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MERCHANT SHIPPING (SALVAGE AND POLLUTION) BILL [MONEY] Queen's Recommendation having been signified--


That, for the purpose of any Act resulting from the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Pollution) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of--

(a) any expenses incurred by the Secretary of State under that Act ; and

(b) any increase attributable to that Act in the sums payable out of money so provided under any other Act.-- [Mr. Patnick.]

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That, notwithstanding the committal of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill to a Standing Committee on 11th January, any new Clause relating to capital punishment or to the age of consent for sexual acts between men in Great Britain of which notice may be given not later than 9th February in respect of the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House ; and that, when the Committee of the whole House has reported with respect to any such new Clause and the Standing Committee on the Bill has reported the Bill, the Bill will be proceeded with as if it had been reported as a whole from the Standing Committee.-- [Mr. Patnick.]

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Flooding (West Sussex)

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

11.3 pm

Sir Michael Marshall (Arundel) : It is a great pleasure to raise the subject of flooding in West Sussex, particularly because one has been waiting some time to raise it, but that does not undermine the importance of what I have to say tonight in what I hope will be considered to be a broader approach than the usual constituency problems.

While the concerns that I must express necessarily concentrate on the cause and effect of recent severe flooding in my constituency, it is clear that many of the principles involved and the unanswered questions relate to our county as a whole. I am therefore grateful for the support that I have in raising this subject from other West Sussex Members of Parliament, and the process has been given added impetus by the meeting that we had with the West Sussex county council last Friday. I also welcome to the Front Bench my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, representing as he does the flood defence and emergency services work of his Department as well as a Sussex constituency. The scale of the problem in West Sussex was immediately apparent when flooding occurred during the afternoon and evening of 30 December last year. I shall always recall that particular day as one on which those like myself travelling from Victoria to the south coast were obliged to abandon the train in the early evening at Horsham. The buses that took us on had the greatest difficulty getting through heavily flooded roads and it was immediately clear that flooding on this scale would have adverse effects on farmland. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson), the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, whom I am delighted to see on the Front Bench tonight, has written to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about problems raised with him by the National Farmers Union regarding flooding over large areas of the county. Both he and I, and our local farmers, will be anxious to hear what my hon. Friend has to say on this aspect tonight.

So, too, will all those involved in the human tragedies that befell many of my constituents when several feet of water entered their homes later that night. As the West Sussex county council report says, 2 in of rain fell on that day alone and 8 in in 17 days. On 30 December, extensive initial flooding occurred in virtually every borough and district of West Sussex and, most particularly, in the villages of Barnham, Bersted, Climping, Eastergate, Walberton and Yapton in my constituency.

I recognise, of course, that the subsequent horrors of flooding in Chichester almost assumed national disaster proportions, and I welcome the recently announced study by the National Rivers Authority of that problem. But it is naturally the problems in my own villages on which I must concentrate. Not only were they the first to be badly affected, but in Barnham 35 flooded householders had to be evacuated by inshore lifeboats. Their problems again raise wider matters of principle affecting our country and beyond. They also raise questions about small rural communities in which the Government must take a direct interest and upon which I seek the Minister's initial response.

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The problems may be summarised as follows. First, there is the problem of regular flooding. The obvious question that arises is to what extent can and must improved facilities be provided. Secondly, in making planning agreements for future housing development, is sufficient attention paid to whether they place exceptional demands on current and often old drainage facilities? Thirdly, there is the related recurring health hazard of overflowing foul sewers. As my constituent Dr. John Mason, a scientific and technical consultant in Barnham, has asked in a comprehensive recent report on flooding in that village, can already stretched foul sewer resources cope with a large volume of surface water flowing into them from time to time and, if not, how can the problem be solved?

I realise that in answer to those questions my hon. Friend will refer to the responsibility of the West Sussex county council, the Arun district council, the National Rivers Authority and Southern Water. Naturally, I have sought urgent responses from all those authorities. So far, I have received only interim answers. That is understandable. Their main concern has been to overcome the immediate difficulties and they promise further and detailed study when the opportunity presents itself.

