate plight of the people, for it is a human tragedy when people are inundated with water, must leave their homes, and for weeks, perhaps months, are unable to return to them. Ask our constituents on a scale of values what they value most, and I imagine that they will say first their homes and communities. Those homes and communities were destroyed in the floods at Towyn, where I saw the tragedy on a vast scale.

Another abiding memory is the desolation I saw at Towyn, with vast areas of land without any growth whatever. We saw a few tufts of grass, but for the most part the land was bare and totally desolate. We visited many streets of empty properties. I am talking of properties that were stripped of everything. They were no longer homes, just buildings with bricks stripped bare. There were no floorboards—nothing—just twisted pipes and desolation.

We spoke to people who were suffering tremendous psychological problems as a result of the disaster. We spoke to counsellors who had expertise in providing assistance to people suffering that form of distress. I was impressed with the quality of the advice they gave under such difficult conditions. They had been trained in stress counselling, but I was disappointed that many of them had had to qualify as stress counsellors at their own expense.

No resources were available publicly to train stress counsellors in areas such as Towyn. We must look into that situation.

During our visit I took the opportunity to walk about with a local councillor. I spoke to a number of people in their homes and they graphically described the events of the storm. I asked, "When did you first realise that the water was about to engulf you?" They replied, "We first saw it coming over the garden wall. Within six seconds we were up to our waists in water. Seconds later we saw our fridges, washing machines and tables and chairs floating by our heads. We were washed out of our homes. We had no opportunity to collect our belongings or even our thoughts." That was a graphic description of the power of the sea, and it left a deep impression on every member of the Select Committee who visited Towyn.

I could not believe that there was not some system to warn them about the effect of the sea—that technology had not advanced to the stage when people could be warned that they would be inundated with water—and that is why I followed a certain line of questioning of officials of Colwyn borough council and other local authority officials at the community centre in Towyn. I felt that it was our duty as a Select Committee to find out why the people were not warned.

I recall walking in Towyn along the wall that had been repaired by British Rail. I asked one of the locals, "Describe what happened when that wall breached." He replied, "I looked from my window, and it was almost as though somebody was drawing a curtain open when the wall collapsed, it happened so quickly."

The people of Towyn—the residents and local authority officials—did not realise that a disaster was occurring until the water had come over the wall. When we asked the officials, "When did you realise that you had a disaster on your hands?" their answer was, "When we saw the water coming over the wall."

It is not for us to apportion blame to individual council officials, but it is our duty to ascertain the facts. Having ascertained them, without apportioning blame, we must do our best to rectify an unsatisfactory situation. That is why we say in our report that there must be a better system of providing, and communicating, information to ensure that such a tragedy does not recur. In other words, if there is a similar occurrence, as might be the case late at night, it must he possible to move people from the area in time to avoid loss of life.

If the Welsh Select Committee has been able to achieve anything, it has examined the situation in such a way that it can tell the Welsh Office and other responsible authorities, "Should such flooding happen again, we are now in a position to make recommendations to ensure that proper information is made available quickly so that people can be moved from their homes before the water engulfs them." If we do that, we shall have done our duty in part.

When we took evidence, I also questioned British Rail officials on how they could respond to the need for repair work on the wall. I was glad that the Committee was given an assurance that British Rail intended to spend £6 million to restore the wall, improve it and ensure that we have proper sea defences in the area. Like the hon. Member for Delyn I hope that the Welsh Office will also respond. We cannot leave the entire responsibility for repair work on the sea defences to British Rail, which is a public utility. We have a wider duty as Members of Parliament. We must tell the Welsh Office that it must make public money available to British Rail to assist it in that work. British Rail told us that it was prepared to spend £6 million. We ask the Government to match that commitment.

Two further small points are important to the debate. The first is planning and land use in the area. Is it right for us immediately to consider a moratorium on further development in the area? If the recommendations of the Select Committee are accepted, it will mean de facto that there will be no further development. If local searches disclose that the area is susceptible to flooding, prospective purchasers will be put on warning. However, I do not believe that that should happen. There should be a moratorium on further planning consents until there has been an adequate response to the problem of sea defence.

We saw the desolation of the land around Towyn. That means that the agricultural community also suffered from the flooding. The Government should make a commitment to make funds available to compensate farmers who suffered badly in such disasters, whether at Towyn, Abergele, Kinmel bay or any other part of Wales.

I congratulate the Chair of the Committee on the way in which he organised us during our visit to Towyn and conducted the work of the Committee. I also congratulate him on the speed with which the report was made available to us. The officials of the Committee are also to be complimented. We await the response of the Welsh Office, which we hope and believe will be equally quick.

6.3 pm

Mr. David Porter (Waveney)

I welcome any money in the estimates for coast protection and sea defences. In the light of the debate on global warming and rising sea levels, one could always argue that the sums are not enough. However, today's debate shows the taxpayer's commitment to sea defences. That is important. It also shows that the Government recognise that sea defences are a national, not a local issue. For that reason I am delighted to see sea defences mentioned on the Order Paper today.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), I took the precaution of clarifying with Mr. Speaker before the debate that we could stretch your well-known tolerance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by widening the debate to areas beyond the Welsh coast.

