Surrey Floods

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd April 1969.

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3.53 p.m.

Photo of Mr William Robson-Brown Mr William Robson-Brown , Esher

I am glad of this opportunity to raise the question of the serious floods in my constituency.

I wish at the outset to express the indignation that is felt by my constituents because the Government have not instituted a public inquiry without delay into the flooding which occurred in my part of the world. The Government have blandly hidden behind statements about this catastrophe being an act of God. Certainly there was heavy rainfall, but it is clear that great acts of irresponsibility have come to light.

The Government have blandly defended the actions and responsibilities of the Thames Conservancy, although that organisation has been singularly incompetent and Victorian in its attitude. Ten thousand of my constituents have signed a petition to the Government calling for a public inquiry to be held, but that request has been rejected. Even at this stage I demand that one be held.

Since the floods which occurred last September we have had 13 warnings of possible flooding being imminent. On at least two of those occasions extreme flooding would have occurred had there been a little more rain. This is a serious state of affairs and cannot be ignored. Action must be taken.

The morale of my constituents is broken. One statement says: The further immeasurable damage is that to the morale of the people concerned who have to live in extreme difficulty and unpleasant conditions for six to nine months after the onset of flooding because it is impossible to carry out proper redecoration of property that has been damaged for this sort of period without incurring very grave risks of damage to new decorations by inherent dampness within the fabric of the building. Many of the homes in my area have remained soaked throughout the winter.

I was shocked when the Joint Parliamentary Secretary came to attend a big meeting in my constituency, and I will explain why. But first, Mr. Mackie—[HON. MEMBERS: "Order."]—Mr. Mackie should be aware that good intentions are not enough. I have pressed you in letters, personally and in correspondence to conduct a public inquiry. Time and again my request has been turned down.

The Thames Conservancy has made many statements but do you know that although there was talk of raising 4d. in the £, not more than 55 per cent. of that amendment was raised—

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not ask Mr. Speaker if he knows anything. He knows nothing.

Photo of Mr William Robson-Brown Mr William Robson-Brown , Esher

I apologise, Mr. Speaker, for addressing the Minister by name. Now you do know, Mr. Speaker.

Recently I have tabled a series of Questions and the Answers to them have produced some telling facts. Some of these facts are shocking to learn. For example, there was a promise that within three months there would be a full investigation into the cause of the floods and that full arrangements would be made for the prevention of such flooding in future. We now find that only words have been used and that action is not to take place. An investigation is bound to take six months to carry out and it seems that, at the end of that period, there will be no sign of an effective remedy being found.

My constituents are frightened and indignant, and I do not blame them, particularly since no evidence can be seen of engineering work being done by the Thames Conservancy, which has power under the relevant legislation to call for money and to urge the Government to support work of this kind. Not one step has been taken to this end and my constituents have every right to feel annoyed and frustrated. They feel that nobody cares and that nobody wishes to take action. There are no defined authorities. There is no sign of any action. The division of responsibilities stands just as clear as it did before. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. David Howell) will deal with this aspect in a broader sense. We in our district and in the whole of the Upper Thames Valley believe that there should be some new development and that a new authority should be set up.

I was shocked to learn recently that there is no arrangement for taking the water off the new Esher by-pass. This is an enormous by-pass going right through my district. This is an extraordinary situation. Since pressures have been brought to bear by myself and others, those responsible are beginning to examine the situation. This should have been done at the beginning. So far as I can see, nothing can take place this summer and I greatly doubt whether much will be able to take place until next year.

I want to pay one tribute to those in my district. Volunteers came out in hundreds—the police, the ambulance service, soldiers. Everybody rallied round and did their best. However, the Government should have taken action. I ask the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to heed my remarks and to take quick and sharp action to ensure that this matter is dealt with in the way that we require and expect.

3.0 p.m.

Photo of Mr David Howell Mr David Howell , Guildford

My hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Sir W. Robson Brown) is to be congratulated on the zeal and energy with which he has brought forward this matter for public debate. I hope, as I believe that he does, that this debate will not merely be an occasion for recrimination and blame for last September's disasters. No one would deny that the combination of events which led to those two hectic days of disastrous flooding were quite exceptional. It is worth recording that even before the 16 hours of continuous rain in which the average rainfall was never less than four inches the catchment area of the Wey, and I believe of the Mole as well, was well above saturation.

