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Division No. 179
[11.12 pm


Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N)
Ainger, Nick
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Alexander, Douglas
Allen, Graham
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary
Atherton, Ms Candy
Austin, John
Banks, Tony
Barnes, Harry
Bayley, Hugh
Beard, Nigel
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C)
Bennett, Andrew F
Benton, Joe
Berry, Roger
Best, Harold
Blackman, Liz
Blears, Ms Hazel
Boateng, Rt Hon Paul
Borrow, David
Bradley, Keith (Withington)
Brinton, Mrs Helen
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)
Brown, Russell (Dumfries)
Browne, Desmond
Butler, Mrs Christine
Campbell-Savours, Dale
Caplin, Ivor
Caton, Martin
Cawsey, Ian
Chaytor, David
Clapham, Michael
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Clark, Dr Lynda
(Edinburgh Pentlands)
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Clwyd, Ann
Coaker, Vernon
Colman, Tony
Connarty, Michael
Corbett, Robin
Corbyn, Jeremy
Corston, Jean
Cox, Tom
Cranston, Ross
Crausby, David
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Cummings, John
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack
Dalyell, Tam
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Davidson, Ian
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Dawson, Hilton
Dean, Mrs Janet
Denham, John
Donohoe, Brian H
Doran, Frank
Drew, David
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Edwards, Huw
Ellman, Mrs Louise
Field, Rt Hon Frank
Fisher, Mark
Flint, Caroline
Flynn, Paul
Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Foulkes, George
Fyfe, Maria
Gardiner, Barry
George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Gerrard, Neil
Gibson, Dr Ian
Godman, Dr Norman A
Godsiff, Roger
Goggins, Paul
Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Grocott, Bruce
Grogan, John
Hain, Peter
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Hanson, David
Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Healey, John
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Hepburn, Stephen
Hill, Keith
Hinchliffe, David
Hodge, Ms Margaret
Hoey, Kate
Hood, Jimmy
Hoon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Hope, Phil
Howells, Dr Kim
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Humble, Mrs Joan
Hurst, Alan
Hutton, John
Iddon, Dr Brian
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Johnson, Miss Melanie
(Welwyn Hatfield)
Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)
Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Jones, Ms Jenny
(Wolverh'ton SW)
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Khabra, Piara S
Kilfoyle, Peter
Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Lawrence, Mrs Jackie
Lepper, David
Levitt, Tom
Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen
Linton, Martin
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Llwyd, Elfyn
Love, Andrew
McAvoy, Thomas
McDonagh, Siobhain
Macdonald, Calum
McDonnell, John
McFall, John
McGuire, Mrs Anne
McIsaac, Shona
McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Mackinlay, Andrew
McNamara, Kevin
MacShane, Denis
Mactaggart, Fiona
McWilliam, John
Mahon, Mrs Alice
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Meale, Alan
Michael, Rt Hon Alun
Milburn, Rt Hon Alan
Miller, Andrew
Moffatt, Laura
Moonie, Dr Lewis
Moran, Ms Margaret
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Morley, Elliot
Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle
(B'ham Yardley)
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Naysmith, Dr Doug
Norris, Dan
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
O'Hara, Eddie
Olner, Bill
O'Neill, Martin
Organ, Mrs Diana
Osborne, Ms Sandra
Palmer, Dr Nick
Pearson, Ian
Pickthall, Colin
Pike, Peter L
Plaskitt, James
Pollard, Kerry
Pond, Chris
Pound, Stephen
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Prescott, Rt Hon John
Primarolo, Dawn
Prosser, Gwyn
Purchase, Ken
Quin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce
Rammell, Bill
Rapson, Syd
Raynsford, Nick
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)
Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
Roche, Mrs Barbara
Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Rowlands, Ted
Roy, Frank
Ruane, Chris
Ruddock, Joan
Ryan, Ms Joan
Sarwar, Mohammad
Sawford, Phil
Sedgemore, Brian
Sheerman, Barry
Skinner, Dennis
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Smith, Miss Geraldine
(Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Snape, Peter
Soley, Clive
Spellar, John
Squire, Ms Rachel
Steinberg, Gerry
Stevenson, George
Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Stoate, Dr Howard
Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann
Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Temple-Morris, Peter
Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Timms, Stephen
Tipping, Paddy
Todd, Mark
Touhig, Don
Trickett, Jon
Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Tynan, Bill
Vis, Dr Rudi
Ward, Ms Claire
Wigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Williams, Rt Hon Alan
(Swansea W)
Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Wilson, Brian
Winnick, David
Wood, Mike
Worthington, Tony
Wray, James
Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. David Clelland and
Mr. Jim Dowd.


Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Ballard, Jackie
Boswell, Tim
Brady, Graham
Brazier, Julian
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Burstow, Paul
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies
(NE Fife)
Cash, William
Collins, Tim
Cran, James
Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Davies, Quentin (Grantham)
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Flight, Howard
Garnier, Edward
Gill, Christopher
Gray, James
Greenway, John
Harvey, Nick
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Horam, John
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Jack, Rt Hon Michael
Kirkwood, Archy
Leigh, Edward
Letwin, Oliver
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
McIntosh, Miss Anne
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Paterson, Owen
Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Robertson, Laurence
Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Steen, Anthony
Swayne, Desmond
Syms, Robert
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Tredinnick, David
Tyler, Paul
Webb, Steve
Whittingdale, John
Yeo, Tim

Tellers for the Noes:

Mrs. Eleanor Laing and
Mr. Peter Luff.

Question accordingly agreed to.

3 May 2000 : Column 268

Clause 113 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill (Clauses 1, 12, 30, 31, 59, 102 and 113) reported, without amendment; to lie upon the Table.

3 May 2000 : Column 269

Land Drainage

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

11.27 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter of great importance to my constituents--land drainage in the Somerset levels. I thank the Minister for seeing my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard), the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and myself yesterday and for his helpful comments on that occasion.

As the Minister knows, the Somerset levels are a valuable area for many reasons, including not only their scenery and wildlife but the particular way of life there. The one thing that cannot be said about the levels, however, is that they are dry; indeed, they are extremely wet. I do not intend to blame the Government for the fact that it rains in Somerset, because it has done so for a very long time. Nevertheless, flooding is an ever present threat in the area, and in recent years it has been a reality for too many people, with extremely serious consequences for their livelihood and living arrangements.

There are several different categories of interest that coincide on the levels. There are those of the people who live there and those of the communities, and the two sets of interests are not identical because there are individual concerns as well as those of villages and wider areas. There are the problems of agriculture, which is not defined by a single category. As well as small dairy farmers, we have people who are trying to use the land for arable purposes. We also have withy growing and practices that are unique to our area of Somerset. Some of the land is marginal and some is taken up by smallholdings that are difficult to maintain as viable. Some of the land is of high quality, and the concerns do not apply.

The other important factor, which is never to be forgotten, is the great environmental value of the area, which is recognised nationally and internationally as a wetland of great importance.

Each of those interests has different expectations. Individual residents' primary expectation is to be able to enjoy their homes without the water bursting in and ruining it. Communities expect that their businesses will be able to carry them through the winter months, and that they will not have to be cut off because their only road is under water and remains so for long periods. Essentially, they want to feel that the outside world is interested in the continuation of their way of life.

Agricultural interests present a more difficult equation. They have learned to live in balance with the environment; many schemes are designed to support that balance and maintain the equilibrium. Having said that, and although farmers in lowland areas realise that they will occasionally experience winter flooding, they do not expect substantial summer flooding. They do not expect water to be allowed on to their land, to remain there until deoxygenation occurs and they lose the grass hay or crops that they planted; nor do they expect to have to move cattle into buildings during the summer because no pasture is available for long periods.

On the environment front, the expectation is that the water table will be maintained at a reasonably high level. Equally, however, it makes no sense in environmental

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terms for large areas of land to be covered in water for long periods, because that destroys the very environment that we want to protect and is not the traditional way to maintain the natural habitat.

The experience is, in some ways, contrary to expectations. I remember the flooding that occurred in my constituency in 1997--the Minister might recall our correspondence at that time. West Moor and South Moor were flooded, quite unexpectedly, when a substantial inundation occurred in August. For various reasons, the Environment Agency chose to leave the water on farmland for a long time, and the result was serious problems for the farmers affected. However, in recent years, flooding in winter months has been more severe than many people expected. Last winter, it was mostly moors in the Taunton and Bridgwater constituencies, not my constituency, that were the worst affected. Nevertheless, communities were cut off, property was damaged and many people experienced considerable difficulty.

The reason why that has happened in successive years is a matter of conjecture. Some say that it is a result of global warming. Yesterday, the Minister said that the result of that should actually be drought in Somerset, but he would not survive long if he came down to the levels and told the people there that they are experiencing drought. However, it is possible that the flooding is a product of climate change.

