HL Deb 28 January 1993 vol 541 cc1417-36

6.46 p.m.

The Earl of Perth rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they will be taking over the devastation in Perthshire caused by the River Tay.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I should like to begin by declaring an interest. My home stands high and safe above the River Tay. I know the river's moods. I also have a farm a few miles further up the river which on this occasion has been totally inundated. Farmhouse, cottages, steadings and all the land were flooded: not an acre was not under water. I am only one of dozens in that position.

I should like to thank those noble Lords who are to take part in the debate at such short notice. A Statement on the subject was made in another place a fortnight ago. I greatly regret that it was not repeated in this House because Members of the House would then appreciate the seriousness of the situation. I know that, due to the short notice, the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, and others of my neighbours are unable to be present. I offer my sincere thanks to those who are present. It is worth the sacrifice, because this is an important subject, not only for those who live close to the River Tay or in Perthshire but for the country generally.

Perhaps I may begin by saying a few words about the River Tay. It is a great river. I wonder if your Lordships realise how great it is. Its flow is two or three times that of the River Thames. Since we have been talking about salmon perhaps I may boast that the biggest salmon that has ever been caught on the River Tay by rod or line weighed 64 lbs and was caught by a Miss Ballantyne some years ago.

The river is like a monster. Lady Perth said that she did not like the word "monster" and in a sense I agree, but it is a living thing, it has a will of its own and when roused it is frightening, almost irresistible. Again and again in the past it has flooded the city of Perth, broken bridges and caused great damage, suffering and loss of life. This time it has excelled itself—and I use the word because I do not know what other one to use.

In 1990, only three years ago, we had a great flood unequalled for over 100 years. River banks were smashed, hundreds of square miles were under water. Farmlands were flooded up and down the river. Many of the roads all around were two or three feet under water. The cottages suffered and everywhere there was devastation or suffering. But that is in the past and I shall not dwell on it except to say that I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Sanderson, is taking part in the debate today and to emphasise how much we appreciated the fact that at that time he and the Government came to our aid. Together owners and the Government rebuilt the destroyed defences, but clearly we did not do enough.

Potentially even more important, a study was initiated, I think at the University of Stirling, to look at the causes of that great flood and make suggestions as to how a repetition could be avoided and what should be done. However, as so often happens in these cases—after all it had only happened once in 100 years—the report may have been made, but it was certainly not acted upon. It was felt that there was plenty of time, "Once in 100 years, it won't happen again".

How wrong we were. Three years later there were strong gales, heavy snow and rain and the river swiftly rose to an almost incredible 15 feet above its normal level. It is the greatest river in Britain and 15 feet along its length is really something. This time the results of the flood were far more serious. That is not unexpected. Not only were the river banks smashed and flood banks overwhelmed, bridges and rails destroyed but, more seriously, the city of Perth itself was inundated. It was just before dark when the river reached its peak and in a short time 1,500 houses were inundated. They were lived in mostly by the old and infirm who alas, lost everything—all their possessions, beds, household goods and family pictures and photographs. Those cannot be recovered and one can imagine the distress that that causes. Perhaps even more serious, some of the poor were unable to insure their possessions and have therefore lost all that they owned.

The city fathers and the emergency services did wonders and somehow all the people were saved and lodged with friends and relatives or in the gymnasium or other community centres. Hot soup was forthcoming and no lives were lost. I know all this because a week later I went round with the provost, Jean MacCormack, and saw how hard and well the emergency services and volunteers were working and coping. Those evacuated still had nowhere to go except their temporary accommodation. It will be two or three months before things return to anything like normal. I found that some of them were losing heart they worried so much about the future. How long would it be before they could return to ordinary living? What about the losses they had suffered? Their courage and patience are turning to bitterness.

The region and the city have opened an emergency fund and appealed for bedding and furniture. As a start, they themselves have subscribed £350,000 and it is my belief that there will be a considerable further response to the fund in kind and money.

I could go on about the damage to the city of Perth. However, I recall, as others will, that it is not just the city that has suffered; for example, five miles away Bridge of Earn endured the same fate. The only difference is that only 300 houses were flooded, as opposed to 1,500. Up and down the river, this time it was cottages, farmhouses, all were inundated. There is less misery because it is less concentrated, but the damage is there.

I have paid tribute to the city workers and I also do so to the Ministers and Members of Parliament who have toured the area and seen for themselves the damage and hardship. I know that the Government are promising help, but is it enough? In my opinion—and perhaps this is the main thrust of my speech—there should be a declaration that it is a disaster area. I am told that that is difficult because, happily, there was no loss of life. However, what happened in the Shetlands? That was made a disaster area at once and, so far as I know, there was no loss of life except for the seals, the birds and the fish. That is all over, thanks to the miracle of the sea, the winds and all that went with them. Perthshire and the River Tay go on.

What of the future? How can we control this monster? I have already mentioned the study by the University of Stirling. The first thing that must be done is to resume that study and its conclusions must be published and then acted upon, whatever the cost. There must be preventive action to stop this kind of thing happening. After all, no one objected when there was preventive action on the Thames and the barrage was constructed. This flood was far greater and it recurs more often.

What should be done? I do not know: that is the point of the study. For example, there may be higher dams or hydro dams and, if the water is coming from the forests, there must be a containing area below them. Again, we may have to contemplate deliberately flooding areas just as they have been discussing in East Anglia.

