Orders of the Day — Fen District (Floods).

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 23rd March 1937.

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Photo of Mr Morgan Price Mr Morgan Price , Forest of Dean

The hon. and learned Gentleman has certainly made out a very good case for his county receiving a more generous measure of support. I know the district too, and I have thought that long periods of heavy rainfall might produce very serious consequences indeed. That time has come and on a smaller scale his county has repeated the far greater tragedy of East Anglia. I come from the neighbouring county, further up the Bristol Channel, where we are not so seriously affected. We are suffering from floods but in a comparatively mild degree. I hope it will not be thought that we are less interested in the misfortunes of other districts which have been struck so hard by this misfortune. In this country we are benefiting to-day from what our forefathers did on the land. Our fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers drained land that was below sea level. In the Ouse catchment area it started far away back in the times of the Stuarts. I believe the great Oliver Cromwell sat in this House for the borough of Cambridge, and he was elected because he had so strenuously fought for the interests of the Fenlanders, for the drainage of the area and for the rights of the little men in that country.

Of course, the struggle with water has gone on for several centuries, but only perhaps in the last century has any great attempt been made to deal with it on a large scale. It has now got to a point where the nation as a whole must take up the work. What the farmer owners originally dealt with themselves must now be dealt with on a national scale. That, of course, was the reason for the Drainage Act which Dr. Addison piloted through the House in 1930 and which started the process of absorbing various small drainage boards into larger catchment boards. For many years I was a member of one of those small boards in the Severn Valley which started originally, I understand, in the reign of King John. It dealt with only one tributary flowing into the Severn. I remember that when I first joined it they used to say, "What is the use of our doing anything here if the outlet lower down on the Severn is not dealt with as well?' Unless it is, our money will be uselessly spent." Some co-operation was necessary and, of course, no cooperation was possible until Dr. Addison's Bill reached the Statute Book. Now we have a fairly reasonable unification of control.

I was surprised to hear that in the catchment area of the Ouse there is still a good deal of lack of unification. There are still, it seems, a lot of small drainage boards acting somewhat on their own. In the Severn catchment area we have much more unification. The board to which I belonged has been absorbed and all our functions have been merged in the larger Severn Catchment Board. Moreover, the county council has been helpful in this respect. There are areas further up, above the flood line, which are not within the jurisdiction of the catchment board, but here also watercourses have to be cleaned out. Private owners are often unable to do it for various reasons, so we have had schemes in recent years under which the unemployed have been put to work by the county council. The consequence is that no very serious flooding has taken place this time. I know districts where, when there was a rainfall anything approaching what we have just experienced, we got highways flooded for days and whole areas inundated for a very long time. That has not taken place this time and it is mainly due to the operations of the catchment board.

I admit that in the Valley of the Severn drainage is much easier than it is in some districts in East Anglia and in those mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Bridgwater (Mr. CroomJohnson). We have not got the problem of large areas under the high tide level, though the bottom of the river near the mouth is considerably above the level of the bed 20 or 30 miles higher up. That is a somewhat different problem which causes a certain amount of difficulty. We have now to pay the bill and we are getting our assessments, and I can quite see that there are many occupiers who, in the present condition of agriculture, may be hard put to it to pay their rate. I think, however, that on the whole the assessment of the drainage rate is not unreasonable. I cannot quite agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg (Mr. Quibell)—I know it has been for a long time a sore point with him and his constituents—that the Land Drainage Act did the wrong thing in basing the drainage assessments upon rateable value rather than upon acreage. I think that upon the whole the Act is justified in what it is doing.

In the Severn Catchment Board area our assessments are based upon our Income Tax assessment for the land. There has been no rating of agricultural land since the 1929 Act, so it is based on the Schedule A assessment. We have various differential rates levied and deductions made from the main assessment according to whether the land is near the flood level, above it, or very much below it. It is all based upon old drainage maps, which are being brought up to date at the present time. At the same time, Government grants are needed to enable proper work to be carried out. Even yet nothing like enough has been done in the Severn Valley Catchment Board area, and in view of the financial stringency and of the fact that what has been done is only just now being paid for, very necessary work will hardly be carried out in the future unless there is assistance from the Government.

