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22 Nov 2005 : Column 409WH—continued

Flood Prevention (London)

1.30 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to have a short debate on flooding in London. I thank the Minister for attending and for his continuing interest and expertise in these matters. I look forward to a response.

I have asked for the debate now because of three interconnected issues. First, in my borough—although, as it happens, not in the part that I represent, but in Dulwich—significant flooding was caused last year by the drainage system not being able to cope. That was in April, when severe thunderstorms happened periodically across the city. The local authority, together with Lambeth, the authority next door, has completed its investigation and made recommendations as to what might be done.

Secondly, I represent a riparian constituency, which is nearly all extremely low lying. Indeed, almost nothing is above sea level and many homes and commercial properties in north Southwark and Bermondsey have below-river-level basements, living accommodation, cellars and storage places. There is general concern that we plan to ensure that the floods of yesteryear are not repeated in the years ahead.

Thirdly, a comprehensive study was undertaken by the London assembly and completed, as the Minister will know, a month ago. It was chaired by Darren Johnson with the participation of colleagues across the parties, including my colleague Mike Tuffrey, and has made some recommendations about what we should do for the future. It would be helpful to flag up what it suggested was the responsibility of the Government and of public agencies, and how there ought to be a response.

In the month that I was elected for the first time—February 1983—the Thames barrier opened for business. A year later, it was formally opened. I remember going to the event. It was an extremely cold day in what can be a fairly bleak bit of the Thames estuary in Woolwich. The Thames barrier has been a huge benefit to London. Ever since it opened, it has helped to prevent some of the flooding that we used to have in the part of London upstream of the barrier. Between Teddington lock, which I formally visited for the first time this summer, and the Thames barrier, there is a much greater sense of security than there used to be. Happily, the Thames Gateway has not been severely affected since the 1950s, when the whole of the east coast was severely affected by flooding.

The design and construction of the Thames barrier was based on projections up to 2030. Although it will be able to function after that, planning is now beginning to ensure that it will meet demands beyond that. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) submitted a written question not many months ago in which he asked the Secretary of State on how many occasions

it is obviously closed to deal with the tidal surges—

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It traces a pattern, which we would have expected, that shows that the climate is changing and the water level is rising. We need protection more than we used to and will need it even more in the future.

To select figures from the answer, the barrier was closed for tidal reasons once in the year it started, in 1982–83. A decade later, in 1993–94, it was closed seven times. In the last year for which we have figures available, 2004–05, it was closed three times. In 2000–01, it was closed 24 times and in 2002–03, 20 times. The Environment Agency expects 10 to 12 closures a year until the end of this decade, 20 to 35 by the end of the following decade, anything up to 75 closures a year by the half century and 325 a year by the end of the century. That is because, as the Minister will accept, the combination of climate change, heavy rains and rising sea levels causes the agency rightly to anticipate that it will be used much more.

There is another consideration to add to the list of concerns, which includes local issues relating to the capacity of the current sewerage system infrastructure to take away surplus rain and other water, and the safety of areas upstream from the Thames barrier. We must consider how we will cope with the projected house building and development in the Thames Gateway. Although it is welcome, it needs to be done in a way that gives people security.

When preparing for the debate, I noted that the Association of British Insurers estimates that the further investment in defences that will be needed for the whole of greater London is between £4 billion and £6 billion over the next 20 years—if development is allowed north and south of the river in the boroughs along the Thames in east London—if we are to do what Government planning, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and others want done.

I received an unsolicited but helpful note from the London borough of Barking and Dagenham. I am conscious that the riparian boroughs consider and plan for these things, and that they are on the case—as they should be. I hope that it is appropriate to get some of the planning work out into the open. Will the Minister do that in his reply?

I shall address the considerations that I listed in turn, starting with the lack of capacity in the sewerage or drainage system. Occasionally, we in London see how much pressure the system is put under when there is heavy or continuous rain. What does the Minister consider to be the ability of the responsible authority—Thames Water, under the regulation of Ofwat—to respond to the need for significant investment in drainage in London? Thames Water says that if it is to do that, it needs much more than Ofwat will allow it to raise. The Minister and I know that there is perfectly reasonable consumer pressure from our electors, who do not want their water bills to go through the roof, so there will always be tension between the water companies, which say, "Give us the money and we can do the work; we can make the drains work," and the regulator, which says that that is unreasonable.

