I consider myself exceedingly fortunate that the business of the House has allowed me this opportunity of raising an issue of fundamental importance, not only to my constituency, but to the whole of the great Metropolis of London. The decision announced last week by the Secretary of State for the Environment that the Government have accepted the Greater London Council's recommendation to site the Thames flood barrier at Silvertown has been received with alarm and dismay by those in the London areas which lay below the site chosen.
Over the weekend I took the opportunity to visit the Greater London Council's massive housing development at Thamesmead, in my constituency. This development is taking place on the Plumstead and Erith marshes, an area which has been subject over the centuries to flooding from the River Thames. As I stood on the marshlands and looked at the houses, flats and maisonettes which are now occupied, my mind was taken back to 1953, which was the last occasion when the River Thames breached the flood defences and swept across the marshland in a solid wall at a height of approximately six feet, like a tidal wave engulfing all that stood in its path. I was horrified by the thought that the people living on the marshes were being denied the protection which they had been promised.
The G.L.C. is to be congratulated on the speed with which it pursued its investigations into London's flood protection. On 20th February, 1968, the then Minister of Housing and Local Government, now my noble Friend Lord Greenwood, requested the G.L.C. to investigate the protection of London from flooding by the Thames. The G.L.C. was able, by October, 1969, to report its findings, in which it mentioned a number of possible sites which should, it said, be subject to further investigation. In addition to the Silvertown site, which has been recommended and approved by the Secretary of State, the G.L.C. referred to Crossness, which is on the very borders of Greater London, on the edge of my constituency.
Had this site been chosen, it would have given protection to the whole of the area which is the responsibility of the G.L.C. This site was the subject of previous investigations by people conducting similar inquiries in recent years. For example, in 1965 two firms of consulting engineers put forward two different sets of proposals for a flood barrier at Long-reach, which is past Crayfordness. I criticised the Minister of the day because he did not appoint them as joint consultants but independent of each other to provide independent schemes.
The result was that they produced schemes which were in absolute conflict with each other. This enabled the Minister to escape his responsibility, of taking a positive decision, by being able to pray in aid the conflict which was in evidence in those consulting engineers' reports.
Following that, the Government of the day commissioned Professor Bondi to carry out an investigation. In due course he reported, and it is on the basis of his report that the Minister then asked the G.L.C. to do the studies which it has recently completed.
Some unfortunate things have happened since October, 1969. Having presented its report and the Crayfordness site as being a viable and feasible proposition for the siting of a barrier, the G.L.C. then changed its mind. It has now gone against the very evidence it presented in its report, and has chosen Silvertown.
A significant fact has emerged. On 31st December, 1969, the committee of the G.L.C. responsible for making the recommendation, the Public Services Committee, received a report from the Treasurer of the G.L.C. indicating that no further research into the feasibility of Crayfordness should, on financial grounds, proceed. The recommendation on which the Minister made his announcement last week is, therefore, feared by many people to have been based more on financial than on technical grounds.
The two consulting engineers who were commissioned by the Greater London Council to prepare the evidence for the 1969 Report acted in a joint capacity. From a letter dated 19th September, 1969, sent with their report they made their view quite clear. The letter reads:
We find that such a barrier is feasible and may be constructed to meet the requirements of reliability in service if of the drum gate type and constructed in a coffer-dam …. We are of the opinion that Long Reach"—
the Crayfordness site:
is the most favourable site because the various aspects of this location have been studied and discussed for some 15 years and no equally satisfactory site from all points of view has been put forward.
Despite that quite conclusive recommendation from the joint consulting engineers, the G.L.C., and subsequently the Minister, have ditched, if I may use the word, the Crayfordness site.
We are told by spokesmen for the Greater London Council that Crayfordness has not been recommended, because it would involve the creation of a massive retractable barrier which they describe as being of the length of Whitehall and almost as high as Nelson's Column. If that were the case I would be the first to say that Crayfordness was not a feasible engineering possibility, but that is a sort of red herring now being produced to confuse the arguments on the issue, because that sort of barrier would have been required had the 1965 report been implemented. I therefore ask the Under-Secretary to direct his attention not to the 1965 Report and this massive retractable structure, but to the 1969 Report of the joint consulting engineers, who suggest that it is no longer necessary to have a retractable barrier at Crayfordness and that it is engineeringly feasible to have a drum gate rising barrier on that site. Many of the arguments which the Greater London Council and, perhaps, the Under-Secretary of State will produce in defence of the decision do not, therefore, stand up to examination.
Thamesmead is a development designed by the Greater London Council and approved by the Minister to provide homes for 60,000 Londoners who are desperately in need of housing. It is a marshy area, and was formerly known as the Plumstead and Erith marshes. That is the area, upon which I stood at the weekend, that was flooded so severely in 1953 and is still exposed to the calamity of the river banks being breached in another disastrous flood.
A scheme of this magnitude did not pass without a public inquiry, and in October, 1967, a three-week public inquiry took place under an inspector appointed by the Minister. Much evidence was presented, and there was a great deal of cross-examination of expert witnesses put up by the Greater London Council on this very question of flood protection for the Thamesmead housing development. At the inquiry the council's expert officials solemnly gave evidence to the effect that the flood protection for Thamesmead, for those 60,000 people, could best be provided by a Thames flood barrier downstream from Thamesmead development.
Now the proposal is to betray those who are to be put at risk on the Thames-mead marshes. Those who solemnly recommended that the barrier should go downstream are now recommending that it should go upstream. I cannot say that it is the same Minister, but it is the same Department. The same officials who advised the then Minister of Housing and Local Government—my noble Friend Lord Greenwood—are now advising the Secretary of State for the Environment. The same officials who no doubt advised the Minister to approve the Thamesmead development with a barrier downstream have now probably advised the Secretary of State to approve the siting of the barrier upstream.
