Orders of the Day — Flooding (Strathkelvin)

– in the House of Commons at 9:39 pm on 16th January 1995.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Willetts.]

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith , Strathkelvin and Bearsden 10:16 pm, 16th January 1995

The very notification of the debate tonight on the flooding in Strathclyde region has already wrung some concessions from the Government, and Opposition Members welcome that. I trust, however, that the debate will wring further concessions and clarifications of the Government's position on an important topic.

There are two main issues associated with the flooding, the first of which is the immediate funding package made available by the Government and its inadequacy. That has already been dealt with extensively by myself and my colleagues, and it will continue to be the subject of debate and pressure in the future.

I wish to concentrate tonight on the whole question of the prevention of flooding within the areas involved. More than anything, our constituents would now like a reassurance that such flooding will not happen to them again.

As background, Madam Speaker, I shall introduce you to a part of my constituency and explain what happened during the flooding. The flooding resulted from an overflowing of the main River Kelvin, its tributaries in the Allander valley—the Glazert and the Luggie—and a small contribution from the Park burn. That produced extensive flooding throughout the Kirkintilloch and Hayster areas, at Eastgate, Summerfield and Ledgate. The flooding extended to the village of Torrance, and into Bardowie and Lennoxtown.

As a result, 271 houses in my constituency were evacuated. Most, but not all, of those were private accommodation. Here I pay tribute to my constituents for the fortitude and good humour with which they bore the disaster. When I toured on the Monday, the place was awash and it was impossible to see anything. By the time I came back on the Wednesday, floorboards were up, walls had been chipped away and dehumidifiers were in. Their conduct was a tribute to them, and to the area in which they live. The second difference in the flooding in my constituency was the amount of business that was affected. It is reckoned that about 400 jobs were lost, at least temporarily, as a result of the flooding. It affected 30 small businesses and two large businesses, at a total cost of £4.2 million.

The third difference was the vast amount of agricultural land involved. It will cost thousands of pounds to pick up the debris and deal with the soil erosion. The fourth and most tragic difference was that there was loss of life in the neighbouring constituency. Sadly, two young boys were swept away. I know that I speak for the whole House when I send my condolences to the relatives of those involved.

Flooding in the Strathkelvin and Cart valleys and other areas is not a new problem. The first recorded incident in my area was in 1892. In 1906, Broomhill hospital was once again isolated. That happened again this time. There have been extensive floods in the past. The first attempt to prevent flooding occurred in 1903. A petition was raised to Dumbartonshire and Stirling district council to persuade it to raise the banks of the Kelvin.

The matter was first raised in the House of Commons by Tom Johnston, the then Member of Parliament. According to The Herald of 20 June 1923, he asked the Under-Secretary to the Scottish Board of Health if he was aware of the loss of national resources occasioned by the continual flooding of the River Kelvin between Kelvin Head and the weir at Killermont". The response that he received from a Captain Elliott was: Neither the Board of Agriculture nor any other Department has any power to carry out a scheme to intervene in such proceedings. That was an ominous sign. Even then, no one was accepting responsibility. The Minister said, "It is not my problem. Please go away."

As a result of pressure from Tom Johnston, the Land Drainage Act 1941 was passed. I am sure that the Minister will tell us about it tonight. In 1936, the first flood prevention scheme was set up in the Kelvin. The river was widened and deepened, and the banks were built up. The weir at Garscube was removed.

The question of prevention was finally raised in the House in 1945. The boot was on the other foot now, and Tom Johnston was in charge. He said in response to a question from Mr. Adam McKinlay about flooding in the Kelvin valley that the recommendations made in the engineers' report were receiving consideration with a view to determining what further remedial work could most successfully be undertaken under the statutory provisions of the Acts of 1930 and 1935.

So there we have it. An engineer's report in 1945 was being given further consideration. That brings us to today. Almost nothing new has happened. I trust that that will not be the outcome of the most recent floods.

What of the future? What can be done to prevent flooding again? It is not new. We had floods in 1991 and 1992, although they were not so extensive. I pursued them with the Scottish Office. Contained in the usual fairly long letters again was the sentence: The Regional Council has wide powers under the Flood Prevention (Scotland) Act 1961 to protect non-agricultural land against flooding. Schemes confirmed by the Secretary of State under the Act can attract grant assistance. I was not happy with that, so I wrote again. On 18 June 1992, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who will answer the debate today, replied: Nevertheless, the regional and islands councils have wide powers, either to contribute towards the cost of flood prevention works or to carry out themselves works on any watercourse which they regard as necessary". In the package that has been announced by the Scottish Office, again we have the statement: Should Strathclyde Regional Council as the flood prevention authority decide in the light of that study, or following their general consideration of the issues arising, … a grant of 50 per cent. will be payable on the cost of any such schemes which may be submitted to and approved by the Secretary of State. That is all very well, but there are a number of problems. The regional council's powers are only permissive. If they want to do anything, the statutory authority of the Secretary of State is needed. That is a lengthy, difficult, time-consuming process. We want something to be done now, not some time far in the future.

