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I am most grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity of raising tonight a matter of the utmost gravity for the people of my constituency. However serious may be the other crises gripping the nation, for the people of Sheerness in particular, but also for others in the Isle of Sheppey, the greatest threat to them is the continuing threat to their homes and, indeed, to their lives posed by the ever-present danger of renewed flooding by the sea.
Over 30 and 31 December last about 800 houses and 40 businesses, mainly in Sheerness and in the Sheerness, Warden and Leysdown areas, were flooded. The first flooding of the town of Sheerness resulted from the high tide at 1 a.m. on 31 December. It was overtaken in its severity by a second flooding from the high tide at 1.33 p.m. On 1 January the water again reached the top of the sea wall, a situation that repeated itself for the next two tides. The warning sirens sounded again on 4 January. I hope that the Minister and the House will begin to understand what it is for a town to live in fear, knowing that the only defence against the North Sea is a Victorian sea wall some 6 ft lower than it should be.
The damage was bad enough, but thank God that no lives were lost. But the tragedy was crueller. People had only just finished restoring their homes from the ravages of similar floods in January 1978, although the experts tell us that these floods should be at least 50 years apart.
It is hard to describe the misery and mess caused by the flooding and the heartbreak of a home in ruins, particularly for elderly people. May I quote a letter that I have received from the Bishop of Maidstone, who has a particular concern with Sheerness, having been vicar there. It emphasises the point about the elderly. The letter says:
I felt desperately sorry for those who had only just completed the work of drying out and redecorating their houses, and now have to begin all over again. Many of them were elderly, and the roads affected house many in low income groups who are unable to move to a safer place.
I could quote many letters that I have received stressing the suffering, loss, hardship and heartbreak that there has been.
May I also record here in Parliament a tribute to the sterling work done by so many in this emergency: by the council officers and their staff, by the emergency services, by the WRVS, the Round Table, the Salvation Army, and many organisations without which the suffering would have been so much greater.
I also remind the House that at that time Britain was snowbound and suffering from severe blizzards. The roads were blocked. Sheppey was cut off for 36 hours. Warden Bay and Leysdown were cut off for 48 hours. In those two latter areas flooding also occurred and there was great personal suffering, despite the sea defences that have been constructed.
It has been suggested there that the answer is improved land drainage to divert flood water. If the water authority puts forward a request for funds for this project, I hope that the Government will respond sympathetically.
I have emphasised the damage factor so far. I have hesitated in the past to be too alarmist and publicise my real fears about the threat to life in Sheerness, but the latest floods have swept away my inhibitions on that score. Hundreds of lives would be at risk if we were unfortunate enough to get a combination of freak weather conditions in the North Sea, and the risk would be even greater if the flood warning system failed to work effectively, as it did on the night of 30–31 December.
The one and only thing that will satisfy the island and cannot be refused in all humanity is the fastest possible construction of a sea wall. The population of Sheppey is 34,000 and that of Sheerness is 13,000. I believe that there is no other town of comparable size in Britain which is exposed to such danger of flooding as Sheerness. Many homes are actually below the high water level.
I urge the Minister to get that sea wall built. I know that he cannot work miracles, or even give instant answers, but I believe that we are close to getting results, and his understanding and sympathy will help us greatly.
The position in a nutshell is that the sea defences to provide the 1,000-year flood barrier around Sheerness, from Neptune Terrace to Queenborough, will cost about £8 million. Last year the Southern water authority placed these works at the top of its priority list and declared its intention of carrying out the programme at the rate of £1 million over eight years. Personally, I regarded that as unacceptable. Once the risk to human life on this scale has been recognised and is declared to exist, it cannot be tolerable to leave it that long. Only this month the Government have approved the necessary grant aid for that £1 million a year programme which I have described as inadequate.
In a series of letters, telephone calls, and meetings with the Southern water authority last year I pressed it to ask the Government for the necessary funds to carry out the works in the minimum time possible—three to five years. In December I met members of the SWA here at the Commons, and as a result I felt that we had made real progress. The idea of asking the Ministry for an extra £1 million a year for Sheerness, bringing the total to £2 million a year, was put to the committee. I was told that the proposal would be considered in depth at the February meeting.
Alas, the cruel sea does not wait on committees, and the flooding that we feared occurred over the new year. Until the Southern water authority actually asks the Government for the funds, there is little the Minister can do. But can he confirm that when the authority does so ask, if it does, he will do his utmost to grant the request? Crucial to this is a letter I received yesterday giving the most helpful and hopeful news yet to the people of Sheppey—but only if the Government grant the money.
This news is that the first essential works—works that would have prevented these latest floods—from Neptune Terrace to Garrison Point, a distance of 1½ miles—could be started in midsummer this year and be completed by March 1980. The February meeting of the Kent local land drainage committee will have a recommendation before it to ask the Government for the extra funds. An initial meeting has already been held between the Minister and the chairman, and I understand the Ministry was "not unsympathetic".