The problems might also be an effect of maintenance procedures and the flood defence regime that is currently being worked on. That gives rise to particular concern not only because we are experiencing difficulties in lowland areas--to a certain extent, we expect that, although criticism has been voiced about whether the Parrett is providing the required drainage and the rhines are being cleared out regularly--but because there are problems on more elevated land. That is not marginal land or lowland, but prime dairy pasture that has never flooded--land that is not flood plain.

Recently, I went to the Cary valley to inspect the state of the River Cary near Somerton and Castle Cary. In that area, land that historically has not normally flooded has being lying under water. Those who farm the land and know it best are suggesting that something has changed. They suspect that the problem is due to lack of maintenance and clearing, but we cannot be sure that that is so. It may be a contributory factor among many.

Does the Minister accept that there is a fragility to the consensus that many of us have tried to build over the years in that area of the county? That consensus was built on a very difficult genesis. When we first started looking at the need to protect the habitat of the Somerset levels, there was, as the Minister knows, great dissension between the agricultural community and the environmentalists. There was a feeling that neither side understood what the other was trying to do. Eventually, those forces came together and a modus vivendi was accepted. My worry is that that will break down.

I hear the same suspicions expressed today by the conservation and environmental bodies that I heard 10 or 15 years ago--that there is somehow a continual effort to raise the water table and that that ignores the interests of local people. That is of course against the economic backdrop of the crisis in agriculture and the effect that even a small reverse can have on a farm that is only

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marginally viable. People are rightly worried about their livelihoods and the effect that such a change will have on them.

Are the flood defence structures still the most appropriate? That was addressed comprehensively by the Agriculture Committee report on the issue, which I commend. Having re-read the report, I find it complete and helpful. Some of its conclusions are far reaching. Is the tiered structure--regional and local flood defence committees and internal drainage boards--providing the confidence that local communities might expect? Are all the people who need to be involved--the players, the partners--sitting around the same tables? Do we have a co-ordinated approach? Are the financial arrangements sufficient to the task?

In Somerset, the precept for flood defences has steadily risen. It is now up to £5.978 million. Over the past two years, it has increased by 11.5 per cent. and 8.2 per cent. respectively. It is the highest per person for any area of England and Wales. Somerset is not a particularly affluent county--it is not the poorest either--yet it is paying that very high share for the defence of land that might be considered a national and international resource. That cost is largely met by local council tax payers.

The other major factor is the diversion of precepted funds to coastal defence. I do not for one moment decry the need for coastal defence but, considering that the Minehead sea defence cost £12.5 million, such defences take a very large chunk out of the precepted amount, diverting funds from internal land drainage, which prevents flooding on the levels, to the task of keeping the sea out. We need both, and it is hard to understand how the cake can be so divided.

I want the Minister to consider whether there is a need to develop not just a response to individual flooding problems but a properly managed strategy for the Somerset levels and, indeed, beyond to the rivers that feed them from the higher ground surrounding the basin. I say that because I do not believe that it is simply a matter of resources or of providing more and more money for engineering work. I do not think that that will have the desired effect.

The desired effect will be achieved by ensuring that maintenance is carried out and that the dredging of channels, rhines and the major rivers, especially the River Parrett, is done effectively. New ways must be found to ensure that water is retained in places where it is environmentally helpful and, so far as possible, does not damage local communities and agricultural interests.

We need to find new ways to diversify agriculture in the areas where flooding cannot be avoided in the long term. New ways to prosperity must be found for the people who farm that land, who have known no other way of life, and who have a reasonable expectation that they can still derive some sort of livelihood from the land. We need to consider both the social and the economic costs of continued flooding. That is not sufficiently addressed in the present funding formula.

If a village is cut off for three weeks, which is not an unreasonable suggestion--I remember that at one time Muchelney was cut off from the outside world for three to four weeks--that has an enormous social cost for the

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people living there, who are trapped in their village and find it difficult to get out. That is not recognised in the way in which resources are applied at present.

If we could move towards a more co-ordinated and more forward-looking strategy for the levels area and the Parrett basin, we would be making a significant advance. Does the Minister believe that the Government could and would support such a move? Would they encourage local interests to do so? Will the Minister work with colleagues to make sure that the funding is available to make it happen if solutions can be found, no matter how incomplete they may be?

A solution will not come directly out of the precepted amount or from a central Government grant specifically for flood defence. It must be attracted from a variety of sources dotted around various Departments. If the Minister undertakes to examine solutions to the problems of the Somerset levels, I know that local people are prepared to sit around a table and work together to try to find solutions that will be satisfactory for them. The aim must be not to destroy the environment of that precious area, and not to destroy the legitimate social and economic expectations of the people and communities there and of the agricultural areas surrounding the levels and on them.

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