Some parts of the drainage and sewerage system are old, and there is sometimes feedback of sewage into the Thames when there is flooding. That is highly undesirable. I do not detect any particularly political debate on that, and there is a general desire to get the
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infrastructure in place as soon as is practicably possible, so that there is capacity around the London boroughs to process normal or frequent heavy rainfall without a significant number of homes being flooded.

The number of homes flooded as a result of the flash floods in Southwark in April 2004 was just short of 1,000, and there was considerable inconvenience and cost to those concerned. That could happen anywhere. It happened to be there on that occasion, but Dulwich is not the most low-lying part of the city. It would help if the Minister said where the Government envisage their role to be in working with the water industry and regulator to ensure that the capital city functions well in terms of its capacity to deal with flooding. I know that local authorities such as mine would be happy to collaborate with him and his officials in future, as they have in the past.

By and large, people are happy to accept the reassurance that, barring the entirely unexpected, the area between Teddington lock and the Thames barrier should be safe from flooding. It would help if the Minister confirmed that and told us what is being done by his Department, the Environment Agency and the ODPM to deal with the small areas of the river bank where defences are weaker and need to be replaced. They are often perceived as crisis points, at which there is a confluence of small rivers coming into the Thames and with the Thames itself. It would also help to know that where there has been significant additional building on what used to be wharves—they became empty and are now residential homes, businesses and offices on the Thameside—those boroughs will be secure and people will know that they can plan ahead. That is the second issue.

On the Environment Agency's helpful website, on which people can type in their postcode to see what the flooding risks are, there is a map of London, showing where the risks are and fanning out as one looks downstream. I thank the agency for proactively and informatively trying to ensure that the public are informed. In the north of boroughs such as mine, we are, in theory, at risk. The Minister's assessment and analysis of what can be done, will be done and, with the Environment Agency, is planned to be done, would be helpful.

The third issue is the big one. If London is to expand as the Government anticipate it will, if there is to be the additional population for which the Mayor of London is planning, and if there are to be the additional homes that we need—we need a significant number of extra homes—it would be helpful to hear what the Government think about the policy for ensuring that development is reconciled with pressures on the land. I understand that some sensible strategies have been accepted and proposed.

I should like to put on the record the relevant recommendations from the London assembly investigation, which, having finished just a month ago, was timely. I understand that 120,000 new homes and 250,000 new jobs are proposed in the Thames Gateway. I am told that the evidence to its committee stated that 5 per cent. of defences were in a poor or very poor condition. That is not a huge amount, but it is significant
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and the defences must be dealt with. Some 1.25 million people are in the area and, were things to go wrong, they could be adversely affected.

The London Climate Change Partnership made the following projections for our changing weather during the next 70 years: winters will become wetter by up to 30 per cent.; heavy winter rainfall will occur twice as frequently; the number of storms each winter crossing the UK could increase from five to eight; relative sea level in the Thames estuary will continue to rise, reaching between 26 cm and 86 cm by the 2080s, with extreme sea levels experienced more frequently; and, finally, without flood defences, 15 per cent. of London's homes will suffer a 0.1 per cent. chance of tidal flooding each year. It is only 0.1 per cent., but it is significant, and that percentage will increase as the sea level rises.

Those are the pan-London figures, and the committee made the following recommendations. First, it recommended that the Government, the Minister's Department and the Environment Agency work out the funding mechanisms to ensure that the Thames estuary 2100 project, which will take safety beyond 2030 to the end of the century, is secure, can go ahead and can be planned with collaboration from other public authorities. It is early days, but I know that the project is in the sights of the Department and of London's government.

The second recommendation was that not only the tidal defences, but the other defences along the river are surveyed so that the survey is complete and up to date. The proposal is to complete it by the end of next year, so that any necessary work can be done in the few years after that. It would help if the Minister said whether the Government see themselves having any indirect or direct or role in that.

