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6.30 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and on his detailed presentation of his case. He covered the villages that he represents--Hatton, Scropton, Willington, Barrow on Trent, Swarkstone, Shardlow, Ambaston and Egginton--and I should like to express my sympathy for the difficulties experienced by those of his constituents who have been affected by floods. I understand how distressing floods can be, and that the problem is even worse when foul water is involved.

One of the problems identified by my hon. Friend was that the floods experienced by his constituents happened because of a combination of factors. It is certainly true that there was over-topping of the river defences, but in addition the volume of water caused sewers to back up. The amount of surface water also posed difficulties.

I understand the points made by my hon. Friend that arise from the "Lessons Learned" report on the recent flooding. Those matters include determining where responsibility for water courses lies, the roles of riparian owners and of their internal drainage boards, main and non-main river designations, and the high-level targets that I have set for the Environment Agency and local authorities.

I share my hon. Friend's concern that many authorities seem not to have made much progress, and I shall touch on that in a moment, but I want to deal first with the problem of flooding in Hatton. He was right to say that it was caused by the River Dove rising so high that the Hatton sewage pumping station was flooded. As a result, the sewage system was flooded and the Foston flood defence bank was breached. Floodwater entered the sewage system through the combined foul and highway sewers.

Since the flooding, Severn Trent Water has worked to improve and protect the sewage network in and around Hatton. I understand that the company has effectively

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isolated the sewage system from the River Dove, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that. That should prevent the pumping station from being flooded if the river breaches its banks again.

The company has also installed additional capacity at the pumping station to enable overflows to be pumped to a ditch. It has undertaken maintenance work on sewers in the area, which has included a closed-circuit television survey, cleaning work to improve the flow, and some repairs to prevent the infiltration of ground water into the sewers. An extensive study of the sewage systems in Hatton and the surrounding villages has begun, and will include some computer modelling. One-to-one interviews with householders have been carried out, and some householders have had non-return valves fitted to their drainage systems to prevent sewage back-flow problems.

Severn Trent Water has also maintained close liaison with developers in the area to ensure that any new buildings do not have an adverse effect on the existing sewage system, or on existing residents. It deserves some credit for adopting a comprehensive approach to the problem in response to the concerns by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend raised a range of other matters, and I shall try to deal with them. I recognise that the arrangements for flood and coastal defence are complex, but he was a member of the Select Committee that looked into the matter, and so knows the arrangements better than most.

The Environment Agency has a general supervisory duty for flood defence, but local authorities and internal drainage boards also have a role to play. Flooding from sewers is the responsibility of the local water and sewage company, whereas surface water is usually the responsibility of the relevant highways authority.

Although a number of agencies are involved, I do not believe that an efficient and co-ordinated response is impossible. That is what we are trying to put in place by setting the high-level targets after the winter floods. We have asked all operating authorities to produce publicly available policy statements setting out their approach to flood and coastal defence and showing the water courses for which they are responsible. Those authorities must also say how they would manage flood risks on those water courses. Those statements will help to illuminate local approaches and give local communities the information by which they can judge the performance of these bodies.

I recognise that this does not apply to the bodies responsible for sewers and surface waters. The Environment Agency has discussed with me the idea of using its Floodline service, which was very successful in the recent floods--it gave people a point of contact as well as providing information and updates--as a one-stop approach for all those who suffer flooding, from wherever it may be. That includes problems with surface water and drains. This is probably a longer-term aspiration. It is important first to establish local partnerships and secure local agreement between the agency and the other bodies involved, which will be assisted through the development of an effective emergency plan in the light of last autumn's experiences.

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I am also prepared to consider the institutional arrangements for flood and coastal defence more generally in the light of the findings of the review of funding arrangements and the financial management and policy review of the Environment Agency. Both reviews are currently under way and will be reporting their findings this year. That will be an opportunity for considering a range of issues, including the funding and structural mechanisms, relating to the way in which we carry out flood and coastal defence in this country.

My hon. Friend referred to the willingness of local authorities to carry out inspections of flood defences and critical ordinary water courses. He referred to his parliamentary question and the answer that I gave him. The long list of local authorities that had not, for various reasons, responded in the kind of detail that we expected, was very disappointing.

There is an associated high-level target that authorities should identify flood defences for which they are responsible. It is possible that some of the authorities on the list do not have any such responsibilities. However, these inspections are required under our high-level targets and the approach was agreed at a meeting with senior members of the Local Government Association. There is a related high-level target for the Environment Agency to report on flood defence inspections and its assessment of flood risk. That is expected shortly. I have asked the agency's chairman to ensure that the report provides a full analysis of the inspection problems. That includes an analysis of the response that we have had from local authorities so far. I want to assure my hon. Friend that we take this matter seriously.

My hon. Friend touched generally on the economic appraisal. He knows how that operates in relation to the methodology that we use in determining priority scores for where the resources should go for flood defence schemes. We cannot get away from the fact that there will always be more demand for spending on flood and coastal defence than can be provided in any one year. In that respect, it is right and proper to have a mechanism that identifies priority. Therefore, those with the most need get the schemes put in place as quickly as possible.

Mr. Todd: I accept what my hon. Friend has said. However, he will need to think about two issues--the scale of the total pot available for carrying out the schemes, as that will obviously influence the number of priority schemes that are available, and the precise mechanism that is used to determine the cost and benefit of each scheme, which I referred to in my speech.

Mr. Morley: I accept those points. We are reviewing the scoring system and have just started a formal consultation process on the way in which the system works. We will, of course, reflect carefully on the comments that we receive from people who respond to the consultation.

Funding is, in many ways, the crux of the issue, as it determines what can be provided. I am glad to say that the Government have increased funding for flood and coastal defence as part of the 2000 comprehensive spending review. Following the devastating floods of last autumn, which in many cases were the worst for more than

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100 years, we made available an additional £51 million over the next four years. That was announced last November. That money was mainly to accelerate river defence schemes and to allow catchment flood management plans to proceed. I very much appreciate my hon. Friend's welcome for that.

We have also put together a package of £11.6 million to fund the Environment Agency's exceptional costs in responding to last year's floods and carrying out emergency repairs. That sum is available in the current financial year, so that the agency can deal with those matters. In total, more than £400 million a year is being spent on flood and coastal defence in England. That sum is not far away from the proposal for the appropriate sum made in the independent assessment commissioned by the Ministry.

Mr. Todd: I was about to ask about the relationship with the survey carried out by MAFF. Although there is obviously some relationship, the amount set aside is substantially less than the amount identified in that survey. Furthermore, many of the local authorities which replied so unfavourably--as my hon. Friend and I agree--referred to resource problems in carrying out their responsibility. Finally, the survey on the state of our current defences showed--as I said--that 40 per cent. of those defences fall into the "fair or below" category. That demonstrates a huge shortfall merely in the routine maintenance of our existing defences.

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