When that is said, however, the fact remains that it is not good enough to shake one's head and to say that these disasters occur every 60 years, so there it is, or to make global assessments about the moving of the Arctic icecap, and so on. Serious questions were raised by those disastrous two days about the safeguarding of the river towns of Surrey and about the safeguarding and development of Guildford.

The fact faces the people of Surrey, and my constituents in Guildford, that already since Christmas there have been four amber light warnings of flood danger. The people have a right to know that a systematic programme of response and action to the events shown by those disasters is in hand, that there is a clear plan of action aimed at identifying what the problems are, where they can be ameliorated, if they can, how, at what cost, and how we should set about these matters.

This debate will do nothing but good if it at least enables the Minister to say what the programme is and to set it out more comprehensively than has been done hitherto, indicating the relative responsibilities of the different tiers of authority. It is sometimes forgotten in the labyrinth of administration at Ministerial, county and local level, as the memoranda pass to and fro, that in the end it is the ordinary person whose house or factory is by the river who wants to know what is happening, sees nothing happening and, therefore, worries and is concerned. It would be a great help if the Minister could help to set out clearly exactly what is being done, how it fits into the programme of intentions, and where the responsibilities lie.

I want to raise one or two specific points. First, on the question of flood warnings it should be recorded that the agency in question—the Thames Conservancy—acted promtly after the September disaster in setting up a flood warning system and that that system now works well.

There is, secondly, the question of remedial measures. By these I mean things that people can see being done in the way of dredging and bank improvements now, in the short term. It is true that local authorities, certainly those in my area, are already doing valuable work but inevitably it has to be on an extremely limited scale. It comes out of the rates and is a heavy burden on an already burdened account. Even with these short-term measures we already begin to see problems of divided responsibilities arising. It would help, again, if the Minister would clarify who particularly is responsible for this kind of remedial measure that local authorities are at present trying to undertake, particularly in urban areas.

In the long-term programme the public and hon. Members have one fact before them. We know that the Thames Conservancy announced promptly that it is undertaking a feasibility study. I suggest that it is not good enough if, when the Minister replies, he merely tells us that we must wait until that study is completed. I see the logic of that, but we are not only dealing with logic; we are dealing with people's worries. It is not unreasonable to ask the Minister to explain how this study is proceeding and on what basis. I understand that it will deal not merely with the general problem of Thames Valley flooding, but with schemes for specific areas. For instance, there will be a Guildford scheme recommended.

Can the Minister confirm that this study will set out its recommendations on the basis of localities with precise plans and proposals and costed so that we the public, we the Government or we hon. Members are able to face up to the costs of doing what people would like to do, how much we can afford, and how much it is sensible to invest in future against a recurrence? I hope that the Minister will be able to set our minds at rest with more specific details than have yet been generally obtainable about how this scheme is being conducted, what are its aims, how its recommendations will be set out, and when we can expect it.

From the long-term programme, I turn to the broader question: who is responsible for what in flood protection and prevention? There can be no doubt that the September floods in Surrey raised important questions about where responsibilities lay. In urban areas there is considerable doubt about responsibilities between the various agencies of the central Government and local authorities for control of sluices and weirs—not on the Thames where responsibility is clear, but on the Wey, the Mole, and other rivers.

I emphasise my request and plea that the Minister should tell us who is responsible for the overall programme of flood protection and prevention in Surrey. We cannot afford the kind of shadowy confusion which so often seems to arise. I do not know whether it is a fact of government these days, but it arises all too often in Ministrys' relations with nationalised industries. Hon. Members have the greatest difficulty in establishing who is the responsible head of the agency concerned, what his functions are, what the functions of the Minister are, and how they relate. We cannot afford that confusion of responsibilities in a situation where serious threats to lives and property are involved.

I cannot resist commenting that it seems strange that, as so often in these matters—again this may be a fact of life with the kind of Government organisation that we have in this country today—it apparently needs a disaster to force people to ask themselves who is in charge, whether these matters need reviewing, and where the responsibilities lie.

