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Flood Defences

12.30 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): I make no apologies for returning to a subject on which I secured an Adjournment debate, to which the Minister responded, just before the last general election. I do not apologise partly because the subject is a matter of considerable concern in my constituency—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Edward O'Hara): Order. It would be courteous to the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) if post mortems on the previous debate were held outside this Chamber.

Mr. Todd : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Local people in South Derbyshire continue to be worried about the issue. In winter 2000, there were incursions into the communities of Hatton, Willington, Shardlow and Barrow upon Trent, and several smaller incursions into other communities, that caused damage to private property and made local people anxious about their future. They were worried about their possessions, livelihoods and whether they would be able to continue to live in their chosen area. Since then, the community of Hatton, in particular, has benefited substantially from investment in repairing existing flood defences, raising flood defences to more appropriate levels, and in ongoing provision of new flood defences, which should be completed next month. Severn Trent, the area's sewerage company, has engaged in a positive programme to improve the sewerage network to prevent a flow back of sewage into people's houses, which had distressing and damaging effects in 2000.

Progress has been made and I commend the work that has been done. Incidentally, I also commend the strategic review that has just started on the Trent catchment area. The scoping document has come to me and the review should lead to a clearer strategy for the area—perhaps next year. That will be very welcome. My constituency is crossed by the Dove, Trent and Derwent rivers and by several minor brooks, which are also prone to flooding. Flood defences are a key priority of the people of South Derbyshire, but I want to paint a wider picture.

It is important to recognise that floods are a national problem of considerable scale. Hundreds of people in South Derbyshire faced the loss of their homes during part of the winter of 2000, and 10,000 homes throughout the country were affected in that way. Many communities outside South Derbyshire are anxious about the prospect of winter.

The insurance industry has signalled its willingness to continue to renew policies in areas that are considered to be flood risks until the end of the year. However, it is ringing alarm bells about the prospect of continuing to offer that service for citizens of such areas beyond that date unless the Government take various steps. I shall address those steps later.

In a question to the Prime Minister, I referred to the insurance company esure's announcement that it will not offer insurance products to people in areas at risk of

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floods. Several insurance companies have already taken action. I have corresponded with Norwich Union, for example, about difficulties that my constituents have experienced when trying to renew insurance products. Alarm bells are ringing and if they are not addressed, people's ability to sustain a reasonable standard of living in these communities will be affected. It is essential that householders can purchase at reasonable cost insurance products that can secure their property and its contents against flood risk. If that is not available, these communities will become less sustainable.

The overall picture of funding of flood defences is addressed in one of the key arguments that the insurance sector has advanced. If we refer to the evidence on expenditure on flood and coastal defences that was given to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee—of which I am a member—in 2001, in the current year £414 million is expected to be spent on flood defences by a variety of agencies. It is important to stress that that is not only Government expenditure, but also expenditure that is authorised through local authorities. However, research sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs states that longer-term funding of £565 million per year is required simply to maintain current standards of defences, to improve them to acceptable levels and to mitigate predictable climate change impacts. Therefore, there is a spending gap that desperately needs to be addressed.

We now know that the Chancellor will announce the spending round next week and I am well aware that the Department has made representations on this subject in the spending review. I do not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to be able to give me an answer as to precisely what the contents of that review will be—he is shaking his head, as I expected. However, I hope that he can at least give some favourable indication as to how the concerns that the Department has expressed have been received by the Treasury.

It is fair to say—I always try to be fair—that expenditure on flood defences has increased in the past couple of years. Nevertheless, according to the data that the Department itself provided, this gap exists and we should try to deal with it.

