Flood Risk Management-Flood Prevention, Protection and Mitigation

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Matthew Green: The Minister is aware that one of the reasons why we have this document is that flooding crosses borders. In my constituency, it crosses into Wales. There are schemes that can make a dramatic impact on reducing flooding in the River Severn area, as well as in other parts of the country. However, the river starts in Wales, which does not have the single farm payment system, but has the historic system, so what confidence does the Minister have that, while the Environment Agency works cross-border, schemes of funding for farmers can be delivered that will actually work on both sides of the border?

Mr. Morley: As the hon. Gentleman rightly stated, the Environment Agency works cross-border because it works on a catchment basis. That is logical and right and proper. If there were a strong case for changes in upland management, the Environment Agency would discuss it with the Welsh Assembly, and we would also

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be interested. Although the Welsh have opted for the historical payments—there are arguments for and against that approach, although I think that the options that we have chosen in England are much more flexible and give a wider range of choices—there are still schemes in Wales that can be applied with regard to environmental land management. The National Assembly for Wales still has that option.

Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): May I say, Mr. Cummings, what a thrill it is to serve under your chairmanship, not least because you represent a constituency neighbouring mine?

I wish to touch on the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean). Although I represent a constituency that has a coastal border, my main concern is with inland urban areas, particularly in terms of drainage systems. I know that water companies have a statutory duty to ensure that sewage and flooding is drained away in respect of a one in 40-year flood. In Hartlepool, however, we have had flash floods two years running, because of climate change or whatever. They seem to be increasingly frequent. What role will the document have in ensuring that water companies take action, perhaps through extended statutory duties, to ensure that constituents are free from flooding and that it is minimised?

Mr. Morley: My hon. Friend makes a good point. A lot of flooding is urban and non-fluvial. There is a figure that I shall not forget in a hurry, relating to the floods of 2000, which I will not forget in a hurry either: 40 per cent. of the flooding was non-fluvial; it was caused by blocked drains, by run-off from roads collecting in low points in urban areas and by blocked sewers. So there is an issue in dealing with that problem.

My hon. Friend is correct that there are obligations on the water and sewerage companies in relation to their sewers. As I mentioned, a significant sum will be made available in the next five-year price round for upgrading, and I welcome that. There are still other issues, such as urban drainage and run-off from housing and industrial estates and roads. They are matters for the local and highways authorities, but one of the things that the Government are seeking to promote is the concept of sustainable urban drainage. For example, green space can be used as a drain, and an environmental gain can be obtained in terms of leisure, recreation, landscape and drainage. Sadly, such measures are a lot easier to install in new build than retrospectively. I am aware, however, that planners have given a great deal of thought to such measures, whose benefits are recognised. I am sure that that is also the case in Hartlepool.

Matthew Green: I am sure that the Minister will agree that flooding is one issue on which it is relatively easy to enumerate the actual financial cost of climate change, not least in the increased work that must be done on flood prevention and defences. In the light of that fact, has any work has been done to assess how

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much more we will have to spend on flood prevention because the Government have not met their own target on emissions?

Mr. Morley: That is an interesting way of working in a comment on emissions. It is not a case of the Government not having met their target, which is for 2010. Today's announcement was that we will not meet the target by 2010 if we take no action, but we have no intention of not taking action.

On long-term cost implications, the hon. Gentleman may be aware that the Government have set up a foresight programme on the initiative of the Government chief scientific adviser. The first study carried out under the programme was on the long-term implications of flooding resulting from climatic change. I have been part of the foresight programme and have taken over its stewardship now that it has finished its actual work. Although it has done its work and produced its report, the intention is to have an annual review of where we are in relation to that programme.

The foresight programme had four economic scenarios relating to the implications of flood risk and also some potential costs. The four scenarios depended on economic growth, action taken on climate change and other mitigating factors. They were quite broad-based, but they were designed to look 60 or 100 years ahead.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 11422/04, Commission Communication on Flood risk management—Flood prevention, protection and mitigation; and supports the Government's view that cooperation and sharing of good practice with other EU Member States on the issue of flood risk management will be of benefit to the United Kingdom.—[Mr. Morley.]

2.18 pm

Matthew Green: This Committee has clearly not been flooded by Conservatives. It also met last week, and none of its Conservative members was present. I hope that someone is checking that the information is reaching them, as they are failing to turn up. This week, not even a spokesman has been present.

The Government are right to co-operate with Europe on flooding matters. International and European co-operation is probably more important on the environment than on any other matter. We can start on the basis that it must be right to co-operate. Of course, we do not share any river basins with any other European countries, but as I have already said, we share river basins across our borders with Wales and Scotland. I am pleased that the Government will be co-operating with European colleagues on this matter.

As I suggested in my questions, there is a big concern that there is insufficient joined-up thinking about changes to the common agricultural policy and flood risk management. I see the management of the landscape in farming—the way in which the landscape is farmed and what is farmed on it—as one of the most effective ways of controlling flooding in river basins. Although it will not make an impact on shore flooding, it will make a significant impact on river basins.

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I urge the Minister to conduct more studies if that is necessary, but if the studies continue to show that there could be a significant impact, as they have done so far, he should work closely with colleagues, including those across the Welsh border, to ensure that the schemes are developed. They are a pragmatic and sensible way of controlling flooding without having to go to the lengths of building massive concrete flood defences, which not only have a financial cost, but are often a visual blight. I admit that those defences are vital in many places; indeed, while I am at it, I point out that we could do with some in Bridgnorth.

