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Flooding In Wales

Volume 489: debated on Wednesday 21 October 1987

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4.53 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement about the flooding situation in Wales which is now being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales.

"Exceptionally high rainfall over last weekend resulted in extensive flooding over a large part of South West Wales and localised flooding in North Wales. Several hundred properties were seriously affected. Further minor flooding has occurred overnight in North Wales. There has been widespread flooding of agricultural land but livestock losses have been minor as flood warnings were given in sufficient time for stock to be moved to higher ground. Communications were disrupted but all trunk roads throughout the Principality are now open. A number of county roads remain closed. Electricity and water supplies were disrupted but are being restored as quickly as possible.

"Members will be aware of the tragic train accident in which four people died. The preliminary indications are that the foundations of the bridge were undermined by floodwater. British Rail is conducting its own inquiry and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport has ordered an inquiry under the Regulation of Railways Act. I should like to pay tribute to the work of all those involved in local authorities, the police, the fire service, the water authority and other organisations.

"The Government have already made it clear that local authorities, which bear the prime responsibility for dealing with the situation, will be assisted with the extra costs they incur. All their extra expenditure above a threshold defined as 0.4 per cent. of grant-related expenditure will attract special financial assistance at a rate of 75 per cent. in accordance with the Bellwin scheme, which was drawn up in 1983 in consultation with the local authority associations, including those representing Welsh local authorities. Extra expenditure above the threshold will be excluded from calculations of authorities' total expenditure to ensure that they do not suffer a loss of grant as a result of the unforeseeable extra costs with which they are now faced.

"I am sure that the House will wish to express its sympathy to the relatives of those who have been tragically killed as a result of this flooding and to all those whose homes have suffered".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, we are very grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement and we welcome him as the spokesman on Welsh affairs in this House. We send our deep sympathies to the families of those who died in the tragic railway accident and to all those who have suffered as a result of the appalling floods which the Statement has described.

We note that there will be two inquiries into the accident which occurred when the bridge collapsed at Glanrhyd and we assume that the result of the inquiries will be published in due course. Can the noble Lord say whether the inquiry under the Regulation of Railways Act will be a public inquiry? We on this side warmly support the tributes which have been paid in the Statement to all the services helping in the disaster.

As to financial aid, will the assistance to Welsh authorities be on the same lines as the assistance provided to English authorities and described in the Statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead? If the assistance is not to be on the same lines, will the Minister agree that the 1980 rules could still leave Welsh authorities with a heavy burden which will fall on the ratepayers? I ask that question because the wording in the first Statement differs from that of the present Statement.

I note what the noble Lord has said concerning agriculture. It is good to know that stock losses were not great. However, I wonder whether he can distinguish between beef and sheep in that matter. He is aware that Welsh sheep farmers have suffered substantially in recent months because of the Chernobyl disaster and that today there are far greater numbers than there normally would be at this time of year. They have also been moved recently from the highlands to the lowlands, where they can be seen by anyone travelling through North Wales, as I did yesterday. Has it been possible to take the sheep from the flooded areas, since otherwise that would compound the losses which sheep farmers are suffering at the present time?

We are glad to note that the Secretary of State for Wales toured the flooded areas yesterday and saw the extent of the damage for himself. Can the noble Lord say whether Mr. Peter Walker proposes any specific action following his personal inspection?

Perhaps I may return briefly to structural damage. I believe that bridges over Welsh rivers which are susceptible to flooding should be examined by engineers as a matter of urgency. I know that there are many of them but I should be glad if the noble Lord says that he agrees with me on this matter. I know that his family comes from the area in South-West Wales which has been severely affected.

Finally, does the noble Lord agree that we urgently need not only emergency rules but an emergency organisation co-ordinating local authorities—water, electricity and transport authorities—with government departments which can more quickly and efficiently deal with such recurring disasters?

My Lords, from these Benches I join with the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, in his expression of sympathy to the families of those who lost their lives and suffered from the damage caused by this terrible flooding. I should also like to adopt the questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn. I shall not repeat them but I should like to ask the noble Lord one additional question.

