Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak about flood defences, a subject that is of great importance to my constituents. I thank the Minister for being here; I know that shortly after the events that gave rise to so much unhappiness in my constituency on 21 and 22 October, he responded to the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) in an Adjournment debate about the consequences of that storm.
The House will recall that the weekend of 21-22 October was one of exceptional rainfall in Cambridgeshire. I see the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) in her place; her constituents and mine, and those of other hon. Members in the area, suffered greatly as a consequence. It was a one in 220 chance that 96 mm of rain should have fallen in Bourn, to the west of Cambridge in my constituency. The consequence of that in my constituency and in the surrounding area was extensive flooding. The current estimate is that 12 villages in my constituency experienced flooding of property, as did several in the hon. Lady's constituency and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice).
In many instances, such flooding had not been experienced within living memory. As one would expect, it gave rise to many questions about our preparedness, its exceptional nature notwithstandingwhether the circumstances led to worse flooding than should have happened, whether the response was adequate and what lessons should be learned. I know that the Minister and other hon. Members have debated flood defences extensively since the floods of Easter 1998, and again after last winter's exceptional flooding. I wish to draw on those debates and to make a modest contribution to the Government's thinking on the matter.
I raise this issue not only because of my constituents' unhappy experience of three or four weeks ago but because we in Cambridgeshire know that as a result of last winter's exceptional rainfall, ground water levels are very high, aquifers are full and springs are appearing in places where water has not flowed for years. We are now exceptionally vulnerable to flooding. That and the more volatile and extreme wet weather conditions that we are experiencing mean that flooding on such a scale may occur again if we do not take measures to deal with it.
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge ): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, which is timely. I wonder whether his constituents were in the same position as mine during that flood. My constituents, especially those in the Birdwood road area of Cambridge, phoned Cambridge city council to ask for
Mr. Lansley : I am grateful to the hon. Lady. It will be helpful to deal with some of the questions that emerged from that flooding before moving on to the generality of what needs to be done. The hon. Lady is right that sandbags were not available in some places, although they were in others. I do not detract for a moment from the work that South Cambridgeshire district council did in my constituency: it responded quickly, and most residents were grateful for its efforts. None the less, there were problems, and villages such as Bourn have resolved to pre-position sandbags against future flooding. As the hon. Lady knows, there were difficulties because of the speed of the flooding, which would have tested any response mechanism.
A constituent in Great Shelford, just south of Cambridge, contacted the Environment Agency's flood line. The agency's report entitled "Learning the Lessons" looked to the flood line as a mechanism for conducting responses among a range of agencies. My constituent rang a recorded call-back system to learn when the River Cam would peak, but he was given information about the River Lea. He asked the agencies three times to call him back, but no call came until the following day. To be fair, the Environment Agency acknowledged in subsequent correspondence with my constituent that on
Understandably, my constituent feels that the system shouldfor the benefit of himself and otherswork correctly the first time that it is put into operation because that is likely to be when flooding is experienced. As the hon. Lady rightly said, some constituents have inevitably encountered serious practical difficulties with the system that has been put in place.
Other hon. Members will relate their experiences, and I shall move on to the more general concerns that have become clear to me in my discussions with constituents and others. My constituents' experiences of flooding have raised considerable concerns, one of which is flood plain development, which the Government have sought to tackle in planning policy guidance 25.
The doctor's surgery in Bourn was flooded. When I visited three or four days later, patients' records were still drying off on tables, and one can imagine the distress that villagers felt about that. However, that was not the first time that the surgery had been flooded, although the flood was more serious than previous ones. The surgery and other properties had been built on what was recognised in the village as a flood plain.
The second question is to what standard flood defences should be constructed. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and his constituents will know that one major issue is whether flood defences will be reinstated at a standard likely to deal with high flood levels in future. In a little more than a quarter of cases last winter, floods topped flood defences.
What indicative standards will there be for the future? The Government are being offered various pieces of advice. On the basis of what my constituents experience, some of the assumptions about standards for flood defencefor example, the 1 per cent. probability for urban areas and a lesser one for rural areaswill not be considered acceptable in future. Given the frequency with which extremes of weather occur and if we persist, contrary to recent experience, with high levels of ground water and aquifer levels, we shall have more substantial floods. They look statistically improbable, but will none the less happen.
As the Association of British Insurers stated in its recent report, we should consider a 0.5 per cent. or a one in 200 standard for flood defence to reassure the public, and to ensure that they can secure flood defence cover from insurers at a reasonable price. The Government have rightly sought advice from the Institution of Civil Engineers, which saw one in 100 as the common standard. Many of my constituents, who live in rural areas, would benefit from a higher level of protection than at present under a higher standard.
A need for investment would arise from a new standard. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is right to continue to acquire research and reports, on the basis of which decisions must be made. It commissioned a report on the national appraisal of assets at risk from flooding and coastal erosion in July, which pointed out an increase in Government investment in flood defence of between 35 and 85 per cent. The ABI calculated that, on the basis of the Department's current expenditure, about an additional £145 million a year should be invested in flood defences.
It would be interesting if the Minister were to tell us more about the Department's review of the organisation of and funding mechanisms for flood defence. I hope that he will say that the Government will respond positively to the appraisal of the required levels of increased investment, and that they will strengthen the indicative standards. He could also follow up on a short exchange that we had during departmental questions on the revision of the basis on which individual projects are assessed. There is merit in the argument advanced by the Institution of Civil Engineers about the point-scoring system. The overriding priority, in terms of the human consequences of flooding, is the avoidance of threat to life. However, as many of our constituents know, flooding has many distressing features, including social and health costs.
