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13 Mar 2003 : Column 500—continued

4.45 pm

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton): My constituency is about as far inland as one can get, but the River Dove and the mighty Trent flow through it. My hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) mentioned heritage. If it were not for the quality of the water in Burton on Trent, we would not have such fine beers.

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I welcome the extra funding and the greater responsibility that is being placed on the Environment Agency. However, I accept that all bodies need to continue to work together to deal with flooding problems because they do not derive from one source. Other hon. Members have referred to sewage flooding; that means that the sewerage companies are involved. This week, I had a site meeting in Rolleston-on-Dove in my constituency, which representatives from the highways authority, the Environment Agency, the local borough council, the Severn Trent sewerage company and the local parish council attended.

I pay tribute to all those who work to prevent flooding recurring, especially parish councillors who try to be the watchdog for their villages. Representatives of the local landowners were perhaps the only people who were not at the site meeting. We need to work with them on clearing the drains and ditches that run through fields and can create a backlog and cause flooding.

Whether flooding occurs in an individual property or a large group of properties, it is a terrible event for the people who live there, especially if sewage is involved. In the floods in 2000, approximately 40 properties were flooded in my constituency. However, we were within 2 in or 3 in of flooding in 7,000 properties in the town centre. The flatness of the land in Burton on Trent means that that would have happened if the flood defence barriers had been breached. Indeed, reports on local radio and elsewhere suggested that the bridges had gone, and the evacuation began in the town. That caused great problems on the roads. There was a need to evacuate some streets that were closest to the river, and that happened.

I have great sympathy for the people in the 40 houses that were flooded and those who suffered elsewhere, and I want to ask about the new priority scoring system. As I said, we were within 2 in or 3 in of having 7,000 properties at risk. We are in the "one flood in 100 years" category. I am worried that climate change may necessitate further improvements to the flood barriers in Burton on Trent.

If the flood defences in Burton had not been repaired and maintained before 2000, they would have been breached. I understand that improvements were not made on the standard that was established more than 30 years ago. In other words, we were not making the standard better than it was 30 years ago. Burton-on-Trent is protected to the one in 100 standard, but we came very close.

What calculations have been made of the effect of global warming? Are we changing our assessments owing to the likely increased risk? No one wants to scare the local population, but everyone should be aware of the risks. I am pleased that there was a local flood fair in my area recently, although it was not attended by as many people as we would have liked. There is a need to raise the awareness of people in towns such as Burton on Trent of the potential for flooding, without frightening them. There is also a need to ensure that the money is spent on protecting the areas in which many properties are at risk.

I welcome yesterday's announcement that the Environment Agency is to be given a block grant. I am sure that that will provide continuity and allow the agency to plan and develop schemes better in the future.

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The one disadvantage that it will bring is a loss of some democratic control, and I would like to ask what mechanism will be put in place to ensure fair distribution in all regions and areas—including Burton on Trent—under the new funding system.

4.51 pm

Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest): I shall be very brief, as I know that many other hon. Members wish to speak. It is not surprising that a lot of Members with constituencies on the Severn—our longest river—have spoken, and I am pleased to join them. We in Wyre Forest are very grateful to DEFRA and to the Environment Agency for the beginning of the very effective flood defences that we have, and I am grateful to the Minister for the reassurance that there is quite a good chance that the next phase will be completed on time.

We are very sad that neither the Minister nor the Secretary of State can come to inaugurate the flood defences at the end of this month, as we were hoping they would. In fact, I was asked to stand in for them, but I did not really think it was appropriate. I did not know whether one should crack a bottle of champagne over these things, cut a tape, or whatever. So I have suggested that the ceremony should be deferred in the hope that either the Secretary of State or the Minister can come later. The defences are really worth seeing when they are erected, and, as we get something like 36 hours warning of a flood, the speed with which they can be erected is very impressive. There is a flood risk in Kidderminster—although it is much less than in Bewdley—and there are very exciting developments there, including the building of a burn to delay the flow of the Stour and to recreate one of the original marshlands just above the town. I would love to have the opportunity to take the Secretary of State or the Minister to have a look at those developments and to see something that is really functioning.

I would like to add my queries to those made by other hon. Members about what an ordinary watercourse is. The press release and the statement used the term "even minor streams" and I would like to know what the definition is. I hope that the provisions will allow other areas to avoid the kind of Gilbert and Sullivan experience that we had in 2000, when a very minor stream caused serious flooding to a group of houses. The residents of those houses built a sort of dam to protect them, which immediately deflected the flood to another group of houses. In the middle of the night, the owners of the second group of houses crept up and removed the dam. We would like to see that kind of chaos eradicated.

