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13 Mar 2003 : Column 513—continued

5.42 pm

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): It is a privilege to speak at the conclusion of this debate, during which we have heard much that is of great interest. I hope to sum it up by reference to my constituency. The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) reminded us of the floods of October 2001, which also flooded my constituency. Since then, I have had the benefit of being able to explore the detailed policy implications in my own Adjournment debate.

I am grateful to the Minister for the action that has flowed since then and to the Environment Agency for what it has done locally—for example, the study on the River Cam and the River Granta and the standards and protection studies in Bourn, Shelford and Stapleford. Several hon. Members described the difficulties involved in trying to bring agencies together and to explore the demarcations of responsibilities. Those are undoubtedly difficult issues, but they have been addressed in my area through co-operation between the Environment Agency, South Cambridgeshire district council, Cambridgeshire county council, Anglian water, the parish councils, and flood action groups in villages such as Bourn and Elsworth. A series of villages had regular collective meetings with the agencies early in 2001, before the 2001 floods occurred.

It is remarkable what has been achieved in the space of two years in terms of enlightening parish councils and flood action groups about the resources that are available. For example, the county council organised an exhibition of flood protection equipment. I remember that when representatives of the Environment Agency attended the first meeting they said, "We're here, and we're willing to offer advice of a technical kind, but we haven't got any money." Two years later, we have

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reached a situation whereby, as a result of those discussions and the work that has flowed from them, the Environment Agency will be instrumental in the delivery of some of the necessary measures. I look forward to that. Many questions cannot be answered today, but, as we go down the track, the test for my constituents will be whether the feasibility studies that have been carried out since 2001 have been turned into practical measures to remove flood risks in a reasonable time—and I think that they would consider two or three years to be a reasonable time. Whether that can be done will depend on the availability of resources and expertise.

Some things are still missing. One of them, which I have raised with the Minister before, is to do with riparian ownership. Parishes often have a problem in establishing who owns many of their watercourses. When there is a transfer of title, could the Land Registry be required to register the riparian ownership responsibilities alongside the registration of title? That would allow ownership to be more easily examined.

A number of hon. Members have spoken about soft protection measures and, for example, upstream storage reservoirs. In three places in my constituency—Bourn, Elsworth and Bin Brook—such measures could play a major part in the long-term resolution of problems. However, we do not necessarily know how to access resources for those measures. If they depend on Environment Agency grants, and on the prioritisation that goes with them, those places may find themselves way down the priority order. However, if we can find a mechanism for doing things on a small scale—in projects on, for example, watercourses that are not main rivers or are not critical—by accessing agricultural funds, we may move outside the requirements for Environment Agency grants and find a very effective way of combining agricultural and flood defence measures. Such a mechanism could allow us not to have to be at the top of the Environment Agency's priorities pile.

The Minister has published his response to the review. Part of his response was on the question of a development charge. That may be along the lines of the development connection charge, which, in my response to the consultation, I certainly supported. In the Cam catchment area in the Cambridge sub-region, about 2,800 homes will be built each year, and serious flood issues will arise. In Bourn, 47 properties were affected by the previous floods, yet Bourn will have 3,300 homes built pretty much on its doorstep. It does not take a genius to see that some part of the development connection charge should apply to the river catchment area, so that local people can say, "Yes, we accept local developments for economic reasons, but we will also secure some of the infrastructure benefits that will flow from those developments."

A number of hon. Members have spoken about insurance. It is not in the Minister's gift to decide what the insurance industry should do. However, the industry relies on the Environment Agency's data and maps, so they will have to be continuously updated to allow genuine assessments of risk to be made. It will not be justifiable, if corrective measures are put in place, to tell someone who asks about the indicative flood plain that blue areas on the map will incur high increases in premium and excess. It is also important to note that it

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was a one-in-200 years event that led to the flooding in October 2001. The risks of flooding to some properties can be made very low indeed, which should result in low premiums. We need to be able to argue such points with the help of the Environment Agency's information.