It is clear that the subsequent distress of flooding means that, when we calculate the benefit to be derived from undertaking more flood defence investment, we should take fully into account the human cost as well as the strict economic cost, with the distortions that can occur in relative property values in any case. Perhaps we should go beyond that and consider a further, high-level Government target to reduce flooding of properties. We should identify the extent to which minimising the problems that flooding causes residential properties can be a target in itself.
Everyone will be aware of the confusion that surrounds the question of who is responsible for what in terms of flood defence. That is not a new question in my constituency; it was asked even before the events of 21 and 22 October. In a number of villages we had to take stock after the events of last winter. We met in a room not much smaller than this. Parish and district councils, the county council and the Environment Agency all came together to discuss the matter. The first conclusion was that, in many villages, the parish or district council knew who was responsible for the ownership and drainage of ditches, for clearing them out and for ensuring that flooding problems were not merely passed on to neighbouring properties.
I am sure that the Minister will be pleased to know that earlier in the year we began the process of saying that each parish must have a survey to establish riparian ownership and responsibilities, and that the district council must consider where it can undertake drainage clearance.
It was interesting in that context that the body that many expected to be able to participate in the process was the Environment Agency. However, the agency said that it could give advice but not funds, with the exception of a small grant to the village of Fowlmere to help with a study to ascertain how flooding could be alleviated there. Presumably, that was because we were not dealing with the main rivers for which the agency is responsible. Those who work for the agency and who were formerly with the National Rivers Authority seemed to feel that in the past they might have been able to do a little more than to offer sympathy and advice to those dealing with ordinary water courses.
I believe that the Environment Agency feels that it can take a wider role. It might not be the front-line authority in each instanceperhaps that should be the role of the district council. However, it should be the strategic body to view the entire catchment area for a river such as the Cam, which extends into many ordinary water courses that, having flooded, have caused a great deal of water to run into the Cam very rapidly, as the hon. Member for Cambridge knows only too well.
Mrs. Anne Campbell : I am grateful. The hon. Gentleman is being most generous with his time. He has highlighted the important issue of who is responsible for cleaning out ditches, waste pipes and drains. In the past, my constituents were aware of people who regularly cleared out such courses, but those people have not been seen for some time. Would their experience accord with that of his constituents?
I should like to leave time for other hon. Members to contribute their thoughts and experiences. However, it might be helpful if I summarise the matters that I should like to put to the Minister. I realise that it might not be appropriate for him to respond now, because any comment will depend on the Government's further response to the review of organisation and funding mechanisms. Nevertheless, Members will want to give their input to that. On the basis of discussions that I have had with my constituents about their recent experiences, and of some of the material that I have seen, I would summarise in 10 points.
First, investment needs to increase. It is reasonable to look to the ABI. Its estimate of £145 million is in line with the figure that independent advisers have quoted to the Department. That is a reasonable starting point for reflecting the priority that has to be attached to increased flood defence investment. The benefits associated with that more than justify the direction of resources.
Secondly, the Institution of Civil Engineers suggested a new high-level target as a way of acting directly to reduce the number of properties that are flooded, especially residential properties. That may be a good way forward.
Thirdly, the criteria for projects should not merely be economic cost-benefit analyses, and should not necessarily be based on a benefit-to-cost ratio of five to one. A human dimension should be built in. It is difficult to express quantitatively something with a qualitative value, but it has been done in the health context, for example, to express quality-adjusted life years. That kind of methodology can be used to express the reduction of distress that would be the result of building a human dimension into the criteria for choice of projects. My constituents feel that projects that might benefit them in rural areas are not undertaken because of the property values associated with urban projects. I would like to see more evidence to support that argument. There should, at least, be a more transparent system for considering projects one by one and comparing them.
Fourthly, we are working to an indicative standard of 1 per cent. probability for all projects. Perhaps over time, however, as the ABI recommends, as new defence projects come on stream we might move to a probability of one in 200, which would ensure that insurers felt confident about giving affordable insurance cover to those who might be affected by flooding.
Fifthly, the Environment Agency has sought a role in co-ordinating catchment strategies. I understand that the Government are considering that idea positively, and I hope that it may be put into practice, especially as regards the River Cam, for which no such strategy
My sixth point relates to the SSA, although I hesitate to mention it, as it always makes hon. Members glaze over. Ministers are expecting further changes to be made to the structure of SSA, which I might wish to happen sooner. If they occur by April 2003, one hopes that local government in some places may find in the new structure an immediate response to an increase in flood defence levies. In Yorkshire, for example, levies are expected to rise substantially.
My seventh point relates, again, to the Environment Agency. Although it may be the right body to establish long-term strategy and take responsibility for examining the viability of projects, the front-line response should come from a front-line authority such as a district council. The Environment Agency should dovetail with such an authority. A district council would be the right body to act as the immediate co-ordinating mechanism, as it would understand the geography in the area where the flood had occurred and how villages were affected. I hope that the co-ordination of emergency responses through the front-line authority might be better achieved in that way. On 21 and 22 October in my constituency, many agencies were doing their best, but in isolation from other authorities because an emergency plan had not been put into place. The hon. Member for Cambridge referred to sandbags; that is an instance of how co-ordinating different bodies' responses can, with a pro-active approach, increase effectiveness.
