Flooding and Coast Erosion, Norfolk.

– in the House of Commons on 14th April 1938.

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3.42 p.m.

Photo of Viscount  Elmley Viscount Elmley , Norfolk Eastern

My purpose in raising the allied subjects of coast erosion and flooding by the sea in Norfolk is to show the very difficult position of the East Norfolk River Catchment Board which has to deal with these matters. Also, I do so, in order to give the Minister a more favourable opportunity of making a statement on this matter than he had when he was in the district last Friday and Saturday. I will not weary the House with a narrative of the sequence of events, because that has been reported in the Press, and a most excellent article dealing with the subject appeared in "Country Life" on 26th March. I would observe that it has only been by the greatest good luck that there has been no loss of livestock or life, and it is only because of the fine weather last March that greater damage was not done. I now turn to the main results of the flood. About 20 square miles of amble and grazing land have been put out of action for at least three years. That brings me to my first request to the Minister, and this is one in which my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Christie), who unfortunately cannot be here to-day, is interested, as he is chairman of the agriculture commit tee of the Norfolk County Council. It is this: Would the Minister be so good as' to instruct the county agricultural organiser to co-operate with the people concerned in seeing what is the best way to bring this land back into cultivation?

Now I come to the point where I have to break a lance with hon. Gentlemen opposite. I understand that they would not like the Government to take any measures to help landowners, or what the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. Kirkwood) has called the landowning class. They are taking a very narrow view. To start with, the North Sea, unlike hon. Members opposite, is no respecter of classes, and the people who have suffered most from these floods have been 150 agricultural labourers and their families. It is these same people who stand to lose most if the flooding continues. Then there is the question of time. Since the land which is flooded is lower than the sea, the flood water can only get away through the rivers and has to make a 22-mile journey back to the sea. On the way it has already killed tens of thousands of fish and made the water undrinkable for livestock, and there is a fear that when warmer weather comes the wells may be affected, and that there will be the risk of an outbreak of fever.

I come to the financial side. Unfortunately the catchment board has already spent £13,000 on a temporary scheme which proved abortive. The Minister, I understand, offered a grant of 60 per cent., on which I shall have a word to say later. Now they have to spend £60,000 on another temporary scheme, but this is by no means the end of the story. Besides Horsey, where this trouble has occurred, many other places are threatened, and it is calculated that in the near future they will have spent £500,000 in making their 10 miles of coastline seaworthy, including the construction of a sea wall in one place, and also groynes. That there is no short cut and no cheap way to adequate sea defences is profoundly true.

I turn for a. moment to the question of erosion. At a place called Walcot in the last six years 63 feet of cliff have fallen into the sea, six bungalows have gone, and many more buildings are threatened, including a convalescent home belonging to the Kettering Urban District Council. The main Yarmouth-Cromer road has been destroyed for 100 yards and will have to be replaced. In spite of all this, the lord of the manor is exercising his right to remove shingle in large quantities from the beach. Before the removal of shingle started there was no erosion. The catchment board have a by-law prohibiting the removal of shingle, but they have been advised by eminent counsel that, although they could prosecute any other person for it, their by-law is not strong enough to prevail against the right of the lord of the manor. The property owners are mostly people of small means, and hesitate to start an action in the courts in defence of their property. It is an illogical and absurd position that the catchment board should have to stand idly by, while damage is being done which in the long run they will have to put right at great expense. Therefore, I feel justified in asking the Minister to give an undertaking that he will consult the Attorney-General to see whether that state of things cannot be ended.

I come back to the question of finance. It should not be forgotten that the catchment board are primarily a land drainage authority, and it is calculated that in the 'next few years they may have to spend another £500,000 on dealing with the tidal rivers in their area. It may well be asked: How can they meet these staggering costs? Their only internal resource is a twopenny rate, for which they precept on the internal drainage boards, county councils, and county boroughs in their area. To deal only with what has happened at Horsey will involve an increase of the rate to 3¾d. In Norfolk the financial position is not as good as it is in Essex. In Essex a penny rate raises £20,000, in Norfolk it only raises £8,300. I saw a report in a newspaper the other day that the Minister had made a grant of £1,000,000 to the authorities in Essex for coast defence. If this is so, I think there is every reason why he should do the same in Norfolk, where the need is much greater. The Royal Commission of 1911 found, among other things, that on the whole more land is being gained from the sea every year than is being lost to it. That may still be so in the country in general, but it is certainly not true of Norfolk to-day. A great deal of land is going at Pakefield, Cromer, and elsewhere.

