It has been a long week. We have had almost two all-night sittings. In the first, I asked questions in the DHSS debate, then flew to the Isle of Wight, parachuted into Bembridge airport for a charity jump, and returned here for the all-night sitting. My day yesterday ended at 3·45 am today.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for coming to reply to this Adjournment debate. He will be aware that a number of villagers from Luccombe have travelled from the Isle of Wight to listen to our deliberations. I know that my hon. Friend and his advisers are anxious to assist in alleviating this difficult problem, if possible. I should like to quote from a report written by the acting county secretary and solicitor, Mr. Felix Hetherington, and made to the public protection committee of the Isle of Wight county council, which met this morning. The report stated that a landslip in Luccombe village which occurred in February this year had led to a number of houses having to be demolished, together with further houses being identified as at risk of further movement. The Luccombe village residents association believes that work can be done to arrest any further major landslips and so protect those properties currently threatened. They have approached all the public authorities for assistance in dealing with this problem—all to no avail. That is why I called for this Adjournment debate and was delighted when granted it.
Luccombe village is one of the Isle of Wight's loveliest spots. When one lives in paradise, as we all do on the Isle of Wight, singling out one part as especially lovely will give some idea, I hope, of just how pretty and peaceful it is. The village lies to the west of Shanklin on top of a cliff overlooking the Channel beside a chine that runs down to the beach. The problem is that the area at the top of the cliff has, historically, shown some instability. I must stress that point. It is the result of the action not of the sea at the bottom of the cliff, as is the usual problem, but of surface water running through the clay cliff face. This phenomenon is well known in various parts of the island.
There was a large land movement to the east of Luccombe village in the 1800s. When I say "large", I am talking of an area that fronts the Channel for a distance, to give my hon. Friend the Minister some idea, probably equivalent to that along the Thames in front of the Houses of Parliament, between Waterloo and Lambeth bridges, extending inland as far as the Army and Navy store in Victoria street.
In the early 1950s, a similar slip occurred. A number of houses were abandoned then and have since fallen over the cliff. On that occasion, my predecessor but two, Sir Peter Macdonald, raised the matter with the then Minister of Health. Eventually some help was made available for the remaining village in the form of a new road.
We are not looking at a village of 24 home owners who expect that solutions will be found for them. Indeed, under the energic leadership of Mrs. Frances Longman, they have formed themselves into the Luccombe village residents association and have actively pursued every opportunity to find a solution to this problem.
Unfortunately, already two villagers have had to leave their homes. One is 8 1 -year-old recently widowed Surgeon Rear-Admiral William Holgate. I assure my hon. Friend the Minister that he is as doughty and as independent a fighter as one might expect him to be from his distinguished career.
In a word, one by one, every avenue explored has turned out to be a cul-de-sac. That is why I have raised this matter on the Floor of the House today on behalf of the village.
Before I ask my hon. Friend to comment specifically on the three points that I shall put to him, may I draw his attention to two remaining facts. First, South Wight borough council has been extremely helpful in commissioning an engineering report on the problems and possible solutions. Because some of the properties have lost their sewerage facilities, the council has agreed to approach Southern Water for a first-time sewerage scheme for the village. I understand that that scheme will also include a small amount of surface water drainage. That will obviously assist in solving the problem, but it will not tackle the root cause.
The second fact is that my hon. Friend said in his letter to me of 19 May:
the responsibility for remedial measures rests with the landowners and their insurers.
That is not a practical solution because the remedy is a land drainage scheme costing £300,000. Those homes that are threatened, but are still habitable, have nothing to claim from their insurers. If they notify their insurers, the insurance companies may simply refuse them cover for that risk the following year.
The largest landowner concerned is the National Trust and it is already struggling to meet the considerable demands on its resources to protect the land holdings on the north shore of the island around the estuary of the Newtown river. I understand that its policy is to commit its funds primarily to the preservation of buildings in its care, and one can readily see that it will gain no specific advantage from the expenditure of £300,000 to drain land that is currently in agricultural use surrounding the village. I do not believe that there is any way in which it can be encouraged or compelled to incur such expenditure.
The first of the three points that I should like to raise is the possibility of a special rate being levied to pay for the work. That suggestion was put to me by Miss Ivy Triggs, who is now a blind villager and has lived in Luccombe pretty well all her life. She tells me that she orginally took up that point with Sir Peter Macdonald. The villagers tell me that, as pensioners, none of them can afford, even jointly, to raise such a sum, but that they would be prepared to pay an additional amount in their rates to save their village, if a way could be found for the borough council to have that expenditure made available.
That brings me to my second point—the possibility of the cost of the land drainage scheme being built into South Wight borough's grant-related expenditure allocation, as it is obvious that this borough council, because of its small size and the precedent that it would create on the island, cannot possibly afford to expose itself, so to speak, by going it alone.
My hon. Friend may tell me that GREA cannot be committed in advance and that he cannot depart from that principle. Just in case he does that, I must tell him that, in my experience as chairman of a council housing committee, I had a case in which the Department of the Environment gave an undertaking in writing to my local authority that future GREA, to meet a problem, would be available, although the problem was in no way relevant to the problem facing Luccombe village. That experience shows that, in extremis, the Department of the Environment is capable of making a future commitment for GREA.