My eighth point concerns the fact that some constituents experienced not just a flash flood but sewage flooding, as a result of living in relatively low-lying places. I know that the Minister will have received reports of that problem many times, but that sort of flooding is distressing to constituents. Anglian Water calculates that at present such flooding could affect 1,173 properties. The technical jargon calls them DG5 properties. The funding level until 2005, in the settlement with Ofwat, would permit 20 such properties a year to be dealt with. My constituents would consider it very important for the regulator to allow, in the price mechanisms for Anglian Water and other water and sewerage authorities, for a service of a standard that would enable sewage flooding to be reduced. I hope that the Minister will press the regulator to recognise that.
My ninth point leads me to wonder whether the Minister has considered giving district councils, the front-line authorities, greater powers to require riparian owners to undertake their responsibilities for clearing ditches and drainage, or allowing them to undertake the work and impose charges on those responsible. In some villages in my area, it is felt that the difficulties have reached the point at which that is necessary. There is confusion about riparian ownership, in some cases going back hundreds of years, and about overlapping responsibilities.
Perhaps it would be in order for the Law Commission to work on regularising and simplifying the law. There might be scope, using the new system of orders under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001, for the Government to examine the difficulties in this area. I know that they are considering simplifying some other legislation. A mechanism exists enabling that to be done without taking inordinate amounts of parliamentary time on legislation. Perhaps the time has come to examine riparian ownership and responsibilities and to reform the law. I note that the Institution of Civil Engineers recommended that as titles are reregistered with the Land Registry, riparian ownership and responsibilities should also be registered. That would provide helpful transparency.
For my 10th point, I return to the matter of trying to prevent any more of the flood plain flooding that has occurred recently, which worries my constituents. As some hon. Members will know, in Cambridgeshire and around Cambridge itself there is an unprecedented amount of building work. The Government want 2,800 additional homesthe equivalent of one of our large villagesto be built every year. People wonder where so many properties can be built, year after year, in an area which is, in part, subject to fluvial flooding and which elsewhereto the north and west of Cambridgeis relatively low-lying anyway, with internal drainage boards trying to avoid flooding problems. People ask, "How can we accommodate that sort of development?" That is one reason, among others, why the Government should consider stemming the increase in targets for building. They should bear in mind the environmental and flooding consequences.
Generally, when the Environment Agency examines plans for development, including structure plans, it should consider whether it should issue directions against building in certain places. Those directions should not be simply advisory. If planning approval is granted in contradiction to such a flood direction, the Secretary of State should call the case in, to stop flood plains being developed to the extent that has been going on. Clearly, there are circumstances in which some development can occur with appropriate defences. However, my constituents in Bourn see Cambourne being built3,300 new homes where there are already 500. It seems to them that common things happen commonly and that the consequences in terms of flooding of the development occurring in such a place could fall upon them. They saw the balancing lakes fill on 22 October, when only one sixth of the houses that will eventually be built had been built, and they feel that, even if on that occasion the development was not the prime cause of their flooding, it may make things worse in the future.
Those are my points for the future. I know that the Minister recognises that the events of last winter and those recently experienced by my constituents should be prevented from happening again. As we enter another season of potential flooding, the public want to know that we have identified the necessary measures and that the work is in hand to deal with the problem. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to that.
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): I thank the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) for initiating the debate. I wish that I had done so myself a few weeks ago, but I have had one or two personal problems. I am delighted to he here this morning. I would like to raise a number of mainly parochial issues, but before I start to talk about such matters I should say that we must not forget the fact of global warming, which causes many of the problems that we are experiencing in our constituencies. I hope that the President of the United States will continue in his new international mode. Perhaps it will draw him into returning to Kyoto, which would be very significant for the world but particularly for us, whose constituents are at risk from flooding.
Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): The hon. Lady may be aware that there are scientists who believe that the increase in flooding is due to the north Atlantic oscillation more than to global warming. We are dealing with a blip. The references to the flooding being the worst for 400 years beg the question of what caused the flooding 400 years ago. What is the hon. Lady's answer to that?
Mrs. Cryer : I was not around 400 years ago, so I have no idea. However, we should still concentrate on global warmingit clearly contributes to the flooding. I will not argue with the hon. Gentleman's point about what happened 400 years ago, but I feel that the United States is being selfish in its attitude to the use of fossil fuels and is causing many problems for our constituents and us.
In my constituencyKeighleythere are three rivers. These include the Wharfe, which is beautiful and comes down from the dales, but which also floods. Some 12 months ago, that River flooded and a small number of homesabout eightin the Ilkley area of my constituency were affected. The River Aire caused many more problems. It is a beautiful river up in the dales, but as it gets into the industrial areas it becomes narrow, particularly near the Bridge Inn at Stockbridge, which the Minister visited shortly after the flooding. Stockbridge is built in a triangle at the confluence of the River Aire and the River Worth.
The Worth is a fast-flowing river because it comes from up in the Pennines towards Oxenhope, which is very high. It has a great force behind it. The 1950s houses in that small triangle where it joins the Aire have always been prone to flooding and will continue to be so unless something is done by the Environment Agency to the River Aire flood defences higher up the valley. The agency has promised me that work will commence next summer, but that seems to be moveable and I am worried that it may become next autumn. Some 12 months have already passed since the flooding devastated many of my constituents and their families.