I have thought much about those 60,000 people, 20,000 of whom will be constituents of mine and 40,000 of whom will be constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew). I have thought of the dangers to which they might be exposed. It will be no satisfaction to them to be told, "You do not need a flood barrier across the river to protect you. We will ensure that the banks are strengthened, that they are raised and thickened, and that all the precautions are taken to make things safe for you."
Such solemn technical assurances have been given many times by experts. I am certain that at Ronan Point similar solemn assurances would have been given about the safety of those living in the flats. I am sure that similar solemn technical assurances were given to the unfortunate workers in Melbourne on the new design of bridge building who now know to their cost that the solemn words of experts cannot always be relied on.
My constituents will draw little comfort from the solemn assurance that they are given that the raising and thickening of the river bank will protect them. When looking at the river bank, perhaps raised to 24 feet above ordnance datum, they will be reminded that while they are standing on the ground with the bank in front of them just across that bank is a wall of water twice my height, and I am six feet tall. If the subsoil should collapse, if the banks through any weakness should collapse, that wall of water will again sweep over the Thamesmead marshes but, unlike in 1953—if it occurs again by the collapse of a river bank there will be 60,000 human souls at risk. They will be at risk, not by an accident of development over the centuries, but because of the deliberate decision of the planners, the G.L.C., and the Minister who approved the Thamesmead development on that marsh land.
Such a collapse is more likely to occur with a barrier upstream than if it were downstream. I do not use these words lightly: if that calamity occurs and if one resident of Thamesmead loses his life as a result of Thames flooding because of the decision to put the barrier upstream, it will not be accidental death. It will not be an act of God. It will be as the result of the deliberate decision to put those houses and those people at risk on a flood plain and then to deny them the protection that the flood barrier downstream at Crayfordness, as promised by the G.L.C. in its evidence to Inquiry would have afforded them.
I have referred to the report in which Professor Bondi rightly drew attention to the very grave risk to which Londoners are exposed from the danger of Thames flood. The professor said that one of the most serious risks facing Londoners is the danger to the underground system. He said that, if there is a flood before the barrier is built or the banks raised, that flood could enter the underground system and in a very short time completely flood it and that, if it occurred during a rush hour, there would be very heavy casualties.
The professor went on to make a very strong recommendation to the Government. This was not to the Tory Government. I do not hold the Under-Secretary responsible for this. There are no party politics in this issue. I am a critic of both the Labour-controlled G.L.C. and the Conservative-controlled G.L.C. and of the Labour Government and the Conservative Government in respect of flood protection. The professor recommended to my noble Friend Lord Greenwood that there should be a trial evacuation of London's underground system because he thought that the risk was so grave that it was not right to rely upon the plans for quick evacuation: something might not work at the very moment that it was needed. He recommended that there should be a proper trial in normal circumstances of the evacuation of the underground system to ensure that everything that is planned to work works efficiently and effectively if life was not to be put at risk. I regret that my noble Friend did not accept Professor Bondi's strong recommendation, but things have now changed. They have changed in a number of respects. The Greater London Council is now the authority responsible for London's transport, including the underground system, and another Party sits on the Government benches. I am reminding them tonight of the professor's strong recommendation, and I am asking the Under-Secretary to give consideration—I can do no more—to this recommendation and to discuss with the Greater London Council the urgent need for carrying out this trial evacuation. It would be a tragedy if, because of the non-fulfilment of that recommendation for a trial evacuation, the unspeakable should happen and we should have another flood before London's defences are reinforced and lives were lost in the underground.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) wishes to contribute to this debate and there may be other hon. Members who wish to speak, so I will take up no more time except to say this. I plead with the Under-Secretary on behalf of the people downstream of Silvertown, where the barrier has been recommended, to think again, to re-read the evidence in the October. 1969, report, to satisfy himself absolutely on the technical grounds for leaving the Crayfordness site out of the calculations, and to ensure that it is not Treasury influence which has led to the decision to site the barrier upstream, because of cost. We cannot protect Londoners on the cheap. It would be a disgrace if the decision to put the barrier at Silvertown was primarily taken on financial and not on technical grounds. I see that the Under-Secretary shakes his head. I hope the evidence will be published. If there is in existence a carefully documented evaluation of the Crayfordness site, I hope it will be published.
My constituents—indeed, all the people of London downstream of Silvertownare entitled to know precisely what are the technical arguments which have led the G.L.C. to abandon Crayfordness. I plead with the Under-Secretary to reexamine the decision and to bear in mind the danger of disaster that could well threaten the 60,000 people at Thames-mead who have been put at risk by his Ministry and by the G.L.C.
I am grateful for this unexpected opportunity to speak on this subject and I commend the initiative of the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) for having raised the matter.
Both as a civil engineer and as a member for a Thamesside constituency, the question of a Thames barrier is of great interest to me, and I welcome in principle the decision to go ahead with the construction of the barrier. I have always felt that there was merit in the even more ambitious scheme of a Thames barrage, but financial reasons, no doubt, make that impossible.
There are implications in any sort of barrier for constituencies downstream of the Thames barrier. The hon. Member for Erith and Crayford has spoken eloquently of the dangers which face his own constituency and other Greater London constituencies, and I should like to say something about the fears in areas outside Greater London, in Essex and Kent, and particularly in my own constituency of Dartford. Dartford has been subject to severe flooding. There have been three almost catastrophic floods in the last 40 years, the most recent of which was in 1968.
I should like to say something of the reasons why Dartford is to subject to flooding. The River Darenth, which flows into the Thames through Dartford, collects the water from a natural watershed and in times of heavy rainfall becomes extremely swollen. If, at the same time, because of wind conditions in the North Sea and because of tidal conditions, the level of the Thames is high, it becomes impossible for the swollen waters of the Darenth to discharge into the Thames and they back up, causing severe flooding in Dartford.
