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13 Mar 2003 : Column 497—continued

Mr. Morley: I should like to say something following the representations that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members have made about the heritage issue now, in case it slips my mind in during the winding-up speeches. Heritage is a criterion in the new scoring system that will start in April, so heritage sites will be a consideration. Of course the problems of Ironbridge, as he well knows, go much deeper—literally deeper. Again, fluvial gravels are a problem, and there are real technical challenges in providing a cost-benefit solution. I very much hope that the temporary solutions that are being paid for in the Severn area—Ironbridge is one of the areas under consideration—may at least, as he says, help to alleviate the problems. Of course, in the onging catchment studies, we will look for further solutions to try to improve the situation.

David Wright: I am very grateful to the Minister for that response, and I welcome the fact that heritage will be drawn into the criteria. We need to focus on the range of support services provided by local authorities in areas that flood, such as the gorge. Telford and Wrekin council has produced an excellent pack for residents that contains information on what the agencies can offer and what support is available.

It is important that we consider temporary defences not just as a sandbag replacement policy, but as a more effective system than that, and we should monitor and evaluate it properly to find out whether we need to provide more permanent defences as time goes on. I welcome the Minister's comment in relation to heritage, and I look forward to working with him and Ironbridge residents to explore how that will impact on a perhaps re-evaluated cost-benefit model in the coming months.

I want to close by reflecting on an issue that has not been discussed extensively this afternoon: how we can try to alleviate flooding through agricultural processes. We have seen significant change in the style and structure of farming policy and strategy in this country in recent years. Hedgerows have been removed and there is a totally different style and technique of farming. I should like to ask the Minister to reflect, perhaps in his winding-up speech, on how we can promote better agri-environmenal schemes to reduce run-off from land, and on how we can perhaps subsidise and support farmers and landowners to improve the use of their land, so avoiding significant run-off into rivers, such as the Severn, which has such devastating impacts downstream in areas such as Ironbridge. In summary, to coin a phrase, much done—much still to do.

4.32 pm

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I, too, will concentrate on fluvial flooding, some 150 dwellings in my constituency having been affected by flooding along the River Thames earlier this year. I should like to express my sympathy with all those of my constituents who were so traumatised by that event, coming just two years after what they all thought, in October 2000, was a once-in-a- lifetime experience. Sadly, that was not to be.

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As the anger that many residents initially felt has given way to a more analytical desire to understand what has happened, I should like to draw out and bring to the Minister's attention some issues that were brought to my attention in correspondence and two very large public meetings, which I chaired, attended by more than 500 people and representatives of all the relevant authorities, including the statutory water undertaker and the Environment Agency.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) talked about climate change being the driver for the flooding events that occurred early this year. That may well be the case, but as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), there are considerable concerns along the lower Thames that other, man-made factors may be at work and may also contribute as well as climate change, which we all recognise is inevitably a factor.

I would tell the Minister—my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne also made this point—that there is a considerable credibility issue about statements made by the Environment Agency. Well meaning, well intentioned Environment Agency officials attended the meetings in my constituency and stated very clearly that they did not believe that the operation of the weirs on the River Thames, the Thames barrier or the Jubilee river had in any way negatively impacted on the situation that my constituents experienced. Yet the people who were affected this time were, in many cases, affected much worse than they were in October-November 2000, but the flood event was much less extensive on this occasion than it was in October-November 2000. The Minister shakes his head. I speak with a certain degree of heartfelt knowledge, as in October-November 2000 my house, which is located on a tributary of the Wey, was seriously affected by flooding. In January this year, areas back along the Wey towards Guildford were not affected at all, while the flooding along the Thames in Chertsey and Egham was particularly severe.

Mr. Morley: That is right, although it could be explained from the areas of downfall and run-off. While that may be the case on particular tributaries of the Thames, I must make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that the levels in the Thames in 2003 were worse than in 2000. In fact, such levels had previously been recorded only in 1947.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister is right, but the level in the Thames is not a natural phenomenon. The level in the Thames is controlled by weirs and by the operation of the barrier. Therein lies the problem. Constituents of mine and of my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne are not yet convinced that the actions of the Environment Agency in operating those devices along the Thames were not a contributory factor.

I shall put to Ministers some of the issues that arose at those two large public meetings, and try to draw out of them a couple of more general themes that may have wider applicability than the flooding effects in Egham and Chertsey. Maintenance of rivers was a major theme—the maintenance of the Chertsey Bourne, the lack of clearance of the river and the division of responsibility between the Environment Agency and the local authority. Part of the Chertsey Bourne is a main

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river; part of it is not. That creates confusion in itself. I take it that the Minister's announcement about the Environment Agency having responsibility for high flood-risk rivers applies not just to large rivers, but to all rivers, even smaller rivers like the Chertsey bourne, which pose a serious flood risk to dwellings—in the case of Chertsey, 60 or 70 dwellings were affected on the last occasion.

