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Road Building

13. Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): When he last met the Royal Automobile Club to discuss road building. [133313]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes): Ministers regularly meet the RAC foundation both bilaterally and in the context of the motorists forum. At those meetings various issues are discussed, including road building.

Mr. Collins: Is the Minister aware that the number one priority for RAC members and others in my constituency is the construction of the much needed A590 bypass at High and Low Newton? The Minister knows that the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) and I have made many representations to her on the matter. The bypass is supported by every tier of local government in the area. Will the Government give the area good news soon?

Ms Hughes: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point, because the road provides a good case study for contrasting the action--or non-action--of the previous Government with the action of the current Administration. He knows that a public inquiry approved the building of the road, and that it was included in the previous Government's wish list of 500 schemes in 1993. However, there were two priorities on that list--priority one was maybe; priority two was never. The road received priority two status.

The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that the Government included the scheme in the programme that was initiated after the roads review. It was remitted to the regional planning conference for consideration of the environmental issues, which the hon. Gentleman will know about. The conference identified the scheme as of regional strategic significance and said that it should be implemented by 2010. Provided that that priority remains, the resources in the transport plan mean that it should be delivered.

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Severe Weather Disruption

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): With permission, I wish to make a statement about the violent storms that hit much of England and Wales late Sunday night and early yesterday morning.

We offer deepest sympathy to the relatives and friends of those who tragically lost their lives. There has been tremendous inconvenience and disruption, but our thoughts are especially with those whose homes have been flooded or damaged.

According to the Meteorological Office, the storm that we experienced was the most severe since 1987. There was widespread flooding, very high rainfall and high winds. There were blizzards in the north-west and tornadoes on the south coast. Electricity and gas supplies were disrupted, road and rail links were blocked, airports and sea ports were closed. There was considerable damage to property, especially in coastal areas.

From Sunday evening, emergency teams have been working constantly. There were teams from local authorities, the Environment Agency, Railtrack and the electricity and gas supply industry. The police, fire and ambulance services, and coastguard and lifeboat crews have, with their usual professionalism, provided valuable help and assistance. All have done a magnificent job. I am sure that the House will join me in recording not only our admiration but our heartfelt thanks for a job well done in difficult circumstances.

Normal services are now being restored. The Environment Agency reported that, overall, there has been a general improvement in the flood situation overnight. However, 33 severe flood warnings remain in place, and still more properties are under threat from flooding.

Early indications suggest that the new flood warning systems now used by the Environment Agency have been effective and that lessons have been learned from the past. The Environment Agency will draw up a report on the lessons to be learned from the floods two weeks ago in East Sussex and from the current floods. The report will be circulated to all hon. Members. I believe that an Adjournment debate on such matters took place last week.

The Bellwin scheme, which the previous Government introduced, is in place to provide financial help to local authorities in England in emergencies such as this storm. The arrangements also apply to police and fire authorities, and the National Assembly for Wales operates similar arrangements.

Money is available to help with uninsurable clear-up costs following a serious disaster or emergency. In March this year, my Department wrote to all local authorities to tell them about the scheme and how to use it. Under the scheme, each authority is responsible for expenditure on emergency work up to a threshold of just 0.2 per cent. of its annual budget. Expenditure above the threshold is eligible for 85 per cent. assistance from central Government. Several authorities are already in contact with my Department and we will ensure that their requests for help are dealt with as quickly as possible.

As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food told the House last Wednesday, we are increasing funding for

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flood and coastal defence. The Environment Agency's total flood defence expenditure was £261.8 million in 1998-99. In 1999-2000, that increased to £276.1 million. The budget for 2000-01 is £283.1 million, and planned expenditure for 2001-02 is £290.1 million.

There has been considerable discussion of the important planning issues that often arise in connection with these matters. We consulted earlier this year on draft new planning guidance, which will deal with the issue of development in flood risk areas. That considerably improves on the 1992 circular.

Our policy is clear: it is to discourage inappropriate development in flood risk areas. We intend to issue the final version of the new guidance in December. We are therefore--together with the Environment Agency--improving flood warnings; encouraging, and providing more funding for, flood and coastal defence; and encouraging development away from flood risk areas.

The storm that we experienced was certainly extreme. There is much discussion about the influence of global warning on our weather--[Interruption.] I mean, global warming. It is still very much a global warning--perhaps that is the word that I should have used. We cannot say that any one storm is due to global warming, but there is growing evidence that the pattern of weather around the world is increasingly stormy and extreme.

The UK is taking a leading role in securing the Kyoto global agreement to reduce greenhouse gases to limit climate change in future. However, we must take practical action now so that we are prepared for a future where extreme weather events are more frequent. That is why we have produced the climate change impacts study for the UK, and why we are producing a series of regional climate change impact studies on how different parts of the United Kingdom will be affected. We can now accurately predict and forecast extreme weather events.