The next issue will also be familiar to my hon. Friend—the organisational complexity of how that money is used and how we get results from it. I have always found it bizarre that there are about 600 organisations in this country that have some say in how flood defences are managed. I also find it strange that many of them have no clear statutory duty to carry out any particular tasks that are critical to the delivery of flood defences. Therefore, we had the astonishing example—which my hon. Friend will recall, because he had to answer a series of written parliamentary questions from me about it—of the failure of local authorities to co-operate with the Environment Agency in the inspection of ditches and watercourses, even though it is their responsibility to inspect them and to ensure that they are properly maintained. I was staggered by the evidence that a large number of local authorities had responded by saying either that they did not have the resources to do the job or that they did not have the expertise to do it and that it would therefore have to be postponed until a more appropriate time or until they could find such expertise. That is unacceptable.

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Providing information on flood risk in local communities is a crucial task. Sadly, it is not the case that all of the local authorities that responded in that way had had no experience of flood risk. There is a list of the local authorities that responded in that way; I will not run through it, but it is on the record, and a glance at it will show several communities where flood risk was a fairly recent experience and yet their local authorities were unable to do those jobs.

I attended a meeting that my hon. Friend the Minister addressed in which he said that the system is extremely complicated but it works—I suppose that it depends on what one means by works. The English way of administration is normally described as muddling through. We provide an extremely complicated way of doing something and, because we are all well-intentioned people who are innovative in our ways, we get across problems and barriers and produce an outcome that most people are prepared to accept.

No one would suggest that the organisation of flood defences is optimal. In Scotland, for example, local authorities are obliged to carry out various tasks relating to the inspection and maintenance of areas of flood risk for which they are responsible, but there is no matching responsibility in England. We may wish local authorities to take on that responsibility, but it is up to their electors to decide whether it is a priority for expenditure. There is not even an obligation to spend money set aside in revenue support to a local authority on the task for which it was intended. The Government's statistics contain information on the amount of money that local authorities are supposed to spend on floods, flood defences and flood protection, but we have no way of knowing whether that money has been spent or whether it matches the amount of money that is needed. We might have tolerated that sort of spatchcock muddle at a time when the risk of flooding was lower, but it is no longer acceptable.

It is clearly necessary to change the way in which we tackle the matter. We need to provide clearer executive leadership to the management of flood defences in this country, and in my view such leadership should be vested in the Environment Agency. Those who are supposed to be co-operating with the agency in its task should be under a clear statutory obligation to do the things that they are supposed to do to ensure that such activity is not optional or voluntary. There needs to be a more resilient framework for dealing with those problems.

Although it is clear that the risk that lies ahead is not readily quantifiable, it is substantial. The research commissioned from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the Met Office by DEFRA indicates that in the past 50 years there has been a significant increase in the incidence of heavy rainfall and peak river flow. Although those organisations cannot directly link that increase to climate change because we do not have enough data, they say that the changes are consistent with predicted climate change. We have been warned and must take clear action.

My final point returns to the local perspective. We all have a role in flood defence, and that includes landowners and developers who want to use ground that lies in flood risk areas. We desperately need better quality maps to show where those areas are. The Environment Agency readily concedes that its current

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maps are incomplete and not necessarily very accurate. The insurance industry often uses postcodes to indicate flood risk, which is extremely inaccurate. We need a more authoritative base on which to decide those things. We also need clearly to define the policy that applies to those areas.

In Scotland, virtually no development is taking place in flood risk areas, which is partly because there are additional call-in powers if a development is proposed. In England, there is still significant new development on flood plains. Another issue is how one deals with the replacement of existing development. We all have responsibility: landowners, the Government, private individuals living in the affected areas and insurance providers as well. In that context, more money and a clearer organisational framework are required.

12.45 pm

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): I am grateful to the Minister and the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) for allowing me a short intervention during this Adjournment debate. I have three quick questions for the Minister. First, we know that so far this year we have had historically high rainfall. The acquifers are full and the ground is saturated and, in October, there will be an astronomical high tide. What reassurance can the Minister give that there will not be massive flooding during October?

Secondly, does the Minister believe that more should be done—and if so, what—to encourage the use of natural or "soft" flood defences? Thirdly, one of the problems is that flood water is not egressing into the sea because rivers are inadequately dredged. Would the Minister detail what improvements there have been in the dredging of the mouths of tidal rivers?

