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26 Jun 2007 : Column 171

David Miliband: Before I respond to the hon. Gentleman’s point, I hope that he will forgive me if, in response to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson), I explain to the House that I have been passed a piece of paper which says that public health messages have been issued by primary care trusts.

It is invidious to pick out one victim out of three. I am sure that no one in the House would want me to do that. However, the loss of a 14-year-old life—as I understand it, he was a constituent of the Minister for Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), and he was at school in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency—is an unimaginable tragedy for any family. Of course, I associate myself entirely with the condolences that the hon. Gentleman offered.

In respect of the roads in Sheffield, I have not heard the particular points that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents have made, but from my briefing I know that a major road improvement plan for, as I understand it, the whole of Sheffield has been prepared, or is in the process of being prepared, for a public-private finance bid. I think that that would speak to the points that he makes. Obviously, we will have to look at the whole issue of urban drainage and whether or not the roads are contributing to flooding in considering any lessons to be learned from this tragedy.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend may know that the latest reports from the national media in the last hour are that the water levels in the Ulley reservoir in my constituency are now decreasing. However, rain is predicted in the next 24 hours. Hundreds of my constituents have been moved out of their homes and are living in two local schools. The likelihood of them getting back into their homes is doubtful at this stage. Will he contact the local council to see whether it needs any immediate help?

Notwithstanding that, the possible cost of what is happening in Rother Valley and the surrounding areas is unpredictable. We need to ensure that we get help from central Government when that is necessary and sensible in the not-too-distant future. Will my right hon. Friend’s office make itself available to meet Rotherham metropolitan borough council and other councils from south Yorkshire to discuss exactly how help can be given?

David Miliband: My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the Ulley reservoir. It is good news that the water levels are declining, but I reiterate that the situation at the reservoir remains serious. It would be quite wrong to suggest that the potential problems have been resolved. The pumping out that is going on is very welcome, but equally he will have seen on television the discussion of the cracks in the reservoir walls. I take my right hon. Friend’s point that there has been a good response so far. Of course we will look, within the existing established rules, at how we can support local people and councils. We will also find appropriate ways to meet Members, local council officials and leaders, whether bilaterally or all together.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that Shrewsbury regrettably has a long history of flooding. Today, many
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parts of Shropshire have been flooded. I am grateful to him for raising the Bellwin scheme, and I will certainly request my council to take advantage of it. There is a wet washlands scheme to protect the River Severn from flooding, which the Environment Agency has been looking at for a considerable time and I have secured Westminster Hall debates in the past on that vital scheme. Would the Secretary of State accept an invitation to meet with me and the Environment Agency representatives from Shrewsbury to discuss that scheme?

David Miliband: I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to invite me to be in the audience for his Westminster Hall debate because he knew something that I did not know in advance of the events of the next few days. I wish him good luck with his debate. The idea of what are known as turquoise belts on the banks of rivers presents a natural way to try to contain flooding and we will certainly be interested in the results of his debate.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): Many of the villages around Nottingham have been flooded and are expected to be flooded again if there are further downpours this weekend. I suspect that we are stuck with this change in our weather patterns and I accept that the Environment Agency has a key role to play in flood management. I would like the Secretary of State to address two points. First, virtually the whole of the UK is a beneficiary of Victorian over-engineering of the drains and sewerage systems, and there is now a critical case for revisiting the drainage systems that are appropriate for the 21st century. The water companies have been very good at managing tidal flows of cash into their own pockets, and it would be helpful to place a duty on them to put an equal priority on the tidal movement of water that arrives in downpours.

The second point is that four of the main regions in Germany have already sought to address the change in rainfall patterns and introduced tough new planning requirements, such that almost 40 per cent. of the country is now covered by laws that preclude a planning application even being considered if it does not replace the soak-away land or include reservoir facilities in the structural foundations of buildings. Will my right hon. Friend consider that as a 21st century planning requirement, if this is to be the pattern of weather conditions that we are now to face?

David Miliband: As ever, my hon. Friend speaks with authority on these issues. If I had not been here this afternoon, I would have been at a meeting with all the water companies to consider a water strategy for the next 25 years, as well as some of the issues and possibilities raised by the next water price review, in which many people would like to see environmental considerations built into the system. I am sure that he would agree that there are benefits of being the first industrialised country, but it does mean that we have an old infrastructure in many areas. I agree that we need to consider all ways of upgrading it, on both the demand and the supply side.

In respect of planning, my hon. Friend will know that there are extensive new rules to ensure that sustainable development principles are built in, although I am happy to look at the German model in that area as in others.

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Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): It is nearly seven years since the town of Uckfield in my constituency flooded and the sympathy of my constituents will be with those so terribly affected today. However, in the course of those seven years and despite the pledges from the Prime Minister and others, not one pound has been spent to put in place the flood defences that are necessary to stop that sort of flooding happening again. Of course our hearts go out to those so terribly affected today, but can the Secretary of State give us an assurance that, in considering the nation’s needs for improved flood defences, the unmet needs of those affected by the 2000 floods will not continue to be overlooked?

