East Coast Flood Disaster

Prayers – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th February 1953.

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Photo of Mr David Maxwell Fyfe Mr David Maxwell Fyfe , Liverpool, West Derby 12:00 am, 6th February 1953

I will, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, make a further brief statement about the flooded areas on the East Coast.

The latest total of deaths known to the police is 264.

The Ministry of Agriculture are pressing on energetically with the work of repairing breaches, and I am informed that nearly half of the breaches have so far been closed. Special arrangements have been made to send a team of experts, on behalf of the Ministry, to deal with the exceptionally difficult breach on the Lincolnshire coast South of Sutton-on-Sea. This team is led by Brigadier Rolfe, who designed the Mulberry Harbour. Another urgent problem is to speed up all work needed to enable people to return to their homes.

The regional offices of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government are to arrange local meetings of the authorities concerned to decide on the spot what are the best organised arrangements for clearing sand and silt from roads, paths, gardens and houses. The general idea will be that the county council or district council will deal with roads, and see that help of some kind is given to the house-holder to clear the house and garden.

Individual householders who wish to return to houses as they become free from flooding should apply to the local authority. The authority will arrange for the house to be inspected to make sure that it is safe. To help the local authority, other neighbouring authorities are being invited to lend surveyors and sanitary inspectors. The Air Ministry are lending heaters which will be placed by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government at the disposal of local authorities to help householders to dry out their houses.

When I made my first statement on 3rd February the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) raised an important issue—the question whether economies made as a result of the circular sent out to local authorities by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government last June had adversely affected our sea defences in the area now flooded. My right hon. Friend and I were deeply disturbed at the suggestion that the Government's efforts to cope with the steel shortage of that time might have had any such result and we set inquiries on foot at once. I should like to tell the House the outcome of those inquiries, and I ought perhaps to begin by describing what the existing system is; for there seems to be some misunderstanding.

Broadly speaking, the defence of low-lying land against the sea is the responsibility of the river boards under the general direction of the Minister of Agriculture. These defences have grown up through many centuries: in Kent, the first of them were built by the Romans. They were primarily designed to protect agricultural land from flooding and were thus entrusted from early times to the authorities responsible for draining the fresh water into the sea and for preventing the sea from coming up the rivers and sluices or overflowing the coast line. These defences have only once been seriously breached, and that was, I think, in the 14th Century. Even in the great storm of 1703 they were not as badly damaged as they were last week.

None of this work, carried on from generation to generation by the land drainage authorities was affected by Circular 54/52 issued by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government in June, 1952. This circular applied only to that work which is entrusted to maritime local authorities. Broadly speaking, this consists of coast erosion schemes. These are undertaken by maritime local authorities to prevent the steady eating away of cliffs and beaches. The purpose is to protect seaward fringes of their towns, houses, roads and such amenities as promenades. Although some of these schemes overlap or merge into the general sea defence system, for instance where a promenade in fact acts as a sea-wall to protect low-lying land, in general the local authorities are not concerned with the defences against flood from sea water.

In the circular issued in 1950 by the then Minister of Health after the Coast Protection Act of 1949 was passed, local authorities were warned that "in present circumstances only projects which are essential can be approved On the 27th June, 1952, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government issued his circular and, partly to save capital investment but chiefly to save steel, he told local authorities only to do the coast protection work of exceptional urgency. None of the schemes in hand which were slowed down by this circular dealt with any parts of the English Coast subjected to the recent flooding.

The House may be interested to know the actual loan sanctions issued in recent years for such coast protection work as is done by the local authorities: 1950, £379,324; 1951, £276,534; 1952, £529,686.

The House might like me to add a word about the river boards. The river boards responsible for sea defences were given a specially large share of the amount of capital investment made available for land drainage and similar works, and any economy that had to he exercised by way of slowing down or deferring schemes was made on the internal schemes and not on sea defence work. This work bears a very high rate of grant and there is, therefore, every inducement for the river boards to undertake it expeditiously.