Another problem arose in that area. In addition to the small semi-detached houses in the triangle, there were some Victorian terrace houses with cellars. To improve their homes, many people had dry-lined their cellars to keep the damp out and make them waterproof. Unfortunately, dry lining also keeps water in so at the time of the flooding 12 months ago, the homes became water tanks. The water did not simply seep away as it would have done many years ago.
Almost every day during the flooding, I attended a meeting of the co-ordinating committee of the local authority and the various agencies and services. One of my jobs was to co-ordinate with the West Yorkshire fire service, which initially told people that there would be a charge of several hundred pounds to pump out their cellars. As time went on, it became clear through discussions that they would pump out the cellars, but would charge if the householders had property insurance and the insurance companies could pay, rather than the taxpayer. I have no argument with that, but it took several days for that to become clear. The water came up to the cellar steps and the cellars were just tanks of water with things floating around in them.
We should clarify that issue before we have that terrible experience again. Every time that it rains heavily, some constituents are terrified and go through another trauma because they are reminded of the morning of the floods when they were awakened at 3 or 4 o'clock by the sound of water gushing down their street. That is a horrific experience for people, many of whom are elderly. One or two of the older people who, like me, are a bit deaf, did not hear the sirens or the water coming down and slept, oblivious to everything. At 4 or 5 am, they were awakened by well-meaning neighbours, who were breaking down the doors to get them out. They looked down and saw water coming halfway up the stairs.
We need to consider those issues, so that in the event of another terrible flooding, we know where we are going. Sandbags must be in place. There were sandbags, but there need to be more. We should also ask why the Environment Agency is telling us, 12 months on, that it will be another eight months before it can even start the work on the flood defences on the River Aire.
Some 300 houses in that area were flooded. Many problems have also been exacerbated by the reluctance of insurance companies to be more helpful. They simply dragged their feet. A few weeks ago, I got so angry with a large and famous insurance companyI will not name itfor doing nothing for an elderly lady that I wrote a postscript at the bottom of a letter, which said that if the company had not responded to my letter within a week, I would name it in Parliament. I am not sure whether I should do that, but I felt so angry with them, and it worked. The company started to respond to me, so I will not name it today, because it has gone some way to answer my constituent's problems.
Some 12 months on, my constituent is still out of her home, which was badly flooded. Four weeks before that, her husband died. She had to move out of her home, which was in a terrible state. The insurance company has still not sorted out the repairs to her property. It has had cowboyspeople who are clearly unskilledworking on her home. They have only been working from 5 pm every day, so they obviously have another job and that is why it has taken the lady so long to have the work done. She was going to move back in a few weeks ago, but when she looked at the property, it was in an appalling state. My assistant and a surveyor have seen it and the surveyor says that it is not fit to live in. The doors do not fit and the plaster does not reach the skirting boards, which do not fit the floors. It will be a nightmare to live in, because it is very cold and full of draughts. That elderly lady, who is in her 70s, still cannot move back to her home, so I have a big moan
I have one more point about insurance. One family returned to their long-standing insurers, a small company, which said, "We're not keen on insuring you again, but we will. However, there will be a £10,000 excess for flood damage." For a working-class family, that is pie in the sky; there is no way that they could raise that sort of money. We advised the family to shop around for their insurance and I should like that to be the message that goes out from this debate. Had that family gone along with their insurance company, they could have ended up in great difficulties and debt.
I again thank the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire. I shall not repeat the problems that he mentioned because other hon. Members want to speak, but a number of those problems have been with me for the past 12 months. I am still working on them and I am sure that many other Members are doing the same.
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): I start by apologising to the Minister as I shall have to leave fairly shortly to chair the Standing Committee that is considering the Proceeds of Crime Bill. Of course, I undertake to read his remarks in Hansard carefully. I suspect that I may be joined in Committee by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). If he arrives there late, I shall understand why.
Would that it were so. The fact is that the devil lies in the detail. The notes to the section about the autumn 2000 floods, which the Minister kindly appended to what I appreciate was a well-intentioned letter, say:
Last winter, the Minister and I shared a happy half hour at the end of what was a long and tiring day for both of us paddling around the Eddington lane area of Herne Bay in my constituency. That winter, Eddington lane, the Plenty Brook estate, the Nurserylands estate, Cherry gardens, Gordon road, Spencer road and much of Greenhill were flooded. The Eddington lane area was first flooded on 4 April 2000. It was flooded again on 12 and 13 October 2000, on 8 February 2001 and, most recently, on 21 October.
On the last occasion, the waters did not enter any houses, but my constituents suffered genuine trauma watching the waters rise, in exactly the same way as the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) described. They finally stopped within 4 in of an elderly gentleman's door. The insurance companies have said that from now on, although they will maintain insurance on properties
Returning to the Minister's letter, the problem is that the responsibility is unclear. Certainly for minor rivers and riparian rights, there is no real responsibility. Sir John Harman, the head of the Environment Agency, made it plain that he was not prepared to take on the Government over their building programme. In opening this most welcome debate, my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) said that far too little attention appeared to be given to the problems of building on flood plains. I would extend that by saying that this is not only about flood plains but about land adjacent to them. The Minister visited the relevant site in my constituency, so he knows exactly what I am talking about.
