HC Deb 10 December 1992 vol 215 cc1097-102

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

10.2 pm

Mr. David Evans (Welwyn Hatfield)

This debate is about my constituents who, at the hands of successive water authorities—especially the National Rivers Authority—have been humiliated by a disgraceful lack of concern or action to alleviate their genuine fear for their lives through flooding.

On 8 December I received a letter from Lord Crickhowell, the NRA chairman, which said: I fully understand the anxieties of those who live in the area and their impatience to find a solution. How long would the House and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, think that my constituents should wait before they can be charged with impatience—one month, three months, six months, one year, two years, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years or 60 years? My constituents have been waiting for some action since 1928.

It is an old adage, but nevertheless true, that an Englishman's home is his castle. Furthermore, it is a saying which is fundamental to Conservative beliefs. As a Tory, I believe in the sanctity of property, and in property becoming an extension of an individual's personality. All my instincts tell me that it is property which gives an individual a stake in society. Those who have worked hard to buy their own property, or, indeed, those who rent it, have a right to expect that their households will be protected.

If a house is burgled, the public expect the people involved to be caught and punished. If riots break out and a mob threatens to attack a house, the occupants have a right to expect the powers that be to repel that attack. Yet in my constituency, there are law-abiding families who have lived for more than 60 years under repeated threat of attack, of having their homes damaged and their valued possessions destroyed, and their repeated requests for action to the relevant authorities have gone unheeded for 64 years. It is a disgrace, and totally intolerable.

This threat comes from our most insidious force, which is often not taken as seriously as it should be. One of our greatest natural assets has also become a home wrecker. I am talking about Britian's rivers. Flooding is not just property-destroying, it is soul-destroying. Years of saving, a lifetime of memories, can be swept away in a night's work. People therefore rightly look to the relevant authorities to offer protection.

Tragically, as the residents of Warrengate road in my constituency know to their cost, the National Rivers Authority and its predecessors have not attended to a problem that has been with them for 64 years. They have negated their duty and almost their honour.

Although the first serious flooding of Warrengate road took place in 1928, occurred again in 1936, and again in 1947, the position worsened dramatically in the early 1950s. I take hon. Members back to 1955, when "Rock Around the Clock" was the best-selling single in both America and Britain; Elvis was just 20; Attlee was still leader of the Labour party, and Winston Churchill was succeeded as Prime Minister by Anthony Eden. That was also the year in which the residents of Warrengate road yet again warned of the danger of flooding from the Mimmshall brook. Since then, this country has witnessed 11 general elections and had nine Prime Ministers, and still nothing has been done to alleviate the fears of my constituents.

While the tide of history has ebbed and flowed, the water authorities have allowed the houses on that street to be flooded twice—first in 1979 and then three months ago in the early hours of Wednesday 23 September—despite the fact that, almost every year since 1955, residents wrote in the clearest terms of the threat to their homes.

I shall quickly list them: January 1928, serious flooding; January 1936, serious flooding; March 1947, serious flooding; 1955; July 1958, flooding of the whole road; 1960, December 1965, 1975, 1977, 1978 and 1979, flooding to the road with flooding to 11 properties to a depth of 3ft, plus road flooding; 29 October 1987, flooding up to the doors of properties and road flooding to a depth of 3ft; 29 January 1988, flooding to the road to a depth of 3ft; 1990, flooding of the road to 3ft; 23 September 1992 flooding to 18 residential properties and four commercial properties to a depth of 4ft.

Up to 1979, while not violating the housing in the street, heavy flooding occurred, and the level of the brook rose dangerously high; but nothing was done. After 1979, in response to the first disaster, some widening and a little dredging took place, but residents warned that the steps taken were not adequate to deal with the problem. Their warnings were ignored even when, in 1989, the brook flooded to the doorsills of Warrengate road.

The flooding of the houses in 1979 was still regarded by the water authority as a once-in-50-years event, yet, as the residents repeatedly pointed out, the potential for flooding has increased rather than diminished. The surrounding area has been developed and urbanised, which has led to an enormous increase in the amount of surface water run-off which finds its way back into the brook. The development of the A 1 (M) has further added to the problem. Another disaster was just waiting to happen, and it did, in September this year.

When faced with the dangers of flooding, Noah spent 40 days and 40 nights building an ark. Confronted by the same problem, the National Rivers Authority finally, after 64 years, conducted a feasibility study. The study was begun in 1991 and has still not been made public. Even the NRA chairman, Lord Crickhowell, received a copy of its conclusions only last Friday. That is a classic case of too little, too late.

Reading the National Rivers Authority's literature, one would think that it was an organisation to rival the United Nations. Apparently, in the day it took up its duties, it became the strongest environmental protection agency in Europe", and it is invested with extensive powers and responsibilities by Parliament". More than half its manpower is involved in flood defence projects, and from its flood control rooms staff are supposed to keep a round-the-clock check on weather conditions and river levels. Staff interpret the information and give the emergency services early warning of possible flooding. Yet the authority ignored warnings dating back to 1928.