I raised sea defence coast protection on the motion for the Easter Adjournment. In that debate I spoke after my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer) and expressed my sympathy for the plight of his constituents, adding the rider that it was only by the grace of God and the direction of the wind that we on the east coast were spared a similar fate. Little has changed since then, other than the fact that next winter is a few months closer.

I wish to raise several points which are not new but as we are that much closer to winter, perhaps they need to be made as forcefully as possible over and over again. We have gone over much of the old ground today, but one newish issue is the importance that we attach to the environmental debate when considering sea defences arid how much weight it should carry in the balance of spending.

In reply to a parliamentary question that I tabled yesterday, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), told me: In deciding whether or not to give such consent our policy is to require a proposal to be technically sound, cost effective and environmentally sympathetic and we have no plans to change that policy. That is fair enough. It appears that the Government give equal weight to all three elements. My hon. Friend continued: We are not aware of any case in which a coast protection authority has decided not to seek our approval for works because environmental considerations were judged to override protection of homes. No proposal submitted to us has been denied our consent solely by reason of environmental considerations". Will my hon. Friend the Minister of State issue a circular to all local authorities clarifying that?

The last point leads directly to my next, which is about a cluster of homes on the sand cliffs at Easton Baveants near Southwold, where a strengthening scheme is planned. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food cannot give a verdict until all the statutory procedures are met. Ministers have assured me that it will be processed rapidly but that environmental and statutory objections must be taken into account. Suffolk county council, wearing its Suffolk heritage coast hat, will be raising objections. Again, a balance must be struck between environmentally gentle decay of the sand cliff and a scheme to save the houses in the immediate term and in the long run perhaps half Southwold, half Reydon, marshes, farmland and houses. It is not unreasonable to suggest that if those or any other houses are to be allowed to drop into the sea, compensation should be paid to the people caught in that balance and caught in the machine.

The Coast Protection Act 1949 makes no provision for compensation and the Government have no plans to amend the Act to introduce such compensation. I plead that they should urgently reconsider their position. Compensation could be cheaper than sea defence schemes and it could certainly allow the natural erosion line much more scope.

It is too much to expect one council, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food with its wide brief, or any individual to determine the relative value of houses, land and the environment. No one person can evaluate whether sand and gravel, for example dredged from Sizewell B, should be piled on the beach to strengthen it or whether artificial reefs should be created off shore to soft-engineer a changing coast line. No one person can evaluate replacing hard engineering walls and groynes. No one person can do that, and nor can the more than 200 separate authorities to which my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan) and other hon. Members have referred. Each authority has some measure of responsibility for coast protection. It can make only an ad hoc, piecemeal attempt. Surely one lesson from Towyn, from the 1953 floods in East Anglia and from any other erosion is that if we meddle with one part of the coast and strengthen one area, we weaken and make more vulnerable another. Everything that we do has an impact.

It is a pity that it has taken the tragedy of Towyn to give us the Select Committee report, which has put one body on the agenda. For that reason, I welcome the report. The National Rivers Authority is the obvious body. Why on earth is it not beefed up now, without further delay? We should ask it to undertake a nationwide review of responsibility for the coast. Of course, we should allow and, indeed, welcome any input from local authorities and experts, but let us have one buck, one body, one stop. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn, who suggested that there should be a Bill on the matter, but we could do a great deal straight away simply by giving the NRA the necessary authority. Let us do so now before East Anglia is swamped.

6.9 pm

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

I agree with the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Porter) about the responsibilities of the National Rivers Authority. If it is to be given more responsibility, we must, for goodness' sake, ensure that it has the resources necessary to undertake it. It would be invidious to put extra responsibilities on the NRA without providing it with the adequate resources. I sympathise with the people of East Anglia and appreciate their fears, but the Welsh office must ensure that there is direct Welsh Office funding of the NRA's activities in Wales otherwise there is a danger that all the money will, understandably, be attracted to East Anglia.

I thank the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs for the work it has done. I am not a member of that Committee, although I enjoyed being one in the past. It held a session in Wales when it took evidence, which was a great success. When a local problem occurs, a public session in that area, which takes evidence, goes down well with the people. They feel that the needs of the area are being properly taken into account and that Parliament is working more directly for them.

I regret that this debate is taking place within a few hours of the publication of the report because, unlike other hon. Members, I have not had an opportunity to study it. That has put me in a difficult position, but no doubt the Minister and his hon. Friends are in the same one. None the less, I am delighted that it is possible to have prompt debates in the House on Select Committee reports. I agree with the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan) that Welsh Grand Committee sessions should be used to debate such reports—that would be much more useful than some of the stereotype debates presently held.