Another problem is that it is all very well for the Scottish Office to say that 50 per cent. grants are available, but first the regional council must be given permission by the Secretary of State for the borrowing power to obtain the original 50 per cent., which he almost always refuses. In other words, the Secretary of State has the power over the whole 100 per cent., not simply 50 per cent.

The final problem is that the regional councils will be wound up in a short time, and different authorities will then be involved. The matter will be passed on to successor authorities, and we shall be back in a shambles.

If one considers who has the powers at the moment concerned with flooding prevention, one will see that it is the riparian owners for private land, the Department of Agriculture for agricultural land and the Clyde river purification board, and the Government have their own statutory responsibility under the Land Drainage (Scotland) Acts 1930 to 1941. That obviously is a shambles, which allows the buck to pass from one authority to another: as I, my constituents and my colleagues have found, everyone says, "It isn't me. Go away. Please see someone else about it."

Photo of Mr Gordon McMaster Mr Gordon McMaster , Paisley South

Does my hon. Friend agree that, while that buck is being passed around, many of our constituents in Strathkelvin and elsewhere will be buying new furniture and spending thousands of pounds preparing to move into their homes again, and that they want to know that the floods will not happen again, and that their furniture and their lives will not be destroyed again?

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith , Strathkelvin and Bearsden

My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. I pay tribute to him and all his colleagues in the area, who work hard, together with many others, on behalf of the people in their constituencies.

It is obvious to everyone that all roads on the matter lead to the Secretary of State. He alone has the powers and the money to tackle the problem. The only way to co-ordinate it—to pull all those bodies together and tackle matters in the future—is for the Secretary of State to act.

Therefore, we are asking for a number of things from the Minister. First, we would like funding of a comprehensive hydrological study into the whole river system—the Clyde, the Kelvin, the Cart and its tributaries—and the means of preventing further damage. The Government have announced that £10,000 will be made available to the Clyde river purification board. We welcome that, but we doubt that it is even remotely enough to solve the problem. It is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) obviously likes that metaphor.

Will that money allow for a study of the dredging of the Clyde? It is suggested that that is one of the problems in the Kelvin. Will it allow for a study of the infill by dumping of the flood plains, such as those at Twechar, Kilsyth, Bardowie and Somerston, with rubbish? Will it allow for consideration of altering the course, raising bridges, building up the banks and controlling flood plains? We need answers, and we suspect that the money is not enough.

We also wish the Minister to give some assurance that, when problems are identified, the Scottish Office will not merely consider solutions, but will approve them and fund them. Until the Scottish Office gives that borrowing consent, as I said, the other 50 per cent. grant is not available. We want some reassurance from the Scottish Office that it will do that, and further, that, as a consequence of that, it will follow up with extensive statutory powers, and do so quickly. We cannot allow the matter to drag on year after year, month after month. We need the statutory powers to be given quickly, so that the work can he done.

Finally, it is important for the future that planning authorities have a statutory obligation to consult some organisation when they are considering changes that might affect flooding—for example, filling in the flood plains or altering roads, as happened in Stirling.

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith , Strathkelvin and Bearsden

It is also possible in my constituency, where the Kelvin low road was raised and is now the Kelvin high road. That probably acts as a barrier, which caused flooding of the industrial estate.

Planning authorities have no statutory responsibility to consult. I think it would be proper if, in the Environment Bill currently before the House of Lords, the new Scottish Environmental Protection Agency were the organisation that had to be statutorily consulted. Those are the further requests that we make of the Minister tonight. All our constituents throughout Paisley, Irvine, Renfrewshire, Pollok, other parts of Glasgow, Rutherglen, Cathcart and my area of the Strathkelvin valley have suffered. That suffering will show no barrier, but will cross social paths and geographical boundaries. The despair, desperation and absolute abjectness has been felt by everyone in all those areas.

Those people are looking for some appreciation by the Government of their problem, and some financial compensation for the expenses involved for the local authorities and sometimes the individual. But, more than anything else, they seek reassurances about the future. Within what is physically possible, given the limits of human power, they want a reassurance that such a disaster will not befall them again. They seek hard-headed, concrete, extensive reassurance from their Government tonight.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries 10:29 pm, 16th January 1995

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) on obtaining the Adjournment debate tonight, and thank him for the manner in which he has presented his case. I also thank his many colleagues who have stayed behind to listen to what he had to stay on this extremely important matter.