Some of the surrounding land, although admittedly a very tiny part, is common land, the ownership of which is vested in or exercised by the borough. I understand that the villagers have contacted Lord Denning, who suggested that the Water Act 1973 and the Local Government Act 1972 may be helpful. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister can shed some light on these points.
"Physician heal thyself" is very much part of my personal philosophy in life. However, I simply ask the Minister to put himself in the villagers' shoes. Luccombe village is threatened. The engineers' report states that it is imperative that the work is carried out before the wet of autumn and winter. Where do we turn for help? The solution is beyond the pockets of the villagers, councillors, and the local borough. There is no claim for the insurers until the dwellings have moved, and then it will be too late. This debate may even now sadly remove the insurance cover from those dwellings. I sincerely hope not. I look to my hon. Friend the Minister and his expert team to point out our salvation in this difficult problem.
My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) has set out thoroughly the problems facing parts of Luccombe village on the Isle of Wight. He has shown admirable concern for the plight of his constituents who are affected. I congratulate him on raising this matter and on the clear way in which he has presented the issues. It is well known on both sides of the House that in the time that he has represented the Isle of Wight he has earned himself a first-class reputation as a very able and vociferous advocate on his constituents' behalf.
The Isle of Wight is a very pleasant and scenic place, blessed with a mild climate. It is perhaps appropriate that I should stress that, especially as this follows a tourism debate. Those features have made the Isle of Wight a firm favourite among holiday makers, who visit the island to enjoy the dramatic coastal scenery and excellent walks along the coastal paths. Those same attractions influence people to select the island as a suitable place for retirement. It is not surprising that the scenery and sea views exert a very strong influence on them when selecting property for purchase.
The village of Luccombe, set away from the main road between Shanklin and Ventnor, is on a promontory overlooking a coastal path and, as my hon. Friend has said, has National Trust land to the east and is framed by farmland to the west. It has all those characteristics that are held in great regard. It is very sad that the same geological circumstances and natural processes as have moulded this southern part of the island, and which are continuing today, blend to clause problems which are difficult to remedy.
I must explain the geological background. The southern coast of the island is particularly prone to large-scale and frequent landslides. They may be triggered by coastal erosion, heavy rainfall or construction activity afffecting planes of weakness within the ground. They may be new or may remain from past movements. The huge coastal landslide complex between Blackgang and Dunnose has produced the famous and scenic terraced effect known as the undercliff. However, Luccombe village is situated to the north-east of this structure and slippage around the village behaves in a different way because of its contrasting geological setting.
The village is located above steep ground, descending towards a cliff line cut in physically weak geological layers. One of those layers is the gault clay, which is known colloquially on the island as "blue slipper" because of its common association with landslides. The water retention properties of the clay and the tendency of material to move down the slope towards the sea indicate that, although regrettable, it is far from surprising that landsliding has occurred at Luccombe. The history of movements at Luccombe, including the loss of several houses in the 1950s to which my hon. Friend referred, gave warning of what might be expected. The January 1988 movements, which commenced on the seaward side of the village, have led to the serving of dangerous structures notices and demolition of properties as well as the closure of the cliff path. I understand that several other houses ae now at short-term risk. Services, including a water main, were disrupted by the movements, and water from those may have exacerbated the problem. Damage and loss on that scale is clearly a very serious blow to a small village such as Luccombe and to the property owners concerned.
My hon. Friend has pressed the case for Government assistance. Although I am sympathetic to the problem that he has raised, preventive, precautionary and remedial works for landsliding are in law the responsibility of the landowner, although a local authority may have an interest within its roles as a highway authority and in safeguarding public safety. I understand that the South Wight borough council commissioned a site investigation of the slipped area close to the village and that the resulting report suggested that drainage works costing about £300,000 might stabilise the landslide. I have yet to see a copy of the final report, but I have asked officials to request one from the council
I am to a certain extent surprised that a copy is not to hand for me to study. This is an important point. I want to see precisely what are the conclusions of that report. It may be only an interim report, and there may be a final report still to come. I want to see what remedial action is recommended and how the cost is calculated. Perhaps most important of all, does the recommendation state that if certain works were to be undertaken the problem would be solved? I am bound to ask those questions, and I am sure the residents, too, are bound to ask them.
Despite the report that my hon. Friend has mentioned, he asks me to extend an existing research project commissioned by my Department to include Luccombe. While it is true that the scope and objectives of our report and the character of the landslide complex are rather different from the circumstances at Luccombe, and while, in addition, the time scale of that exercise does not fit in with the stated need for urgent action on remedial works, I am in these exceptional circumstances ready to consider whether to do so would serve a useful purpose. However, I must first see the report that has been commissioned by the South Wight borough council.
