Skip to main content

Storm Damage In England

Volume 489: debated on Wednesday 21 October 1987

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

4.23 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on storm damage in England on 15th and 16th October. The Statement is as follows:

"Mr Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about the hurricane force winds which hit southern England early last Friday morning. Tragically 19 people were killed. We offer heartfelt condolences to their relatives and friends. There was widespread damage to property and trees; road and rail links were blocked; electricity and telephone lines were brought down on a large scale. Most of the damage was caused by falling trees.

"Ever since, emergency teams from the local authorities, the electricity supply industry and the other services affected have been working incessantly, helped greatly by the armed services. They have done a magnificent job. Normal services have now been restored to the great majority of people. They will continue to make every effort. About 4 million electricity consumers have been reconnected, although 168,000 are still without supply. The electricity supply industry is making every effort to reconnect the bulk of them by the weekend, but the extent of the damage in some areas and the continuing adverse weather may result in some consumers not being restored till next week. The industry is working closely with other emergency services to minimise hardship to those still affected.

"It is too soon to estimate the overall costs of these events. But I have already announced the Government's decision that the existing financial arrangements to assist local authorities in emergencies—known as the Bellwin scheme—will be available in the areas affected in England for emergency work connected with that storm damage. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales will be making a separate Statement on those areas of Wales affected by severe flooding over the last few days.

"Prudent local authorities have long provided for contingencies and emergencies in their budgets. But in 1983, after consultation with the local authority associations, the Government issued guidelines:
'To provide special financial assistance to local authorities who, as a consequence of an emergency would otherwise incur an undue financial burden in providing relief and carrying Out immediate works to safeguard life or property or prevent suffering or severe inconvenience to affected communities'.
"Under this scheme, authorities are themselves responsible for the first tranche of expenditure on emergency work. The amount the authorities most affected will be expected to find from within their existing budgets is likely on average to be slightly below 0.5 per cent. of their GRE. I am setting the threshold at expenditure equivalent to the product of an exclusive penny rate for county councils and of 0.15p for shire districts. Expenditure above that will be eligible for 75 per cent. grant assistance from government. The threshold in London will be based on the product of a 1.15 penny rate divided between tiers according to GRE shares. The department is writing today to the local authority associations and to those authorities who initially appear most likely to be affected explaining details of how the scheme will operate. I am placing copies of that letter in the Library and in the Vote Office. It will be up to any authority which considers itself eligible for such assistance to apply to the department. The scheme does not cover losses which are insurable.

"I shall take account too of the effect on rate support grant. In response to requests from a number of councils, I propose that where a local authority gains grant assistance under the Bellwin scheme, the proportion of expenditure above the threshold borne by the local authority should be excluded from the definition of total expenditure, and will not therefore result in loss of grant. I shall be consulting the local authority associations on the precise terms of the total expenditure exclusion.

"Turning to the capital side, insurance payments for loss or damage are anyway outside the capital control system. But to help local authorities with capital works in restoring their buildings, the Government will be giving limited additional allocations for expenditure in the current year.

"Mr. Speaker, I recognise too that the public feel deeply about the massive damage that has been done to mature trees. There is a strong feeling that we should replant for the benefit of future generations.

"The Royal Parks are my direct responsibility, and we shall press ahead with clearing and appropriate replanting as fast as possible.

"There are already in existence for rural areas Countryside Commission schemes for grant assistance to local authorities and private owners for tree planting. I propose to extend these schemes in three ways to cope specifically with the loss of trees as a result of the hurricane-force winds. First, for this temporary purpose, the rate of grant aid for local authority planting will be increased to 90 per cent. Secondly, and also temporarily, these schemes will he extended to cover London and other urban areas. Thirdly, the Countryside Commission will have discretion to grant-aid at a higher rate than their present scheme historic landscapes of great value where the scale of tree loss justifies this. I shall make extra resources available in the current year for these schemes. These extensions will enable the taxpayer to contribute to restoring our heritage of fine trees for future generations.

"In addition, my department will be issuing guidance on the protection of surviving but damaged trees through the press to householders.

"My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is urgently consulting the European Commission with a view to increasing the rates of grant under the Agriculture Improvement Scheme for shelter belts, hedges and traditional walls in the storm damage areas to 60 per cent. (with conifer belts at 30 per cent.) until the end of 1988–89. He will also be providing special additional help to Kew Gardens and Wakehurst Place, which suffered severe damage of national and international significance. My right honourable friend is also arranging for the Farm and Countryside initiative to provide help to some particularly hard hit rural communities for both tree clearing and tree planting.