We have to ask ourselves if we are doing enough to cope with the new situation. Should our power lines for trains and homes come down every time we have such storms? Should 1,000 trees fall across our railway lines in the south-east? Should we do more to prevent flooding? Are the drainage systems on our roads really adequate? The storm should be a wake-up call for everyone. Our infrastructure should be robust enough and our preparations rigorous enough to withstand the sort of weather that we have just experienced.

Tomorrow, I will be attending a meeting of the central local partnership with the leaders of central and local government, who have to deal with a great deal of this emergency planning and action. We will want to discuss how to undertake a more in-depth analysis of what is needed to be done. Together with my ministerial colleagues, the emergency services, the Environment Agency and others, we will want to look at how to review our systems for dealing with such emergencies. I have spoken with Sir John Harman, the chairman of the Environment Agency. He intends to play a leading role in this work.

We have measures in place to deal with the immediate effects of this storm. We need to take a longer term look at how we can as a country be better placed to deal with the extreme weather events which we expect to be more frequent in future.

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The House will wish to join me in thanking local authorities, the emergency services and many others involved for their unstinting efforts, and in offering sympathy on the loss and suffering experienced by people in the areas affected.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells): First, I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement. We are grateful for his unprompted and timely response. I join him in expressing sympathy for those who are bereaved or injured, and for the many thousands of people throughout the country who are suffering the misery of seeing their homes ruined by the flooding. In many instances, this is the second or third time in recent months that they have been flooded. I take this opportunity to join the right hon. Gentleman in thanking the emergency services for their magnificent response to the crisis.

The floods now form a pattern that perhaps first became evident in Easter 1998, with the extensive flooding in middle England. The writing has been on the wall for a little while, and we must recognise that this is a serious problem and will remain so for years to come. Today's response is very welcome, but I ask the Deputy Prime Minister to address a number of issues arising from what is now a very worrying trend.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister feel that there are any lessons to be learned now--I appreciate that these are early days--about the handling of the crisis? For example, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned power lines, and there are widespread reports from Kent today that the switchboard of the local utility company has been jammed solid for the past two days. People who are dangerously affected by power lines are unable to get through to the company to seek advice. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a case, perhaps, for looking into the co-ordination and integration of the crisis response, and providing a single information line to which the public can turn?

Secondly, although we welcome the right hon. Gentleman's confirmation that compensation for local authorities will be forthcoming, will he comment on the remarks made by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who mentioned in the House last week that the process of compensation had been slow? The right hon. Gentleman said that he would respond swiftly, but can he reassure local authorities on what specific action will be taken to ensure that the response is swift and compensation is received?

In the light of the recurring instances of flooding, does the right hon. Gentleman think with hindsight--obviously, he has the benefit of hindsight--that the response of the Environment Agency is a cause for concern? Does he recall that, after the deaths and distress caused by the 1998 floods, the independent review team commented that some of the problem

Can he reassure the House that, in addition to the inquiry conducted by the Environment Agency, there will be an investigation into its performance, powers and effectiveness in dealing with future flood crises?

Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the funding for flood defences are adequate? He mentioned that funds are increasing, which is true, but the figures suggest that

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flood defence expenditure will rise by only about 7 to 8 per cent. over the next two years--I think I am right in that--which is scarcely enough to meet inflation in construction costs alone. The Environment Agency today reports that it has a substantial backlog of expenditure to be met. Does he think that current expenditure plans are adequate?

Finally, on the longer term issues, does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that the commitment to accelerate housebuilding on greenfield land in the south-east and south-west--against the wishes of local people and local councils--may exacerbate the risk of flooding? The Environment Agency warned in 1998 that the Government's estimates for new housebuilding were adding to the pressure and that an area of flood plain the size of Bristol--I appreciate that the guidelines have changed since then--could be built on over the next 20 years. Does he accept that decisions to build in river valley areas that may or may not be designated flood plains but which play an important role in absorbing rainfall--such as Lewes, Hertfordshire north of Stevenage, and the flood plains of Ashford and the Nene valley in Northamptonshire--are exactly what the Environment Agency warned against?

Will the right hon. Gentleman investigate and set out in full the relationship between housebuilding and the development of flood risk and, indeed, the effect of other development in the countryside on flood risk? In the meantime, will he suspend his plans to override the south-east regional planning committee and the wishes of councils in the south-east and south-west? Does he recognise that that is another reason why the Government should reconsider their plans to concrete over the countryside by building the wrong houses in the wrong places, and that doing so risks contributing to future misery caused by the loss of greenfield land and, more important, flooding in our towns and villages?

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