Two big estates have been built in Herne Bay recently: the Willow Farm estate at Broomfield and the Stillwater estate adjacent to Thanet way. The Stillwater estate has balancing ponds, which are supposed to be satisfactory to compensate for the loss of drainage. However, in the most recent flood on 21 October the balancing pond came within about 9 in of the top of its bank. It had nowhere to drain, because the Southern Water reservoir, which is designed to take floodwater, was full and backing up towards the new estate. The Willow Farm estate is of interest, because this will be the first winter in which the houses have been occupied. They were built on what waslast wintera lake with waterfowl nesting on it; I am sure that that will interest the Minister. A lot of twitchers came and watched the birds nesting on what is now a housing estate.
The building work is going ahead, but no control is exercised on the infrastructure and no responsibility is taken for it. The Environment Agency claims that it does not have the powers to enforce the correct infrastructure prior to planning. Building work is going ahead, and one does not have to be a genius or a rocket scientist to work out that if one builds on land that has been drained, puts down tarmac, and builds roofs with tiles, the water has to go somewhere. The "somewhere" in question is a stream, such as the Plenty brook, which turned into a raging torrent last winter, and the Minister knows that because he saw it. That lasted only for a matter of hours, but it was enough to affect the sewerage system, to pump raw sewage into people's homes and to do an immense amount of damagefor the fourth time.
People have had enough, and I endorse the 10 points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will consider carefully the powers and responsibilities of the Environment Agency and local authorities to ensure that minor riversI was going to say "never mind the major ones", but they are important toowater courses and drainage systems are properly looked after. Until they are, and until the water companies carry out their responsibilities, floods will recur.
I am happy to say that Southern Water, as a result of the threat of being exposed in an Adjournment debate and of the pressure brought to bear by the hard work of Canterbury city council's Viv Pritchard, has completed the dredging of the existing reservoir. That company is now investigating the possibilityno more than thatof extending the reservoir and increasing its capacity by a third. That would be welcome, but when does Southern Water intend to do the work? It is no secret that Scottish Power, which owns Southern Water, wants to flog the company, because it is a liability. I suspect that Scottish Power does not want to spend any more money. That suspicion is borne out by a letter about one of my constituents, Mr. Bevan, who lives in Herne Bay. His house is a listed building and has been subject to flooding for quite a long time, not just the last two or three years. In that letter, the engineering manager for Canterbury city council told me:
In the meantime, my constituent has had enough, has moved out of his home and is unlikely to return. Southern Water and many others are reluctant to invest in the necessary flood precautions to help to alleviate a problem that is not entirely of their making. I agree with my hon. Friend that the regulator, Ofwat, must seriously consider the necessary investment, or our constituents will face an even worse situation this winter than they did last year. I look forward with great interest to reading the Minister's response to the matters raised by my hon. Friend.
Mr. John Grogan (Selby): My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) graphically described the situation in her constituency, which, like mine, is in Yorkshire. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) referred to Yorkshire in his speech on the levy increase, and I shall comment on the situation in Yorkshire and nationally.
There is much diplomacy in Yorkshire at present as we do not want to let the county down again. Last year, Ros Amor, a flood victim from my constituency, presented white roses to the flood defence committee in an effort to get it to be less parochial and to live up to its responsibilities for the whole of Yorkshire.
The Environment Agency recently examined flood defences throughout the county; it found that those protecting Leeds are a major worry and that the standard of service in Doncaster is of prime importance because of the many properties potentially at risk. In Selby, Drax power station, alone among the major power stations in the country, does not have its own flood defence bunding. There is much to do in Yorkshire. There is a special meeting of the flood defence committee early in December, when options will be considered. At this stage, the Environment Agency is not making a recommendation, but presenting options to the committee. The reputation of local government in Yorkshire depends on delivering a partnership with the Government. Talk about regional government is a joke to many people in Yorkshire if it cannot get the flood defences right. I hope that local politicians of all parties will respond as necessary to the county's problems.
A national review is now taking place. The local authorities recommended that capital expenditure should be separated from the maintenance of flood defences and that the Government should assume responsibility for the maintenance of flood defences and other flood expenditure. I am dubious about that because the outcome could be that the bright, new and shiny capital schemes will be funded, but maintenance, which is so important, will be neglected. I favour the suggestion that the Environment Agency and the flood defence committee should be given borrowing powers. At present, the flood defences are funded from general revenue expenditure, although that was not always the case. They are major items of expenditure, and if borrowing powers were utilised they would allow the necessary expenditure to be spread over several years.
There is a case for an all-party group on flooding. We have heard the expertise of many. hon. Members. We need extra resources for the decades to come, and I know that the Minister has been prominent in arguing
Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): I shall be brief, in view of the time pressure. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) on securing this important debate. The number of Members present and the fact that they represent different parts of the country demonstrate that this is not just a local but a national problem.
It is more than a year since the town of Uckfield in my constituency and the villages of Buxted and Hellingly were devastated by the floods in October 2000. Some of the people affected by those floods are still not back in their homes, which shows the extent of the problem. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) had similar huge problems as the problems in Uckfield shifted downstream to his constituency. A year on, there is frustration bordering on anger in towns such as Uckfield that so little has been done. A great deal of investigation has been carried out into the sort of projects that the Environment Agency could undertake. Some ditches have been cleared and some minor repair works carried out, but no major scheme has been started or seems likely to be started for some years.
The Minister will know that the Environment Agency has proposed four schemes, on which it is consulting. There is a general wish that it should skip the consultation process because those in the agency are the experts; they know best. Members of the public do not have real views on the issue. We should move as fast as possible to get these schemes implemented. There is a suspicion, which I know the Minister will understand, that the driving force behind the schemes is not that they are the best method of preventing flooding but those that are most financially acceptable for the Treasury. Will the Minister give an assurance today that his Department will support whatever scheme the Environment Agency comes up with, even if it is the most expensive of the four? That will enable us to move forward with greater speed.