I would call attention, therefore, to three important facts; first, that none of the recent sea floods were in places affected at all by the latest circular; secondly, that a circular urging economy was first sent out by the Minister of Health in 1950; thirdly, that the expenditure authorised in 1952 was nearly double that in 1951. The Government are considering the whole machinery as it exists under present legislation.

The chairman of the Women's Voluntary Services informs me that there has been a very generous response to the appeal for clothing for the victims of the flood disaster. The gifts are still pouring in and are being distributed to those who have suffered. Distribution will continue for as long as is necessary to meet the need. In view of the distress suffered by our friends in Holland, the Women's Voluntary Services believe that it would be the wish of the donors that we should share a part of these gifts of clothing with those who have suffered from the same disaster. An initial consignment of clothing is, therefore, being sent to Holland on behalf of the people of Great Britain.

Hon. Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Mr James Ede Mr James Ede , South Shields

I am quite sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will be obliged to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for the full and detailed account he has given us again today. May I ask him a question on the number of known deaths? He told us some days ago that it had been reported in the Press that several hundreds of people were missing and that it was thought that some of these were people who had fled from the floods and had not yet reported themselves. Of course, this still gives rise to some anxiety in the minds of people who have relatives in these areas. Can he give us any idea of the extent to which the number of people first regarded as missing has been reduced by people who have since reported themselves to the local authorities or have made their safety known in other ways, thus reducing this total which we understood at one time was fairly formidable?

With respect to the last part of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's announcement, I am quite sure that everyone in the country will welcome the fact that we recognise a comradeship with the Netherlands in this disaster. May I also say that to some extent it explains the nature of the devastation here, that when so scientific and skilled a people in this matter as the people of the Netherlands have been overwhelmed by this disaster, it is not surprising that this terrible onrush of water inflicted the damage that it did in this country where we have regarded ourselves for centuries as immune from some of the dangers that daily and nightly have confronted the Dutch people who have built defences that were thought, short of sabotage, to be completely impregnable against the onrush of the sea.

There is one other point that I should like to make. I noticed with a feeling of horror that in some areas the police had had to take special precautions to deal with looters. I am quite sure that I speak for everyone in the House when I say that we hope that public opinion—I am not now talking about the law—would regard with the utmost detestation persons who seize such an opportunity as this to filch the petty personal belongings that build up a home for the people in the type of property that has most largely suffered as a result of this disaster, and that no greater proof of bad citizenship could be established than that a person had engaged in such depredations.

I am quite sure that we all welcome the announcement this morning of the generous gift from the Dominion of Australia which, after all, in recent years has itself suffered from this kind of disaster, and we are also grateful for other sympathetic gestures from other authorities on the Continent of Europe and elsewhere.

I will draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) to the statement that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has made on the circular that was issued by the Minister of Housing and Local Government.

Photo of Mr David Maxwell Fyfe Mr David Maxwell Fyfe , Liverpool, West Derby

I am sure that not only I but the whole House will be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that statement, and I am particularly grateful for his first question. I have not the information at the moment, and I shall immediately take steps to try to get the figures of the missing, broken down in the way that he suggests. As the right hon. Gentleman said, the whole House shares the feeling which he has expressed with regard to Holland.

As to the reports of looting, I was glad to be able to say yesterday that the opinion of the police was that conduct and morale on the whole is very high, and there have been very few such cases. The police are looking after the properties. Of course, it is their general aim and purpose to protect property, but I should like to reassure those who are not there that their homes are being looked after in their absence.

In reply to the other points that the right hon. Gentleman raised, all I can do is to repeat our gratitude for the general approach that he has made and to give my assurance that they will receive immediate consideration.

Photo of Sir Eric Fletcher Sir Eric Fletcher , Islington East

Would the Home Secretary say a word about what is being done to help those who, though they will shortly be able to return to their homes, find that they have lost all their furniture? May I also ask a question with regard to his statement about his circular and the coastal defence arrangements generally? The figures which he has given are the figures for capital expenditure by river boards and others, and not the actual figures of money spent.

Would the Home Secretary bear in mind that for some time past a number of maritime local authorities and river boards have been urging that these matters, which hitherto have been matters of local burden on the rates, should become in future either matters of national charge or should attract much greater grant from the Exchequer? Would the Home Secretary give the most sympathetic consideration to those representations in view of this disaster?

