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13 Mar 2003 : Column 476—continued

Mr. Morley: I am happy to consider how local authorities can apply funding as quickly as possible, but issues of flood defence must go through technical and environmental assessment, as well as cost-benefit analysis. The money aspect may be less important, but the technical aspect is very important. The problems of Uckfield are not simply a matter of money, as I think the hon. Gentleman accepts. In 2000, when I stood with his predecessor on the bridge at Uckfield, we agreed how difficult it would be to try to resolve the problem because

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of the pinch point where the bridge and mill are situated. Nevertheless, I understand that the Environment Agency is to proceed in the very near future with work designed to improve flow at the bridge and will do what it can, bearing in mind physical restraints and technical problems, to improve the situation.

Mr. Hendry: As always, I am most grateful to the Minister for that assurance. If I may, I shall return to that issue in a moment.

The county council has also been keen to work on the process. It has done good work in trying to keep the ditches clear, but as the hon. Member for Lewes and my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) have said, it is extremely frustrated this year that what it thought was a genuine commitment has not been met. It was believed that, if the contribution was raised by a certain proportion, the Government would match 75 per cent. of the funding, but that has not been carried through. If that is not the Minister's interpretation of events, perhaps he could write to us to explain his interpretation so that those facts can be clearly established.

I welcome the decision to give the Environment Agency responsibility for rivers prone to flooding and to contract local authorities for some of the work on maintaining them. As the Minister is aware from our recent meeting, there is frustration that the Environment Agency does not seem to have been doing enough to clear trees along the banks and remove fallen trees, supermarket trolleys and other junk in the rivers, when more could be done to prevent flooding in future.

At new year, we again had some minor flooding in Buxted and very nearly had flooding in Uckfield. I went every couple of hours to look at the situation in Buxted. It was shocking to see how much could change in only two hours: the river would rise from a small stream to something more akin to a raging torrent some 6 ft higher. It was easy to see how the floods in Buxted had occurred. Inevitably, the problem was lots of water coming into the village. When it could go under the bridge, it did so, but when it reached a level at which it could no longer go under the bridge, it went around the side and started flooding the neighbouring properties.

It does not take rocket science to understand what the solution might be. We must either enlarge the bridge—we all know that that would merely pass the problem downstream to Uckfield—or do more in terms of upstream storage. There is great frustration in the village of Buxted that the Environment Agency, with Government endorsement, has turned its mind against the idea of upstream storage with regard to those local rivers.

The frustration in Buxted turns to anger when we look at the plans for Uckfield. Again, there is no intention to consider upstream storage. As the Minister said, there is the possibility of enlarging the bridge, but the Environment Agency's principal response, which is endorsed by the Government, is that the industrial estate built on the floodplain should be moved, and other houses built there. We could stand here for ever debating the rights and wrongs of historic building on floodplains. If we could start again from the beginning, we would say, "No, we should not have done it", but we cannot; we are starting on the basis of decisions made 20 years ago.

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When the industrial estate was built, it was approved by all the authorities—the rivers authorities, the predecessors to the Minister's Department and others. They all considered the proposal and decided that it was reasonable to build a large industrial estate on the site. The estate is the largest in East Sussex, employing some 1,500 people, and moving it is simply not an option. The nearest site that would be available is only about a quarter of the size. As a result of relocating to that site, we could lose 1,000 jobs in Uckfield, so the majority of jobs on the current site would have to be lost if that route were taken.

Even if that proposal goes ahead, who will pay for it? When we came to see the Minister, he made it clear that the Government could not be expected to do so. I wonder whether his new tax could be used to pay for relocating buildings judged to have been built in the wrong place. Looking at his reaction, I suspect that he already has other plans for that money. Similarly, my constituents cannot be expected to pay. If we tell those businesses that their premises are essentially worthless because of their location and that nobody will take them over, they will simply be unable to afford to relocate elsewhere in the community. The only solution would be for those businesses to close, which would be a devastating blow to a community such as Uckfield.

In addition, houses are being built in those communities, notably at Olive's meadow. The Minister may say that there are not many houses, as only 17 or 20 are involved, but people have invested their life savings and brought up their children in those houses. They are places to which people have intended to retire and may be their nest eggs for when they need some funds for their later years. To say that the homes are valueless and cannot be sold because the Government have deemed that they should not be located where they are would be a terrific and awful blow to the people who live in them. I ask the Minister to look again to see whether more can be done. Will he also tell us where else in the country the primary recommendation for a solution to flooding problems has been moving buildings on the floodplain? It is my impression that Uckfield is the only place where that course of action has been proposed as the solution.

