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13 Mar 2003 : Column 486—continued

3.50 pm

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), particularly as I share his sentiments on the take-up of automated warning systems and on the thoughtlessness of some drivers. In his constituency, the problem is caused by 4x4s; in mine, it is articulated lorries.

I welcome the debate. The floods of 2000—when Worcester had three incidents in five weeks, all of which were 5 m above normal level—gave real impetus to the need to improve flood defences in that county. As a result of the floods, the all-party group was set up after the general election in 2001. It has been successful, in that several of its recommendations have been taken on board by the Government. The increased investment is most welcome, and I was delighted to hear the welcome from Conservative Members. I listened with care to their call for more money and I shall remind them of that in time to come. That is enough partisanship for now.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Acknowledging the end of non-partisanship, does the hon. Gentleman accept that one

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of the problems is obtaining value for the money that the Government make available? Continually revisiting schemes because of changes in regulations is a waste of money.

Mr. Foster: I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but some schemes that have been changed have benefited constituencies that tend to flood.

I am delighted that the extra funding in the spending review has removed the threat that many of my constituents feared—that they would no longer get household insurance cover. I welcome the response of the Association of British Insurers to the spending review.

I want to concentrate on the challenges facing my constituency, but I shall make a few minor, but more general points. The single point of contact for flood defence has been widely welcomed in the House today, although I do not think that one particular individual first thought of it. Certainly, the National Flood Forum and the all-party group have discussed the issue, as did the Select Committee before that.

The bulk of the cash increases are coming from general taxation, and I want to explore the alternatives that were touched on in the discussion document. On the use of connection charges, I welcome the prospect of those who undertake development in at-risk areas contributing to the wider community for that risk. I look forward to the raising of cash through that route because more cash is needed, as Members on both sides have said.I am also delighted to read that the flood plain levy has, in effect, been kicked into the long grass. Most Members in the Chamber would welcome that.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne mentioned the awfulness of flooding and how dealing with silt left over in one's house compared with dealing with a sewer flood. There is a big difference between the two. Having witnessed more sewer floods than I would like, they are difficult to describe to someone who has not been there, experienced the smell and waded through what can only be described as papier maché. People will understand exactly what is coming up in kitchens and living rooms. I do not know how people can go on to lead a normal life in the house afterwards.

In Worcester, there has been severe sewer flooding in the Waverley street and Cavendish street areas, and I pay tribute to Severn Trent, which has improved the pumping of sewage across the River Severn. With any luck, we will no longer have the problem of water back-filling the old Victorian sewers, which are combined surface water sewers, and coming up into people's houses at low levels.

In January, the Environment Agency presented a pre-feasibility report for Worcester to a meeting of Worcester Action Against Flooding. It covered the 5.5 km from upstream of Barbourne brook, in Worcester, to the confluence of the River Teme. In total, it covers 220 properties that are prone to flooding in one in 100-year events such as the one that occurred in 1947. The Worcester floods that occurred in November and December, which affected some 90 properties, were a one in 50-year event. The Environment Agency has split Worcester into three distinct flood cell locations. My

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hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) pointed out that dredging is no longer an option, certainly for a river the size of the Severn; however, building upstream capacity has been mentioned in the past as a way to protect Worcester.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater): The hon. Gentleman says that dredging is not practical for a river the size of the Severn. However, dredging is taking place at the bottom of the Severn, in the River Parrett, near Bridgewater, and it is proving quite successful. Would he like to expand on why that is so?

Mr. Foster: At Worcester, the River Severn is about 6 m above sea level. In order to lower it to a level at which it would no longer flood residences, the bed would have to be lowered by 5 m. To do so would make the Severn tidal at that point, and the risk of flooding would probably be greater, with water coming up from the Severn estuary. For that reason, it is not a practical option. Building upstream capacity would require the equivalent of three Clywedog reservoirs upstream of Worcester, to prevent its houses from flooding. For those who are not familiar with such reservoirs, each one would be 70 m deep and cover 620 acres. Trying to find that capacity upstream of Worcester would not be an option, so we have to look at defences as a viable way forward.

Under existing cost-benefit rules, benefits accruing to Worcester for all 11 cells taken together would be in the region of £1.9 million, for an expense of £5.2 million. It is clear that that is not a viable option, but under the rules that will come in from this April, benefits will rise to £6.4 million, making such schemes viable in the city of Worcester. I welcome that change in the cost-benefit rules, for which the all-party group has campaigned. For Hylton road, in Worcester, a cost-benefit of what was in the region of 0.55 to 0.87, requiring a ratio of at least 1:1, has moved to 1.8 to 2.84. Hylton road has therefore become a viable proposition, in terms of covering the 24 domestic and commercial properties.

I reiterate my welcome for the temporary flood defence grant for the Severn area. It is along places such as Hylton road that pallet barriers or Danish sausage barriers—depending on which the Environment Agency uses—will have a real impact in protecting residents, until permanent defences are found.

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman is an expert on this subject, but he is perhaps being a little too relaxed about the change in the cost-benefit calculation. If many schemes previously considered financially unviable now become financially viable, surely all that will happen is that many that appear viable will not, in any case, be financed. The change is setting an order of priorities; it is not, I think, guaranteeing that every scheme with a positive cost-benefit outcome will be financed.

Mr. Foster: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; however, I was about to qualify my comments with the word "but". I want to press upon the Minister my real concern not about the new cost-benefit scheme, but about the prioritisation of projects that pass the test. Once the test has been passed, schemes are, in essence, run against each other to establish an order of priority.

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If schemes were being assessed today, the Hylton road scheme that I mentioned would qualify as a priority, and would score 24 out of 30 points, with a threshold of 20, so everyone in the Hylton road area would be happy. Indeed, five of the 11 cells in Worcester would qualify, and a further four would be just two points below the threshold. However, under the planned new scheme there is a ranking of 44 points, and the same Hylton road flood defence would score just 5.6. It would clearly not pass the threshold test—even though the cost-benefit test showed that it was a viable financial option—and would not rank as a high priority. I believe that that addresses the point made by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond).

Perversely, Toronto close in the Lower Wick estate, which does not qualify under the cost-benefit rules, achieves the highest priority rating of the 11 cells in Worcester. I suggest to the Minister that there may be something amiss in the way in which prioritisation is dealt with, and I urge him to have a look at that. Under the new prioritisation scheme, the category of people gives priority to the elderly, single-parent households and disabled people. The chair of Worcester Action Against Flooding wrote to Sir John Harman of the Environment Agency when she found out that the cell in which she lives scored 0 in the people category. She said:

Even so, that cell scored nil in the people category. The chair of WAFF has made a good point, and I urge the Minister to look at it.

Mr. Morley: My hon. Friend has raised two issues. First, if there is a new scoring system, new schemes could be introduced. That is true, but we are spending more money, as I have outlined, so we are planning on the score going down in years 2 and 3 as we will have the capacity to accept more schemes. Secondly, on his detailed points, part of the problem in Worcester is that houses are scattered in some areas. There are also problems with fluvial gravels and the high cost of building programmes.

The new scheme is, I believe, more accurate and has certain advantages. However, I am concerned about some of the examples that my hon. Friend gave, and it would be worth while looking at a town like Worcester to see how the scheme is working and what its effects are.

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