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Flood Defence

9. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): What steps his Department will be taking to streamline flood defence management systems. [198961]

The Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment (Mr. Elliot Morley): We are implementing the outcomes of the flood and coastal defence funding review. Those include making the Environment Agency responsible for all rivers that present the greatest flood risk; providing the Environment Agency with a single stream of Government funding with streamlined scheme approval arrangements; and creating a single tier of flood defence committees.

Mr. Bercow: I am not sure that the Minister's answer is particularly enlightening. He could usefully learn from Lord Falkland's dictum:

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a risk that Government fiat is a move away from the old system of local control and that local knowledge and expertise about the problems of particular localities will be lost? That will be done in the name of the Government's obsession with regionalism, which few people understand and even fewer people want.
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Mr. Morley: A river catchment area is not a political or regional boundary, and the argument for a regional approach is strong and practical. Having said that, I concede that I do not want to lose local knowledge. The regional flood defence committees have a majority representation from local authorities. DEFRA also makes a number of appointments, and we try to reflect the range of interests in flood defence and flood defence management so that we have balanced flood defence committees with broad local knowledge. However, the main motivation is efficiency of delivery.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I welcome the changes that my hon. Friend describes. However, he will recall the terrible floods that we had in Northampton and may be aware that criticisms were made of the way in which the flood defence committee's management systems worked, in that they tended to favour agricultural, rather than urban and residential areas. Can he explain how his changes will give a better and clearer voice to urban and residential property owners and landowners, especially in an area that has been designated for growth and where there will be real pressures on the flood plains?

Mr. Morley: I understand very well the point that my hon. Friend makes. The Northampton floods were a seminal event that were responsible for significant changes in the way we approach flood management and defence. As I say, local authorities will have the majority, and we would expect them to have a reasonable cross-section of ability and representation. However, if there was an undue representation of agricultural or farming interests, that could be balanced by DEFRA's appointments.

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): The Minister will be aware that, in many low-lying parts of rural Lincolnshire, efficient flood defence by local internal drainage boards is essential. Will he confirm to the House and to the people of Lincolnshire that DEFRA will pressure the Treasury and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to ensure that Lincolnshire local authorities are fully reimbursed for the levy costs so that council tax increases can be kept to a minimum and that there will be no reduction in flood defences through the IDBs as a result of the funding cuts?

Mr. Morley: As vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities, I can claim a considerable knowledge of drains that will match that of anyone in this House.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We have to strike the correct balance in the contribution that we make to the Environment Agency and the internal drainage boards in terms of their levy-raising powers. Of course, that gives them some independence in making choices that reflect their own needs. I have always thought that the internal drainage boards do an important job and are very good at reflecting local knowledge and needs.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): One critical context for making decisions about how to allocate resources in flood defence will be the new fluvial strategies, three of which are being prepared in my
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constituency, one of the joys of South Derbyshire being the number of rivers that run through it. Communities such as Ambaston, on the Derwent, Shardlow, Willington and Barrow upon Trent, on the Trent, and Hilton, Hatton and Egginton, on the Dove, are all waiting anxiously for the publication of those strategies. Can we try to ensure that they move with some speed towards their conclusion so that we can start to see some action on the needs of those communities?

Mr. Morley: I know that my hon. Friend has been very much involved in this issue and has raised the potential impact on his local communities with the Department on several occasions. When I last spoke to the Environment Agency, I was told that the strategies are very close to completion. My hon. Friend will understand that, to provide effective flood defence, it is necessary to understand the whole catchment area and the nature of the river or estuary. The approach that the agency has taken in that sophisticated modelling and planning is exactly the right way forward, and I am sure that the report will be available in the very near future.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Is the Minister aware that the new single-tier system that is being introduced will create a committee stretching from the Thames estuary to Bournemouth and that that will happen at crucial time for my constituency? The Minister may know that East head has recently been breached. If it is washed away completely, that will shortly threaten villages in my constituency, including West Wittering, with flooding. In the past, he has been very helpful in considering problems in Chichester. Will he now commit to looking urgently and extremely carefully at how we can assist the agencies and the flood defence committee to ensure that East head is not further eroded?

Mr. Morley: I recently spoke to the Environment Agency about East head, and I understand that, although there may be the risk of a breach, there is no immediate threat to properties in the area. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

In the longer term, I revert to the point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble). A detailed study of the tidal conditions in the bay and the effect on East head is under way and the agency is considering it. It has been funded to do that. Before taking appropriate action, one has to understand the natural forces and the pressures on them.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about regional flood defence committees. Most parts of the country have had large regional areas that have worked effectively for some time. However, I am aware of specific issues in Sussex and I understand that they are being considered.

Rural Payments Agency

10. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): When she last met the chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency to discuss progress on implementing new technology systems. [198962]
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The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): I meet the chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency frequently to ensure that its programme of modernisation proceeds at a brisk pace.

Paddy Tipping: My right hon. Friend knows that the RPA faces a big change programme against a background of new and different ways of paying farmers and landowners that come into force next year. Is he confident, and will he give an assurance, that single farm payments will be made in December 2005?

Alun Michael: My confidence is growing as the meetings proceed and I can see each step of the way tested. We aim to make payments as early as possible in the window for payments, which starts, as my hon. Friend suggests, on 1 December 2005.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): As the Minister said, that window is not even expected to open until 1 December 2005. This year's payments are already later than last year's. Farmers face one of their worst years ever, with not only low commodity prices but, in many parts of the country, the consequences of a difficult harvest. Does not the Minister understand the cash-flow implications, which are estimated at some £50 million in East Anglia alone, of the delay in payments? Does he accept that anything less than annual payments puts an untold burden on farmers when they are rightly trying to face up to what everybody, including the Minister, accepts are massive changes in the future of farming in this country?

Alun Michael: My postbag, especially from Members of Parliament, reflects a considerable drop in complaints about the RPA and an increase in satisfaction with its performance. The payment window opens on 1 December next year and we are doing all that we can to ensure that everything is in place and works effectively. We are validating and testing everything, from the rural land register, which went live on 6 September, to implementation. All that is due to be completed by the summer. The hon. Gentleman's lack of confidence is therefore unfortunate and misplaced.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): In the discussions that my right hon. Friend is holding with the chief executive about new technology, will he examine businesses that are linked to farming? Following the BSE crisis, they have still not received the full pay-out that they would have expected, to the extent that the Inland Revenue is seeking to reclaim money. Will he ascertain whether getting the payments made can be joined up across Departments?

Alun Michael: I am happy to examine any individual cases that my hon. Friend may have. In general, we are trying to ensure that the system is joined up so that we do not have some of the dysfunctional interfaces that occurred in the past. That is at the centre of what we are trying to achieve.
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