However, I am glad that the West Sussex county council has accepted my proposal that there should be an urgent meeting involving all the authorities and those who can give appropriate professional advice to tackle these and other relevant questions. I also welcome the detailed study promised by the National Rivers Authority of the problems experienced particularly in Barnham.

One of the most important aspects of those further consultations must be the problem of co-ordination. Too many of my constituents have been passed from one authority to another, particularly on matters relating to flood- affected sewage and disposal. I also received complaints from Arun district council of a lack of early response and consultation by other authorities.

I referred earlier to others whose advice should be taken into account. I still await an answer to my suggestion that telephone switch boxes and electricity supply points should be lifted above ground level at regular flooding spots. In Barnham, flooding caused the loss of electricity and telephone links for several days for too many of my elderly constituents. I urge the Government to become involved in that process by drawing up detailed guidelines for better co-ordination. After all, the Government have direct responsibility for the creation and current review of the role and future of those authorities.

I assume that there are lessons to be learnt from the approximately triennial incidence of flooding in the last few years, and account should be taken of the problems experienced in not only West Sussex but north Wales and the west country--as will be fresh in the minds of many right hon. and hon. Members.

What is the present state of Government co-ordination? After widespread storm damage in 1990, the Home Office was responsible for the co-ordination of Government Departments, and the Department of the Environment met claims for the so-called Bellwin funding. I welcome and appreciate the fact that Ministers from both Departments recently visited flood-affected areas in West Sussex.

I seek an assurance that the Department of Social Security will give special support, as it did in 1990, to people on income support. As to my hon. Friend's own

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Department, what is the state of technical studies in the agricultural research institutes in which he takes such a keen interest? Is modern technology capable of providing early-warning systems when flood waters rise to danger level? I appreciate that those questions are wide and complex and go beyond my hon. Friend's departmental responsibilities. As some of them arose from information that came to hand late today, I shall fully understand if my hon. Friend would prefer to write to me on some aspects of the matters that I have raised. I hope that he will be able to do so. As to direct Government assistance in meeting immediate financial problems, Arun district council estimates that the additional costs of relief are already in excess of £100,000. It has applied to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment for help under the Bellwin scheme, which provides special financial arrangements designed to assist local authorities in emergencies, and specifically to safeguard life and property and to prevent suffering or severe inconvenience.

I support that application, as I shall support the expected claim from West Sussex county council, which is likely to run into millions of pounds. That is the purpose of contingency funding for which the Budget provides, and I look for an urgent Government response. I ask the Government to take an imaginative and sympathetic approach to the special problems of the many small businesses which lost stock and normal peak business in the new year, and for which insurance cover may be limited or non-existent. Perhaps consideration can be given to making some adjustment to the uniform business rate. In that respect, I am glad to have a Treasury presence on the Government Front Bench, as well as the constituency presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames).

There is the possibility of support, through an application for humanitarian assistance, from the European Commission, which is being vigorously pursued by our Member of the European Parliament, Madron Seligman. In 1989, the Commission made an initial contribution to the United Kingdom of £220,000 for storm victims. I ask the Government to add their voice in obtaining additional funding from that source for families and local businesses.

In that context, I am glad that, in general, insurance companies responded to the urgent need for assistance in replacing ruined household equipment and clothing. However, I am obliged still to chase a number of companies because of the continuing anguish that they cause by bureaucracy and delay. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will add his voice to those appealing for swift and compassionate action.

Whatever worries there may be about co-ordination and the continuing problems that face many of my constituents, I cannot end without expressing appreciation to all those who assisted in overcoming many of the horrors of recent events. All the authorities that I have mentioned gave help through their staff--who, in many cases, went beyond the call of duty, often working throughout the day and night without rest.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham) : Hear, hear.

