HC Deb 16 May 1990 vol 172 cc982-90

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kenneth Carlisle.]

10.10 pm
Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

On Sunday night of 4 February and on Monday 5 February the River Tay burst its banks in a number of places and severe flooding occurred on a scale not previously experienced this century. That was hardly surprising because on 3 February the River Tay was already flowing at record levels—three times the normal February levels.

Following weeks of precipitation and with the ground saturation at record levels, the intense rainfall and the melting snow of 4 and 5 February produced a massive run-off of water from the catchments of the central and southern highlands, all of which went into loch and river systems which were already well above their normal levels for the time of year.

I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that the River Tay, the longest river, has a flow of water far greater than any other United Kingdom river. Evidence from the Tay river purification board shows that the River Tummel had a flow going through the Pitlochry dam which was the largest ever recorded. That flow reached its peak of 90 cumecs at 1.30 am on 5 February, the Hydro Board reported that about 75 per cent. of that flow originated in the River Garry catchment. The board has no control of flows in the River Garry.

On the River Tay at Grandtully the peak flow of 683 cumecs was reached at 3 am on 5 February. Below Logierait the combined rivers of the Tay, Tummel and Garry produced an immense volume of water—about 1,500-plus cumecs.

The railway line was subjected to all the force of that immense volume of water and, not surprisingly, the line was washed away, as was much of the top soil in the adjacent farms. At least five breaches occurred in that area and a huge washout hole was created.

Two tenanted farms are facing a bill of £32,000 just to clear the fields of sand and stone, and that does not include repairs to flood banks. At other farms and private dwellings in the area the damage to the flood banks and the environment was substantial.

It is essential that an independent hydraulic inquiry be set up, particularly to look into the main causes of the flooding and to get rid of some of the myths that have been circulating about who is to blame.

Afforestation and the Hydro Board are frequently given as the cause. Unless the truth is ascertained, those accusations—the myths—may just stick. In the area of the Dalguise railway viaduct, and downstream of Caputh, the damage calls for a report to define where future flood waters should go.

If the banks of the River Tay had not been breached in those and other areas, Perth city centre would have been flooded. The new flood warning scheme proposed by the Tay river purification board is to be welcomed, as is the Government's support for the scheme. However, warnings or not, the flood water must go somewhere, and only an in-depth hydraulic inquiry can produce viable proposals about where future flood waters should go. The people of Perthshire are looking to the Government to restore the environment and to provide sensible, viable solutions to the risks that a similar future flood may bring.

The Victoria bridge at Caputh was subjected to massive pressure when the river flow reached its peak of more than 1,700 cumecs at 7.15 am on Monday 5 February. My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that I have a meeting arranged with him for Friday morning when I shall lead a delegation from the Tayside region to talk about the bridge.

In the area below Caputh, major breaches in the flood banks occurred. That was before the peak flow at about 3 am. A large area of land in the vicinity of Spittalfield, Meikleour, Kercock and Braecock was flooded to a considerable depth. A new river course was created in the area, and topsoil was washed away up to a depth of between 10 and 12 ft. Raspberry Fields vanished, and a new deep loch was created between Braecock and Meikleour. The village of Spittalfield was within inches of being completely flooded. The new loch probably saved Perth city centre from severe flooding. It delayed the peak measurement of 1,750 cumecs downstream at Ballathie. That was the greatest flow recorded at Ballathie since the station was opened in 1953.

Throughout the upper Tay system and down to Ballathie, the flood of 4 and 5 February 1990 surpassed any previously recorded in the gauging station's records. Expensive new bungalows at Little Dunkeld were flooded to a depth of 10 to 12 ft. Many old Victorian buildings were flooded for the first time. The police and emergency services performed magnificently. A pregnant woman was lifted by helicopter from the Delvine estate and taken to hospital; cattle were also airlifted out by helicopter. I was astonished that none of that was reported in the national news.

Many individuals and livestock were rescued by boat, and the Glenlyon road was washed away, as was the railway line north of Dunkeld, and the village of Dalguise was flooded. The Tay river purification board, the National Farmers Union and the Scottish Office all responded quickly and positively. A Scottish Office Minister—the noble Lord Sanderson—and I made an early visit to the area.

I wish to pay special thanks to the Tayside police, who did a magnificent job. However, sadly, the Tayside regional council, which is responsible for emergency planning and which was requested by Lord Sanderson to call a meeting to discuss the problem, has still not held the meeting, although more than two months have elapsed since the floods. In my view, because the floods and environmental damage were in rural Perthshire, the Labour administration of the Tayside region was not bothered, and is still not bothered. It is clear that it does not care. It would have been different had the floods been in Dundee, and of course it is just possible that they could have been in Dundee if they had not been in my constituency.