In the meantime, temporary protections are being proposed by the council. But the people of Sheerness and the commercial life of that town need the protection of an adequate sea wall. The Swale borough council has asked the Minister of Agriculture to receive a deputation on this question. I hope that the Minister of State will be able to tell me that the Minister will grant the request or at least consider it very sympathetically.
This would be deeply appreciated by those living in the Swale borough council area.
A parliamentary answer I received informed me that no advance warning was given on 30–31 December 1978, because the tide warning service indicated that there was no danger of flooding. But there was flooding. It was caused by a combination of tide and exceptionally high winds or, in the words of the Southern water authority,
unusual weather phenomena caused wave actions which could not at the time be forecast by the Meteorological Office.
In fact, the flood warning that night was issued eventually by the water authority under pressure from the police when the water was already pouring over the sea wall and was outside the police station. I emphasise most strongly that the council, in all its emergency plans, is utterly dependent on the warning system, which has been developed to a fairly sophisticated degree, working effectively. A way must be found to forecast, accurately and locally, wind and wave actions. I understand that this is being studied. In the meantime, it is reassuring to know that Swale has arranged its own ad hoc system of putting an official into the Medway port operations room whenever an A warning is received.
The warning system must be improved. I hope that there is no complacency about the present system. I was worried by a letter I saw from the water authority which said that, in the authority's view, the warning system worked satisfactorily and that the over-topping and severe wave action that occurred on the night of 30–31 December was an unusual and rare phenomenon, which could not have been forecast by the system as it exists. The authority went on to say that it believed that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food shared the same opinion. I hope that that is not the Ministry's opinion. If that is the system as it exists, it is clearly not adequate. The council emergency operation depends entirely on that warning system. I appeal to the Minister to speed up improvements in the system so that next time, if there is a next time, adequate warning is received.
I turn to the question of financial compensation. It is a vital question. I do not pretend, in a short debate, to be able to deal exhaustively with the dozens of points that arise when flooding on this scale occurs. I do not expect an answer in detail from the Minister tonight. It is essentially a matter for the Secretary of State for the Environment and relates to the help that can be given under section 138 of the Local Government Act. Last year, the Government decreed that they would reimburse local authorities for additional expenditure incurred as a result of the bad weather to the extent of 75 per cent. of the amount by which those losses exceed a one penny rate product. It sounded helpful at the time, but, whatever the good intentions of that proposition, it is not helpful in practice.
The cost to Swale, which is not a rich borough, of the 1978 floods is likely to be about £217,000, including amounts granted to help individual householders. That is just over a one penny rate product. It means that Swale will get little or nothing on this Government's formula for 1978. Just as they have completed repairs on the houses, they face another major loss. Total losses are likely to be of the same order as last year. In many instance, much of these two losses will be borne in the same financial year.
I would like to ask if the Government would allow the council and, presumably, other councils to put together losses for the purposes of compensation. In the parliamentary answer I received, the Government decreed that each storm or flooding incident would be treated separately. This means that Swale must lose £200,000 every time before it gets any help. In effect, that means no help at all. I am sure that is not what the Government intended. I ask the Minister of State to go to the Secretary of State for the Environment and ask him to think again, and not close his mind to the possibility of aggregating the losses that have occurred throughout the year. The cost to the Government will be minimal. The help to Swale will be considerable. The help that Swale can give to individual householders and those who have suffered will also be considerable. The cost to the Government will be so little that I urge them to think again.
I plead for the small businesses which suffered losses. About 40 businesses were flooded. They received no compensation in 1978. They cannot insure against flood because the exposure is too great. The sea wall is their insurance, and it has failed them twice. In theory, legislation allows the council to help, but in practice the Government do not reimburse the council for such expenditure.
I ask the Minister to understand the plight of small businesses which are struggling to survive two lots of almost crippling losses. Some of those involved are in the tourist business, which is so crucial of the Isle of Sheppey. It seems that the Government have not yet got the compensation formula right. I hope that they will learn from the sad experiences of 1978 and 1979 and the loss and suffering of householders and farmers.
About 350 acres of farmland were flooded. That was less than last time, but it was serious for the farmers. I hope that the Government will learn from the suffering of businesses and the losses of local authorities. I urge them to introduce a more meaningful, even-handed and fairer system of compensation.
Above all, I plead with the Government to help the people of Sheppey to get that new sea wall built as soon as possible.
I should like to begin my reply by expressing sympathy on behalf of the Government to all those who suffered from the severe storms which marked the opening and closing days of 1978 and in particular to those involved at Sheerness and the Isle of Sheppey. The hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) has paid tribute to all those who helped. He made a number of points. I shall reply to as many as possible.
