HL Deb 17 May 1944 vol 131 cc793-805

LORD CRANWORTH rose to call attention to the impossible situation in which certain catchment boards find themselves with regard to the provision and maintenance of sea walls and sea defences; to ask what steps His Majesty's Government propose to take in remedy; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I trust I do not have to apologize to your Lordships' House for occupying a few minutes of your time on so dull a subject. I feel not, because in the first place it is open to anybody to take a more generous allowance for lunch than usual, and in the second place because the land drainage of this country is a matter of supreme importance. I do not think it would be too much to say that the war agricultural committees in a great number of cases—possibly in the majority—have found the deficiency in our drainage system to be the main cause of the failure to get maximum food production. To tell the truth I think our land drainage was in a deplorable situation at the outbreak of war and I trust it will never be allowed to sink to that level again. I am going to deal only with one aspect of land drainage, but I believe there will be a strong consensus of opinion that the whole of our drainage legislation is in fact due for another overhaul. I am dealing only with sea walls and sea defences and they, in the same way as the rest of land drainage, are now governed by the Land Drainage Act of 1930, which was the result of a Royal Commission set up in 1927.

This Act of 1930 was the Act produced by the Labour Government of the day. Prior to that Act sea walls and sea defences, in company with other drainage, were in effect an affair mainly for the landowners themselves and they were supervised, or supervised themselves, by means of a variety of bodies. There were, in fact, no fewer than 361 such bodies which supervised their operations. The number was drastically cut down by this Act and land drainage was placed in the hands of a comparatively small number of catchment boards who operated the greater catchment areas of this country The Act was a great advance upon what had been done before and I think landowners generally ought to be, and I believe are, very grateful to the Party of the noble Lord who sits opposite, Lord Addison, for having introduced that Bill, the more so as sometimes that Party does not seem to be quite so solicitous for the good health, shall we say, of the landowning class.




Perhaps I should not have said "good health." Anyhow, I for one am very grateful for that measure. The Act quite naturally set up machinery for finding the expenses of such boards. The financial arrangements it made to finance the boards were three. The first one was by means of a precept on the county councils and the county borough councils in catchment areas concerned. But there were two provisos to that. The first was that the precept could not exceed a 2d. rate with- out the consent of the majority of the board concerned, and the second was that the same level rate should operate over the whole catchment area. Thus it is impossible to make a precept on the county council for 3d. and on a county borough for 1d.; the rate has to be the same in both cases. The second method of finance was a precept on internal drainage boards. That produces a very small sum in all cases and it is also, I regret to say, sometimes somewhat difficult to collect. The third method of finance was by Government grants towards the loans contracted by the catchment boards for the purposes of their work, the grants varying according to circumstances and times. Again there was a proviso of some importance. The grants towards these loan charges could only be made to new works or works of improvement; they could not be made for maintenance works. The result is that each new work which is undertaken by a catchment board increases its responsibilities and lessens its power of meeting them.

Now this Act was welcomed by a majority of counties who have no sea walls and no sea defences and was received with nonchalance by counties whose penny rate produces such a sum that they see no immediate danger of collapse. I am going, however, to instance the case of one catchment board, not because it is an extreme case, but because I happen to be a member of it and I know its exact difficulties only too well. The case is that of the Catchment Board of East Suffolk. Now East Suffolk is a small and poor agricultural county. Before the war a penny rate produced approximately £4,000, but I am sorry to say that owing to the incidence of war a penny rate now produces considerably less. This small catchment board has no less than 112 miles of sea defences and sea walls, and these 112 miles protect approximately only an area of 30o acres per mile. That is to say, the defences go back on an average only half a mile. Their income from a 2½d, rate is £16,000, of which £6,200 comes from the county council and £6,800 from the county borough of Ipswich. I would here say a word in commendation of the public spirit of the county borough of Ipswich. Although they contribute a greater sum than the county they do not receive onetenth—considerably less than one-tenth —of the assistance from the catchment board that the county receives. Yet they have consented to go up to a 2½d. rate and indeed in this year they have agreed for one year only to another penny on top of that. The internal drainage board finds £3,000, making in all, as I said, £16,000.

