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Flooding and Flood Defence

3.30 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the serious flooding that has occurred in England. I start by expressing the Government's heartfelt sympathy to all those who have been affected. Some houses have been flooded several times in the past few weeks. The whole House can only appreciate the desperation of all the householders who have been affected.

We do not need to be reminded of the extraordinarily heavy rains that have fallen in recent weeks--and that are still falling even as I speak. It is an extreme situation: the land is saturated and water is running straight off into already swollen rivers.

Floods on this scale are rare. River levels in York, for example, are the highest that they have been for 400 years. The 1947 flood was the most recent event on a comparable scale. It was caused by a combination of heavy rain and melting snow and resulted in significant economic damage. Direct comparisons, however, are difficult, as there has been much subsequent development on the flood plain and our defences are much better.

Happily, and most importantly, we have no reports of people losing their lives in the floods. Of the approximately 1.8 million properties at risk of flooding, fewer than 4,000 have flooded. Much of the extensive flooding has been of agricultural land. I believe that most flood defences for urban areas--including York, which is being severely tested--have operated to their design standard or better, demonstrating the justification for significant Government expenditure over the years.

As the House will be aware, further rain is to come and the prospect of more flooding cannot be ruled out. I shall return to the issue of funding flood defences in a moment. I have to emphasise, however, that we cannot stop all flooding, but can only reduce its risk. The recent floods have overwhelmed some defences. It would not have been practicable to have stopped them, as that would have required massive walls which, even if they could have been afforded and constructed, would be unlikely to be acceptable visually or environmentally. A few years ago, Shrewsbury turned down a flood defence scheme on those very grounds.

Having set out what has happened, I want to say what is being done in response. First, however, I pay tribute to the way in which the Environment Agency, emergency services, local authorities, voluntary services and the armed forces have responded to the flooding. They have been working around the clock to ensure that warnings are issued and acted upon, to evacuate people and to shore up defences. I also thank the local media, including local radio, for their contribution in ensuring that information has been made widely and quickly available. At the weekend, we saw on television the massive efforts being made to combat the floods in York. Similar efforts are being made across the country.

The Government's impression is that those partnerships have worked well and that flood warning arrangements have also been effective. As the House knows, when the immediate work has been completed, I shall be asking the

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Environment Agency, in conjunction with its partners, to produce a full report on the flooding, its effects, how the flood warning and emergency response worked, and what lessons we can learn. Although I shall ask to have that report speedily, I emphasise that I do not want preparation of the report to get in the way of the immediate work that needs to be done. I ask for understanding on that point.

At the weekend, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made an important Government announcement on flooding. He said that the Government were improving the Bellwin scheme to help local authorities which incur unexpected costs in response to floods. Assistance under the Bellwin formula will now be automatic for authorities dealing with the current floods. The rate of Government support will increase from 85 per cent. to 100 per cent. Valid claims will be settled within 15 working days and claims for advance payments can be made.

That announcement addresses important concerns that have been put to the Government. The scheme will also be reviewed more generally when the current flooding is over. The Government are also committed to discuss with the Association of British Insurers how the insurance industry can respond more quickly and effectively to emergencies such as this one and deal with problems of insurability for homes and businesses at risk of flooding. When the current problems are over, the Government, local authorities and other agencies will do all that we can in pursuing the recovery plan to help communities get back to normal as soon as possible.

On the funding of flood and coastal defence, the total amount of spending on flood and coastal defence in England from all sources approaches £400 million this year. The Government are by far the largest contributor to that expenditure. In the current financial year, the Government planned to spend some £337 million in England. That is a combination of Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food funding towards capital projects of some £80 million and £257 million delivered through the revenue support grant administered by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Revenue support grant funding is used, among other things, to pay levies to the Environment Agency which the agency uses to fund the maintenance and operational costs of flood defences and the balance of capital works not met by MAFF grants.

The announcement in the spending review in July this year foresaw that MAFF funding would be increased by £5 million next year, £10 million the year after and £20 million the year after that. In all, MAFF funding was expected to total £267 million in the next three years.

We would also expect revenue support grant funding to increase by about 4 per cent. a year, in line with the spending review settlement. Recognising the severity of the floods, I am sure that the House will welcome my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister's announcement of a further £51 million over four years starting this year for additional investment in flood defence works;new whole catchment area assessment studies; and making an earlier start to planned improvements in the flood warning system.

That is new and additional money for England. Further discussions are in hand about the possibility of extra resources for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The further funding is particularly welcome because it will

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allow us to progress more river-based defence schemes. That is an issue that the Ministry needs to discuss with the Environment Agency, but the Government expect to make an announcement on decisions as soon as possible.

I ask the House to join with me in expressing the Government's appreciation to all those who have been involved in responding to the flooding. I also ask the House to acknowledge the already major investment that the Government make in flood and coastal defence and to welcome the further funding that we are making available to help ensure that the risks are reduced for current and future generations.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I thank the Minister for his statement. I extend the Opposition's sympathy and commiseration to all those who have been so seriously affected by the floods in the past few days and weeks. Many of them, as the Minister has rightly said, have suffered on more than one occasion. None of us can put ourselves in the place of somebody who has seen his home or business totally flooded. I join the Minister in paying tribute to all in the rescue services, who have worked above and beyond any call of duty to help those in distress.

The Minister's statement, although welcome, made no reference to the Bye report which followed the last serious flooding in this country: at Easter 1998, when four people died. As the hon. Gentleman said in this House earlier this year, that report clearly said that work had to be done to stop development on flood plains. Planning policy guidance note 25 has been out for consultation for two years. When will the definitive document be issued, especially as it seems that local authorities are still granting planning consent? In the six months to April this year, the Environment Agency advised local authorities to refuse 190 planning applications because of the risk of flooding, yet in 83 of those cases, the authorities ignored that advice and granted planning consent.

There was speculation over the weekend about maps of flood plains becoming available from, I believe, the Environment Agency. When will that happen? What discussions will the Minister or his colleagues hold with the insurance industry not only on the issues to which he referred but on the whole vexed issue of properties on flood plains becoming uninsurable?

Have not the Government already given permission in the past three years for substantial development on flood plains in Hertfordshire, the Nene valley and Ashford? Will they now reconsider those consents?

I welcome the improvements to the Bellwin system that the Minister has announced. It is obviously valuable to local authorities to get the full 100 per cent. and prompt payment. Will that apply only to expenditure incurred by the authorities themselves, or will they be able to pass on resources to others who may have to take remedial actions to deal with the crisis? That is clearly relevant to what the Minister said about the significant impact on agricultural land.

On flood defences, will the Minister confirm that the £51 million will be allocated over four years, so that the funding, although representing welcome extra resources, amounts to only £13 million a year? Is that additional to the £15 million announced in the comprehensive spending

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review earlier this year? Does he accept that the figure of £400 million is slightly misleading? Is not it the case that this year the Environment Agency is spending only £290 million, and that MAFF is allocated £80 million--we are not sure whether that is on top, or as grant aid for the self-same capital projects. In short, how much will be spent in total, forgetting by whom, and how much of it will be new money?

Does the Minister agree with the report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, published two years ago, that said that there was significant confusion among the different bodies responsible for flood prevention and control--the internal drainage boards, local authorities, the Environment Agency and his Ministry? If so, what action will he take to create a much clearer line of responsibility, so that the House can better understand not only who is responsible but where the money is going and who is to spend it on flood defences?

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