I must make abundantly clear what I am offering. I agree to consider the consultants' report commissioned by the borough council. If I think that it would be useful and that I can help with a study commissioned by my Department, I will help. I am not saying that there could be Government assistance for those remedial works which are, as I have already made clear, the landowners' legal responsibilities.
I have gone to the trouble —as my hon. Friend would expect—of examining possible sources of funds and have consulted my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who has the responsibility for matters relating to coast protection and land drainage. The derelict land grant funds administered by my Department apply only to remedial action on land damaged by human activities. The European regional development fund applies only to land within assisted areas, as defined by the Department of Trade and Industry, and there is no reason to believe that that is likely to change in the future.
I have considered the appropriateness of grant-aid for coast protection works. That aid can be considered only when landsliding is caused by coastal erosion or threatens existing coast defences. There are no coastal defence works below Luccombe village, and it seems that recent movements have occurred well back from the shoreline. If the council believes that the landslide is caused by erosion, it should make an application to my right hon. Friend. He will consider carefully any proposal put to him on its merits, but, given the high costs of coastal defence works, the value of any property and services at risk would have to be very substantial to justify any allocation.
Another possibility relates to proposed remedial drainage works. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food allocates grants for land drainage but they are made to alleviate flooding, not land instability. It is worth noting also that if the recent movements at Luccombe village are contained within part of a larger landslide system, limited drainage works would probably not be effective, although they might have a temporary effect in slowing or halting the movement. It could well be that such expenditure would be wasted because of subsequent activity lower down that same slope. Only a comprehensive survey of the area around that recent landslide, and especially of the slopes below it, would determine whether that is the case.
Therefore, I regret that it is unlikely that there are sources of central Government funds that can be used for remedial works. If we were to open the door even just a tiny bit, there are many other areas, even in my constituency in east Lancashire, where we have that problem and where at no time have Government funds been used to remedy the loss that has been sustained.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for what he has said. I am sure that the possibility of extending the survey, about which I wrote to him, will be useful. My hon. Friend has just mentioned opening the door even a crack, but I am sure that he will appreciate that that is precisely the dilemma faced by the borough council. The problem is not confined to Luccombe, although it seems to be the most aggravated. It seems that it is in no way associated with coastal erosion, which has further aggravated the problem of trying to get assistance.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, which I understand. I can see the difficulties that South Wight borough council would have with such a suggestion, because it would affect the council in many other areas, not just in Luccombe. If I dare say it to him, I have that problem on a much wider scale throughout the United Kingdom. It is not common for the Department of the Environment to assist with the survey that I suggested and to extend it, but I can see that there is a great problem at Luccombe. In view of the representations made by my hon. Friend, I ought to be prepared to consider that at the appropriate time, but let me have a look at the report from the council first.
My hon. Friend made three further suggestions, of which he was kind enough to give me notice. The first is the possibility of a special rate being levied on the village, which I understand the villagers will be prepared to pay. Special rates can be levied in some circumstances, but that is a matter for the borough council to consider. Of course, if all the landowners concerned are prepared to pay for any necessary works, that is for them.
Secondly, my hon. Friend suggested that the cost of the drainage scheme could be built into the GREA for the borough council. I am not aware of the Essex example that he quoted. However, assessment for rate support grant is dealt with on a common basis across the country and is not based on actual expenditure, so it is not possible to accommodate the specific type of case that he mentioned. If my hon. Friend wishes to come back to me on that and to write more specifically about the example that he quoted in the debate, I should be delighted to hear from him.
Thirdly, my hon. Friend drew my attention to certain provisions in the Water Act 1973 and the Local Government Act 1972. I understand that Lord Denning has advised the residents that there may be a solution under those Acts. Whenever the name of Lord Denning is mentioned, it strikes fear into the heart of any Minister. I shall need to tread carefully, but I have to say that the lawyers in the Department of the Environment cannot immediately—I choose my words carefully—see the relevance of those references. If my hon. Friend would care to explain that aspect in greater detail by letter or by coming to see me, I shall be glad to look at it.
None of that detracts from the fact that the Department of the Environment takes these matters seriously. The substantial problems caused by land instability are recognised. We propose to issue advice to local planning authorities, aimed at ensuring that appropriate account is taken of land instability in the planning of land use, development control and planning decisions, so that development is not carried out on suspect ground unless the necessary precautionary and remedial works have been undertaken.
I hope that draft guidelines will be issued for public consultation during the summer. The effect will be to reduce the number of problems affecting future developments, although I accept that difficulties will remain for properties that have been built in locations subject to landsliding. However, many of those problems can be avoided if caution is exercised, for example by avoiding imprudent excavation or unwise types of drainage in particularly unstable areas.
I have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend has said and I have been in correspondence with him. If he wishes to pursue this matter still further, I have no doubt that he will come to me quickly with the report from the South Wight borough council. I understand his concern and I sympathise fully with the difficulties that have been faced by the Luccombe residents. It appears that there is no immediate Government device available to deal with the remedial works, and I think my hon. Friend understands that. I hope that the policy framework that I have dealt with in the latter part of my speech, which is being developed by my Department, and the results of the supporting research, will make such unfortunate circumstances less common in future.