I welcome the Minister's high regard for the national flood forum, which was set up by just three people on the Bewdley residents flood committee. With a generous grant from the Environment Agency, two of those people are now paid a moderate salary. The amount of work that they do, with volunteers, is absolutely amazing. They are involved in research, and they have done many presentations and organised flood fairs throughout the country. They are also creating a database. Their office will be in a converted building that always floods. If anywhere in Bewdley floods, this building does. It will demonstrate how to have an office that is relatively flood resistant. They have huge contact with local firms and individuals. I support their wish to

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develop their service further, which obviously requires more financial help. They provide a national service of advice for the people who need it.

4.55 pm

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree): Like probably every Member who has spoken in the debate, my constituency has suffered from floods in recent years: in our case, in 2001. We have heard about many famous rivers, including the Thames, Avon, Trent, Severn and Wyre. The rivers that I shall mention may not be as internationally well known as they are, but the main rivers running through mid and north Essex are the Blackwater, with its tributaries the Pant and the Brain, the Chelmer and the Ter.

The question that Members have asked again and again is: where does the river system stop? A large part of the damage in my division was caused by brooks, which run into the minor rivers that run into the main river. Into those brooks run drains and the run-off from fields. The whole system goes back and back, almost like all of us descending from Adam and Eve. We have to go far back to judge where the danger is coming from.

The other issue that a number of hon. Members have highlighted is the division of responsibility between the various bodies. Until we resolve that question, I fear that there will be some delay in finding solutions to many of the problems that we all face. Hon. Members may have heard of a case in Finchingfield in my constituency—if not, they will have after today. It is usually regarded as the most beautiful village in England. It is much photographed, but in October 2001 it was not photographed as an inland village: it was a series of houses under or around a lake. The Finchingfield brook overflowed, and the water went higher than anyone in living memory can recall. My good friend Councillor Ron Hawkins is a local historian, and he can find no record of the waters going as high as they did that year. They went beyond the war memorial, well up on to the green, and flooded the pub, the teashop, the antique shop and residential properties. All of us will be aware that, when flood waters go away, houses are not put back into occupation straight away. It takes many months for those houses to be habitable again.

The difficulty we have with the Finchingfield brook is that the Environment Agency has responsibility only for the area just past the village green, but the brook runs beyond that, and there lies the problem. Unless we deal with the whole length of the brook, we cannot prevent further flooding.

Of late, I have been disappointed with the Environment Agency. After the floods in 2001, I was clearly told that a number of schemes would shortly be introduced, on which action could be taken. I was shown the outlying schemes for certain villages in my division, particularly in Kelvedon, but no such report was published in 2002. Being ever the optimist, I again spoke to the agency in the autumn of 2002. I was shown schemes for the village of Finchingfield, which I was assured would be consulted on after December 2002. I am a patient man, and I did not raise the matter again until February 2003, when I was referred to the regional

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office in Ipswich. I was told that because the scheme involved a flood park beyond the agency's jurisdiction, it would not be able to carry it out. It was an inexpensive scheme, and on the face of it would not only have solved the problem of Finchingfield and down river to Great Bardfield, but would have had consequences all the way down the river system. I could not fathom whether the agency had a reason not to go ahead or whether it did not wish to go ahead, but officials in the local office told me about the schemes in good faith. Clearly there was an overruling higher up in the system.

I should like to know from the Minister whether the agency currently has power to construct flood parks beyond the line of the main river, which it operates, provided that the construction of those parks provides flood defences within the main river. If the answer is yes, I shall be greatly strengthened in my discussions with the local office. If that is not the case, can it become the case? Otherwise valuable schemes in all our constituencies will be blocked, and no real progress will be possible.

Obviously I spoke about the whole issue of flooding in my constituency after the severe floods of 2001. All of us who represent areas where flooding has been a problem know of the fear that many residents feel at certain times of the year, and the relief when spring arrives and the danger has presumably passed. The trouble is that public bodies take too long considering before they act. Some of the schemes that could solve the problem are not very expensive, but they need to be put in hand promptly rather than being contemplated at length. People should not be fobbed off with the excuse that the problem is not the responsibility of a particular agency or Department.

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