I extend my sympathy to the people of Towyn who have suffered so much—what happened was a tragedy. I live a few miles along the coast from Towyn and, having driven backwards and forwards along that coast, I have seen the problems for myself. We have all heard devastating stories, some of which my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Mon (Mr. Jones) quoted effectively. The tragedy has hit everyone. I only wish that the response from private citizens had been better to the appeal that was launched. I am glad that the Government came forward when they did with the cash.

The tragedy has affected everyone, including young people. A crowd of young teenagers in my constituency organised a rock concert—I have been told that I am supposed to refer to it as a "gig"—to raise money for the sufferers in Towyn. I am delighted that in one night that concert raised £550 and that my daughter Eluned and my son Hywel participated, along with dozens of others. Some 400 youngsters went to the concert, which was supported by everyone in the locality. That demonstrates the feeling in the area towards those who have suffered in Towyn. I also join other hon. Members in paying tribute to the emergency workers for the part they played. I have heard nothing but glowing praise from all directions for their work.

Obviously, this debate concentrates on Towyn because of the report just published and the experiences in February. There are, however, many other areas that suffered floods in the winter which are in danger of suffering from further floods if we are witnessing long-term changes in our climatic pattern. East Anglia is one such area under threat, but the coastline of my constituency covers some 100 miles, and hon. Members will appreciate that there are many vulnerable spots along it. Houses and communities risk being flooded, but there is the even greater danger of the loss, sometimes permanent, of valuable agricultural land.

The floods of Towyn have highlighted the need for preventive work. I am not convinced that we have anything like the resource commitment necessary to undertake that work. Under the Bellwin formula, a large proportion of the costs of such disasters are met by central Government. Such money is welcome in the area in which it can be applied, but it is worth noting that the terms of the Bellwin scheme are designed to provide special financial assistance to local authorities who, as a consequence of an emergency, would otherwise have an undue financial burden in providing relief and carrying out immediate works to safeguard life and property or prevent suffering or severe inconvenience to affected communities. The Bellwin formula applies to immediate work only and the money given is consequent on a tragedy—in other words, that money is not available for preventive work. We need the resources for such work.

One of the two district councils in my area, the Dwyfor district council, has approached the Welsh Office because of flooding in Nefyn and Morfa Bychan. It needs permission from the Welsh Office to undertake additional capital expenditure to prevent future flooding. I know that there are many other areas along the coast of Wales that have similar problems.

Two areas close to my home, Dinas Dinlle and Llandwrog, have experienced severe flooding of which the Minister will be aware. It has been estimated that the work necessary to put things right in Dinas Dinlle would cost £1 million, but that money is not available. Does responsibility for that work rest with Arfon borough council or the NRA? I understand that the NRA can fund up to 75 per cent. of such work, but we must ensure that it has the resources for such work. I know that in Clwyd the NRA has had almost all its money wiped out because of the action it took during the Towyn floods—it was involved from the early stages and helped to put down sandbags and the like. The NRA should receive central funding. At present, much of its work is locally funded, but we must reconsider its funding, especially if it is to meet the responsibilities placed on it.

It is also important to consider the way in which cost-benefit analysis is used to determine whether capital work should be undertaken. Although such analysis is perfectly acceptable, a wider definition of the benefits of such work should be given rather than short-term, quantifiable ones. In Dinas Dinlle, the loss of land through flooding will have a major effect on tourism and amenities as well as on agriculture. The way in which the cost-benefit analysis is drawn up does not, however, adequately allow for such elements to be taken into consideration.

Close to the village of Llandwrog, four farms—Bodfan. Caer Loda, Ty Mawr and Maes Mawr—have been badly affected by floods. About 150 acres of agricultural land have been badly damaged because of sea breaking through the coast defences. The cost-benefit analysis undertaken showed that work to put matters right—building 1.8 km of new embankment to safeguard that land—would cost £440,000. The benefit of such work was quantified at £106,000.

I find it difficult to accept that such a cost-benefit analysis can be applied properly. Those four farms lost important parts of their land from the ravages of the sea. A lot of low land along the Welsh coast could be equally vulnerable, but a cost-benefit analysis in each case would yield the same result. Investment would therefore not he made, and the pattern of Welsh farming would be disrupted. In Wales, we follow the old Hafod and Hendre pattern of farming, whereby the sheep are brought down from the mountains to graze on the lowlands in the winter. If those lands have lost their nutritional value, the sheep cannot be kept there, and the entire balance of Welsh agriculture will be thrown out.

Mr. Gareth Wardell

The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to a crucial difficulty, as the cost-benefit analysis creates a catch-22 problem. The Welsh Office has recently issued new strategic planning guidelines and, if one permits further developments along the coastal belt, greater sea defence strengthening can take place, when judged on a formula similar to the Waverley committee recommendations. If there is a moratorium on further developments along the coastal belt, the sea defences permitted under the cost-benefit formula will be far smaller and less expensive than the defences required if those further developments are permitted along the coast.