I believe that much the best thing the Minister could do would be to describe with some precision his plans for the kind of structure of authority at Ministerial, county and agency level for future flood control and reassure us that these matters will not only be reviewed every time there is a disaster—perhaps every six years, or more often—but that they will be under constant systematic and periodic review so that the best application of resources can be made and people can be reassured that they are not the helpless victims of events against which no preparation has been made. I know that efforts have been made over the years, and are being made, to deal with this problem, but we have to ask whether these efforts are enough, or whether some steam needs to be put into this programme. I hope that the Minister will give us his ideas about this.

4.10 p.m.

Photo of Mr Cranley Onslow Mr Cranley Onslow , Woking

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Sir W. Robson Brown) on his persistence in following up this matter and in obtaining a chance for us to debate briefly the events of last September. In my constituency 1,200 houses suffered serious damage. I know that the number of houses damaged in my hon. Friend's constituency was considerably higher, but my constituency was the second greatest sufferer, and many houses still bear traces of the floods. What is more, many householders are still facing the cost, either in material damage to their property and furniture, or in the fact that their houses are less saleable than they were before this event.

It is fair to say that to a large extent the floods were unforeseeable. They came at an extremely difficult time, on a Sunday when the local councils were scarcely geared to cope with them. The pattern of the floods was such that with the side streams breaking their banks first flooding often took place in the middle of the night and the water subsided by morning, whereas the main flood waters were lower downstream. The whole situation was extremely difficult, but it brought out the best in almost everybody whom I met in the street. It was a glorious day, and a great deal of paddling was going on. The people were extremely good humoured, but their good humour has not extended to this time when they are much more concerned with knowing what preventive action is being taken, and what steps are being taken to see that if there are further floods the authorities are better able to cope with them.

The flood warning system is welcome. It was introduced by the Thames Conservancy three months to the day after the floods and it has been very worthwhile. How worth-while I can illustrate from my own experience. When I saw the waters of the Wey flowing into Byfleet I asked the police to try to find out how high the water was likely to rise. They sent a message to headquarters but were unable to find anyone who could say whether the water was rising or falling. It is good to know that we are now to have a warning system, but we need more. We need to know whether there is a system of river control. This is not simply a matter of getting water away faster so that it floods people lower down stream rather than flooding ones own area, but of trying to control a river which is unusually and dangerously full of water, so that it does less damage.

I hope that the Minister has seen the report which was submitted to the Surrey County Council at its meeting on 21st January, 1969. I have no intention of quoting from it at length, but it highlights the need to establish a definite chain of command and responsibility. There are two recommendations in the report of the General Purposes Committee which I should like particularly to draw to the Minister's attention so that he can comment on them. It says: … attention should be drawn to the need to supplement the resources normally available to deal with local disasters, such as flooding, so that fire cover standards are not unduly affected, and … the difficulties might be partly mitigated by the location of some emergency appliances and equipment … at exiting fire stations and by the availability of trained local volunteer personnel. I know that during the floods very limited use was made of volunteers, for reasons about which I am still not wholly clear. There were ex-A.F.S. personnel in parts of Surrey who were anxious to help, but their services were not accepted. This was unfortunate, but perhaps the effect has not been so unfortunate, because the volunteers were so angered by the refusal to accept their help that they are now doubly determined to keep in existence as a cadre against the time when we may once again have a proper civil defence organisation, and against the time when we are able to reverse the attitude shown by a letter I received from the Home Office—from the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Ennals)—which attempted to explain the Government's attitude, referring to the need to keep volunteers in regular training and provide them with proper facilities, as follows: The provision of these facilities costs money and if this were to be provided, it would frustrate those econmies which the Government decided earlier this year had to be achieved. I could think of many areas where economies were much more necesary, and where they would be much more effective, than in the relief of distress and disaster.

