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Mr. Liddell-Grainger: That is excellent and I thoroughly applaud it. However, could the Minister expand on how the money will reach areas such as the Somerset levels and how it will be utilised practically?

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman will be aware of how the environmentally sensitive area schemes and countryside stewardship schemes work in the levels. They are going to change into an entry-level scheme and higher-tier schemes. I envisage that most of the farmers in the levels would want to be in the higher-tier schemes,

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which would mean extra payments for water management. There will be other changes to support payments, but they are not yet finalised and I am not in a position to spell them out. In due course, however, I will, and intense consultation is going on.

The area has also produced a catchment management plan, which is important in assessing the various options. The catchment flood management plans are being taken forward by the agency. I was interested in the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the proposed new land use agency, which is an amalgamation of English Nature, parts of the Countryside Agency and our own rural development service, could incorporate the work carried out by the Parrett catchment plan. I am sure that we can examine the problem as the new agency develops. It is certainly within the philosophy of having an integrated land use agency that integrated management of land use, landscape, water management, and nature conservation is possible. It also involves recognising the social needs of people in the area. The three pillars of sustainability are social, economic and environmental, so it is ideal in respect of the concept that we are debating.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned problems on the Steart peninsula. As he said, I have been there to examine the position and talk to the Environment Agency about the relevant issues. I have not yet seen the preferred option on which the Environment Agency is working, but the sort of ideas that we discussed involved defending the village and taking into account the need to keep the road link open. That is certainly within its thinking and planning. More sustainable defences would be required for creating additional salt marsh.

In that sort of scenario, there would be no requirement, as I understand it, for compensatory land measures, because additional habitat is being provided. Compensatory habitat would not have to be found: it would be necessary only if some form of hard structure were proposed that meant taking some habitat away. In that scenario, under the habitats directive, compensation would certainly have to be provided. However, the way in which the agency has discussed the issue with me suggests that that is not the case with respect to the hon. Gentleman's area. I hope that that will reassure him.

The Environment Agency is progressing with the development of the sea defence strategy for the Steart and Stolford peninsula, and options for future management are currently being explored. I understand that the agency has just appointed consultants who have also been involved in the preparation of the Parrett catchment flood management plan and the water management strategy action plan produced in spring 2002.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about support for the area and the need for an increasing programme of flood defence capital works in Somerset. That has been recognised and continues to be recognised in DEFRA's allocations. The allocation to the agency's Somerset local flood defence committee for grant-eligible expenditure has increased from £3.5 million in 2001–02 to £5.5 million in 2003–04.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly stated, with the advent in 2004–05 of the grant-in-aid for the EA flood defence, we will no longer allocate the grant rates through local

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authorities. Grants in aid will be allocated by the EA headquarters direct, taking into account DEFRA's announced priority score thresholds. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is a better and more open and transparent scheme. It will allow the agency and flood defence committees to move faster and have more control over decision making.

It is none the less still important to have local links and local accountability and to have an involvement with local government. In that respect, I see a continued role for the county councils in flood defence. Following the funding review, they will be able to fund local service through the continuing levying arrangements, and they will continue to be represented on the new streamlined single-tier committees. I do not want to break that link, and I want to give them flexibility when it comes to deciding some of their own priorities. The Environment Agency's distribution for 2004–05, based on indicative DEFRA national allocations, will provide Somerset with an increase of 10 per cent. over the 2003–04 levels.

The hon. Gentleman touched on the building of a tidal sluice on the River Parrett. I am advised that the EA has the tidal sluice proposal on its programme of works for detailed further investigation, so it is taking the idea seriously and putting it forward for consideration. The proposal is one component among the possible solutions to some of the flooding programmes suggested in the Parrett catchment project report. As he rightly said, it is a big scheme, and a great deal of consideration is needed for any such project by the EA and other agencies. A lot of engineering assessment, modelling and other work needs to be done. It is not a minor scheme, and it will not appear overnight. Like any such scheme, it will have to satisfy the normal technical, economic and environmental criteria, and the priority score arrangements for funding, including under the flood defence grant in aid.

I have been advised that the hon. Gentleman was briefed in detail at a meeting on Friday 28 November about the time scales and hurdles that any capital scheme for a tidal sluice at Bridgwater would have to cross. I also understand that the agency provides him with regular updates, and he will be aware that no scheme has yet been put forward for formal approval. Such a scheme would have to be prepared in detail, and I stress that major engineering works of that kind, which might well be the preferred option in the end, would have to go through careful consideration.

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that some features in Somerset, such as the high conversation status of the Somerset levels and moors and the Severn estuary, mean that it is already given special consideration. The area is well known to me, and the management of water there has a long history, as have flood defence works.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the impact of global warming: it is a serious issue and of great concern to the Government. I recently attended the climate change conference in Madrid at which we made a number of detailed presentations, with our Hadley centre and Tyndale centre, about the impact of global warming and what it means for the UK and regions around the world. We also made a presentation on what the UK is doing to reduce greenhouse gases, and that was "standing room only". There is enormous

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international interest in the commitments that we are making and the fact that we take the matter seriously. That links to the hon. Gentleman's first point, which was that we are spending a lot of money on flood defence but that it pales into insignificance when compared with the massive value of the assets that we are protecting, not least when compared with the inconvenience, misery and distress caused to people who are victims of floods.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: The Minister is hitting the most salient points throughout his speech, and I am grateful to him for it. He knows that if we lose it completely, we will lose the M4, the railway and the A303. The west country would be cut off by one river system. I am grateful to him for labouring the point because one of the most important problems facing this country is that our peninsula could be cut off if we get matters badly wrong.

Mr. Morley: That is right, and the protection of infrastructure is a criterion that we use when assessing

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whether to spend money on flood defences. Much important infrastructure, as well as many people, is at risk in the hon. Gentleman's area.

We can never completely eliminate risk, but we can ensure that we minimise the risk that people face. The measures that the Government have taken have reduced risk. Incidentally, I must correct what I said about the climate change conference being in Madrid—it was in Milan. It is important that we develop the long-term strategy that the hon. Gentleman requested. Water management and coastal defence are long-term businesses, as is predicting the kind of climate changes that we will face in future. We are committed to those issues financially, and we want to put a long-term strategy in place, to the advantage of the hon. Gentleman's constituents and many others in this country.

Question put and agreed to.

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