The standards and specifications laid down by the SDD for river flood bank repairs are unrealistic. The use of clay-based material for the repair of banks involves the transport of the clay from a long distance away as there is no local adequate source. Transport costs make that requirement unrealistic. The repair also has to be fully turfed and finally netted, all of which makes the cost of repair considerable. Consequently, many farmers and landowners have decided to replace their respective flood banks in the former traditional manner which the Department used when much of the flooded farmland was in its ownership. Consequently, because the farmers and landowners are pursuing that course, the claims for grant aid will not be made. That is not satisfactory. It cannot be what my noble Friend the Minister of State envisaged or intended when he announced that he was instructing his officials to be flexible and helpful. That all makes nonsense of the Government's wish to be seen to be acting positively and sympathetically towards the victims of the flood.

As the Department has made no contact with Perth college and its advisers, John Dakers and Alex Taylor, who regularly give advice to farmers and landowners on such matters as flood banks, it appears that the Government's good intentions are being frustrated by their own officials, who made a very bad impression at the meeting called by the Perth National Farmers Union on 10 February in Birnam.

It is essential that the Government look urgently at means of restoring the environmental damage. It is right that we should restore damage created by man, whether by coal mines, old steel works or any other form of environmental damage. We should also restore environmental damage caused by nature. I hope that the Government will join me in pressing the EEC to allocate funds for that project and will be prepared to put up adequate funds to restore the badly damaged areas which will require huge quantities of top soil and adequate flood barriers.

I remind my hon. Friend that the banks are not looking kindly on requests for loans to restore the land to its original state. I shall let my hon. Friend have details of the likely cost of the environmental restoration.

I recommend that no new bailey bridge should be erected over the River Tay, for extracting pyrites or other purposes, until the independent hydrology report has been presented. Until we know what caused the flood and the damage, it would be unwise to erect any structure across the Tay. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Tay was washed away during the floods.

I also recommend that a single body be made responsible for flood prevention schemes throughout the river and that the Tayside region be instructed to act positively and constructively and be required to operate with Tay river purification board, which did such a splendid job. I recommend the chief executive and the chairman for the positive and responsible way in which they acted. The council should be instructed to co-operate with the Hydro Board, the NFU committee established to watch over the river and with British Rail, all of which have an interest in what has happened. An urgent review should be made of the demands being made by SDD officials before grants are awarded for river flood bank repairs.

This has been a serious and traumatic experience for many of my constituents, and we are grateful and thankful for the Government's positive and quick response. I hope that they will not now be frustrated by the actions of their own officials and by the inaction of Tayside regional council.

10.24 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

I am glad to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) and I congratulate him warmly on having secured this debate on the Adjournment on behalf of his constituents.

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the emergency services, which acted speedily. There was considerable damage. For example, the village of Spittalfield, being one of two main outflows from a large flood bank breach at Braecock farm, Caputh, appeared to be threatened by a cross-country torrent of flood water. After an emergency meeting of interested parties at Spittalfield on 7 February, Tayside roads department deposited a considerable amount of material at Braecock, which successfully diverted the Spittalfield flood flow into the other main flood channel.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government have every sympathy for those affected by the flooding early in February. I know that rivers burst their channels with much force and quickly inundated large tracts of land. My hon. Friend knows that my colleagues and I have kept closely in touch with what is happening about the flooding in north Tayside and elsewhere. Not only have we had regular and frequent reports from our officials, but the Minister of State visited the worst affected areas in the immediate aftermath of the floods in the company of my hon. Friend to see the damage at first hand and to talk to councillors, farmers and local residents about the problems confronting them in restoring things to normal.

Scottish Office officials have been active in the area and have maintained contact with Tayside regional council, the National Farmers Union for Scotland and individual farmers. My hon. Friend has written on behalf of many of his constituents. From all those wide-ranging contacts, we have been kept well informed of the losses and damage suffered by the people in north Tayside, and by the farming community in particular.

Without doubt, the rainfall and river levels experienced in February and March were quite exceptional. The most important thing that can be done for farm land is to ensure that flood defences are restored to good order to prevent further damage. For that reason, the Scottish Office moved swiftly to make special assistance available for the repair of elevated farm flood banks. For a temporary period, grant rates are being increased to 75 per cent. in less favoured areas and 60 per cent. elsewhere, from the normal rates of 50 per cent. and 40 per cent. respectively. Those are the same arrangements as were made last year, which proved effective in securing comprehensive, good quality repairs. The prompt announcement of those special arrangements was widely welcomed. If taken up in full, the total amount of grant will be some £600,000 in Scotland; I announce that figure for the first time.