Mr. Wigley

Yes, that is a great irony. It is catch-22. That is apposite to the case of Dinas Dinlle. Some of the sites there that might otherwise have been developed should now at least have the benefit of a moratorium because of the danger of allowing development in areas that are vulnerable to the sea. As the hon. Gentleman said, the only way of upping cost benefit may be by granting some planning permissions and that is a silly situation to be in. I realise that the impact of such developments is fairly recent, but there does need to be some new thinking in the Welsh Office.

As the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A Meyer) said in his excellent speech, about a thousand acres of agriculture land in the vicinity of Towyn have been flooded. The Welsh Office has been willing to assist those farmers who have been affected and has given help in the form of gypsum, but it is a pity that such help cannot be extended to other areas. On 25 April, the then Secretary of State for Wales wrote to me saying that the gypsum being provided for the Towyn area should not be taken as a precedent for other agricultural areas. That is a problem, because many farms need such assistance.

The National Farmers Union has highlighted three areas for action. First, if gypsum is not effective in the Towyn area, alternatives should be investigated and followed up. Secondly, there should be a detailed review of sea defences around the Welsh coast with the financial resources to make that meaningful. Thirdly—an important point to which I draw the Minister's attention—there should be a register setting out who is responsible for each individual sea defence, and that should be made available. That is a good suggestion which would ensure that any necessary action is taken.

The Minister may be aware that Meirionnydd district council has taken the initiative and undertaken a coastal zone management study of the Cambrian coast area and it is hoping that the whole Cambrian coast will be considered. The district council says: The plan is to carry out the work over a three year period and to produce an inventory of existing coastal works; the definition of coastal processes and design criteria to apply across identified sections of shoreline and the recommended approach to future coastal works. That will be an excellent study. It has the support of the Welsh Office, and I hope that it will give resources where necessary.

There are lessons to be learned from the experience of Towyn. I welcome this debate and the Select Committee's recommendations. I realise that the Minister cannot respond in detail to all of them tonight, but I support the plea by Conservative Back Benchers for a statement before we adjourn for the summer recess on the response of the Welsh Office. I am grateful to the Select Committee for its work.

6.23 pm
Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South-West)

As a Clwyd Member, my constituency has no coastline, but I have a great concern for the people affected in Towyn. As has been said, if the flooding had occurred during the night there would have been deaths and, sadly, if there had been deaths, more concern would have been expressed nationally. Thankfully, no one died, but the disaster has been brushed under the carpet and has not received the publicity that it should have done. It should have been publicised more widely. With global warming, world temperatures and sea levels will rise and we need a national co-ordinating authority if we are to tackle properly the problems that we shall face.

I heard on the radio the other day about the East Anglian floods in 1953. I was only six at the time, so I do not remember them, but I am sure that some hon. Members do. Sadly, deaths did occur then, but apparently there was a much more co-ordinated response. I am told that that disaster captured the nation's imagination. The flooding at Towyn was second only to the East Anglian flooding in terms of damage done and the number of people affected, but it does not seem to have aroused the same national concern, as it should have done.

We need to examine ways forward and to decide whether to maintain the status quo, to group together under existing legislation to form a coast protection board, to concentrate responsibility on the National Rivers Authority, or to establish a new national authority with appropriate powers to deal with sea defence and coastal protection.

Since its establishment in September 1989, the NRA seems to have had problems dealing with emergencies on the scale of that at Towyn. It has also had to deal with the Mersey pollution and the Tewkesbury flooding. Its powers appear to be somewhat limited when it comes to dealing with the sort of problems that we faced in Towyn. The NRA's staffing levels are not adequate and there needs to be more co-ordination between the various bodies, particularly in respect of the long-term planning of developments in areas such as Towyn.

The local councils have called on the Welsh Office for an investigative analysis of the conditions in Liverpool bay relating to climatic changes, the consequences of raised sea levels and the increased frequency of storms. They have requested an investigation of alternatives for improved co-ordination within existing legislation and have called on the county and district councils, with the NRA, to prepare reports on the preparation of a flood hazard map for the Clwyd coastal area.

Clwyd county council put in an enormous amount of effort, and credit should be given to it for that. Not being a member of the Select Committee, I have not read the report, but I am sure that credit will be given to the councils involved. The difference between the district council and the county council is that the district has immediate responsibility and, seemingly, some immediate financial help, whereas the county appears to have done rather more and received rather less help.

In terms of social services and community services, the county provided local advice and information centres at Kinmel bay and Towyn community centres. Contact was made with residents for the purpose of a basic assessment of need and that work was carried out largely with the support of social work staff seconded to the department from other local authorities, significantly those in Wales and the north-west of England. That work was completed by the end of March, but it was decided that further problems needed to be examined. As of 2 April 1990, therefore, a community social work team was established in Towyn to serve the needs of Pensarn, Towyn and Kinmel bay. Staff were seconded from social work teams in Clwyd and from Cheshire and Knowsley.

