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Flooding (Pontyates, Carmarthenshire)

Volume 409: debated on Thursday 29 March 1945

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3.56 p.m.

I fear that there is little connection between what I have to say and what has preceded it, except that I am concerned with flooding. It is my wish so to reduce the flooding that no portion of the Navy whatever might be able to get up to the heart of my constituency and of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) at any time. It is a short and simple story. Fifty years ago there was flowing down to the sea, from the hills of Carmarthen-shire, a river called the Gwendraeth Fawr. It was a pleasant stream. It was in those days a very good fishing stream, and on its way down from the hills to the sea it passed by the village of Pontyates. There was a road and a bridge which crossed the Gwendraeth Fawr. It was a main road and a substantial bridge. It bridged the river fairly and cleanly, so much so that barbed wire had to be placed under the arches of the bridge to prevent the cattle from the fields on the one side of the road and the bridge from trespassing into the fields on the other side of the road and the bridge. But in the upper reaches of the Gwendraeth Fawr there were collieries, and in the course of their activities—I believe in the early stages deliberately—they used the waters of the Gwendraeth Fawr to take down their washing. At any rate, whether deliberately, by negligence or by failure to prevent it, as the years have gone by enormous quantities of this small coal have flowed down the Gwendraeth Fawr, with the result that to-day very disastrous consequences have happened in and around Pontyates.

In the first place, so much of the small coal has come down the Gwendraeth Fawr that hundreds of acres of first-class agricultural land have been rendered useless for the purpose of cultivation. A very serious position had been reached even at the outbreak of this war. Then, the silting up of the bed of the Gwendraeth Fawr had very nearly filled up the bridge. I mentioned earlier that they had to wire it, to prevent cattle corning from one side to the other. To-day, this small coal has so raised the bed of the river that I would defy the most expert shepherd to get any sheep under the archway at all. The consequence is that, at any time when there is anything like high water, there is very serious flooding, and that has produced consequences which affect many. Departments of the Government. I have already pointed out that a great deal of land has been rendered derelict by this bringing down of small coal. Further, with this low archway, the roadway to the bridge is flooded on many occasions, rendering it impossible for children to get to school, and, what is even more serious, for miners to get to their work. Public transport is completely at a stop.

Again, the result of the floodings is that work at the colliery, apart from the movement of the men, is also at a standstill. The railway wagons cannot be moved there or taken away, and it follows that railway transport is also hindered and prevented. There has been one occasion when wagons of small coal on the railway sidings have been so affected by the flow of water that they have been turned up and tipped into the waters of the Gwendraeth Fawr and helped to increase this silting up of the bed. These are consequences which, as I say, affect many Government Departments. But the most serious one of all—and it is the one in respect of which I asked the House to give me leave to raise with the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Minister of Health —is that there is a group of houses on the level of the valley of the Gwendraeth Fawr, at Pontyates, who suffer flooding every time the water rises in the Gwendraeth Fawr. It has affected the health of all the inhabitants in that little locality. They are not many—about 30—but all are affected, and I speak of this with very personal knowledge, which can be confirmed by my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly. Men have suffered, and houses have been flooded, not only with flood water, but with the backwash of the sewage brought back to these houses, leaving slime to a height of a foot or r8 inches. The medical officer of health for the county of Carmarthen and the medical officer of health for the rural district of Llanelly have reported that this flooding is a serious danger to the health of these individuals.

Apart from that, there is a very nice hall on the same level as these houses. It is the kind of hall that I wish I could see in every village in the kingdom. It is a fine hall, erected as a memorial at the end of the last war, properly equipped and looked after, and it is being ruined now by these floods. The House may ask why should this be brought in charge against the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Minister of Health. The reason is that we have been alive to this matter for many years. It affects, as I have said already, many Government Departments. They are all concerned. For instance, there is the Ministry of Agriculture. The right hon. Gentleman the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is present and he knows the history of this affair as well as I do. We approach the Ministry of Agriculture and say, "What will you do to help us in this matter," and they quite rightly reply, "There are only 400 acres of land affected; if we were to clear the river, it would involve a cost of £26 per acre and we could not possibly face such an expenditure." We go to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Minister of Health. He has sympathy with us and is very kind, but says, "After all, the proper method to pursue here is to have a catchment scheme and have the thing properly drained and that means intense delay." We turn to the Ministry of War Transport and they say, "We agree that there is some interference with traffic but it is not serious enough to justify our coming in." We go to the Ministry of Fuel and Power and say, "Why do you not do something about it? After all, this was caused by coal mining and is consequences," and they say, "We can do nothing." We talk kindly to the anthracite coal company and the Great Western Railway Company and they say, "We will contribute exactly what any riparian owner should do."

