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The Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment (Mr. Elliot Morley): Flood risk from rivers and the sea in both urban and rural areas is managed by the Environment Agency and other operating authorities. The Government set the overall strategic framework and provide the great majority of funding, which was projected to be £570 million per annum throughout the 2004 spending review period.
Hugh Bayley: I congratulate the Government on sharply increasing their contribution to flood protection. Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the Yorkshire regional flood defence committee's decision to halve local authority contributions to flood protection? Does he believe that it should think again? Will he confirm that the Government's funding for flood defences in Yorkshire will not be cut as a consequence of that short-sighted decision by local authorities?
Mr. Morley: I need to talk to my hon. Friend about the details of what is happening in his area. However, I think I may know what has happened. We have moved to a block grant for regional flood defence committees and that means that the levy that local authorities formerly provided will go down. Instead of the money from central Government being paid through local authorities, it is now paid as a block grant to the Environment Agency and the regional flood defence committees. That is a much securer method of funding, which the flood defence committees and the agency have warmly welcomed. I know that approximately £1 million has been spent in my hon. Friend's area since 2000 on upgrading flood defences and, for example, repairing the pumps on the Foss barrier. There is a long-term commitment of £30 million for upgrading the whole catchment area. Part of that money will go to York.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): The best way in which to prevent flooding on flood plains is not simply to make the Environment Agency a statutory consultee, but to make its advice obligatory for local planning authorities. Does the Minister agree that it is unacceptable that, out of almost 3,000 planning applications to which the Environment Agency objected, more than 300 were allowed to proceed in blatant contradiction of agency advice? What is his solution?
Well, I do not think that it is banning all forms of building on flood plains, which the hon. Lady advocated when we discussed the matter previously. The number of planning applications that have gone ahead against the Environment Agency's advice has dropped to approximately 12 per cent. That is a dramatic decline from the former position, including that under the
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previous Administration. Some of the applications that went ahead may have been minor. She should understand that there are sometimes conflicts between planning authorities and the Environment Agency. Lincolnshire county council went to court to complain that the Environment Agency was taking too hard a stance in its planning advice. There must be a proper balance. In some cases, inappropriate development on flood plains must be turned down. In the case of appropriate developments on flood plains, the developers should make a contribution to not only defending those properties but mitigating any effect that they may have on other communities in the area.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for visiting Carlisle and north Cumbria twice since the horrendous floods on 8 January. His words have been welcome, especially his comments on the new flood defences. However, there is an inquiry into the flood's consequences. Will he give me some indication of its time scale and perhaps its terms of reference?
Mr. Morley: Yes, I can. First, I reiterate my sympathy for the owners and occupiers of the 3,000 properties and businesses in Carlisle that were affected, which included the home of my hon. Friend. Having been there, I have seen how he has worked night and day to represent the interests of his constituents during this period. I was pleased, on my second visit, to see the progress that had been made on recovering from the floods. It is important to emphasise that business is getting back to normal in Carlisle; it is open for business and people should support it.
On the inquiry, after every major flood event, we expect the Environment Agency to produce a detailed analysis of its causes, so that we can learn from the event and feed that knowledge into future policy. That work is under way, and I am expecting a report on the Carlisle flood from the Environment Agency in March.
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I think that we would all accept that the root cause of a lot of the flooding is climate change. Given that the United States undoubtedly puts the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and that we are supposed to have a special relationship with the United States, what efforts are the Government making to
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett):
Ratification of the Kyoto protocol on 16 February will mean that the UK is legally bound by protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5 per cent. below 1990 levels in 2008 to 2012. We are well on track to meet this commitment. We currently have no plans to make further specific and quantitative legally binding greenhouse gas emission targets.
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Alan Simpson: Members on the Labour Benches will rightly be proud that it was a Labour Government who gave themselves the legally binding duty to abolish fuel poverty in its entirety by 2016, and who set targets for the reduction of domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent. by 2010. Before the Secretary of State allows the Conservatives to berate her on this, she should recall that they opposed the introduction of that legally binding framework, warning the House that it would result in a nation
Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right to highlight the fact that many on the Conservative Benches denied the existence of fuel poverty. They certainly showed no sign of recognising its tremendous impact on many households in this country. We are very proud that more than a million families have been helped under this Government's programme, and that we are now able to invest extra resources in taking the programme forward to do even more to alleviate the distress caused to vulnerable households.
The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): DEFRA will complete the introduction of the right of access to open country and registered common land for the purposes of open-air recreation by the end of this year. This has been widely welcomed in the north-west, which was one of the first regions to open. We are also working to improve and maintain the existing infrastructure and to increase the range of people who have access to the countryside. We have today published the draft Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill. As set out in the rural strategy by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last July, the Bill will establish a new independent non-departmental public body, provisionally called the integrated agency. At the heart of its role will be the encouragement of open-air recreation and the promotion of access to the countryside and open spaces.
Andy Burnham: I thank the Minister for that reply and for the work that his Department is doing to promote the use of the countryside. The enjoyment of fishers and walkers is being seriously spoiled, however, by the growing use of off-road motor bikes in former mining areas such as the one that I represent. The Minister has indicated that he intends to legislate to tackle this problem. When will he do so? Will he also work with local councils to provide more designated areas for off-road motor biking?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising those points. According to our research, off-road vehicles cause a nuisance in some, but not all, areas of the country. Part of the solution could involve preventing the use of such vehicles in inappropriate
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places, but another part will be about the better management of access. Two documents that I have published recently provide real meat for those who want to deal with this issue in a constructive manner, and I hope that local authorities will, as my hon. Friend suggests, engage with us in using best practice as well as looking to legislation.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): When this Labour Government look back on their stewardship of agriculture, and at the despair and sense of abandonment among the farming community, will they not appreciate that their initiatives to promote recreation in the countryside will have been achieved beyond their wildest dreams?
Alun Michael: That was a rather silly question if I may say so. The hon. Gentleman should be aware that agri-environment schemes pay for some 4,000 km of permissive accessfootpaths, bridleways and disabled access. They are listed in DEFRA's conservation, walks and rides register, and can be found on DEFRA's website. That is a success story. This is a Government who believe in access to the countryside for alleveryone should be able to enjoy itand in supporting farmers so that they have a sustainable future, rather than talking a lot about farming but not doing much to support it, which was the record of his Government.
Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that there was an awful lot of doom and gloom, in this House and outside, when the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 was going through. People were predicting that if ordinary walkers had access to large areas of mountain and moorland, there would be major problems. Given that we are now halfway through the implementation of that, does he agree that there have been none of those problems but a great deal of pleasure has been given to those who have access to areas that they have been kept off for more than 100 years?
Alun Michael: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That point has dawned on a large number of people. For instance, it was welcome that the Country Land and Business Association and the National Farmers Union were part of the celebration of opening up access in the north-west when that welcome day dawned after many years of campaigning. It is also true that people now understand that open access is important to the whole rural economy. It is important to the future of farmers and everyone who lives in the rural communities. The only people for whom that penny does not seem to have dropped are those such as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who does not understand how the countryside works.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): May I put it to the Minister that my rural constituents would like less recreational time, because they were promised free extra days at sea by a letter from the Department dated 25 January
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