My hon. Friend will be interested to know that 29 applications from his constituency have been made for approval of proposed repair work to damaged flood banks. Engineering specifications have been provided by specialists in the Scottish Office in almost all those cases, enabling the farmers concerned to obtain estimates from the contractors.

There is also assistance for the non-agricultural sector. The scheme of financial assistance to local authorities—the Bellwin scheme—was triggered by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State on 8 February. It has been reviewed because of the abolition of domestic rates and their replacement by the community charge on 1 April. The main change is that the threshold above which grant will be paid is now expressed as a flat rate per community charge payer, and in all cases this results in lower thresholds than before. The level of grant above the threshold is also increased from 75 per cent. to 85 per cent. Claims are still awaited from local authorities, which have until 31 July to make their applications. The Scottish Office has recently sent out a circular to local authorities which brings together the various sources of central Government funding available to offset expenditure arising from an emergency.

I am glad to confirm that the Scottish Office has endorsed proposals by the Tay river purification board to install a flood warning system and has adjusted the board's borrowing consent to permit the necessary expenditure to he incurred this year. I feel sure that the board will welcome that.

My hon. Friend has correctly focused on the need for a co-ordinated approach to water management problems in Tayside. It is true that the number of interests is large and, individually, their views may not always be compatible. My hon. Friend has called for a public inquiry. I entirely agree with him on the point of principle. We need to look beyond individual cases and beyond immediate questions of repair and restoration. If we thought that a public inquiry was the right way to look into those wider issues, we should hold one, but there is a mechanism to hand which we think is more appropriate.

Under the Flood Prevention (Scotland) Act 1961, Tayside regional council is the flood prevention authority for non-agricultural land. It also has powers under local government legislation to take measures to safeguard life and property and to incur expenditure where an emergency or disaster threatens or has occurred. Accordingly, my noble Friend the Minister of State suggested to Tayside regional council that it was best placed to invite parties to meet to identify the various viewpoints, to discuss how problems should be addressed and, no doubt, to form a working group. I am sure this is the correct way forward. It follows the pattern set in the Highland region following flooding last year, and I am confident that it will achieve my hon. Friend's objective.

The council has agreed to do this and has already said that an independent study by experts in hydrology—my hon. Friend called for such a study—should be commissioned to examine the feasibility of river management measures for flood alleviation. The council has asked for assistance towards the cost of such a study and my noble Friend the Minister of State will write to the council soon with an offer of a financial contribution up to a maximum of £10,000.

I should like to turn to some of the specific issues which have arisen. I am well aware that there was a quite prolonged period when wet ground and high river levels prevented heavy plant and machinery from gaining access to the floodbank breaches. Working conditions have improved dramatically in the past few weeks and I would urge farmers to press ahead with repairs and to take advantage of the enhanced grants. Other assistance is also available which would be of help to farmers suffering from the after-effects of the flood. Arterial drainage grants provide help with restoring eroded river banks or clearing blocked drainage ditches, and the European Community element of the farm and conservation grant scheme provides assistance towards replacing fences and the reseeding of grassland.

We have helped in a variety of other ways, too. Officials have been instructed to operate the grant schemes and other schemes with the maximum flexibility that the rules will allow. Farmers who are already following fixed plans will be given greater freedom than is usual to change these so as to take account of flood damage. Farmers who wish to enter the set-aside scheme but who had missed the application deadline are being allowed to make late applications.

I well understand the anxiety of some farmers who think that the deadline of 31 August for floodbank claims is too tight and that the engineering specifications are too demanding. On the first of these, it is essential to establish the repairs so that they can resist erosion when high waters next return, which could be as soon as September with the Tay. As to the standards required, my hon. Friend must recognise that these must be closely related to the threat of attack by flood water, which will vary from place to place. It could jeopardise investment if standards were insufficient for the purpose. My hon. Friend will wish to note—I emphasise this point because he was concerned about it—that officials of the Scottish Office would be happy to discuss individual cases on their merits with farmers. The officials gave me that undertaking.