Should these conditions arise—and I am told they are very apt to arise in February of any year—when there is a barrier further upstream, it follows that the water which tries to make its way up the Thames and is unable to do so, coupled with the swollen River Darenth trying to discharge into the Thames, must cause flooding of an even greater magnitude than we have had in the past.
There are, I believe, three things which people who live in downstream constituencies are entitled to ask of the Government. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will feel able to accede to my requests. The first is that the question of downstream flooding should be thoroughly studied. We know that the barrier can cause flooding downstream. What the public do not yet know is the exact extent and way in which flooding can be caused. My first request, therefore, is that the possible effects of the barrier on downstream flooding should be studied in considerable detail. If the Greater London Council feels that, for financial reasons, it cannot afford the scale and depth of investigation needed for this problem, we are entitled to ask the Government, who are ultimately responsible for the safety of people living on Thamesside, to be prepared to assist with it. If and when the investigations are completed, it is reasonable to expect that they should be published. That is my first request.
My second request is that when the effects of downstream flooding have been fully studied an estimate is made of the cost of the necessary downstream flood defences. I do not share the pessimism of the hon. Member for Erith and Cray-ford that it is not possible to protect people living downstream of the barrier. It is possible to protect them, but at a cost. The cost could well prove to be prohibitive. Having ascertained the extent of the possible flooding, we must translate it into what is required in terms of flood defences and cost it. The cost could be considerable. I hope that the cost estimates will be published.
It is not widely known that in the studies into a Thames barrage carried out between the wars Gravesend was suggested as a possible site. If it transpires that the cost of the flood defences made necessary by the barrier is so high as to make the scheme at Silvertown Reach or even Crayfordness prohibitive, we should not completely rule out the possibility of again considering Gravesend. Therefore, my second request is that the estimates of cost of the necessary downstream flood defences are published and a decision taken, according to how high they are, on whether the whole project must be rethought.
My third request concerns how the cost of the downstream flood defences is to be met. Constituencies outside the Greater London area—indeed all areas and local authorities downstream of the barrier—would be right in saying that they would derive no benefits from the barrier these would accrue to areas and local authorities upstream. If areas downstream of the barrier are expected to contribute to the cost of what may be substantial flood defences made necessary by the barrier, they will be justified in regarding it as completely inequitable.
Therefore, my third request to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is that he publishes, not only the results of the studies into downstream flooding and the estimates of the cost of the necessary flood defences, but the Government's proposals for financing the cost of the barrier itself and any necessary downstream flood defences.
All my requests to my hon. Friend are for the publication of information, and I hope that for the sake of the people living downstream he will find it possible to accede to them.
I am glad to be able to take part in this debate. I speak with a number of qualifications. Unlike the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Cray-ford (Mr. Wellbeloved), my constituency is not below but above the site of the barrier. I speak as a London Member. I should also mention that I speak as vice-chairman of the River Thames Society whose former president, the late hon. Member for Twickenham, Mr. Roger Gresham Cooke, contributed so greatly to the debates in this House, particularly on River Thames matters. I am also a co-opted member of the Environmental Planning Committee of the Greater London Council, but I hasten to add that it is not the committee which has responsibility for the proposed barrier.
I echo the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford about the dangers which London faces. The Thamesmead situation is of public importance, although the people there could well be protected in a number of ways. However, even if the proposal for a barrier goes ahead almost at once, it may be seven to ten years before London is secure from a tidal surge. It is during that time that the greatest danger may well arise. I will not go so far as to say that Professor Bondi's recommendations are thoroughly justified, but he certainly has a point, and I think it is a pity that that report was not made more widely known at the time.
One of the greatest dangers we have is not from over-topping of any flood walls, but their possible collapse. I hasten to add that in the London County Council area, which is the greater part of Greater London today, these walls have withstood the tidal surges we have had, particularly in 1963 and 1968, but there is a danger of undermining and possible collapse, with a wall of water four or five feet high which the lower lying areas of London might have to face. We know that the Ministries of Agriculture and Housing and Local Government have their flood warning system, but we must do everything possible to prevent the collapse of walls, particularly in those areas not previously under the jurisdiction of the London County Council.
There are other lessons which must be pointed out at this stage. It so happens that I have made a quite extensive study of this matter, which has grave implications in other directions. We had our first catastrophic flood in 1953. That is a good many years ago—17 years ago—and it has taken those 17 years until a decision has been reached on how London can be protected. In that year, and again in 1968, the tide in London reached a height of approximately 18 feet above the Ordnance Survey datum—18 feet above the average level of the sea as at Newlyn in Cornwall. As a result of the 1953 floods there was a very considerable loss of life along the east coast, and the Government initiated an inquiry, initially under the late Lord Waverley.
Lord Waverley's Committee came up with a recommendation very soon, and that was for an investigation of a barrier or barrage, such has been suggested and virtually agreed on. However, the terms of reference which were given to the technical committee to look at this were, in my view, far too narrow. Instead of being given a remit to look at the problem as a whole the committee was given a remit to look at a specific solution, suggested more or less en passant by the Waverley Committee. Because of this the whole issue was not looked at, just one specific solution was looked at, and there was a great deal of disagreement about that particular technical response.
As a result, statutory bodies quite properly pursuing their functions which Parliament had placed upon them, danced around one another for several years, like people in a ballroom. The result was that report after report came out, some of them, as my hon. Friend mentioned, contradictory, and all the time London was at risk. For some reason of which I am not quite sure, the Government seemed to accept this situation and not to cut the Gordian knot.
This has very important implications, because had the terms of reference been a little wider, had the original committee been asked to look at a specific solution and at any other matter pertaining to this problem, perhaps we would not have had the serious delay which has occurred. It is a very serious matter, which we shall all understand, if tragedy ensues in the next ten years. We can look back further than that. Had the requests which were made by Sir Alan Herbert, who at that time was Member of Parliament for Oxford University, been heeded by responsible bodies, even if his exact solution was wrong, nevertheless if those pleas had been heeded, and responsible answers been given to the questions which were asked, we would not perhaps have had the delays which have occurred.