The Minister will also know of the continuing concerns about insurance matters. We have discussed domestic insurance but my constituency has a particular problem with business insurance. A large part of the flooded area of Uckfield was the business area at the bottom of the town. The Minister has been having important discussions with the Association of British Insurers, as has the hon. Member for Lewes. If we cannot secure agreement from the ABI that it will look benignly on insurance cover for properties in flood areas, will the Minister consider the sort of scheme that the Government recently agreed with the airline industry, albeit in different circumstances, to accommodate the significant additional insurance costs that it has incurred? The hon. Gentleman might be able to assist companies that are unable to get flood insurance, thereby helping them stay in business.
I wish to end on a positive note. I recently attended a meeting of the Cuckmere flood forumI sent the Minister a copy of the minuteswhich brings together many of the villages along the Cuckmere. The hon. Member for Lewes also attended that meeting. It comprised environment agencies, the county and district councils, residents and a range of others who are concerned about the issue, and was an example of people working together exceptionally well and effectively. I hope that the Minister or one of the representatives from his Department will attend the next meeting of the forum so that it can be seen how effectively people who sit down together can avoid the heat of the discussion and focus on the steps that must be taken. Much work needs to be done, and I urge the Minister to bring that forward as fast as possible. As other hon. Members said, there is desperate anxiety every time it rains heavily. We nearly saw renewed flooding this year, so urgent action is required.
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): I congratulate the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) on this timely debate. Several Members spoke about flooding in their constituencies, and several others wished to do so. That demonstrates that flooding and the associated problems are live issues that must be addressed.
Using the situation in Cambridgeshire as an illustration, it is interesting and indicative that the exceptional rainfall in October happened during the warmest October on record. The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) should understand that arguments about whether climate change is having an effect are somewhat irrelevant. Flooding is becoming a more severe and increasingly frequent occurrence throughout the country and, unsurprisingly, the public and their elected representatives want action to be taken.
We must focus on the problems and the practical action that can be taken. The Minister will have received information from various sources that flood defences are inadequate and that investment is required to bring them up to existing standards and, because of the volatility of the weather, possibly even higher standards. Our planning situation must be fundamentally reviewed, not only to prevent building on flood plains but to recognise that development distorts drainage patterns and can create new flood risks in places that have not been affected. It is a more complicated problem than might otherwise appear.
Norman Baker (Lewes): Does my hon. Friend agree that the dangers of the insurance situation are possibly more worrying to people than the lack of flood defences and the flooding itself? Some insurance companies, such as AA Insurance, are failing to adhere to the Association of British Insurers agreementI know of three outstanding cases on thatand nothing is in place for when the ABI agreement expires next October. There is a danger that hundreds of houses in Lewes and elsewhere will simply be uninsured. Should not the Government address that problem and assure people in Lewes and elsewhere that they will be able to get insurance from next year?
Malcolm Bruce : My hon. Friend has made his point about a specific insurance company and that is on record. I am sure that it will be acknowledged, and I hope that the ABI will address the problem. He raised a pertinent point. Despite the serious disasters, we have mercifully had no loss of life of householders. One could argue that property is always restorable in a way that life is not, but that is what insurance is for.
We could say, "Well, it would say that, wouldn't it?", and there will have to be a partnership to decide who will deliver what. However, the ABI makes the reasonable case that unless insurers can be reassured that adequate flood prevention measures are in place, they do not see why they should accept all the risk of having to pay out incessantly for homes that flood continually. The ABI, although not ducking out of its responsibilities, has a reasonable argument that there must come a point where public authorities are responsible for that.
On planning, I agree that we should question any further development on flood plains. We must review that. That is a considerable problem in a county like Cambridgeshire because of the terrain. I urge the Minister to recognise the extent to which development can distort drainage patterns. Although his responsibility is for England and Wales, I represent a Scottish constituency where there has been rapid development. We have had severe flooding in the lower part of Inverurie, which is mostly directly due to a high building programme higher up the town. Natural drainage was absorbable before but water falling on tarmac and tiles is now rushing down into the town and overwhelming the systems. We have had to upgrade them. We must recognise that any development can contribute to flooding.
Quite properly much has been said about the role of the Environment Agency. It has the expertise and not the money, and local authorities supposedly have the money but not the expertise. In reality, many of them, as in the case in Yorkshire that has been described, either
While local authorities must be involved, and that co-ordination is relevant, we should shift more of the responsibility to the Environment Agency, not only to co-ordinate but to have the resources as well as the expertise to deliver the flood management plan and overall responsibility for it. More should be done within that plan for sustainable urban drainage. That is consistent with the planning point that I made, and the Minister has referred to that in the past. We must recognise that there are ways of developing new build that can help to absorb water in a natural and sustainable way and prevent it causing floods elsewhere.
Coastal defences are clearly a very live issue, particularly on the east side of the country where they have been seriously depleted. I have been at a number of meetings where people from East Anglia and further up the coast have expressed their concern that a decision has almost been taken to let a significant part of our coastline go. That will lose us agricultural and development land. There has been a consistent pattern of such erosion on the east coast over many years, and people in the area want to know what the Government's policy is. How much of England are the Government prepared to lose before they decide that we need defences to retain what is left? That is not a debate that would take long in Holland on the other side of the North sea, but it seems to go on for ever here. It is all very well to say that we can use salt marshes and allow them to re-establish, but that is effectively to allow the sea to invade and to yield our land to the sea. People want to know that there is a coherent strategy behind that, not just an unwillingness to pay the money to protect the coast.