The second point, arising out of the passage which I have quoted, concerns the availability of appliances. I believe that the ex-A.F.S. pumps were withdrawn and concentrated at the Home Office stores at Redhill. When the floods came up this policy was proved conclusively to be the worst of all possible policies, because practically all the road communications throughout the county were cut and the central reserve of pumps was thus inaccessible, as I think was the experience in the West Country floods earlier this year. We see the need to prepare locally against the contingency that communications will be disrupted, and to see that appliances are available on the spot. This the Government must accept.

Can the Minister tell us what he is doing? First of all, can he tell us what he is doing here anyway? I would have been much more encouraged to find the Minister of Housing and Local Government represented on the Front Bench. I would have expected that. This problem should devolve upon that Ministry rather than the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I am fortified in this argument by the exchange that I had with the Minister of Housing and Local Government in this House on 12th November last, when I asked him a Question about the publication of the findings of his inquiry into the September floods, and he said: I shall be sending a Circular to local authorities which will be available to the House and to the Press about any points of concern to them that emerge."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th November, 1968; Vol. 773, 189–90.] I understood that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government would do that. I should have thought that the Minister accepted overall responsibility for this aspect of the matter and that he might have been represented here by someone from his own Ministry to tell us what happened to that circular—because to the best of my knowledge, it has not yet issued from the interstices of his Ministry.

Also, I should like to be told—again from the Minister of Housing and Local Government—what reactions have been sent to the Surrey County Council in respect of the report from which I have quoted, because that report was sent not to the Ministry of Agriculture but to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. I am not aware of the publication of any official response. One may have been sent but I hope that if it has not the hon. Member who represents the Ministry of Agriculture can enlighten us about it.

There is evidence of muddle, confusion and disruption of the chain of command not merely at local level but at Ministerial level in coping with events of this kind. It does not seem possible to persuade the Government to stand up and identify this matter as the responsibility of one Ministry. If this is allowed to continue it will lead to a much worse situation.

It may be that we shall not get floods like this for another 20 years, and that all who are in this House now will long since have taken themselves to other places by then, but if we do not learn the lessons of these floods now, and apply them now, such opportunities as we have to profit from the sad experience of others will have been lost. So far there has been insufficient evidence that the Government are determined to draw conclusions and learn lessons from the events of last September, even though I hope that the Minister will now be able to prove that I am wrong.

4.20 p.m.

Photo of Sir George Sinclair Sir George Sinclair , Dorking

I should like to join in the tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Sir W. Robson Brown) on his success in securing this debate. My constituency was heavily affected by the flooding of the River Mole and its tributary streams and slightly affected by the flooding of the Wey.

One of the salient facts of these great floods of last September, which I did not witness since I was outside the country at the time, is that, at any rate on the Mole, they were four times as severe as the highest recorded level. The Thames Conservancy, especially, from 1965 onwards, carried out works on the Mole designed to cope with floods equivalent to the highest in their records. But we must now look forward to a period in which the run-off will be greater because of development of all kinds, especially in areas around Gatwick Airport and the expanding towns of Crawley and Horley.

Although I do not believe that, in this case, the built-up areas could have greatly affected the final dimensions of the flood, because the whole of the valley systems of the Mole and the Wey were completely saturated before the heavy rains which actually brought the floods. Nevertheless, it will clearly be hazardous from now on, to rely on flood prevention works which will cope only with the highest floods known up to 1965. We should, I suggest, prepare for something at least between that and the floods of last September.

I was particularly glad to hear the emphasis which my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. David Howell) laid on the need to define the national and regional machinery for dealing with this problem.

There is a real gap in the chain of responsibility between the Thames Conservancy, which has authority for the main stream and some of the main tributaries, which are clearly defined, and the various district councils, which are responsible for the streams which lead into those tributaries. There is very little evidence of close collaboration between the Thames Conservancy and the district councils in planning for flood control.

In view of what has happened, what proposals has the Minister for ensuring that the Thames Conservancy, the main water authority in the area, keeps under continuous review, with the district councils, the problems which they essentially share. Although the Thames Conservancy has done important works on the Mole in recent years, I wonder how far it has taken into consideration the build ing and other developments in the catchment areas which have led to quicker run-off and whether—this might be wisdom after the event—the Conservancy and the councils have been too hesitant in claiming a share of the rates to allow them to carry out the works which were required to keep these streams in the best possible order.

