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Land Drainage Rates

Volume 485: debated on Wednesday 14 March 1951

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1.11 a.m.

It is a little difficult to pass to a comparatively parochial question after the arguments that have been put forward today. On 8th March I asked the Minister of Agriculture if he was aware of the unfair incidence of rates levied under the Land Drainage Act, 1930, and if he would introduce new legislation. I would, of course, be quite wrong to discuss the second part of that, but the Minister, in his reply, did say to me that I did not say in what respect I considered the rates levied under the Land Drainage Act fell unfairly and, without discussing legislation, I would like to take this rather curtailed opportunity of giving one example in which these rates are unfair.

I would stress, first of all, that I want to deal only with that class of drainage that is covered by independent drainage districts and not, in fact, by catchment boards or, as they are now generally termed, the drainage functions of river boards. My example, as I have told the Minister, is the Fairham Brook Independent Drainage District, set up in 1937 under the Land Drainage Act, 1930. Before I make my point I should describe the Fairham Brook district. It covers about 10 miles of a small tributary of the River Trent and it lies in a basin with low hills surrounding it. The total fall, from one end of the drainage district to the other, is only from 125 feet, at one end, to 80 feet above sea level where the brook joins the River Trent. Altogether it is a very small affair.

The rate producing element of this drainage district is first the village of Bunny, all of which pays the rate except for one fairly large house and some park land. The second element is of course farm land throughout the district, exclusive of five or six farmhouses on the southern boundary of the district. The third element is some 300 houses in the village of Ruddington, part of, what I would describe as, a very large village. It is these 300 houses that form the subject of my complaint tonight.

The village stands beside the brook, which is here 98 feet above sea level, and the village at its highest point is only 130 feet, so the House will see that it is flat and rather featureless country. The boundary of the drainage district runs at that point, roughly, along the 100-ft. contour, presumably in accordance with what is known as the Medway Letter; and that contour does rather conveniently exclude all the old village of Ruddington and even a spur of the 100-ft. contour, which runs out to within 40 or 50 yards of that brook. North of the village, this 100-ft. contour runs up parallel with the brook and some distance from it, through a housing estate of 300 houses called the Maltby estate, and those houses are included wholly within the drainage district.

I need not say that the occupants of those houses view the payment of drainage rates with great disfavour. They cannot see why they should pay when nobody else pays, and the subject comes up at every meeting I hold in that village, so that I shall be heartily glad to see the matter settled. I am given to understand that my predecessor in that constituency gave the advice to one or two of these people that they should not pay the rate. That is not a very good suggestion, and I seek tonight to find a better answer.

Last November there came the usual periodic batch of summons for those who would not pay this rate, and I would like to quote one or two extracts from the local paper in regard to them.
"Many of the 17 people in court, summoned for non-payment over periods from one to five years, maintained that they did not know the rate existed.
Some said the rate was unfair and they they could see nothing for their money.
A railway worker said he had to walk home through two feet of water when it rained. 'I do not think the rate is justified,' he said."
These extracts go on for about half a column of this local paper. At the end of this account the chairman of the magistrates is reported to have said that the bench thought it a great mistake that the rate should be allowed to run on for five years.

I cannot believe it is necessary that these arrears of rates should be left outstanding for so long, and thus create so much confusion in the householders' minds. This is the important thing. An official of the board told the paper after the court cases that the rate at Rudding-ton, in these 300 houses presumably, averaged 5d. a week, which is 21s. 0d. a year. They are small houses of no great value. There are some 15 houses to the acre, and therefore, if we look at it on an acreage basis—which used to be the basis of a drainage rate—it amounts to something like £15 to £16 an acre, which is most extraordinarily high.

Nor do householders get particularly good value for money. I can state, on my own experience, that the drainage in this area is extremely poor indeed, and they get very little benefit. In fact, they neither receive benefit nor avoid danger, for the danger of flooding is thrust upon them. The high figure of the rate sticks in their minds as a real injustice, in that it contrasts with the fact that the rest of the village pays nothing. What remedies are there? According to Section 18 of the Act, these people can petition if they can number one tenth of the owners of land. In fact, they could not number one tenth, and in any case they are not the sort of people who can go to the expense of a petition. Therefore, I have to represent their case for them.

I want to put this to the Parliamentary Secretary If I read the Land Drainage Act, Section 18 (1) aright, the Minister has the power, without petition, after due inquiry, to amend the boundaries of any drainage district. That is what I am asking for tonight. Supposing I were successful in my appeal, it would result in a loss of income for the drainage district and it would be a problem how the income would be replaced.

Without going into the detail of the argument about who should pay for drainage, lowlands or uplands, it is quite obvious to anyone who interests himself in this subject that all these matters are going to be very fully discussed in the report that is to be published—the report of the Central Advisory Committee, and that, therefore, if as a result of any action I ask for tonight, there should be any loss of revenue to the drainage district, quite obviously it would eventually adjust itself when legislation is put in hand following the report.

Before I sought the glare of publicity on this particular case I asked the National Association of Parish Councils for their views. I was told that this was by no means an isolated instance, and that they would welcome publicity to this case and to the fact that there were many others. They added the point, and it applies to this village, that this type of small householder does not get representation on the internal drainage districts because they do not own 10 acres or occupy 20 acres, or are neither the owners nor occupiers of land within the district which has an annual value of at least £30. They are in a rather poor way as far as representation is concerned.