The result is, that not one of these Government Departments will take the position of saying, "I will take my share in it." They all seek to avoid the responsibility on the basis that they have been fastened with the total responsibility for all the serious damage which is taking place. The only reason why I have sought to raise this matter upon the Adjournment—and I am grateful for the opportunity of doing so—is not because I want to indict the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Agriculture or any other Government Department because of what they have failed to do in toto, but because I want to fasten upon the House—that where you have three or four Departments involved, each one seeking to avoid complete responsibility, at least we, in this House, ought to devise a scheme to bring them together so that all four with the local authorities joined up, if you like—should join in solving the difficulty. It could be done easily. I venture to say that if it were found necessary to put down a factory on these fields for the Ministry of Supply or to put down a camp for the American Army, the bulldozers would have been there in 10 days and the thing would have been cleared and finished. It has been done in other parts of this country, as the Minister knows very well, but because we find here a situation affecting these different Government Departments and because they will not get together and say, "We will contribute so much towards it," nothing at all is done. This has been going on now for over three years and my plea to the House is that when the Departments have failed in this way, they ought to be compelled to put their heads together and to have something done quickly.

4.15 p.m.

I would like to add a word to what has been said by the hon. and learned Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Hughes) because we are both equally involved in this matter. There are two aspects of this matter, first the long-term one which we know cannot be attended to until the labour position becomes easier. Of course our feeling is that the thing should have been attended to many years ago. It should have been prevented. It is an example of a pristine stream becoming polluted by industrial wreckage. It so happens that the county which, both of us have the honour to represent has two distinctions. It produces what is said to be the finest anthracite coal in the world, and, as the Parliamentary Secretary will know, it also provides London with its best milk. Therefore it is important from the agricultural point of view. For many years the refuse of the collieries has been dumped in such a way that it has found its way into this river, and the river has silted up as a consequence. The whole position is a danger to the health of the community, and one of the things which we must do to avoid a further falling in the standard of health and in the efficient working of the nearby pits, is to prevent any colliery from disposing of this stuff outside its workings. There is plenty of room inside. This process which I have described has been going on for many years with a result that the river has now flooded and filled up.

I was speaking to one of the local officials a little while ago and he said that there was a time when a horse and cart could go under the bridge of the river. I doubt if a mouse could get under now. This has been going on for 25 years. The valley is narrow at the top, and widens out towards the estuary. Therefore when the floods pour down from the narrow part, they spread out over the flat ground and fill up the hollow of the land and the floods of course affect the whole of the neighbourhood. It is good agricultural land and although it may be only 400 acres it is very fine productive land indeed.

All this has its serious consequences and the Minister of Health will know, or at least I think he ought to know, that quite recently three medical officers of health, one for the county council, another for Llanelly rural district council, and another for the Carmarthen rural district council, made a joint investigation and presented a report to the Welsh Board of Health on the matter, saying that it was very urgent and ought to be dealt with at once on health grounds alone. In the winter, houses are flooded, chapels and so on are in continuous danger from the menace, and in the summer because of these floods in the winter the ground is so soggy that there is a constant danger to health because the place becomes a nesting-ground for mosquitos. It is for this reason that the three medical officers have urged upon the Welsh Board of Health to deal with this as an urgent matter. There is also the effect on the men themselves. I have seen miners who were at one time "ten a penny" become the most valued men in our community. From the point of view of the miners themselves the whole thing is urgent. The right thing to do, and it should have been done a long time ago, is for the local authorities or the Ministry to see to it that a Catchment Board is set up to deal with the problem properly, to clean the river, to maintain it in a clean manner, to prevent pollution, and to prevent flooding.

In the meantime the council have prepared a scheme for the temporary alleviation of the flooding, dealing with the matter as urgent. They prepared it and submitted it to the Ministry and I believe also submitted a copy to the Minister of Health so that he would be aware of it. It is a temporary scheme to deal with the immediate situation pending the setting up of a catchment board. I understand that steps have now been taken for such a board to be established. But that will obviously take time. This temporary scheme will cost about £9,000. There will be no difficulty about securing the labour, because I know that as each week passes, over twenty men in this valley cease work in the pits because they have got incipient signs of silicosis. They do not work in the pits these days. In the old days they used to stay there until their health was utterly ruined, but we have been urging them to get out of the pits and get out quickly when they see any signs of this disease. So that where, before, they used to stay until they were beyond hope, now they come out.

