§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Weatherill.]
§ 4.0 p.m.
§ Mr. John Stonehouse (Wednesbury)
I make no apology for raising now a subject of very great concern to very many of my constituents, and one that must also be of concern to many other hon. Members. In many constituencies the problem of flooding must be even more serious than it is in my constituency, so perhaps some of my suggestions will apply to some other constituencies.
Flooding is no new problem to my constituents or to me. During the 13 years I have had the honour to represent the Wednesbury division there have been far too many cases of serious flooding from the Tame. I am therefore glad to have the opportunity of bringing the subject to a head here this afternoon, in the hope that the Parliamentary Secretary who, I know, takes a very genuine interest in these matters, will be able now to take some effective action.
There have been many serious examples of flooding in my constituency over the years. For instance, in 1968, because of the excess storm water poured into the canals, and into the channels flowing into the Tame, serious flooding occurred. I am glad to say that action was taken to deal with the situation in the Aston Road area of Willenhall, where several council houses were subjected to very serious flooding. The Walsall Corporation rehoused their tenants there, and those houses are no longer occupied. This means that people who suffered flooding over very many years can now live free of that fear. Nevertheless, those tenants suffered serious loss in that their personal possessions were affected by the flooding. I saw many examples of this when I went to see my constituents, and it is a pity that on that occasion they did not also 860 get compensation. Nevertheless, I am glad to pay tribute to the Walsall Corporation for rehousing them.
It is not only the case that flooding of the river carries clean or polluted water into gardens and homes. Unfortunately, because the sewers also flow into the Tame, when there is excessive discharge of storm water, sewage is very often thrown out in the discharge and goes into the gardens and homes. It is this foul water that creates such a terrible nuisance, because it is impossible to eleminate its effects even over very many years. Severe financial hardship is felt when this sort of flooding is experienced.
Everybody whom I have approached about this subject over the years has expressed great sympathy with those who have been affected, but every authority passes the buck on to somebody else. The Department of Environment says that it is the responsibility of the river authorities. The authorities say that they require more grants to carry out the work, which has a high priority, and they pass the buck on to someone else. The municipalities, who have been responsible for a great deal of the housing development which has created a concrete jungle in many parts of the West Midlands and so has increased the volume of water which flows into the Tame in storm conditions, also pass the buck on to someone else. I am suggesting today that the buck has to stop somewhere. I am suggesting that it has to stop here, and that we must take it up and do something about it.
The case about which I am concerned today is the flooding in the Collins Road district of Wednesbury, which in August of this year was affected by very severe flooding because of storms that occurred a day or so before the event. The storm water flowing into the Tame caused the river to overflow at the so-called Wash-lands, and private houses in the area were severely affected, repeating an experience which the householders had had two years before.
I know that there are plans for the future development of this watercourse which in the end will cure this problem to some extent, but I am not satisfied that this work is being done with a sufficient degree of priority. I believe that it should be speeded up so that this problem can be eradicated and these 861 people do not have to suffer the experience that I have been describing. I suggest to the Minister that he should take a personal and direct interest in this subject and draw together the various authorities concerned with it so that there can be a co-ordinated plan to deal with this problem of flooding.
When one talks about a problem like this, one can imagine what effect it can have on one's constituents. It is only when a personal case is brought out as an example that one can realise just what repercussions there can be from flooding of this kind. I should like to quote the case of Miss M. E. Williams of 18, Collins Road, Wednesbury, who lives there with her aged father. She has been negotiating to sell the house so that she and her father can move to a bungalow in Worcestershire. He has to move on doctor's advice so that he can take care of his health. It was arranged during the past summer that the house would be sold. The agreement had already been reached, but on the very day that the contract was to be signed by the purchaser the house was flooded and the sale fell through.
Miss Williams writes to me:The situation now is that we have an unsaleable house on our hands, a bungalow in Worcestershire on which we shall lose money already put down, solicitors fees and other expenses still to be paid, my job in Droitwich which I shall no longer be able to keep and no prospects that I can see of being able to follow our doctor's recommendations. In view of the efforts made over the last few years to avert such a crisis, you can understand how bitter we feel.She goes on to describe how the ground had been strengthened. They had put hundreds of tons of soil around these houses to cure the flooding but, notwithstanding this, and the fact that their own garden wall had been strengthened, their house was flooded because not enough work had been done upstream to protect this part of Wednesbury from floods. So Miss Williams and her father are having to stay in a house which is unsuitable for Miss Williams, and they are losing the opportunity of moving to the bungalow in Worcestershire.
This is only one example. There are many others which I could quote. Certainly all these constituents in Collins Road have suffered from financial losses as a result of the flooding that took place. 862 It is no fault of theirs that they have suffered this experience. The blame lies firmly on the authorities who allowed development to take place in the West Midlands, so causing an excess flow of storm water into the Tame, which means that these houses are subjected to flooding more frequently than would have been the case if this concrete jungle had not been allowed to be developed.
