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River Isla (Flooding)

Volume 463: debated on Monday 11 April 1949

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

9.59 p.m.

I wish to raise tonight a matter of very great urgency to a large part of the county, part of which I have the honour to represent. I have already approached the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State, who received me courteously and wrote to me later, and I have also approached the Department of Agriculture for Scotland, whose officials were equally obliging.

May I explain very briefly what this problem is? It is the desperately serious state of almost continuous flooding which occurs in an area of Perthshire known as Strathmore, where are some of the best farms in Scotland, if not in the world. The problem is this. The Isla River draws its supplies of water from the Perth and Angus hills. Another stream, known as the Dean Water which flows—

It being Ten o'Clock the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

I was saying that the Dean Water is another stream which flows into the Isla, and although it does not provide another major disaster, it materially helps. There are then the River Ardle, the Shee Water and the Black Water also flowing into a river known as the Ericht which in turn again flows into the Isla, which receives the whole of the water from this hill area from all the streams, the burns and rivers flowing down that area. The effect is that for the last four miles or so there is no current in the Isla worth talking about. I think I am right in saying that in the last four miles the drop is something between two and three feet only. It then enters the Tay, which, as hon. Members know, is a swift flowing river—the finest river in Great Britain—at almost right angles, which is a most unusual thing. The fact that the fast flowing Tay passes this lesser river at right angles means that to all intents and purposes it entirely prevents the Isla from getting out at all.

The slower the Isla becomes, carrying with it an enormous amount of silt from the upper reaches of all these streams, the more it drops that silt, thereby forming islands which, in their turn, divert the current, and so affect the banks all the way along. As a result the water rises very rapidly in flooding times and cannot get away because, at the same time, the Tay is rising and is in greater strength than ever and thus holds back the Isla. It cannot get away quickly, and the result is that it overflows the natural banks and also the artificial banks which were put up by our far seeing forebears 100 years ago.

The increase in breakages of these banks have been something like sevenfold in recent years, which is a clear proof that the problem is one which has been increasing in severity as the years have gone by. It means that something like 4,000 to 5,000 acres of the finest farming land to be found in Scotland are constantly liable to flooding. That is a very serious state of affairs, as the House will realise. We have in this country, an ever-contracting area of farming land. Housing, aerodromes, roads, factories, camps and the irreplaceable devastation of opencast coalmining have more and more cut down the area of farming land in this country, which, in turn, as it is cut down, is coming to depend more and more on that very farming land.

The farmers in this area are of the best that can be found anywhere in the country. The majority of them are young, active, vigorous, and farseeing men. Many of them have taken over these farms from their fathers and grandfathers and have in the past produced as well as farmers in any area in Scotland. But these farms are rapidly going out of production, and that is a fact which cannot be gainsaid. I understand that when it comes to repairing breaks in the river banks these farmers are charged 50 per cent. of the cost, the State paying the other 50 per cent. That would be all right if it only occurred now and again, as in days gone by, but it is constantly recurring, and, quite frankly, these men cannot any longer afford to pay these large sums amounting to hundreds of pounds year after year. They just cannot do it. These are not ordinary farming hazards as we understand them. So often people are inclined to say, "That is just one of the hazards of farming," but that is not the case here because the farmers are not responsible for the flooding of these areas, which is due to the many drainage schemes and to the works which go on beyond their own areas. They cannot be held to be responsible, and they cannot afford the remedy.

The fact is that many of these farmers and their farm servants are about ready to get out and go. I cannot believe that the Minister or anybody interested in the food production of this country wishes that to happen, but when I mention that in 1948 one farmer well known to me lost from flooding alone over £3,000, that another farmer lost £2,000 and another £1,500 in loss of crops and stock, it gives the House some idea of what the problem is for these men who, in addition, are called upon to pay heavy sums to block up the breaks in the river banks. It is not a matter of large and wealthy landed proprietors, who are largely nonexistent in Scotland today. There are 53 owners affected in this area, the great majority of them being working farmers who own their own farms. The areas liable to flooding vary from 0.5 of an acre to 450 acres, according to the different farms. Crop, fat and store cattle production is being seriously and immediately threatened. Do we want increased food production or do we not? That is the question at the back of what I am saying tonight. I wish to emphasise again that these are not the ordinary hazards of farming which every farmer in Great Britain is always prepared to face and has done for generations.