Thirdly, are the Government's strategic plans for housing in the Thames Gateway going to leave up to 40 per cent. of the land undeveloped to provide the capacity with which to take up any flooding or water need? One way to deal with the pressures of the build is to leave a lot of open space with the capacity to soak up any flooding. It would be reassuring to know that the Minister's Department was fully engaged with those plans so that we did not overdevelop. Overdevelopment would mean that many people who might have been encouraged to go to that part of the world will not or might not go, having been told by their insurers that it is a bad risk.

Fourthly, what are we doing to ensure that the new and old infrastructure of our roadways can cope? I am no engineer, but I understand that the surface of the road determines its effectiveness. The assembly committee recommended involving Departments, as well as others, to ensure that we have roadways that reduce surface water and serious flooding. Fifthly, are there proposed changes to the planning guidance to ensure that we build in the right place and in the right way, and that we do not over-pressurise the natural capacity of the river and the river defences to do their job properly, particularly along the Thames Gateway, but and also further upstream?

Lastly, how do Ministers plan to respond if anything untoward happens? Obviously, the principal responsibility in London lies with London government, but the central Government have rightfully asked
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whether they can assist in Carlisle, in Yorkshire and in other parts of the country, as we have seen. We would all rather not have to ask them to assist after the event. We would prefer people to say, "Thank goodness everything was in place and we were all secure."

I do not mean to suggest that there is huge alarm and panic; quite the contrary. I want this to be an opportunity for the Minister to assure people that things are in hand, that we are learning from past mistakes and experience, and that plans are in place, whether at borough level, at London level or at Government level, to ensure that London is as safe from flooding in the next 25 years as we have been in the 25 years since the Thames barrier was built.

1.47 pm

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Mr. Elliot Morley) : I congratulate the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on his comprehensive little run-around on London's potential flood risks. There is no doubt that any major city with a tidal river and several waterways running into it is at risk. The Government's job is to work with local authorities and the Environment Agency to find ways of reducing that risk.

I am happy to address the points made by the hon. Gentleman, because London and the Thames estuary is generally very well protected. Most of the area is protected up to a standard of 1 in 2,000 years. A standard of 1 in 1,000 is very common in the gateway area, which is a pretty good level of protection.

The hon. Gentleman talked about non-fluvial flooding, which is flooding from drains and sewers, and that is a big issue. In the major floods of 2000, about 40 per cent. of properties were flooded from non-river sources such as blocked drains and sewers. We identified that issue in our policy paper "Making space for water", which examines all forms of flooding so that we can consider the matter holistically, recognising that flooding comes from several sources.

As part of the "Making space for water" initiative, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will pilot integrated urban drainage partnerships in 2006–07 and publish its recommendations in 2008. We are trying to give the Environment Agency a much more strategic overview of all sources of flooding, and have allocated £2.1 million to those pilots. Several local authorities have expressed an interest in being part of them.

We also continue to promote the use of sustainable urban drainage systems where appropriate. We have developed an action plan to resolve any barriers to uptake. We are also working to improve the uptake of resilience and resistance measures so that households and businesses are better able to protect themselves from the effects of a flood.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the development of the Thames Gateway and the use of green space. I confirm that the green settlements will include green space, which will have the benefit of providing recreational areas, but can also be used for sustainable urban drainage. So there could be a number of uses, which are being addressed in the plans.

It is also true that there has been discussion on the design of roadways, so that they can be used to channel water away in the event of a flood event or an extreme
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downpour. I do not know how far that has been taken in the Thames Gateway, but I can confirm that it is a consideration. Also, the flood risk maps are important in providing information for people and have been well utilised through the Environment Agency website.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the state of river flood defences between Teddington lock and the Thames Gateway. Again, they are generally to a high standard. The Environment Agency is carrying out a survey of all flood defence assets, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Incidentally, the idea is that the survey is designed to look at all flood assets because not all flood defences are in the ownership of public authorities or the Environment Agency. There are privately owned flood defences; it is useful to know that, and to know their condition. If there are weaknesses within the flood defence network, they will be need to be addressed. That, as the hon. Gentleman says, is under way, and I am quite confident that the Environment Agency will deal with it.

