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13 Mar 2003 : Column 464—continued

Mr. Todd: The hon. Gentleman presents a somewhat unsophisticated argument. The main threat is not to the houses constructed on floodplains, as they are often well defended and raised above the floodplain, but to surrounding properties that are not so defended.

Mr. Sayeed: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's second point. The Deputy Prime Minister's proposals for the Thamesmead area will do considerable damage not only to that area but to the properties that surround it. Why should properties that have not been subject to flooding be caused to flood in the future owing to excess building?

Why are more than one in three applications to build homes on floodplains being approved in defiance of the advice of the Environment Agency? Last year, the Government approved 288 of the 758 planning applications to which the Environment Agency objected. On appeal, a further one in five was passed, again against the agency's advice. Perhaps the Minister would comment on the proposition that it is hardly unreasonable to ask that the agency, and indeed the water companies, be treated as statutory consultees on developments in a floodplain and that their advice be adhered to unless there are good published reasons to disagree.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): I should hate the hon. Gentleman to think that the Environment Agency always got everything right. In my constituency, the whole of Southport PR9 is classified as a floodplain and under threat of flooding not from the sea, because we have an excellent sea wall—indeed, sometimes there is some difficulty in finding the sea—but from the river, even though we have no history of flooding from any river. None the less, organisations such as Marks and Spencer refuse insurance to people in the PR9 area because the Environment Agency is using a bad map.

Mr. Sayeed: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. The Environment Agency's first mapping was purely topographical. The agency did not ask the IDBs or other bodies which areas were at real risk of flooding. Maps produced by Norwich Union were far superior to those of the Environment Agency, and the agency recognised that it was at fault.

As I understand it, the agency's objections to the planning applications were not based on crude projections taken from an inaccurate map; they were well founded objections that were ignored by the Government. It would be sensible for the agency and the water companies to be treated as statutory consultees on developments in floodplains, as I pointed out earlier.

Mr. Todd: Would the hon. Gentleman support my proposal, which I understand that the Government are keeping as a reserve option, that any application in a floodplain to which the Environment Agency objects should automatically be referred to DEFRA for decision rather than being determined locally?

Mr. Sayeed: I am dealing with that point. If those bodies were statutory consultees, they would have to be consulted.

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I now come to the Deputy Prime Minister's regeneration scheme for the Thames gateway region. That scheme will put another one million people at risk from flooding. More than 58 square miles are below the level reached by high tide and parts of Thamesmead lie 12 feet below high tide. As we know, the Thames barrier may not last as long as predicted, owing to tilt and rising sea levels, and is currently subject to a far greater proportion of closures than intended under its original design. As a consequence, development in the south-east will require major added investment to protect vulnerable areas from increasing coastal and fluvial flooding. The Minister has told us that he is considering a new tax on property developers who are planning to build on floodplains to pay for the erection and maintenance of flood defences.

Mr. Morley: The Thames gateway is currently defended to a one in 1,000 standard for flood defence, which is extremely high. It is true that, at some point, the Thames barrier will need to be upgraded or replaced because of its design limitations. That has been built into forward investment.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the floodplain connection charge. Planning authorities can ask developers to contribute directly to flood defence schemes as part of their development. That provision already exists under planning policy guidance 25. The idea is that the levy would contribute on a national scale to flood warning systems and the ongoing maintenance of flood protection schemes in all areas that are at risk.

Mr. Sayeed: I thank the Minister. I understand those points and will deal with them later. As he knows, however, the one in 1,000 figure is disagreed to by several other authorities. The fact is that if one builds homes that lie 12 ft below high tide, one runs a considerable risk. The consequence of all this development in the south-east will be that we have to invest considerable new sums of money to protect vulnerable areas from increasing coastal and fluvial flooding.

Will developers play a part in raising the revenue to deliver increased funding to the Environment Agency? Who will be required to pay for the increased drainage costs? Will it be householders, who do not want ever more urban sprawl, local authorities, who are opposed to building on floodplains, or the water companies, who will simply pass on the extra costs to their customers? How far has the Minister considered a supplementary one-off "connection charge" on all development projects that are likely to have an adverse drainage impact on a particular catchment? The funds raised from such a levy could be used to improve flood protection in the area, with money contributing to flood forecasting and early warning systems, floodplain mapping projects, emergency planning and post-flood clear-up strategies.

How can the Minister square all his admirable intentions with the determination of the Deputy Prime Minister to continue and increase building on floodplains, covering ever more of the midlands and the south-east with bricks and mortar? It seems that we are being treated, yet again, to an example of joined-up government in rhetoric and contradictory policies in action.

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Can the Minister guarantee that planning policy guidance note 25 will be enforced to ensure that appropriate development and flood mitigation measures for new development and for neighbouring existing properties take place?

Why is so much house building being planned for these areas, given that in the north of England housing is being left derelict or destroyed and existing infrastructure is being wasted? Is it because there is such regional inflexibility that there is ever greater pressure for inappropriate development? The priority should be jobs in the north, not urban sprawl in the south. Surely it is time that the development of floodplains was capped and that the Minister spent more of his energy and resources on soft defences and the encouragement of sustainable land management practices that assist water retention and maintain hedges and ditches to act as buffers.

Why are flood defence moneys and agri-environment funds not linked to ensure that landowners can be paid for flood mitigation practices? Inland hard and artificial defence structures often shift the problem upstream or downstream, and are far less cost-effective than a softer approach. High fluvial flood defence embankments in fact produce external costs by displacing floodwater downstream and preventing valuable environmental functions such as groundwater recharge. Instead of that piecemeal approach, the whole river catchment should be considered, not just the areas that are prone to flooding. In some cases, water can be stored upstream in washlands, providing the same flood defence function as more traditional approaches, but with the additional benefits of creating wildlife habitats, helping to meet biodiversity targets, and providing social amenities to local people. A similar attitude to the coastal flood threat could also reap both environmental and economic rewards.

Building higher and higher defences against rising sea levels is not an efficient use of part of the United Kingdom's coastline. The realignment of coastal defences could save the taxpayer money, provide natural flood buffer zones and safeguard important inter-tidal habitats, such as salt marsh, against the threat of coastal squeeze.The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—I pay tribute to it—has identified many realignment possibilities around the UK. That can result in shorter defence distances, which at present cost an average of £3,000 per km per year to maintain. In north-east England, it could cut the length of wall from 88 km to 56 km and create at least 1,500 hectares of salt marsh, with the potential for a valuable fishery. New areas of salt marsh and similar habitats could help to absorb the impact of winter storms and rising tides, resulting in less ongoing spending on maintaining harder defences, yet still protect property further inland.

Before I leave the question of coastal defences, I have to mention the plight of Happisburgh, because it illustrates how coastal erosion is destroying homes and livelihoods. Worse, it threatens to obliterate entire communities. Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) visited Happisburgh, which is on the north Norfolk coast. The Minister would not recognise that coast, which he visited in 1998, because so much of it has been eroded by the sea. Erosion has accelerated at a rate that exceeds anything predicted by Whitehall or by independent experts. An

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entire community feels frightened and abandoned by Government. The plight of Happisburgh mirrors that of other villages and small towns on the south coast of England, for the Government have recently changed the formula for assessing bids for new coastal defence works. Happisburgh would have qualified under the old system, but is now in effect being told that nothing can be done. Indeed, the local council told my hon. Friend that even a town the size of Cromer would find it hard to qualify for coastal defence works under the terms of the new formula. I am sure that that cannot be the Government's intention. Will the Minister explain what value the Government place on the survival, not only of individual buildings or businesses, but of an entire community? Will he confirm that they will look again at the formula?

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