Reference has been made to the report of Professor Bondi. He again made a rather narrow recommendation for investigation of certain sites, but it was not until the Greater London Council insisted that the investigation should be a much wider one, and went further than the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, not until then, and relatively recently—was the total problem looked at for the first time, despite the fact that the Thames barrage had been in the air for well over a century. I should add that that debate in the Greater London Council, in the autumn I think of 1967, was an all-party matter. Once the go-ahead was given by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government the G.L.C. went at it with great speed.
I wish to conclude by looking at five points which have come out of this: first, the question of site; second, the type of barrier recommended; third, amenity; fourth, cost; and, fifth, the way in which the Government go about making an announcement.
My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford is concerned with the site. It may or may not be the site which has been recommended. It is important that the public be given the information on which they can judge. I hope that when the Minister replies he will not only make this clear but will say that later there will be a public document, perhaps a popular rather than a technical document, by which ordinary people with but little understanding of the great technicalities of the matter can be assured that whatever decision is taken is taken in their interests, particularly on the question of site.
Second, there is the question of the type of barrier, about which there has been a great deal of debate. As Professor Bondi and others have pointed out, reliability is the absolute "must". There must be no doubt about it. If any type of barrier has to work once in a century, it is essential that every effort shall be made to make it 100 per cent. reliable. There have been objections to a barrier with towers. It is thought by some, including, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew), that that would upset the amenities of the area, but one of the bridges on the Thames with towers, Tower Bridge, is a noted additional amenity.
On the third point, amenity, it has been pointed out that a barrier could conceivably act as a tide-control barrier as well. False hopes may have been raised by this possibility. More tests must be carried out. But it could be that the tide control structure, which would be the barrier, could not only keep high tides out of London but could maintain a higher low-water level than we now have. It would not necessarily create the artificial lake about which many people talk enthusiastically, but it could perhaps increase the area of low-water level. I will not say that it is definitely possible, but it may be in 10 years' time.
If that can be done, the environment of the Thames in London will be transformed. The whole of the environment can become greater than the total of the parts. If that is a possibility, there needs to be a wide-ranging authority which can take responsibility for co-ordinating the whole Thamesside environment. Both the P.L.A. and the Greater London Council have ideas about future legislation that would make that possible.
I come to the question of cost. The Greater London Council has made it quite clear that this is not just a London matter but a national matter, and I thoroughly support it on this. I believe that the financial responsibility is far more a national matter than a London matter. Central London is the great nerve centre of the nation. I do not pretend that it produces a great deal in tangible form, but it is a very important part of our economic structure, and therefore I press the Minister to say something about cost. It is not London's fault that the North Sea is rising a bit or that there is a particular type of depression in the North Sea which produces the phenomena responsible for higher tides.
Finally, and perhaps the most important for the future, is the question of Government announcements on the matter. It has been the Government's practice to make announcements about the Thames barrage in reply to Written Questions. The Secretary of State for the Environment answered a Question about it earlier in the Session, and there was another last week. It was perhaps with some regret that London Members noticed that an announcement about another project in London, concerning transport to London Airport, which was not even made to the House. The Government made known their financial intentions, not to make a 75 per cent. grant, and could not be questioned on it.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman, in replying to the present debate, will give an assurance that, when the Government make an announcement about the financing of this project, their spokesman will do so in the House and in such a way that he can be questioned afterwards. It should not be a matter for Written Answer; it is only right that there should be a Government statement, made with reasonable notice.
This is an important project for London, and it is only right, in a democratic society, that the Government should proceed in that way. If they do, a great deal will have been done to redeem the delays and muddle which we have had, and there can be a seemly conclusion reached in a manner of which we can all approve.
The hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) has already stressed—I join him in this—the importance which we attach to this matter in London. He has paid tribute to what the Greater London Council has done. I cannot emphasise too much the importance which the G.L.C. attaches to the barrier project. Its view is based not only on grounds of safety, although these are of tremendous significance for London. It is not sufficient to say that, because we have managed successfully in the past, we shall necessarily manage successfully in the next few years.
The situation on the river is changing steadily. One knows that the river is silting up, the tides are rising higher, and the odds against our having a major flood disaster in London are steadily shortening. I do not mean in any way to be alarmist, but it is not appreciated by many how much of the lower reaches of the Thames lies below a safety level in relation to the river banks. From a London point of view, we have asked about this matter over and over again.
I speak a little from the London end because I have the honour to be chairman of the strategic planning committee of the Greater London Council, and in that réle I have had a lengthy hand in the production of the Development Plan for London, in which we were very much aware of the dangers and problems asso ciated with the rising levels of the Thames.
We should like to see a barrier on safety grounds. That must come first. But we should like to see it, also, because with a barrier can come considerable advantages for amenity on those parts of the Thames lying above where the barrier is set. I realise that it is fashionable nowadays to push the cause of recreational facilities and amenity, but this project could mean a great deal to a highly developed and closely populated centre such as ours. One has only to think for a moment about the various advantages in terms of recreation and sport which could flow from a development of this kind on the Thames to realise how much it could mean not just to the adults of London but to the children, too.
The Greater London Council has been conscious of the need to develop the docks, those 1,000 acres in the centre of London which are rapidly falling idle. Within that context also, we should like to see the development of a barrier. Unfortunately, on technical grounds, we do not yet know whether the best form of barrier would be a fixed barrier, a drop gate, or some sort of shelf or gate rising up from the river bed. Investigations by the G.L.C. are going on, but this is an area in which the Government could greatly help by giving us a lead.
More than that, there is the question of finance. I press upon the House that this is a national need, and the financing of projects to meet national needs by the ratepayers of London has reached a point at which a small section of the community cannot be expected indefiniately to keep putting its hand in its pocket for what is an all-London need and a national need. I hope that the Government will help us on the G.L.C. to find some way round the problem of financing these major projects.
