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The Jubilee River story - Parliament - Setting the scene - Nov 1991

This is the Hansard record of the adjournment debate in the House of Commons on 7th November 1991 that refers to many of the identified issues.

HC Deb 07 November 1991 vol 198 cc675-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wood.]

10.29 pm
Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield)


Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We are now on the Adjournment debate. I cannot take any points of order on the previous matter. I have ruled upon it.

Mr. Smith

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise the subject of the Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton flood alleviation scheme. I am particularly pleased to see present my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Sir A. Glyn), who obviously has a major interest in this matter.

The National Rivers Authority has applied for planning permission to build a seven-mile flood alleviation channel to the east of the River Thames. The channel would start just upstream from Bolter's Lock at Maidenhead. It would run through Taplow, crossing the main A4 road between Slough and Maidenhead and the main London to Bristol railway line, through Dorney, crossing the M4 motorway to Eaton Wick. It would run to the north of Eton Wick and the south of Chalvey along the south side of the M4, crossing the main A355 Slough to Windsor road. It would rejoin the River Thames some distance downstream from Eton and Windsor.

According to the planning application, which is dated January 1991, the estimated overall cost of the scheme is £51 million. I understand that that estimate has now risen to £58 million. I am sure that you will agree, Mr. Speaker, that, by any yardstick, that is a very large amount of taxpayers' money. The NRA should be required to justify that expenditure in a public forum where its arguments can be fully considered and its proponents cross examined. I have great faith in locally-elected planning committees, but I do not believe that they are in a position to scrutinise the NRA's proposals in the comprehensive way that that proposed expenditure clearly warrants. That is why I am today requesting the Secretary of State to call in that planning application so that there can he a full public inquiry at which all the issues can be properly considered.

According to the NRA, the net present value of the damage that would be caused by flooding, and hence the benefit accruing, has been calculated using a number of variables, and generally lies between £41 million and £69 million. A comparison of the benefit with the cost produces an average benefit-cost ratio of 1.2:1. That figure is recognised as satisfactory by the NRA and is within the limits required by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The ratio is produced by comparing the implementation costs of £45 million with the average benefit figure of £55 million.

A public inquiry would be able to examine those figures in detail. Questions could be asked about the failure of the NRA to include in its cost estimate the sum of £6 million of taxpayers' money that it has already spent promoting the scheme, or it could consider any of the indirect costs arising from the construction of the channel. Neither cost element has been included in the estimate. The NRA simply says that it is not the practice in the industry to assign to any scheme the costs of economic disruption during its construction. There will, however, be substantial costs of that kind. All the affected roads which are already very busy at peak times are to be diverted. It is inconceivable that those diversions will not cause traffic delays.

Then there are the environmental costs. According to the director of planning services of South Buckinghamshire district council, the environmental impact could be severe. He has expressed extreme concern about the nuisance which would be caused during the construction of the bridges to take the channel under the A4, the M4 and the London to Bristol railway line. By the NRA's own admission, noise levels around those areas would be in excess of 75 dB(A).

Although the NRA has not included indirect costs whether economic or environmental, it has included indirect benefits in its estimate of the total benefits of the scheme. That apparent lack of symmetry could also be challenged at a public inquiry. Questions could be asked about the so-called Maidenhead factor, which relates to the apparently higher level of affluence of the population that is likely to be affected by a flood than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

The Maidenhead factor was exemplified by claims that were made after the flood in February 1990. At one property, an indoor swimming pool collapsed because its floor level was below the flood level. The cost was £12,000. At another property, the ground floor swimming pool and a jacuzzi were badly damaged. The cost was £14,000. The residential damages have been multipled by a suitable factor in recognition of the so-called Maidenhead factor. The question for a public inquiry is whether that is a sensible way of calculating the direct benefit.

Indirect benefit includes matters such as the loss of trading profit incurred by businesses in the area and the effects of traffic disruption and diversions. The cost of traffic delays on the M4 and major roads has been estimated at £1.3 million. More controversially, the NRA claims that the channel will be an environmental asset and will have value in terms of recreation and amenity. A value of £3 million has been used for that purpose. The latest figures presented to the regional flood defence committee on 26 July show a total scheme cost of £58 million and a total net present value of benefits of £56 million, producing a benefit-cost ratio of 0.97. However, the first benefits from the scheme are not attainable for sometime after the start of expenditure. When this phasing is taken into consideration, the benefit-cost ratio falls further to 0.85.

