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13 Mar 2003 : Column 480—continued

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester): Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that in places such as Worcester on the River Severn that are approximately 6 m above sea level, the river would have to be dredged by 5 m? That would make the Severn tidal all the way upstream to Worcester and thus cause huge environmental and other disasters.

Diana Organ: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who, through the all-party group on flooding, invited a well informed hydrological engineer to speak to Members of Parliament. He explained to those who, like me, have a modest interest in and knowledge of geography, why dredging is not the answer for the Severn.

I am grateful for the work that is being done on the Severn in my constituency, especially on Lydney docks flood defence, a scheme that costs £5.5 million. It goes from Lydney to Aylburton. During the terrible floods in 2000, the industrial estate flooded badly and threatened the working day of Watts Industries, a major employer, in Lydney. The work that is being done means that that should not happen in future.

I am also grateful for the work that was mostly completed by 2003 on upgrading and improving the maintenance of the River Severn between Westbury and Minsterworth. I understand that one last part needs to be completed at Minsterworth, and that that should happen by 2004. I hope that it is completed on time.

The Environment Agency has also undertaken work, which is important for local householders, on an improved early warning system for three new areas: Gloucester to Westbury, Westbury to Aust, and Aust down the Severn. There are different dedicated lines from which householders can get information about flood awareness and the possibility of flooding.

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The Environment Agency has also run a flood awareness campaign, comprising a roadshow, a bus and radio advertisements. It tells the public about checklists, available information and the actions that people can take to help avert a flood in their homes.

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Lady has a rather rose-tinted view of the work of the Environment Agency. Did she try to access its website on 3 or 4 January? She would have found that it had crashed completely. A few days later, she would have found that parts of the website that claim to be updated every 15 minutes had not been updated for several days. My constituents' view is less rosy.

Diana Organ: I do not have a rose-tinted view, but I want to note the Environment Agency's work and response to the problem of flooding on the Severn.

I have one or two worries. In Gloucester, a scheme costing more than £500,000 over two years will complete repairs. However, in the long-term, there is a proposed £20 million scheme for Gloucestershire and other work in the Severn estuary that will start in 2009. My constituents are concerned that the work that is to be carried out in Gloucester might result in all the good work that has been undertaken in the section between Minsterworth and Westbury being made vulnerable, because the water has to go somewhere, and if we are stopping it going into Gloucester, it might be pushed further down the river. I would like reassurance from the Minister that the work that is being done to save households from flooding in Gloucester will not be to the detriment of my constituents further down the river.

Mr. Drew: If it is not going to flood in the Forest of Dean, it is not going to flood in Stroud either. Seriously, the water has to go somewhere, and it is clear that the way to form a solution to this problem is to look at this part of the Severn and come up with an estuary solution based on which areas can be allowed to flood. I hope that if and when this proposal is put together, the Minister will bring all the relevant Members in on it.

Diana Organ: Yes, it is important that the MPs adopt a catchment approach to dealing with flooding in the area.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned the role of the Highways Agency. The A417 between Gloucester and Maisemore, which the Minister has visited with me, floods regularly. If only we could raise the level of that road a little, it would act as a flood defence against the Severn while keeping the route into Gloucester open. Could we consider a joint project between the Highways Agency and the Environment Agency?

I have come to the point at which the rose-tinted spectacles come off. I am very concerned about the internal drainage boards. I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me so much time last week with the clerk and the chair of Chaceley parish council, who came to raise their concerns with us. I sat on the then MAFF Committee that made the recommendation to abolish the internal drainage boards, and I recognise that in the proposed streamlining the intention is to retain them. When the boards are small, it is possible for them to

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spend at least 50 per cent. of their money on administration rather than on the real job of maintenance. I am also worried about how the boards hold proper elections when they are so small, about minutes being circulated to the people who are paying towards the work of the boards, and about their accountability. I wonder, too, whether they cover the whole of the area that they are meant to cover, or whether they give preferential treatment to certain landowners in particular areas, as seems to be the case with the North Gloucestershire internal drainage board.

I am very pleased to hear that the Minister has decided that the boards will now be covered by the local government ombudsman, but people can take a case to the ombudsman only after the inefficiency and incompetence have occurred. What measures is he putting in place to monitor the work of the boards to ensure that they spend public money efficiently and competently and that they are truly accountable? Many of us are worried that the boards can differ so widely—just as parish councils can—and that some are very good and some are terrible. I would like to hear from the Minister about any further measures to make them more accountable. I was delighted to hear about the extra resources and the streamlining. It is important, though, that the Government should meet their commitments and that they intend to do so on time, so that people do not have to suffer as I did in 1985.

3.33 pm

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): In a dry summer, 20 per cent. of my constituency is under water. Every winter, that figure is significantly higher, and occasionally—as in 2000 and 2003—a great deal more of Spelthorne is under water. We had a very useful Westminster Hall debate on flooding in the Thames valley, and the Minister said then that he would make time available for a debate on the Floor of the House. I thank him for doing just that. During that earlier debate, I said that I had no wish to play the blame game, and I say that again this afternoon. What I want to do is to try to get him to do more than he is already doing.

Most of these debates tend to focus on rivers, but as the Minister has said, there are two separate issues: rivers and sewers. They are interconnected, but they raise very different issues. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) rightly recounted what it was like to have her house flooded. I, too, have had that experience. With all respect to the people who have had river water in their house, that is as nothing compared with having the contents of someone else's toilet in one's living room. Whenever we have these debates, we should spend as much time asking ourselves what we intend to do about sewer discharges as we spend discussing river flooding.

Mr. Hammond: Much of what the Minister said related to money, but one of the big problems of sewerage flooding is illegal connections of surface water drains to the foul sewers. He did not pick up on that point. That problem could be addressed without the expenditure of large sums. Does my hon. Friend agree that that would be a good starting point?

Mr. Wilshire: I do indeed, and I shall deal with that a little later. The thrust of much of what I want to say is

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based on the contention that many inexpensive steps could be taken, in addition to the major schemes that most debates focus on. Indeed, some measures would cost nothing.

Before we discuss what we intend to do about the problem, we should establish the facts, certainly about what happened in the lower Thames earlier this year. There is a raging debate—rather like the raging torrent that occurred—and assumptions are made so often that they are now bedded deeply into the minds of my constituents and those in neighbouring constituencies.

Three things are being blamed. For those who do not know the intricacies of the Thames, the Jubilee river scheme is the flood relief scheme that keeps Maidenhead dry. Most of my constituents are convinced that it causes more houses in my constituency to be flooded. The Minister shakes his head, but the Jubilee river figures large, the Thames barrier figures quite a bit and the lack of dredging gets mentioned.

The Minister has studied some facts, and he has come to a conclusion. He kindly wrote to me on 22 February about my request for information. He said:

He may well be right, or he could be wrong. I am not suggesting either that he is right or that he is wrong, because I have not seen the facts that he has seen. The message that I want to give him is that, however correct he may be—even if he is 100 per cent. right—a simple statement merely asserting that will not do.

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