"The measures I have announced today will provide both for appropriate short-term assistance to local authorities in their emergency work and with repairing as soon as possible the long-term damage to the environment.

"Meanwhile the House will want to join me in thanking the local authorities and all the emergency services for their unstinting efforts and in offering sympathy for the loss and suffering experienced by people in the areas affected."

My Lords, that concludes my right honourable friend's Statement.

4.30 p.m.

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Of course we want to join with him in offering our sympathy to the relatives and friends of those who were killed and injured and indeed to all those who suffered from the storms in any way whatsoever, through the destruction of property, inconvenience and the terrible damage to the countryside and to trees in town and country. We on these Benches would also like to join in congratulating the local authority workers and the armed services who worked so well and so fast to try to get things back to normal.

We give a guarded welcome to the Statement so far as concerns finance. I am particularly glad that if they go above a certain level the local authorities, which inevitably will be involved in extra expense, will not be penalised and liable for loss of grant. That is something about which we are very relieved. Of course they will still have to find the product of a penny rate (or whatever it may be in the individual case) and 25 per cent. of the expenditure incurred; so at a time when local authorities are pretty well strapped financially it will be quite a difficult exercise for them.

So far as concerns help with capital works, it seems to me that the Government have not made a very generous offer. The same applies to long-term damage. I know that something has been said about tree planting but, where damage continues to take place, will help continue to be given if local authorities can prove that they need it?

I was particularly pleased to read about help toward replacing mature trees. It will be a long time before the trees reach maturity but at any rate an effort will be made to undertake a great deal of replanting. I was also glad to note the help to be given to the Countryside Commission and that such schemes will be extended to cover London. London squares suffered very badly in the storms. It is good to note that Kew Gardens, which, as the Statement confirms, suffered an international as well as a national disaster, will receive special help.

I should like to ask about long-term damage. Can the Minister tell us what help will continue to be given after this year if local authorities can show that they are incurring continuing expense as a result of the storms this month? I hope the Minister can reply to that question.

As a postscript to it perhaps I may remind the Minister of the promise made by MAFF four years ago to assist farmers to obtain electrical generators in the event of power failures. Nothing has been done. Many farmers, and particularly those who have a lot of poultry, suffered very badly because of the power failure that occurred last week. I should like to know whether they will be compensated.

My Lords, from these Benches we should like to give a general welcome to the Statement. At this point in time of course the costs are still unknown but we are all aware that they will be extremely high. We all regret the loss of life and property and extend our sympathy to those who have suffered. Assistance is needed and government help must be quick and generous, and I am concerned that such help should consist of new money and not come out of existing local authority allocations.

We welcome the assurances that the local authorities will not lose out as regards overspending because of the extra costs incurred. I am sure that that will be a matter of some satisfaction to counties such as Kent, which fears that it will be paying out something like £7 million as its first share and then will lose £3 million for overspending. To a somewhat less degree the same applies to East Sussex, Essex and the Isle of Wight, which also face high costs. I am sure that people in those and other counties will be especially relieved to hear what the Minister has said today. I should like to remind the Minister that there is no longer any grant recycling of moneys lost by local authorities through overspending. Such moneys now go straight to the Treasury. It would be ludicrous if the Treasury showed a profit on local government expenditure while local authorities were in such dire need of extra help.

The Minister referred to the Bellwin scheme—rules concerning administration of the 75 per cent. grant over and above the one penny rate. Those rules specified the losses which qualified after the bad winter of 1981–82, and the insurable losses which were not insured did not qualify at that time. As I understand the Statement, that is still the case.

I should like to do a little special pleading at this point. For many years my own authority in Cambridgeshire, and earlier in Huntingdon and Peterborough, found it advantageous and much less costly to ratepayers to carry its own risks and not pay high premiums to the insurance companies. That policy paid off over the years when perhaps a handful of schools out of several hundred were vandalised and the authorities could afford to carry the costs of the repairs themselves. Damage on the scale that occurred last week is a quite different proposition, and happily such events occur very infrequently. However, since 1983, as the noble Baroness has said, local authorities have been under tremendous pressure to cut back expenditure and I believe that more and more authorities are now carrying their own insurance risks. Can the Minister give us an assurance that he will not only look at this problem but look at it sympathetically and in this special circumstance perhaps give more consideration to the present uninsured losses rule?