The National Rivers Authority is, in theory, accountable to Parliament through the Secretary of State for the Environment, but the financial accountability for a scheme such as this falls elsewhere. First, there is the Ministry of Agriculture. If the scheme is to qualify for grant aid, the benefit-cost assessment must show that the present value of all the benefits derived from the scheme exceed the present value of all the costs. This procedure is fine as far as it goes, but it precludes the consideration of alternative schemes which may be more cost-effective and cannot, by definition, provide a public forum in which the cost and benefit figures can be challenged.

Secondly, there is the regional flood defence committee, whose members will be expected to come up with the lion's share of the cash. That committee has already rubber-stamped the scheme but, to be fair, it is in no position to challenge it. Buckinghamshire county council has to stump up 3.8 per cent. of the cash, but jointly appoints a representative to the committee with Bedfordshire and Essex. So Buckinghamshire is in no position to challenge the mighty NRA. Who is? That is the question.

I know that the National Audit Office has been carrying out a value-for-money study of NRA coast protection schemes. In that connection, it has employed independent consultants to assess the NRA's work, but there has been no independent assessment of this scheme. The NAO did, however, look at it at my request. It concluded: The scheme will probably be marginal on the basis of tangible costs and benefits and Intangible benefits will be critical to the justification of the scheme. The NAO also said: The assessment of intangibles is an inexact science and we are sure the Ministry will look closely at these aspects. Mr. Peter Bowl was navigation inspector in charge of No. 3 district—Marlow bridge to Staines bridge—from March 1960 to November 1984. He says that there is an alternative to the flood relief scheme, and that is to improve the drainage capacity of the Thames itself by removing obstructions and restrictions to flow which tend to increase river levels, especially when the watercourse is bank full and the weirs fully open.

Then there is a channel called the "York stream", which runs through Maidenhead. I have some pictures of it here, which I want to show to my hon. Friend. He will see that there is no flow. The York stream is either stagnant or it has dried up completely. Why? If the obstructions and restrictions to flow had been removed and if the York stream had been flowing, I doubt whether any part of Maidenhead would have been flooded in 1990. Yet it is on that flood and the damage to swimming pools and jacuzzis caused by it that the NRA relies so heavily to demonstrate the existence of a so-called Maidenhead factor.

All these—and many more—are questions for a public inquiry. The planning sub-committee of Buckinghamshire county council, which meets on Monday to consider the scheme, must inevitably confine itself to the planning application before it, and the planning issues arising from it. I should, however, make it clear that the matters to which I have referred are more than sufficient on their own to justify outright rejection. That is also the view of the Dorney and Taplow parish councils and the South Buckinghamshire district council.

The district council objects to the proposed channel because it involves development in the green belt and within a local landscape area. It would affect the character of the green belt. Its construction would be likely to result in excessive noise emissions, vibrations and generation of dust to the detriment of amenity, and the winning and working of minerals in this location would be contrary to the Buckinghamshire replacement minerals local plan.

The Dorney and Taplow parish councils naturally share those concerns. In addition, the Dorney council agrees with me that the fundamental question is whether the channel is needed. The council observes that the estimated total cost, including preliminary expenses, has now risen to in excess of £63 million, and that that does not include the costs of disruption during the construction period. The council has also noted the lack of water in the York stream in Maidenhead and questions the adequacy of flow in the flood relief channel. On the NRA's own admission, there will be an inadequate flow in one in three years, and no flow at all in one in 10.

The Taplow council has expressed particular concern about the disruption of the A4 Slough to Maidenhead road that construction of the channel will cause. It points out that, while the planning application lays great emphasis on the disruptive effects of a flood, it attaches less importance to the disruptive effects of building a new river. The parishes of Taplow, Dorney and Burnham, which will also be affected, form a green lung between the suburban sprawl of Slough and Maidenhead. This is fragile landscape to which the threat is one of continuous urban development between the two towns.