I am very much aware that floodbank grants of 75 per cent. or 60 per cent. still leave individuals to find the remainder. Since floodbank repairs are costly, some may find difficulty raising their share, but I cannot agree that the Government contribution should be raised to 100 per cent. as has been suggested. For the Government to do that would be to take over responsibility for protecting private property. Responsibility for agricultural land lies with riparian landowners, and it is right and proper that they should contribute on an individual basis. As I have already pointed out, the same arrangements were effective elsewhere last year and it would be most unfair to the other farmers to make a further exception now.

We have also looked at the costs of land restoration. They can be, as my hon. Friend knows from estimates that he has seen, nearly £40,000 per acre. Prime agricultural land in north Tayside is valued at about £1,000 per acre. Restoration at those prices would not be a good investment for a landowner, or the taxpayer, on cost-benefit grounds.

My hon. Friend referred to the damage to agricultural land and called for assistance, on environmental grounds, for its restoration. However, the latest reports that I have had suggest that even the worst-hit farms made a remarkable recovery in the favourable weather of April and early May. Cropping has resumed in all but isolated pockets on individual farms. I have to say that this is a tribute to the skill, hard work and dedication of the farmers who are my hon. Friend's constituents in the area. In some cases, the deposit of silt will actually provide a fertility bonus in the longer term.

However, in one or two cases, areas were totally scoured out, or cut off so dramatically that they can no longer serve any useful agricultural purpose. Some areas may have to be written off. Land restoration is excluded from the farm and conservation grant scheme. To qualify for the environmentally sensitive areas scheme, land must be within an area specially designated for the purpose. The seriously damaged cases in question are not in such a designated area. The Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission for Scotland, which have small grant budgets in any case, could not apply their funds for the purpose of restoring agricultural production.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

Will the Minister give way?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

No. I have a great deal to say in the two minutes that remain.

The Scottish Development Agency's arrangements for derelict land are for the purpose of recovery from industrial dereliction created by man. There are no powers, therefore, which would clearly apply for the purpose of restoring these areas of land.

The hope has been expressed that assistance might be obtained from EC funds. The provisions of EC regulation 4256/88, which governs assistance from the Community's agriculture funds to help areas recover agricultural production after a natural disaster, do not apply to north Tayside. It does not fall within the specially designated areas which qualify for such aid, which are Northern Ireland, the Highlands and Islands development board area and parts of Dumfries and Galloway. So assistance for Tayside from this source would not qualify under the agriculture fund. Nor can I hold out any hope of assistance from the funds made available to the United Kingdom as emergency aid. Those funds are entirely at the Commission's discretion and are given primarily as a humanitarian gesture.

I hope that my hon. Friend is ready to acknowledge that the Government have responded sympathetically to the difficulties of his constituents. We are making generous grants available for floodbank repairs with a public sector contribution which could run to more than £600,000 in Scotland, more than half of which would be available to farmers, in north Tayside in my hon. Friend's constituency. That is a reasonable offer to farmers, and I hope that they will take full advantage of it.

We shall also contribute up to £10,000 towards the cost of the independent study by consultant hydrologists, which Tayside regional council proposes to commission. We responded promptly and positively to the Tay river purification board's proposals for a flood warning system, and, of course, I have described the improvements in the Bellwin arrangements. All in all, I suggest to my hon. Friend, that the Government have taken rapid and measured action both to help deal with the immediate emergency and to have the longer-term issues properly

I congratulate my hon. Friend again most warmly on bringing this subject to the attention of the House. It has provided an opportunity to state clearly the terms of the circular sent out to local authorities on what is being done in Scotland. I shall read with utmost care what has been said and respond to him more fully if any details have not been covered in this brief debate. I thank him again.

Mr. Home Robertson

I am sorry that the Minister could not give way to me. I simply wish to associate the Opposition with the anxiety expressed by the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) about the disaster that affected his constituency. I am a little disappointed by the Government's piecemeal approach, which the Minister outlined. There seems to be a case for some co-ordinating unit at the Scottish Office to help to draw together advice, practical assistance and financial support in order to overcome this type of natural disaster wherever it may strike. As I said, I am sorry that the Minister could not give way to me. I simply wished to say that I shared the anxiety of the hon. Member for Tayside, North.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I am glad to respond to the hon. Gentleman's point. I thank him for associating himself with the pleas of my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North. We believe that the way forward for Tayside regional council is to establish a working group. That suggestion has been made. It has worked well in the Highland region. Often, things are not best organised in detail from the centre. The people on the spot who are responsible for the emergency services have to play a key role. My hon. Friend appreciates that and has paid tribute to those people. I thank him again for having given the House the opportunity to consider the matter today.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Eleven o'clock.