I am certain that we must undertake control which involves major work and expense. On my part of the Tay, major works were carried out 100 or more years ago. It is remarkable to see the stonework all along the banks and the flood banks that were created then. It must have been a huge task and expense. I am not talking only about my small area. The Government in those days went to town, if I may put it that way, to ensure control. Sadly, now that is not enough and the study will show us why.

In the meantime, we must make some immediate repairs. We cannot let this damage of broken banks and so forth on for too long. The Government have promised help. I believe it is either 75 per cent or 85 per cent of the repair costs. That is very important. It is not enough for those farmers who suffered so much the last time and are more or less ruined, farmers who now have no land left. All the topsoil is gone, and all that remains are boulders strewn over the place—a sort of moonscape.

The report must come very quickly. I come back to a declaration of a disaster area. If we took that action, there are funds in the European Community which could do two things. One is to help finance the study; the second, and far more important, is to help finance the steps that have to be taken to prevent a similar happening. I suggest that the Scottish Office approach the Community soon, and approach it not in any humble way, but rather with pride and positively. Here is one of the great rivers of Europe. Europe must control it. It is a challenge to all of Europe. If, unhappily, I am wrong, the appeal is not made and we are left to do it alone, then we must go it alone. So be it. But we must go on, and soon.

7.2 p.m.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Perth, for raising this matter in your Lordships' House. First, I too would like to express sorrow at the devastation caused by the floods in Tayside on this occasion. Etched on my mind are the floods of 1990 and the difficulties that arose as a result of that terrible time, particularly for the farmers of Tayside. But this time, more than just the farmers have been affected. The city of Perth has suffered a devastating blow.

I should like to draw this point to the attention of my noble friend who will reply to the debate. The situation is very similar to the troubles which occurred on the Welsh coast, at the time of the 1990 disasters in Tayside farmland. I very much hope, indeed I am sure, that the Minister will take my remarks for what they are worth, and realise that any sympathetic help that can be given within the city of Perth to the people of Perth should be examined most closely. I shall not go so far as the noble Earl in talking about disaster areas. I know only too well the difficulties that the Government may face in trying to go down that course. But that does not mean that no help is available. I am certain that some help could be found. With regard to agricultural land, I am sure that the Government will certainly look favourably on the problems facing the farmers of Tayside. After all, the floods are very damaging. In particular, as the noble Earl said, the loss of topsoil in so many places is devastating for the farmers.

The other point to bear in mind is that much of the land affected on this occasion happens to lie outwith the less favoured areas part of Scotland. In examining the help that could be given for the flood damage, the Government might like to bear that point in mind.

The noble Earl referred to a review in 1990 which is perhaps —I know not—gathering dust on a shelf somewhere. I believe that something has changed since 1990 that might facilitate a better, more thorough and government-led review. Since 1990, Scottish Natural Heritage has come into being. It seems to me with the problems of Tayside, of the River Tay and its tributaries—we cannot forget its tributaries, particularly in this case the River Earn —that Scottish Natural Heritage may well form the vehicle for looking into the reasons why the floods have taken place; looking to see whether in the area of the hydro board's responsibility or in the Forestry Commission's responsibility there is room for examination for change. If the result of those deliberations helps Tayside, there may be a spin-off to other areas in Scotland. I well recall the difficulties of the valley of the River Conon not so many years ago, where the same lessons learnt about Tayside can be learnt about other parts of Scotland.

Obviously help is required, and as I understand it, help is being offered. But quantifying it is always an extremely difficult job. However, I have absolute confidence that the Government will recognise the difficulties, the devastation and the upset to so many people, so many lives and so many homes that these floods have caused. Action should be forthcoming, and soon.

7.7 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, as the noble Earl, Lord Perth, said in his introduction to this short debate, the Tay is a mighty and powerful river. I perhaps know it best from some happy hours spent on it catching salmon, or occasionally not catching salmon. But its might and its power are certainly not lost on one, even when it is at its lowest summer levels.

I was supposed to be trying my luck last week. But when the levels of the river were explained to me, in the part I know best, it was brought home to me—in a way that perhaps nothing else has been (not even television pictures do it) —just what was happening in the valley of the River Tay. We all saw television pictures of the folk in Perth whose houses were not just two or three inches deep in muddy and cold water, but what looked to me like two or three feet deep. One can only feel heartfelt sympathy and sorrow for them. It will take them many months simply to get rid of the dampness, let alone be able to re-equip their houses to the way they were previously.

The one thing I hope my noble and learned friend will be able to say is that when the district council, which will have considerable expenditure on its housing account I have no doubt, faces that, it will not find itself being capped by the Government for spending over the normal limit. It is an excellent council. I believe my noble friend knows that it would not do that deliberately. In the circumstances that confront it now, I cannot see how it can avoid having to spend a great deal more money than it would spend in any normal year. I certainly hope that the Scottish Office will be sympathetic both to the district council and the regional council in that regard.

When I was watching the films that television people were showing and listening to people commenting, my attention was drawn to the flood barriers, the flood banks, which over the years have been built all the way down the river and to the fact that where they were breached the water poured into the adjacent fields. While I do not expect my noble and learned friend to reply to me now (indeed I may be absolutely wrong) I wondered whether the problem of the River Tay, which is a huge river, has to be solved a lot further up than Perth. The simple fact of the matter is that, if the River Tay is 15 to 20 feet above its normal level, Perth is below that. There is nothing that either the Government or anybody else can do about that. One must therefore try to ensure that the river does not come down to Perth at those heights.

