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13 Mar 2003 : Column 489—continued

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I know that people in Worcester will welcome his special interest in the way in which the prioritisation scheme works.

In summary, many tributes were rightly paid to the Minister for the work that he has done on flooding and flood defences. He has taken time to talk to Members, including myself, with serious constituency interests. He has been successful in getting money from the Treasury and changing the cost-benefit rules. As of today, he has been successful in getting temporary defences for areas along the river Severn. If he could look at those prioritisation scores and perhaps give them a bit of

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tweak in favour of places such as Worcester, he will have done everything that a Minister can do to help to keep the people of Worcester dry.

4.3 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): In a constituency such as Salisbury it would be surprising if flooding were not an issue. After all, the heart of constituency—the city of Salisbury—lies at the confluence of five rivers: the Nadder, the Ebble, the Wylye, the Avon and the Bourne. This winter, 11 villages in my constituency were flooded, some gravely. Some flooded that did not flood in 2002. I have a long association with those rivers and their tributaries. I have an advantage because I have had the honour of serving as a Member of Parliament for nearly 20 years, and have seen Ministers come and go. How delightful that the present Minister has stayed long enough to understand the issues. I wish him well, promotion and all the richness that will come to him one day—but not yet, I hope

I first acquired personal knowledge of the River Avon in 1947, when I fell into it, aged 2. Were it not for the quick action of the Bishop of Bombay, I might not be here today, as it was he who pulled me out. Ever since, I have paddled in the River Avon and its tributaries—for pleasure in my childhood, and dressed in wellies and a Barbour jacket over the new year.

I visited many villages over the new year period—Orcheston, Tilshead, Shrewton, Tisbury, Chilmark, Winterslow, Cholderton, Allington, Hurdcott, Ford, and Pitton. I also visited Downton, of course, as it had the worst floods this year. I discovered that two different sorts of people exist. Some people see a lovely house in an idyllic rural setting by a river and decide that they must live there. They buy the house even though they know that it is going to be flooded. In Downton, I met one such gentleman wearing wellies who shrugged his shoulders and said he knew that it might happen.

Increasingly, people dwell in houses built in rather obviously flood-prone places. One of my favourite examples concerns the poor, sad people who bought a house in a very attractive area, only to discover that it flooded almost every winter. One did not need to be a rocket scientist to work out why that was, as the house was on a very flat bit of land through which a winter bourn clearly flowed. Perhaps they might have known that the house would be flooded, given that flooding looked so obvious on that site, and that the name of the village was Lake. However, the district council at the time thought that it was a good idea to build in that spot.

I heartily endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) said about road closures. I hope that the Minister will liaise with the Department for Transport and, if necessary, the Home Office on the matter. It is appalling to see HGVs pile down little village roads and through villages that are flooded. Bus drivers and even local people are also to blame: they seem not to understand that doing more than about 1 mph in a four-wheel drive vehicle will cause flooding because the wash will raise water levels the vital two or three inches that causes water to go over front-door sills. That really matters. Sadly, on one occasion in 2000, I had to report a police Land Rover for doing exactly what I have described. I am glad to say that that is a rare occurrence.

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I should like to take a short trip down memory lane. A remarkable author called Ralph Whitlock was born in the village of Pitton and many years later died in the neighbouring village of Winterslow. In 1988, he wrote a book about life in the villages on the edge of Salisbury plain. I shall quote one passage, which states:

He was wrong. We need to remember that in the 1960s this country's climate was unusually dry. In that period, many planning authorities and river boards allowed houses and industrial estates to be built on flood plains. That is at the root of many of the current problems.

One of the saddest examples can be found in the village of Pitton. Ralph Whitlock told me that one could tell when it was going to flood there by checking the black stone 4 ft from the top of the well at Box cottage. When the water reached that black stone, the village would flood three days later. Box cottage has gone now. The land has been built over. The well is no more. The village floods, heavily and regularly.

Flooding is a tremendous problem, but some really quite simple solutions have hardly been touched on today. Tom Ridout, clerk of Allington parish council, wrote to me on 10 January. The matter could not have been put better. Mr. Ridout said that changing weather patterns and increased river flows were crucial factors, and added:

I therefore commend Wiltshire county council for reintroducing the ancient concept of lengthsmen who are attached to a village so many weeks a year and go round doing just that. It is no good weeping over the fact that our farmers no longer have a surplus of labour who used to spend the growing months ditching. They no longer ditch because there are no longer people to ditch.

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On 29 January, Earl Peel, in the other place, asked the Government about the duties of the Environment Agency to clear arterial drains. The Minister, Lord Whitty, replied:

Quite so.

When we had serious flooding in Salisbury I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister and he replied that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had certain responsibilities, as did the Environment Agency and local authorities. I forwarded that to each of my local authorities, saying that that was what the Minister said, and could we all agree on who did what? Of course, we could not.

The district council wrote back to say that it had no statutory duty to prevent flooding, but there were two areas of legislation which give it discretionary powers to take action when problems occurred. In its wisdom, Salisbury district council has set up a working party to look into the whole question of flooding across south Wiltshire, and I commend it for that and look forward to seeing the result. The district council has undertaken various plans.

The county council wrote back to me and said that the Environment Agency had published a study which contains specific relevant areas of responsibility and that it could do no better than enclose a copy. It did not answer the question about what it had responsibility for; it just sent me the Environment Agency handbook. That is fine. Some very good ones are produced by county councils. Hampshire and the Isle of Wight county council has produced a very good flood defence information sheet and the Environment Agency has done some very good work.

I asked the Environment Agency what it was responsible for. The local regional director from Blandford wrote:

That is fine. I then asked the Library of the House if it could point me in the direction of a textbook or reference book which would tell me who was responsible for what. It did. It got the British Library to provide an excellent book published by the Institution of Civil Engineers called, "Land Drainage and Flood Defence Responsibilities". It was published way back in 1996 in the third edition, but unfortunately has not been reprinted since. There is no compendium for people to know exactly what to do. We find ourselves with lots of advice, but when flooding happens no one knows who is responsible for what.

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