My final point brings me round to the point that I made at the beginning. As well as considering how we should deal with the practical difficulties that arise from flooding and the severity of the rainfall that causes it, we must recognise, and make the wider public recognise, that these events will happen with greater frequency if we do not take much more global and international action to deal with the problems of climate change. The intervention suggesting that that was no longer the case astonished me. Not even President Bush would argue that there is no problem. The debate is about what action to take after the problem has been acknowledged.
Citizens must understand that what might appear remotea change in climate that seems not directly to affect peoplebecomes very real when water is coming up the staircase. The two are connected and we must collectively support policies to modify the severity of climate change as well as deal with its practical consequences.
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): The hon. Members for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) and for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and my hon. Friends the Members for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) and for Wealden (Mr. Hendry) all congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) on securing this debate. They drew on their parochial experiences to produce more general conclusions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden mentioned Uckfield in his constituency. In many ways that town epitomises the problem. For 13 months, people were forced out of their homes and they are still not back in them. They have been waiting far too long for action, which is also needed throughout the country. My hon. Friends the Members for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) also wanted to contribute to the debate. I am sorry that, due to lack of time, they were unable to do so.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire on securing the debate. His contribution was thoughtful and balanced. He drew on his local experiences, but translated them into valuable general propositions. There can be no doubt about the scale of the problem. The Environment Agency has reported that 4 million people live or work in flood risk areas and that 1.2 million homes and businesses are at risk. The National Audit Office suggests that 2 million properties are at risk, while the Flood Hazard Research Centre believes that 10 per cent. of the population live in risk areas and that property worth £200 billion is at risk.
Whichever figure is correctthey may all be correct but using slightly different criteriait is clear that flooding is a major problem that is likely to get worse. Last year, 11,000 people had to evacuate their homes and 150,000 people lived in areas directly at risk. As late as this October, Alison Baptiste, who works for the Government's own agency, Environment Action, speaking about the southern region said:
My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire asked who was in charge, who was responsible and where was the co-ordination to deal with flooding. Those questions were echoed by other hon. Members. The Environment Agency said:
The EA falls under the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but the position is more complicated. In 2001, the DEFRA grant aid was £107.9 million, but the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions supported local authorities through the local government finance system to the sum of £268.4 million. The Environment Agency's claim that it has taken over the general supervisory duties contradicts the proposition that he who pays the piper calls the tune. However, the Agriculture Committee clearly stated in its 1998 report that responsibility for flood prevention was too fragmented.
Where are we now? The National Audit Office claims that 40 per cent. of flood defences are not up to scratch. The Environment Agency has surveyed all flood defences in England and Wales. I would like to know whether it will publish its findings and conclusions. Before the autumn 2000 floods, the Environment Agency claimed to be concerned about the adequacy and the mechanisms of funding for flood defence and delays to the funding review. I hope that the Minister will deal with that concern.
The Environment Agency claimed that repair work had restored the damage done to flood defences last winter to the condition of a year ago, but no more than that. It also claimed not to have the budget or time to make all the necessary improvements. We need to know what budget and time it needs.
A July 2001 report of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs indicated that budgeted spending was significantly below the levels necessary to meet its standards. The Association of British Insurers suggested that an extra £145 million a year is required for several years and, in a report commissioned by the Government, the Institution of Civil Engineers said that current expenditure must be doubled. We need a proper, quantified assessment of the protection that England and Wales have now, a statement about a reasonable and appropriate level of protection, and a budget and time scale to achieve it.
Clearly, 100 per cent. protection can never be achieved. However, communicating with people in risk areas is important. They must understand the risk, the system of warnings, the preparations to be made and the actions to take after flooding. The Environment Agency has responsibility for that and has spent millions of pounds on advertising and direct mail, yet its research shows that only 9 per cent. of people in risk areas have made any preparation for flood defence. We need to know how many people are aware of the risk and what will be done to increase awareness. How many understand and can use the warning system? How many have made the necessary preparations, and are the local authorities properly prepared? Do people understand what action to take after they have been flooded?
I have a quick point to make about the long-term problem of land use. One of the oldest tricks for evading a difficult question is to suggest that the question is other than what it is. That is exactly what the Minister did last Thursday, when he said:
In addition to supporting planning policy guidance 25, we need to know that it will be easier for local authorities to veto planning applications on flood plains or on greenfield sites, because such developments affect the ability to deal with heavy rains. As the hon. Member for Keighley said, climate change is likely to get worse.
Last week, I said that I believed that the Government's response was too muddled, too little and too late. I hope that the Minister can persuade me that I was wrong, but they need to get organised, get funding and get on with it.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) on securing this debate. He made a thoughtful and detailed speech. He also raised several serious issues, but he had the good grace to acknowledge that the Government are trying to tackle them. It is clearly a subject for debate.
We have a great many issues to deal with, some of which go back many years. Although we can argue about the science, climate change is taking place. We are funding research at the Hadley centre for forecasting to help us understand the link between climate change and weather patterns. We cannot deny that sea levels are rising, the weather is getting warmer and heavy downpours are becoming more frequent. We have to prepare for change. We cannot ignore it. Indeed, as my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said, the devastation caused by the terrible floods that we suffered last year was a wake-up call. That raises a series of questions, an important one being that of preparedness for flooding.