The Government fully appreciate the concerns and distress caused by the floods. We have every sympathy, particularly with the families of the two young men who lost their lives in the bridge accident, which was a great tragedy to the family and all concerned.

I accept absolutely what the hon. Gentleman said about the devastating effect on residents and businesses during the run-up to Christmas. I know that many, many houses were damaged—the hon. Gentleman said that the figure was 271, whereas I was informed that it was 255 in Strathkelvin. Furthermore, the industrial and business premises of some 60 companies at five industrial parks were severely damaged. Transport, electricity and other services were seriously disrupted.

To put the matter in context, the flood was exceptional, as there had been exceptional rainfall. Interestingly, in the Kelvin catchment area, no less than 7.1 in of rain fell over two days. Normally, we get excited if an inch of rain is recorded at any one time, which shows what a phenomenal downpour it was. It is no consolation to those involved that it was the highest recorded rainfall.

I am told that, statistically, it happens only once every 500 years. The rivers rose dramatically: the Clyde was 4.5 ft higher than ever previously recorded at Daldowie, and the Kelvin was 5 ft higher than its previous maximum. Those are all exceptional figures, and it may be that no reasonable flood bank could have withstood the rise in the rivers on that weekend.

Obviously, action has been and will be taken. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Secretary of State visited Kirkintilloch, and the Ministers responsible for industry and for housing visited Paisley and Renfrew respectively to help assess what needed to be done. I commend, as they did, the local authorities. I mention in particular Mr. Neil McIntosh, with whom I worked closely in Lockerbie, who quickly set up an operation centre. I also commend the fire service and the voluntary and private sectors, which provided hot meals and supporting activities, and all the officials who did excellent work, particularly during the critical weekend.

Contrary to some attacks on the Government, we felt that we responded quickly and well. The Department of Social Security immediately made £120,000 available to the social fund, and we were soon able to trigger the Bellwin system, which made available an 85 per cent. grant on local authority expenditure.

Photo of Mr Gordon McMaster Mr Gordon McMaster , Paisley South

Those of us who have experienced for the first time floods that bad now know that the Bellwin formula is a con. We heard today from the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), who is an Under-Secretary of State, that the Secretary of State has powers under section 155 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 to spend whatever money he deems necessary. There is no need for the Government to stick to the Bellwin formula, so will they now use those powers to help our people to rebuild their lives and their homes?

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

I heard what the hon. Gentleman said, and appreciate what he and his hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, North (Mrs. Adams) have been through and what they have attempted to achieve in recent weeks on behalf of their constituents. The answer today is important, and my hon. Friend will act on it. But the hon. Gentleman must not decry the Bellwin scheme. He is wrong to do that.

The Bellwin formula has worked effectively over a number of years—perhaps 15—and is triggered as soon as the figures are available, to ensure that they reach the trigger levels. That was done within the week after the flooding. No firm figures are yet available, although one estimates that it could well be £10 million in Strathclyde alone. We will look at the capital costs as sympathetically as possible. As Opposition Members know, we fulfilled the request of Strathclyde region for the supplementary capital allocation of £1.365 million in full. The main beneficiaries should be the roads, water and sewerage areas that were badly damaged in the flooding.

Some £100,000 is available for the Renfrew housing capital allocation, and £150,000 to other authorities. We will look sympathetically to the 1995–96 capital allocations in that area.

Photo of Mrs Irene Adams Mrs Irene Adams , Paisley North

Does the Minister agree that all that is being offered is borrowing consent? The very people who were flooded and who have suffered most will pay back most, through extra council house rents and council taxes. The Government are giving nothing more than a loan to people who have already lost everything—a loan that will have to be paid back.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

I appreciate what the hon. Lady is saying, but one might say that the world of local authority finance cannot really be changed overnight. It has operated through all forms of disasters over many years, relative to the Bellwin scheme and the capital allocation.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

No, I have not very much longer to complete a number of points raised by the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden.

We have agreed today with the Clyde river purification board to provide £10,000 for a comprehensive hydrological study to help the future issue of flooding.

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe , Cunninghame South

Will the Minister tell us why, when Windsor castle burned down, overnight the Government were able to find £35 million, yet some six weeks after the flooding, all they have found is £10,000? Is that not a ridiculous state of affairs?

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

That is a totally irrelevant issue.

The hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden was generous enough to say that he was pleased to hear about the arrangement to provide a contribution to the studies on the hydrological survey. The issue of Strathclyde is taking a lead over urban water courses and sewers. A great deal is going on, and one must not decry the efforts that are being made.