May we have an assurance that the combined powers of the Thames Conservancy and the districts authorities are sufficient to enable them to cope with the privately owned mills, weirs and sluices on the side streams? In the areas coming within the authority of the Thames Conservancy this responsibility clearly falls on the Conservancy, but in respect of the anciliary streams there is not, I suggest, adequate control over these additional sources of danger.

My hon. Friends and I are more interested in the future than in the past, but we hope that the last period of flooding—which brought a great deal of suffering and extensive and expensive losses—will be used as a stimulus to obtain a proper chain of command for the control of floods within the Thames Valley system. I hope that the Minister will clearly define that chain of responsibility, from the Minister to the Thames Conservancy, to the County Council and on to the various district authorities. It is important that the public should know this, and this chain should enable the authorities to take swift action when disaster threatens.

I hope that the Thames Conservancy will give full publicity to the results of the investigations which they are now making into the question of flood control. I hope that their reports will be published without delay because the people in my constituency and in the whole of Surrey will shortly be facing another winter and the risk of further flooding. They want to see these reports published soon and any action that can be taken, taken soon.

4.27 p.m.

Photo of Mr Maurice Macmillan Mr Maurice Macmillan , Farnham

I apologise for not being present at the start of the debate, which occurred somewhat earlier than I had anticipated.

I have little to add to what my hon. Friends have said, although I should perhaps declare my interest in that my firm suffered some pecuniary loss from damage to books which were stored in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Sir W. Robson Brown), who I thank and congratulate for having raised this subject today.

I join hon. Members in congratulating the authorities which, on the whole, did their best in extremely difficult circumstances during the floods. I, too, prefer to think more of the future, which I hope will include a bigger rôle for voluntary organisations. They were used to some extent in assisting with flood relief and so on, but not to the fullest possible extent partly because they were shut off from the equipment that they wanted to use.

My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. David Howell) asked for a programme to be announced in that it is important that the Minister should carefully delineate the responsibilities up and down the river of the various authorities, for if this is not done we may find our constituents being put to a lot of trouble and having to do a lot of work which may be either unnecessary or inadequate in scope according to the areas in which they live, either up or down stream. This could lead to an unfair distribution between the various ratepayers concerned of the cost of local work done by different local authorities.

I hope that the Minister will comment on a legal anomaly which has been brought to my attention. It is the situation of a riparian owner on a corner or bend of the stream or river; the bank on his property is breached by sluice gates being opened higher up stream and water coming through the breach destroying the gardens of his down stream neighbours. I understand that the riparian owner whose bank is breached is legally responsible for the damage done to his neighbours' property, rather than the authority which ordered the sluice gates to be opened. This seems to be a somewhat peculiar situation and, whether it could be remedied restrospectively or not, any consideration for the future should include definitions for dealing with this kind of situation.

We all wonder whether with the existing limits the powers and methods of operation of the Thames Conservancy are as efficient as possible. I do not blame the Board, but wonder whether its establishment and terms of reference are completely adequate for conditions which have changed considerably since the Thames Conservancy was established. Perhaps we should think more of a Thames Valley authority with wide power, both direct and consultative, over developments which may affect the Thames Valley and its concomitant tributaries, but which might be undertaken by authorities some way away and in areas which, by their nature, could never be flooded.

For example, the Parliamentary Secretary will be aware that a considerable urban development is about to take place in the Swindon area and it will have a considerable effect on the volume of water and the speed at which it goes into the Thames. Happily, I understand that this has been appreciated and that steps are being taken to hold back water in areas where it can do no damage and to dribble it into the river rather than to allow it to enter in enormous masses. I wonder whether the arrangements and co-ordination for ensuring that this sort of consideration is taken into account in big new developments are adequate

The House would like to know to what extent, when it comes to dealing with actual flood water, it is possible to divert overburdened streams or rivers so as to ensure that if flooding must take place, it occurs in relatively innocuous areas, that is to say, in open fields, rather than in houses. I understand that arrangements of this sort have been made for the Sussex Ouse.