One cannot turn off the rain or prevent the snow from melting, and therefore one must find some way of allowing those many thousands of tons of water to find somewhere where they can stay still before being drained away gradually over many days or indeed weeks. My mind is drawn to the Spey, which is another mighty river though not as mighty as the Tay. Those who know the Spey Valley, as I am sure many of your Lordships will, above Lochinch, will know that between Lochinch and Kingussie, there is a flood plain which has not been cultivated or drained. It has been left rather as nature intended and when the River Spey becomes mighty that flood plain fills up. The result is that a great deal of water can be held in that flood plain and it gradually moves away down the river.

As an aside, my noble friend Lord Sanderson mentioned Scottish National Heritage. Such is the importance of the Spey flood plain that it is a site of special scientific interest. On the other hand, the Tay has been confined within rather tight banks from Loch Tay right down to the City of Perth. Therefore all the water coming into the system has been tightly contained all the way down the valley. The net result is that there is nowhere else it can go other than down the valley and on to Perth.

I wonder whether, in our attempt to cultivate the soil and improve the farmland, we have removed what I am sure 200 or 300 years ago were the natural flood plains of the River Tay. I do not know the whole river system that well but I think I am right in saying that nowhere are there flood plains on the Tay. Nowhere is there any allowance made for the river spilling over its banks.

Perhaps I can therefore make a suggestion to my noble friend, that rather than rushing to spend money in rebuilding all the defences all the way down the river, a little thought ought to be given to some lateral thinking and in fact removing some of the defences so that when the river becomes excessive it has room to spill over. It could either be done, for example, north of Dunkeld—between Dunkeld and Ballinluig where the Tummel joins the Tay—or perhaps into what I suspect is more expensive farmland south of Dunkeld between Caputh and Meikleour.

At the risk of being howled down by farmers from Perthshire, and at a time when both the Government and the European Commission are encouraging farmers to look at set-aside, I wonder whether this is an opportunity to do some good with set-aside. Civil engineers and water engineers could easily define the areas and farmers could be encouraged to give at least part to set-aside and no longer try to cultivate their fields with arable. They could maintain them as grassland or grazing land into which the river could flood on those few occasions it needs to and when the damage would be very small. They would become a kind of water meadow as they have in the south.

It may well be that if the engineers cannot come up with other solutions, we ought seriously to consider that kind of solution of compensating farmers in a certain part of the Tay watershed for not being able to farm their land in the normal way; setting aside the land to act as a reservoir to protect lots of other farmland and the City of Perth. I do not expect my noble and learned friend to reply to that suggestion tonight. At least, having aired it, I hope that his advisers and the people who are much more expert in these matters than I, will look at it and consider whether or not it is a way of preventing the kind of horror pictures we have seen occurring yet again.

7.14 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I do not need to declare an interest; the interest in the mighty River Tay has been eloquently expressed by the noble Earl, Lord Perth. However, it is worthy of notice, and the noble Earl has done valuable work this evening in bringing to the notice of your Lordships' House the two floods—the recent one in 1993 which followed on from what all of us thought were disastrous floods in 1990: two mighty floods occurring within the period of three years and yet, according to all the predictions, such floods should take place only once every 50 or 75 years. I understand that the floods in the City of Perth have not been seen on a scale such as we saw them a fortnight ago since 1814. I am sure that that date is in the annals and may well be part of the briefing for my noble and learned friend.

My first concern this evening is for the farmers in the affected areas of the Tay. I thought it was well put by my noble friend Lord Mackay. The area stretches from the seaward end of Loch Tay all the way down to the city. Indeed, my noble friend showed considerable courage in what he suggested. I am sure that no sooner had my noble friend sat down than that the information from your Lordships' debate reached the Dundee Courier and the National Farmers' Union in the Perth area. I hope that we shall see my noble friend hale and hearty next week—I am sure that we shall.

My main concern is with the stock. My noble friend Lord Sanderson also considered that matter, and indeed was responsible for providing assistance in the flood of 1990. I am sure that your Lordships are aware that there is not sufficient space for the flood waters of the Tay to escape. It has to go down this fairly narrow tract of land which is flat and, as my noble friend Lord Mackay said, highly cultivated, containing valuable arable crops. But I am concerned also with the extraordinary damage caused by the topsoil being removed—rubble, stone and gravel wrecking all the valuable work that has been done by the farmers. Valuable lessons were learnt in 1990 which I am sure will be applied this year and I hope in the future.

I thank my honourable friend the Minister. I understand that he was able to give considerable advice and indicated that the Government will look sympathetically and practically upon the problems above all of the farmers, but also of the inhabitants of the City of Perth. I believe that the North Muirton estate was the worst affected. I was somewhat shaken in that I watched a television programme and found that the floods had risen to within one foot of the top of football goalposts. On a normal football pitch I cannot even reach the top. That must indicate that the river on the South Inch must have been an average of six to seven feet above normal. Indeed, there are pictures in today's papers which gave me considerable anxiety.

