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13 Mar 2003 : Column 483—continued

Mr. Morley: I accept that it is important that people have an opportunity to consider the facts. My conclusion is based on measurements of the Jubilee river taken by the agency upstream and downstream, which show no significant difference in the performance of the river, and on the hydrological modelling of the flooding both before and after the flood event. The agency will rightly make that information publicly available, so that people can quite properly see why the Jubilee river is not in itself a major contributor to the flooding that people have experienced.

Mr. Wilshire: That is the point I am trying to draw from the Minister. Many of my constituents would argue, "The Minister would say that, wouldn't he?". The Environment Agency will come along and say exactly the same, and my constituents will argue, "Well, it would say that, wouldn't it?", and the local MP may stand up and say the same thing, and the response would be, "Well he would say that as well, wouldn't he?"

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): Does my hon. Friend agree that we are touching on a problem raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed)? There is no court of appeal higher than the Environment Agency, and it does not seem right that it should be judge and jury in its own case. That is why my hon. Friend's constituents and mine in Medmenham and Marlow are justified in calling for an independent inquiry.

Mr. Wilshire: I am sure that that is one commendable solution. We need an inquiry or some other form of

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independent verification, so that we can tell sceptical constituents that it is not only people with a vested interest who say that the Jubilee river was not to blame: independent experts say the same. That is why I commend Spelthorne, Runnymede and Elmbridge borough councils, which have taken it on themselves to engage an independent expert. I applaud them for that. I would be eternally grateful if the Minister could see his way to paying some of the cost of that—he would expect me to ask that. I invite him to join us in trying to convince people of the truth, whether it is what he says or something else.

Mr. Morley: May I stress a point made in an earlier intervention? The modelling was done on behalf of the agency by independent consultants; it was not done by the agency itself. It would be a bit much to ask the agency to pay for even more independent analysis.

Mr. Wilshire: With the greatest respect, I would suggest that if the model was wrong in the first place and produced a certain answer, if it was still wrong it would give the same answer. I am merely asking the Minister to join us in trying to find some independent means of convincing my constituents of the truth, whatever if may be.

The same applies to the sewers: we must establish the facts. My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) made one of the obvious comments when he said that there were unauthorised connections. When constituents ask, "What are they going to do?", or indeed, "What are you going to do?", we must pluck up courage to say, "One thing we might have to do is disconnect your downpipes from your patio and put them somewhere else."

In my constituency, which has combined sewers, a Victorian legacy is part of the cause of the problem. Close to a river everything must be pumped—gravity plays no great role—and if pumping is inadequate, something must be done. We must ask how much more development we can put into existing infrastructure without its causing a problem elsewhere.

We must decide what action to take. It is all too easy to say that we need another grandiose scheme—another Jubilee river, for instance—but the years go by. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry) pointed out, if we are not careful we find that five or 10 years have gone by and more floods are happening. There are certainly minor things that the Government can do.

I think that the Minister should look again at planning guidance note 25, and do more to protect open spaces. We keep having this debate about flood claims, and I think we must now say that enough is enough. My constituency still maintains a reasonable amount of open space next to the Thames; there is enormous pressure for that to be built on, and the Government are putting enormous pressure on us to build more houses in the south-east. Given that every part of my constituency that is not liable to flooding has already been built on, we know where the pressure will inevitably lead us. Protecting the flood plains must be one of the Government's priorities—and it will cost them nothing, as all that is needed is a new planning guidance note.

The Government must also go back to the planning process. A planning Bill is currently before the House, and it cannot be beyond the wit of the draftsmen to

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come up with a clause giving the Environment Agency power to direct rather than recommending refusal. Time and again, when I ask why this or that happened in my constituency, the agency tells me, "We objected—we said what would happen and it happened, but someone overruled us." When I learned about planning all those years ago as a councillor in a coalmining community, what was then the National Coal Board had power to direct refusal if something built near a mine might fall down it. I do not see why the Environment Agency should not have the same powers.

Mr. Drew: I agree. Moreover, there is always a problem when local authorities make their own judgment about planning permission. It is not unknown for them to act against an Environment Agency recommendation because they have a vested interest.

Mr. Wilshire: Indeed. I objected to the right to determine one's own application as an exception to the rule 20 years ago, and I have objected to it ever since. Control must be handed to the Environment Agency when there is a risk of flooding.

Another inexpensive step that the Government could take is persuading people to take up the offer of a warning scheme. I was amazed to learn how few of my constituents had signed up to what is, in fact, a very good scheme. The more we do together, the better. The Government, the Environment Agency and local councils can all help to publicise the scheme, and financially it will be a relatively painless operation.

There is one other little thing. I discovered to my horror that among my constituents there are at least a few thoughtless people. The county council has road closure powers. It puts up a sign. The Government refuse to fund Surrey police adequately to enforce it. People remove the signs, drive large four-wheel drive vehicles down flooded roads and flood houses that until then had not been flooded. I urge the Government to look hard at doing something about the road closure powers and the penalties for those thoughtless individuals who could not care less about other people's property. Again, that is not an expensive thing to do.

The other thing that must happen is that the Government, and other people, must provide more money. In 2000, after the floods, the Government provided £16.3 million as emergency relief. How much will be provided this time? I hope that it will be more, but it should be at least the same. Why is the flood committee grant for the lower Thames, which was £1.1 million in 2003–04, being cut in the coming year to £300,000, after we have had two flooding episodes recently? Why does the flood committee have reserves of £17 million? I assume that that money was given to it to spend on flood defence, not to put into a high-interest account in Zurich or wherever it is kept. It should spend it. Why has it not spent it?

The other thing that the Minister needs to do in relation to financing is persuade his colleagues elsewhere to revisit the grant formula for the fire service and for the police in the south-east. Almost no allowance is made in the funding formulae for flood defence work by either police forces or the fire service, and something needs to be done about that.

There is another thing that the Minister needs to deal with in relation to funding. Let us take Thames Water as an example. It tells me that, in its area, it has 5,000

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properties that are liable to internal flooding from sewage. It also tells me that it will cost £100,000 per property to put it right and that it is committed to putting it right by 2010. There is a need to spend £500 million. Is Ofwat prepared to sanction that? Do the Government believe that it is right that the customers of Thames Water should meet the whole of that enormous cost? Because so much of it is the result of inherited clapped-out Victorian infrastructure, should not the Government consider contributing to that, rather than just leaving it to the water companies themselves?

As I said earlier, the reason why I speak today is not to try to blame anyone for what has happened. These are acts of God. Understandably, we cannot stop the rainfall when it chooses to come down. I speak to seek the Minister's help. With regard to establishing the facts, can he give us an undertaking that he will publish all the information that he receives about what happened earlier this year? Will he give us his help and fund some independent verification, so that we can check the facts?

On planning for the future, will the Minister ensure that he encourages lots of little schemes as well as one or two big ones? Will he ensure that his plans, which I support, to streamline the bureaucracy and planning process are brought into effect at the earliest possible moment? Because the fiasco over the terminal 5 public inquiry is always close to mind, will he ensure that any schemes that are developed do not get bogged down in the awful planning process that goes on and on and on before anything starts?

Will the Minister ensure that we get adequate emergency grant to cover the costs that have occurred this year, and assure us that we will get adequate funding to do the new flood defence works that have to be done?

As a very last, personal request, either next month or at the beginning of May, I am planning to hold a major public meeting in my constituency. Will the Minister arrange for people from DEFRA to come to explain to my constituents the role that they have been playing and will play in future to ensure that fewer of my constituents' houses flood in future?

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