This is not the case of a watchdog with no teeth, but rather a case of a watchdog which has curled up and gone to sleep by the fire. Indeed, until this year's flooding, letters from the residents to Lord Crickhowell went unanswered, or the answers were unacceptably delayed. Furthermore, the two-stage channel which was promised to alleviate the problem never materialised.

Let us return to September. It is 4 am, and the homes of old-age pensioners, some of whom fought in two world wars, are flooded. The Minister's grandfather would know what those people gave him and the nation, yet here they are at 4 am. They survived the German blitz, yet now the National Rivers Authority is putting their lives in danger. Young children are terrified, and there are rowing boats and fire engines everywhere, all because of the incompetence of the NRA. Families and old-age pensioners will spend this Christmas in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and all because, after 60 years, the authority cannot solve the problem—I hope that Lord Crickhowell hears about that.

The right honourable Baron Crickhowell of Pont Esgob—that sounds like something that comes out of the water rather than someone who regulates water—wrote to me recently. The penultimate paragraph of his letter added insult to injury by saying: I must, however, make it clear that it is a possibility that the study may be judged unacceptable on economic grounds to alleviate the flooding to only 16 properties. I have news for Lord Crickhowell: one property is too many.

We are told that the scheme would cost £2 million. But think of the £1 billion stolen from the social security every year—or is it £2 billion? What about the new age travellers? Are we prepared to spend millions of pounds on them but not on my residents who fought in two world wars? Oh no, they are not considered worthy of having £2 million spent to look after their properties, which they have spent a lifetime buying and living in. It is a statement that fails to recognise the traumas suffered by the residents and it ignores the fact that they have been complaining since 1928.

Furthermore, the letter contained a number of factual inaccuracies, not surprisingly, which did nothing to inspire confidence in my constituents. Lord Crickhowell got the name of his own chief engineer wrong. For his benefit, I can tell him that his name is Brian Izzard. Lord Crickhowell also noted that arrangements were in hand by the Countryside Commission to have trash removed from the swallow holes. In fact, the countryside management service organised a band of volunteers to carry out clearing work in March 1991.

This case is a classic example of how a public authority has woefully failed in the execution of its duty. I am surprised by the tolerance exercised by my constituents. All they have ever wanted is for their homes to be protected from flooding, yet they have twice endured the disasters that they had predicted. On several occasions, they have held their breath and only by the grace of God have they escaped further flooding. If I were in their shoes, I would sue the water authority tomorrow. Let us get a writ out and let us get this Crickhowell man off his whatsit—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is not allowed to speak of Members of another place in such derogatory tones. Perhaps he would like to rephrase his remark.

Mr. Evans

I withdraw that remark, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

If successful, public authorities can be awarded charter marks, can we consider conferring official black marks on organisations such as the NRA that fail to deliver the services for which they are responsible? The NRA calls itself the guardian of the water environment. It is a pity that it has failed to carry out its duties to my constituents. It is a pity that the chairman and his officials chose to ignore my constituents' plea for something to be done to protect their lives in September and in future.

10.16 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nicholas Soames)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield North (Mr. Evans) on securing a debate on such a crucial matter in the interests of his constituents. He made a speech full of clarity and vigour, with all the force and candour for which he is rightly famed in the House. I fully understand that the question of flooding is of fundamental importance to him and to his constituents. I assure him that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food takes the issue very seriously. We have the deepest sympathy for those who have suffered damage, distress and inconvenience through the flooding.

My hon. Friend was right in his views about the sanctity of private property and about the importance that ordinary constituents—those whom we represent—rightly attach to it.

Flood defence is an important and sometimes controversial issue. In recent weeks, we have seen the serious effects that flooding can have in a number of areas of the country. Before commenting on the specific points raised by my hon. Friend, it may be helpful if I explain how flood defence matters are handled.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has policy responsibility for the alleviation of flooding—whether by rivers or by the sea—and for the protection of the coastline against erosion. The Ministry sets broad national priorities and my hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that these give greatest emphasis to the protection of life and hence, generally speaking, to the protection of urban areas.

Secondly, the Ministry also makes substantial sums of grant aid available each year to the various local bodies that carry out flood and coastal defence capital works. In the current financial year, grant aid provision amounts to some £62 million. That grant aid covers, on average, about half the capital costs of the schemes, the remainder being raised locally and reimbursed through the revenue support grant. Thirdly, the Ministry gives guidance on the engineering, environmental and economic factors that bodies responsible for carrying out flood defence works should take into account.

My hon. Friend, who has a detailed knowledge of these matters, will be aware that responsibility for the design, construction, maintenance and operation of flood defences in particular locations lies at local level. Schemes are undertaken by local authorities, by internal drainage boards or—in the case of our major rivers—by the National Rivers Authority. In the case of Mimmshall brook, to which my hon. Friend referred, responsibility for flood defence works rests with the N RA's Thames region.