Finally, we should all like the Minister to deal with this problem under three separate headings—the actual coping by the authorities whose responsibility it is to deal with the results of flooding, the guarding of houses when floods come, minor works and so on; secondly, with the coping with the exceptional volumes of water to prevent flooding and flood damage; thirdly, the ultimate prevention, trying to ensure that abnormal volumes of water do not get into rivers, particullarly when those abnormal volumes are due, partially at least, not so much to nature as to mankind's alterations of nature, including the much more efficient drainage of fields and so on, which tend to make existing volumes of water move more and more quickly into the rivers as the years go by.

If the Parliamentary Secretary can deal with those three major issues as well as with the other questions which have been raised, we shall be able to do what is our duty as well as our wish—reassure our constituents who are apprehensive and worried about next winter.

4.33 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Mackie Mr John Mackie , Enfield East

I am sure that hon. Members will wish first and foremost to join with me in again expressing our sympathy with those who suffered loss and damage in last year's floods. There is nothing worse than having one's home flooded, particularly at the beginning of what was to be a very wet winter. The discomfort must be appalling. As the hon. Member for Esher (Sir W. Robson Brown) knows, I visited many of the houses which were flooded and one cannot have too much sympathy for the people concerned.

The hon. Member for Esher and I, on a number of occasions over the past six months, have discussed this whole question, but I am nevertheless perfectly prepared to discuss it again today, and I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to do so.

I should like first to deal with the causes of the floods last September. There cannot be any doubt that these were due almost entirely to the phenomenal rainfall on 15th September. In parts of the Thames Conservancy catchment area nearly 6 in. fell in two days, much of it in 18 hours, and it fell on land much of which was already saturated by prolonged wet weather. The massive run-off which this caused was greater than many of the river channels could carry. The River Mole had been improved between 1955 and 1964 by major works at a cost of £375,000 so that it could carry the greatest flow of which there were records at that time, but the flow on 16th September, was four times that record and it was quite impossible for the river to cope with it.

The hon. Member for Esher asked about expenditure on flood prevention. The Conservancy have the right to precept up to 4d. It is an autonomous body and it is for the Conservancy to judge how much to precept. The hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Maurice Macmillan) spoke about an unfair burden on the rates in various areas. We appreciate this and it is being looked at with a view to spreading the rate fund in a better way.

The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) referred to the reports by Surrey County Council going to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. The hon. Member was not pleased to see me here to reply to this debate. I am sorry about that, but I am afraid that he must put up with me. There are various questions about departmental responsibilities concerning rivers. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is and always has been responsible for land drainage and flood prevention protection work. The Minister of Housing and Local Government acted as a co-ordinating Minister dealing with the consequences of flooding and these involve the interests of many Departments including that Ministry.

I do not know whether hon. Members are asking for a Minister of Flooding. They must realise that various Ministries have different responsibilities. Various matters come under the term "flooding" and individual Departments can deal with them without needing to be co-ordinated. Action in an emergency situation is carried out by local councils under the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and my Ministry has the job of protection against flooding.

The hon. Member for Woking admitted that there is much hindsight in considering what should have been done. He talked about the central administration and collection of pumps. If we were to have a sufficient number of pumps in particular places when there was flooding all over Britain I do not know how many pumps we would need. It seems better to have the pumps in some place where they can be rushed to a place where they are needed. The hon. Member spoke about communications breaking down and the pumps not being got to a place in time, but this was a local feature of this particular flood.

Photo of Mr Cranley Onslow Mr Cranley Onslow , Woking

I am not asking for the purchase of millions of pumps to be dotted about the countryside, but if a river is in flood there is every advantage in having half the pumps on one side and half on the other.

Photo of Mr John Mackie Mr John Mackie , Enfield East

That is not what the hon. Member said in his speech, but I take the point. The hon. Member for Esher and a number of his constituents have suggested that the flooding could have been at least substantially reduced if the River channels had been better maintained and the sluice gates more effectively controlled. They have been pressing for a public inquiry. I agree that the experience of last September hightlighted the need for the efficient operation of all sluices and to keep them clear of debris. I have no doubt that one could point here and there to bits of the stream which could have been better cleared. I am advised, however, that with a flow so much greater than the channel capacity, and with obstructions to flow forming at bridges and other places, any deficiency in the operation of sluices such as we know occurred at Zenith Weir could have had no significant effect on the degree of flooding.