Mr. Sayeed rose—

Norman Baker: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) to seek to catch your eye a second time, given that he was late for the opening of this debate, was absent for much of it, and spoke earlier for more than half an hour? Many hon. Members have raised constituency matters to which they wish the Minister to respond.

Madam Deputy Speaker: It is with the leave of the House that the hon. Member will make his response. I call Mr. Jonathan Sayeed.

5.49 pm

Mr. Sayeed: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. This has been a valuable debate. Understandably, most hon. Members have concentrated on constituency concerns. Many of those concerns raise fundamental questions about policy and the practical effects of that policy. I do not intend to detain the House for long, because I want to hear the Minister's answers. However, bearing in mind how many questions of considerable interest there were, I hope that, if the Minister is not able to answer each of them specifically, he will agree, at the beginning of his speech, to write to hon. Members.

We have heard about everything from the Bombay duck in Salisbury to Scarborough's seaside accidental skate park. It has been a very useful debate; some very practical problems need to be addressed, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister. I am grateful to the House for giving me leave to make these remarks.

5.50 pm

Mr. Morley: With the leave of the House, I wish to respond to the debate.

We have heard contributions from the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed); my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley); the hon. Members for Lewes (Norman Baker) and for Wealden (Mr. Hendry); my hon. Friends the Members for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) and Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn); the hon. Members for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) and for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner); my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster); the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key); my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright); the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond); my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean); the hon. Member for Wyre Forest; my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst); and, last but not least, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley)—not counting a few hon. Members who intervened at the beginning.

Hon. Members are rightly interested in flooding and coastal defence, and it is appropriate that this debate is taking in place in 2003—the 50th anniversary of the

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devastating floods of 1953, as has been mentioned. Of course, those floods had a significant impact on my own county—Lincolnshire—and 307 people lost their lives in England and almost 1,800 in Holland lost their lives on the same night, but things have changed since those terrible and dramatic events.

When I attended the conference that the European Union and local authorities organised in Norwich to mark the 50th anniversary, I found it chilling that, in 1953, people were drowning in Lincolnshire while people on the Isle of Sheppey were going to bed that same night with no knowledge of the death and destruction that was coming south down the North sea. In fact, the same thing happened in the Netherlands: people were hit while going to bed in the early hours without the knowledge of the terror that was coming.

Of course that was before the days of mass communication and the huge investment that we now have in flood and tidal surge warning systems and weather forecasting systems, which are very important, as the hon. Member for Salisbury rightly stated. It is not likely that we would ever be caught so unawares again on the east coast of England, but there are no grounds for complacency. Successive Governments put huge amounts of money into improving flood defences post-1953, and, as we have heard today, we are determined to continue that investment.

Many very detailed, fair and sensible questions have been asked in the debate, and I shall try to go through them by distilling a combination of the points made by hon. Members. If I miss some of the points that can be identified separately, I will try to write to hon. Members. Of course hon. Members are free to write to me and to table parliamentary questions about points of interest to themselves.

Enhancing the environmental was mentioned, and we look for environmental gain in flood defence schemes. For example, in Malton and Norton, paths with attractive brickwork have been built, improving recreation facilities and the environment, as well as providing new flood defences for the area. We will always try to do that, and we will always be prepared to talk about such contributions if local councils want further to enhance fluvial and coastal schemes.

Climate change, forecasting, renewable energy are all issues, and we accept that there is a cross-Government responsibility and that there is also a case for strong international action. It is also true that some isolated properties and other properties are not likely to qualify for flood defence schemes for various technical or cost-benefit reasons. Insurance companies have agreed to assess those properties on their individual merits. Flood-proofing steps can be taken to minimise the damage done to properties, which may help those people to obtain insurance.

