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Clause 28—(Restriction On Erection Of Structures In, Over Or Under Watercourses)

Volume 640: debated on Tuesday 9 May 1961

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11.15 p.m.

I beg to move, in page 19, line 9, at the end to insert:

(8) Nothing in subsection (1) of this section or in subsection (4) of section sixty-one of the Act of 1930 (which contains certain savings) shall be taken to exclude the application of this section to any work executed by persons carrying on an undertaking to which that section applies.
These words are added to Clause 28 to make it clear beyond doubt that certain statutory undertakings are in fact bound by the restrictions in the Clause, unlike the provision in the 1930 Act. It was felt that when we were dealing with restrictions on the erection of structures in, or or under watercourses, it should be the river boards and not any other authority which should have the final say.

I rise only to protest against the wording of this subsection. As I have said many times, I do not like legislation by reference. Subsection (1) of the Clause says:

"The following provisions of this section shall have effect in substitution for section sixty-four of the Act of 1930."
and from reading Section 61 (4) we would not easily draw the conclusion that the Parliamentary Secretary had explained the effect of the provision to us. However, I am obliged for that explanation and, as we are endeavouring to expedite our consideration of the Bill, having made my protest, I am content to leave it there.

Amendment agreed to.

I beg to move, in page 19, line 9, at the end to insert:

(9) For the purposes of this section "watercourse" includes land which although not part of the normal channel is required for the passage of water when the watercourse is in flood.
The Amendment raises a matter which was discussed in Standing Committee, and I am obliged to the hon. Member for Guildford (Sir R. Nugent) for powerfully adducing arguments then in favour of the present Amendment.

One can easily call to mind plenty of instances where there has been building in a flooded part or flood plain which has made more difficult the work of the drainage authorities. I can see the difficulties which might be caused by an Amendment such as this, but the right hon. Gentleman will concede that, whatever the difficulties, there is a practical argument for some provision such as this being made. As the right hon. Gentleman has had an opportunity to consider the difficulty, having been given notice by his hon. Friend the Member for Guildford, I hope that the Government will accept the Amendment.

There is only one matter arising from the Amendment which can possibly cause some concern. In the Fen country we have long stretches of land running between man-made rivers which are known locally as wash lands and which, at times of flood, are used as a means for getting the extra water away as it comes down, water which does not get away as quickly as with normal watercourses because there is virtually no fall in the land.

Instead of allowing the spate to develop, what happens is that the two parallel rivers are allowed to overflow and cover this wash land. I want to make sure that the possible effect of the Amendment on that type of land has been considered. It is important not to upset the satisfactory arrangements which have been followed for many years for that type of wash land, and I hope that my hon. Friend will give me an assurance on this point.

I support the point of view put forward by the hon Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke). The situation in the flat areas of South Yorkshire is similar to that in the Fens. We experience the same difficulties. When this matter was discussed in Committee upstairs, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary referred to it with a certain amount of sympathy. He realised that considerable difficulties might arise if there were floods, and he undertook to give further consideration to this point. I hope that further consideration has been given to this matter, and that my hon. Friend's Amendment has been seriously considered by him and by his right hon. Friend.

People on flat lands such as those found in the constituency of the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely and in my constituency experience great difficulty in times of flood, and it would be of great assistance to them if some such Amendment as this could be accepted so that floods could be legally recognised by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

The Department has had a lot of time to think about this problem. We have had considerable experience of floods of this nature. It would be a great relief to the people of South Yorkshire as well as to the people in the Fen country if this proposal were accepted.

My hon. Friend was good enough to give me an undertaking that he would consider this matter between the Committee stage and Report. As the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) said, there is an important point here.

We have had lengthy discussions about this, and I acknowledge that my hon. Friend has done his best to find a solution. The problem is fraught with considerable difficulties. First, there is the necessity to define these areas. At the moment they are not defined. No doubt the river boards could define them. They know where the rivers run to in times of floods and where the land should not be built on if the structures built there are not to be flooded. But at the moment these flood lands are in the main not defined, and therefore the Amendment as now tabled would not work.