In the winter of 1981–82 also there was an early cut-off time for claims. With hindsight many authorities felt that that came too soon for them to realise what had been the long-term frost damage to the roads and many authorities lost out. This time one is dealing with damage to property and services and with loss of trees and flood damage. We welcome the news that extra grant will be available through the Countryside Commission and other organisations and that extra grants will be available to local authorities for planting schemes.

We were delighted to hear the Minister's proposals for the work to be carried out in the Royal Parks and other places of national importance. The damage to trees has been quite devastating. With all the good will in the world no organisation can be certain either that the appropriate replacement trees will be available, and certainly not more mature trees, or that the winter that is before us will be suitable, with the right type of labour available in sufficient quantity, to do all the necessary replanting. Will the Government's commitment to help be on-going in that respect?

We all deplore the tremendous losses. Everyone wants to see replacement trees planted so that in the coming years our countryside may be restored to its normal, natural beauty. The Minister's comments and proposals are welcomed by us on these Benches. However, many people will want to help in their own way. I remember the campaign which had the slogan, "Plant a tree in 1983; plant some more in 1984". Many of the trees which were planted then were young saplings. Many of them had been container grown and had limited root runs. On many occasions many of them were rather inexpertly dropped into small holes without having any proper preparation. When the Minister is preparing his guidance will he see that some publicity and advice is given to ordinary individuals and ratepayers on the preparation and planting of these kinds of tree so that in any future event not so many of them are sacrificed as there have been this time?

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Baronesses for the welcome they gave to the Statement. The welcome is a guarded one as the noble Baroness, Lady David, said. And no doubt both noble Baronesses will want to look at the copies of my right honourable friend's letter to the local authorities. Although the Statement mentioned that a copy will certainly be placed in the Library and in the Vote Office of another place I shall ensure that one is put into the Printed Paper Office of your Lordships' House.

Both noble Baronesses asked me whether the assistance under the Bellwin rules would be for longterm damage. The extract from the Bellwin rules which I read out in the Statement shows that the rules were designed as help for the immediate costs of the emergency. Provision for longer-term costs will be dealt with in the normal way in rate support grant settlements and capital allocations.

As regards capital allocations, the noble Baroness, Lady David, gave a hint of criticism when she said that they did not sound all that generous. The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, talked about insurable losses against which local authorities, for reasons of their own, had not insured. I draw the attention of both noble Baronesses to that part of the Statement which states that my right honourable friend, or rather the Government, will be giving limited additional allocations for expenditure in the current year. I believe that this move will be welcomed by local authorities.

The only other point I should pick up is the direct question which the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, asked about advice for cheap tree planting. We shall certainly give out advice as regards what makes a tree dangerous at the present time and how to deal with trees which have been decimated but which may not need to come down. Perhaps we should consider the point which the noble Baroness made. I am particularly glad that the replanting grant schemes will be handled by the Countryside Commission; that body is a fount of very good advice.

My Lords, I wish to make a quick point to my noble friend. Those schemes are limited to the disposal of mature trees which have fallen in such great quantity. The fact is that many of the trees are of great value, owned largely by people who have no knowledge of forestry prices. Will the Government, in their advice to the general public, point out that the first cowboy to come along must not necessarily be sold the big trees? Will they also point out to those people in this unfortunate position that although there are certain trees such as cherry, ash, sycamore and pine which will have to be picked off the ground before next April, oak and other hardwoods will last upwards of two to three years?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend because he has great experience in this particular field. May we look as urgently as possible at what my noble friend has said about giving advice; that is not to rush in and sell wood which is valuable and already on the ground.

I must make clear to the House that the advice about tree damage which we said in the Statement that we would give out is advice which is already available. We feel that it is necessary to get that advice out as quickly as possible. If we do that it will not mean that we are bypassing either the remarks of my noble friend or those of the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman. Incidentally, I shall draw the attention of my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to what my noble friend has just said.

My noble friend's second point is well made. Those of us working in the relevant government departments and, I am sure, the local authorities will try at all times to get across the message that the best thing to do is to replant with long living hardwoods.

4.45 p.m.

My Lords, the Statement is about the dreadful damage done to the environment, mostly parkland trees. We all deplore that. The noble Lord, Lord Gibson-Watt, made a good point about how to handle the very valuable trees which have been lost and which should not be wasted. I see that the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, is present. Has any statement been made about the help to be given to commercial forestry? I understand that the timber growers' organisation is to make a survey by helicopter to try to assess the enormous damage to commercial forestry and to agriculture.