My noble and learned friend may not be able to answer tonight; he may have time to write to me but we may see a response to my question in his reply. Since the events of 1990 have there been any further developments in the flood banks or improvements in those banks? Have they been raised in any way as a result of what happened in 1990? Have all the possible improvements been made, not only in the flood banks but also in diverting the flow of the river? The experts who advised me across the water in Northern Ireland were called "fluvial morphologists". I am sure that my noble and learned friend will be obtaining a great deal of advice from such persons. If they have been able to give advice from 1990, let alone 1993, I hope that that is taken into account.

I had one other thought that followed on from what was suggested by my noble friends Lord Mackay and Lord Sanderson. In the headwaters of the Tay, around the loch and further upstream, there are fairly extensive forestry plantations. It may be worth considering that with each plantation undertaken there should be provided some form of flood catchment area. It would not have to be too large. I am sure that advice could be given as to the kind of pond which would achieve what I believe my noble friend Lord Sanderson was suggesting, which would restrict the flow of the river in such times of exceptional storm, rain and wind as we experienced earlier this month. That may be worth looking at—perhaps in 1993 or in the year 2050. It is an idea that could be examined.

There are two other points on which I hope my noble and learned friend can reassure us. The road running north from Perth—I call it the "old A/" although it may be renumbered now—serves a valuable number of communities on the left bank of the Tay as it speeds down. I hope that it has not been damaged beyond repair and that the new A.9 which I use from time to time has not been damaged too much. Will my noble and learned friend convey our best wishes to ScotRail? Can he give us some indication as to how long the railway bridge and the railway embankment at Dalguise north of Dunkeld will take to repair so that ScotRail can have an efficient service between Perth and Inverness?

I can see that I am into my seventh minute. I wish to add my support for the Question asked by the noble Earl, Lord Perth. I very much look forward to hearing what my noble and learned friend has to say, let alone seeing my noble friend Lord Mackay in good health on Monday.

7.21 p.m.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, I would like to support my noble kinsman and Clan Chief. I would also like to agree with him about the greatness of the River Tay—so did the Romans when they first peered over Moncreiffe Hill and shouted "Ecce Tiber".

We both of us live in Perthshire and we are both fully aware of the amazing gamut of weather and disasters we have had to contend with since 10th January. When our own minister in Errol Church last Sunday was appealing for funds, bedding and furniture for the citizens of Perth, instead of Bosnia, Somalia, Ethiopia and all the other disaster areas we are normally collecting for, things have come to a pretty pass.

The snow started with some force on the night of Sunday 10th January. Many roads in Perthshire were blocked, including the A.9 where drivers were evacuated into temporary shelter in Ayton Hall, Auchterarder and Blackford village hall, where they were marooned for some days. By Tuesday we were snowed in, and many of us in the Carse of Gowrie had no electricity. On the Sidlaws the electricity was off for two days, and there were drifts of four to five feet of snow, on an overall depth of one foot. Cattle and sheep had to be fed and rescued from drifts.

By Thursday night, 14th January, the temperature had risen and a heavy rainfall commenced which continued all night. On Friday 15th January we were wakened by the sound of a huge oak tree crashing down at the back-door, removing half of our driveway. In the Carse we had gale force winds all day, with hurricane gusts up to 140 miles per hour. These combined with the heavy flooding (from Balmyre Hill the Carse, which is all about sea level, looked like a river) loosened the roots of the trees, so that large trees were crashing everywhere like ninepins. With us, three trees fell, bringing down electricity lines, two blocked a side road and another three had to be cleared from blocking access to people's houses. Slates whizzed off the roof and embedded six inches deep in the grass. It was simply awful. Three hundred year-old oaks and lime trees crashed to the ground or split in half 50 feet up. Parts of the dome in the centre of our house fell in, spraying the carpet with rain and broken glass. At Bridge of Earn the river began to rise and started to burst its banks.

By Saturday the Tay and Earn were both on red alert. Perth Grammar School was turned into an emergency evacuation centre run by the council and voluntary agencies. By 5 p.m. on Sunday 17th January the flood levels at Perth were only 18 inches short of the 1814 record floods, which my noble friend mentioned and which my other noble friend will also tell us about. The flood protection barrier at South Muirton was breached in three places. Milnathort, Comrie, Dunkeld, Spitalfield, Meikleour and Alyth were also badly flooded. Military helicopters were called in to fly over the flooded areas and rescue people stranded. We saw them flying over as we wrestled to cut and drag trees off the road.

Over 300 people were processed through the emergency centre at Perth Grammar School on the Sunday; 1,529 houses were affected, and 873 extensively damaged. Much of the furniture of the evacuated houses had to be removed because it had been polluted by sewage and oil. Some may be retrievable, some may not. There is also the problem of people returning from evacuation to find their furniture gone, including their precious photographs of family events.

Some of the archives stored in the Old Council Buildings on Tay Street have also been damaged by flooding. Some of the books from Perth Library have been wrecked. And despite a gallant battle by the curator and museum staff, the entire storage and workshop level of the museum was flooded to a depth of two feet. Many of the collections stored there have been damaged.

My Lords, I could go on, and on, but I have probably said enough. We all owe a debt to so many people—my noble kinsman for introducing this debate, my noble and learned friend for replying to it, the council, the voluntary workers, the police, the fire brigade, the army and all those who have worked selflessly and tirelessly to mitigate the disaster. They have all been wonderful. But make no mistake: a disaster is what it is.