As for the scheme, the county council called together the people interested, who were the colliery company and the Great Western Railway. The railway has been affected because at times the trains, both mineral and passenger, have been stopped by the floods. Men have lost work because of these stoppages and because the coal could not be brought away from the pits. I will say that the colliery company were quite prepared to make a contribution towards the £9,000. The Great Western Railway Company adopted another attitude. The world owes a great deal to South Wales but it should be remembered that South Wales made the Great Western Railway; it was not the Great Western Railway which made South Wales. South Wales poured forth its wealth to the world and the Great Western Railway carried it, and if I might say so, carried it at a very great profit. As I have said, the colliery company agreed to make a contribution, and this I think was a very fine gesture, because I 'have been one of their opponeyts for very many years; I have argued with them for years, and I am one who hopes there will be no colliery company in the future. The Great Western Railway, I understand, has refused to make any contribution and that I think is rather mean of them. In the meantime nothing is being done. It is, I know, a rather small matter but the one thing about this House is that it can discuss not only great matters but even these small issues. What we now wish to do is to make these representations and to see if we can get some promise from the two right hon. Gentlemen opposite. We are not satisfied with the replies we have had to our correspondence, and for this reason we hope that to-day we can take, a message back to our constituencies that we have heard from the two Ministers that after all this negotiation and correspondence which have not brought any satisfaction, steps will be taken from today to see that something is done quickly, to put an end to what we feel is a genuine grievance.

4.22 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aģriculture
(Mr. Tom Williams)

I am very grateful to both hon. Members for raising this matter, which is so important to them, in so modest a way, but I am more than grateful to the hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) for showing the correct pronouncement of Pontyates so that I should make no mistake in pronouncing it myself. It had to occur in my opening sentence and I was in some difficulty in how to pronounce it but now I know.

It is true that the flooding at Pontyates causes some damage to agricultural land, highways, railroads, and urban property and that the floods have slightly affected some neighbouring collieries. I am afraid that what I can say will not give much comfort to my two hon. Friends although I hope to be able to point the way to some things that might ultimately be done to try and clear up the matter. The problem, clearly, has been growing steadily worse, for very many years and if there is any neglect at all, it is not neglect by this House. The neglect has been local; my two hon. Friends will recall that the county council was the responsible drainage authority. It was therefore up to them when they saw this deterioration taking place to put some scheme to the Ministry so that steps could be taken to correct the unfortunate position.

Between 320 and 400 acres of agricultural land, mostly pasture land, are affected and there is also of course the problem that once the land is flooded, coal dust is spread over a wide area. I understand that the road between Llanelly and Carmarthen becomes impassable during floods but fortunately for ordinary road traffic, there are alter- native routes. There has also been, I understand, some little delay in the dispatch of coal from the ccllieries during these flooding periods, and as has been emphasised there is some danger to the health of the residents in this small village. The residents are not many, but I do not want to minimise the matter because the numbers are small.

I understand that the main cause of the flooding is the silting up of the bed of the river by small coal which comes streaming down from the collieries, and every time there are heavy floods or heavy rains, more and more of this is carried down into the valley. A subsidiary cause is the overflowing of the Afon Hafron, a tributary of the Gwendreath Fawr. The complete remedy would be, firstly, to prevent this coal dust from entering the river, to remove the silt that is already there, and to provide proper tributary drainage; secondly, perhaps, to shut off the tidal water at the Commissioners Bridge and, thirdly, to remove obstructions from the waterways.

The colliery company have not only made a promise of a contribution, but have promised to try to prevent coal dust being washed into the river. I wonder if any of that work has been done and has been successful? I hope the colliery company will be faithful to their promise and try to prevent further deterioration of the land. The Carmarthen county council invited the war agricultural executive committee's drainage officer to prepare a scheme of remedial works. He prepared a scheme for excavating the channel between Pontyates and Spudders Bridge, felling trees, and the cleansing of over moo subsidiary water courses. The total cost of the scheme was estimated to be £9,585. The area of agricultural land, which would benefit, we might say is 400 acres. The scheme raises some extremely difficult engineering problems. It involves the spreading of coal dust silt over adjoining agricultural land to a depth of approximately 12 inches. For that to be a success, and to leave the land cultivable, the alluvial soil from the river bank must constitute at least 5o per cent. or perhaps 6o per cent, of the total; but it is possible that the amount of coal dust there would leave the alluvial soil not 5o or 6o per cent. but perhaps only round about 25 per cent. The scheme also involves a risk of damage to the plant of a factory lower down the river, which takes a large quantity of water from the river.

It is true that there is another source of water, but it would be extremely expensive, if the scheme was carried out, and if the factory owner had to acquire water from this secondary source. It is doubtful whether the county council's powers would enable them to carry out a scheme of this kind except by voluntary agreement between those concerned, or in fact to finance a scheme on the lines of the one that has been prepared. The Ministry of Agriculture are, of course, allowed to make a grant in aid of a scheme which is calculated to improve the productivity of the land but it is only agricultural land that they are concerned with or can grant-aid. I understand that the railway company has made an offer of some t7oo, and the colliery company has made an offer of some £1,500.