The hon. Gentleman rightly said that the Kelvin became a raging torrent. As I said, it rose 5 ft above its previous maximum. He wanted to know what action will be taken. He went through some of the history of flooding, but he really cannot go past the Flood Prevention (Scotland) Act 1961, which puts the responsibility on local authorities. [Interruption.] That is the position. Flood prevention must he provided by local authorities.

The hon. Gentleman said that 50 per cent. had gone on the capital costs when approved by the Secretary of State. There is no reason why he should not approve capital expenditure on flood prevention. Local authorities, which are there to look after their constituents, must present schemes for flood prevention, and when they have presented such schemes throughout Scotland, we have been glad to provide the required allocations.

Photo of Mr Jimmy Dunnachie Mr Jimmy Dunnachie , Glasgow Pollok

When Glasgow presented such a scheme 20 years ago, the then Secretary of State—Campbell by name—refused to provide any assistance.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

Well, there is some more history for hon. Members.

If a reasonable council presents constructive plans for flood prevention—we encourage councils to do that, but they rarely give flood prevention priority—we are glad to consider the matter carefully, and give as much help as we can. We are currently considering the severe flooding on Tayside a year ago, and exactly the same considerations apply to the Clyde river basin as to the Tay river basin. Councils must present proposals. They have powers to deal with maintenance, and a 50 per cent. grant for capital expenditure. That applies throughout Scotland.

Water and sewerage capital expenditure in Scotland is now running at £720 million over the next three years. [HON. MEMBERS: "That is irrelevant."] No, it is not; it is very important. It is part of the duty of local authorities to present flood prevention schemes where they are required, and a percentage of the large sums involved should be spent on flood prevention.

Strathclyde's current expenditure programme for water services is £89 million—double the figure set five years ago. It should have considered spending some of that money on flood prevention. Only about £4 million has been spent on the Brock Burn scheme on the White Cart. I hope that the region is looking seriously at its priorities.

The hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden mentioned severe agricultural damage. Farmers were alert, and most of the stock was removed; I do not think that the damage was very severe, although a good deal of damage was done to fencing and drainage. It will be easier to clarify the position once the land has settled down again, and it has been possible to assess the damage. The Agriculture and Fisheries Department expects expenditure to be around £20,000 in the Kelvin catchment area.

There is a 50 per cent. grant towards repairs to flood banking and so forth in the less-favoured area, and one of 40 per cent. in the non-LFA region. We shall examine all the issues very carefully when considering the provision of grant to support agriculture: the Government are as concerned about people in that industry as they are about businesses and householders.

There is also the issue of dredging. I was interested to note that the Kelvin scheme, for which the Scottish office is responsible, has been running at around £10,000 a year; I hope that that will continue, so that there is no possibility of the Kelvin's silting up and making floods more likely in the future.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned dredging the Clyde, which is a matter for Clydeport plc. Dredging is for navigation rather than flood prevention. Clydeport plc has no responsibility for flood prevention—nor, indeed, had the Clyde port authority beforehand—but the present dredging policy is unlikely to affect flood levels in either the Clyde or the Kelvin.

We understand that Strathclyde and Glasgow districts have agreed to contribute to dredging in the upper Clyde. That may alleviate flooding further upstream than is covered by Clyde port authority.

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe , Cunninghame South

The Minister has not mentioned Irvine.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

No, because the hon. Gentleman did not mention it. I know that other areas in Scotland, including Dumfries, were flooded. Whitesands was flooded, and I am afraid that that probably happens every year. Many areas of Scotland suffered from the downpour, and some areas suffered severe flooding.

In a wet country such as Scotland, we cannot always guarantee that such flooding will never happen again. I agree that we want proper flood prevention where that is possible. The local authorities must take a lead, because they are nearest to the areas. They must present the necessary plans for the Government to approve, so that we can provide 50 per cent. capital allocation.

A note has reached me which states that the works at Irvine are in hand via the development corporation. The hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) has not been overlooked—as, of course, he never would be.

We are conscious of the devastating effects of the flooding, and we are anxious that the hydrological survey should point a way to the future. I am insistent in highlighting the point that Strathclyde must present plans for areas where serious flooding is likely to recur. If such plans are presented for consideration by the Government, they will receive capital allocation approval.

Too often, regional authorities have stood back and spent little on flood prevention. When serious issues such as this arise, everybody tries to blame the Government rather than the authorities which ought to have the prime responsibility for carrying out the work. I assure the House that we are anxious in every way that I have mentioned to assist the constituents in those areas that were severely hit, on whom the flooding had such a devastating impact. We shall help them in every way we can, and I am very glad—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.