Previous Section Index Home Page

11 July 2007 : Column 446WH—continued

We need to bring that expenditure as far forward as is practicable. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his Ministers must also ensure that the
11 July 2007 : Column 447WH
political focus and commitment to flood prevention last for years and do not ebb once the great floods of summer 2007 become part of political memory.

In 2000, there was a similar step change in flood defence spending following the floods of that year. Many communities benefited from improved defences—including Selby, whose £10 million defences will be completed next year. However, by 2005 the Government were cutting the Environment Agency’s flood defence maintenance budget; at £35 million this year, total spending by the Yorkshire and Humber flood defence committee is still below its £40 million peak of two years ago. As a result, start dates for work on improved flood defences in communities such as Leeds, Doncaster, York and Tadcaster have been put back time and again. Fewer than half the county’s existing defences are in a satisfactory condition.

In summary, the political task for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is to make it as politically unacceptable to cut the flood prevention budget as he did the overseas aid budget when he was Secretary of State for International Development.

I want to say one other thing about funding—that is, funding for the most vulnerable people, who did not have flood insurance because they could not get it or could not afford it. There must be many thousands of people in that situation. Again, the Government responded quickly; they said that there would be an extra £1 million for community care grants to buy the most basic essentials—cookers, fridges, new carpets, beds and bedding—for some of the poorest people in our society.

However, buried away in the Department for Communities and Local Government press release, issued on Saturday, was a statistic that to date—in the entire country, as I understand it—only £21,600 had been spent on such grants. Clearly, an awful lot of people are in need. Average flood damage for one house is estimated at £30,000. Now that the money has been allocated, it is incumbent on Ministers, particularly at the Department for Work and Pensions, to ensure that those eligible know about the community care grants and that they should apply for them. That means a lot of people, including everyone on pension credit—probably the majority of pensioners in those areas—those on jobseeker’s allowance and those on income support. As officers of the all-party group on flood prevention, one or other of us will ask every week how much of that money has been spent.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): While the hon. Gentleman is on the issue of funding, I should say that I am sure he is aware that the southern end of my constituency is severely at risk of flooding from the sea and that nothing like enough money is being provided to protect the area. Worse still, environmental considerations are being used as an excuse for failing to find the necessary funding.

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the points system used to allocate funding is grossly inadequate? It is ludicrous that of the 44 points in the priority scoring system, both people and the environment should score 12 points—that is, both have equal weighting. Do the Government not need to address that? In most cases, people and their homes are surely worth far more than environmental considerations.

11 July 2007 : Column 448WH

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): That should be the last long intervention. Members should be wary of the length of their interventions because of the number of people who want to speak.

Mr. Grogan: The intervention was interesting nevertheless, Mr. Hancock, and reflected a point made by the Audit Commission in its recent report. I shall rattle as quickly as I can on to my fourth point, which I hope deals with the many rural communities that find it difficult to get the necessary flood defences.

I move quickly on to my second point. Who is in charge, particularly in respect of surface water flooding? Like me, many hon. Members will have stood in meetings in villages, towns and suburbs. The basic question has been about which among the Environment Agency, the Highways Agency, the district council—Selby district council, in my case—the drainage board or the water board is in charge of the relevant ditch or culvert. I stood in the village of Saxton, where six people suffered from surface water flooding, only last Friday. I shall not go into the technical solutions for that particular culvert and ditch, but they are known. The real question is about who will be responsible for carrying them out.

Interestingly, during the height of the flooding, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs started a consultation on the very issue of who was in charge of surface water management. There is one particularly telling sentence, which I hope to find during the course of my remarks. Basically, its gist is that the Environment Agency is responsible when it comes to river and coastal flooding, but it is not at all clear who is responsible when it comes to surface water flooding. In a second, I shall refer to a massively good analysis in the document about how surface water flooding occurs. Five options are listed in conclusion; one is that there should be a single authority for dealing with surface water management—perhaps a local council or a local drainage board. There are analogies to be drawn with crime prevention. Councils are responsible for co-ordinating all the bodies to do with crime prevention. Either councils or drainage boards should be responsible for co-ordinating all the bodies to do with surface water management and storm water.