On Monday the scheme will be considered by the planning sub-committee of Buckinghamshire county council. A panel appointed to consider the scheme will recommend to that committee that the planning application should be referred to the Secretary of State. According to the panel, a key piece of information sought is the need for the project. The panel is minded to agree that the application is for a project of immense scale and impact and should be determined only after a far-reaching public inquiry.

The panel could support such a project contrary to the county structure plan and the south Buckinghamshire local plan only if satisfied on three counts: first, that the need is abundantly clear; secondly, that the way of tackling the flooding problem as set out in the application is undoubtedly the best of all possible alternatives; and thirdly, that a wide variety of outstanding issues are each resolved in the best possible way. These would include access, environmental disturbance and noise, water levels and assured flow for water sweetening and so on.

In summary, this is a massive infrastructure project on which it is proposed to spend £58 million of taxpayers' money. While there is clearly a potential flooding problem which needs to be addressed, the case for this relief channel has not been made. It is doubtful whether the claimed benefits justify the substantial costs. These are matters which can be determined only by a public inquiry and I hope, therefore, that the Secretary of State will agree to call the planning application in.

10.43 pm
Sir Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

I agree that all the facts which my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) has said are contained in the 1991 paper are true. However, he and I differ in a fundamental way. In 1947, 1954, 1959, 1974 and 1990—particularly in 1947—the flooding in Maidenhead was extensive. We had to have waders and tractors to go through the streets. The damage done was considerable. We must look for a scheme that will ensure that that does not happen again.

I agree with my hon. Friend that, if the Berkshire and Buckinghamshire county councils disagreed, the Minister could call the application in if he wished. If the councils did not disagree, he could call it in anyway.

I agree with my hon. Friend to this extent—a public inquiry may be necessary. It is a large sum of money and it is especially favourable to Maidenhead and not to his constituents, I will give him that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield has already enlarged upon the facts in the fine document which was produced in 1991 and I can only assume that they are correct. The crux of the matter is, how do we prevent a 1947 or 1990 flood occurring again? It is a question of which side of the river you take—the Maidenhead or the Buckinghamshire side. On the Maidenhead side, it would mean considerable expense and demolition of properties—it would be much more expensive. Again I agree with my hon. Friend, if that money is to be expended it might be a good thing if there were a public inquiry.

I humbly suggest that the two counties should get together. If they cannot agree, there will have to be a public inquiry. If they agree and the Minister thinks that matters should be re-examined, I think that he has the power—correct me if I am wrong—to call them in.

I suggest that we proceed along those lines and look for the most economic way to alleviate my constituents' problems while not doing too much damage to my hon. Friend's constituents. Unfortunately, Maidenhead has suffered greater damage than Buckinghamshire, and obviously we take the matter much more seriously. If we can proceed along a sensible line and if Buckinghamshire and Berkshire county councils lock their heads together and produce a worthwhile scheme, that is fine. If they cannot agree it will have to go to a public inquiry. In any case it is always up to the Minister.

As my hon. Friend says, the scheme is expensive. It costs £59 million—it is not tuppence—but I think that it is worthwhile. If the Minister does not consider it worth while, all he has to do is call it in and either have a public inquiry or decide for himself whether it is a good scheme. A public inquiry might be more beneficial because, as my hon. Friend said, it would bring out the details of the scheme.

We have suffered grave and terrible damage. I can remember going about in waders, with tractors trying to get houses dry. I can remember the damage to furniture and carpets, which was immense in 1974. In 1947, it was even worse. It will happen again, whatever anybody says. It happens roughly every ten years.

Are we entitled to spend such a sum of money or not? The right thing is for the two counties to get together and to make a joint decision and, if necessary, to have a public inquiry or to leave it to the Minister to call the scheme in if he is not satisfied. I realise that there are several faults in it, which affect my hon. Friend, but on balance it is a good scheme and should be adopted.

10.49 pm
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) for allowing me to intervene briefly in this debate.

