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11 July 2007 : Column 460WH—continued

3.23 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I shall do my best, Mr. Hancock.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): No; I hope that you will stick to the four minutes, to be fair to everyone.

Norman Baker: Yes, I agree that we should all try to give each other fair time.

I welcome the remarks of the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and congratulate him and the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) on their work with me on the all-party group on flood prevention, which has been very useful.

I entirely endorse the points that the hon. Member for Selby made, and do not need to go through them again. Suffice it to say that I associate myself with his remarks and the five points that he made, which were well put together. Although I was planning to make
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comments on a general basis, wearing my all-party group hat, I shall, given the time, limit myself to comments about my constituency.

I want to associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), who said much of what I would say, substituting Lewes for Wealden. In 2000 we had some severe flooding and everyone in Government was caught unawares. The then Deputy Prime Minister said that he had had a wake-up call, and we were promised all sorts of action. I am sad to say that that has not materialised. The DEFRA budget was under considerable pressure from the Rural Payments Agency fiasco and foot and mouth disease, and the budget was cut. It is very welcome that £200 million more has now been provided; it is good that the Government have done that. However, we need more, because the money put into flood defences is more than repaid by the avoidance of floods. The cost-benefit ratio is enormous. When floods happen, as they have in Hull, Sheffield and elsewhere, the cost to the public purse is fantastic. Money spent on flood defences is money well spent, and I am surprised that the previous Chancellor did not identify that.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Norman Baker: I do not think that I can.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I ask hon. Members to be fair to each other.

Norman Baker: We must not lose sight of the issue, now that it is once again high on the agenda.

Lewes has been divided into six cells, only one of which has been dealt with, despite the fact that the floods were enormous and caused mass devastation with hundreds of people out of their homes. The flooding devastated the financial centre of the town and even now only one cell of the six has been repaired. The Cliffe area in the middle of the town, which is its financial and shopping centre, has not been protected, because the points system says that not enough people live there. It does not matter that the whole town depends on the Cliffe area; the points system does not allow it to be dealt with. That is a disgrace.

My message in the four minutes that I am allowed in the debate is that the people of Lewes were given a commitment in 2000. We were told that the needs of Lewes were recognised, as were those of other communities that had been flooded. That commitment, following the then Deputy Prime Minister’s wake-up call, has not been adhered to. He rode off into the sunset, and Lewes is still without flood defences.

I want to hear from the Minister, first, that the Government will give more attention to adaptation, because although they have rightly talked quite a lot about climate change and getting carbon emissions down, they have not focused enough on adaptation measures to deal with the climate change that is inevitable. Secondly, I hope that he will say that he recognises that communities were flooded in 2000 and that they need to be dealt with. We all greatly sympathise with the communities that were flooded in
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2007, which must be dealt with too, but let us not forget about those that were flooded seven years ago, which are still waiting for action.

3.27 pm

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con): You and I, Mr. Hancock, are used to having only four minutes to speak, from serving the Council of Europe. It is a good discipline. I agree with almost everything that has been said this afternoon, and I will not repeat it.

I want to begin on a positive note, by saying that the flood defences in Malton and Norton that were installed following the terrible floods of 1999 and 2000 actually work. Malton and Norton were not flooded on the occasion of the flooding in North Yorkshire two or three weeks ago. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the town of Pickering. Like Malton and Norton, it was to have a flood defence scheme following what happened, particularly in 2000, but no such scheme has been built. Pickering has now been flooded no fewer than six times in nine years, and the most recent flood was the worst of all, with many more properties affected, including many that had never been flooded before.

A flood alleviation scheme for Pickering is gathering dust on a shelf in the Environment Agency in York. It will take some time to design, let alone build, some of the flood defences that will be necessary after what happened in the past three or four weeks, so some of the new money could be directed, I should have thought, at schemes that have already been designed. I honestly feel that it is Pickering’s turn.

I want to make four points about future policy, because this is a debate about policy. First, we must have regard to frequency in relation to where we build flood defences. We need to treat the smaller market town communities equally, and not be diverted into thinking that because more homes were flooded on the most recent occasion of flooding, all the money should go to the urban areas. That is the worry of my constituents in Pickering. Secondly, we need imaginative solutions. A diversion costing £50,000—which has been put to the Environment Agency—would have saved nine homes and two businesses, I understand, from being flooded in Pickering this time. Yet the flood damage is far more than the £50,000 it would have cost to build it, which shows that we need to be more imaginative.

Thirdly, there is no question but that river management and maintenance must be improved. The maintenance of the River Derwent is little short of a disgrace. A farmer came to see me on Saturday and asked whether I had realised that the water was not draining away from the Derwent basin. I said that I had noticed that there was a lot of flooding in the fields, which is ruining the wildlife. The farmer then told me—I have asked for this to be verified and maybe the Minister can help us find out the answer—that the Kirkham sluice gates are now permanently closed because of disrepair. If that is the case, it is completely unacceptable.