Sir Michael Marshall : I am glad that my hon. Friend agrees. I know that he, too, has spoken about this issue.

Those authorities were backed up by the police, the Army and entire local communities. I single out for special

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praise the work of the voluntary sector-- for instance, the specially formed Barnham Flood Relief Association, which has done so much to help those lacking insurance cover by fund raising and the collection and provision of essential supplies. That association and the Barnham Residents Association, which has monitored the effects of flooding with great care, now estimate that the cost of the damage to the village could exceed £1 million. That assumes average costs of more than £8,000 in the homes--more than 100 homes--that were badly affected by flooding.

It is estimated that 10 per cent. of that total represents an uninsured loss of £100,000. In all, some 300 people have been involved in flooding, and many--sadly--have been unable to return to their homes while waiting for estimates and going through the whole process of obtaining insurance payments, and while repairs are under way. Others have had to live in damp and insanitary conditions, fearing further flooding.

Mr. John Auckland, a former chairman of the Barnham Residents Association-- I am indebted to him for the latest situation report--has said :

"Many houses were inundated with several feet of water containing raw sewage, diesel oil and other chemicals. By the time the mess is cleared up over 60 skips will have been filled with ruined personal possessions. The entire contents of people's homes have been destroyed. It will take months to repair homes and rehabilitate some of the affected residents."

I know from personal observation--my wife and I have met many of the constituents who have been affected--that behind the statistical background lies a horror story involving real human tragedies. Counselling has been needed, as well as practical support and financial help. Above all, there remains the anxiety and worry : it is feared that an area that has been flooded several times in the past few years--albeit not on the same scale-- may be flooded again. It is with that in mind that the Government, Members of Parliament, local authorities and communities must rise to the challenge in mitigating the effects of recent flooding--and, above all, doing all that is humanly possible to reduce substantially the prospect of its occurring again.

11.17 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nicholas Soames) : I welcome the opportunityto speak, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) on his persistence in obtaining an Adjournment debate on an extremely important and, in some respects, distressing matter. As I have the privilege of representing a West Sussex constituency, I well appreciate the concern of my hon. Friend and those whom he represents about the considerable damage and great distress caused by last month's flooding. Together with all the other West Sussex Members of Parliament, we went to county hall in Chichester for an update last Friday ; we found that extremely useful.

Hon. Members will be well aware that, after a wetter-than-average autumn, southern England suffered its heaviest sustained rainfall for many years in December and January. Many river catchments were fully saturated early in the winter. Once catchments are saturated, any additional rainfall cannot be soaked up, but flows into the ditches and rivers much more quickly and in far greater volume.

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Under conditions of prolonged or heavy rainfall, those flows can increase to the point where the carrying capacity of the watercourses is quickly exceeded, which can lead to widespread flooding. In both East and West Sussex, the situation is further complicated by the presence of extensive areas of chalk downland. The unfortunate combination of the widespread appearance of springs fed from the chalk aquifer, together with the surface run-off from saturated catchments, has caused many of the flooding problems experienced in West Sussex.

On 30 December 1993, an intense rainstorms of about four hours' duration crossed the south of England from west to east. That storm produced an average of about three quarters of an inch of rain across the region as a whole, but the Sussex area suffered the highest recorded rainfall intensity of about 1.5 in on average, while the gauge near Chichester recorded 2 in. Farmland was seriously affected by flooding in many parts of southern England. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food sought and obtained an exemption from set-aside rules for flooded land from the European Commission, allowing farmers to harvest their 1993 sugar beet and potato crop from set-aside land after the deadline of 15 January 1994.

On Friday, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson), who is in his place, met members of the Chichester and North Sussex group of the National Farmers Union in his constituency. He has written to my right hon. Friend outlining some of their concerns. I assure him and my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel that those points will be carefully considered by my right hon. Friend and we shall reply in detail to him and them later when we have all the information to hand.