There is a Committee presided over by Dr. Joseph Duncan, which is sitting at the moment inquiring into this very subject all over Scotland, and this Committee is proceeding very slowly indeed, as indeed it must almost inevitably do, because it is a very large problem and takes an immense amount of investigation and time. That we admit, but while this Committee is going on doing this job which it was set up to do, the farms and farmers are going, and that cannot be denied. There is only one solution, and that is to tackle the river Tay from its estuary, and the exit of the Isla into the Tay. Nothing else will do any good whatever. The folly of temporary schemes, one or two of which have already been put into operation, is obvious. Tens of thousands of pounds have been spent and I understand more is proposed to be spent, all of which is completely wasted unless the problem is tackled at its source; the real problem is the Tay and the outflow of the Isla into the Tay. These other schemes only make things worse, not better.

I have a great respect for the engineers because I know nothing whatever about engineering, but their idea is that the banks, when they were put up in the days of our forefathers, were put up by people who were what they called land greedy, and put too close to the river to be effective. That is utter nonsense. Those banks have held the River Isla satisfactorily for generations. It is only in recent years that the problem has become anything like serious, which proves satisfactorily to my mind that originally the banks were quite sufficient and that it is the river itself which is providing the new problem against which the banks are not now adequate.

I know one owner who built a farmhouse—an excellent farmhouse, with 100 acres of ground in this very area. It is now used as nothing but a byre since nobody can live in it because for a large part of the year it is surrounded by water. That shows the state of affairs today compared with what it used to be in days gone by, because no good Scots farmer would have built a house like that and set up his farm if it was going to be constantly subjected to flooding. I realise that the main job which must be tackled is going to cost a great deal of money. I understand that I am not allowed to suggest legislation on these occasions, and I am not proposing to do so.

But what I say is this: if the right hon. Gentleman or the Joint Under-Secretary of State tell the House tonight that it is not possible to go ahead with this until the Duncan Committee has finished its work, then I beg of them to do something to help these individual farmers to face this monetary cost which is recurring time and time again and which, quite frankly, they are not able to face. I realise that we may have to wait until the Duncan Committee has reported. I understand that it is dealing with this area and has, in fact, visited it, but these farmers and their men cannot wait. Some of these men cannot stay there for another season and it would be nothing short of a disaster if they had to leave because nothing was done for them and because they could not face this responsibility of rebuilding the river banks and paying 50 per cent. of the cost.

Cannot we give 100 per cent. to these men for this work as has been done in Berwickshire? These men have told me themselves how much they appreciate the tragedy of the floods in Berwickshire. They admit quite frankly that they were on a much bigger scale, but they say, "Here, as in Berwickshire, we shall have to go out of business unless we can be helped with a 100 per cent. grant until the main Committee has reported and something else is done." I know that the National Farmers Union of Scotland is in entire agreement with what I say. This problem cannot be put off much longer. I hope that when the right hon. Gentleman replies he will at least say that, while waiting for the Committee's report on the big thing to be tackled—and nothing else but the big thing will ever do—until that time he is prepared to consider, if these breaks occur again and such disasters come to these men again, that the Government will meet them with a 100 per cent. grant as they have done in the case of Berwickshire.

10.11 p.m.

I propose to take up little of the time of the House this evening, but I regard this matter as one of extreme importance. I think that perhaps the results of our hill drainage and other drainage schemes have been unexpected to some of us. In the first instance, when we started to plan our hill schemes to drain the actual hillside itself and then to carry on and drain the tributaries which lead the waters into the final stream which form a river, we did not really know what we were about. I think we have been caught out. The result has been unfortunate. I believe we tried to plan when, in fact, we had no plan at all, because we had not really thought about the problem.