Our maintenance of internal drainage cost £8,500 and that figure was estimated before the full increase which has taken place in the rate of maintenance, because it is noteworthy that since the war began the cost of work generally, including labour and materials, has increased by approximately 100 per cent. That is to say, what could be done for £16,000 now takes £32,000. Our loan charges on a loan of £173,000 come to £4,500. For our overhead charges and upkeep of these walls we have left —3,000, not a very big sum. This year in the spring tides we had three or four breaks in our walls, flooding large acreages of valuable land. To stop these gaps an immediate expenditure of £8,000 is required and to make the walls in the immediate neighbourhood anything like safe means an expenditure of another £48,000. But we have not got it. These areas still remain flooded. You cannot fill a breach in a wall with an overdraft, nor indeed can you fill it with Government forms, however plentifully they are showered upon you. It has not been done. These breaches are still in existence and big acreages of land, pasturage and arable, remain flooded. But that only touches the fringe of the problem. To make our sea walls even moderately trustworthy requires an immediate expenditure estimated at £375,000, and to make a proper job the estimate is £800,000. These estimates were made before the full rise in cost had occurred.

It must be obvious to your Lordships that if we were to do it the interest on our loan charges would absorb, and doubly absorb, the whole of the income of the catchment board. It is therefore an undeniable fact that the East Suffolk River Catchment Board is bankrupt and doubly bankrupt. I have taken the case of East Suffolk, but there are others to my knowledge equally had. The Severn I know to be in the greatest difficulties, and in Kent, another county that has suffered from the ravages of war, they are faced with an expenditure of over £2,250,000. They are a much richer county, and I do not suppose they suffer from the same bankruptcy as we do, but I imagine their position is very serious. They sent up a memorandum to the County Councils Association which is well worth study and from which I should like to quote to your Lordships the last two paragraphs. The first is to the effect that the whole cost of the provision and maintenance of sea defence works should be defrayed out of national funds. The second says that a comprehensive system of co-ordination and co-operation in regard to sea defence works throughout the whole country should be established by His Majesty's Government, and that any system of co-ordination should provide that, when sea defence works affect land drainage interests in relation to any catchment area, the catchment board for that area should be the agency to carry out the works.

I want to make a special point, and it is this. The immediate cost of repairing and maintaining these sea walls is a great deal more than the value of the land to be protected. In some cases it is ten times as much. When the catchment board went to the Ministry to ask what they should do in such a case they were told that it was the duty of the catchment board and no one else to decide whether they would repair these walls or whether they would not, and which walls they would repair and which walls they would leave. I submit to your Lordships that that is a pretty invidious duty to place upon a catchment board. It means that they must say to Mr. A., who is a landowner who has been paying taxes in order that his land should be protected, "My dear Mr. A., we are going to protect your land"; and to say to Mr. B., a man who has done exactly the same thing—and your Lordships will realize that both Mr. A. and Mr. B. are almost certainly known to every member of the catchment board—"We propose to let your lands go into the sea." That would be invidious indeed. This is not a big island, and I do submit that it is wrong and improper that the onus should be or a small, isolated and bankrupt body to decide what portion of this land should be allowed to go into the sea, and what portion should be preserved.

The noble Duke, who, I understand, is going to answer my question, may say, as ether people have said: "You in Suffolk are very fortunate people, you live in the best climate in England, and among the nicest people. You must take the rough with the smooth." If the noble Duke were to say that I should agree with his premises entirely, although sometimes it does not seem to me that the Ministry in which he takes such an illustrious part is altogether agreed about our niceness. There is extreme difficulty in collecting a large tax which is patently unjust, and it might amount to an impossibility.