I am a vice-president of the River Thames Society, which is the administrative society for the whole river. Such a scheme would not only affect the constituents of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield and the hon. Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Sir A. Glyn). If the planning application is persisted with, I support the plea for calling it in, for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield.

I also declare another non-commercial interest as one of the members of the Thames Traditional Boat Society, which is concerned with the maintenance, preservation and use of the traditional hand-propelled craft of the Thames—dinghies, skiffs, canoes and punts.

Both hon. Gentlemen explained the balance of public consideration to be taken into account. Two other matters weigh in the direction of a public inquiry. The scheme is one for an imaginatively landscaped, artificial but natural-looking, additional channel to parallel the Thames. That brings in the matter of recreational use—angling or, perhaps, boating. The present scheme excludes boats propelled by oar, pole and paddle. There is the matter of future planning and the effect on structural plans for the area. Most important, although hitherto unmentioned, are the possible effects of flooding or otherwise downstream of the flood relief area. If water is moved more quickly from one area, what are the effects downstream?

Those are wide-ranging and sometimes technical matters. Even if the two counties agree, this should be a matter for a call-in. Therefore, I am pleased to support this plea.

10.50 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tim Yeo)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith), who is always an eloquent champion of his constituents' interests. He is also a noted expert on financial matters, and tonight he has given the House a clear explanation of complex proposals. I have no doubt that his opinion will carry great weight.

We have also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Sir A. Glyn), who has unparalleled knowledge of the history of the area and the occasions when floods have affected it. I am grateful, too, for the comments of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing).

The Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton areas have been subject to flooding from the River Thames for generations. The floods of 1947 were the worst on record, when 2,000 homes were flooded. Since then, considerable development has taken place, and a similar flood today would affect no fewer than 5,500 houses.

The scheme proposed by the National Rivers Authority is designed to prevent flooding caused by a repeat of the 1947 event. A flood on that scale is probable once every 56 years. If it happened again today, 5,500 properties would be affected, of which 260 are in Buckinghamshire, in the parishes of Dorney and Taplow. There are also about 180 properties in the flood plain in Buckinghamshire, and others in Berkshire with either floor levels above the flood level or even on dry land islands that would be completely surrounded by flood water. It is also likely that power and water supplies would be disrupted. A repeat of the 1947 flood across a wide area on the River Thames would cause chaos to those properties and to all communications. Roads in and out of Buckinghamshire would be flooded and telephone lines severely disrupted.

The National Rivers Authority has been preparing proposals to deal with this for six years. The solution involves the construction of a flood relief channel seven miles in length between Taplow and Eton on the border between Buckinghamshire and Berkshire. The NRA is paying particular attention to the environmental aspects. It has made an environment assessment, and its proposals are designed to enhance the environmental interest of the area.

The width of the channel to be provided would normally be 30 m, but in places would exceed 100 m. The construction of that channel will require the excavation of a very large quantity of sand and gravel. It will take about four years to complete, and is expected to coincide closely with the widening of the M4 and M25 motorways. It is clear that there will be considerable disruption locally during construction.

The planning applications were initially made to the three district councils directly affected. Because of the scale of the proposals, and because they would result in the excavation of large quantities of gravel, it has been agreed that the application would be dealt with by the two county councils. They are supported by a very detailed environmental assessment.

In preparing the scheme, the NRA consulted extensively with the local authorities and other bodies, local residents and landowners. About 25 requests for a public inquiry have been received, and Buckinghamshire county council has received about 200 letters objecting to it. Consultations on the scheme have been carried out by Berkshire county council. South Buckinghamshire district council has objected on a number of grounds. The proposals for constructing the channel have also been found to conflict with proposals being prepared for widening the M4. Discussions are taking place among the Department of Transport, the NRA and the two county councils to reconcile the two proposals. In the meantime, the two county councils have deferred consideration of the proposals, and the Department of Transport has lodged a formal objection to the National Rivers Authority's compulsory purchase order.