It is an extremely difficult problem and it would be folly for anyone to try to provide the answer here tonight. But I should like to wish the best of good fortune and offer all those other wishes which I know the Secretary of State would like to convey, if he has not already done so, to the Duncan Committee. I am sure they will do a good job of work, but I hope they appreciate the magnitude and the importance of what they are after. I am perfectly certain that previously we did not really know what we were after. God made the hills in the shape of a sponge, and now we are trying to mop up the sponge, to dry it out, to squeeze the water out of it or to cut runnels so that the water is not absorbed by the sponge.

The result has been unfortunate. We all agree that it is a mistake, but I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that it was not easily perceived. We have been led into trouble, but I do not think it was an easy mistake to foresee. We ought to consider this matter of compensation seriously. I implore the Secretary of State to consider especially the question of compensation to the farmers who have suffered in the lower reaches of the river Isla. Having said that I will sit down, because I am eager to hear what the Secretary of State has to say. It is not a question of "shall we or shall we not compensate these people"; we have to compensate them, because it is our fault that they have suffered.

10.15 p.m.

I have no complaint against the hon. and gallant Member for Perth (Colonel Gomme-Duncan) for raising this matter on the Adjournment. Indeed, all of us are very sympathetic with the many farmers affected in this area, and we regard it as very appropriate that the two hon. and gallant Gentlemen who share an interest in that part of the country, should have a word to say about this problem on such an occasion as this. Let me say in regard to the point made by the hon. and gallant Member for Forfar (Major Ramsay) that the technicians do not agree among themselves whether hill draining has had an adverse effect or not. In the circumstances it would be quite wrong of me to express an opinion one way or the other now, and so I shall pass on to one or two points raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Perth.

He implored the Secretary of State to treat this area in Perthshire as generously as he did the country in the south-east of Scotland that was subject to very serious flooding in the autumn of 1948. I would ask the hon. and gallant Gentleman to appreciate that there really is a great difference between this area and that part of the south-east of Scotland that was flooded in the autumn of 1948. There, the floods came quickly. It was something of a catastrophe that befell the farmers and landowners in that part of the country. They could not possibly have opened up the old river beds and cleared the debris at their own expense. The State had to step in, in that case, and clear the river beds, clear the debris from the low-lying lands over a very wide area, at a cost that it is estimated will amount to £325,000.

That is the cost of the work which is being done by the Department of Agriculture in clearing the river beds and in clearing the debris from the low-lying lands. In the south-east of Scotland they suffered more damage from recent floods, and the cost of the works necessitated in making good the damage done by that flooding has been assisted at the rate of 50 per cent., as is the case with the work along the River Isla. Indeed it is not an ungenerous offer that is made by the Government to the landowners and farmers, to put their land into such condition that they can earn an income from it and be enabled to carry out their husbandry.

The Department of Agriculture has made many attempts since the passing of the Land Drainage (Scotland) Act, 1930, to get landowners and farmers in the area under discussion to agree to a comprehensive scheme. The Department took exactly the same view as that expressed by the hon. and gallant Member for Perth, that it is hardly sufficient to deal with this flooding merely by patching up here and there, deepening a channel here and there, but that it ought to be treated as one major scheme. We have not had enough major schemes since 1930. In the early 'thirties we had the very big Kelvin Valley scheme carried through under the 1930 Act. There were a large number of holders who participated in carrying through the scheme, with the co-operation of the Department of Agriculture, and they contributed 50 per cent. of the cost. Quite recently the Department has made positive proposals to the proprietors in this area for a comprehensive scheme. They have offered the normal grant of 50 per cent. towards the cost of the scheme, but the owners again have turned down several—

The hon. and gallant Gentleman says "They cannot afford it," and he said that he knew farmers who were spending hundreds of pounds year after year in patching up, but I am told that in all £4,000 has been spent on Isla flooding of which £2,000 since 1930 was contributed by the State, so that the owners in all have contributed £2,000. The hon. and gallant Gentleman has told us that he knows of one farmer who lost crops valued at £3,000 last year alone. He told us that, after he had told us of the farsightedness of these farmers in this area. I do not want to be too critical of them because we all feel much sympathy with them, but if it is a fact that one farmer alone lost £3,000 of valuable foodstuffs last year, and that the 53 farmers of whom he has told us have only in all, over all the years, spent £2,000 in freeing this land of flooding, then one must make the deduction that they have not been so farsighted as the hon. and gallant Gentleman asks us to believe.

