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13 Mar 2003 : Column 457—continued

Mr. Morley: In all honesty, I must point out that the optimum size of an IDB will vary according to where it is. Many IDBs have given the matter a great deal of thought. I want them to consider the matter themselves, taking into account the guidance of their own associations. Considerable savings could be made by merging IDBs, or through the consortium approach. I know that my hon. Friend would welcome those savings, as she will welcome my announcement today that IDBs will come under the remit of the local government ombudsman. That will resolve some of the problems that otherwise come to my Department.

I turn now to the question of the Environment Agency's flood defence work, and how that is funded. We propose to change that funding. Subject to the passage of amendments to the Water Bill, the agency's work will be funded by a single stream of DEFRA block grant. That block grant will embrace the current DEFRA capital grant, which currently has to be awarded on the basis of individually approved schemes, and the revenue funding that currently goes to the agency from levies on local authorities. That will greatly simplify the present funding arrangements and provide much greater certainty of funding for longer-term planning.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): I thank the Minister for giving way, and I am grateful to him for the interest that he has taken in flooding in my constituency, and especially for his visit to Robertsbridge. However, the picture elsewhere in Sussex is not so happy. The Sussex flood defence committee feels that the Department has led it down the garden path. It believes that it was promised 75 per cent. match funding from DEFRA if the county council raised the levy by 7 per cent. Only 65 per cent. was forthcoming. Will the new

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funding formula give the Sussex flood defence committee a better deal? So far, its experience has been pretty shabby.

Mr. Morley: I disagree. No formal funding arrangements would be made on the basis that the hon. Gentleman described. Funding should be provided by local authorities on the basis of the flood and coastal defence needs of their communities and areas. The level of grant has been increased by this Government. It has been set at different levels according to the priorities and needs of different areas. We take into account the needs in Sussex, and they are reviewed every year. I shall take that into account in future.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole): My constituents and I are grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure that he will recall visiting Gowdall and other parts of my constituency several times. When the Environment Agency builds flood banks, that often requires work on people's land, and sometimes even in their gardens. Outbuildings and garages occasionally have to be demolished. Could local residents make a case for compensation in such circumstances?

Mr. Morley: This is a complex matter. I am aware of phase 2 of the Gowdall flood defence scheme, and I have visited the village three times in connection with the floods of 2000, so I know it and the details of the scheme very well. It appears that, over many years, some permanent structures such as garages have been built into the flood bank. People should give careful thought to what they build into flood banks but, because the structures are so long standing, I understand that the Environment Agency considers that there might be a case for compensation, in some circumstances, if they have to be demolished or removed. I assure my hon. Friend that the agency is looking at the matter. I am sure that the residents of Gowdall will be pleased about the significant additional expenditure being made on raising the local flood defences. I concede that the village was severely affected in 2000.

The idea is to simplify funding arrangements, to give more certainty to the Environment Agency so that it can adopt longer-term planning in connection with regional flood defences. As for delivery, we are also planning to streamline the current structure of regional and local flood defence by creating a single tier of committees. It is expensive and inefficient to run two committee tiers, and one committee often ends up second guessing decisions made by the other. Again subject to the passage of amendments to the Water Bill, we propose that the local tier of committee be abolished.

However, we recognise that local input is important. Local priorities and views must be taken into account, so we also propose to split some of the larger regions into, say, two or three smaller areas. Those areas will be served by a single-tier committee, but there will be more of them, thus ensuring that local accountability and involvement are maintained.

We are also changing the way in which DEFRA goes about considering proposed capital schemes undertaken by the Environment Agency. In particular, we will consider proposals at an earlier stage of development. That will avoid committing resources wastefully on schemes that are unlikely to be approved for grant. We

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will try to identify preferred options, and then put them out for consultation. We also try to involve our engineers at an earlier stage in the development or proposals, so as to speed up the appraisal process.

I have to be honest with the House: flood defence provision is complex. The point has been made that we must ensure that one scheme does not impact on another. For that reason, a scheme has to go through the planning process, and often through a very detailed technical appraisal. I do not want to give the impression that putting in flood defence schemes, especially the major ones, will necessarily be a speedy exercise. In some cases, it can take quite a long time. I do not want to mislead people, but we want to try to ensure that unnecessary delays because of departmental bureaucracy are minimised.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Morley: I want to come to my concluding remarks, but I give way to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb).

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): The Minister will be aware that the Chichester flood relief scheme sends water down the Pagham rife through my constituency when there is a danger of flooding, and that the Environment Agency last year missed the seasonal window of opportunity for installing sluice gates in the Pagham reserve. Will he assure me and the people of Pagham that the agency will not miss the window this year, and that it will install the sluice gates this spring and summer?

Mr. Morley: Yes. My understanding is that the agency can meet the deadlines for the work on the Pagham sluice gates. To be fair to the agency, in any scheme one is likely to come across unforeseen circumstances sometimes, such as geological ground conditions, water conditions, delays with contractors or even court cases with contractors. Such problems are not unknown. I know that the agency was confident that local communities were not at risk, even though the Chichester scheme sluice gates were not in place. I have visited the Chichester a number of times, and I was very pleased to turn the first sod when it began. I am glad that it is now in place.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Morley: I give way to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath).

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I am grateful to the Minister, who is beleaguered by hon. Members. He has not mentioned the contribution that agri-environmental schemes can make to catchment management. I have raised the matter of water retention before, but is thought being given to soil management? Very often, compacted soil prevents water from flowing through to aquifers, and therefore being retained, before it goes into the river system. Is the agri-environmental review addressing that issue?

Mr. Morley: It certainly is. I touched on the matter briefly, in the sense that our general approach to flood

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and coastal defence involves the soft solutions as well as the hard ones. That is, we want to look at sustainable solutions that involve working with the forces of nature. That means using salt marsh, sand, various gravels and pebbles, and even agricultural land in flood defence schemes. We are issuing soil codes as part of the entry level pilot schemes. We want those schemes to include the various codes produced by DEFRA and which are based on good agricultural practice. In that context, we want to minimise soil compaction, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, and the run-off from fields that can cause flooding problems for people.

We recognise that agri-environment schemes could well be part of the range of measures that we can offer as coastal and flood defence solutions. The salt marsh option, for example, is part of our country stewardship option, and it is being used in a number of small schemes around the coast. We take such matters into account, and there may be greater scope for their use. However, once soil and the water tables are saturated—and agricultural land this winter probably reached its full water-carrying capacity by the end of December—the land can take no more water. Any further rain simply runs straight off into the water courses.

That is the situation that has faced us all this winter. The combination of those factors led to the flooding incidents in December and January, in conditions that were very similar to those in 2000. We have to take such matters into account.

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