If we are to keep London as a viable entity and as a great commercial capital, as we all agree we should, we must see to it that it is a place which can be worked in with safety and which has the requisite tools and facilities to that end. This is part of the problem of financing London today. I ask the Minister to treat this question of the barrier-cum-barrage, whichever it finally is, as a most urgent matter, to confirm with the G.L.C. as soon as possible where the site should be, and the kind of barrier most suited, and lastly, to consider supporting the G.L.C. financially, because the basic cost of this must be in the region of £50 million.
On the question of improving the river wall below wherever the barrier is, this, I suggest, will cost in the region of another £20 million to £30 million. That is too much to come from one even large regional local authority. I hope the Minister will consider seriously what sort of help he can give London in this matter.
It is not this topic that I wish to raise, but this is the Adjournment and this is the second topic that has been raised. I am sure you would agree, Mr. Speaker, that when a Member has advised the Minister in good time that he hopes to raise a question, on this basis he is entitled to raise that question if there is time. I gave notice to the Department for Trade and Industry that I hoped, if there was time, to raise a question for which it was responsible. There was due warning. The Whips opposite were warned of this; your predecessor, Mr. Deputy Speaker, was advised of this.
There have been various comings and goings, and I am putting it to you that there is quite clearly a ploy on to prevent me from speaking. Hon. Members opposite have been dragged in. None of them had any knowledge that this matter was to be raised. My hon. Friend gave notice around six o'clock that this was to be raised. Hon. Gentlemen on the other side have been brought in deliberately with the intention of preventing me from speaking.
On this point, Mr. Speaker, since I have given notice and since there can be no question but that the Department was duly informed of what is intended, and since my point is a very simple one that could be replied to very shortly, I take it that you will permit me to make my point, in the hope that what I have to say will be conveyed to the Minister, who has not yet arrived, and I might, before half-past 10 tonight, get a reply to the point I wish to put.
The hon. Gentleman cannot put his point now. I must finish this debate. I am not responsible for ploys or anything like that. The second debate for which notice has been given has not been completed. The Minister must reply. After that, we will deal with the third topic, of which the hon. Gentleman has given notice.
I am sure, Mr. Speaker, you will tell us on what basis it is the case that when we are dealing with the Adjournment, hon. Gentlemen are not permitted to raise any matter for which there is Ministerial responsibility. I am not asking anything in terms of legislation. I am asking here entirely a question regarding Ministerial responsibility. I know as well as you that when we are on the Adjournment, there is nothing for which a Department is responsible that we cannot raise. There is an inconvenience, I know, in that there may not be a Minister present to reply. But that is not my responsibility. The Department concerned has been advised. If no one is prepared to turn up, I submit that discourtesy is being shown to this House. I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that clearly on the benches opposite the intention is to prevent me from speaking. On that basis, despite the fact that there is no Minister present, I propose to go ahead and say what I have to say.
I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, but I cannot understand why you are unable to call me. If it can be shown to me that I am wrong, I will apologise and be happy to sit down. I have no knowledge of any rule concerning our debates which says that, when we are on the Adjournment, hon. Members must stick to a particular subject. I have gained a great deal of experience of this House over a number of years. I believe that hon. Members may raise on the Adjournment any matter for which there is governmental responsibility. I put this to you.
If I am not permitted to speak tonight, it is not because I am out of order but because I am being deliberately kept out by a conspiracy on the benches opposite, presumably because the Minister for Trade and Industry has engagements outside which do not permit him to attend to his duties here. I put it to you that I am not out of order in raising any matter, now that I have the floor, for which a Government Department has responsibility—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is not out of order in raising any such matter on the Adjournment. He is quite right. He has long experience of this House. However, he has to be called in order to do so.
I might point out to the hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson), for whom I have great respect, that we have sat through speeches from the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) and the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing). Presumably they have not been included in any conspiracy to take up time. In addition, it is, in my opinion, a gross insult to the Chairman of the Strategic Planning Committee of the Greater London Council and the man who wrote the London Development Plan to suggest that he was dragged in to spend time on a very important point.
Further to my point of order. I ask for a Ruling. Quite apart from any question of courtesy to the House, my question is whether I am out of order in proceeding with a short speech on the subject matter which I informed the Department of Trade and Industry that I wished to raise. If I am out of order, I will sit down. If I am not, perhaps I might—
Further to that point. Is it not the case that, when there is a debate of this kind, it is customary to call an hon. Member from each side of the House in turn? Is not that my position?
Let me at once make it clear that I was not dragged into this debate. If anyone was alleging a conspiracy, I might feel that the hon. Member for Mother-well (Mr. Lawson) has tried to prevent me from speaking.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reading (Dr. Vaughan) is Chairman of the Strategic Planning Committee of the G.L.C. My interest in this matter is both as Vice-Chairman of the General Purposes Committee of the London Boroughs Association, which is just as interested in this problem as the G.L.C., and because my constituency is affected.
Even as a new Member, I know that when the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) raises matters, they are usually somewhat lengthy. However, I will not pursue that point because the hon. Gentleman has left the Chamber and courtesy demands that I should not discuss what he has said.
According to several articles, particularly in the London newspapers, if we have a major flood of the River Thames, many areas of Greater London, not merely in the south but also in the northwest, will be inundated. I am not fortunate enough to live in the higher part of Hampstead. However, several hon. Members, including the former Minister of Housing and Local Government, now translated to another place, live above the possible flood level as far as I can see from the map. Certainly the part of the borough in which I live would be inundated, and I have no desire to see that.
I should like to take up the point raised by the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing). He hoped that the Government would not, when they came to make a statement on the barrage, make it in the form of an Answer to a Written Question. I submit that it is very much a matter of luck whether or not one gets a Written Answer. I put down what I thought was a most important Question today dealing with the Crowther Commission. I had no desire for the Written Answer, which I have now received. It is the luck of the draw, the length of supplementary questions, the length of odd points of order which occasionally arise, and certainly the position in which the Question is placed.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in a matter of this weight such a statement should not be made in response to a Written or, indeed, to an Oral Question, or to the Press, but should be a Government statement in this House?
