Previous SectionIndexHome Page

13 Mar 2003 : Column 454—continued

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I am interested in the suggestion that the Minister made, before he moved on to temporary flood prevention measures, about new plans. I am concerned that the creation and implementation of new plans will drive back much of the work that has already been done in some areas. A brief example is what happened in my constituency in 1994, when such a plan was drawn up. That plan still has not been implemented because of new regulations piled on new regulations.

Mr. Morley: I do not know the details of that plan, but it may well have come fairly low on the regional flood defence committee's priority scoring league table. Although the plan may be regarded as desirable, it may have a relatively low score. If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me with the details, I will be very happy to provide him with some more information.

Sir Michael Spicer: I am grateful to the Minister for giving money to Worcestershire but, as he said, value for money counts as much as anything. In that context, why has he rejected the concept of helping self-help schemes, which seem to offer very good value for money?

Mr. Morley: We have considered a pilot scheme in partnership with a local council. Self-help schemes are designed to protect individual houses, which is fine, and the protection of individual homes is the responsibility of householders. The commitment for across-the-board grant aid for self-help schemes could be large and open-ended, and would divert money from larger-scale community defences, which protect a lot of homes and property. A balance therefore has to be struck. We take the issue seriously, however, and the hon. Gentleman may know that the Department has put money into the evaluation of various self-help devices and the establishment of a kite mark of standards so that people know that the devices have been tested and that they are buying something effective.

13 Mar 2003 : Column 455

I welcome the innovation by many companies, including British companies, which have produced a range of products to assist people to protect their homes. The National Flood Forum has set up flood fairs—people in flood-risk areas can go along and see some of those devices being demonstrated and explained, which is useful and effective. We take such developments seriously. The support that we can give is limited but, where we can give it, we are certainly willing to do so in the way that I have described.

Yesterday, I announced the Government's conclusions on the flood and coastal defence funding review. The full written statement was given to the House yesterday morning, because I wanted to give Members an opportunity to read and think about it before raising their concerns in today's debate. I am happy to set out the main points of our response.

Norman Baker (Lewes): I thank the Minister both for giving way and for his courtesy in giving the House that statement, which was useful. Will he tell us what will require primary legislation and what can be done by regulation? If there are matters requiring primary legislation, will they be incorporated in the Water Bill?

Mr. Morley: One or two issues will require primary legislation, but those in our announcement, particularly the reorganisation of regional flood defences and local flood defence committees, will be included in the Water Bill.

To recap, in our response we accepted that the majority of the service should continue to be funded by the Exchequer. I have outlined the way in which expenditure has grown under this Government, but, to meet the challenges ahead, we need to investigate alternative sources of funding, recognising that there has always been an element of shared responsibility in funding, especially when the beneficiaries are identical to those of the flood defence service. That will reduce at least some of the burden falling on the general taxpayer, who may receive little or no direct benefit from flood defences—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett).

I confirm that the Government are continuing to investigate alternative sources of funding identified by the review group. We are paying attention to the idea of a development connection charge—a tax to be paid by developers in the flood plain. I know that new taxes and charges are never popular, and shall certainly bear in mind the issues that were raised when we consulted. I should stress that no definitive decision has been made about a connection charge, as there are many details that have to be considered and resolved. However, we are giving thought to the issue.

I took careful note of the report on flood and coastal defence by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to which I pay tribute. I have always held the Select Committee in high regard, and DEFRA takes its views seriously and tries to respond to them. The Select Committee called for streamlining and simplification of the institutional arrangements for flood and coastal defence. We concluded that the Environment Agency should take responsibility for all

13 Mar 2003 : Column 456

rivers creating the greatest flood risk, which will help to provide a much greater consistency of service across the country. Those rivers, responsibility for which is currently split between the Environment Agency, local authorities and internal drainage boards, will be redesignated as main rivers and brought under the control of the agency. We expect day-to-day maintenance and work on those rivers to be contracted back to the local authorities and IDBs if they are willing to take on that work and have a good track record on delivery.

We have retained IDBs—the former Select Committee on Agriculture recommended their abolition—and recognise that many of them do a good and effective job in draining land in areas of special drainage need. The Government's statement outlines a number of measures that we want to take to ensure that IDBs do their job in a way that reflects wider interests, including nature conservation and flood defences for people and property. I shall investigate ways of making the boards more accountable by, for example, bringing them under the ambit of the local government ombudsman, and I want to add impetus to the project to make the boards more efficient and better able to cope effectively with the full range of responsibilities now falling to operating authorities.

There are some very small IDBs, and there is a strong case for the smallest ones to consider mergers or working within consortiums, which have already been established successfully in many parts of the country.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): As someone who has participated in the various Select Committee considerations of this matter, I applaud the Government's response to the need for organisational reform to deal with flood defence. Ordinary consumers of flood defence services will now have a much clearer idea about who is responsible for the services on which they rely.

Mr. Morley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which has taken an interest in the matter and looked at it in detail.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire) rose—

Mr. Morley: I would like to make progress and do not wish to take up too much time. However, I am glad that we have a little more time for the debate than we expected—[Interruption.] Well, on that basis, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Lansley: I am grateful to the Minister for arguing himself into giving way. Part of my constituency is covered by an IDB. When we suffered some exceptionally heavy rainfall, the performance of IDBs in relation to the water courses for which they were responsible was generally better than was the case for bodies with responsibility for other rivers. Accountability can therefore be a good thing, but we do not want uniformity to lead to a reduction in the protection standards achieved by IDBs. If the operating authority is going to be the Environment Agency, will it

13 Mar 2003 : Column 457

contract out duties quickly and non-bureaucratically in a way that allows IDBs to do substantially the same job as they do now, because they often do it very well?

Mr. Morley: I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. To avoid contradiction, perhaps I should put on record my vice-presidency of the Association of Drainage Authorities. I am a strong supporter of IDBs—my constituency, like those of many hon. Members in the Chamber, relies on them very much. There are some tiny IDBs with tiny budgets, and we need to look at their efficiency and delivery of service. We expect the Environment Agency to contract a lot of work back to IDBs and local authority, but only if they deliver the work efficiently. That is an important consideration and it will be treated seriously, as hon. Members would expect of all decisions made by the Environment Agency. We expect the vast majority of IDBs to be capable of delivering such a service.

Diana Organ (Forest of Dean): Does my hon. Friend have a view about the optimal size of IDBs? In my constituency, there are two IDBs—one is a reasonable size and has a reasonable budget, and the other, the North Gloucestershire internal drainage board, is very small. Does my hon. Friend have a model for what he would consider a good, viable size of IDB with a budget that would allow it to do the necessary work to prevent flooding?

Next Section

IndexHome Page