The points which the hon. Member has made about the warning system and the sea defences are germane to the policy of successive Governments in respect of defence against the sea. This policy is based largely on the recommendations of the Waverley committee—or, to give its full title, the departmental committee on coastal flooding—which was set up following the disastrous East coast floods of 1953. It its report, the committee stressed that the primary consideration must be the protection of human life—the hon. Member stressed that point several times—and that first priority must, therefore, be given to the setting up of effective warning systems to enable those at risk to get to safety before flooding takes place.
The committee also recognised the need for authorities to be encouraged to give as much protection as is economically reasonable to areas which are at risk. It recommended that, where flooding would lead to serious damage to property of a high value such as valuable industrial premises, large areas of valuable agricultural land or compact residential areas, steps should be taken to provide a standard of defence which would afford protection against a flood of the 1953 level.
I have no wish to be drawn into arguments with the hon. Member as to whether Sheerness is at greater risk of flooding than other towns along the East and Kent coasts. He may remember that at about this time last year the hon. Members for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) and Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler) were quite rightly showing a great deal of concern for their constituents at Wisbech, King's Lynn and other towns which had just suffered serious flooding.
A number of towns and villages down the East coast—and, indeed, elsewhere, including London itself—are at risk of flooding and I fully accept that Sheerness is in this category. I propose therefore in the remainder of my speech to concentrate on the particular problems of that town.
Let us look first at the warning system. The hon. Member has explained his misgivings, and it will help if I explain how the East coast storm tide warning service works.
The service is based at the Meteorological Office at Bracknell. Its primary task is to provide forecasts of high water levels at certain ports—known as reference ports—along the East coast. It does this by using data received direct from constantly monitored tide gauges and from information about pressure systems, wind directions and so on, provided by the Meteorological Office.
If these forecasts indicate that tides may exceed previously established danger levels at any reference port, the service issues warnings at between four and six hours before high tide to the county police force. The police then consult the water authority, which has local knowledge of tides and danger levels. If its advice supports the forecast made by the warning service, the local police then pass on the warnings to public authorities, to emergency services and, if appropriate, to the public in areas thought to be at risk.
That, in a nutshell, is how the main East coast warning system operates. It is important to understand that, although the service uses the latest available techniques and all the experience it has built up over 25 years of operation, it is not infallible. For example, a sudden local change in wind direction may create—or avert—danger. Another point to bear in mind is that the forecasts attempt to measure the probable height of "still water"—that is, they do not take account of abnormal wave action caused by high winds. The difficulty here is that, because of the configuration of our coastline, the wind direction may be a significant factor in some areas while not affecting others. Those closely concerned with the warning system recognise this. The Southern water authority, for example, has its own local warning system, which is based on forecasts of wind speed and direction obtained from the London weather centre. So the Kent coast has the benefit of a national and a local warning service—both of which are available to the police and the water authority—in judging whether a public warning should be given and, if so, which localities are likely to be at risk.
Let us look at what happened at Sheerness on the night of 30–31 December 1978. On that night no public warning was given of the flooding. As I have explained, the East coast storm tide warning service's role is to give advance warnings of danger levels being exceeded at certain reference ports by exceptionally high tides. On this occasion, the flooding was caused not by exceptionally high tides but by overtopping of the defences by wave action as a result of very high winds. From its own local warning system, the SWA issued a preliminary warning to the police that flooding might occur, but the information available did not justify a public warning. The possibility of further refining of the local system is being actively considered. The water authority is discussing with the service the possibility of incorporating into its local procedures a recently developed system for forecasting open sea wave heights. This has been developed by the Meteorological Office for the North Sea oil rigs, and there may be difficulties in converting the information into terms which are suitable for the prediction of inshore wave heights. But, if it proves possible to harness the information, this will be a very useful step in improving the flood warning system for exposed areas such as the Isle of Sheppey.
I turn now to the question of the sea defences. First, I should like to sketch in the statutory background. The powers to undertake works of maintenance to and improvements of existing defences—and to undertake new works—are given by the Land Drainage Act 1976 to what are known as "drainage bodies". In general, this means water authorities, local authorities and, in certain cases, internal drainage boards. Within the water authorities, most of the powers under the Act are statutorily delegated to regional and local land drainage committees, the majority of whose members are appointed by county councils in the area.
My right hon. Friend the Minister has no powers under the Act to undertake works himself and, because the powers of drainage bodies are permissive, he cannot direct them to undertake, or to refrain from undertaking, any particular improvement. Our role is thus normally confined to the payment of grant-aid in cases where proposals put to us for improvements or new works are technically sound and economically justified. However, the Government are also involved with land drainage, as with other areas of public expenditure, by way of the provision of resources so that capital programmes can be carried out.