7.26 p.m.

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, all of us will be very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Perth, for focusing attention today on the recent devastation in Perthshire. As I live quite some way down stream of Perth, my own home and land have been completely unaffected. The only personal inconvenience suffered, although arguably from the point of view of my children a positive benefit, has been that they were prevented for a while by bad weather from getting to school.

When the Tay last burst its banks three years ago in 1990 government reaction to the consequences—and not without some justification—was perhaps rather more philosophical than positive. It was pointed out that, since there had been no similar occurrence for about 100 years, perhaps there was no desperate urgency to launch a proper study into the analysis of causes and preventive measures. Nor was there an enormous public outcry about the need to recompense farmers, who at that time were damaged most. On their trade and production within the economy farmers were already undergoing a number of misfortunes, and flood damage might have been viewed as simply one more misfortune to take its place along with all the others. Nevertheless, as we know, some measure of compensation was given to those farmers. Much credit for that should go to my noble friend Lord Sanderson, who within the Scottish Office then worked hard to see that it did. This time, however, there is no case that comforting words should to some extent take the place of the speedy disbursement of public funds.

There are two obvious ways in which public funds ought to be committed. First, those who have suffered property damage, many of whom through lack of resources were underinsured, should be completely recompensed. Secondly, as your Lordships have already been advocating, a proper study must be urgently launched by the Government into ways and means of preventing similar future disasters. Among various schemes already in place there is, of course, the Bellwin formula. Broadly speaking, this formula pays back to the local authority 85 per cent. of that which it will have been required to spend in all its work to restore the status quo ante. That then leaves a 15 per cent. shortfall between the total cost of restitution and the receipt of central funds.

In many contexts, 85 per cent. government help would be extremely generous. Such areas are those where the aim is to encourage and to pump-prime businesses, jobs and industry. Yet of course what we are talking about today is an entirely different context. We have seen families in their own homes, in particular in North Muirton, Perth, who have been caused a huge measure of distress. They have experienced the damage and destruction of personal possessions. For many, all their furniture is irrecoverable. For the elderly, as the noble Earl, Lord Perth, has already pointed out, photographs, mementos and so on have gone. There has been the horror of witnessing this, the uncertainty about when you will return home and the uncertainty regarding the state of your home when eventually you do.

Already, as we have heard, there has been locally a very impressive level of voluntary work done and voluntary funds donated. For all those reasons, there is a compelling case that Government support should be far higher than 85 per cent. I wonder whether my noble and learned friend will give an assurance that the Government will provide more funds either by increasing the present provision under the Bellwin formula or through other means.

There is an urgent need for a proper study into the problem to be launched by the Government. Clearly, we can make no comfortable prediction that further devastation will not recur next year or at some far distant time that it is convenient to calculate. We thought that we could do that in 1990. We have been proved wrong. We knew then that the force of water was 750 cubic metres per second. This time the force was 2,250 cubic metres per second according to my information. It has been estimated that at that rate even if Loch Faskally were bone dry it would have taken only 16 minutes for it to have been filled up completely. It is hardly surprising that, given that exceptional power and force, the Tay has now struck again with such devastation.

The Government should now act to launch a comprehensive study. I hope that my noble and learned friend is in a position to give that commitment today. We may well be eligible for EC funds in respect of this matter, as the noble Earl, Lord Perth, suggested. It would be interesting if the results of the study were to include some of the ingenious ideas put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, which he described as lateral thinking. It may be that the Government could bring in Scottish National Heritage, as the noble Lord, Lord Sanderson, suggested. That apart, the important thing is that a study must now be launched.

No human life—at least not directly—may have been lost. We are indeed fortunate in that. Yet great strain has been placed upon the health of many, particularly the elderly. There is no room for complacency. We should act now to achieve with central funds complete reimbursement to those who have suffered materially and psychologically, and we should act immediately to prevent a disaster of this kind ever happening in the area again.

7.33 p.m.

Lord Hughes

My Lords, I was aware that the noble Earl, Lord Perth, was to raise the matter of the devastation in Perthshire but unfortunately discovered too late that it was to be done today and failed to put my name down in the ordinary way. In preparing the list of speakers it is the custom that a gap appears. Today a gap appears after the name of the noble Earl, Lord Dundee. For the first time in over 30 years' membership of your Lordships' House I have occasion to take advantage of that gap.

The noble Earl, Lord Perth, gave a graphic description of the situation in Perth in particular. None of your Lordships needs to be told that he was not exaggerating. Perhaps for the first time in generations Perthshire appeared on television news night after night showing the extent of the devastation suffered. The noble Earl, Lord Perth, has spoken of two things that have to be done: first, we must respond to the immediate need to provide help to those who have suffered so much distress, whether they be farmers or tenants of council houses in Perth. All have suffered extreme devastation. I live in what used to be called the Clachan of the Ross. It used to be a separate village but is now part of Comrie. Comrie was one of the places which, like Bridge of Earn, also suffered badly as a result of this. I did not suffer any personal loss, apart from the fall of one tree. The only inconvenience I suffered was that for two days I could not get out of the Ross into Comrie and for four days I could not get from Comrie to the town of Crieff seven miles away. We had been advised not to use the roads because of the floods which still covered them.

