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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.