The document analyses the causes of storm water flooding, such as compacted ground in urban areas. In car parks, for example, 75 per cent. of the rain that falls runs off into the system. It would be 10 per cent. in other areas. The capacity of the below ground drainage systems is typically designed with a one-in-30 annual probability of overtopping. The probability for highways drainage is just one in five. Both above ground and below ground systems often cannot drain effectively into the rivers in times of storm. We do not have as many storage facilities, sumps and so on, as many other European countries. Pipes and culverts collapse or are blocked. Ofwat has said that the water companies should spend £950 million to try to deal with those problems but only 0.1 per cent. of our sewer network is renewed each year. The assumption is that our sewers will last for 1,000 years and clearly some of them do not. That causes problems.

Also, 40 per cent. of our internal drainage systems mix sewage and storm water in times of storm. That causes tremendous problems for many of our
11 July 2007 : Column 449WH
constituents. If one authority was responsible for dealing with surface water and storm water, or at least for co-ordinating the other authorities, that would be an advance. On planning, we need to consider who is doing the co-ordination. The Government have made the Environment Agency a statutory consultee for new developments. Perhaps they should go further, and when the Environment Agency objects to a development there should be an automatic public inquiry, like in Scotland, before that goes forward.

With the best will in the world, the Environment Agency’s expertise is river flooding and coastal flooding, not surface water. Water boards often do not comment on individual planning applications. They might comment on a local development plan, but they do not comment on the sewage implications of quite major developments. Indeed, they do not have an incentive to point out the inadequacies of the drainage system because they would then be partly responsible for funding the upgrade. Under the Water Industry Act 1991, a new development can connect automatically to the public sewer and drainage system. If one body—possibly the local council, or the drainage boards in some areas—was responsible for dealing with surface water matters to do with both management and planning, that would be a significant advance.

I am aware of the passage of time, so I want to move rapidly on to three other points. First, as I represent a rural area I am aware of the role of farmers in helping with this problem and improving flood prevention. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has been particularly vocal on the matter in recent weeks. My right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who was a distinguished Minister with responsibility for flooding, has often spoken of the importance of flood meadows and of changing the incentives for farmers to manage their land so that they retain more of the flood water on agricultural land rather than letting it go into defended settlements. The Ouse water catchment strategy in my area is a model for encouraging that process and retaining more water in the dales and moors of Yorkshire rather than seeing it coming down rapidly into the settlement areas. The Environment Agency has to win hearts and minds when it adopts such a strategy. It has to win over farmers and provide the right incentives as well as to persuade communities such as Carlton in my constituency that the communities will be defended if there is a change of strategy. Nevertheless, it is an important issue to consider.

In reply to the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), I mentioned that I would deal with the points system. Let me read the two lines from the recent Audit Commission report on “Building and maintaining river and coastal flood defences in England” that deal with that point:

The Audit Commission does not go into any more detail. If the Minister could tell us when the scoring
11 July 2007 : Column 450WH
system will change and how it might affect rural communities, that would be of interest to many Members.

Secondly, in my area, we have tried to match funding in some communities. Following a campaign that lasted a decade and that was led by the parish council, the village of Elvington managed to get generous funding from both the city of York and the Yorkshire regional flood defence committee to fund a £400,000 scheme, which will be completed this year. It took an awful lot of effort and perhaps such joint funding could be encouraged rather more in the future than it has been in the past.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Villages in the Trent valley have been badly hit—small, rural communities. Is it not wrong that big urban areas should score on the point system while small local communities lose out? Ought we not to change the criteria for allocation?

Mr. Grogan: That is a telling point. The devil is in the detail on this, is it not? Hon. Members would be interested to hear from the Environment Agency about how it intends to change the point system so that the needs of rural communities are better catered for.