It would be difficult for me to agree or disagree, as it would for the hon. Gentleman, as neither of us hold Ministerial office. Clearly, it is up to a Minister to decide how best to deal with these important matters. It might be decided that the Greater London Council and the London Boroughs Association should take part in a joint Press conference with someone from the Ministry. I do not think that it necessarily falls to us to query the method by which the announcement is made. The important point is what announcement is made.
The chairman of the Greater London Strategic Planning Committee raised the question of finance. He is perfectly right. He said that it would cost approximately £70 million. That is £50 million for the barrier and £20 million for the ancillaries. Judging, for example, by Concorde or anything else, that figure is likely to escalate to, say, £80 million. So let us consider £80 million. Here I may diverge slightly from my hon. Friend. Although he was arguing that it is the Greater London Council's problem to raise the money and it therefore requires a Government grant, nonetheless, however the money is raised, it is not called for upon individuals in Dartford, Erith and Crayford or Hampstead, but through the rates and the precept upon the 32 London boroughs. Therefore, the 32 London boroughs have an interest in how this money is raised.
When we are satisfied that the scheme placed before the country either in this House or at a Press conference is workable, I submit that the decision needs to be taken at that stage how the money to meet the bill should be found. Perhaps this might be found by the G.L.C. precepting on the boroughs, or it might be an ideal opportunity for a Greater London lottery, of which my hon. Friends, in Opposition, were very much in favour. I hope that the civil servants have not now convinced them that they were wrong.
It might be in the form of a lottery, or in the form of a toll on ships. What is certain is that the money cannot be found solely from the ratepayers of Greater London.
This is a time when we speak widely of mini-Budgets and many such things, and this evening we have had a mini-debate, one to which many hon. Members have contributed with eloquence, with passion and, on occasion, with great concern.
The last occasion on which the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved), who made an excellent speech, but who has now departed from the Chamber, raised this matter was on 19th March this year when, with his colleague the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) he was very critical of my predecessor, on two grounds. First, that there had not been adequate consultation with the London authorities. Second, that the Government could not make up their minds to provide the necessary defences for London.
I am glad to tell the hon. Gentleman that the present Administration has met both those points. I had hoped that he would have given my right hon. Friend proper credit for doing so, but instead he told us that he had reacted with alarm and some despondency to the decision that had been made. He also spoke with proper feeling and sincerity on behalf of his constituents.
I must reject the hon. Gentleman's alarm and despondency. I must tell him that there have been consultations with the relevant authorities and, most important, that the Government have made a decision, to use the words of his hon. Friend, to cut the Gordian knot. We have made a decision, and therefore we are now embarked on what may well prove to be one of the most exciting and advanced engineering projects anywhere in the world.
I am advised that the G.L.C. had discussions with the London boroughs a few weeks ago, and I have every reason to believe that those boroughs would have included Bexley.
I think that it would be right for me to sketch in the general background of this matter before dealing with the various points that have been raised. The crucial point is that London at the moment is in danger from severe flooding. During any period of any year from about September until April the eastern seaboard of our country is liable to be effected by a tidal surge. This could start in the Atlantic or in the northern part of the North Sea and it would take the form of a wave which within about 10 hours, could travel down our east coast from Aberdeen to Southend.
The last of these great surges was in 1953, when the predicted tide levels between the Humber and the Thames were exceeded by 8 ft. As a result there was widespread flooding and loss of life, particularly at Canvey Island, and minor flooding occurred in Greater London. Again in 1965—and the hon. Gentleman will remember this well—London had a near miss. The tide rose to within a few inches of the tops of the present defences. Therefore, to stave off future threats the east coast and the Thames Estuary defences have been raised and strengthened so as to withstand a recurrence of a surge of 1953 poportions.
But very little has been done to defend Central London. It is now estimated that the probability in any one year of a surge over-topping the embankments in Central London by one foot is not less than 34 to 1—one chance in 34. Those odds are shortening all the time because the height of the Thames tides in relation to the level of the land is rising by about 2·8 ft. a century—that is, by one-third of an inch every year. So, sooner or later, a potentially disastrous flood could hit London, and we must reckon with it. If that were to happen, an area of about 45 square miles would be vulnerable, and included in that area are a number of pockets of land at least 14 ft. below the ordinary river level.
It is difficult to quantify the physical damage, the disruption and the social effects that could be expected in those circumstances, but the bill in human as financial terms would inevitably be unacceptably high. Therefore, in early 1968 the G.L.C. was requested by our predecessors to undertake a comprehensive study of the danger and to recommend a site on the Thames for either a movable barrier or a permanent barrage to protect the area upstream. The first and major part of the study was published early in 1970.
First, it ruled out the idea of a permanent barrage, because of the risk of siltation, and because, owing to the existing danger, it would take too long to build. Second, the report recommended that further detailed investigation should continue into the relative advantages of two types of movable barrier, either a rising sector barrier at Crayfordness, or a drop gate—a portcullis type of barrier—at a suitable site in the Woolwich Reach. The Crayfordness proposal has been found to be undesirable. The hon. Member for Erith and Crayford has referred to it on a number of occasions, so I shall tell him some of the reasons why we believe that Crayfordness is not the right answer. First, it would be too expensive. But I assure him that finance was by no means the whole reason that led to its rejection. Second, and more important, perhaps, it would take far too long to construct a satisfactory and reliable protection at that point. As has been pointed out by every hon. Member who has spoken tonight, urgency is something we must reckon with.
Third, the closure of such a barrier at Crayfordness would involve a great deal more interference with shipping than would a barrier in the Woolwich Reach, because the site would be downstream of the Royal Docks. The P.L.A. and the other shipping interests have made quite clear their views about that.