I must pay tribute both to the regional council and to Perth and Kinross District Council for their magnificent efforts. The situation was such that it was impossible for human resources to deal with the situation, but they certainly did their best. They got help from the army. For example, at Comrie we had the Cultybraggan camp a mile up the road and that was opened to those who might have been washed out of their houses in Comrie, although fortunately most people were able to make use of the help of their friends.

Reference was made to the tributaries of the Tay. It was not only the Tay itself that suffered. Two rivers flow through Comrie, one of which I am quite certain most of your Lordships have never heard of: the River Ruchill. Normally, it is a pleasant little stream. In many parts a person more capable than myself can easily jump across it. One night it burst its banks and within minutes four houses—which could never have expected to be in danger from any river—had four feet of water bursting through their doors. Yesterday the people concerned were still dealing with the resulting problems.

I should like to tell your Lordships how I saw the situation at the time. In less than 24 hours 15 inches of snow fell. That was a normal problem for the local authorities in terms of getting the roads clear. But within a comparatively short time a sudden thaw was accompanied by torrential rain. Anybody who had been out east would have compared it with a monsoon storm. That contributed to the enormous rise in the level of the Tay and its tributaries.

The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, said that there should be immediate help for those in distress and indicated what should be done to prevent the same situation recurring in future. Much thought will have to be given to that. Some interesting suggestions have been made. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, put forward one suggestion. I am reminded that in the 1960s a tremendous gale stripped the roofs off thousands of homes in Glasgow. It was a dreadful situation for the people living in those tenements. When asked what Glasgow Corporation would do to deal with the situation, the Town Clerk demurred and said, "If we carry out repairs to these homes some of the people will not be insured and there is no way that we will get the money back". The then Secretary of State, the late Lord Ross of Marnock, instructed Glasgow Corporation to go ahead with the repairs. He said, "Many of the people will be covered by insurance. The problem of those not covered by insurance is something that you and I will have to deal with when the event occurs".

I say to the noble and learned Lord who is to reply to the debate that it is unlikely that the Government will be able to do everything that is necessary either immediately or in the long term to satisfy everybody. No matter what they do, somebody will say that the Government are wrong. What I say to him is that if the Government are to make any error in dealing with the situation they should err on the side of generosity.

7.39 p.m.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, first, we should thank the noble Earl, Lord Perth, for having raised this subject. Although he made the point that he was sorry your Lordships had not taken the Statement when it was brought forward, the fact that we are having a much larger bite at the problem is better than having a Statement merely tacked on at the other end. In addition, we now know more about what happened.

The noble Earl gave a most graphic account of the circumstances at the lovely town of Perth and explained vividly just how powerful and mighty was the River Tay. He suggested that a disaster area should be declared. It is for the Government to weigh up and decide whether the issue falls into that category. The fact that the noble Earl has suggested it means that we expect a response from the Government to a different problem in Perth which is at least as effective as the response given to the situation in Glasgow. That was quite remarkable. My noble friend Lord Hughes will perhaps remember that slaters were brought from London and the South East to deal with the damage. That was the kind of urgency with which the matter was looked at.

Flooding is perhaps rather a different matter. We did not get very much flooding in the west of Scotland but the winds were very high. Power lines were down. Power workers are to be congratulated for working in appalling weather to restore the services. All that we lost were some television programmes; in Perth and round about many people lost just about everything.

In the west of Scotland, because of the built-up nature of the area and the age of some of the houses, chimney pots and slates were lost and trees were blown down. We had a number of fatalities. That was something of which other parts of Scotland were largely spared. However, everyone was aware of just how badly Perth and the surrounding area had been affected by the water which is essential in its right place. In the wrong place it is uncontrollable and unpleasant.

Another factor emphasised by the noble Earl, Lord Perth, was the fortitude of the people and the way in which they got to work and also the performance of the different organisations. In the other place everyone gave credit to the army, the navy and the air force, the district authorities, Perth District Council, the fire service, the local communities and the voluntary services.

A number of points were raised in another place. One was raised with the Minister, Sir Hector Monro. He explained what had happened two years ago when a special increase was made in the grant for flood banking. He said that the normal capital grants scheme would be available for hedges, walls and fences. I am not sure if that is the measure which was introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Sanderson, and whether, as a one-off measure it needs to he revived. I am not sure whether it applied only to farmers or to many other people who were very badly affected.

Another point raised in the other place was dampness. My honourable friend, Mr. Dennis Canavan, MP for Falkirk West, asked if the Minister would have a word with his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security as to whether the cold weather allowance could be extended for a period to the areas badly affected by floods. In a situation of this kind—there has been the odd problem of burst pipes in my own area—people have had to have electric heaters on night and day for weeks and weeks. Some people have got into great difficulty and have incurred debt. I hope that the Minister will take note of that. I do not know whether he is able to say anything now about the request made to Sir Hector Monro in another place.

The least we can ask is that we have a full report from the Government with some ideas of what possibilities and plans they may have for the Tay Valley. This is a question which the Government may say is a gamble that must be taken with nature if it only happens about once every 100 years. A balance must be made as regards the cost of carrying out some very expensive scheme or setting up a fund for a less elaborate scheme to alleviate problems when they arise.

The danger, as pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, and, I believe, by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, is the increase in the rate of occurrence from 1812 or 1814 or thereabouts. These are the kinds of questions to which we need answers. We should all be grateful that we have had the chance to express a hope on behalf of the people of Scotland, who have had, and who are having, a very hard time, that they are being heard down here and that the Government are being kept on their toes as to what their response will be to a quite definite disaster.