I would remind the Minister of Agriculture of two facts. The Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence said in this House the other day that 30,000 acres of agricultural land had gone for use as aerodromes, factories and so forth. The arable acreage of this country is 13 per cent. less than it was in 1914. Surely, in the very unfortunate position in which the world is to-day, it is true to say that we need every possible square inch of land that is capable of growing things in this country. It may be true, as the "Times" suggested in a leading article recently, that the general level of the country is sinking. If that be so, the position needs very careful consideration.

I hope that I have said enough to show that what has happened in Norfolk is a unique case. For instance, never before has land been flooded with salt water for such a very long time. There was a case about three years ago where some land was flooded for only three days. Already this land has been under water for about seven weeks. Unique cases demand unique treatment, and even if legislation is necessary, I hope that that will not deter the Government from taking action. Rather unfortunately, when I have been dealing with Government Departments recently, I have had the reply from several Ministers that certain proposals cannot be undertaken because they would involve legislation. That is a very useless and miserable plea to put forward. The logical conclusion is that it means that the House of Commons is becoming useless, and that it might as well not exist. No doubt this question ought to have been thought about in the past, and I am only asking that that thought which should have been given to it in the past should be given to it now. I hope that no responsible Minister will get up in this House, either this afternoon or at any future time, and say that proposals cannot be entertained merely because they involve legislation. Unless active measures are taken, a far worse condition may occur in regard to which what has happened already will be a flea bite. Bearing all these things in mind, I ask for the sympathetic and practical assistance of His Majesty's Government.

3.54 p.m.

Photo of Sir Arthur Harbord Sir Arthur Harbord , Great Yarmouth

I wish to thank the Noble Lord the Member for East Norfolk (Viscount Elmley) for his information and his speech on behalf of our county of Norfolk. He has made a valuable contribution to a subject which is engaging the close attention of all Norfolk people. They have suffered two recent blows by coast erosion, and in this matter I share his opinion that the Government have not done their full duty in giving the necessary assistance which they could easily have afforded by sending engineers in goodly numbers who could have done the necessary work of reformation and protection which would have saved the second flooding. The town with which I am connected approached the East Norfolk Drainage Committee and the sister town of Lowestoft, and requested them to lend their civic engineers to the catchment board for purposes of consultation in connection with the work that has to be undertaken. What I am afraid of is that the small amount of money which the Government are prepared to place at the disposal of the catchment authority may lead to a scamping of the work and to ineffective work, which will cause the coast line to be subject to further attack.

In some respects, we were fortunate in that the floods were not accompanied by the winds which sometimes accompany them, for if there had been those winds, one cannot tell where the damage would have ended. There ought to be promptly a survey of the Norfolk coast, and the danger points ought to be scheduled and the Government advised about them. We are told that our shores should be inviolate from foreign attack, but here we have an attack from the sea which renders useless for the time being land which is used for cattle grazing and for the raising of agricultural produce which in time of war this country would so much need. Surely, there is there a new condition which calls for a revision of the old reply of the Government that it is not the Government's responsibility; and surely they ought to incur expenditure on protection against erosion. It is in the national interest, from the point of view of the maintenance of the present agricultural production and increased produc- tion, that that new situation should be provided for by Government assistance.

I term as niggardly and insufficient for the purpose the amount which the Government are prepared to offer at the present time. I am afraid it will lead to the work being insufficient to render the coastline safe from further attack. I want that work, when it is done, to be permanent and to prevent the danger from ever arising again. I can visualise work similar to that which has been done elsewhere, where 14-feet steel piles have been put in as a foundation and an upper wall built. Let us have that done in Horsey. Let the danger points of Norfolk be scheduled. I am just as much an advocate of the protection of other parts of the coastline as well as that of Norfolk. I maintain that in the changed conditions which now exist it is in the national interest, as it is in the interests of the people who have been flooded out of their homesteads, their farms and their small holdings and whose cattle has had to be removed as though there were a foreign invasion, that the Government should prevent in every possible way such a danger from recurring by granting the necessary financial assistance.

3.59 p.m.

Photo of Mr Pierse Loftus Mr Pierse Loftus , Lowestoft

I am greatly obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for East Norfolk (Viscount Elmley) for raising this important subject, and I found myself entirely in agreement with his speech, except for one part, in which, for some reason, he included part of my constituency, Pakefield, in the county of Norfolk. I wish to make an appeal to the Minister. I realise that on an occasion such as this, one cannot suggest fresh legislation, but a great deal more can be done in the future than in the past by administrative action, by increasing the grants given to the catchment board and possibly by amending the block grants.