Fourth, and I think conclusive, we are advised that the reliability of a submerged barrier of the dimensions that would be required at Crayfordness, where the river is much wider, would be open to doubt. It is not within the present state of the art of construction. No Government confronted with the urgency of the problem could possibly put their money and their judgment on something which we are advised might not be reliable in the event.
So, with Crayfordness out of the way, three sites remained to be considered for a movable barrier. They were Silvertown, in the Woolwich Reach, the Woolwich Dockyard and the Blackwall Reach. Each of those sites has been examined in the greatest detail. As chairman, on behalf of my right hon. Friend, of the policy group that has been concerned with the project, I have visited all three by boat to see them for myself. Our conclusion is clear. It is that of these three sites—and we have examined each in the greatest detail—the merits of Silvertown seem to be overwhelmingly strong.
Silvertown succeeds on grounds of relative cost, which is an important factor. It succeeds on grounds of the relative ease and safety of construction, a factor which I put very high. It succeeds on the present availability of land for the necessary works; the land can be obtained now. It succeeds on grounds of the relative safety to shipping afforded by a site in a straight, open length of river where navigational interests can be taken into account. I have examined this personally and I am satisfied that this is right.
It is only fair to say that the Port of London Authority preferred, and still prefers, the Blackwall site, which is even further up river than Silvertown. However, while reserving its position on detailed points, such as navigation and siltation, Lord Simon, speaking on behalf of the Port of London Authority, has agreed not to stand in the way of the further investigation that now needs to be done to go forward on the basis of Silvertown.
I come to the question of the type of barrier. Obviously here one must consider the question of cost, speed of construction, width of opening and, therefore perhaps the safety of shipping. The type of barrier could also affect the amenities of the river.
The field of choice here extends from a structure containing drop gates, one of which might have a span of 450 ft., to a structure containing a number of gates each with a maximum span of 200 ft., and such gates would be of the rising sector pattern, which is a drum-like structure rising from the river bed.
Some of the navigational interests are at present disposed to favour the drop gate on the ground that the greater width of opening would be safer for the passage of shipping, particularly in fog or difficult weather. But in favour of the rising sector are the lower cost, the less time that would be required for completion and the fact that the rising sector gates would be less conspicuous than a drop gate barrier, which would have twin towers rising from the river perhaps 220 ft. high with a main sluice gate 450 ft. long and 55 ft. deep. Whichever design is chosen, on cost or technical grounds, my right hon. Friend and I are anxious that it should conflict as little as possible with the amenities and attractiveness of the river.
I am obliged to the Minister for the extremely interesting information which he is giving the House. Indeed, he is making a major policy announcement. In all my experience in this place, I have never before heard a major policy pronouncement of this sort given in reply to a second Adjournment debate without prior notice having been given to the Opposition. I therefore wonder whether the hon. Gentleman intends to repeat this policy pronouncement at a time when we shall have an opportunity to cross-examine him. I trust that he appreciates that we shall need carefully to examine the remarks he is making tonight.
The hon. Gentleman flatters me in suggesting that I am making such a pronouncement. My right hon. Friend made a perfectly clear announcement of his choice of site and his decision that the G.L.C. should go ahead. I am glad to elaborate some of the points he made, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that if he had read my right hon. Friend's statement the other day he would have seen that the Government have made their decision and announcement in the proper way and proper place.
Is it not a fact that that statement was made in the form of a Written Answer to a Question—made that way because the hon. Member who had tabled the Question was not in the House to ask it, so that the reply was given in written form?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that there has been not just that one Answer to which he has referred. A fuller statement has been made by my right hon. Friend since that Answer was given, and I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will be interested to look up the fuller statement that was made.
I want to deal with the subject of closure of the barrier because, obviously, when one closes such a barrier one interferes, or can interfere, with shipping. The Port of London Authority and the shipping interests are concerned about the number of times the barrier might have to be closed, thereby preventing or delaying a ship's passage.
On the approach of a very major surge tide, which would be known well in advance, the barrier would normally be closed at low water; that is to say, six hours before high water. But if the downstream walls and embankments are built to high standards—that is to say, to provide safe protection at Thamesmead and many other places against a tide likely to occur once in 1,000 years—it may be possible to delay closure of the barrier on the surge tides, showing only a marginal risk to London. We could delay that closure until three hours before high water, and the advice available to me is that the average number of closures per year at the present time would not be at all numerous, though clearly the frequency of closure would increase over the years in the expectation that the present rise in sea level relative to the land goes on.
I am advised that, even with the utmost speed, it will take about two more years to complete the studies, to acquire the necessary riparian land and to design this very big project. The Government have therefore agreed—and my right hon. Friend has announced more than once—that this process should now begin. For the edification of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Denis Howell) I quote what my right hon. Friend said last week in the House:
The Government consider that the need to construct a moveable barrier to be urgent and agree … that the right site is at Silver-town in Woolwich Reach".
My right hon. Friend went on:
The Greater London Council is therefore being advised to press ahead both with the detailed site investigation and also with the completion of their remaining studies. Detailed design work will begin as soon as a decision can be taken on the type of barrier."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th November, 1970; Vol. 805, c. 352.]
I raised this very point on the relative merits of the drop gate and rising drum type of barrier. The hon. Gentleman has not mentioned the question of the power to close the barrier. For reliability it is obviously necessary that such a mechanism should close without power. Can the hon. Gentleman enlighten us on this point?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to mislead the House. The statement he alleges the Minister made to the House last week was in reality a Written Answer published in HANSARD, and not a statement made to the House. The Scottish Member who put down the Question did not turn up to ask it.
That is different from the point made by the hon. Member for Small Heath, which was that I was disclosing something for the first time.