I do not want to detain the House unduly, as I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. I accept that residents must do all that they can to prevent flooding and I join colleagues in paying tribute to Norwich Union for its work in highlighting how that can be done. Ultimately, however, it will have to be the Government who address the problem at the most fundamental level. It is two and a half years since the floods that did so much damage. As I said, in Uckfield, nothing has so far been done.

I hope that the Minister can give us additional assurances as to how that process can be speeded up. In October 2000, we had meetings with the Environment Agency followed by meetings with him in Uckfield to consider the problem. The Environment Agency came up with its recommendations in July 2002. At the end of 2002, the Minister's Department approved the building of a working model enabling us to see the effects of different solutions. By the time that that model has gone out to contract and physically been built, a further six months will have passed, and it will be even longer before the actual measures can properly be evaluated, so the earliest time when we can expect specific proposals

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and realistic alternatives will be at the end of 2003. The awarding of the contracts would then happen some time in 2004, after which it would take a year or more for them physically to be built. We are therefore looking at a period of five years-plus from when the flood took place to when a solution will be put in place.

For many reasons, I hope that the Minister is not in his post in 2005, primarily because I hope that the Conservative party will be in government. However, if a Labour Government are still in power, I hope that the Minister will continue to hold his position, as he understands the issues and, if there is another flood in Uckfield, I want it to be him who returns to the town and explains why, in the course of five years, nothing has been done. It is appalling that every time we have heavy rain, my constituents are caused tremendous concern. I urge the Minister to do more.

3.19 pm

Diana Organ (Forest of Dean): As the hon. Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry) said, it is always a pleasure to have a debate to which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary replies, because he is so knowledgeable and gives informed and concise answers.

Before I go any further, I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if occasionally I do not realise where I am in my notes. I lost my spectacles this morning and I am wearing those of my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen).

In 1985, when I was pregnant and had a three-year-old child, I returned home from a half-term holiday to find a fire engine pumping gallons of water out of my house. For three months, my family was disrupted while we lived upstairs. It was not quite as dreadful as the scene in "Angela's Ashes" where the family goes upstairs to Italy, but it felt grim at the time. For example, the kitchen was not in use because the electrical goods had gone. I shall not forget that episode, and my child, who is now 21, never forgot that her birthday celebrations were held upstairs.

Thousands of people had such an experience in the floods of 2000 and 2001. Indeed, the Association of British Insurers suggests that 1.8 million homes are at risk from flooding. Our climate is increasingly stormy, and the weather is expected to get 30 per cent. wetter by 2080, so the problem will remain well into the future. However much the Government try to do, we cannot fight mother nature and what God may do with his storms.

Given that we can do something but not everything, people who fear the possibility of flooding will welcome the Government's announcement of an 80 per cent. increase of £255 million by 2005, and changes to organisation such as the streamlining of administration, the Environment Agency's new river basin, catchment area approach and the direct block grant that it will receive.

I understand that if the Scottish equivalent of the Environment Agency is asked about future planning development in a flood plain, it is almost mandatory to take its view into account. It is not simply treated with due respect. When the Environment Agency gives local authorities a view on proposed development and flood

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risk, the planning authority can simply ignore it. Does my hon. Friend hope to add to the weight of the Environment Agency's views in the planning process through the proposed streamlining?

My constituency is known as the land between the Severn and the Wye. That is a blessing, albeit mixed. It is prone to severe flooding. I am grateful that my hon. Friend has visited the constituency when flooding has occurred in the past. He has met many parish councillors and constituents and been helpful. I also pay tribute to the Environment Agency's work in the tidal Severn flood management strategy and along the Severn generally.

I pay especial tribute to the Environment Agency's handling of constituents who believe that the answer to the problem is to dredge the Severn, as was done in the past. It makes practical sense and is logical to some extent to take the sand out of the bottom of the Severn and dump it on the side. We thus have a bank to save us from the Severn flooding and we lower the draw of the estuary. I am grateful that the Environment Agency has patiently, carefully and courteously explained that the dynamics of the River Severn are much more complicated and that one would have to dredge night and day ad infinitum to gain even the slightest benefit.

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