It is those local bodies that decide whether to put forward proposals for flood defence works to the Ministry for grant aid. Although the Ministry's regional engineers can and do give advice to the NRA and other local bodies on the need for works, the Ministry cannot direct an authority to undertake particular flood alleviation measures.

In considering applications for grant aid, the Ministry expects the local flood defence authority concerned to have examined a wide range of options for tackling flooding at a particular site and to have compared those options with the implications of taking no action whatever. In effect, the "no action" scenario provides a benchmark against which the relative advantages and disadvantages of public investment to resist the forces of nature can be judged.

Proposals for flood defence work are considered first by the Ministry's regional engineers for the relevant area, who have the necessary professional expertise. Essentially, there are three yardsticks against which all such proposals must be judged: planned schemes must of course be sound in engineering terms; they must be environmentally acceptable; and they must be economically worth while.

Naturally, as I told my hon. Friend earlier, the protection of life remains the overriding priority. Subject to that imperative, it is essential that all proposed flood defence works should meet the three criteria that I have mentioned. The economic yardstick applied is that a scheme is regarded as economically worth while if the benefits flowing from it—for example, in terms of physical damage or other detriment avoided—are at least equal to, or greater than, the costs of undertaking the work.

I hope that my hon. Friend, who holds strong and sensible views on financial prudence—stronger, almost, than those of any other Conservative Member—will agree that that is an essential safeguard to the interests of the taxpayer. The resources that the Government devote to flood and coastal defence, although very substantial, are of necessity finite. It is therefore right that expenditure should be focused primarily on areas of dense urban settlement, where the economic, social and environmental costs of flood damage are greatest.

Even in such areas, schemes can generally only reduce the incidence of flooding; they cannot hope to prevent it altogether. Nevertheless, in the majority of such cases, the costs of carrying out flood defence will be comfortably outweighed by the resulting benefits, but in cases where the costs of a proposed scheme are in excess of the benefits that would accrue, the investment of public money cannot be justified unless there is imminent risk to life. The Ministry's financial support for flood warning schemes is, of course, a direct response to the need to avoid risk to life.

I accept that it is very difficult to put precise figures on all the costs and benefits of particular schemes, and my hon. Friend made a very powerful case tonight. But the Ministry makes every effort to quantify so-called intangible benefits of schemes—for example, the social or environmental benefits to which my hon. Friend referred tonight—and to take account of them in its decision making, even where they cannot be quantified.

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that, although it may have been rather long-winded, it was worth my setting out at some length the principles to which my Department has to work.

I come now to the particular problems of the residents of Warrengate road and the Mimmshall brook near North Mimms in my hon. Friend's constituency. As my hon. Friend said with such clarity and force, the area has a history of flooding problems, and that is probably an understatement. The resolution of those problems poses particular difficulties, of which my hon. Friend is well aware from his correspondence with the chairman of the NRA, Lord Crickhowell.

Given the serious threat of recurrent flooding, along with the technical and other difficulties attending the possible solutions to it, the authority was right to embark upon a detailed study of the whole of the Mimmshall brook catchment. That thorough analysis was completed only in the last day or so, and my Department and my hon. Friend—I know because we spoke on the telephone about it—have received a copy of it.

The Ministry's river and coastal engineers are carefully considering the NRA's study as a matter of urgency, but I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that I am truly not in a position tonight to tell him what conclusions they are likely to draw.

However, I am aware that the report considers a wide range of possible options for dealing with my hon. Friend's constituents' serious problems, and that one of those at least appears to be broadly consistent with the rules to which the Ministry has to work and which I have outlined.

My hon. Friend and I must look to the NRA in the first instance to consider the options that it has now identified locally and to present formal proposals to the Ministry in support of its preferred course of action. I can give my hon. Friend and his constituency my guarantee that any such proposals will be handled by the Ministry's engineers as a matter of the highest priority.

In conclusion, I assure my hon. Friend and his constituents that we do not underestimate the grave seriousness of the problem that he has rightly brought to the Floor of the House tonight. As I have said, I fully appreciate the concerns of those affected and I, with my right hon. Friend the Minister, have expressed our deepest sympathy and concern for the care and safety of the residents in the light of the distress that they have endured.

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that the solution is not straightforward, black and white or easy. The engineering and economic complications involved must be fully addressed. I hope that he will agree that I have been entirely open about the procedures that we are obliged to follow.

My Department is ready to act quickly to assess any formal proposal from the NRA when it comes. In doing so, we shall take into account the points that my hon. Friend has raised in reaching future decisions on this most difficult and distressing case.

Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and on representing his constituents' interests with vigour and clarity in a robust speech, which I greatly value, having had the opportunity to reply. I assure the House that we shall do everything that we can to assist my hon. Friend's constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.