I want to put the position before the Minister of Agriculture. I represent the Borough of Lowestoft. It may be asked what interest has Lowestoft in this area of East Norfolk which is threatened with an expenditure of £500,000. Lowestoft has a keen financial interest, because it has to pay part of the cost of that expenditure. As a matter of fact, Lowestoft is in a very anomalous position. It has spent over £250,000 in coast defence during the last 15 years, and last night the borough council passed an additional expenditure of £68,000, making an expenditure of £318,000 in 16 years, for a town of 45,000 people. It will be admitted that this is a very heavy burden, but I want to point out that in addition to this crushing burden Lowestoft is included in the East Norfolk Catchment Board area, and is rated for expenditure in that area including the district of Horsey. My hon. Friend has pointed out that this expenditure may rise to £500,000, and in addition there is expenditure on rivers which may be another £500,000. Lowestoft has to pay its own share of all this tremendous expenditure 20 miles to the north and 20 miles inland.

But that is not all. Lowestoft is also rated by the East Suffolk County Council, and five miles south of Lowestoft there is an expenditure of £30,000 at Kessingland and 12 miles south a further expenditure of another £30,000 by the East Suffolk Catchment Board for Southwold Harbour. Therefore, you have this position, that Lowestoft which has expended £318,000 in 15 years on coast defences has to pay its share of an expenditure 20 miles north of about £500,000, and also its share of an expenditure 12 to 15 miles south of about £60,000. I submit with confidence that this is an extremely hard position, and I would suggest to my right hon. Friend that by a flexible use of the administrative machinery he should increase the grant to meet an exceptionally hard position. I also want to support my hon. Friend in his remarks about the removal of shingle from Walcot Gap.

During the last few days a meeting was held to consider the heavy expenditure incurred by the local authority, and I think it was the chairman who estimated that there had been a vast amount of shingle removed from Walcot Gap. He used these words, but for the accuracy of the estimate I do not vouch. He said that enough shingle had been removed to make a mountain as big as Mont Blanc. The Minister ought to consider carefully whether it is not possible by administrative action to regulate and control the removal of shingle where there is danger of sea erosion. Having lived on the coast for 35 years, I know that it is said you can move as much shingle as you like from the coast, because there is always the north to south movement of shingle along the east coast, which will bring it back and pile it up. There is something in that statement, but the danger is that while in normal times you. can perhaps do it and you can keep taking shingle away, you suddenly get a succession of bad scours and that is the time when you want the shingle that has been removed, and if it is not there you get disaster. I would ask my right hon. Friend to consider that point.

I do not advocate that in all cases of sea defence the Minister should take exceptional measures and give exceptional grants, but I do advocate that every possible flexibility of the machinery of administration should be used to help where there is a proved case of exceptional hardship and expenditure and of exceptional future risks, as in the case which my Noble Friend has brought forward. If my right hon. Friend replies that administrative action is not enough to secure that end, then I heartily support my Noble Friend's suggestion that legislation should be introduced.


Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I am sure that the whole House will appreciate the action of my Noble Friend and of the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Loftus), who has supported him, in raising this subject and drawing attention to the very distressing local calamity that has occurred. I am sure the House would like me to express our sympathy with those who have been so unfortunate as to suffer from the consequences of this breach in the sea wall at Horsey. My Noble Friend said that he was concerned with two subjects, namely, coast erosion and flood prevention. Coast erosion is a subject for the Board of Trade, as a rule. The only occasions when questions of coast erosion fall within the purview of my Department are when the activities of a catchment board are involved. It happens sometimes that sea defence works, which are properly local matters arising under the Board of Trade——

Photo of Viscount  Elmley Viscount Elmley , Norfolk Eastern

Is my right hon. Friend aware that whenever I have raised this question with the Board of Trade, they have always denied responsibility and referred me to his Department?

Photo of Mr Pierse Loftus Mr Pierse Loftus , Lowestoft

Is it not a fact that in every case, at Southwold, Kessingland and Horsey the catchment board is concerned with coast defence?