The Government are right to bring the communication forward for debate. It is unfortunate that it came on a day when they announced that they were struggling to meet their environmental targets. I will be delighted if they make the changes that are necessary to meet those targets, but at the moment, they have admitted that they are struggling.

The issue is clearly not just European, and I hope that the Minister will say whether the European Union, as part of the approach, will talk to the United States about its signing up to Kyoto. The actions of the United States will probably have a disproportionate effect on how much we have to spend on flood prevention and protection in the UK. I hope that this is an area in which Britain's so-called special relationship with the United States can be used on behalf of the European Union to try to secure some positive benefits, so that we do not have to spend the increasing sums of money that we will otherwise have to spend and so that we do not face disasters such as those that we have seen, including the one that occurred, luckily without loss of life, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). I am sure that we will hear about that shortly.

I think that the Government are right to co-operate with Europe. If the Conservatives had turned up, we might have discovered their views.

2.23 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. I am not a Committee member, but I have a considerable interest in the discussion on the communication as the Minister knows. He was kind enough not only to come to North Cornwall after the devastating floods in and around Boscastle, Crackington Haven and other communities, but to meet me thereafter with representatives of the Environment Agency. I pay tribute not just to his willingness to take an interest in the devastation that was caused to my constituents but to his expertise, which he has already demonstrated in answering questions.

Nobody could possible object to co-operation and sharing of good practice. It is applehood and mother pie, as someone once said. However, there is one problem that I want to address briefly because it is an important issue on which we must strike the right balance. Sharing experience is obviously helpful, not only on prevention but in the response to an emergency, as happened in my constituency. I know that the Minister has taken some important initiatives,

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and I hope that he will say a bit more about them because we should build on people's experience throughout the European Union. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) about using the opportunities throughout the 25 member states, as well as the experience in the United Kingdom.

My concern is about striking the right balance between co-operation among 25 countries, which itself involves many practical problems, and the issue of subsidiarity. There is an extremely important section in both the communication and the Minister's response, and I want to draw the Committee's attention to a practical example, which is important in that respect.

The communication refers to the various issues that arise under subsidiarity, but I should like first to refer to the European Scrutiny Committee's commentary. It states firmly that the communication

    ''envisages that, whilst the basic responsibility would rest with the Member States, the Commission can facilitate co-ordination, and that regular contacts will enable the various parties to work together.''

One cannot dissent from that practical approach.

The section on subsidiarity in the Minister's commentary also makes good reading, and I want to underline and endorse what he says. This line is very important:

    ''the competence for dealing with flood management is best left with Member States as they have the required local knowledge''.

It is extremely important that we try to ensure that we can tease out the issues that are relevant to cross-Europe joint responsibility and interest and those for which local knowledge is the prime factor in taking decisions. I shall come to a specific issue in a moment.

Naturally, when the EU solidarity fund for financial support is triggered, EU institutions must have more interest and concern and be more involved in the decision making. I do not think—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that we have ever been able to draw down funding since that fund for flood follow-up activity was created, because, for good reasons, we have not hit the threshold that is required to enable us to obtain EU special funding support. I think that such funding was last drawn down in Germany two or three years ago, when there was massive flooding over a large area. Thank God we have never had that in the United Kingdom. Those are special circumstances. Clearly, when the EU puts money in, it can have much more effect.

My concern is that there are so many differences between the circumstances of member states, and I shall highlight one difference. There is a danger in this country that the otherwise admirable flood risk maps and coastal flood management plans will cause insurance chaos. That is happening in my constituency now, in the aftermath of the floods of 16 August. Businesses, individuals and residents are finding it impossible to get reinsured, because it is thought that because there has been a massive flood, such an event could reoccur. However, we all know that the circumstances in north Cornwall were exceptional. I was there. A flash flood was caused by a storm going round and round over a very small area for about an

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hour and a quarter. As hon. Members will know, counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder tells us how far away the centre of the storm has gone, and the one in my area never went more than a mile or two away.

Those circumstances were exceptional. The likelihood of that happening again in that precise area and causing the confluence of three river systems in one small valley and the chaos and devastation that followed in Boscastle—fortunately without loss of life, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow said—is very small. However, if an assessment is made—in our case, by the Environment Agency—that such an event means that the area is permanently at huge risk of flooding, the consequences for getting insurance cover at a reasonable price are devastating. Businesses that have survived one awful experience are then hit by another.

I have no knowledge of what happens in the other 24 member states, but I suspect that they are not developing their risk proposals in quite the same way and certainly they do not have the same insurance arrangements. My point, which I hope the Minister will address, is that it would be unfortunate if, in the best interests of co-operation throughout Europe, we made the situation that I have described even worse. Certain British circumstances—sadly, in this case—are exceptional.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. None of us opposes co-operation and sharing good practice. Even Conservative Members are presumably in favour of that, even though none was present to express that when the sitting started. As the Minister rightly said, there are elements of risk management that are peculiarly British, and must be seen in the British context. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the insurance example.

The Minister mentioned the word ''flexibility'', which is integral to how we respond to the communication. It may be said that it is only a trickle coming out of Brussels, but if it were treated very inflexibly and not adopted on the sensible basis of subsidiarity, it could turn into a flood.

2.30 pm

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