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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I know that this is an Adjournment debate, but the hon. Gentleman must try to use the correct parliamentary terminology. He keeps using the word "you", which is not accurate in these circumstances.
Thankfully, we are in the dying days of a muddled system that gave Somerset county council the biggest say in what we did. We will bid a tearless farewell to many of the unnecessary flood defence committees. In future, the bulk of the moneypublic moneywill go directly to the Environment Agency, not through the coffers of county hall. That will mean less paperwork and more action. I am sure everyone will agree that that is good news.
I hope that that is good news. I shall not dwell on the subject for long, but Somerset county council is notorious for creating a waffle shop of well-meaning worthies who waste money willy-nilly. Public enemy No. 1 is Mr. Humphrey Temperley. He used to be leader of the county council until the electors suggested he move on. Do not worryHumph did not get the hump; he simply shuffled sideways, taking on the chairmanship of an outfit of his own creation, the Parrett catchment project. If hon. Members are puzzled, I hasten to point out that that has nothing to do with ornithology. The Parrett is the river that runs through Bridgwater. It needs a lot of looking after, and it has the double problem of tides coming down and tides coming up.
Why not, I suggest to the Minister, include the Parrett catchment project in the new Haskins proposals, along with other stakeholders such as English Nature and many others? Humphrey has already jumped ship, not once, but twice. First, he took the chair of the Somerset flood defence committee. He has now found an even comfier chair on the Wessex flood defence committee. Surprisingly enough, this is not a gratuitous attack on Mr. Temperley. I am genuinely anxious about him and about what he has done, is doing and, I am afraid, has failed to do.
There have been various scare stories about the quality of the Environment Agency's work. The Environment Agency must lead from the top and not allow others to set the agenda for flood defence in our area. A successful policy will result in the Environment Agency being allowed to do its job.
We cannot have people such as Mr. Temperley strutting round Bridgwater like a latter-day Napoleon, telling everyone how he will persuade the Government to protect people from floods. That is not his responsibility, but that of the Environment Agency. Has the Minister heard about the barrier that the experts want, which has been mentioned many times by Mr. Temperley? It is difficult to know how to move forward if the Minister has not heard all the stories.
Next April, things will change. The Environment Agency will get more money direct from Whitehall and there will be less involvement from county councils and dare I say it?the Temperley faction. County councils will still get about £800,000 a year for flood defences. Neither the county nor the Environment Agency knows what the county's responsibilities will be and how much influence they will have in the new order of things. If the Minister provides an answer, it will go not only to Somerset county council, but throughout the UK.
I want to refer to the Steart peninsula, about which the Minister and I have had many debates. Many people worry about what is going to happen there. We are not talking about a risk of an extra 3 ft in 50 years; if things go wrong, Steart could become an island this winter. It might rain too hard or the tide might come up, and Steart needs a sluice or safety valve now. That is on the Environment Agency's shopping list; it costs about £3 million. However, a wave of worry is being created in Steart about what the future will hold.
Under new European flood defence rules, all member states, understandably, have to follow a policy of give and take with nature. For every barrier or alignment created, one must give part of the area one is dealing with back to nature. However, I can see some problems. What happens when the Environment Agency completes its work at Steart and removes the risk to the people who live there? Which bit of Somerset or the surrounding area gets flooded as a trade-off? I am not suggesting that homes will be flooded, but land. Does it have to be Somerset?
The Government have set targets for flood protection in this country over the next year and aim to safeguard about 80,000 people. How on earth will we achieve that if every time a bit of Somerset is protected, another bit has to be sacrificed to the rising tide? It is not a question of people being nimbys; everyone in our area is fair-minded. But should we not be looking to the long term, rather than looking to the less populated areas of England to meet the requirements of the European rules? Should not this be a national matter? The decisions, and the interest, must be taken at national level.
While the Minister is considering flooding, I shall mention another concern. A lot of Somerset is a flood plain; it is agricultural land that is kept clear by the drainage boards and the Environment Agency. The farmers on the levels get paid to maintain the land; it is not a great deal, but it is enough to make the task not only bearable but worth doing. The money comes via Europe through the common agricultural policy, which is currently having its mid-term review. I warn the Minister that if the grant money dries up, there will be little incentive for hard-pressed farmers to bother with the important maintenance work. If the farmers stop bothering, the land will go under water. The drainage boards, the farmers and everybody involved in the common agricultural policy must work together to create harmony in nature and not try to control nature in the wrong way. At the end of the day, there must be funding and it must be real money.
The whole story of flooding in Somerset is rather a sad cycle: inadequate funding over the long term to tackle long-term defences, and huge bills when the water inevitably comes up. Who pays? The insurance company and thus, unfortunately, all of us, pay. Some countries handle things better than we did. America offers incredibly generous flood aid in federal grants and soft loansfar more than British compensation under the Bellwin rules. We could emulate the US method, or we could find a new way of raising money to resolve the most acute flooding before it happens.
As the Minister is aware, 684,000 people in Somerset could be affected by flooding. Some 11,500 homes stand in the line of a rising tide, and 1 million acres of very valuable land are under threat. We have gone through this issue before, and it does not involve special pleading. It is an appeal, I suppose, for common sense. Yes, the Minister could reel off a long list of the fine things that the Government have done to improve defences, but that would be a pity. I do not begrudge the efforts made by the Minister, the Environment Agency or anybody else, but I am appealing for something more important, which politicians rarely think about. May we please have a long-term strategya very long-term strategy? It is not a question of what happens today, tomorrow or before the next election. We need to think about the big future, and as the Minister is well aware, it is in the interests of us all to do so.
A projected annual budget of £564 million is a substantial amount of money. Indeed, as I have explained before, because of the demand that that budget places on contractors, experts and consultants, it has to be wrapped up in such a way that the capacity exists to spend that money. I have spoken to the Institution of Civil Engineers about the need for more civil engineers to carry out this work. It is very concerned about the need to attract more people into the profession, and I hope that that happens. It is good to see that that level of investment is also stimulating the engineering sector.
We should also consider the range of engineering. These days, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we have moved away from a simple concrete approach. We have become much more sophisticated: we now consider different areas and needs, how to apply flood defences and water management in a more sustainable way, and how to secure a range of benefits. Indeed, the Parrett catchment plan is one of the pilot projectsfunded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairsthat have examined this new approach. As I have said before, I like the fact that it involves a partnership approach. It gets the various groupslandowners, farmers, conservationists, local people and the Environment Agencyto work together and to seek innovation. Here, I echo the hon. Gentleman's point about a long-term strategy, and Humphrey Temperley has done a good job in that regard. He should receive some credit for the role that he has played.
I understand that there is also a need to integrate the international importance of nature conservation in the area with the equally legitimate flood defence needs of householders, farmers and other landowners. I listened to the hon. Gentleman's point about support for farmers on the levels, but I believe that the reforms we achieved through the common agricultural policy, and which we are currently implementing, will be of great benefit to them. We have broken the link between production subsidies and the farming practices that, in some cases, have proved unsustainable. Such practices will no longer be the driver for subsidies. Instead, the money will be provided through direct payments and agri-environmental payments, which are ideal for an area such as the Somerset levels, because schemes can be tailored to proper management and the skills of farmers can be utilised in the man-management.