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13 Mar 2003 : Column 451—continued

Hugh Bayley (City of York): I am grateful to the Government for their response to the consultation exercise, but does my hon. Friend agree that a river is a drainage system, draining the entire catchment from source to sea, and that it would be wholly illogical to place the cost of carrying flood water away from upland areas to those living downstream by imposing a flood plain levy? Does he agree that drainage is a public good—one of those things from which everyone benefits, and to which everyone should contribute?

Mr. Morley: Drainage is a public good, and my hon. Friend is pre-empting what I am going to say about the funding review. The debate today is an opportunity for hon. Members to respond to that. I understand his point: drainage is important for the whole of our country, and it is for that reason that the recommendation of the funding review was that the bulk of flooding and coastal defence expenditure should continue to come from the Exchequer. We as a Government accept that. Some people get direct benefits in relation to the defences that are provided and there has always been a partnership approach between local and central Government, with central Government paying the bulk of the expenditure. Within the review, there were a number of recommendations about additional sources of funding, on which I shall expand in a moment.

My hon. Friend was right that a flood plain levy was one of the suggestions. We are looking carefully at the recommendations of the report, but the idea of the flood plain levy in the consultation was almost universally unpopular. I can reassure him that a flood plain levy is a very low priority for the Government and we would like to consider other issues.

I want to stress the positives in relation to flood and coastal defence and the improvements that we are constantly striving to make. However, I know that, despite our successes, there is no consolation to anyone who has suffered from flooding. I want to make that clear and express my sympathy to those who have been victims of flooding. We are not complacent and we are striving to make the system better. I shall touch on what we are doing today.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth): I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend is doing, but does he acknowledge

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that, sadly, areas such as Hemsworth are subject to flooding by human excrement because of the lack of drainage? In his expenditure review, will he look at enhancing the expenditure on such matters by private companies such as Yorkshire Water?

Mr. Morley: That issue will not form part of this funding review, which deals with funding for flood and coastal defence. However, my hon. Friend makes a very important point that enables me to stress that the sources of flooding are not simply fluvial. For example, run-off from fields and roads, and small ditches belonging to riparian owners, can contribute to flooding, and sewer flooding is indeed a major problem. We, along with the Ofwat regulator, are embarking on a price review of the investment programme for water and sewerage companies for the next five years. I know that sewer flooding is an issue of particular importance to many hon. Members, and I want to reassure them that in my talks with the regulator, following the Government's initial submission, I have asked that more priority be given to addressing that issue in sewerage companies' future forward programmes. I know that many hon. Members will welcome that approach.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): The Minister will undoubtedly be aware that flooding is a very emotive subject in the county of Essex. This year, Essex commemorates the 50th anniversary of the great flood of 1953, which killed almost 100 people in the county. He will also be aware that central Government funding for flood defences in Essex has recently been reduced, and that this, too, is an emotive issue, given our history. Will he therefore agree to meet me and a delegation from Essex county council, so that we can debate the issue of flood defence in Essex? Perhaps we can persuade him to look again at one or two of these important points.

Mr. Morley: As hon. Members know, I am always willing to meet them to discuss their individual constituency problems, and to do what I can to address them. I do not know the details of the Essex budget, but what I do know is that budgets in individual areas fluctuate from year to year, depending on the schemes that have been approved, and on the schemes submitted by the regional flood defence committees. Of course, the responsibility for deciding on local priorities rests with the regional flood defence committee, which, along with the Environment Agency, decides on the priorities and submits the scheme to Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Our job is to provide grant aid, and to make a technical evaluation of individual schemes. If the hon. Gentleman will write to me with his concerns, I shall be only too happy to see if I can address them.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) rose—

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Morley: If hon. Members will give me time to develop my speech a little further, I shall be happy to take interventions.

Mr. Smith: I wanted to mention resources.

Mr. Morley: We will have the opportunity to discuss that issue. Indeed, the point that I was about to make is

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that we have increased resources substantially. The House might be interested to learn what has happened since we came to power in 1997. Back then, annual expenditure was some £310 million. After increases in successive spending reviews, we are now set to spend £564 million by 2005–06. That is an increase of £254 million—or more than 80 per cent., in cash terms, in less than a decade. That is a considerable increase.

Adequate funding is important, but flood defence is not just about spending money. We also have to put in place the means to target investment where it is most needed, to get the best value for taxpayers' money, and to ensure that our aims and objectives are achieved. They include the production of a set of high-level targets for flood and coastal defence bodies to follow; strengthened guidance to local planning authorities on building on flood plains; better procedures for appraising schemes, to ensure that taxpayers' money is well spent; and new scheme appraisal and priority score techniques, to ensure that the priorities are open and transparent in the allocation of funds for individual schemes. We also want to reinforce the strategic approach to flood defences by developing the shoreline management planning initiative, and by introducing new concepts of catchment flood management plans and coastal habitat management plans. As hon. Members have said, and as we accept entirely, it is important to address flood management on a catchment basis.

We also want to look at new technology, designs and innovations, such as temporary community defences, which can be erected temporarily in particular areas when there is a flood risk warning. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) has raised issues such as this in general terms, and in relation to his constituency. He might be interested to know that we have approved a £600,000 DEFRA grant for the purchase of temporary community defences in the Severn area. Worcester is one of a number of areas that will be included in the pilot trial scheme for such defences.

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester): I want to say a big "thank you" to the Minister on behalf of the people of Worcester, and in particular on behalf of Worcester Action Against Flooding, a pressure group that is meeting tonight. It will be mightily impressed by his announcement, and the champagne will certainly be flowing tonight in Worcester.

Mr. Morley: That is the best kind of flowing to have in discussing these issues. Many organisations, and in particular those that are part of the National Flood Forum—a body that I regard very highly—are considering these matters. I have to be honest and say that, although we are increasing funding and looking at different solutions, sadly, for all sorts of technical reasons, in some areas it will be very hard to find an effective engineered solution. Although such temporary defences will not be the answer in all circumstances, they may be in some. We certainly want to extend such provision further in order to give communities flood and coastal defence.

Mr. John Smith: I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said about increased resources, but what about the smaller schemes in villages such as

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Colwinston, in my constituency, which fall between the Environment Agency and the local authority? Such places can raise their own money—often, it is private sector money—but sometimes it is not quite enough. Is he thinking of any schemes to help them to get additional funding when they have shown their own initiative?

Mr. Morley: That is a very interesting suggestion. Indeed, I have encountered communities and individuals who have put up their own money to provide their own flood defences. Incidentally, they have to go through the same planning and appraisal process to ensure that they will not impact on other individuals or communities. I warmly welcome local community initiatives to try to raise funds. As my hon. Friend says, they sometimes fall just a little short, and I undertake to discuss this matter with the Environment Agency and the regional flood defence committees, to see whether some initiative might give financial support to those who are prepared to meet a proportion of the funding. We have examined one or two such schemes on a pilot basis. The particular circumstances must be considered, and the idea needs some thinking through, but I can assure him that we will discuss it.

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