One more point and that, I think, the most important. In my own county of Suffolk during the last century we have seen scores of square miles of valuable country fall into the sea, and we have expended vast sums in order to prevent the trouble becoming even worse. If we look over the seas that face us we see Holland and Denmark who, during that same period, have not only lost nothing but have added to their shores even greater areas than we have lost. What: is more remarkable still is that, whereas in losing our land we have spent vast sums, they have made a profit over the whole transaction. Of course I am well aware that there are conditions in regard to seas, tides, terrain and other matters which are largely responsible for this, but I very much doubt if that is the sole reason. I believe that the skill, co-operation and coordination on the other side of those waters may have something to do with it. I recall that a few years back there was a big inundation in Norfolk at Horsey Mere, and Dutch experts were called in to advise on the reclamation of the area. They expressed themselves as being completely amazed at the ignorance and lack of coordination of those in charge of our sea defences. Probably some of your Lordships are aware that our greatest feat of reclamation in the Bedford fens was the work of a Dutch engineer, Vermuyden.

What is the remedy? I suggest that there is only one remedy, and that is the remedy put forward by Kent. That is that sea walls and sea defences generally should become a national charge. Your Lordships are probably aware—indeed you cannot but be aware—that very many bodies lately have been putting forward programmes for post-war agriculture—the Royal Agricultural Society of England, the C.L.A., the N.F.U., workers' organizations, the Council of Agriculture, a Committee of your Lordships' House and several more. I really might say that the only authoritative body that has not done so is His Majesty's Ministry of Agriculture. I hope that a programme from that Ministry is now on its way. But every one of those bodies to which I have referred has considered this question, and has said definitely that sea walls and sea defences should be a national charge.

A more remarkable indication of feeling came about in this way. The Royal Agricultural Society of England, the other day, convened a meeting of those bodies which have produced reports. All the bodies accepted and were represented at the meeting. They endeavoured to find a general consensus of agreement with regard to post-war agriculture, on the main principles, and they did succeed to, I think, a remarkable extent, in getting a consensus of opinion on fourteen main points. One of those points, which was passed unanimously and with acclamation, was that sea walls and sea defences should be a national charge. I submit that that is a vast body of evidence, and very authoritative evidence, too. Such evidence, it seems to me, can hardly be disregarded. You, may say, further, I think, that it is a matter of common sense that the preservation of the land of this country, the decision as to what land shall be preserved and what shall be thrown into the sea, is a matter for the nation, not for small bodies, and should be dealt with nationally.

Indeed, my Lords, the Government are the only people who can do it. They alone have adequate resources, they alone can put their hands on the experts and men of experience at home and abroad, who can do it, by co-ordination—not by doing what is so often done now, done naturally but very wrongfully, just throwing the sea on to your neighbour. That is what most of these bodies do. If they can, they throw the sea on to their neighbour and then they are quite happy. That sort of thing is not good enough. You want a co-ordinated policy. That can only be brought about by making the whole matter one for the nation to decide, and one in connexion with which the nation must take the necessary action. I do not think that ever in this House or elsewhere I have been a passionate advocate of nationalization, but in this case I am indeed an advocate of nationalization, and that in the quickest possible time. I beg to move.


My Lords, my noble friend when he raised this question said he trusted he did not have to apologize for keeping the House for a few minutes on this subject, and I shall not make any apologies on my own part because I feel that it is a very important question. With regard to the area of which he has spoken, with the full knowledge he possesses of it, I will not follow him except to say that I also live in a county which is within a catchment area and bounded by the sea, and I leave it for him to decide whether it is more beautiful and better populated than the county from which he comes. The connexion of sea defence with land drainage is quite clear, and it is impossible for them to be separated in the matter of their maintenance. If the land is to be drained, it is not only necessary to have an escape for the water, but for those areas which lie below the tidal level there must be some form of protection to exclude that surplus water. The drainage authorities, therefore, have always been concerned not only with the maintenance of the land but also with the watercourses and drains and the banks, sluices and other defences which prevent water, including sea-water, from coming in. That was fully recognized in the Land Drainage Act, 1930, which actually defines drainage as including defence against sea-water.