David Miliband: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words, even though I understand that his constituency has not been affected this time. Of course, all needs must be considered in the appropriate way, including those of his constituents. I am sure that the Environment Agency will want to do that as it plots the priorities for its budget.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Scunthorpe) (Lab): May I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response to this emergency, and the success of the contingency plans? Extreme events cannot be planned for properly, and I am sure that he will review what has happened to people who have suffered the misery of flooding in their homes. However, after the last flood event, infrastructure providers such as Network Rail and the Highways Agency were required to look at how adaptations could be made to deal with the likelihood of more frequent extreme events. Has my right hon. Friend seen the reports from that review, and does he think that there should be a close examination of whether it has been implemented properly?

David Miliband: My right hon. Friend was significantly responsible for the response to the Carlisle flood, which for many is a model of how to bounce back from a tragedy of that sort. I have not seen the reports to which he refers, but I shall be happy to look at the matter and to engage with him and other hon. Members about the best way to respond.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Like other areas of the country, parts of my constituency have been flooded this week, and some of them were flooded for more than 100 days over winter. Much of the fens is at or below sea level, so will the Secretary of State give a commitment to the people who live there that proper flood alleviation programmes will be put in place? A lot of the water that accumulates in low-lying parts of my constituency flows from effective flood alleviation programmes upstream, in places such as Milton Keynes and Bedford. Do the people of the fens deserve equal treatment with people elsewhere in the country?

David Miliband: I visited some of the flood defence work going on in a constituency neighbouring the hon. Gentleman’s—

Mr. Fraser: Not in mine.

David Miliband: As I said, it was not in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but in a neighbouring constituency. He makes a very important point about
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the knock-on effects of different interventions. I am certainly very happy to tell him that the people of the fens have as much right as people anywhere in the country to expect that their needs are addressed in a way that is fair, transparent and open.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to ensure that the Government’s response is as robust in the vast number of flooded villages and towns in my constituency as it is in the larger cities. Will he give some thought as to how local authorities can be encouraged to ensure that schools and post offices are prioritised, especially in rural areas where alternatives are difficult? Kids must be able to continue to go to school: they must not be expected to take time off with their parents until September, and post offices must be brought back into operation as soon as possible.

David Miliband: I certainly hope that schoolchildren and those shopping at post offices in my hon. Friend’s constituency are able to resume normal service as soon as possible.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): Once the initial crisis has abated, will the Secretary of State undertake to review planning policy guidance for building on floodplain areas? I am thinking specifically of the areas affected by the floods, but also of the Thames gateway.

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He will know that the Environment Agency is a statutory consultee in all planning applications. In addition, the new planning policy statement on climate change is directly relevant to many of the housing issues about which he is concerned. I commend that statement to him, as it offers a very significant way to address climate change impacts across the planning system.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): May I join my colleagues in expressing condolences to the families of those in Sheffield and elsewhere who have lost their lives? I also want to pay tribute to the workers in the emergency services and Sheffield city council, whose response to the crisis has been first rate. There is a sense of profound shock that our wonderful city could be reduced to something resembling a war zone in the space of a few hours. It is obvious that urgent assistance is needed to help those affected rebuild their homes, or to rehouse them while their homes are made fit to live in again. Can my right hon. Friend give comfort to the people of south Yorkshire on that point?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend speaks eloquently—more eloquently than me—about the response of Jan Wilson, the leader of the council, Robert Kerslake, the chief executive, who has already been mentioned, and the whole city council team. I agree that they have responded magnificently and I hope that that is the view of people in Sheffield. I would not want to substitute my judgment for theirs, but everything that I am being told about the response by the city council and the response of people in Sheffield suggests that they have a council in which they should have real confidence and pride. In respect of the latter part of her question, the
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systems that we have developed have been designed to provide as much comfort as possible in the circumstances. It would not be right for me to pretend that anyone can wish away the terrible damage that has been done. I would not want to suggest in any way that I can do that. However, we are determined to make sure that other communities are able to follow the example of Carlisle and bounce back from this sort of event.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for acknowledging the seriousness of the situation in Cheltenham and for the prompt response of the emergency services and the Environment Agency. According to the agency, ours was a once-in-80-years flood, which caused chaos despite a brand new £23 million flood defence scheme that was designed to withstand a once-in-100-years flood. Does the Secretary of State agree that more work needs to be done on that and does he agree with us and the National Audit Office that this would be the worst possible time to cut flood defence budgets in real terms?

David Miliband: I am very happy to look at the individual circumstances of the Cheltenham case, which obviously I have not had a chance to consider yet. In discussions of a Government of all the talents, I would very much welcome all the hon. Gentleman’s support for my spending review bid.

Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): May I also welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and, in particular, his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) in relation to what we need to do in Leeds, which clearly has to be urgently looked at? The insurance industry will be looking at how these new extreme events may extend the nature of the risk that they have to insure. Surely that might lead them to question whether they want to take more households off-risk altogether. Will he have meetings with the Association of British Insurers and others to ensure that more people do not lose their insurance cover?

David Miliband: I am happy to reiterate what I said in my statement: we have a unique partnership in this country between public investment and the private insurance industry. I spoke at the Association of British Insurers conference last November. It is a valuable partnership that calls for responsibility on both sides, and we are determined to fulfil our side of the bargain.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that his Department is considering proposals to transfer locally owned sewerage and drainage systems to the utility companies, such as Anglian Water. Will he please expedite the process and bring forward his proposals as rapidly as possible?

David Miliband: I am certainly happy to do so as rapidly as possible, consistent with good government.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that this is the second consecutive week that houses and businesses in the Dearne and Dove valley in my constituency have suffered adversely from flooding. In many respects, that is unique,
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because Barnsley does not always suffer from flooding problems. We never have in the past. Doncaster and the Don valley, in the other part of my constituency, have a history flooding, but Barnsley does not. One point that is of major concern to residents in the flooded area is that there is an outstanding planning application for a further 200 houses, which has recently been turned down by the planning authority and has gone to the planning inspectorate on appeal. Following the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson), does the Minister agree that when the planning inspectorate is looking at appeals such as this one, it needs to give serious consideration to the flooding aspect? I know that he cannot make a statement on a specific planning application.

David Miliband: The end of my hon. Friend’s question was also the answer, which is that I cannot comment on the individual case that is in front of the planning inspectorate, for obvious reasons. His main point, which is that we must build houses in a sustainable way—sustainable in terms of energy consumption, but also in their use of natural resources—is absolutely right, and we must reflect that in our planning system and other parts of Government policy.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): As hon. Members on both sides of the House know, the flooding has had an absolutely horrendous effect on those who have suffered. All four towns in my constituency of Beverley and Holderness have suffered from flooding, as have many villages. There have been mass evacuations across the area. When all four towns in such a large rural constituency suffer from flooding at the same time, it is hard to accept that the preparations made by government at whatever level were adequate. Will the Secretary of State reassure my constituents that the Government’s plans for the future will mean that if such a thing were to happen in 10 or 15 years, people across a constituency as large as mine would never again suffer such flooding?

David Miliband: When coming to a judgment on the plans, the most important thing is to study the plans and determine whether they are sensible. Obviously, it is important that we make adequate and appropriate provision for the future throughout the country. However, the hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that the extreme weather events to which we are being subjected are taking us into new territory, which requires a new degree of preparation.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): May I reinforce the Secretary of State’s caution about seeking further analysis of the frequency of such events? In 2000, Hatton and other villages in my constituency that suffered flooding were initially told that that was a one-in-80-year incident, yet further analysis showed that the likelihood was more like one in 40. We should not take comfort from the apparent infrequency of such events cited in initial reports.

I draw attention to the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who reminded us of the foresight report. We will clearly have to face such events with increasing frequency, which must reinforce my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s efforts to gain a favourable result in the comprehensive spending review.

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David Miliband: I think that one of my colleagues on the Treasury Bench was mumbling that that was a helpful suggestion and questioning whether my tactics of inveigling the Liberal Democrats to support my spending application were the wisest.

My hon. Friend’s serious point shows that we are required to think about at least the 25-year period that I was due to be discussing today with water companies and the representatives of water consumers. The five-year price review gives us a chance to take stock, but we need to examine the matter over a longer term. I am trying to do that in precisely the way in which my hon. Friend describes.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): The Secretary of State knows that the Environment Agency’s budget has recently been under pressure. Does he agree that spending on flood defences can save an awful lot of money in the future and prevent an awful lot of human misery? Will he thus examine the Environment Agency’s budget for Yorkshire, which has suffered disproportionately over the past day? Will he consider especially the situation involving the River Aire across west Yorkshire?

David Miliband: I will certainly be examining with the Environment Agency all the regional budgets that it allocates. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that precisely the logic to which he points has led us to double spending in real terms on flood and coastal defence over the past 10 years. I hope that we can build cross-party support for such investment.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): I associate myself with the condolences paid by my right hon. Friend and colleagues to the families of those who were tragically killed yesterday.

In January, I received a letter from the Environment Agency that stated that the flood alleviation scheme in my Wakefield constituency for Ings Beck, which is a tributary of the River Calder, will be delayed indefinitely, although it was supposed to start this year. May I join my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) in asking for an urgent review of the way in which the Environment Agency prioritises such schemes? Wakefield has been flooded for the second time in two weeks. Many A roads have been affected, the east coast main line has been shut, and the M1 and M62 have been greatly affected because they follow the paths of the Calder, the Aire and the Hebble, which run through our city.

David Miliband: My hon. Friend speaks about her constituency with great passion and insight. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie), it is important that we examine the areas of stress and learn from weather patterns as they develop. I am committed to doing that.

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