I realise that there are far greater and more serious problems facing catchment boards than that in the Severn Valley, and that large grants up to 100 per cent. are necessary. In particular the hon. Member for Leominster (Sir E. Shepperson), who is not now in his place, referred to the necessity for a no per cent. grant for clearing the Wash of silt, although I think it was the hon. and gallant Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Captain Heilgers) who mentioned that that really is a case where a 100 per cent. grant is necessary. It is a matter which affects such a wide area, even outside the area of the catchment board of the Ouse, and this is now less difficult in view of the financial position of the country. It is very unfortunate indeed that the work begun by Dr. Addison, when he passed the Drainage Act of 1930 through this House, and prepared plans at the Ministry of Agriculture for large-scale drainage, the whole thing should have to be cut in the financial crisis of 1931. It has already been mentioned in this Debate how unfortunate that was. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Ripon (Major Hills), to whose interesting speech I listened, referred to it being due to the fact that money at that time was scarce. My answer to that is that money was not scarce, but was made scarce. Money was made scarce by the financial policy at that time of deflation, of remaining on the Gold Standard. However, that is a controversial matter, and in this Debate I do not want to introduce controversy. Although we are entitled to refer to it, nevertheless, I do not want to elaborate it too far. I hope that the Government will take courage and not allow matters, of financial stringency to cause them to fail in their duty towards these areas for adequate and properly planned drainage.

I can feel, indeed, for the misfortunes of the Fenland. When I was at Cambridge a good many years ago I used to go down to the very districts which are being disastrously affected, to Wickham Fen and Soham Lode Fen. I know that part very well, and I realise the seriousness of the situation caused by the bursting of the banks on the Soham Lode Fen, thus causing all that district to be flooded. No doubt in a month's time the water will have gone, and I am not altogether without hope that it will be possible even yet to get some spring crops planted for this year. The University of Cambridge has a very fine agricultural school. I had the honour to be one of the first students who studied there some years ago, and various professors there, especially Professor Biffin, of the Department of Agricultural Botany, have been producing varieties of wheat and other agricultural crops which stand all sorts of conditions. I have very little doubt that the department there can find a crop which may be planted late, when the water has gone off the land, which will even yet yield a harvest during the coming autumn.

I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) said as to the importance of dealing with this problem from the point of view of the production of the land. In many districts which I know in the West of England you can see where once upon a time corn grew, where the ridge and the furrow are still to be seen, and where rushes are now growing where the ditches are all silted up. That is our problem in the West, which is mainly a pasture country. Also in the land of the birth of the right hon. Gentleman, in Wales, where, as Professor Stapleton has shown at Aberstwyth University, very large areas of the upland country have been rendered not valueless, but very much lower in value in account of the waterlogged condition which has gradually been growing up.

I cannot altogether share the admiration of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs for what is being done in Germany. I know that the Hitler regime there is doing a great deal in draining the land, but it began a long time ago. It was started by Frederick the Great, and when I used to go across Germany a few years ago when I lived there I used often to come across the drainage works started by Old Fritz, as he is still called, which the present regime in Germany is only carrying on. They are only carrying it on really because it is part and parcel of their policy to separate Germany from the rest of the world and to become increasingly self-sufficient and so cut her off from international trade. Anyway, this is a problem which perhaps we can deal with later.

I was particularly struck by the speech of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Ripon (Major Hills) and the remarks which he made about the close connection between water supply and drainage. That is very true, and he no doubt noticed that when he was a member of the Royal Commission that reported on drainage. It is a remarkable fact that during the periods of drought which we had a few years ago we heard it constantly said that the water level over a large part of the country was steadily going down. At one end we have the phenomenon that large tracts of country are in danger of being waterlogged at certain times of the year, and at the other end the phenomenon that the water level is not able to supply the springs and wells with water. It indicates that some planning is necessary to develop our water supplies on the one hand and our drainage system on the other.

Local authorities, municipalities and large cities, are now drawing their water direct from the rivers, thanks to the methods of purification which are now adopted. In Gloucestershire, my own county, one important municipality is drawing its water supply largely from the Severn. The great waterways are becoming increasingly important now not only as a receptacle for the surplus water from the land but also as reservoirs to supply water for consumption. These two problems should be considered together. I remember reading the Debate in the last Parliament on the question of water supplies, and the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood), who opened the discussion, complained of the inadequacy of Government support in assisting water supplies. I remember some of the comments in certain organs of the Press, and the phrase "Under the Greenwood Tree, who loves to cry with roe." It has been realised in recent years how important it is to deal with the question of water supplies on the lines which the right hon. Gentleman advocated then and which he has advocated to-day—namely, that the two questions should be taken together if we are to have the problem adequately dealt with.

The Debate has shown an amount of agreement between all sides of the House, and I hope it will do something to forward the development of drainage plans as between one area and another and as between the Government and different areas, and that it will speed up the process of unifying drainage authorities within the catchment areas, which has not fully taken place, but which is necessary if we are to get organised planning.