Social work was being carried out and initiatives were being taken to prevent problems such as family breakdown. We have heard some graphic accounts of the kind of problem that arose at the time. It is perhaps rather more difficult to arouse public interest in the horrendous long-term problem. A statement by a resident whose house was not fully insured illustrates the long-term problems faced by the county council: I just feel rootless. Your house is ripped apart, your contents not covered. I know that it's my fault, in fact I feel homeless even though I know I have a home. We don't feel well and healthy; it's a miserable existence. I am working as a professional and can identify my own feelings and somehow can't act on them. I feel resentment and guilt although I don't know why. I know why I feel resentment, but not why I feel guilt. For the first time in my life I feel inadequate, I feel things are out of hand. I can't cope with the children the same, my patience is not as it was, I want to blame someone. It sounds crazy but I don't think I am different to anyone else and many are worse off than us. Such problems must be acknowledged as requiring a social response of at least medium-term duration, and there must be a recognition that they are likely to have a long-term impact on resources. There is a need for continuity in staffing, and that can be achieved by at least being able to specify a minimum period of dedication of full-time work. When a team is adequately established it will need to provide the usual range of services and will also need to assess, monitor and define the task.

In addition to the social work teams, the county council funded real community agencies and set up a community development project to help in the aftermath of the floods and to deal with the problems that I have outlined. Some of the funding comes from an urban aid submission. Urban aid comes from a fund set up to deal with all the other problems facing Clwyd, and if there are no additional funds, the whole Clwyd area will suffer.

In the last couple of years, the county has had to deal with unforeseen emergencies. It has had an outbreak of anthrax, heather and grass fires have been caused by the drought, there was a landslip at Trevor in my constituency, and now there has been flooding on the north Wales coast. The total cost of those emergencies was estimated at £4.4 million. The county council as not seen a penny of the much vaunted Bellwin money, so the increase from 75 to 95 per cent. does not mean a thing, because 95 per cent. of nothing is still nothing. The county council threshold is £861,000, but it incurred about £450,000 of eligible expenditure and therefore receives nothing.

Perhaps the Minister will deal with the Bellwin scheme in his winding-up speech. He should consider changing not the percentage but the eligible expenditure. He could consider a lower threshold to allow aggregation of the emergency expenditure on the anthrax outbreak at Singret farm and on the other problems that I have mentioned. He could extend the deadline and allow normal wage costs and not just overtime costs. He should allow normally insurable expenditure, permit additional credit approval, and fully reimburse the cost of the police and armed forces. Such measures would genuinely reimburse the county in dealing with its problems.

Westminster city council was given £6 million for flood defences and used about £200,000 of it. The rest was used to reduce poll tax bills. However, when there were floods in Towyn, no money was given to the county council.

6.34 pm
The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Sir Wyn Roberts)

All hon. Members will agree that the debate has been valuable. Naturally, we have concentrated on the north Wales coast, but we welcomed the contributions from our English colleagues—especially my hon. Friends the Members for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) and for Waveney (Mr. Porter), who clearly have problems in their constituencies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives on securing a visit by our noble Friend the Baroness Trumpington, who I am sure put heart into many of his constituents. Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney will know that questions about floods and coastal defences in England are primarily for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Where the problems relate to revenue support grant payments, they are matters for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I shall certainly draw to their attention what my hon. Friends the Members for St. Ives and for Waveney have said.

We all fully appreciate and understand the continuing problems still faced by many of the residents of Towyn and the surrounding area so long after the dreadful floods of February and March. As many hon. Members have said, mercifully, no lives were lost. The Government are determined to ensure that as much as possible is done to help the people who suffered and to set matters right in that area.

From the start, Welsh Office Ministers have taken a close interest in the situation. I flew to the area at the height of the disaster on Tuesday 27 February, and that in itself was a hair-raising experience. The traumatic scenes and the experiences endured by the people were unforgettable. The former Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) also visited the area. My right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State has visited Towyn again to see for himself the problems that remain to be overcome.

A primary task must be to restore confidence in the area both for residents and visitors, and to build a situation in which a repetition of those dreadful events can be avoided. We are working towards that. I hope that we can create an effective partnership with the local authorities to tackle what must be done.

I take this opportunity, as others have done, to give credit to those who have worked so hard in the area to alleviate the worst of the immediate problems. I have in mind staff at the district and county councils who worked long and hard to provide temporary accommodation for those who were evacuated, to provide counselling services and to meet many other needs of the flood victims.

I must also mention the invaluable work not only of the emergency services and the armed forces but also of the voluntary bodies which are, among others, the citizens advice bureau, the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, the girl guides and the housing associations, which were rightly praised by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer). Without them, many of the needs of the area could not have been met. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West, who has stoically borne this disaster along with his constituents, that our main concern throughout has been to ensure that, as soon as possible everyone has a permanent roof over his head, preferably in his own home.