It is obvious that there was an extraordinary emergency in Dyfed, where five inches of rain fell in one area within 48 hours. It fell upon land which was already saturated because of previous heavy rains. An agreement was made with the local authorities in 1983 that they should bear the first 25 per cent. of the cost of emergency damage. The emergency envisaged then cannot have been anything like the scale of this emergency. Therefore, is there not a very good case, particularly following the inspection of the area by the Secretary of State yesterday, for declaring some areas of Wales as being in need of extraordinary help? The greatest sympathy and understanding is needed for the enormous loss and damage suffered in that particular area of Wales on this occasion.

5 p.m.

My Lords, if my noble friend will allow me, I should like to reply to the two noble Lords who have so far spoken. I say at the outset that it is the intention that the assistance provided to local authorities in this circumstance should be identical to that provided to local authorities in England following the storms at the end of last week. The reason why the formula sounds as though it is a little different is that the threshold is apparently calculated differently in Wales. The result is that it has to be expressed in slightly different terms. The intention certainly is there and the help should be exactly as it is provided to English authorities following the storms of last week.

It is anticipated that prudent local authorities always keep a small sum by for unexpected emergencies as indeed they have. That is why both my right honourable friends think it appropriate that the first small part of their expenditure should be covered without recourse to the grant arrangements which were set in place following the heavy snows (I think it was in 1983), when my noble friend Lord Bellwin established his now famous scheme for these purposes.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked me whether the inquiry would be a public inquiry. I think that has not yet been finally decided but I am sure that the report will be published. I believe that there are varying practices in the course of inquiries under the Regulation of Railways Act. The precise nature of the inquiry has yet to be established but my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport is clear that there will indeed be such an inquiry. That means that there will be two inquiries, as the noble Lord pointed out, because the railways already have in hand their own internal inquiry. Indeed it may be that the coroner will want to conduct an inquiry of some sort into the tragic deaths of the four people who died in the railway incident.

I think that the effect of the better forecasting arrangements that applied with regard to this recent flooding is demonstrated by the fact that, apart from the four people who died in the railway incident, I understand only one other person died and he tragically drowned in an incident in North Wales. There were of course very many more people who died during the storms in England at the end of last week. I would not want to draw too many parallels, because those storms were of unprecedented fury. Nonetheless it is clear that the arrangements for warning farmers in particular about the onset of floods worked very well on this occasion. The result was that very few livestock losses have been reported.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked me about the difference between beef and sheep in this context. I do not have that information to hand. Some of these incidents took place only last night, but I shall see if there is anything I can write to the noble Lord about that. As to the outcome of my right honourable friend's visit to some of these areas recently, I have not yet heard what plans have occurred to him, but knowing him as I do I am sure that some will emerge before long.

My Lords, would the Minister care to comment on some of the criticisms and speculation which have appeared in the media regarding the tragic accident of the train in Wales at the time of the floods? Is he in a position to say, given the forthcoming inquiry, that that tragic accident took place in spite of what I believe to have been some quite clear and thorough security precautions?

My Lords, like the noble Lord I have read the accounts and what is said to have taken place surrounding the accident. I hope the noble Lord will forgive me if I say that I should prefer to await the outcome of the inquiry.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for covering the point that I was going to raise. I should like it to be known from these Benches that we too very much sympathise, as others have said, with those who are related to the victims.

My Lords, I have one simple question for the Minister and he may well have provided the reply in the early part of the Statement. We are glad to learn that there have been very few stock losses. What is the position where a farmer has suffered a stock loss or damage to produce and the loss is uninsured and will not be compensated by the local authority? Will the Government compensate him for his loss and, if so, by when does he have to submit his claim?

My Lords, generally speaking, the Government do not expect to have to cover losses which should have been covered by insurance and which prudent farmers will have arranged for themselves. Where farmers have underinsured I imagine that similar considerations would apply. I am not aware that there is any scheme for specific compensation in other circumstances. I shall make inquiries and write to the noble Lord if I am wrong.