Furthermore, in regard to Collins Road itself, it is in the so-called washlands of the Tame. I believe it was wrong of the planning authorities to allow this development to take place before the banks of the River Tame itself had been strengthened, or the flow of water had been so designed as to prevent these houses being flooded in the way that I have been describing.
I therefore put the responsibility for this not on an act of God as some would have it, but on the authorities who have allowed this development to take place. Therefore, it is for the Minister and all the others concerned to take action to ensure that compensation is paid to these tenants and householders, and also that effective action is taken to ensure that this does not occur again.
I have had a friendly interview with the Parliamentary Secretary and I understand his sympathy. I appreciate it, and so do my constituents. But it is simply not good enough to try to pass the responsibility to somebody else. That is why I am suggesting that the Minister should take some effective action now. I have also had the most sympathetic reaction from the Trent authority. The members of that authority are extremely conscious of the need to improve the development programme, and I am grateful that the chairman of the authority has himself visited the area, along with officials, in order to see those who have been affected by these floods. I appreciate that they all want to help. But what we want is some effective action.
I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that this action should take the following form. He should call together all the authorities who are concerned about this problem—the Trent authority, the municipalities concerned, and all those who have schemes in hand for improving the flow of the Tame. He should concern himself also with the municipalities' 863 responsibilities under the Public Health Act for ensuring that storm water does not flow into the sewers, to ensure that these do not overflow.
He should draw together these authorities and get effective action on the following lines: first, an ex-gratia payment should be made in compensation to the tenants and householders of Collins Road in particular, for the damage that they have suffered from floods. Indeed, consideration should be given to compensation being paid to the others who have been affected by floods.
Second, investigation should be made immediately into a collective insurance scheme, probably run by the municipal authorities themselves and paid for by the municipalities, so that the owners of houses and council house tenants in areas that are affected may draw upon the insurance without having to effect individual insurance themselves.
This should be a charge on the rates because, although the people who are fortunate enough to live on the higher ground will not themselves be affected by floods, they are helping to contribute to the problem, since it is as a result of the development of their houses that the water flow into the Tame has been so much increased. A collective insurance scheme paid for out of the rates would ensure for the future the payment of adequate compensation when floods occur. It is not sufficient to tell householders that they must themselves effect individual insurance schemes, as the rates to individual householders would be high. As some of these houses have been affected by floods several times in the last few years it is almost certain that the rates will be high.
Third, the rating assessments for the houses which have been affected and are still likely to be affected must be reduced. The suggestion has been made to the municipalities and those concerned, but no action has been taken. Action should be taken, and the Parliamentary Secretary must exercise pressure to ensure that the assessments are reduced.
Fourth, and most important in the long term, the grants available to the Trent authority must be increased. It is ridiculous that the authority, which has nearly 1,000 miles of river to contend 864 with, has a development programme over the next 20 years of £15 million only. This is far too small, and I suggest that it should be increased so that the schemes already in hand can be given higher priority, and we do not have to wait for years before this important work is completed.
Although the Parliamentary Secretary may not be able to give an off-the-cuff reply to each suggestion I have made, I hope that he will take away these four proposals and give them the sympathetic consideration which I know he has in his heart for the problem I have raised, and ensure that within a very short time something is done on the lines I have suggested.
§ 4.18 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Anthony Stodart)
I thank the right hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse) for coming to see me a few weeks ago about this subject and for his extremely constructive speech. I accept fully what he said in his opening remarks about the importance of this matter not only to the people living in Collins Road and in his constituency but from a national point of view.
The right hon. Gentleman has given us a clear picture of the misery, the hardship and the damage which are caused by flooding. If ever one needs a halfway house, it is with water. It is bad enough to be short of it, but it is heartbreaking to be flooded.
As the right hon. Gentleman said in his speech, his first concern is that people affected by flooding should get some recompense or compensation to cover their losses; and that the responsibility for this should be borne by whoever it is that is responsible for protecting them against flooding in the first place.
Although the right hon. Gentleman said that sympathy is not enough, I will go on record straight away by saying that if there were other hon. Members on either side of the House at this moment they would want to join me in expressing sympathy, not only for the people in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency whose predicament has given rise to this debate, and particularly to Miss Williams, but also to the thousands of others up and down the country who are from time to time inevitably affected 865 when rivers cannot contain phenomenal rainfall, or sea defences cannot keep out exceptional tides.
I hope that I managed to convince the right hon. Gentleman that I greatly valued my talk with him about this matter some weeks ago. It let me see more clearly the practical aspects of giving flood protection to his constituents, as well as the practicability of paying them compensation. I do not think that we can consider one of these aspects without looking at the other. In looking at the two together, I think that it is reasonable to say that people want protection against floods and not compensation for the havoc which they cause. If we can give them protection, the buck which the right hon. Gentleman wants to stop will stop here, because the problem of compensation, who is to pay it and who is to be responsible will not arise to nearly so great an extent, always with the reservation of the occasional phenomenal rainfall.