I promised to be as brief as possible, so I shall move on to my final remarks, which are about information. The Environment Agency and many other bodies, including insurance companies—notably Norwich Union—have provided much more flood mapping in recent years. It is a valuable resource for people who are buying houses, looking to see whether they live in a flood plain and so on. As the Environment Agency has provided that information, it should be made widely available free of charge. There is an organisation called OnOneMap that tries to provide information to new home buyers and has been told that it cannot use the Environment Agency’s information. That information has been provided through taxpayers’ money and I understand that OnOneMap is a reputable organisation. It should be able to use such information, because it is of interest to consumers.

As regards information from the insurance companies, we have to be grateful that we live in a country where the majority of people can get flood insurance—for example, in the Netherlands, one cannot get river or coastal flood insurance. That is partly because of the partnership between the Government and the insurance industry. The industry says that as a rule, if someone has a one-in-75 chance, or better, of being flooded, it will insure them. There are lots of anecdotes about people who find it difficult to get insurance, even when they live in such areas. The Association of British Insurers needs to chivvy along some of the insurance companies a little more and to make it more clear who can be complained to. I understand that people cannot complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service unless they have a contract with an insurance company. The insurance companies are doing a good job by paying out as quickly as they can, but given that they have reached that agreement with Government they, too, have responsibilities and they need to deliver on insuring homes that fall into that category.

11 July 2007 : Column 451WH

I have found the quotation from annexe A of the consultation document, so rather than précis it, I shall read it. It states:

That is beautifully put. I have confidence that my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will battle tirelessly to ensure that flood management and flood prevention remain as high up the political agenda in the next few months and coming years as they are now and that they will resist any attempts by the Treasury to claw back any of the money that has been promised.

2.49 pm

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on securing this timely debate. My constituency has not suffered in the floods of the past few weeks, but we suffered quite seriously in the floods of 2000, as did the neighbouring constituency of Lewes. The thoughts of my constituents are with the people who have been so terribly affected by the recent floods. Their hearts go out to them and they understand the devastation that has been caused and felt.

I wanted to make a brief speech to talk about what has happened since the 2000 floods and the lessons that can perhaps be learned from them. We were all terribly impressed by the immediate reaction. The then Minister, the right hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), came down within days and toured the site. Shortly afterwards there was a meeting in Downing street, organised by the then Prime Minister, who brought in the leaders of all the affected local authorities and gave them an absolute commitment that lessons would be learned, money spent and steps taken to prevent such floods from happening again. He could not prevent it from raining—even that Prime Minister could not do that—but he promised to put in place relevant measures to prevent the flooding from happening again. We then had another visit from the then Minister, who echoed that promise at a meeting in his office to talk about the issues of concern. Since then absolutely nothing of concrete, literally, has been built to prevent future flooding. That is a great lesson that we must learn, because the same has been the case in many constituencies.

We had a consultation process and everybody agreed that what was needed was upstream storage to prevent a huge volume of water from coming into the town of Uckfield or the small surrounding villages that had been affected. A model was built, on which one hundred and something thousand pounds were spent, and it cleverly proved that if one poured water into the model, it would eventually come over the top somewhere. Without £100,000 being spent, we think that we could have told them that.

Now, nearly seven years on, there is a proposal for a small bund in the town, and I am encouraged by the approach that the Environment Agency is taking to that. It would stop minor flooding but not the type of serious flooding that we saw in October 2000. The
11 July 2007 : Column 452WH
reason why such flooding would not be prevented, we were told, is that we simply do not score enough points. Uckfield is a busy market town in the middle of Sussex, yet it does not score enough points because not enough houses were flooded. We need a system that takes into account the real needs on the ground.