7.46 p.m.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving your Lordships' House the opportunity to debate this important issue. It was indeed raised in another place on an earlier occasion, but that was in response to a PNQ which, as I understand the practice of this House, is not normally repeated here. Perhaps I may begin by expressing my sympathy and that of my colleagues in the Scottish Office to the people of Perth and Kinross for the distress which they have suffered during the recent severe weather.

The Secretary of State for Scotland and my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Agriculture and the Environment have already visited the area and, as has been indicated, they have seen the extensive flooding and damage that has been caused. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Housing, following on earlier discussions which he has already had with the Provost of Perth and Kinross, will be visiting Perth tomorrow and discussing their problems. In recognition of the problems encountered, the Prime Minister has also written to the Provost expressing his sympathy.

Perhaps I may also join in the compliments which have been expressed about the professionalism and commitment of the local authority, the emergency services and the military personnel for their handling of the situation when the flooding was at its height and in the immediate aftermath. Their response was outstanding. We have been seeking for some time to encourage the establishment by local authorities of joint emergency planning co-ordinating committees and, if nothing else, I believe that this incident has provided evidence that the arrangements which are in place have worked well.

Flooding of the severity experienced recently should, statistically, have occurred no more than once every 100 years. However, it has now happened twice in three years. Natural hazards such as flooding are not always bound by the laws of statistical probability nor do they lend themselves to easy or quick solutions. However, I welcome this opportunity to set out what the Government have done and believe should be done.

The flows in the River Tay were at their highest in some 40 years of records. The level reached at Perth was exceeded only by the flood of February 1814, as my noble friend Lord Lyell indicated. However, the 1814 event was partly the result of ice blocking the river. Therefore, it will be appreciated that the recent flooding was even more exceptional. The 1990 flood was also severe and, understandably, there is a concern which has been expressed this evening that the frequency with which these events occur appears to be increasing. But floods are caused by combinations of many factors and are unpredictable. Extreme events can occur close together and, similarly, there can be long periods without a major incident.

Your Lordships will be interested to learn that the Scottish Office has been in touch with the Tay River Purification Board and the Institute of Hydrology with a view to forming the best assessment of the magnitude of the flood and its relationship to other extreme events in the catchments. This important study could increase our understanding of the nature of the flood mechanism. Preliminary indications are that the unusually rapid snow melt, together with the sustained rainfall which the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, and others will recollect, on a saturated catchment were the principal causes of this emergency, coupled with high tides and exceptionally high winds.

The noble Earl and others have referred to the study which was carried out after the 1990 flood. One of the recommendations of that study was that improved flood warning systems should be installed. That recommendation has been acted upon and the flood warning systems have been installed by the Tay River Purification Board with government encouragement. It appears that the systems worked well and gave vital warnings which were acted upon by the emergency services.

The report on the study also recommended that urgent consideration should be given to the flood protection provided in the city of Perth. These are matters on which Tayside Regional Council has powers to act under the Flood Prevention (Scotland) Act 1961. I understand that today the council has convened a meeting of representatives from bodies which formed the steering group which oversaw the 1990 study. The Scottish Office was represented, and any issues arising will be carefully studied. I can assure the noble Earl that any flood prevention scheme proposed by the regional council and included in its future financial plans will be taken into account when the capital allocations are being set.

Expenditure on confirmed flood prevention schemes and preliminary studies for such schemes now attract grant from the Scottish Office at the rate of 50 per cent. My noble friend Lord Sanderson of Bowden may recall that that figure was set at 30 per cent. in 1992, but it has been increased. However, the initiative for such a scheme must come from the regional council itself.

There has been the suggestion that an integrated management scheme should be developed for rivers such as the mighty River Tay. While this could be done to some extent by the regional council itself using its existing powers, there are severe practical and administrative difficulties in reconciling the many legitimate interests of the persons and bodies involved. It has to be borne in mind that, even with an integrated approach, there are limits beyond which flooding will still occur. The resulting damage could well be greater for people having been lulled into a false sense of security. Protection against natural hazards such as flooding can never be absolute and there is a risk to all developments in the flood plain.

The residents of North Muirton in Perth are only too acutely aware of this risk. I understand that the district council is carrying out a survey of all the properties which have been flooded to assess the extent of the damage. The council will assess the cost of work required once the final results of the survey are known. The council already has substantial resources made available to it for housing capital investment in 1992–93: this amounts to £6.2 million for investment in its own stock and just over £2 million for investment in private sector housing. Provisional allocations for 1993–94 have also been issued. If after the council has fully assessed the extent of the damage it considers that the cost of the appropriate remedial work cannot be met from within its existing allocations, it should get in touch with officials in the Scottish Office Environment Department to discuss the situation.

Perhaps I may now turn to the impact on farmers and land owners, which has been raised more than once during the debate. There has been extensive damage to walls and fences and some damage to crops but, fortunately, very little loss of livestock. Some farm buildings will have been damaged and there has been a considerable volume of debris deposited on farm land.

We have considered carefully what help might be justified to farmers in these difficult circumstances. In our view, it is clearly important to maintain in good repair the floodbanks which have been built to prevent, or at least to mitigate, the worst effects of flooding. It is important that these defensive works should be restored as quickly as possible. They benefit not only the riparian landowners and farmers but have a wider public benefit for other farmers and nearby villages.

