I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your advice. I have had forewarning of the direction in which the straight and narrow path leads. I am sure that you will find that what I have to say can be contained within the rules of order.
I raise the question of the acquisition of housing sites in relation to flood alleviation of the River Mole. In my constituency we are faced with all the usual factors affecting the provision of housing sites. First, there is the decline in the available number of houses to rent. A large contributory factor in this respect has been the Government's rent policy and the consequent drying up of the market. People simply will not come forward with houses to rent if they feel that they cannot at some stage dispossess the tenants.
We have also the difficulty of first-time purchasers who wish to buy their own property. The Conservative scheme for mortgages put out during the General Election would have been of great help in overcoming their difficulties. Thus, young couples are finding it difficult to get accommodation in the area. This is reflected in the increasing number of applicants on the Elmbridge Council list. We now have 1,291 applicants on it, and it increases by 38 a month. Over the last six months we have been housing an average of only 15 a month, which leaves a net increase on the housing list of 23 a month. This situation will mount up and we shall face an acute housing crisis, if we have not already reached it. The proportion of public housing to private housing is 1:6·5, whereas the national average is 1:4. The council owns 5,964 dwellings out of a total of 39,904 in the area.
Another very important factor is the great shortage of land for housing. A number of areas in the constituency exist where houses cannot be built because the land is liable to flooding. Until such time as the Mole Valley flood alleviation scheme takes place, we shall make no progress. As a result of the disastrous floods of 1968, such land has had to be put into cold storage, but I must make it clear that there is strong local opinion that too many houses have already been built on the flood plain and that to build more houses there would be asking for further trouble. This is not altogether accepted for every area by the authorities.
The Thames Conservancy feasibility report on the flood alleviation scheme, published in 1969, said that such flooding as occurred in 1968, when 2,506 acres were inundated, affecting 10,000 properties and doing damage costing £1·3 million, could happen only once in 200 years and probably a much longer period. But a flood potential more damaging, owing to the back-up of the Thames, has arisen a bare five years after the report was written.
The report also said:
The main flood wave of the Thames usually arrives at Hampton Court some 3 days after any peak on the Mole or Wey. The odds against their combining are so great that they can be ruled out of serious consideration.
On this occasion all three rivers—the Thames, the Mole and the Wey—flooded simultaneously, and this is the one thing which it was said could not happen. This was only five years after these words were written. This is the reason why we have difficulty in finding land for housing sites. In the recent floods this month, between 13th November and 25th November, the rain gauges at the Esher water pollution control works registered a total of 457 inches of rain over that period.
On 23 rd November red warnings were issued by the Thames Water Authority for the Thames, the Mole and the Ember at 4 o'clock in the morning. At 6 o'clock in the morning the Mole and the Ember started to break their banks, and at 8 o'clock hundreds of houses were affected by floods, and roads were inundated. To give an idea of the wide areas covered, some of the streets which were completely flooded and cut off were Summer Avenue, Summer Road, Gladstone Place in the East Molesey area; Ember Farm Way and Esher Avenue in Thames Ditton; and Alexandria Road, Thames Ditton Island. That is a wide area of my constituency. These are just some of the places of which I can speak from personal knowledge, having visited them during that time. I could not get down these roads without using waders, but there were many others affected which I did not know about at the time.
One can imagine that when such a sitution returns so quickly, people living in these areas are very apprehensive. They cannot see why this scheme, which was formulated in 1969, is so slow in getting off the mark. Of course, able-bodied householders face these problems with great cheerfulness, but when old people face the problem of having to evacuate the whole of the ground floor and move their furniture upstairs, they really face hardship.
My main emphasis, from the points of view both of hardship and of land for housing, is on the inordinate delay between 1968, when these major floods took place, and 1974, when apparently no progress has been made. The original flood scheme as outlined by the Thames Conservancy was to cost £2 million in 1969. That sum has now increased, due to inflation and other reasons, to £6·4 million. People ask whether it is not possible to put into effect a modified scheme, but I do not think this is possible.
In the letter of 20th March from the Department of the Environment, giving the Department's overall approval, it was stated by the Minister:
I conclude the scheme is the smallest safely to be adopted.
This is true. If one takes a dividing line from the River Mole just above Esher, the scheme comprises above that point a large flood plain which used to be contained by earth embankments and below that point a widening of the channel right the way through the River Thames. I do not believe that there can be any half-measures on this. At the moment a discussion is in progress about exactly how the costs will be borne between the Surrey County Council and the Thames Water Authority. If these discussions are delaying the start of the work, I ask the Minister to intervene so that it is expedited as much as possible.
I know that the statutory processes in this kind of scheme are very lengthy— compulsory purchase, engineering planning and so on. But now the red tape must be cut out and work must be started.
The scheme was designed to cater for an event which the report said might not happen for 200 years or more. It has arisen once again in barely six years. The scheme was based on the fact that the Rivers Mole, Ember and Thames would never rise together. They did rise together, and created a situation potentially far more dangerous than that of 1968. It was touch and go.
The urgency of the scheme is now very great, and I urge the Minister to do what he can to set at rest the great anxiety and frustration and to ease the physical hardships that my constituents have suffered.