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13 Mar 2003 : Column 460—continued

Hugh Bayley: Is there anything that my hon. Friend can do to speed up the publication of the Ouse catchment study, which is being carried out by the talented staff of the Environment Agency at its York office? It is now two years since the devastating floods in York which affected 600 properties. The consideration of new flood defences to protect some of those 600 properties is dependent on the conclusions of the study, so naturally the people concerned want the study to be published as soon as possible.

Mr. Morley: I understand my hon. Friend's concern and I have followed the progress of the study. It is a sophisticated study, looking at York and the whole catchment in relation to the best approaches to deal with minimising flood risk down the whole of the Ouse in Yorkshire. My understanding is that the Environment Agency will be able to draw some conclusions from the scheme this summer. That will help guide it towards the necessary options. If the scheme demonstrates that there is a need for further investment in York defences, I am sure that the regional flood defence committee will take that into account in the normal way. I should emphasise that York is protected to a high standard at present, but it is important to look ahead. Part of the Government's approach is to look ahead with investments in flood warning schemes, improved weather forecasting and the Foresight programme, which is led by the Government chief scientist and is trying to look ahead for 50 or 100 years in relation to changing weather patterns and their potential implications.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Morley: I know that one or two other Members wish to intervene, but I should like to bring my remarks to a conclusion. I hope that I will have the opportunity to answer their points at the end of the debate.

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The series of measures that I have outlined today will streamline the flood and coastal defence service. Subject to the passage of facilitative measures in the Water Bill, which has had its Second Reading in another place and will shortly come to this House, we will be able to implement these measures relatively quickly. We will do so in consultation with other interested parties. I am glad to see the warm response that the proposals have received from the Environment Agency and the Association of British Insurers.

We will produce a proposed implementation plan on the Department's website which will also give some indications of time scales and the process for implementing the changes. We plan to review the measures after they have been in operation for three years. We do not want to disturb the arrangements for flood and coastal defences because their provision is a long-term business that requires long-term investment and stability in relation to delivery. We want to take account of developments and currently emerging issues, such as the implementation of the water framework directive and the Government's wider regional agenda and developments on new funding streams, and, of course, the way in which the IDBs react to the proposed changes.

I look forward to the debate and I hope to respond to as many points as possible. I believe that what I have outlined will be an improvement in the delivery of flood and coastal protection. It is part of our commitment, demonstrating that while we have a good record, we are not complacent about what we are doing or how we are delivering it. We are seeking ways to improve it as part of the constant investment we are making in reducing the risks of flooding to the British people.

2.13 pm

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): Prior to this debate there were three resolutions which could have run for two and a quarter hours. Bearing in mind the large number of hon. Members who wish to take part in the debate, I am sure that we are all grateful for the expeditious dispatch of those resolutions, which took a total of some five minutes, allowing us rather more time for this important debate.

Some 50 years ago, on the night of 31 January 1953, the North sea flooded and a disaster took England by storm. Wind speeds of 125 mph were recorded before the tidal flood descended on the east coast. Some 307 people died, 24,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and over 30,000 people were evacuated. Nearly 200,000 acres of land were inundated and 100 miles of road and 200 miles of railway were seriously damaged.

Speaking on 30 January this year at the 1953 floods conference in Norwich, the Minister assured his audience that the Government were committed and on track to meet the challenges of flood and coastal defence today and tomorrow. He contrasted 1953 with today, stating:

I suggest that the Minister may be accused of a certain wishful thinking in the light of the flooding disasters of Christmas and new year 2002–03. Despite 136 flood warnings, 645,000 properties were flooded and many

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were left stranded without communication as the Environment Agency's website was overwhelmed by excessive demand. Apparently the problem was 40 times worse than in the year 2000 and was not merely a matter of excessive water flow, but also one of sewage and drainage surcharge—a particular unsavoury phenomenon.

Flooding is often mentioned in the same breath as such admirable words as "sustainable", "strategic approach" and "integrated management". Yet how much of that did we see over the new year's flooding, and how far is it being put into practice in the Government's long-term vision for flood and coastal defence? Climate change, tilt and sea level rise mean that the UK will be increasingly subject to higher rainfall and risk of flooding, both along the coast and inland.

