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11.43 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on obtaining the Adjournment debate, and on the thoughtful and sensible way in which he has made his case and analysed the situation relating to the Somerset levels, which he clearly knows well.

There is no doubt that concerns exist about the funding of flood defences on the Somerset levels and moors. It is not just a matter of resources, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said. The right balance must be struck between the various interests in the area, meeting the needs of the agricultural community and taking into account the internationally recognised conservation value of the Somerset levels, which have been designated as a special protection area and an environmentally sensitive area. It must be acknowledged that farmers depend on the area for their living and that the communities living there can be severely affected at times of flood, as the hon. Gentleman made clear.

The Somerset levels are a natural flood plain, and flooding is part of the natural cycle of events. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, many people who live and work in the area are used to that natural cycle, and farming patterns have traditionally been based on the need for sustainability, particularly in relation to summer grazing and pastures.

Over the years, there have been changes--for example, arable crops have been introduced--and that has meant a high level of pumping, which has required much investment. We have also had some exceptionally wet winters, so the Somerset levels have been subject to more flooding than people have hitherto been used to. That may well be the result of climate change due to global warming. We certainly seem to be entering a period of wetter winters and drier summers, which has implications for areas such as the Somerset levels, water level management and the Government's allocation of resources for investment programmes. However,

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the problems of the Somerset levels are a local matter. Local people must come together to assess the flood defence needs of the area and to determine their priorities.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has promoted the production of water level management plans, particularly in environmentally important areas, as a means by which the different needs, including farming and conservation, can be identified, balanced and integrated. Such plans are in place throughout the Somerset levels and moors.

MAFF also recognises that, because of the particular restrictions under which farmers may have to work in environmentally sensitive areas, there is a case for agri-environmental payments. In that regard, farmers in the Somerset levels receive £2.7 million per annum. That is also reflected in the production and agreement of water level management plans.

With regard to community involvement and proposals to deal with the particular problems of the Somerset levels, I support the drawing up of catchment plans. In the Somerset levels, that involves the River Parrett catchment area. There are local proposals to bring together local bodies, such as the Environment Agency, regional flood defence committees, drainage boards, councils and so on, to develop a catchment plan, which may well have implications for determining what needs to be done and arriving at a strategy bearing in mind the available resources. Once the local agricultural and environmental priorities have been determined, local people must consider the various ways in which they can be supported, whether through traditional funding, through precepts raised locally by the regional flood defence committees and capital grants from MAFF, or through the new regional development programme, recognising the unique nature of the Somerset levels and their importance to local communities and nationally.

I am more than willing to consider those issues once the strategy has been drawn up, but I emphasise that such a strategy should be drawn up by local bodies through local representation and the local structures which are in place.

The Government have increased funding for flood and coastal defence by £23 million to a total of £230 million for the three years from the financial year 1999-2000. We will have to take account of the implications of rising sea levels and global warming in our future budgets and the money that we allocate.

I understand that there are proposals for the implementation of major schemes on the lower River Tone at Stanmoor, Baltmoor and Hook bridge in the next three years. They may tackle some of local residents' anxieties about flooding.

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The hon. Gentleman asked about funding for the area. It is a tribute to Somerset that the regional flood defence committee has taken its precept duties seriously. In contrast to other parts of the country, especially in the south-west, Somerset has not reined in the resources that have been made available to local councils through the standard spending assessment for flood defence, or refused to pass them on to the regional flood defence committee.

The Government have made more resources available. There was an increase in the standard spending assessment of 6 per cent. in 1997-98, 5.1 per cent. in 1999 and 6.3 per cent. in 1999-2000. The overall grant earnings ceilings--grant rates that are set for Somerset and constitute approved capital expenditure--have been exceeded. The original agreement in 1997-98 was for £3.2 million. Actual expenditure was £4.8 million. The agreement in 1998-99 was for £2.7 million and actual expenditure was £4.5 million. The agreement for 1999-2000 was for £2.6 million and the current estimate of expenditure is £3.7 million. I accept that, as the hon. Gentleman said, expensive coastal defence works, especially in Minehead, are mainly responsible for that spending. They have absorbed much of the budget.

The Government recognise that we have a responsibility for flood and coastal defence. We take it seriously in relation to the money that we have allocated. We are allocating an increasing amount of money for flood and coastal defence, and we take account of the needs of areas such as the Somerset levels.

We must balance the needs of the communities in the area that the hon. Gentleman represents with our international obligations to an important and fragile conservation area. We will play our part in supporting local communities and responding to the recommendations that have been made to us by the regional flood defence committee and the Environment Agency.

The hon. Gentleman made legitimate and important points. However, I stress that local people should come together and agree a long-term management plan based on river catchments. Once the plans have been agreed, the issues identified and the priorities decided, I shall be only too willing to examine the proposals and respond as positively as I can.

Question put and agreed to.

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