Photo of Mr William Robson-Brown Mr William Robson-Brown , Esher

My point was that at the meeting at Esher which the Parliamentary Secretary attended the spokesman for the Thames Conservancy gave the impression that he had a precept of only a certain sum. The spokesman did not tell us that he was spending only 55 per cent. of it. The people of Surrey want to know why he did not do the whole job.

Photo of Mr John Mackie Mr John Mackie , Enfield East

I answered that point earlier by saying that the Thames Conservancy had to decide how much was required. I am making the point that with the amount of rain and flood that there was then any additional action the Board had taken would have made little or no difference—maybe an inch or two inches. It would have had no significant effect on the degree of flooding.

Similarly, maintenance could not have been all that important a factor. The Conservancy Board has spent substantial sums on maintenance of the rivers over the years. Even if some specific rivers were not as well maintained as they should have been, this could not have made any significant difference to the degree of flooding with flows of the magnitude which occurred last September.

The hon. Gentleman also tackled me on the question whether there was consultation about the new Esher by-pass. This is always done. There is always considerable consultation when anything is being done that is likely to create a bigger run-off of water.

The hon. Member for Dorking (Sir G. Sinclair) mentioned the question of development and the consultations which must take place if there is building in the flood plains. Some mention was made—not today—of Gatwick and Crawley. I know that the Conservancy was consulted about the effects of this and other developments and took measures to cope with increased run-off—for example, the construction of detention basins for the run-off from Gatwick. But these measures were not designed to cope with run-off of such wholly exceptional magnitude as occurred last September.

The Conservancy Board has full powers under the byelaws to control mills, sluices and weirs. The Chairman of the Thames Conservancy, Lord Nugent, has said that the Conservancy will look into the whole question of taking over many of the main weirs so that the Conservancy has fuller control than it has at present.

Photo of Sir George Sinclair Sir George Sinclair , Dorking

On a point of clarification, will the Joint Parliamentary Secretary confirm that the Thames Conservancy's powers over sluices, weirs and mills are confined to those tributaries of the Thames where its authority lies and not to the side streams, many of which are many miles long and contain weirs, sluices and mills?

Photo of Mr John Mackie Mr John Mackie , Enfield East

I confirm that that is the case. The Board has full control only over its own. The councils have control over others to a certain extent.

The hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. David Howell) raised the question of flood warnings and criticised the absence of any flood warning system at the time in question. The Conservancy, like other river authorities, has no statutory duty to provide a flood warning service; but for many years river authorities have in fact operated flood warning systems for their most important rivers. The Thames Conservancy operated one for the Thames itself, but not for its tributaries such as the Mole and the Wey. The experience of last year suggests that a more comprehensive system is necessary, and hon. Members have been stressing this point. At a public meeting which I chaired last November at the invitation of the hon. Member for Esher, Lord Nugent promised to institute a flood warning system for the Rivers Mole and Wey. This promise has now been fulfilled and the system on these tributaries, and on the River Loddon, have in fact been used to alert the police on a number of occasions this winter, although fortunately it has not, I believe, been necessary to issue any general warning to the public since the September floods.

Hon. Members have raised the question of a study and examination of the feasibility and cost of undertaking further works on the lower Mole and Wey to protect Molesey, Esher, Walton, Weybridge and Guildford against flooding. A study of these complex problems cannot be completed overnight. The hon. Member for Esher said that at the meeting it had been promised that this study would be carried out within three months. My recollection is that it was promised to be done in four months. Lord Nugent has now said that the report of the study should be ready before the end of June, and I hope it will.

The hon. Member for Guildford wanted me to be more precise about this. It is asking too much of me to say with precision what a technical body will do. We have asked it to go into the whole question and to estimate what it will cost. They have been asked exactly what it would cost to prevent flooding which occurred on the scale of last September. This is a very big job indeed. The hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Maurice Macmillan) asked what studies have been made to deal with flood flows arising from development in the country. Flood studies are being undertaken under the National Environment Research Council at a cost of about £250,000 and they should produce greater information on the volume and frequency of flood flows and should help in the design of flood protection schemes. But to be precise on this very difficult problem is not possible.