Many residents had inadequate or no insurance cover on their homes and that placed many people in difficulty about meeting the cost of repairs. The new renovation grants scheme, which came into effect on 1 July, will be of great value in helping such people.

The new, more objective, standard of fitness for habitation that we introduced on 1 April should ensure that all properties have the basic amenities and do not suffer from major physical or structural problems that would render them unfit. That is very much the case with many homes in the Towyn area of north Wales. Mandatory grant is now available for unfit houses to be brought up to the new standard. The new minor works grant, introduced on 1 April, will be of particular help to elderly people, whose homes may need only a small amount of work. Provided that those people are in receipt of income-related benefit, they will receive assistance with the full cost of essential repairs, up to a maximum of £1,000.

We are anxious that our new grant system should target resources on those who are least able to afford to repair or improve their homes. Subject to the test of resources, those on limited means could receive assistance up to the full cost of the works with up to 100 per cent. grant. We are anxious that the new system should have maximum impact in Wales generally, and that any assistance is not. frustrated by a lack of resources. Therefore, we shall ensure that additional capital resources are made available, if necessary, in this financial year.

With regard to the disaster, a report was commissioned by the Welsh Office from Hydraulics Research Ltd. to examine the design standards required for coastal defences, a version of which was made available to the Select Committee. The report is being published in its entirety this week.

The hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell), to whom we are all indebted as Chairman of the Select Committee, referred to that report and, obliquely, to its conclusion. The report states that, although the wave height, surge and astronomical tide levels were each high, they were not exceptional in their own right. The damage was due to a freak combination of all three factors at the same time.

The calculations and conclusions have been drawn together to give recommended values of water level and offshore wave conditions for use in the design of coastal defences on the north Wales coast. The results of the study are already in use by Hydraulics Research Ltd., which is undertaking testing on behalf of British Rail of the proposed upgraded sea defences for Towyn.

Extensive reference has been made to the Select Committee's report that was published only today. As I implied earlier, the Government will need time to consider the report's recommendations and will need to consider the comments of other organisations, such as local authorities and the National Rivers Authority, to which recommendations are also addressed. Therefore, I cannot give a definitive response to the recommendations—the Government's full response must come later—but I can make some comments.

Two of the Committee's recommendations—paragraph 28 on evacuation procedures and paragraph 61 on advice on insurance—are primarily for local authorities to consider, and we must await their views. The recommendation in paragraph 24—on the provision of a tidal gauge in north Wales—is already under active consideration, as my Department stated in paragraph 15 of its second memorandum of evidence. I am sure that those involved will take note of the Committee's views.

The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) asked me about the estimate of costs. The estimated cost of selecting a suitable site, and designing and installing a tide gauge, would be about £40,000 to £45,000.

Mr. Barry Jones

Will the Minister of State give an absolute commitment that such a gauge will be installed?

Sir Wyn Roberts

I have said that it is under active consideration. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would wish me to go further than that, and I cannot possibly do so.

Mr. Jones


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)


Sir Wyn Roberts

The recommendation in paragraph 39 about provision of design standards will need careful consideration. As the Committee was told in paragraphs 10 and 11 of my Department's second memorandum, advice is already disseminated to those with responsibility for sea defence works. We shall need to consider whether any changes in the present arrangements are necessary or practicable. The recommendation in paragraph 42 that certain maintenance work be eligible for grant is also under consideration by my Department, as paragraph 20 of our second memorandum of evidence stated. I assure the House that we shall take careful note of the Committee's views in coming to a decision.

The recommendation in paragraph 59, which has arisen during this debate, relates to planning advice. The issue of where new development is permitted in the aftermath of the floods is one which, in the first instance, the local planning authorities must address. Advice to planning authorities on liaison with those authorities responsible for land drainage is contained in Welsh Office circular 15/82, which asks planning authorities to bear in mind the vulnerability of any development in an area that is protected from the danger of flooding, should that protection be breached. In the light of the floods in north Wales and elsewhere, we are, as the Committee knows, considering whether it is desirable to re-issue the advice in the circular. We shall take the Committee's recommendation into account.

An alteration, reviewing the Clwyd structure plan, was submitted to the Welsh Office earlier this year. In considering that alteration for approval, officials will consider, with council officers, the need for any modifications to the submitted plan and will also discuss the issue of an early review.

Mr. Raffan

While I appreciate that my hon. Friend cannot possibly give a definitive Welsh Office response to the Select Committee report today, will he say when he expects the Welsh Office to be able to do so? Other Select Committee members present in the Chamber will agree that we have had unfortunate experiences with Government responses in the past. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) nodding in agreement with that. There have been far too long delays, and we need a full response promptly.

Sir Wyn Roberts

I appreciate the urgency of the response, but I have already said that there are other organisations involved with which we must consult. We shall produce our response as soon as possible, but I am sure that the House will agree that hon. Members require a proper response from the Government. That is why today, within hours of the document's publication, I can give only limited responses.