The letter that I circulated to all hon. Members shows that the Government are thinking ahead to ensure that we are prepared this winter. It lists what action we have taken since last year's flooding and what action we intend to take. Indeed, the reports that have been mentioned were all commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Undertaken by various independent organisations, they describe the standard of flood defences that we should expect, the cost-benefit ratio of spending on flood and coastal defence and some of the structures that we should be considering. Another report is to be published shortly on the sources of funding for flood defence and some of the institutional arrangements that have been mentioned. Those reports will all be in the public domain. We want to concentrate on making our flood and coastal defences better, and to ensure that we are organised and able to respond to any kind of flooding.
Following on from the major flooding of 1998, the Government acted on the Bye report, which put us in a good position to respond to the floods of 2000. Although I have every sympathy with those whose properties were floodedI visited many of the areas affected, and I am aware of the stress and disruption that people sufferedit was a relief to know that not one life was lost as a result of the flooding. That was quite an achievement, given the scale of flooding. Many properties at risk were properly defended. The flood defences worked, in many cases beyond their designed capacity.
Following that, we had a major upgrade in flood warning systems. The Environment Agency, with Government funding, has invested in a major flood awareness campaign. It is an annual campaign to make people who live in flood areas aware of the risk. We also have flood risk mapping and a helpline called Floodline.
I was sorry to hear of the problem mentioned by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire, and I am sure that the Environment Agency will try to rectify matters if things are not going as well as we would like. Local authorities and emergency services have the task of running annual exercises in responding to any kind of flood emergency. That would have been the case in the hon. Gentleman's area, so the local authority would have known what to do and how to respond.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) mentioned sandbags, and I understand how important they can be. Apart from anything else, it offers people reassurance to know that sandbags can be made available by the local authority or the Environment Agency. I stress that the legal responsibility for providing sandbags rests with the home owners. However, we must be realistic; we need to ensure availability, and we are working on that with the Local Government Association. The LGA has written to all its members to check that they are making preparations for flooding and we intend to introduce a sandbag strategy, to ensure that people are reassured. The Environment Agency and many local residents groups have promoted innovations such as flood shields that are coming on to the market. In the medium term, they have a great deal of scope and I am keen to pursue them.
The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire is right to say that there has been some bad planning. I visited the area represented by the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale). Some bad decisions had clearly been taken, in terms not only of where houses had been built but of the impact of new estates, a new road and whether the sewerage system could cope. Flood defence is a multi-agency issue. I accept that we have a responsibility to bring agencies together and co-ordinate them properly, and we are considering that matter.
We expect planning authorities to take advice from the Environment Agency seriously. Current information suggests that they now give more weight to what it says about new developments. I would like to see a norm of a one in 100 years defence standard. We are raising standards in new defences, and those of some existing defences must also be raised.
The Environment Agency surveyed the constituency represented by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire after the floods and marked the peak flood areas, to help it understand where they are. That will guide its response, which is under way, as to whether the risk of future flooding can be minimised. As I said, 75 per cent. of the flooding was from non-statutory main rivers. Nevertheless, we must tackle that problem, which is partly due to lack of maintenance of ditches, dykes and drains and the impact of development. Discussions are under way on the subject.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the point-scoring system. I think that it is fair because it is clear and transparent, so people understand where they are in relation to priorities. When one spends money on flood defence, one will always want to defend the maximum number of homes at risk, which will tend to be in urban
Mr. Morley : The simple answer is that there is no such money to help member states. The suggestion that such money is available is a fallacy that has been circulated. There is money for disasters, but it does not relate to flood and coastal expenditure. We have to raise the money ourselves, as we are doing.
The calculation of the points score is based on economic, social and environmental need. The pertinent points made by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire, which we will try to address, were on social need. At present, the way in which the points system works is being considered in a review that is due to close on 26 November. It will take into account what people have said.
We have commissioned several independent reports on funding. We must calculate what would be a realistic rising spend. It is one thing to argue for doubling money to huge sums, but many engineering projects have to be planned two, three or four years in advance. Even if the budget suddenly increased, people would see no benefits because one would have to provide for the increase in the planning. We want a planned rising spend. In our spending review bid for 2002, we will discuss with the Treasury what the most appropriate spend will be.
My hon. Friends the Members for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) and for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and the hon. Members for Wealden (Mr. Hendry), for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) and for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) also spoke. It is difficult to address all the ills of flooding in the country in 10 minutes, but I shall touch on some of their points.
One of the most important subjects raised was time scales for flood defence schemes. Such schemes must be consulted on. We have to take into account the effects that any scheme might have on other parts of the watercourse. Solutions are not easy in some parts of the country, such as Uckfield, which is represented by the hon. Member for Wealden. However, I am sure that we can find cost-effective solutions that will work. We have commissioned catchment area studies, which will report on the Uckfield area in the beginning of 2002. All operating authorities have also been asked to publish policy statements to set out the responsibilities for watercourses and drains, and plans for their maintenance.
My time is rapidly running out. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire raised several other points, and I shall write to him about them. However, the wider debate continues. I like the idea of an all-party group, which my hon. Friend the Member for Selby mentioned. I give a commitment that my Department would fully support such a group by providing information and by any other means, as it would tackle our common aim of reducing the risks of flooding for all our constituents.