Photo of Mr David Maxwell Fyfe Mr David Maxwell Fyfe , Liverpool, West Derby

With regard to the first point made by the hon. Gentleman—the question of setting up home again when furniture has been ruined—I announced yesterday that we had got a reception centre for furniture at Royston, and I hope that we shall get a considerable voluntary supply which can be used. I shall look into the question in the light of the adequacy of that supply.

With regard to the point about expenditure, the amounts I mentioned were in respect of local authorities and were actually figures of loan sanctions. With regard to the river boards, the hon. Gentleman may remember that I did mention that the work bears a very high rate of grant, which is an inducement to do the work. I will repeat what I have already said, that we are considering the whole machinery as it exists under the present legislation. The hon. Gentleman may be assured that the position will be carefully watched.

Photo of Mr Douglas Jay Mr Douglas Jay , Battersea North

Have the Government considered any form of compensation from public funds for those who have had their houses or farms completely destroyed or seriously damaged, where they are not covered by private insurance?

Photo of Mr David Maxwell Fyfe Mr David Maxwell Fyfe , Liverpool, West Derby

The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that that is a longer-term matter which requires very careful working out. He was at the Treasury himself. It is being considered, but I should be very grateful if I were not pressed on that point, as it obviously requires very deep consideration.

Photo of Mr Nigel Nicolson Mr Nigel Nicolson , Bournemouth East and Christchurch

I want to raise a point about coast protection, to which my right hon. and learned Friend referred in his statement. Would he ask his right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government whether, in formulating his plans for future coast protection work, he will not give unreasonable priority to the low-lying areas of our coast to the disadvantage of those parts which are cliff-girt, where houses stand close to the edge of the cliffs: where, as in the case of my own constituency, the coast is being worn away at the rate of seven feet a year, and where the people are in much more constant danger than in the low-lying parts, which have been overwhelmed only by a totally exceptional combination of tide and gale?

Photo of Mr David Maxwell Fyfe Mr David Maxwell Fyfe , Liverpool, West Derby

In my statement I did mention that that was one of the problems, and it will be borne in mind. I do not think the House would expect me to go further at this stage than to say that any question of considering coast protection must take into account coast erosion as well as protection against floods. I cannot go further than that.

Photo of Mr James Ede Mr James Ede , South Shields

Arising out of the last question, would the right hon. and learned Gentleman consult with his right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government as to whether it might not be a sound policy to prevent the building of houses near the edges of cliffs where coast erosion is likely to take place, or on low-lying land which is liable to flooding?

Photo of Mr David Maxwell Fyfe Mr David Maxwell Fyfe , Liverpool, West Derby

As the right hon. Gentleman can see, my right hon. Friend is by my side and I am sure that he will pay attention to that point.

Photo of Sir Henry Channon Sir Henry Channon , Southend West

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the reports of casualties are somewhat inaccurate and that the manner in which they are reported might lead to undue apprehension? In my own constituency of Southend it has been reported in the Press that there were seven or eight deaths. Actually there have been none attributable to the floods. People have unfortunately died in hospitals in Southend after having been brought there from outlying districts, and they are not actually Southend victims.

Photo of Mr David Maxwell Fyfe Mr David Maxwell Fyfe , Liverpool, West Derby

I shall bear that point in mind, but I think we should be extremely charitable when dealing with the happenings in the first few days. It is so easy to make mistakes in these matters.

Photo of Sir Waldron Smithers Sir Waldron Smithers , Orpington

Can my right hon. and learned Friend give an assurance that in the event of an emergency the man on the spot, even if he breaks some regulation or some small law, will be supported by the Government in the action he takes?

Photo of Mr David Maxwell Fyfe Mr David Maxwell Fyfe , Liverpool, West Derby

I am not going to give an oral assurance in respect of all possible action; but I want to make it clear—because I think it is important—that when the emergency organisation went into action on Sunday the general approach was to let them act with as little red tape and need for reference as was humanly possible. I do not think I can go further than that.