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Mr. Prescott: I note that the hon. Gentleman got in his political postscript, but I am grateful for his remarks about

31 Oct 2000 : Column 617

my right hon. Friend's visit to Bognor Regis. The House would want to express its sympathy for the people there, who faced great difficulties with the tornadoes. He made a valuable point about the increasing number of tornadoes. They are very difficult to deal with, whatever preparations are made. We should remember that France lost 10 million trees last year in a tornado that would have hit the south-east but changed direction at the last minute. We must not assume that tornadoes will not hit this country. They are much more difficult to deal with than the flooding and some of the other problems.

Presumably, the hon. Gentleman believes that we are trying to force more housing on his local authority. As I said to the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), the previous Administration increased housebuilding in Kent, against the wishes of the local authority, so they must have thought that more houses were needed than the local authority thought. Also, one must not make the assumption that more houses mean more land. We made it clear that the amount of land considered necessary for housing in Serplan and in our calculation is the same. We simply need a higher density of housing.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Does the experience of the fragmentation of the railways enhance the case for the privatisation of air traffic control?

Mr. Prescott: No.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Will the Secretary of State please take a personal interest in the lack of joined-up government which is having a serious effect on Lindfield in my constituency, where an on-going dispute between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Environment Agency has led to no action being taken, for a very long time, on a serious flooding problem? I join the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) in calling for urgent work to be done on refining the criteria for flood defences.

Will the Secretary of State consider seriously the points made by other hon. Members from Sussex and elsewhere about overbuilding on the flood plain?

Mr. Prescott: It would help us all if I assumed that every Tory thought that, so they would not have to bring it up in every question.

I do not know the details about the flooding in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but I am concerned about it, so I will investigate and write to him.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. This morning I visited a constituent, Mr. Alan Butt, who runs the Anchor inn, beside Tintern abbey. The inn was severely flooded a couple of days ago and has been flooded eight times in the past 10 years. The flooding was caused not by the River Wye but by excess water running off the local hillsides. That reveals the lack of investment that local authorities have been able to put into flood prevention. In his review of these matters, will my right hon. Friend consider the powers and resources available to local authorities, so that they can have a similar flood prevention role to that of the Environment Agency?

Mr. Prescott: On local authority finances, we have increased the amount for flood management in the

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standard spending assessment. My hon. Friend makes an important point about water from hillsides, and buildings can also cause flooding. We shall certainly consider those matters in the review.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): I remind the Secretary of State that the first instance of flooding this year was on 15 September in my constituency and that the Environment Agency has still failed to report on the causes. Will he ensure that the agency has sufficient resources to deal with the matter properly, quickly and effectively? Will he investigate the role of Southern Water and the incompetent way in which it failed to protect the Portsmouth pumping station, causing many hundreds of people to go through the traumatic experience of losing their homes? Will he also consider the fact that many of those people were not properly insured or not insured at all? Will the Government sympathetically consider supporting the hardship funds that have been set up to help those people through this very difficult situation?

Mr. Prescott: I do not know in sufficient detail the matter to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I shall certainly investigate it. Sewerage was more of a problem than flooding, but the point is academic if the water is coming in through the front door. I shall certainly investigate Southern Water's inefficiencies in dealing with the problem.

In respect of insurance, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that the answer is not to have blanket cover for those who have failed to take out insurance. However, I am concerned that an increasingly serious problem will be that insurance companies might tell people regularly faced with floods that they were not prepared to insure them.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the only reason that my town of Reading is not suffering the serious flood damage experienced elsewhere is that many millions of gallons of water at present cover the ancient water meadows to the south of the town? Does he agree that that wholly justifies Labour-controlled Reading borough council's decision consistently to oppose development on that vital flood plain? Such development is suggested every year by Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors in Berkshire.

Mr. Prescott: That sounds correct. I will go along with it.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle): May I add to the praise for the emergency services? The Deputy Prime Minister knows that Robertsbridge in my constituency has been flooded four times in a year, and twice in the past three weeks. I am sure that he will understand the sense of devastation among local residents. Will he assure them that he will eliminate delays in Bellwin scheme assistance? Will he urge the Environment Agency to hold a meeting in the village as soon as possible, to ensure that the questions raised in last week's Adjournment debate can be answered and that local voices are heard in planning what else can be done to try to prevent the flooding happening again?

Mr. Prescott: Sir John Harman has told me that the agency does hold meetings, but I shall take up the matter

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with him. What the hon. Gentleman suggests certainly should happen, and I believe that it will. The agency's relationships with Members of Parliament and constituents are very important.

I shall also look into the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about what we can do to improve what has already been achieved. No hon. Member ever believes that the Bellwin mechanism is fast enough, and I shall certainly look into the matter.

Mr. Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his determination to do everything possible to alleviate the suffering caused to people by floods. I was amazed at the near hypocrisy expressed by Conservative Members about building on flood plains. I urge them to come to Kenilworth to see for themselves what has happened there as a result of building on the flood plain by Conservative councils and under the previous Conservative Government.

The Environment Agency is working very hard to implement a flood alleviation scheme in Kenilworth, to which it has allocated £200,000. However, the scheme has run up against an obstacle in English Heritage, which is talking about a scheme that would require much more in the way of funds. Will my right hon. Friend use every power available to him to bring the two agencies together with the local authorities so that a flood alleviation scheme in Kenilworth can be put in place that will end my constituents' suffering?

Mr. Prescott: I shall certainly see what I can do to bring the agencies together. There is no reason why they should not come together to reach some agreement, even if it is one that is not acceptable to my hon. Friend. I reserve judgment on the matter, but it is important and I will do what I can.

My hon. Friend makes some powerful points about flood plains. The House should remember that the previous Administration merely published a circular--a type of advice note--on the problem in 1992. Most houses on flood plains were built by Tory councils under a Tory Government. The Opposition still want local councils to make such decisions, even though difficulties such as my hon. Friend described tend to arise. However, 10 per cent. of the population live in houses built on what are presently defined as flood plain fields, and we have to take that into account.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): The regulator apparently puts repairs to foul water and surface water drainage low on the list of priorities contained in his guidance to water companies. Given the increased incidence of flooding, will the Deputy Prime Minister invite the regulator to reconsider those priorities and to encourage water companies to give repairs to drainage pipes for foul and surface water a far higher priority than hitherto?

Mr. Prescott: One of the first things that the Government did on coming to office was to make it clear to the water authorities that there was far too much wastage of water, and that they had to start mending the pipes. They have done that, and wastage has fallen from something over 30 per cent. on average to nearer 20 per cent. That is a step forward.

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I do not know enough about the point that the hon. Gentleman makes to be specific in my reply, but I will draw what he has said to the regulator's attention. I will then write to the hon. Gentleman with the regulator's response.


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