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Sheffield Area (Storm Damage)

Volume 654: debated on Monday 19 February 1962

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asked the Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs whether he will make a statement on the storm damage in Sheffield and surrounding areas.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs
(Dr. Charles Hill)

Yes, Sir. First, may I extend the Government's sympathy, indeed that of the whole House, to the people of Sheffield and other towns which have suffered such damage and injury from the recent gales.

I have seen for myself the damage in Sheffield, as have other hon. Members. It is very great. According to statistics provided by the city's council, about 2,500 houses are uninhabitable, and many thousands more have been damaged, some severely.

I have not yet got a complete picture about other towns. I am awaiting a report from one of my officers now in the area.

One thing is evident. Voluntary services—Civil Defence, W.V.S., Territorials, auxiliary firemen, Scouts and Guides included—have worked superbly in support of the hard-pressed official services.

Every local authority whose area has suffered damage should proceed at once to organise repair work, to private houses as well as to its own, to the extent that it judges this necessary to get the work done quickly. This has already been said to the Town Clerk of Sheffield and I am glad to have this opportunity of conveying it to the authority of every area which has suffered damage.

The Sheffield City Council will be meeting representatives of the local builders this afternoon in order to settle how best to tackle what needs to be done. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Works has made the services of his Department available to help in any way they can with the supply of building materials and equipment in the areas affected.

As regards finance, it is, of course, impossible at this stage to estimate what the cost of repairs and replacement will be, or the extent to which this is covered by insurance. Local authorities should be prepared to meet any costs immediately needed to carry out emergency work quickly. If, in the result, after due account is taken of insurance and other factors, an undue burden falls on the rates, the Government will, of course, consider what assistance from the Exchequer should be made available, as has been done in the past after similar emergencies.

I feel that all hon. Members who have seen the destruction in Sheffield will have appreciated the Minister's tribute to the voluntary services—Civil Defence and many others, including the police, whom the right hon. Gentleman did not mention—for the magnificent job that they have done.

I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman, in regard to the suggestion about mobilising available materials, whether he is aware that there is a very serious problem about slates? Many more tiles are required, but tiles may be obtainable. I understand that there is an ample supply of slates in Wales and other parts of the country, but there is very serious delay in delivery. Could the right hon. Gentleman approach the Minister of Transport to ascertain whether a special train could be arranged to bring the slates from Wales, as the immediate problem is to prevent further devastation in the event of heavy rain going through the roofs of the damaged houses?

I am glad to see that the Minister is prepared to consider assisting local authorities with the enormous burden of repairs and rehousing which will be entailed. However, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will also consider, in conjunction with his colleagues in the Government, the question of providing some funds, as was done in the case of the Lynmouth disaster and the East Coast disaster, to relieve individual hardship upon hundreds of people who—it is probably through their own fault, but none the less they are having to pay the price now—are left without any worldly goods whatever? The Lord Mayor of Sheffield has set up a fund, but I hope that the Government will be prepared to subscribe to this purpose in so far as may be necessary.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the immediate need is roofing felt, tiles and slates, and it is that aspect of the problem that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works is urgently dealing with now. I agree absolutely with what the hon. Gentleman said about the need for transport, as well as for the slates which are so urgently needed—really urgently needed—for so many houses.

The Lord Mayor Sheffield has opened a fund. If that fund proves inadequate—and it is a national fund for helping those whose furniture and chattels have been damaged or destroyed—the Government will consider what help should be given to it.

Having regard to the fact that Sheffield had a substantial housing problem before this disaster, would the right hon. Gentleman, in addition to considering the immediate needs of repair and financial provision, try to get some additional building labour and building firms into the area?

That is one of the questions which are being discussed at the meeting this afternoon. There is, of course, the labour force employed by the Sheffield City Council, about 1,500 strong and there are some large contractors engaged on work in the town. Precisely the sort of question which has been raised is being considered this afternoon.

I should like to associate my hon. Friends and myself with what the Minister has said about the sympathy of the House to everybody who has been affected by this rather unusual and very far-reaching tragedy.

With regard to what the right hon. Gentleman has had to say about financial help, if the local authorities organise assistance in the way of materials and labour on an emergency basis, the costs will rise, and for smaller authorities, such as the Belper Urban District Council and the Repton Rural District Council, this will be a very considerable and difficult matter. May I press him to be more precise about what the Government will do in that case? Will they take over for Sheffield or any of the smaller authorities the ultimate costs which it would obviously be unreasonable to expect the authority to bear?

What local authorities are asked to do about the immediate very urgent problem is to get on with what needs to be done. Thereafter, when it is known to what degree there is insurance cover—in the case of local authorities some are covered and some are not, some have an insurance fund and some not; in the case of private owners some, no doubt, will be uninsured, although most will be insured—and when the account is sorted out, the Government will discuss with the authorities concerned on the basis on which I have replied to the hon. Gentleman.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Barnsley survey has just been completed, and that, although the town has not been as badly hit as Sheffield, it has certainly suffered fairly substantial damage? Twenty-four families were rendered homeless, but Barnsley got on with the job and 15 families have been satisfactorily re-housed. Seventy per cent. of the local authority houses, or 4,500 houses, were damaged in some way.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there are two immediate needs? First, there must be a rapid flow of slates and tiles into the area. Secondly, local authorities like Sheffield and Barnsley are certainly in need of some financial assistance, and we hope that the Government, rather than considering the matter at a later stage, will be prepared now, far more quickly than hitherto, to give us some financial assistance.

The first task, I agree, is to get the men and the materials on the job of re-roofing the vast number of houses—outside Sheffield as well as inside—which have been damaged, and to carry the cost that is involved. Just as soon as it is possible to sort out what the burden on the authorities has been, I shall be glad to discuss with them what aid can be given to them. Insurance plays so large a part in this matter, a larger part than in the case of floods, that it is difficult at the outset to judge what financial aid will be needed. But I am saying, in effect, "Get on with the job, and the Government will help fairly and sympathetically as soon as the size of the burden on the individual local authority is known."

Will the right hon. Gentleman particularly consider the question of the labour needed for the repairs, which may prove to be the most difficult of all? Is this not one in which the Ministry of Works could perhaps help, as with other aspects of the problem? Secondly, why would it not be possible to make an immediate Government contribution to the Lord Mayor's Fund? Ought we not, in this connection, to look again at the proposal, made at the time of the floods, for the establishment of a national disaster fund?

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about the need for labour, and particularly for labour skilled in roofing work. That is of the first priority, and my noble Friend the Minister of Works is looking into that as well as into the question of materials.

On the question of an immediate Government contribution, I have said plainly to the House today that we are saying to the local authorities, "Get on with the job and we will sort out the loss that falls upon you when we see the size of it." I hope, quite frankly, that many people will give generously to such funds as the Lord Mayor's fund, just as so many have given so generously of their services. I have said that, if these funds fall short of what is needed, the Government will consider what contribution should be made nationally.

While agreeing with the Minister that the urgent need is to get the damage, wherever it has occurred, repaired, will he remember the old saying, "He gives twice who gives quickly?"

In previous disasters there has been a long delay before local authorities have known of the assistance they are to get, and this has held up work. There are anomalies in the insurance position, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will look again at the question of having a general national fund to meet the ultimate costs of this sort of disaster.

It would be hardly useful at this juncture, where urgent work needs doing, to raise the question of a national distress fund, on which there may be views. But I hope that what I have said will convince the local authorities concerned that they are authorised to proceed with all necessary work with all possible speed, and that when the cost is seen, with the set-offs which must be put against it, the Government will consider what they can do fairly and properly to assist them.