Nearly seven years on, the flood risk remains and the likelihood has increased. We were told in October 2000 that flooding would be experienced once every 50 or 100 years but we now know that, with global warming and climate change, such events can be expected more regularly. People continue to have problems insuring their homes, because no defences have been put in place. Insurance companies have said, “We will insure your homes if money is spent on flood defences, but if not, we are not prepared to provide the insurance.” The biggest employment area in East Sussex, the Bell Lane industrial estate, finds it difficult to attract new investment because of the risk that businesses may again be flooded and destroyed. Above all, we want the Minister to say today that he will honour the commitment that was made by the then Prime Minister and the then Minister that defences would be put in place to prevent such flooding from happening again.

I wanted to be brief, because I am well aware that many other Members wish to speak. In opening the debate, the hon. Member for Selby said that he wanted to ensure that funding did not ebb once the great floods of 2007 started to be forgotten. That is exactly what happened to many of our communities that were flooded in 2000—we feel that we have been forgotten. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that he understands the commitment that was made by his predecessors and intends to honour it.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Thank you very much, Mr. Hendry. It is very generous of you to be so quick.

2.53 pm

Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind): I, too, thank the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) for raising this timely matter. He reminded me of a meeting that some of us, as officers of the all-party group, had with a Treasury Minister almost exactly a year ago. Our pleas for a little more money for flood defences fell on deaf ears. I echo the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and it is a little sad that we have had to wait for absolute devastation before getting more money. Having said that, I welcome the money.

In my patch, we have been relatively lucky this time, in that there have not been deaths or devastation on the scale suffered in other areas. I praise the defences that we have in place in my area. If and when we have further severe floods, I should like to invite the Minister to come and see, within a two-mile space, demountable defences, pallet defences and a bund, which are absolutely magnificent at protecting the town of Kidderminster from the River Stour, which floods frequently. The bund has a hole in it for the river to flow through, and the hole is big enough only for an amount of water that will not flood the town. The water flows back into an old marsh, where we will, I hope, see snipe breeding and kingfishers flying in the near future. The bund is a marvellous thing where geography allows it.

11 July 2007 : Column 453WH

The defences have been no help at all with the recent flash floods. One housing estate in my constituency was devastated when 55 mm of rain fell on a relatively small hill and dashed down through the estate, under which is a culverted stream. The stream is called a critical ordinary watercourse, and I should like the Minister to explain what that is. It was certainly critical during the floods, because the culvert was entirely inadequate. The grids were partially blocked and were of the old style, blocking water as well as rubbish. I understand that there are new-style grids that block rubbish but let water come through over the top of it.

Another difficulty was that a road built at the outflow of the culvert acted as a dam, stopping the culvert discharging. Will the Minister ensure that all culverts—of critical ordinary watercourses and less critical ordinary watercourses—are examined for patency? It could not be all that expensive to renew the grids and make them of the new pattern that allows water through. I do not think that camera studies for patency would be too expensive. The Government should also consider, where geographically possible, the building of relatively small bunds to dam up the flow and protect culverted watercourses.

As well as the devastation of some housing estates, we had the absolute devastation of 45 places on the preserved Severn Valley railway. That has removed the major tourist attraction in my area and cut the income of people who depend on tourists coming to the railway. It is marvellous news that Advantage West Midlands has stepped in with a large sum of money to help restore the railway. Sadly, but quite understandably, that has been greeted with a fair amount of exasperation from people along the course of the railway whose houses have been utterly devastated and who are not getting the compensation that the tourist industry is getting.

The other huge problem is sewers, to which the hon. Member for Selby referred. I have been part of the all-party group on sewers and sewerage for some time, and I should like an update on the review of unadopted sewers, which cause tremendous troubles time and time again. I should also like a comment from the Minister on the help being given to the uninsured. Is there a survey of the number of people affected who were not insured? Are the people who were adequately protected able to renew their insurance at reasonable rates?

I have commented many times that I am puzzled about flood maps. The insurance industry’s flood maps of the major river areas seem pretty satisfactory, yet in the press there have been condemnations of the Environment Agency’s flood maps, implying that they are not the same.

Next Section Index Home Page