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I am coming to that, and hon. Members will then see where the administrative responsibility lies. It frequently happens that coast defence works are undertaken not only with the object of protecting the land from the sea, but in order to protect the outfall of a drainage system which is under a catchment board. As at Horsey this matter of coast protection is one of the responsibilities of the catchment board, it ranks for grants from my Department, as do other operations of the catchment board. In this particular case the catchment board concerned is the Norfolk Rivers Catchment Board, and they have never attempted to evade their responsibility. They did certain work, but unfortunately the attempt to repair the damage that has been done has not been attended with the best of luck. The sea broke through first of all on 12th February. Works were put in hand and the damage was being repaired, but two extraordinarily high tides occurred in succession, accompanied by a strong wind, and the result was that the work that had been done proved insufficient, and the area was flooded again.

I would like to reply at this stage to one point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Harbord)—and that is the only substantial criticism that there has been of the administration on this matter—who suggested that we ought to have done something by way of sending troops or engineers or something of the kind to the threatened area to supplement the activities of those who were on the spot and to ensure that the work was done properly. I well remember, when the breach took place, communicating late at night with the catchment board to find out whether there was any shortage of material or labour that the action of the Government might supplement. I was then assured that in fact there was plenty of labour and material on the spot and that there was no necessity what soever for such exceptional action. It ought to be made clear to the House, and I am sure it is, that the catchment board is an independent statutory body created by the Act of 1930, and that the functions of the Ministry in connection with it are those of giving grants for approved schemes and advice on occasions of this sort. But I would like the House to feel assured that from the time when this danger started we kept in touch with the catchment board, and had there been, as there was on the occasion of the floods on the Great Ouse a year ago, any request or suggestion from the local authority that State help in this form would be agreeable to them, it would have been granted at once; but that was not the view taken at the time.

On the point of sending soldiers down there, I would like to say that in fact this work is very valuable to those who are unemployed in the district. They are men who have a local knowledge of this sort of work, and I have always taken the view that if there are plenty of local men on the spot, with local knowledge, anxious to earn honest wages for important work, the catchment board should be allowed to employ them in its own discretion without the step always being taken of sending soldiers to the spot. The main use which we have found of sending armed forces has been to maintain communications by means of wireless and so on.

Photo of Sir Arthur Harbord Sir Arthur Harbord , Great Yarmouth

Was not a little other help, trained help, necessary?

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

That does not gainsay what I have said, that after the disaster I was informed by the catchment board that there was plenty of labour on the spot and plenty of material, and unless I had taken the extraordinary step of thinking that that information was wrong, I do not see how I could have come to any other conclusion. In fact, there was plenty of labour and material on the spot at the time, and the catchment board were perfectly right in giving me the information which they did. Their own work, as I have said, has not been attended with the best of luck, and consequently this second calamity uccurred.

Now I will say a word or two about other matters that have been raised. The first point raised by my Noble Friend was the problem of getting the land right again after it had been subjected to sea water. It has been very difficult sometimes to recover land from that position, not only because of the effect of the salt in the soil itself, but frequently sea water has a curious effect on the texture of the soil and makes it very difficult to apply again to the purposes of husbandry in the normal way. I can assure my Noble Friend that we have already foreseen the necessity of action in the matter and that steps have already been taken, jointly, by the Director of the Norfolk Experimental Station and the Advisory Department of the School of Agriculture at Cambridge to ascertain how the damaged land can be most quickly and effectively brought back into cultivation. That work is going on, and I hope it will be of help to those concerned.

Photo of Sir Arthur Harbord Sir Arthur Harbord , Great Yarmouth

Has the right hon. Gentleman's Department adequately considered the question of the water supply of the district and the neighbourhood and its protection against the danger of pollution?

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

The hon. Member must understand that questions of public health are for the local authority to deal with, in conjunction with the Ministry of Health.

Photo of Sir Arthur Harbord Sir Arthur Harbord , Great Yarmouth

But the Government have a certain amount of responsibility.

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

The Government do not seek to deny their responsibility, but there is an appropriate organisation of the Government for dealing with that question. I am not concerned in this matter with public health, but I have no doubt that the public health authorities will pay attention to it, and, if they desire any Government assistance, they will no doubt communicate with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health.