In 1990, which saw the most recent instance of serious flooding in Scotland, the Government agreed to increase the rate of grant available to farmers under the farm and conservation grant scheme for floodbank repairs. We increased the rate to 75 per cent. for farms in the less favoured areas and to 60 per cent. elsewhere. That offer applied for the duration of the summer in order to encourage repair work to be completed before the following winter.

This year my colleagues moved quickly to repeat that offer, and on 21st January it was announced that we would again provide the same rate of grant. On the basis of the experience in 1990, this will entail about £600,000 of additional government expenditure. I trust that it should be sufficient to ensure that the repairs are completed in good time.

Since the flooding, staff of the Scottish Office Agriculture and Fisheries Department have been closely involved in seeking to assess the impact of the floods and in advising farmers. I am pleased to report this evening that, in addition, the Government have arranged for technical staff of the Scottish Agricultural College to provide free advice to farmers in the affected areas on possible ways of repairing damage or coping more effectively with the risk of flooding in the future.

As my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish anticipated, with the new requirement to set aside land under the reformed common agricultural policy, some farmers may have more options to consider in planning the future use of their land. I hope that they will find it helpful to have free access to this independent, expert advice in framing their business plans for the future.

As regards finance, government finance has already been made available to local authorities affected in the Tayside area after Treasury approval was obtained to trigger what is known and has been referred to as the Bellwin scheme of special financial assistance. It exists to provide special financial assistance to local authorities which would otherwise incur an undue financial burden in providing relief and carrying out immediate work to safeguard life and property. The affected authorities have been requested to apply for grant by 30th June at the latest should they consider they have an eligible claim. To date, no indication has been received by my officials of the likely cost. This is not, however, unexpected, given that authorities must wait for the flood waters to recede before any complete assessment of the damage, even of an immediate nature, can be made.

Authorities that claim will receive grant at 85 per cent. of eligible expenditure over a given threshold. Such authorities have statutory powers to deal with emergencies and it is reasonable to expect that they will have provided for a reasonable contingency level in their normal financial planning. The scheme does not aim to cover the full costs of dealing with an emergency. Rather, it seeks to prevent any undue burden falling on the authorities. However, I can assure your Lordships that each claim received will be considered sympathetically within the scheme rules.

The noble Earl asked me whether it might be possible to have the area declared a disaster area. He referred to the declaration at the Shetlands. Although it is a well-known approach and is familiar to many of us when a hurricane hits the Atlantic coast of the United States, there is no formal procedure within the United Kingdom for designating any particular area a disaster area and there is no particular mechanism that would allow the Government to respond in any different way. However, I hope that I have assured the noble Earl that a considerable number of measures are taken and considerable support is available when a natural disaster on this scale occurs.

The noble Earl and my noble friend Lord Dundee asked me whether it might be possible to look for EC funding. While the assessment is still being made as to the full extent of the damage, it cannot yet be clear whether it is sufficiently grave in that sense for an appeal for EC funding to be made. Such payments are normally more of a gesture, which is none the less greatly appreciated by the United Kingdom, rather than a payment to address the fundamental problem. Any possible aid is therefore likely to be a contribution at the margins.

I was asked a number of other detailed questions. I hope that I shall be forgiven if I do not respond to them all. My noble friend Lord Lyell asked me about the railway embankment which collapsed at Dalguise. I understand that that work is expected to take some 10 days. However, the rebuilding of the pier on the Forteviot bridge which carries the Glasgow to Aberdeen railway line is technically more difficult and may take some three months to repair. I am pleased to say that there is no serious damage reported to either the old or the new A.9 and other damage is being tackled by Tayside Regional Council as the roads authority.

We have all had to recognise the serious impact that these recent events have had on the local communities. I hope that it will be accepted that we have taken positive measures in response to the flooding and are keeping in close touch with the local authorities. We have demonstrated, I trust, our concern by providing financial support for the local authorities towards the costs incurred in dealing with the emergency and to farmers to restore flood defences for agricultural areas.

In the longer term, which I think has underlain much of what has been contributed to the debate this evening, there is a concern that we should look carefully at proposals for improved flood defences and river management, not only on the River Tay but on other significant rivers in Scotland. I can say that they will receive careful consideration. I conclude by again thanking the noble Earl for bringing the matter to the attention of the House.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, perhaps I may raise a point that I did not raise earlier namely, the question of the worst-off people in the community—those who are on supplementary benefit—and the possibility of the cold weather heating allowance being extended to them. They will be sitting in damp houses and will be extremely worried. Many old people will not even turn on their heaters. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord knows the picture very well. Will he at least undertake to raise the matter with the appropriate Minister to see whether the cold weather heating allowance could be extended for this particular disaster?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

Certainly, my Lords. I shall ask the Minister responsible in the Department of Social Security about that matter. As I think the noble Lord will appreciate, that allowance is triggered by a somewhat elaborate formula relating to the degree and duration of the cold. Curiously enough, one of the problems here was that, after an extremely savage cold snap, the thaw came very quickly. However, I shall certainly raise the matter with my ministerial colleagues and let the noble Lord know the outcome.

House adjourned at five minutes past eight o'clock.