In order to impress upon Ministers how necessary it is to have a statement on the damage that has been caused, I declare my interest in this matter. An assessor visited my farm yesterday and another came this morning. The preliminary figure they have given me for the amount of damage that my farm has sustained is over £20,000. Noble Lords need not feel too sorry for me as I am insured. However, there is the question of the damage to commercial glasshouses and orchards, to uninsurable items such as crops inside glasshouses and the loss of late apples. I make these points merely to emphasise the fact that we should have a Statement from the Ministry of Agriculture on this subject.

My Lords, may I make it clear to the noble Lord who knows the forestry area well that the Government entirely agree that the first priority is to assess the damage. The noble Lord's intelligence is, as usual, quite right. The Forestry Commission has taken a look at what has happened by means of both aerial and ground surveys. The commission has set up a windblow action group with private growers and the timber trade to prepare a strategy for clearance and marketing and this will hold its first meeting next Monday, 26th October. When the results of the surveys are available, which I am told will be in about two weeks' time, the commission will consider the best ways in which it might assist private woodland growers.

My Lords, I wish to make a point which is not connected with the tree question. This was a civil emergency and I wonder why it was not treated by local authorities as a civil emergency. In certain areas it was very serious. For example, to the south of London there are villages which still have no light, no heat—absolutely nothing. As I understand it, no special police were called out to cope with the traffic problems in London. I sat for three hours in a traffic jam leading to London Airport. There was no information on the radio and no specials or territorials were given the chance of a mobilisation exercise to help us.

Should not a post-mortem find out why this situation was not co-ordinated and why it was not treated as an emergency of national importance? As an example, something like 10,000 people were homing in on London Airport. There was no way of getting there except by taxi. And taxis laden with luggage were sitting for three hours on the A4 because the M4 was closed westbound. There was no information as to where people should get off the motorway, where they should get back and how they would get there. People were going to catch Tubes which were or were not running. No one was told of the situation and local radio was no more informative. We were lacking co-ordination in what was a very serious problem. Should that not be considered in the post-mortem as a result of this tragic event?

My Lords, I shall certainly pass on what my noble friend has said to my right honourable friends who are most immediately concerned. Obviously, I take my noble friend's remarks very seriously. It is a question of timing. I realise that my noble friend is talking about the hours immediately after the event occurred. I draw to the attention of the House that the extent of the help from all of the services drafted in should be noted. In the southern region 800 additional men from the CEGB, the army and the navy were drafted in, and in the south-eastern area 1,000 extra men were called in from the commandos and the RAF. In the eastern area 750 extra men were called in from various services.

I realise that that is not exactly the point which my noble friend was making. However, I draw the attention of the House to the enormous amount of manpower which was drafted in on that occasion.

My Lords, can the Minister comment on the report that there is to be an independent inquiry into the accuracy of weather forecasting in advance of the event? If the reports are true, will he tell the House what the point of that curious exercise would be? Is it suggested that, had the forecasting been more accurate, the situation would have changed? Would people around the country have stayed up all night propping up trees or sitting on roofs? Can he assure the House that there will be no public expenditure on what would seem to be an unnecessary exercise?

My Lords, the Director-General of the Meteorological Office, Professor John Houghton, has already instituted an internal inquiry into the weather forecasts that the Meteorological Office made in the period preceding the storms of Thursday, 15th October and Friday, 16th October over Southern England. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence has today invited Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, Chairman of the University Grants Committee, and Professor Robert Pearce, head of the Department of Meteorology at Reading University, to consider the findings of the internal inquiry when they are available and report their conclusions to him. Their report to my right honourable friend will be published. Perhaps both the noble Lord and I should await the result of that publication.

My Lords, my noble friend mentioned Kew Gardens. Those gardens are a special case because they are the best botanic gardens in the world. They have lost 1,000 trees, many of which were very rare specimens. It will cost a great deal of money to find trees of equal importance and I ask my noble friend to ensure that the Minister of Agriculture realises that when he considers the amount of money which they are to be given.

My Lords, I understand my noble friend's concern. It is right to say that my noble friend Lady Trumpington was at Kew Gardens this morning. The Government are committed to seeing that adequate funds are available to the board of trustees to enable it to fulfil its statutory requirements under the National Heritage Act 1983. The Royal Botanic Gardens is also benefiting from major investment in capital works at a cost of about £15 million over the years 1985 to 1988. There is also scope for attracting money from the private sector through appropriate development of the commercial potential of the Royal Botanic Gardens and through sponsorship. Let me come back to the first and most important point of my answer. There is a government commitment which I have given and it is on the record.