I start by welcoming the Minister's announcement yesterday to increase funding significantly, with a rise to £560 million by 2005, which is to be paid through a direct block grant to the Environment Agency. This at long last allows for longer term planning.

Hugh Bayley: It is a matter of concern to my constituents and constituents in many towns and cities which are subject to flooding whether the hon. Gentleman's party gives a commitment to maintaining this level of funding for flood defences should it return to Government.

Mr. Sayeed: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman allow us to get back into Government first. [Interruption.] We will not have too long to wait, I trust.

Both the money and the direct block grant make a step in the right direction towards a much more modern, efficient system of flood management. However, it is not enough simply to invest money. We also need to invest thought. Our thinking must be driven by an understanding of sustainability that is holistic, giving due consideration to the environmental, social and economic needs of our communities.

Much more needs to be done—the Minister touched on this—to champion new approaches to flood defences and to streamline institutional arrangements. I acknowledge that, at long last after six years, the Government have taken a significant step towards that with yesterday's announcement. However, I remain concerned that DEFRA's consultation on the flood and coastal defence funding review, which examined the funding mechanisms for flood and coastal defences, explicitly excluded from its scope

The Minister informed me in the Westminster Hall debate on 4 February, column 50, that a review of emergency planning had been delegated to the Home Office, so I sincerely hope that the two Departments can, for a change, demonstrate coherent government over the issue.

I have spoken a number of times in this House, warning the Government about the dangers of the multi-tiered system of responsibility. Before yesterday, operational responsibility for flood defences continued to rest with the Environment Agency, the internal drainage boards, local authorities and maritime local authorities, riparian owners, the water companies, the Highways Agency and many other interested parties.

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That was hardly conducive to an integrated, strategic and streamlined approach, with the flexibility to recognise and react to specific local needs. It was, as it will continue to be until the changes are implemented, a recipe for arguing over responsibility until a problem escalated into an expensive and damaging disaster. I am thus delighted that the Minister appears to have taken up my proposal for the establishment of a single executive operating authority, funded by a central grant and able to require action to be taken in the event of an emergency, and later to apportion responsibility and costs. In that way, instead of a problem developing into a disaster while the parties argue about which of them is responsible, swift remedial action can be taken and blame and costs apportioned afterwards. There is no doubt that we need one body with the right and the might to enforce action, and I trust that will now be provided.

As I understand the Minister's statement yesterday, the Environment Agency has been given full responsibility for the major risk rivers, with power to contract some operational flood defence work back to competent local authorities and internal drainage boards. I welcome that. However, if the Environment Agency is to become the executive operating authority, there must be an appeal system against its decisions. The organisation could have a vested interest in its adjudications, so it is essential not only that it act impartially but that it be seen to do so and publish proof of that.

It also seems that overall responsibility for coastal defences will remain with local authorities. How will such local responsibility dovetail with the newly acquired powers of the Environment Agency in the general chain of command? Has the Minister considered instituting a statutory duty for operational authorities to carry out flood and coastal defence activities, rather than their present permissive powers? What is wrong with the Scottish example, where local authorities have a statutory duty of flood prevention?

The Minister has proposed the abolition of the local committees in favour of a definitive list of regional committees, and the draft Water Bill also included provision for the empowerment of regional flood defence committees. How is a region defined in that context? Would such provisions mean that, in the interests of regionalism, we should be sidelining internal drainage boards, which are often a valuable repository of local knowledge and experience? How will the Government ensure that decision making does not become too remote from local circumstances? How effectively will the process function when catchment areas overlap both regional and national boundaries?

Furthermore, when will the Government realise that floodplains contain areas that provide general economic and environmental benefit to the greater community—not for capital gain by the development and building industries, but as water-absorbing land that can reduce the risk of flooding elsewhere? Currently, more than a quarter of new property, by value, across England and Wales, including £80 billion worth of property in and around London alone, is built on floodplains. How many more millions of households are to be exposed to increased flood disasters, lack of insurance cover and a

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drop in property value, which will render their homes a worthless asset? Why are the Government putting more people at risk from flooding, while simultaneously planning to increase taxes to pay for more crucial flood defences?

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