Please remember, however, the total was£9,585; so even those two grants of £2,200 still leave £7,385 to be found somewhere. The county council are trying to get the balance from owners of agricultural land—I think they will be magicians if they succeed in obtaining it all, and I doubt if the land will be worth anything like the cost of the scheme that has been prepared. The powers of the Ministry of Agriculture are limited, even with grants for drainage. They can only make a grant under the 1937 Act for the purpose of increasing the productivity of agricultural land. The agricultural interests in this scheme are not very great, and certainly are not the only interests. They could not be called upon to make a grant on the full scheme but only a grant on that portion corresponding to the agricultural value of the land, and it is very doubtful, even if the Minister were most generous, whether any such grant could reach anything like the rate of 5o per cent. allowed for a purely agricultural scheme.

It is clear, therefore, that the county council will have difficulty in financing their scheme. In any case the Ministry of Agriculture can only make a grant at the moment in respect of works which are justified by the benefit to the war effort, or where the works are so urgent that they cannot possibly be further postponed. For purely agricultural reasons this scheme could not be justified, for, as my hon. and learned Friend said, the cost is estimated, spread over the agricultural area, to be not less than per acre. Now that would be excessive, and it is very doubtful if the grant made by the Ministry would cover anything but a very small portion of the remaining £7,385 that would be required to carry this scheme through.

The other aspects have been considered. It is one of those difficult social problems involving several Government Departments. The public health is at stake, transport is in trouble, coal production may be affected; but none of the three Departments—any more than the Ministry of Agriculture—regard this scheme as one that is highly essential in war-time. The Ministry of War Transport consider the scheme as of little war-time value to transport. It is not an.urgent necessity as regards either highways or railways. There is even some doubt whether the scheme would stop flooding of the classified road. The Ministry of Fuel and Power say that the collieries are not seriously affected—I do not quite know how seriously affected they are—and that production is not seriously diminished. My right hon. Friend is fully aware of the health considerations; he has had access to the reports made by the medical officers of health. He is very concerned about that, but, in view of the small number of properties within the area—I understand that there are only nine properties apart from the miners' welfare hall, although the total population is round about 30—the Ministry of Health which has no power, understand, to make a grant for a scheme of this kind, does not feel able to press this as an urgent matter in war-time.

Clearly, therefore, with all the will in the world, this problem bristles with difficulties, and no really early solution is likely. Nevertheless, if the technical problems can be solved at reasonable expense, it is certainly desirable that remedial measures should be started when the general situation permits, and I would suggest to my hon. and learned Friend and to my hon. Friend that they might invite the county council to make every effort to find a solution for the technical problems first. If the council desire, the Ministry of Agriculture will gladly invite their engineers to discuss these problems with the council and with the engineers of the other Government Departments concerned, and, if a practicable scheme can be devised, the Minister of Agriculture will, I know, be ready to consider a grant-in-aid in the light of the circumstances when the new scheme is produced. Perhaps that may encourage and inspire the county council to get on with the job.

We recognise that some of these social - cum - drainage - cum - transport - cum - mining problems are extremely difficult. No one Government Department can deal with them. Very often a district falls, not between two stools, but between half-a-dozen stools, and this is one of them. I am sorry that this county council did not see the wisdom 20 years since of preventing the unfortunate conditions that have grown up. It has been said that if a scheme had been undertaken earlier, it would have been much less costly and perhaps would have paid for itself many times over. I believe that may be true. If, not in 1941, but perhaps in 1931 or 1921, when the passage was beginning to get silted up, the county council, which was then the drainage authority, had put up a scheme and tried to carry it through, none of the social, transport, mining or agricultural consequences would have followed. None the less, I hope that my two hon. Friends will see members of the county council and ask them to try and find a solution to the technical problems, and I will undertake that both the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture will give all the assistance possible.

I am obliged to my right hon. Friend, although I would not agree with some of his conclusions. For example, I would be amazed to believe that the Ministry of Health had not been convinced by the reports of the three medical officers of health. When my right hon. Friend offers the services of his engineers, do I gather that they will put up a scheme of their own, or that their services are available to our officers so that they can devise a joint scheme together?

The Ministry of Agriculture engineers will be ready and willing to consult with the technical officers of the county council at once—

To see if they can get over the immediate technical problems. I am sure that the Ministry of Health will also contribute technically, as far as they can, to try to find a solution to the problem. I rather suspect that my hon. Friend misunderstood what I said. The Ministry of Health have been convinced that there were health problems involved. They had access to the medical officers' reports, and that is why they are ready with us, and, indeed, with all concerned, to try to find an immediate solution to these problems.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly, at Twenty-Two minutes to Five o'Clock, till Tuesday, 10th April, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of yesterday.