The issue of a moratorium on development in the district is primarily a matter for the local planning authority.

Mr. Barry Jones

As the Minister of State knows that hon. Members from both sides are asking for speedy decisions from him and the Government, would he like to debate the report at greater length in the Welsh Grand Committee before the House rises?

Sir Wyn Roberts

We have already had a fairly extensive debate on the report today. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion is a matter for further consideration, possibly through the usual channels. Obviously, that idea has just occurred to the hon. Gentleman. Two debates on this subject within one month would be excessive. The House might wish to consider whether it would prefer to await the Government's response, which we shall produce as soon as possible, when there might be a better opportunity for debate. We are all talking off the top of our heads in relation to any future debates. The timing of such debates is not exactly a matter for decision across these Benches.

The recommendation in paragraph 60 proposes changes in the building regulations for properties in districts liable to flooding. All I can say at present is that we shall consider that recommendation.

The first recommendation in paragraph 50 of the Committee's report is that the various Acts relating to coastal defence and coast protection be consolidated into a single Act. That was strongly endorsed by my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan). Again, all I can say is that we shall consider the Committee's recommendations, but I am sure that the House will appreciate what is involved.

The four recommendations in paragraphs 23, 26, 27 and the second part of paragraph 50 are all related, in that their aim is to improve the standard and co-ordination of flood warnings both in north Wales and elsewhere. They raise a number of issues and will involve Government, local authorities, the NRA and others in consideration of them. In the aftermath of the disaster, it is important that we all try to learn lessons for the future. The Committee's analysis and recommendations have highlighted some important points that we need to consider carefully.

There are two interrelated warning systems operating on the west coast of England and Wales—the Meteorological Office met flood warning and the Neptune warning, which is operated by the NRA north western region. As I implied during an intervention, the problem with the Neptune system is that the accuracy of prediction cannot yet be relied upon and authorities are loathe to issue public warnings on the basis of it as there would be too many false alarms. Although the prediction of the surge in Liverpool bay on 26 February was, in the words of the Proudman oceanographic laboratory, "surprisingly accurate", the same cannot be said for many of the other predictions or, indeed, for that in the Severn estuary on the same day.

However—this is good news for the Committee and for advocates of the Neptune system—it is anticipated that, with the installation this year of a new computer at the Meterological Office giving greater resolution of weather conditions, and the establishment of additional tide gauges on the Welsh coast, sea flood warnings can be improved. I assure the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside that that tide gauge is very much on the cards.

Although at this stage I cannot be precise on the final level of Government assistance to local authorities and others in the flood-affected areas of north Wales, I estimate that it is likely to total almost £4 million, and it could exceed that figure. That is a substantial contribution to the needs of the area, which will not only help greatly in getting things back to normal, but will also relieve the burden on Colwyn borough council, which bore the brunt of the floods, and its community charge payers.

Sir Anthony Meyer

Can my hon. Friend give a rough estimate of the additional burden that next year might fall on the community charge payers of Colwyn borough council?

Sir Wyn Roberts

It would be premature to make any such estimate.

At the outset, the Government made a contribution of £150,000 to the appeal funds set up by the mayors of Colwyn, Rhuddlan and Delyn. It is the first time that such a contribution has been made when there has been no loss of life. It shows the seriousness with which the Government viewed the position. The European Community also made a contribution of £111,500 to the funds. The appeal funds were not intended to be the main source of assistance to the flood-affected areas, and have never been thought of as such. The funds, and the use to which they are put, are the responsibility of the trustees.

The Department of Social Security has made payments of some £300,000 in community care grants to flood victims. Ministers at the Department of Social Security have already given careful consideration to whether to extend the criteria for the payment of community care grants. However, to relax the existing criteria would be to go against the basic principle of targeting resources on those most in need.

The Government's contribution has not ended there—grants totalling at least a further £1.5 million are likely to be paid out under the Bellwin scheme of special financial assistance to local authorities. In the exceptional circumstances of the north Wales floods, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced that an enhanced rate of grant will be paid towards eligible expenditure above a threshold on costs borne by authorities in responding to the emergency.

The grant rate will be 95 per cent. on eligible expenditure incurred after 1 April, and the scheme will apply to expenditure incurred up to 31 July—three months longer than would usually be the case. He remains prepared to give sympathetic consideration to any case which is put to him to extend the time scale still further. That will be of some consolation to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley).

Mr. Wigley

Will the Minister comment on the cost-benefit analysis? Is he prepared to consider the way in which benefit is computed to try to maximise the possibility of preventing future problems?

Sir Wyn Roberts

I shall carefully consider what the hon. Gentleman has said.

The Government will thus be paying for most of the cost of emergency repairs to the sea defences and, even more significantly in this context, the costs of housing the homeless and restoring the position in the devastated area as quickly as possible. That demonstrates the flexibility of the Government's response to such disasters.