I can tell the hon. Member for Lewes that I understand that the property price issue is being reviewed in relation to the cost-benefit analysis, which may be beneficial. I also understand that there may have been an assumption in Sussex that there would be a 75 per cent. grant, but I am not at all sure that there was ever any promise about that, and the grant remains at 65 per cent. If we increase the grant in one area—we do so occasionally for various reasons—we have to accept that we may have to reduce the grant in another area, so that balance has to be struck.

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I accept the case that a number of hon. Members made about upstream storage. The Environment Agency has the powers to include upstream storage as part of flood defence. It has to go through normal planning and land agreements. In relation to Uckfield, that was considered, but unfortunately it was not thought to be a viable option.

Roadworks can be considered for joint funding if there is a benefit in relation to flood defence. I am keen on co-operation with other Departments. I have been speaking to the Department for Transport about the potential for co-operation on schemes—for example, using reclaimed material for roads and removing flood obstacles in floodplains. Those are the kind of issues that we have been exploring with the Department for Transport.

With regard to internal drainage boards, the Environment Agency has a general supervisory duty to make sure that flood defence management operates efficiently. It can use the new subcontracting powers that we intend to give it to bring about changes. Some of those changes might mean amalgamation. Size and efficiency depend very much on local circumstances. We do not believe that if an IDB is bigger, it is automatically better. We need to consider how it operates and how effective it is. There are some good examples in the country, and we want the standard of the poorest to be brought up to the standard of the best.

Many hon. Members mentioned sewer flooding. I acknowledged that that was a serious issue. I am pleased that the sewer companies are taking action to deal with storm discharges and sewer flooding, and I have raised the matter with Ofwat.

On the Jubilee river, I repeat that I do not believe that it is to blame for the flooding of other communities on the Thames. It was subject to independent planning scrutiny as part of a public planning inquiry, and it is subject to independent scrutiny by our own DEFRA engineers, who are independent of the Environment Agency. Although I accept that hon. Members representing communities on the Thames have put their case in a fair and non-partisan way, I think that some communities and some individuals are engaged in a blame game, and I call on them to stop. All the information on the matter should be made available, and I will take steps to ensure that it is, so that there can be scrutiny by local communities.

As regards the invitation to contribute to an independent analysis, I have no objection to local authorities employing their own independent consultants, but for them to say to the Environment Agency, "We don't believe a word that you say, but give us your money anyway" is not a very attractive proposition. The agency has bent over backwards to try and examine the issue independently and make information available. People need to see that and reach the conclusion that the Jubilee river went through all the proper procedures and is not responsible for the flooding.

As a matter of routine, in every area that was flooded in the January incident there will be an examination of the causes of the flooding and the steps that can reasonably be taken to make sure that it does not happen again. That is part of the response to any flooding incident.

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I agree that there is a need to raise flood awareness, including getting people on to automatic warning. PPG25 is to be revised in 2004. I agree that the issue of road closures needs to be considered. Bellwin can provide support. There is a definition of watercourses, which we are addressing in the review. I hope to take that further, as clarity is important. The Water Bill will deal with abstraction issues. I do not believe that Crown immunity is appropriate to try and avoid the implementation of the Bill.

The promotion of agri-environment schemes can address flood issues. We want an integrated approach. I support the involvement of parish councils; local authorities are responsible for taking that forward. Design and health and safety aspects of flood and defence schemes are matters for local councils. I recognise the almost unique skill of my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn). We understand his concerns. Additional funding is not automatic, but we will look at the case made to us by the local authority. I hope that he can reach agreement with his local authority, as he has raised some pertinent points. I am willing to continue the correspondence that I have had with him.

The Somerset levels are a special area. The Parret catchment area does a valuable job of bringing communities together. As we all know, there are diverse interests in the Somerset levels. The change in the one tier of flood defence committees may well be a possibility in considering a sort of Wessex approach. I shall certainly take that into consideration. I believe that the proposal for the treatment scheme at Steart point is very good. It is a very exciting scheme and I hope that it goes ahead. Offshore developments will be taken into account. Coastal schemes are very complex. English Nature is our statutory adviser and we take its views into account.

It being Six o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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