My hon. Friend spoke eloquently and, at the end of his speech, genuinely movingly about the serious effect of the flooding on the homes of some of his constituents.

Mr. Stephen : I entirely associate myself with everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) has said. In addition to the villages that he has mentioned, may I add Sompting in my constituency?

Mr. Soames : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am aware, as he mentioned the matter on Friday in Chichester, that Sompting in his constituency was also seriously affected.

Although most of the media attention was focused on the unfortunate events in Chichester, a number of other towns and villages in West Sussex were badly affected, including those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and in particular Barnham, where there was flooding as early as 20 December, and more than 30 people had to be evacuated after the flooding on 30 December. My hon. Friend laid before the House in a clear and necessarily distressing manner the serious impact that that has had. Here, as in a number of Sussex villages, the speed with which flooding occurred made it difficult for timely warnings to be given.

I believe that West Sussex county council, the borough and district councils, the police, fire brigade, the Army and all the other emergency services in West Sussex, and the National Rivers Authority dealt admirably with a very difficult situation over an extended period, and that they

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responded to the flooding problems in the area in a thoroughly professional and effective manner. As is well known, the county emergency planning department had to mount a complex and resource-intensive operation in Chichester, which they did with considerable distinction. Their efforts reflect great credit on their teamwork and state of preparedness, as my hon. Friend pointed out. The House will wish to congratulate all those involved in that splendid work.

Nevertheless, my hon. Friend raised a number of extremely important questions about how the situation was handled and about the need for better co-ordination among the public bodies and other organisations involved. He was good enough to give me notice of those points and, if I cannot deal with some of the other points that he made tonight, I assure him that we shall write to him with the answers that he seeks. He has rightly said that water companies, the county council, district councils and the National Rivers Authority all have responsibilities for aspects of the problem. Like him, I welcome the fact that those bodies are getting together to discuss the way ahead.

The National Rivers Authority, which exercises general supervision over all matters relating to flood defence in England and Wales, is well placed to assess the overall flood risks in the area and draw lessons from recent events. The authority has said that it intends to review its warning procedures for Barnham and the surrounding areas. I understand that it is looking at the practicality of extending the automatic alarm systems in that area, and a consultant's report is expected shortly.

In relation to the River Lavant, the National Rivers Authority has engaged consultants to investigate the causes and consequences of the recent flooding in and around Chichester. Detailed investigation of the ground- water hydrology of the chalk downs is planned, and this study is likely to lead on to an examination of possible flood alleviation measures.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food makes substantial sums of money available to the National Rivers Authority and to local authorities and drainage boards each year for the construction and improvement of flood and coastal defences. This assistance now amounts to over £50 million annually in England. In large part, the residual capital costs and the cost of the on-going maintenance programme for existing defences are supported by central Government through the revenue support grant given to local councils. In many parts of the country, the extent of recent flooding was very much reduced thanks to the investment previously made in new and improved defences. I assure my hon. Friend that if, as a result of its investigations, the NRA puts to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food proposals for grant aid towards improved flood-alleviation measures in West Sussex, those will be given the most careful consideration.

My hon. Friend asked about planning agreements. At the end of 1992, the Government issued to local planning authorities revised and strengthened advice on the need, where possible, to avoid additional or new development in areas at risk of flooding. Local planning authorities receive from the National Rivers Authority specific advice on those matters, and it is clearly important that councils, in their planning decisions, give due weight to that advice. In that way, we can try to prevent new development taking place in the flood plain, being at risk of flooding at times of heavy and prolonged rainfall and sometimes creating

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extra risk elsewhere. We have to recognise, however, that in some places development in the flood plain has already taken place. Thirdly, my hon. Friend referred to the extremely serious matter of the interlinkage between the foul-water drainage system and the storm-water discharges that take place during periods of heavy rainfall. I hope that the studies that the NRA has put in train will look at all aspects of the flooding problems in the area. The points that my hon. Friend makes about the need for co-ordination between different authorities are perfectly valid. The Ministry has sought to address this matter in the context of flood warning arrangements, through a series of meetings at national level involving the NRA, the police and the local authority associations. Those are aimed at improving the chains of communication between the various bodies involved in emergency responses to flooding and between them and the public in at-risk areas. I hope that that initiative will bear fruit later this year.