Of course, concerns were expressed about development in the floodplain. I heard hon. Members speaking about the Environment Agency having much stronger powers to prohibit development in the floodplain. I do not disagree with the sentiment, but I suggest to the Minister that if that is to happen, the Environment Agency's act will have to be sharpened up. I think I am right in saying that at present the Environment Agency objects as a matter of course to any development occurring within the area shown by the agency's map as the indicative floodplain, yet we all know that its maps are far from accurate. If the agency is to have stronger powers, they must be based on very much better data than it has at present.

I mentioned the active intervention of the Environment Agency in the management of the river. Constituents of mine who live on the River Thames and know the river well experienced some rather unusual occurrences this January, in particular over the weekend of the 4-5 January—a sudden drop in the level of the river. That was after the flood event had occurred. I have not yet heard from the Environment Agency a satisfactory explanation for that sudden and significant drop in the level of the river.Other hon. Members have mentioned dredging. The Thames is no longer subject to the kind of dredging programme that went on for many years, and the level of the river-bed has visibly risen in some areas, particularly on bends of the river.

I should like to ask the Minister about the cost-benefit analysis model that is used in relation to fluvial flooding. A number of people who attended those meetings could not understand how it worked. It is abundantly clear from the figures provided by the Environment Agency that it is not aware of all the dwellings that are affected by flooding. Not everybody claims insurance when they are flooded. Sadly, some people do not have any insurance on which to claim. The discrepancies between the figures given by the EA and those given by the local authorities and residents groups made it clear that not all flooded dwellings were coming to the EA's attention. Can we be sure that the cost of flooding is being properly evaluated if it is clear that at least some flooded dwellings are not being counted? Can the Under-Secretary give an assurance that the cost of increased insurance premiums for all residents of an area when postcode-related premium setting occurs—an on-cost to the whole community—is being properly taken into account in the cost-benefit analysis?

Does the Under-Secretary recognise that there is a problem of public credibility in respect of the Environment Agency's multiple role? It is the promoter of schemes such as the Jubilee river, and it is also the operator of that scheme, as it sets weir levels and decides when and how to open the Jubilee river and bring it into use. Yet it is also the regulator and, as someone else has said, the final court of appeal. Has he considered

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whether the need to restore public confidence in the system might call for a split between the roles of regulator and operator, which would ensure that the EA works in relation to the operation of rivers just as does in relation to the statutory water undertakers—a function that it does not carry out, but supervises and regulates?

Is the Under-Secretary aware of another conflict in the Environment Agency's role, of which I became aware only by virtue of comments made by its personnel at the public meeting that I was chairing? I refer to the fact that the EA has a statutory duty to maintain the navigability of rivers such as the Thames. On the reach of the lower Thames that I am talking about, navigation is done almost entirely for pleasure. The duty to maintain navigability means that the target normal water level in the river is allowed to fluctuate only over a very narrow range. People who have lived on the river for many years tell me that, in the past, when heavy falls of rain were expected or taking place, it was accepted practice to allow the river level to fall in autumn and early winter in anticipation of heavy run-off during the winter season. That no longer happens, because of the EA's statutory duty to maintain navigability of the river. That issue needs to be considered; some correction may be needed in the form of legislation to create a clear set of priorities in which flood prevention comes ahead of navigation.

I want to mention one more issue that has not yet been raised: the impact of waste landfilling on the absorbency and permeability of the ground. Most landfill takes place in areas where gravel has been extracted. By definition, most of that land is situated in floodplains, and there is a great deal of it in my constituency. The modern practice is to clay-line waste disposal sites, which means that they become huge, impermeable voids in the water table—large areas of water absorbency capacity that have been removed from the equation. That is almost certainly a factor in my area. The EA pointed out to me that no statutory agency has responsibility for flooding that is occasioned by flows of ground water, as opposed to fluvial waters.

I understand the calls that have been made for public inquiries. I share the scepticism of my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne about the appropriateness of holding a full public inquiry into the events of January 2003 because of the delay that that would inevitably involve. Like him, I welcome the action of our local authorities in commissioning some independent expert research, but it will take much more than that to restore public confidence.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will take on board the key point that public confidence in the Environment Agency is low, certainly on the reach of the Thames that I have discussed. He should consider whether the Department can do anything, perhaps through splitting roles, to help restore confidence and thus give the public a greater sense that the serious threat to their well-being and livelihoods is being properly controlled and managed.

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