12.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) on securing the debate. He has been very active on the issue of flood defence, including the institutional arrangements and funding. I know that it is a particular interest in his constituency, as he has outlined during the debate. He has also been a very active participant in the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which produced a good report on flood and coastal defence. That report influenced the Government's examination of the institutional arrangements. He will be aware of our funding review, to which he made a very constructive response. We are looking at the institutional arrangements, as well as the way that we raise funding, so that we have a more transparent system.

I stand by what I said to the all-party flood defence group. I was pleased that that group was set up. It was a very useful opportunity to discuss the issues. Given the risks in this country—an island surrounded by sea with high rainfall—our record in flood and coastal defence stands up in comparison with any other country, and is better than many. I know that that is no consolation to those who have been affected by flooding, and I make that absolutely clear.

In response to one of the questions from the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), I do believe that there is more that we can do. We intend to

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do more and natural defences are certainly an option that we are embracing in the range of options that we are considering for flood and coastal defence. There has been high rainfall recently, although there was quite a dry spell in the spring, and I have had no reports that there is a serious cause for concern in relation to acquifer levels. All the factors, including tidal surges, are monitored regularly by the Environment Agency and local authorities. We have a contingency plan for dealing with them. On dredging, the Environment Agency does carry that out, and it can be a useful measure in relation to water courses, but it is not that useful in tidal estuaries. Whatever is taken out of a tidal estuary is simply filled up by the volume of the sea and has a limited effect, so it depends on where the dredging takes place. I am often asked about dredging, but it is much more limited than some people think.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire, we are going ahead with the review. We will be publishing our proposals in the autumn detailing what people have said to us and our response. Many responses have been very helpful and constructive. People feel that many of the recommendations in the funding review are desirable. Some examples include the connection charge, regional customer bodies, an operating authority to be the sole service provider, and expert advisers for regional customer bodies with the possibility of subcontracting works to local authorities and the internal drainage boards. The review also suggested how we could streamline arrangements in the short term, including transferring to the Environment Agency responsibility for managing critical ordinary watercourses, blocking grant payments for some or all of the present funding delivered to the agency by the Government and removal of one of the tiers of flood defence committees. The flood plain levy, about which my hon. Friend was concerned, was not an option favoured in the funding review from the very beginning and it is no surprise to me that it is not favoured in the responses. We consulted on the proposals and will respond in due course.

I want to speak briefly about esure, which my hon. Friend mentioned. We spoke in some detail and had a constructive engagement with the Association of British Insurers. I have said on many occasions that we have the same agenda, which is to reduce the risk for people in this country. No one can guarantee that flooding will not happen, but we can do and are doing a great deal about flood risks. To be blunt, it was a bit of a cheek for esure to state publicly that it would not provide insurance in flood risk areas. We are not aware that it has ever provided significant insurance in flood risk areas. The company is entitled to cherry-pick customers and go for low-risk business in a competitive market, but its attempt at what many in the industry felt was a publicity stunt has seriously backfired. The company has come in for considerable criticism from consumers and industry bodies. It did not pull out of the market—it was not actually in it—but used the situation as an excuse to draw attention to its market decision.

I was surprised by a recent statement from esure that it would provide insurance in some flood-risk areas in Scotland but not in England. That did not come as a total surprise, as it is a Glasgow-based Scottish

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company, but what was a surprise was the seeming lack of understanding about the differences between Scottish and English approaches to flood and coastal defence and the comparative risks.

The approaches are not dissimilar in terms of planning, but investment commitments are very different. For example, the total spend on flood and coastal defence in Scotland is about £10 million a year on capital and £2 million a year on revenue. In England, we spend a combined total of more than £400 million. In the 40 years since 1961, 60 schemes have been approved in Scotland. More than twice that number are approved each year in England. Since the floods of 2000, my Department has approved a total of 274 new flood and coastal schemes, at an approved cost of £386,417,694. That is the difference in scale.