I have been asked to say what has been done in the meantime. Anybody who has been in the countryside this winter knows that one difficulty has been to get any sort of heavy drainage equipment on to the land at all, for it has been floundering about all over the place and doing more damage than good. Nevertheless quite a lot has been done, and the Conservancy is getting on with the job of maintenance. I am sure it would have boosted people's morale it they could have seen the work in progress, but it has not been assisted by the fantastic winter that we have had.

The hon. Member for Esher argued eloquently, as he has in the past, in favour of a public inquiry. I appreciate that when things go wrong, so much often depends upon an accurate diagnosis of the trouble, but I cannot see that any public inquiry is needed to tell us that rain of an exceptional magnitude fell over the Thames catchment area. I know that this is not a very good argument, but in fact it fell at a frequency which is experienced once in about every 150 or 200 years. No inquiry could alter the fact that the river cannot carry four times the flow for which it is designed—I agree that "designed" is a curious word to use in this context—without overspilling and causing serious havoc.

We therefore considered that the right course was not to spend money and valuable technical time on an inquisition into factors which could have little if any effect on the degree of flooding, but instead to encourage the Thames Conservancy to concentrate on constructive measures which its Chairman has promised to take and has already put in hand. I can assure the House that this work has not been confined to Surrey or the Thames Conservancy. There have been floods in Yorkshire, Essex and the West Country—indeed, all over the place. It has been suggested that there was no co-operation between the local councils, but I can assure the House that there has been considerable co-operation. Other river authorities—they are autonomous bodies—have also been reviewing their problems of drainage, flood prevention works and the order of priorities in the light of last year's floods. But in many cases it will not be feasible for either technical or economic reasons to give physical protection against flooding from the sort of rainfall we had last September. It is important, therefore, to ensure that in these areas arrangements are made wherever possible to give effective flood warning.

As the House knows, my Department convened a meeting of representatives of river authorities and other interested organisations to consider how the existing flood warning arrangements can be improved in the light of experience last year. This conference recommended that every river authority should carry out a comprehensive review of the flood warning system and determine, in consultation with local authorities and the police, what extensions were desirable and feasible in the coverage of its flood warning arrangements to meet the needs of vulnerable communities and industries throughout its area.

In the light of that recommendation, a number of river authorities are considering proposals for substantial extensions of their river monitoring systems in order to be better equipped to give warning of impending floods in future. I greatly welcome this, and urge other river authorities to follow their example.

The Government place great importance also on liaison between river authorities and planning authorities to ensure that flood risks are not increased unnecessarily by development in flood plains or by failure to take full account of the implications for drainage and flood prevention of proposed building, highway and other developments. I discussed that aspect of the matter earlier.

I think that hon. Members here present will know that one inch of rainfall produces 100 tons of water per acre. There are 50,000 acres or thereabouts taken every year for development, for roads airfields, housing—covered with concrete, tarmac, tiles or in some other way—so that about 5 million more tons of water each year have to be disposed of. This extra water must be got rid of, not in two or three days as it seeps through agricultural soil or in an hour or two but literally in minutes. This is the problem, as the hon. Member for Farnham pointed out. When there are 6 inches of rainfall in the time which I mentioned, a few moments' calculation can show the extent of the problem.

My right hon. Friend and I are shortly to convene a conference of planning and drainage authorities to consider whether there is scope for improvement in the present arrangements. I appreciate the point which hon. Members have made, that there seem to be rather too many different Departments concerned, but this is in the nature of the beast with all the different facets of the question, land drainage, planning, local authority work and everything else, it would be very difficult to have one Department dealing with it all. I am sure that hon. Members understand that.

In all the ways which I have mentioned, both the Government and the river authorities are studying the lessons learned from the unfortunate events of last year. That is what hon. Members have pressed upon us. I ask the House to accept, remembering the fantastic size of the job which we have to do, that we are applying the results of those lessons as constructively and rapidly as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Five o'clock, till Monday, 14th April, pursuant to the Resolution of the House 25th March.