I am suggesting to the hon. Gentleman that we do not know who is to blame as yet. We do not really know the true facts of the flooding causes and, therefore, I am asking him whether he will not leave this matter over until we do know. It would not surprise me to learn in time to come, that it was not the fault of anybody but ourselves.

The problem which has to be tackled by the proprietors and the Government is to deal with the flooding and to make an outlet for the water so that it may flow freely to the sea. That is the job which wants to be done. For the last 20 years, the proprietors and the Department have known, broadly, what is required to be done, but no doubt they would take the advice of the best technical men available to them—

I do not think that we shall get very far if I seek to argue whether a 50 per cent. grant is adequate or not. The hon. and gallant Gentleman says "We do not know." That is the grant that we have been offering, and the grant which has been taken up in many parts of the country with very great advantage to the proprietors who have had the farsightedness to take advantage of it. I cannot see why it should not be at least highly probable, that it would be of advantage to farmers in this area, particularly in view of the very great losses to which the hon. and gallant Gentleman has called our attention. I am rather surprised that after he said that he was not an engineer and knew nothing about engineering, but had a great respect for engineers, he went on to say that they had given certain information about what caused this damage and then said that that was utter nonsense.

It is not an engineering problem, but a matter of common sense. The hon. Gentleman can see it for himself.

The hon. and gallant Member said that he would not quarrel with what the engineers said, but he then went on to say that it was utter nonsense, which seems an odd way of expressing respect for them. He says that although this Committee may do very useful work we cannot wait for the report. As I have just said, the Secretary of State has not said that this area must await the report. The Department of Agriculture have made an offer, not only of a 50 per cent. grant, but also to provide the machines and supervise the work: indeed to do the job.

It is impossible for these farmers to do the job in the locality, because it is much further down where they have no say at all. It is a huge scheme.

If these farmers are young, far-sighted men, why cannot they all get together? They are going to get some benefit out of this.

All of those affected by the flooding will get some benefit out of the problem being successfully tackled.

I do not know what the hon. and gallant Member wants. If he wants anything at all, it is for the Government to go in and spend whatever money is necessary on the work. That will result in something like 4,800 acres of land being freed from flooding at the taxpayers' expense to enable the farmers to have the fullest opportunity to cultivate the land, saving them many thousands of pounds per year.

And for valuable food for the nation. It is because of food production that we are willing to contribute 50 per cent. of the cost of the work. Surely the farmers and the landlords who are to get advantage from all this should make some contribution towards the cost.

My right hon. Friend appreciates his responsibility to give any assistance he can towards getting maximum production of food from this territory, but those who are to benefit most of all from this land being cleared of water, are the farmers. The farmers must, in any circumstances, be asked to make some contribution. Whether the Duncan Committee report in favour of a grant in excess of 50 per cent. I cannot say, but in any case at the present moment we have made that offer to the proprietors, which they have rejected on the grounds of the high cost of the work and because, I think, they hope that when the Committee report, they will report in favour of a higher grant.

We should like to see this area tackled, and there are also other areas we should like to see tackled. It is because we are so conscious of the problem that we appointed the Duncan Committee. If the proprietors are not able to take advantage of the not ungenerous offer available to them at the present moment, there is nothing more we can do but await the report of the committee, and if legislation is necessary, following consideration of the report, it may very well be a considerable time before the proprietors can be assisted to carry through this scheme. In all the circumstances, I ask the hon. and gallant Member to consult his con- stituents to see if they will not take advantage of this generous offer.

I would point out that the modified scheme the hon. Member talks about is no good. It is a big scheme that has to be done, and that is why they disapprove; not because of the cost.

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Ten o'Clock.