As I was saying to the hon. Gentleman, we recognise that we have no room for complacency on any area in managing flood risk. Although standards are high in London, we need to ensure that they are up to date, properly maintained and fit for purpose. In terms of London's defences, apart from the well-known Thames barrier, there are 12 other major barriers, 36 industrial flood gates and over 330 km of tidal walls and embankments protecting the estimated 1.25 million people working and living in the tidal floodplain. The Thames barrier, and associated defences, provide London and most of the Thames estuary with a flood defence standard of one in 2,000 years, which is a high standard.

In addition, flood risk is being taken into account much more in the development of local and regional plans. For example, the London Development Agency is currently completing a strategic flood risk assessment for the lower Lea regeneration area. That includes taking into account the point that the hon. Gentleman rightly made—the increasing risk of climate change and its implications for more extreme weather events, and more winter rain. That is part of the modelling.

The 2030 issue is mentioned repeatedly with regard to the Thames barrier. Some people almost think that it will disappear in a puff of smoke in 2030. That may not be what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but some people are getting a bit carried away, saying, "Oh, it reaches the end of its life in 2030." Well, it does not. When it was originally built, the projections in sea level rises went up to 2030, so that post-2030 it may move from a standard of, for example, 1 in 2,000 years to 1 in 1,900. There is rising sea level in the east—as you will be aware, Miss Widdecombe, since it affects your own constituency. To compound further that rising sea level, south-east England is slowly sinking as the country tilts geologically. That, too, has to be taken into account—I believe it contributes about 2 mm of the projected sea level rise—but the Thames barrier has a considerable life yet.

What might need to be done in order to raise the efficiency of the Thames barrier would actually be to raise the outer London flood walls and flood embankment. That is taken into account in longer-term planning. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Thames Estuary 2100. The Environment Agency is developing a
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major flood risk management strategy to address how we can protect London over the next 100 years. We are trying to look ahead at the long-term implications. That study will examine the options and their technical, economic, environmental and social implications. TE2100 will also look at options for the Thames barrier. Barrier closures are increasing—as a consequence of rising sea levels, as anticipated by the Environment Agency—and the barrier can easily accommodate the predicted closure frequency for 2030.

This is an important and welcome study. It will be vital for informing our long-term plans for London and the Thames estuary. Taking steps now to identify future needs means we are less likely to be storing up trouble for the future. TE2100 will look at long-term flood management needs, but all decisions on planning, development and regeneration cannot await the outcomes of that project.

Development on the flood plain cannot be avoided completely. In many cases, there are compelling social and economic reasons for development to continue in such areas; that can prevent blighting areas. However, we must also make sure that flood risk is properly managed. For development to be sustainable, it must avoid flood risk where possible.

In that respect, Government planning policy statement 25 is being updated. It will give guidance to planning authorities about developments in flood plains. In some cases, it will be appropriate to reject planning applications because of flood risk. In other cases, it might be possible to accept them, but on the basis of a contribution being made by the developer in respect of mitigation not only for the development, but for implications for other existing development in the area. Most importantly, PPS25 proposes as part of the current consultation that if the advice of the
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Environment Agency is ignored by the planners—which I am glad to say happens in very few cases these days, but it does happen—it can ask the appropriate Minister to call in the application so that it can be properly examined. That is an important sanction.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the condition of sewerage. As part of the recent price review, the regulator made available to all the UK water and sewerage companies an additional £1 billion, to address sewer flooding. I do not know offhand what proportion of that was included in the Thames Water business plan, but I am sure that it has bid for a proportion of it to upgrade its sewers. I also know that its business plan includes upgrades for the three main sewage treatment plants in London to deal in particular with storm surges. That might not, in itself, tackle all the issues of drain and sewer flooding, but it will certainly help in a number of respects, not least in relation to storm discharges into the Thames. I welcome that investment.

The hon. Gentleman identified a range of serious issues that need to be addressed. The last one, which I did not mention, is resilience and contingency. We have contingency plans, which are regularly tested. There was a major recent test called Operation Triton. It was a desktop exercise involving breaches in the outer London defences—we did not actually dig the breaches in the defences. Its purpose was to test the responses of local authorities. The London resilience committees and sub-committees also deal with such major situations.

The defences are in good condition, and they are of a very high standard, but we do not take these matters lightly. We plan for the future. We are looking ahead for the next 100 years, and, given the importance of London and the need to protect lives and properties, people can have confidence that the necessary investment and commitment will be made.

Question put and agreed to.

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