Coastal erosion, of course, does not necessarily have any effect on land drainage. Where cliffs are being eroded, and the land behind them is above the level of high tides, drainage authorities will not usually be concerned. It is only where coast erosion may have an effect on agricultural land that it comes under the Ministry of Agriculture; other Departments are concerned where the land affected is not used for agriculture. I refer to this matter simply because, as many of your Lordships may remember, a Royal Commission on Coast Erosion sat in the early part of this century and reported against any form of State aid towards coast protection works. In making that recommendation they went so far as to exclude grants towards sea defences for land drainage purposes. That part of their Report, however, was superseded by the Report of the Royal Commission on Land Drainage in 1927, to which my noble friend has referred, and it was as a result of that Royal Commission of 1927 that the Land Drainage Act, 1930, came into being. It was under that Act that catchment boards as such were established, not only for drainage works inland but also for sea defence.

This is the system under which Lord Cranworth suggests that in particular his own catchment area, and possibly others, are in what I think he calls an impossible situation. I will say at once that we fully appreciate the heavy burden which falls on these catchment boards in the maintenance of sea defence work. Whether that burden is in fact too grievous to be borne, even with the very generous State aid which is available by means of grants, is another matter; but I am quite sure that, whatever view you may take of the catchment boards, the Land Drainage Act, 1930, has put matters into a far better state than they were in before. I think it is only right to pay tribute to the great amount of work which has been carried out since these catchment boards were set up, and I would particularly refer to the work which is being done in Norfolk, Essex, Kent and Sussex and on the south side of the Humber.

In order that your Lordships may understand the enormous advance which has been made in land drainage, I would ask you to look for a moment at the situation which was found to exist when the Royal Commission made their investigations. They found that the existing land drainage authorities were a hotch-potch of bodies with widely differing constitutions and powers. There were Commissions of Sewers issued under the Great Seal by virtue of the Statute of Sewers of 1531, drainage commissions or boards constituted under private and local Acts, elective drainage boards constituted under the Land Drainage Act, 1861, and small bodies acting under in-closure awards or merely by private agreement between landowners. There were two geographical limitations which were common to them all. The breadth of their areas for rating and working purposes never extended beyond the bounds of the lands which derived benefit from their operations; that is, they were relatively narrow lowland strips; whilst lengthwise they were never the full length of the river which was affected. The co-ordinated treatment of drainage problems for a whole river basin was thus, impossible, even if the lowlands had been able, with their own money, to pay all the expenses; the lowlanders had always the grievance that the upland people paid nothing towards the cost and were relying on the lowlanders to provide the whole of the money.

The Land Drainage Act, 1930, for the first time enabled drainage authorities to be set up which directly controlled the major part of each of the great river systems of England and Wales, whose sources of revenue extended right up to the watersheds of those systems. There are thus to-day two types of statutory drainage district in England and Wales. There is the catchment board of the new type, covering a whole catchment area, and there is the local drainage district or internal drainage district.

The grant which the Minister is able to give under the 1930 Act to these areas is limited to works of improvement and new construction, and is subject to the approval of the Treasury. In practice the rate of grant is assessed with an eye to the financial resources and commitments of the individual catchment boards. The most convenient guide to the financial position of a catchment board is its precept on the councils in its area, expressed in terms of a penny rate. A poor board, or a board with much work to do, will have a high precept and a correspondingly high rate of grant; a rich board, or a board with not so much work to do, will have a low grant. Thus the Old Haven and Bulverhy the Stream Catchment Board, who have considerable sea defence responsibilities but whose area extends into Eastbourne and Hastings, can obtain £6,300 from a penny rate. They have in fact in the past been able to meet their expenses with a precept of a little over a halfpenny, and have received a 15 per cent. grant. The large River Trent Catchment Board can obtain nearly £116,000 for a penny rate and have in fact precepted at about 1-d.; their £1,000,000 main river improvement scheme receives a 30 per cent. grant. At the other end of the scale the River Ancholme Catchment Board in North Lincolnshire, and the Rother and Jury's Gut Catchment Board in East Sussex and South Kent can obtain only £550 and £1,450 from a penny rate, and have had to precept at 6d. and 7d. They have been grant-aided at 75 per cent.