My Noble Friend's second point was in regard to financial assistance. The way that works was explained by Lord Addison in introducing the Act under which we are working. He said that assistance to the catchment board would be granted on the principle that the grants would be apportioned according to the needs and resources of the district. That is the principle which has been uniformly adopted. In the present case I informed the catchment board that grants of 60 per cent. would be available for the schemes that they put forward. I would ask the House, when it considers this question of the relation between local and national authorities in matters of this character, to remember that while the whole nation will sympathise with Horsey in this disaster, flood prevention and coastal defence are to some extent to a local matter, and that there are limits to which we can ask other districts to contribute as taxpayers to the necessities of one locality. I do not say that we would not be pre- pared to consider sympathetically everything that can be done, but we have to remember that people living in other parts of England and Scotland have their own local problems to be solved with their own money, and that there is a limit to which we can ask people living in other parts to shoulder as taxpayers the burdens of a particular locality in addition to their own.

Photo of Viscount  Elmley Viscount Elmley , Norfolk Eastern

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that there is a limit to which local taxpayers can go?

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I thought that that was implicit in what I said when I said that the need of the district was one of the principles on which the appropriate grant was determined. Any scheme that is put forward by the catchment board for a grant in order to assist this problem will receive instant and sympathetic consideration. I cannot in advance pledge myself to any particular action. I must decide that when I have seen the scheme. There have been resignations on the part of some of the officers of this catchment board and new ones have been appointed. Until I see the new scheme I cannot pledge the Government to any particular action in regard to it, but, in so far as sympathy and speedy consideration are concerned, I can and do promise them most willingly.

I would make a reference to other matters that have been raised in this connection. There is the question of the removal of shingle. It is, of course, a legal problem, a matter of the rights of the lord of the manor and of the catchment board. I understand the catchment board have received legal advice and that under their by-laws, as framed, they have no power to prevent this action, which they consider to be injurious to the sea defences there. I gladly undertake to consider that matter in collaboration with my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade to see whether there is anything which can be done to ease the position administratively. On this occasion we are not allowed to go into what might be done by legislation, and so I will not say anything more about that at this time.

My Noble Friend contrasted, as I understood it, what he considered to be the insufficiency of our action in offering a 60 per cent. grant to this catchment board with the greater generosity shown to a relatively rich district in Essex. He seemed to be under the impression that we had handed out £1,000,000 for works in that area. I assure him that that is not by any means the case. What has actually happened is that the Essex Rivers Catchment Board have submitted applications for grant in respect of works the cost of which, if taken in conjunction with works already authorised, amounts to £1,000,000, but, in fact, no grant has yet been offered to the catchment board for these additional works. I ask my Noble Friend to believe that we do try to administer these grants with a strict sense of our responsibility to the public, whose money it is, while at the same time exercising discrimination, weighing up the resources of a locality and the problems which it has to meet out of those resources.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft mentioned the peculiar case of Lowestoft, as he put it. It is not unique. There are other places like it in England, in the sense in which charges fall upon it for sea defences and flood prevention. Its position arises from the financial mechanism of the Act of 1930. The work which Lowestoft does to protect its own sea border from erosion is, as in the case of any other seaside locality, its own charge. There are no grants for sea erosion as such, following the report of the Royal Commission in 1911, which made recommendations to that effect. The other charges arise from the fact that Lowestoft, while being in the county of Suffolk, is within the East Norfolk Rivers Catchment Area, and it was provided in the Act of 1930 that all places inside the catchment area should contribute to the expenses of the area. It so happens in the case of Lowestoft that the administrative county of East Suffolk receives precepts from the East Norfolk Rivers Board and also from the East Suffolk Rivers Board, which covers another part of the administrative county. That is the position with regard to Lowestoft, and it arises entirely from the financial machinery set up under the Act of 1930.

Photo of Mr Pierse Loftus Mr Pierse Loftus , Lowestoft

Is there any other place in England which, in addition to its own burdens, has to pay rates in respect of two separate areas?

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

Without being categorical, I would tell my hon. Friend that I am informed that Lowestoft is not unique, because there are other places in the same position, but I will gladly look into the matter to see whether that is actually the case.

I can only sum up what I have said by saying that we are administering the Act of 1930, that the catchment board concerned is, like all other catchment boards, a statutory local authority with its own financial system, and that as far as my Department is concerned we are in the position of advising, and cannot in any way compel action to be taken., All we can do is to refuse grants, which is often a slow and bad way of persuading action to be taken locally. In this case we have given as much technical and other advice as we could give to the local authority, and have tried to help them in a very arduous task. As regards the future, I hope that the catchment board will believe that we realise the difficult problem which those sad events have placed before them, and that we are anxious to help them in any way that we reasonably can with advice and, what I think they relish more than advice, with financial assistance.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-five Minutes after Four o'Clock, until Tuesday, 26th April, pursuant to the Resolution of the House this day.