I know that Clwyd county council is concerned that, to date, it has received no assistance under the Bellwin arrangements, because eligible expenditure has not yet reached the threshold. I understand that it is currently preparing a submission that looks for the relaxation of the Bellwin rules to cover its particular problems. When that submission is received, it will be carefully and sympathetically considered.

Colwyn borough council, which bore the brunt of the disaster, has estimated that its expenditure will eventually total about £1.25 million. Of that, more than £1 million will be met by Bellwin grant. Substantial costs have also been incurred by other coastal authorities, and they too will receive Bellwin grant where the conditions of the scheme are met.

My right hon. Friend has already presented cheques totalling over £600,000 to Colwyn and Rhuddlan borough councils on the basis of interim claims, and we have asked all councils to let us have estimates of their total expenditure incurred in dealing with the emergency. Several have now done so.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn said, British Rail has confirmed that it will be taking responsibility for the upgrading of sea defences at Towyn and Pensarn at a cost of £8 million to £10 million. The works will take until autumn 1992 to complete. To protect the area over the two winters until the permanent works are completed, interim works are proposed, to be completed by October this year. The rock used for the interim works will be eventually incorporated into the permanent works, and the costs of the interim works are therefore included in the cost of the permanent works.

The cost to British Rail of the emergency sealing of the breach at Towyn is understood to have been about £1 million, and the cost of other works to protect their lines in Wales is estimated at a further £4 million.

With regard to coast protection works, about £18 million has been spent in the past ten years, attracting grant of over £12.5 million. Notable schemes within that programme are the offshore breakwater at Rhos on Sea, the breakwaters at nearby Penrhyn bay in my constituency, and the extensive works at Prestatyn, which are about half completed. Those works undoubtedly saved the north Wales coastline from a much more extensive disaster than the one we suffered.

I gave full details of annual expenditure and schemes assisted in Wales in response to a question by the hon. Member for Caernarfon published in Hansard of 24 January 1990. The rate of grant can be as much as 70 per cent. of eligible costs. Grant provisions for this financial year are in the region of £3.5 million, which is considerably more than at any time previously. I hope that the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside has heard that answer to one of the points that he raised. Provision for grant is already secured for the next three years at an equivalent level to this year. That provision will cover a major project recently commenced at Colwyn Bay promenade, and completion of works at Prestatyn. Major schemes are also anticipated at Llandudno and Llanelli, in addition to many smaller schemes.

Mr. Raffan

As regards coast protection work at Prestatyn, will my hon. Friend consider compressing the three-year programme into two years, as I suggested? Also, will he address my point about the Nova complex, as it will be a heavy burden on Rhuddlan borough council if it has to find £200,000 without permission to spend above its capital allocation?

Sir Wyn Roberts

I shall carefully consider both the issues that the hon. Member mentioned. We have considerable sympathy with Rhuddlan because of the devastation of the Nova complex. Obviously, we would wish to hasten coastal protection work if at all possible.

During the past ten years, nearly £3.5 million has been spent by the National Rivers Authority and its predecessors on new and improved sea defence works in Wales to protect against flooding, and more than £2 million has been paid in Government grants. I understand that the National Rivers Authority and other relevant authorities propose significant work in the coming years. With this in mind, the NRA has just embarked on a full survey of sea defences in Wales, as I mentioned earlier.

A number of hon. Members have advocated a national body to play a supervisory role, but I can assure them that the proposal was considered in 1985, and again in 1989 and local authorities, whose knowledge is vital, were totally opposed to setting up such a body. Nevertheless, the National Rivers Authority already has a general supervisory role over all matters relating to flood defence, and it undertakes sea defence works in its own right. It is also consulted on all coast protection schemes and any objections that it, or any other body, has are referred to the Secretary of State. So there is a mechanism whereby the NRA can positively influence coastal defence strategy. The Government's view is that the present system can work well, if it is sensibly applied, and therefore no major changes are envisaged.

7.3 pm

Mr. Wardell

In the three minutes that I have left to me, I must say that I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to congratulate the Minister on his birthday today. We meet for the second time today, as earlier we were both in Committee on the Caldey Island Bill. The Minister's assurances that there would be no retrospective payment of community charge for the good people of Caldey was equalled by the comments that he just made and by his optimistic tone when he described what we expect the Government to do in response to the report.

I do not mind too much if the Government spend a little time responding to our report, provided that they implement most of our recommendations in that period so that they will be able to say in their report that they have already accomplished our recommendations.

I do not mind if the Government claim the credit. The important thing is that the many lessons of the experience be learned. I shall not list the lessons now, but, as the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) said, the way forward is to ensure that legislation is introduced to tidy up existing laws, to give the NRA a leading role in promoting coastal protection schemes and to make financing simpler. I am sure that the hon. Member for St. Ives sums up our concerns, and I hope that the Government will consider them.

It being three hours after the commencement of the proceedings, the debate was concluded, and the Questions necessary to dispose of the proceedings were deferred pursuant to paragraph (4) of Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of estimates).