My hon. Friend rightly asked about research. Both the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the NRA fund significant research and development programmes aimed at better understanding of the natural process that underlie flooding, at improved design of flood defences and at more timely and accurate flood warning. My Department alone spends £3 million annually on this area of research. Steps are taken to ensure that the results of this work are widely disseminated to practising engineers, through regular newsletters and conferences, by the Ministry's river and coastal engineers.

The detailed local arrangements for flood warning and emergency response will necessarily vary in different parts of the country, according to the nature of the threat. I am aware that in some areas local councils provide those who live in flood-risk areas with leaflets explaining which bodies are responsible for particular aspects of the local emergency arrangements. Councils and the NRA in West Sussex may wish to consider whether, in the light of recent events, there may be a need for updated guidance in their locality. My hon. Friend then raised the question of Government assistance in meeting immediate problems caused by flooding. The distress and material loss suffered by those whose properties are flooded are very considerable and will rightly attract considerable sympathy from all parts of the House. There are a number of ways in which central Government and their agencies may give help to local communities and local councils in such circumstances.

First, local councils that have incurred exceptional expenditure in responding to a major incident such as serious flooding may approach my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment for special financial assistance under the so-called Bellwin rules. My hon. Friend is, of course, familiar with the scheme. It is activated at the discretion of the Secretary of State in cases where the problems facing local councils have been particularly severe and would result in an undue financial burden on the local authority. Councils must contact the Department of the Environment within one month of the event, giving full supporting details. If the Secretary of

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State decides to activate the scheme, about 85 per cent. of local authority costs above a threshold are usually reimbursed. I understand that Arun district council and West Sussex county council have approached the Department of the Environment under these arrangements and that their requests are being given careful consideration.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the problems faced by many small businesses affected by flooding over the new year period and asked for consideration to be given to some adjustment in the uniform business rate. This is, of course, a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, but I am advised that, under the existing arrangements, individual businesses may be able to obtain a temporary reduction in their rateable value. Businesses should, therefore, approach the local valuation office of the Inland Revenue to see whether such a temporary reduction could be made available to them.

My hon. Friend also referred, rightly, to the possibility of humanitarian aid from the European Commission. Having heard what he had to say tonight, I have no doubt that it will make a formidable case for our energetic and excellent Member of the European Parliament, Madron Seligman, to press. I understand that the initiative in providing aid of this kind rests with the European Commission and that the Commission is assessing the situation in a number of member states, given the serious flooding that has also occurred in Germany and Holland. I gather that such aid, if provided, would be channelled via the Home Office through voluntary organisations such as the Red Cross. I shall ensure that my hon. Friend's concerns on this score are made known to the relevant Departments.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the insurance companies. In view of the points that he made, I should be happy to write to the Association of British Insurers to ask it to urge its members to respond as quickly as they can to the requests for help from those who have suffered damage and loss and to give all possible help. We have had a useful debate on this very important subject. I again congratulate my hon. Friend on the compassionate and formidable way in which he presented his case. It is essential that whenever serious flooding occurs, investigations are held to establish the cause and to see what can be done to reduce the risk of recurrence. The local authorities, the voluntary groups, the emergency services and the NRA in West Sussex can be justly proud of their efforts. The Army deserves to be praised, too.

It is right that the NRA should press ahead with its studies into events at Barnham and Chichester. If, as a result of its investigations, the authority comes to MAFF with proposals for flood alleviation works that meet the necessary technical, economic and environmentalrequirements, I can assure my hon. Friend that my Department will consider them for grant aid as matter of urgency. Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Twelve o'clock.

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