This was one of the matters we considered. As my hon. Friend knows, the problem is the meeting point between planning considerations and land drainage considerations. Local authorities have had a circular from the Minister of Housing and Local Government advising them not to build in these flood plains without consulting the river board concerned. The result is that some do, and some do not. In the Thames valley especially, one finds thousands of houses which have been built in the flood plain. When these houses get flooded in times of flood, people complain, first about the Government, and secondly about the river board. It is extremely difficult for river boards to do anything about this because local authorities have built in the flood lands where they ought not to have built. These lands are the watercourse of the river when it is in flood just as much as the normal course is when the river is flowing normally. We have to find a better solution than the present one.

One of the results of this Bill is a general expectation that river boards will do something more to prevent flooding and, therefore, we must put the boards in the position where local authorities intending to make a development in a flood plain will be under a statutory obligation to consult the river board to find out where the floods go before making the development. At present, all too often the local authorities go merrily on with their building without even asking where the floods go. The result is discomfort and damage where the building has been carried out and worse flooding in lower areas because of the presence of the buildings higher up the course of the river.

I put it urgently to my right hon. Friend that we have not completed this discussion and that we should like a chance to raise the matter in another place. Perhaps in the meantime it might be possible to work out effective machinery which would oblige local authorities to consult river boards in this matter. The present permissive arrangement is not sufficient. I am sure that it would not be right to expect that the Amendment as drafted should be accepted, but I hope that my hon. Friend will give the House a reassuring statement that there is a prospect of a solution to this difficult matter.

I appreciate that this is a problem of concern to river boards and it may well be one which, with increasing building, has become acute. My right hon. Friend and I have given consideration to this problem since it was discussed during the Committee stage proceedings. I have had talks with my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sir R. Nugent) and representatives of the River Boards Association in an endeavour to find a practical solution.

The suggestion in the Amendment that we should change the meaning of the word "watercourse" is a big proposal and would not be an easy one to carry out, least of all in the flood areas. It is not intended that all land which is ever flooded should be deemed to be a watercourse, but only such parts as are near the normal stream and which are indistinguishable from it in times of flood. It would be extremely difficult to decide the boundary of such a proposal and what part of an area which was normally flooded should rank as a watercourse. I do not think that it would be practicable.

This problem is one of planning rather than of land drainage. As we agreed earlier, planning must mean working arrangements, the understanding of a whole variety of interested parties and the taking into account of many technical factors, if it is to be effective. The ultimate responsibility must lie with the planners. There is a factor outside the normal planning control. It is possible to build banks and other agricultural works which are not subject to planning control. They could be covered by the byelaws of the river boards, but that is another problem which would have to be considered in seeking a solution.

11.30 p.m.

Recently I met representatives of the drainage authorities and we discussed ways of improving the present arrangements. We thought the best solution would be first to try to improve those arrangements and that we would have a meeting called by my right hon. Friend and the Minister of Housing and Local Government to meet the drainage authorities and overhaul the procedure whereby local authorities have a close liaison with the river boards. They know exactly what is in the minds of the river boards and which areas are vital to them.

If we had this close consultation, there is no reason to suppose that planning permission would be given in areas where river boards, with their technical knowledge and responsibility, felt strongly that it should not happen. We would repeat the joint circular over the signatures of the two Ministers and give that a chance to work. If it did not, we would consider later on a possible amendment to a general development order, for it is there that we should insert a provision if it is necessary for us to take any formal steps; and that would be the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government. We think that is the way in which the problem should be tackled. It certainly would not greatly help us to add the proposed words.

There must be this constant liaison and understanding between the authorities concerned. If it failed, and we do not think it would, we would then take steps which I have mentioned.

In view of what the Parliamentary Secretary has said, I think it right and proper that I should beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.