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13 Mar 2003 : Column 467—continued

Mr. Morley: I am of course familiar with Happisburgh, as the hon. Gentleman says, as I am with all coastal issues. There is a contradiction in his comments. He supports soft defence, which I am pleased about—it appears to be something of a policy U-turn—but soft defence requires a dynamic coastline, and a dynamic coastline means recognising that erosion has taken place for centuries. Local authorities are the lead bodies for coastal erosion issues. The scheme that was submitted to us in DEFRA was withdrawn by the local authority because it had problems with local objections and land ownership issues. It is a matter for the local authority, and we will judge its application on its merits when we receive it. Of course, I am sympathetic to the situation in which people in that community find themselves.

Mr. Sayeed: There is a considerable difference between letting local farmland drop into the sea and compensating farmers for it, and letting whole communities fall into the sea. The Minister did not answer my question about the changes in the new formula, but he may care to consider it.

I urge the Minister to ensure that the criteria used to identify areas that qualify for flood defences be re-evaluated to take into account all the impacts and costs associated with flooding. That point has been made forcefully to me by Norwich Union. I congratulate that insurance company, which has done much more work on flooding than any other commercial organisation. It remains concerned that February's change to the scoring system did not clarify whether the cost and benefit evaluations took account of social and health costs, which can be significant. The risk is that some communities will not receive schemes because they are not prioritised correctly.

Will the Minister review the distinction that was made in the Coast Protection Act 1949 between coastal defence and river flooding? If the sea breaks through at Happisburgh, it could surge right through the Norfolk broads, causing irreparable damage to the national park. Despite that danger, the Environment Agency has apparently told local people that it cannot get involved in their campaign for coastal defences because its remit is limited to river flooding. There seems to be a serious lack of joined-up thinking.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Earlier, I referred to Castlehaven, and I accept that its case is not as bad as

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that of Happisburgh. However, in all such cases, does my hon. Friend agree that twists and turns in policy and designation, and the length of the process, can delay the implementation of proposals that local authorities are prepared to make? That can cause great stress to residents.

Mr. Sayeed: I agree with my hon. Friend's point, but I would admit that the Government are, at long last, moving towards reducing the number of different conflicting organisations that have an input to such cases. I agree that the planning system is a cause of considerable delays.

I want to discuss public information. I welcome the facts that householder comprehension of flood risk is said to be on the increase and that the Environment Agency is advocating more self-help. Yet I wonder whether that increase in comprehension is enough. In its "Home and Dry" advice pack, launched on March 5, Norwich Union states:

In addition, 67 per cent. of the people surveyed in February this year were worried that not enough is being done about flooding and that sufficient progress has not been made in the past 12 months. Property owners must be made fully aware of the threats that are associated with living on a high-risk floodplain, and encouraged to take precautionary measures on a seasonal basis. For instance, I would have thought it logical—although it seems hardly to occur in practice, even in new homes—that electrical connections should be placed at a higher level above the floor.

We can all disagree over the causes of global warming. However, what is indisputable is that the dual spectre of coastal and inland flooding looms increasingly large. The exercise of those forces of nature is out of our control, but the minimisation of their impact lies in the hands of the Government. Although they cannot turn back the tide, stop the rain or reverse rising sea levels, they can do much to protect us from what is foreseeable today and may become a catastrophe tomorrow.

Reform is undoubtedly the key to environmental protection and value for money. Moreover, the implementation of the Association of British Insurers' statement of principles on the provision of flooding insurance, which applies from January of this year, is dependent on Government action. Even that commitment still leaves up to 200,000 homes in the most high-risk areas without flood insurance. Ultimately, if the insurance industry considers that it can no longer provide cover for certain domestic properties and small businesses, the onus will be on the Government to provide cover as the insurer of last resort. Flood prevention is actually the cheap option. The Treasury has to learn that. The delivery of a policy that looks beyond sandbags to a long-term preventive strategy is essential before the next disaster catches us as unprepared and underfunded as we were in 1953.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I share a thought with the House? Perhaps 180 minutes or so are left in the

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debate for Back-Bench contributions, but 17 Back Benchers are trying to catch my eye. There is also another Front-Bench contribution to come. I am aware that many hon. Members wish to raise particular matters as well as making general observations on constituency concerns. Perhaps everyone will bear that in mind.

2.44 pm

Hugh Bayley (City of York): Having had two opportunities to ask questions directly of the Minister during his speech, I am prepared, in order to allow other hon. Members to make speeches, to make this the shortest speech that I have ever made in this Chamber.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Member has taken the Chair by surprise—just as the Chair obviously took the hon. Member by surprise. I am sure that everyone appreciates his forbearance.

2.45 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes): I shall try to be brief to allow other hon. Members to contribute. [Hon. Members: "Sit down!"] I promise not to take in excess of half an hour, as did the Conservative Opposition spokesman; and I will give way to the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) if he wishes to intervene.

I thank the Minister for his usual courtesy in presenting his case today. He allowed numerous interventions. He always gives way to local hon. Members and responds as best he can. He also meets local hon. Members and we had the courtesy of a written ministerial statement, which is in Hansard, for us to see before today's debate. I am sorry if those comments are unhelpful to him, but that is how I feel. I hope that they do not damage his prospects—especially as there may be some vacancies for promotion in the Cabinet and elsewhere in future.

Yesterday's written parliamentary statement, which the Minister has amplified today, is well balanced. It acknowledges that changes had to be made to flood arrangements. The arrangements were archaic and anachronistic, and they prevented proper flood defence measures from being brought in as soon as possible, which is what all communities wanted. Change was long overdue. The Liberal Democrats made the same proposals—although we would not be so arrogant as to call them our proposals. The ABI also recommended the same proposals. It may be that the Government will pay more attention to the ABI than they will to other people who argue for change. However, whatever the reasons, there have been sensible changes that will go a long way towards improving flood defences. The environment block grant to the Environment Agency is a sensible and long overdue measure. I also welcome the change that will give the Environment Agency responsibility for all rivers with the greatest flood risk. I take it that, by risk, the Minister is referring to the consequences for houses if they are flooded, rather than to frequency with which flooding may occur.

I pay tribute to the RSPB, which is very knowledgeable about flooding. It too has argued for these changes and will doubtless welcome the Minister's

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comments, just as I have welcomed them. Other hon. Members will welcome them too. It is sensible to streamline the present approval processes for flood defence schemes and to bring DEFRA engineers in earlier.

The Minister rightly concentrates on the flood-defence aspects of particular works—that is his job. However, I hope that he will acknowledge that flood-defence works often provide an opportunity for amenity improvements for local communities. For example, the construction of improved flood defences can provide river walks or other developments along riversides. They can enhance conservation areas; but they can also damage them if the materials used are not suitable. What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to see what tie-up there can be between his objectives and the ODPM's objectives, to ensure that both can be met in the introduction of a particular scheme?

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