Those figures are not meant to criticise Scotland but to put in perspective the differences between the two countries. I cannot say that I am very impressed with esure's arguments, and I am not at all sympathetic to the fact that it has come out of the episode with some damage to its reputation.

Mr. Todd : While my hon. Friend is on the subject of comparisons with Scotland, will he discuss the primary legislation that exists in Scotland but not in England that obliges local authorities to perform various duties in respect of flood defence?

Mr. Morley : I am grateful that my hon. Friend raised that matter, because such legislation does not exist in Scotland. There is no duty to undertake capital works in Scotland, in the same way that there is no duty to do so in England. There is a duty to carry out maintenance of watercourses if they represent a risk of flooding in urban areas and there is, in effect, a duty to maintain the existing defences in our country through the regional flood defence committees, but there is no real difference between the two countries. I am not aware that Scotland has agreed to the higher defence standards that have been proposed by the ABI.

It is not the case that there are different statutory obligations in Scotland and England. There are some differences in the way that the organisation is put in place for flood planning. I do not believe, however, that the way in which we provide, for example, flood risk mapping, which is taken into account by local authorities in their structure plans, causes a difference in outcome. However, we have an open mind on such matters. We are talking to the ABI and proposing further future investment. In this country, we are always seeking to improve our organisation and the way that we do things, with the objective of reducing the risk to our population.

My hon. Friend mentioned local authority participation in flood defence inspections, a fair point to raise. Those inspections are part of the series of high-level targets that we have set to ensure that defences and watercourses are properly inspected by the bodies and agencies that have operational responsibility for them. I hope to be able to publish shortly a report from the Environment Agency on the results of those inspections and the part that local authorities have played in them. Of course, any local authorities that have not played that part will be identified, although many that had not sent in reports have subsequently done so. There has been some catching-up on the targets set.

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In the longer term, one option being considered under the funding review, as my hon. Friend knows, is for critical ordinary watercourses to become the responsibility of the Environment Agency. I want to consider that option very carefully, in the light of information received through the high-level targets. I know that my hon. Friend and other organisations and bodies have raised responsibility for non-main critical watercourses. There will have to be some adjustments—there might be some main watercourses that are not critical, which could be de-mained. There are also financial implications for the Environment Agency, which we will have to take into account. That option may well improve the way in which those watercourses are dealt with. Although they are often small, they can account for quite serious flooding. We are aware of that and that option would be part of the overall approach that we are taking to reduce such risk.

As my hon. Friend rightly concluded, I am not yet in a position to comment on our spending review 2002 bid, although I expect to be able to do so in the not-too-distant future. Spending on the commitments that we have made to flood and coastal defence in this country has risen. For example, between 1996–97 and 2003–04—the end of our current spending review period—total Government expenditure is expected to increase from £309.7 million to £414.2 million in cash terms, an increase of nearly 34 per cent. That reflects the considerable extra money put into flood and coastal defence as a result of the floods in 2000 and the exceptional rainfall experienced then.

My hon. Friend is right to say that, while we cannot yet say that there is a long-term trend towards higher rainfall and climate change, we must plan for that. We must look at the worst-case scenarios and ensure that they are factored into our future planning and financial commitments. We have research and development budgets that are committed to climate forecasting and trying to gain a better understanding of potential climate change and what that might mean for this country in the long term. The Government and my Department are funding and supporting a number of projects. We are also investing heavily in flood warning, investment that has increased significantly with the £100 million committed over the next 10 years through the Environment Agency.

Mr. Todd : While my hon. Friend is touching on that subject, will he refer to my comment on the need for better mapping to show exactly where flood risks occur?

Mr. Morley : I accept that need. The flood risk mapping that the Environment Agency has put in place and made publicly available is a great advantage, but it is not 100 per cent. accurate and the Environment Agency has never claimed that that is the case. I am very impressed with the work that Norwich Union is doing on digital mapping, which is much more accurate. We are keen to co-operate with such involvement to improve information so that people can ascertain risk and we can work, through our investment, which is at record levels, to continue to reduce that risk in this country.

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