Under the Statute at the moment, responsibility for giving flood protection rests with the river authorities. I have paid a great deal of attention to the right hon. Gentleman's plea that, given more money, river authorities could do more land drainage and flood protection work and that his constituents in Wednesbury might now be safeguarded against flooding instead of having to seek recompense for damage. But it must be said that, because of the statutory position, the river authorities are autonomous bodies. They are entirely responsible for deciding what works they will do and in what order they will do them. They have powers to raise the funds that they need by precepting on the county and county borough councils in their catchment areas up to a statutory maximum of 4d. in the £.
Their general policy, which is one that the Government endorsed, is to take over control of as much mileage of what is known as "main" river and to do as much land drainage and flood protection work as they can within the limits of their physical resources, within the limits of the finance which they judge it right to raise by precept locally and of the share which each individual authority is allocated out of the global sum that the Government can make available for investment 866 in land drainage and flood protection works.
Although I accept the wish that more should be available, the right hon. Gentleman, who has been head of a Department, knows that however much one wants more money, one hardly ever gets as much as one would like. Therefore, through a very complicated formula which I am sure he will not wish me to go into now, I have investigated this and come to the conclusion that the Trent River Authority is getting a fair amount of the Government global sum. Every effort is made to ensure that no scheme which is urgently needed is held back by an inadequate allocation to cover a river authority's overall capital investment.
In deciding on the level of their precepts, river authorities have regard to the demand for their services generally. In some parts of the country there is a growing demand arising from factors such as the need to cater for the faster run-off from rapidly growing urban areas as well as one or two others, and, to encourage river authorities in this important work, we pay large capital grants towards the cost of approved schemes.
I now come directly to the facts of the case about which the right hon. Gentleman is very properly concerned. The houses in Collins Road stand close to the upper reaches of the Tame, and there is a long history of flooding there. The most recent case was the one in August of this year, when some 50 houses were affected following exceptional rainfall.
From where it joins the Trent up to a point beyond these houses, this is main river under the control of the Trent River Authority. The upper reaches were taken over in 1960. In 1965 the authority started a major improvement scheme, likely to cost £140,000, to bring relief from flooding. For technical reasons, which again I need not go into—they are fairly obvious—work always has to proceed in an upstream direction. About six miles have been substantially improved during the past five years. Next year, the work is expected to reach a point at which the properties with which we are concerned will have been given the standard of protection at which the right hon. Gentleman is aiming.
867 Therefore, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will at least derive some comfort when I say that the people in Collins Road are very soon going to be given a substantial measure of protection against flooding, and that, I believe, is preferable, as I have said, to compensation after the flooding has taken place. But there is, in fact, a lot of work to be done, and the Trent River Authority has some 40 major projects in progress which it is dealing with as quickly as it can. One can say much the same thing for the other authorities, wherever they may be.
I want to make it clear that none of them is likely, as far ahead as we can see, to be in the position of having done all the flood protection works that are feasible and economic, and no river authority can realistically guarantee either full protection to its communities or compensation in lieu of protection against any size of rainfall or flooding which may develop. In making this latter proposition, I think that the right hon. Gentleman was, in effect, suggesting that river authorities should be turned virtually into insurance companies or that the Government should cough in with compensation or insurance against flood damage.
The only statutory power which exists is given under the Land Drainage Act, and Government contributions to relevant funds have been made in exceptionally serious flood disasters, such as the Fens, Lynton and Lynmouth, South Wales and the West Country. There is no statutory provision for payments of this kind, and I am afraid that the situation in Collins Road is not in that category. I doubt whether it would be practical for public bodies to assess damage and pay out money to everyone affected by flooding, and in any case I think that any such arrangement would duplicate the cover 868 that the insurance companies are prepared to give.
Despite what the right hon. Gentleman has said, I beg his constituents, although I accept the fact that, because this sort of thing does happen, their insurance rates will be higher than the ordinary, to investigate such cover because nowadays many companies do give flood damage cover for a comparatively small premium on top of a comprehensive policy. Even allowing for the fact that this is obiously a very hazardous area, I believe that, even if the normal premium were multiplied by several times to take account of it, it would still be worth their while, although as I have said I hope that before long this sort of thing will not happen again.
§ Mr. Stonehouse
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman could not answer the question today, but will he give consideration, with the authorities concerned, to the collective insurance scheme I have suggested, so that we could take the responsibility off the individual and assist all those affected to have the insurance collectively which they may not be able to obtain individually?
§ Mr. Stodart
I was going to conclude by saying, again putting on record my sympathy, that I am perfectly prepared to consider the points put by the right hon. Gentleman, without any commitment. But in the meantime the public bodies will press ahead with their works and the Collins Road constituents of the right hon. Gentleman will, in the comparatively near future, see the conditions under which they have suffered every now and again for a very long time immeasurably improved. He will be delighted and I, even though I have not been there, will be delighted too.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.