The compulsory purchase order falls to MAFF to confirm under section 151 of the Water Act 1989. There have been 43 objections to the compulsory purchase order and although a number have been resolved, a substantial number are still outstanding. If the NRA cannot resolve them, it will be for MAFF to hold an inquiry under section 13 of the Acquisition of Land Act 1981. However, any final decision on holding an inquiry for the compulsory purchase order can be made only if planning consent for the scheme is given. This is initially a matter for the two county councils. At present, they are not in accord over whether the proposals are a departure from the development plan, and I understand that Buckinghamshire expects to refer the application to the Secretary of State.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield pointed out, the scheme is a major one, expected to cost about £60 million and to take four years to construct. The options for it are limited by the geography of the Thames valley, where the flood risk occurs, and existing development. Most of the problem being addressed is in Berkshire, but a large part of the solution is proposed in Buckinghamshire, in my hon. Friend's constituency. There would undoubtedly be major disruption for people living in that area during the construction period. My hon. Friend is right to raise those issues and to seek to be satisfied that the proposals are properly examined and fully justified.

It is open to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to call in these applications for his own decision. He has not yet come to a conclusion on that. My hon. Friend will appreciate that, as the proposals could come before my right hon. Friend either through the exercise of that power or, should the county councils refuse the application the National Rivers Authority, it would not be appropriate to comment on the merits of the proposals.

In coming to a conclusion on whether these proposals should be called in for his determination, my right hon. Friend will consider the proposals in terms of whether they raise issues of national or regional significance or give rise to substantial controversy. He will need to decide whether the planning issues raised by the proposals are of a sufficient scale to warrant the cost and delays which a public inquiry would entail.

The county councils are concerned with whether the proposals are consistent with their structure plans, which provide the framework for development in the area. They must also take into account any other material considerations. A very large amount of gravel would be excavated to form the channel. They need to be assured that the options for flood relief have been fully explored and that this is the most effective means and produces the minimum amount of damage to the environment.

It is not the task of the county councils to assess the cost benefit of the scheme in detail. The National Rivers Authority is accountable to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in respect of its flood relief functions. The costs and benefits of the scheme are being looked at closely by the regional flood defence committee and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. My hon. Friend will know that the National Audit Office has in its programme for the current financial year an examination of flood and coast protection programmes. There can be no more thorough scrutiny than that of the National Audit Office, save of course that of the Public Accounts Committee, of which my hon. Friend is a distinguished member.

I understand that 15 per cent. of the cost of the scheme may be eligible for grant by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The remainder would be found by the NRA. The cost of the flood defence activity of the Thames region of the NRA is funded by a levy on the county councils and London boroughs in the whole of that region. The cost of flood defence in the current financial year works out at just over £5 per community charge payer in the Thames region. Out of a total levy income of £43 million for flood defence, the levy on Buckinghamshire comes to £1.67 million—about 4 per cent. of the total. Buckinghamshire would be expected to contribute a similar proportion to the relevant costs of the scheme.

The benefits would accrue to everyone who would suffer the effects of flooding. There are those whose properties would be directly affected, others who might be isolated by the floods, and others who could be affected indirectly through disruption to transport and communications.

Most of the benefits would go to people and properties in Berkshire. The local residents of Buckinghamshire would suffer disruption from construction for about four years. I appreciate the point of view of those who argue that the development in Berkshire, which has exacerbated the scale of the problem, should not have been allowed. It is open to the local planning authorities to include in their development plans such policies as they consider appropriate. I understand that both county structure plans and the local plans for Slough borough council, the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead and South Bucks district all contain policies that restrict or presume against development in areas liable to flooding.

These are very large proposals, addressing a difficult problem. The issues that they raise are complex, and procedurally they affect the responsibilities of a large number of bodies, both in Government and outside it. I assure my hon. Friend that we are looking carefully at how best to take this forward. It could be that the best way forward, taking into account all the interests, including those of the residents, would be a joint public inquiry. We need to be satisfied that the cost and delays that would be involved in such a course are justified both to resolve this matter and to provide the assurance that all the issues have been fully examined.

We expect to come to a conclusion on that in the next few weeks. In the interim, as an earnest of the importance that we attach to this matter, my Department has today issued article 14 directions to prevent the county councils from granting permission for the applications for the time being. I will let my hon. Friend know the decision when we have made it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Eleven o'clock.

Thames FAS _ Hansard  - 1991