The position is that there is a danger to London. We have recognised that. We have taken the best advice. We have made a decision that required to be made, and we have now set in train the action that is required to safeguard London. All else—Crayfordness and the rest—is secondary to that major point that the decision required has been made.
I will deal very briefly with the questions that have been put by various hon. Members. First, I must deal with one point made by the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford. Recognising the hon. Gentleman's sincerity, I say that he does no service to those who may come to live in that area if he uses the kind of language that speaks of some 60,000 human souls being put in peril. The Greater London Council, whatever its political complexion, is a responsible body which will accept the responsibility of ensuring that adequate protection is available to those—his own constituents and others—who live in Thamesmead.
The hon. Gentleman said that not too much notice should be taken of solemn technical assurances by experts. Who else does the hon. Gentleman want us to rely upon? When dealing with matters of this magnitude—the construction of a barrier larger than anything ever undertaken before—does the hon. Gentleman expect that we should rely upon him? The right answer is that any Government must turn to the best available advice. That is precisely what our predecessors, the G.L.C., and now this Government, have done. I am not prepared to accept from the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great affection, any of the strictures on the impartial technical advice that has been made available to me, to my Com mittee, and to my right hon. Friend, while we have considered this subject.
Will the hon. Gentleman also bear in mind that I said that at the 1967 Thamesmead public inquiry solemn technical evidence was given on behalf of the Greater London Council that to protect Thamesmead the barrier should be downstream, not upstream? if that technical evidence has been overridden, I cannot put much faith in the present evidence the hon. Gentleman is adducing.
I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I was about to say that, great as is the confidence that we may have in him, we on this side of the House greatly prefer the advice of his experts to anything based on his own personal visit to the site, which is what he seemed to rely on earlier in his speech.
I suspect that if the hon. Gentleman had been in this position he would have done exactly the same. I hope that he will agree that it is desirable, whenever one is taking a Committee, to try as far as possible to see the situation for oneself.
In the few minutes remaining for this debate, I wish to deal with the questions which have been put to me. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Trew) made three main points. He spoke of the danger of downstream flooding. Of course he did, as the Member for Dartford. He said that the most thorough examination of the possible risks and dangers would be required. I assure him that the most thorough examination is under way.
Then my hon. Friend said that there would need to be some estimate of the cost of downstream flood defences and that this matter, too, would need to be very carefully examined. I assure my hon. Friend that the cost and the construction of adequate downstream defences would be an integral part of the project, properly costed and built into the scheme as it progressed.
Third, my hon. Friend and other hon. Members raised the question of overall cost. This was a matter of concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg). The Government and the G.L.C. are naturally very conscious of the cost of the scheme and, if it had not been for the great urgency confronting London, it would have been so easy to postpone a decision, as our predecessors did. We have made a decision, and we accept that it will be necessary with the G.L.C. to work out the exact division of costs. This is a matter on which consultations will be required. Indeed, they are now proceeding. I am certain that my right hon. Friend will be taking into account the views of the G.L.C. and of the other riparian authorities in Kent, Essex, and the rest, before reaching any conclusion as to precisely how the costs are to be divided.
The hon. Gentleman the Member for Acton, whose knowledge in this field is great, raised five points. He spoke first of the site. My answer to him on this point is simple. The decision is made. My right hon. Friend has announced it. The hon. Gentleman then spoke of reliability. The reason Crayfordness did not succeed is that it was not reliable. The hon. Gentleman spoke of amenity, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Reading (Dr. Vaughan). We accept that the amenity aspects are of great importance, and I have given the assurance that in selecting the type of barrier we shall be very much guided by amenity considerations.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke of tide control. This is a controversial and difficult matter, for the importance of the navigational interests and the free movement of sizeable ships has to be borne in mind, and the Government certainly intend to do that. All I can say in answer to his question is that the type of barrier constructed, depending on what is chosen, will certainly not exclude the possibility of tide control in the future, but for the time being I think this is a matter for consultation with the G.L.C. and the Port of London authority.
He mentioned cost, as did so many others. I recognise the point that he made, that this is a national scheme and not simply a London scheme. It is a proper matter for discussion as to how the costs shall be borne.
I come to one other point that has been touched on by hon. Members but not developed, namely that if a start were made in 1972 the construction of a barrier could be substantially completed by 1976 in the case of a rising sector gate, or by 1977 in the case of a drop gate barrier. The associated river defences would need to be very carefully phased in so as not to create greater danger before the completion of the barrier and the chances also of some degree of flooding during the construction period itself. They, too, cannot be overlooked.
There is, therefore, a strong case for providing some protection during this interim period of construction either generally by means of the temporary raising of existing walls or selectively in areas by installations which are particularly at risk. An example might be the Underground access points. The hon. Member has advised a trial evacuation system and he has quoted Professor Bondi. I will certainly look at this proposal, which he is making tonight not for the first time, but I am somewhat sceptical of the necessity for it.
The provision of this kind of interim protection is beset with difficulties, including the extent of the work that may be necessary to ensure the stability of higher walls, and also aesthetic objections against raising the height of the river embankments in Central London. But these possibilities are being investigated by the G.L.C. which will be reporting to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment very shortly.
As to the Kent and Essex riparian areas, the G.L.C. is also in close touch with the Kent and Essex river authorities. These are responsible for the estuarial sea defences. The purpose in all these matters is that the best possible schemes for the protection of the areas downstream shall be worked out. There will be the fullest consultation, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture as well as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will both be working here in conjunction with the authorities concerned and with the P.L.A.
The Greater London Council and the Kent and Essex river authorities will determine what raising of riparian banks and walls will be required downstream at the barrier site, and the necessary works will form an integral part of the whole project. What I am saying is that flooding downstream will not be allowed to take place.
Therefore, I hope that I have been able to point to the Government's having made a decision on what can be a very exciting project. Further investigation will be required in respect of a site. More discussions are needed in respect of the money. Full consultations will be required at all stages, but nevertheless the decision has been made. The action can now begin.