I know, by reading the reports of the Land Drainage Act and the River Boards Act, that the Minister is an expert, and probably can shoot down very rapidly any arguments of mine. I have had to put them forward rather briefly because my time has been cut short. I ask, first of all, that the case of these 300 householders, who, I believe, are having to pay an unjust rate, shall be dealt with by the Minister under his powers under Section 18 of the Act by an adjustment of the boundaries of the district "Secondly, on the general problem. I ask that in the discussion which will arise from the report that this particular problem of the unfairness of rating due to the boundaries, will not be overlooked.

1.23 a.m.

I am glad to have an opportunity of speaking on this matter. The first Question I handed into the Table following my election in 1945, dealt with this very point. On this occasion I wish to take a different line from that taken by the hon. Member for Rush-cliffe (Mr. Redmayne). The Heneage Committee, which was set up to deal with this matter, have taken far too long, and we are still awaiting their report. The constituency I represented in the last Parliament was the City of Lincoln, and I now represent the county constituency of Newark. Both in the Witham area and the Trent area many people are suffering from the delay in presenting this report.

The drainage boards base their rates on Schedule "A" and these assessments vary considerably. In addition to the difference in the assessments, as a result of the Medway report which was accepted in a court of law, certain standards were set with the result that those people who were subject to flooding have to pay a higher drainage rate. I want the Parliamentary Secretary to give an assurance that the moment he receives the Heneage report some effort will be made to assist those people who are suffering under existing legislation.

1.25 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture
(Mr. George Brown)

The bulk of the case we are considering tonight, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Deer) has said, really turns upon the future of land drainage legislation, and much of what has been discussed would involve new legislation. I would be out of order in dealing with it, but perhaps I might have your indulgence, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to say to my hon. Friend that we have had the Heneage report and expect to be able to publish it within the next month or two. When that report is published, it can be discussed, and many of the questions about the incidence of the rates will fall to be discussed in the light of that report. Until then, there is little more I can do, and I certainly cannot discuss tonight the changes in the law that we might make.

To answer some of the questions put by the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Redmayne), it is admitted that the 300 houses at Ruddington were built, as far as I can gather, in a place where they should not have been built, on land liable to flooding. The householders who live there have to put up with considerable inconvenience, to say the least of it. One is sorry that should be so. The justification for their paying a drainage rate is that when the houses were erected the owners and occupiers approached the drainage board about drainage works in that area, particularly in relation to Pat-man's Dyke, a tributary of Fairham Brook. The point was made that if works were done there would be an improvement. Considerable work was done by the drainage authority to widen that dyke and improve its capacity for taking away water. I am told it was a costly scheme to the board and that the maintenance of the works done is also a matter of considerable cost.

The 1930 Act clearly lays down the formula under which people pay. It was put into practical effect by what has been called the Medway Letter. Clearly, occupiers and owners were receiving benefit or were being saved from danger as a result of the works that have been done. Therefore, there can be no doubt that under the existing Act they are being properly asked to pay a drainage rate towards the cost of maintaining and, in the case of the owners, towards the cost of doing the costly work that was carried out there. I am sure the hon. Gentleman did not mean to imply it, but I would like to make it clear that wherever blame appears to rest, it is not upon the drainage authorities, who have done their utmost to help with a situation that was not of their making and, of course, not of the making of the people who bought the houses or went to live in them.

As to why some in the village pay and others do not, I can well see the problem that would arise. It is a matter both of the formula and of the definition in the Act. I have not the Act with me, but my information is somewhat different from that of the hon. Gentleman. I will look it up in the morning but, as I understand it, the initiative does not lie with the Minister. The Minister has to act in a judicial capacity under the scheme either to define an area in the first place or to make alterations to it. The scheme has to be put up. The initiative rests with the river or catchment board concerned. The scheme has to go through various groups for consideration and objection. The Minister has to pronounce upon it in the event of their being objections, and therefore has to reserve a quasi-judicial capacity. If the objections are not withdrawn. then it is subject to Parliamentary procedure in this House. I am told that if it is felt that this area ought to be redefined, the initiative must clearly come from the river board. So it is to them that the views expressed should be addressed, and no doubt they will take note of what has been said in this House.

On the question of householders' representation, here, again, my information is that the hon. Gentleman is unduly narrowly reading the term "land" in the Act. Those occupiers of houses of an annual value of more than £30, by Schedule A value, would be eligible for election as members of the board. I am told that of the existing board, the chairman, who has recently died, was a resident of Ruddington, and one other member, who is still happily alive, is also a resident of the village. Since the board covers six parishes, I cannot but think that they are well represented in having two out of seven members of the board from the one parish. Of course, if they feel they should have a greater representation, the remedy lies in their own hands. The register of electors is being reviewed next month, and residents ought to make sure they are on the register. Elections will take place next September, when they will be entitled to nominate Members for election to the board.

I have no time to spend on the general history of this question, as I should like to do. I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept it from me that we are sympathetic and understand the problem. But there is little we can do about it. If redefinition is the point, then the initiative lies with the river board. If the incidence of rating is the point, the initiative is with us in the end, but nothing can be done until we have considered the Heneage report. If it is a question of representation on the board, then it is for the residents themselves to take action to get better representation. As for the general problem, that is the responsibility of none of those who are involved now.

The hon. Member claimed that we had not prosecuted frequently enough. He said he could not understand why we have left it for five years without prosecution. If that represents the views of the residents, I can see that these views are conveyed to the authority who has to deal with the matter. Excusing the flippancy, there is nothing very much any of us can do. I think that for the drainage rate they are paying, householders are getting the benefit of some costly works done there and being maintained there. The best we can say is that the situation would be a great deal worse if these works had never been done.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock on Wednesday evening 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 Twenty-seven Minutes to Two o'Clock.