The Southern water authority has already agreed a programme of improvements to protect the towns of Sheerness and Queenborough at an estimated cost of over £10 million. When this scheme was approved for grant aid in 1975, the authority proposed to carry it out over a period of 25 years.
I should perhaps mention here that when the proposals were first discussed publicly I understand that they were not universally welcomed by the people of Sheerness, mainly on amenity grounds. Indeed, I am told that some residents took the view that the authority was being unduly alarmist in undertaking this work, which, when it is completed, will afford a very high standard of protection. In the event, the authority has been proved right to press on and we are pleased to be associated with the scheme to the extent that we shall pay grant at 85 per cent.—the maximum rate possible.
Following the flooding of January 1978, the Kent local land drainage committee of the authority decided to speed up the programme, but I understand that in the light of the more recent flooding it will shortly consider whether to accelerate it even more. In considering this problem it will have to take account not only of the availability of its own resources—for example, the works, the letting of contracts, and so on—but of the effects of any increased expenditure on the rate precepts in Kent. As I have explained, the decision of this committee is the prime consideration at present, because, unless it decides to speed up its programme—and therefore ask us for more resources—our hands are tied.
As an indication of the Government's policy towards sea defences, I should like to mention briefly what we have done within the past year or so. First, following the flooding in January 1978 we provided an extra £2 million for works in addition to those originally scheduled by water authorities to be carried out in the financial year 1978–79. Secondly, we have provided almost £4 million on top of the original provision for sea defence expenditure for 1979–80. In both cases, this action by the Government has meant that very ambitious sea defence programmes in the areas most affected could begin quickly and can continue to the full extent that water authorities have proposed.
A large share of the extra resources has been allocated to Kent. It received an additional allocation of more than £2 million for 1978–79 and £2¼ million for 1979–80. Of this, the local land drainage committee proposes to spend £1 million in the current year and just over that amount in 1979–80 at Sheerness. This is a major spending programme and we await with interest the outcome of the Committee's consideration of the question whether expenditure should be further increased next year or in subsequent years. I understand that the divisional manager of the water authority considers that the planned programme of expenditure at Sheerness in 1979–80 can be increased somewhat, and I am sure that the land drainage committee will pay considerable regard to his views. If it decides to accept this recommendation, the authority will have to decide whether it can meet this higher expenditure from its existing capital resources or whether it will have to ask us for an additional allocation.
If the authority does ask us, I can do no better than to quote from a recent letter to the Swale borough council by my right hon. Friend the Minister:
The Council may be assured that I am fully aware of and sympathetic towards the needs of the residents of Sheerness for better protection and that, if I am asked to provide additional capital, I shall do my best to help.
I think that the hon. Gentleman will accept that it may be premature to receive a deputation until such an application is received.
The hon. Member also raised the question of Government assistance to local authorities which incur expenditure as a result of floods or storms. That is not, of course, a matter within the responsibility of my Department, but in the expectation that it might be raised in this debate I have consulted my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.
The hon. Member seemed to be implying that the level of central Government support to local authorities which suffer as a result of floods and storms is less than generous. We cannot accept this. As the hon. Member will recall, on 8 February last year my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment announced the basis on which financial assistance would be given to local authorities which suffered as a result of the gales and floods which hit the country in November 1977 and January 1978. Briefly, the Government undertook to reimburse local authorities 75 per cent of net additional expenditure in excess of a penny rate incurred as a direct result of a disaster or emergency. He made it clear at that time that the same assistance would be available for future similar occurrences, and in his press statement on 2 January my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of the Environment confirmed that the arrangements would apply to the recent emergencies.
In setting the formula on which the assistance is based, it was our intention to ensure that in discharging its functions under section 138 of the Local Government Act 1972 no local authority should be left to bear an undue burden from its own resources. At the same time, we have no wish to usurp the responsibilities which should be exercised locally. We cannot believe that the product of a penny rate is too high a price to pay for local autonomy in this matter.
The hon. Member has pressed to have separate incidents aggregated for the purpose of exceeding this product and so attracting special Government assistance when, individually, they would not. In the circumstances which his constituency has experienced, I can understand his doing so, but the result would be to widen the scope and cost of what has always been envisaged as assistance towards incidents which were quite exceptional in their own right. It is for those reasons that, as the hon. Member knows, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has concluded that aggregation for the purpose of Exchequer assistance would not be warranted. Nevertheless, it remains the Government's view that the formula that I have outlined to the House is a generous one.
This has been a useful short debate. I have tried to explain to the hon. Member that the Government have already done their best in dealing with the serious problems at Sheerness but that on the important issue of improving the sea defences the decision is not in our hands at present. I emphasise again some of the points I have made and I conclude by assuring the hon. Gentleman of our continued sympathy and support to those local organisations—including the Swale borough council and the Southern water authority—which carry the responsibility for these matters.