The House will note that in making these grants we have not so far differentiated between sea defence work and ordinary inland drainage work, but for the future, in deference to the representations which have been made by the catchment boards, we are going to make a distinction in favour of sea defence works. Before I come to that, however, let me review the enormous advance which has been made in arterial drainage, including sea defence, under the catchment board system. Thirteen years, during which we have had an economic depression and a war, have been much too short a time in which to make up the neglect into which main river drainage has fallen, and which was obvious when this Act came into force. But in that time no less than £16,000,000 worth of main river schemes, including sea defence work, has been submitted by catchment boards and approved for grant. Although much of the work came to a standstill when this war broke out, we have been able to spend £4,500,000 on main river work, which has had a direct bearing on food production.

If I may turn to sea defences and the main problem which is confronting my noble friend at this moment, I would just refer to the deputation which the Minister of Agriculture received last January from the Catchment Boards' Association. They put forward proposals, first that the whole cost of providing and maintaining sea defence works should be defrayed out of national funds, and secondly, that a comprehensive system of co-ordination and co-operation in regard to these works should be established by the Government. They suggested that such a system should provide that where sea defence works affect drainage interests in relation to catchment areas, the catchment board should be the agency to carry out the works. The case put forward in support of these proposals was that some catchment boards have to undertake sea defence works which are beyond the scope of true drainage works, that the catchment boards, operating singly, have not enough jurisdiction properly to undertake these works, and that the enormous cost is a burden which the peculiarly limited basis of catchment boards was never designed to carry. The Association argued more particularly that sea defences protected many interests other than land drainage, that their effects may extend far beyond the catchment area in which they are carried out, and that they therefore required co-ordination throughout the country.

It will be clear from my opening remarks that land drainage cannot be divorced from such sea defence works as affect it. It is equally clear that ordinary drainage works, like sea defence works, also benefit many other interests and are a matter of national concern. This national concern is, recognized in both cases by Government grants, but it hardly justifies a demand that the whole cost should be borne by the State. So far as greater co-ordination is concerned, this will be heartily welcomed, particularly in the Humber Estuary, but it is open to catchment boards to come together themselves without asking for a 100 per cent. grant from the State, as has already been done in the Thames Estuary. In short, the Minister thought that the Catchment Boards' Association had put forward a very reasonable case, and as a result, he was able to tell them that the Treasury would consider generous financial treat-merit for sea defence works. I am now able to inform the House that we are prepared to go further and to agree to a maximum grant of 80 per cent. to meet those cases where the financial difficulties of catchment boards are most acute. I must emphasize, however, that this is a maximum grant and by no means all the cases which will come forward will be justified in receiving it.

In the meantime the Minister asked for certain information from the Catchment Boards' Association, which they have submitted to him, and they ask in particular that the maintenance of sea defences, as well as the improvement of existing and the construction of new works should be considered. These matters will be considered, but I must make it clear that under the present legislation, the 1930 Act, the Minister has no right to extend his powers beyond improvement, and if maintenance is to be included new legislation would have to be brought in. Before that step could be taken very careful con- sideration would have to be given to this matter. I know that my noble friend has had certain trouble in his own catchment area, but I hope that he has now taken steps, both there and here, to try to bring this to an end. Possibly the small concession which I have been able to announce this afternoon will satisfy him, and I hope make him feel that his journey was worth while.


My Lords, I must thank the noble Duke for his sympathetic reply and for the element of hope that he put before us at the end of his speech. I am afraid that he would be the first to admit that his speech and the promise that he holds out will not close the overdraft of my catchment board, nor yet the breaches which exist in our walls, still less remove the water off the flooded area. I quite appreciate that it was not in his power to do that, and I can only thank him for the sympathy of his reply and trust that the hope that he expressed at the end of his speech may be more completely fulfilled than I myself anticipate. I ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.