We need to manage waste water and sewerage better. There is much policy discussion these days on combating global warming and climate change, and rightly so, but we are doing nowhere near enough to
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counteract the effects of climate change. This matter is urgent and is doing huge economic damage to our society. Restricting capital resources in the way that Government policy does, is a false economy. There are at least £1.5 billion worth of insurance claims, but they will not give everybody restitution. Money spent on flood defences would secure people’s homes, prevent damage and give people the security and dignity of knowing that they will avoid this experience in the future.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): You have one minute, Mr. Bayley.

3.31 pm

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): I am pleased that the Prime Minister has announced that the budget for dealing with floods will increase by £200 million. That was the size of the total flood budget at the time that the Labour party came to power. However, a larger increase is still needed, for which I hope that there will be cross-party support.

I shall say one thing about the case for public funding. Some community benefits cannot be bought by individual citizens, for example public health or environmental protection. Protection for flooding is a clear example of that. In a terrace of houses, one householder cannot protect himself from flooding, and the same applies to communities as a whole. There is a case for social solidarity in relation to this issue; we all benefit, so we should all contribute. There is a misunderstanding about that approach because people sometimes say that those who live at the headwaters of a river face no risk of flooding and therefore they are not included in the national bargain. However, of course, they are at risk because the water that falls where they live flows down the river. It is the river that keeps them dry and it flows through downstream areas. That is why everyone in the country has a mutual social benefit in having decent flood protection and alleviation measures in place. That is also why there is a case for yet more public expenditure on this issue.

3.32 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Hancock, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I will try to be as brief as possible to give the Minister time to reply to the many interesting and important issues. I have two key points to which I should like the Minister to respond.

The first key issue is that of the co-ordination of flood defences and flood prevention. The reality is that in many areas there has clearly been surface water flooding. For example, in Hull, which I visited last Tuesday, the floods were simply caused by an enormous inundation—4 in—of rainfall in one day. Monsoon levels of rainfall overwhelmed an already high water table caused by the large amount of rain in the previous weeks and overwhelmed the drainage system. In addition to that, I am told—I would like confirmation from the Minister on this—that one of the pumping stations operated by Yorkshire Water could not operate at full capacity because it was not proofed against the inundations suffered in that area.

11 July 2007 : Column 464WH

There are a number of clear lessons to be learned. One is that we need to bring the water companies into the planning process and ensure that it is properly co-ordinated. Local authorities, drainage boards, the Environment Agency, the water companies, and therefore Ofwat, all have a responsibility for prevention and flood defence measures in low-lying areas. The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) pointed out that Yorkshire Water was only invited to silver command on Wednesday and that there has not been joined-up thinking between the relevant bodies. The truth is that the Government were aware of that some time ago because in March 2005 in its first response to the Autumn 2004 consultation exercise “Making Space for Water” the Government clearly stated:

That must obviously include surface and ground water flooding. The timeline at the back of the Government’s response clearly states that there should be an

and a consideration of the impact. The timeline for that was due to finish at the end of 2006, but such is the revolving door of Ministers going through the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—usually on promotion to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office after some incredible mishap—it seems that nothing has happened about completing that. I know that the Minister is new to his role, but it is terribly important that he does not just say what the Government said in 2005, but that he delivers the joined-up co-ordination that is required.

The second point that I shall make in the one and a half minutes remaining to me concerns the budget. The truth is that last August there was a £14 million cut in the flood defence budget. We know the consequences of that from the evidence that Barbara Young, the chief executive of the Environment Agency, gave to the Select Committee on Public Accounts. She said:

Ultimately, that had an effect on capital expenditure because there were delays in, for example, feasibility work. Whenever that has been raised in the House, Ministers say, “But the capital budget was not cut.” That is a disingenuous response because the truth is that the overall flood management budget was cut. I am told, and it has not been denied by any DEFRA Minister in either of the two statements that have been made, that the Treasury was on the prowl and was waiting for more cuts just before the latest floods. Indeed the Environment Agency sent out to the regional boards a document requiring them to plan on

this was sent out last month—

The truth is that the only reason that we have had a U-turn and an increase in the budget to £800 million, which I am delighted about, is precisely because of the
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recent floods. It is crucial to establish—again perhaps the Minister can enlighten us on this— whether the Treasury is up to its old tricks on the budget. It has given us an £800 million figure for 2010-11, but no figure for next year or the year after. The last time the Government announced a substantial increase in the flood defence budget they did exactly the same thing; they made a big increase in the last year of the three-year plan and had a low build-up to it.

From what we have heard today, it is clear that a much more substantial commitment to public funding for flood defences needs to be made and to start as soon as possible. This issue needs to be far higher up the Government’s list of priorities. More people have been killed in the floods over the last few weeks than in the terrorism incidents that have perhaps unfortunately overshadowed the need to plan for flooding. The fact that the flooding incidents happened slowly, unexpectedly and less dramatically than the terrorist incidents does not mean that they are any less of a serious matter of national security. Climate change means that we will have more enormous inundations and monsoon-like rainfalls and it is precisely because of that that we need to ensure that we are properly prepared. The Government are not properly prepared either in terms of co-ordination or budgets and it is about time that they were.

3.39 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): This is a timely debate and I congratulate my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), on securing it. He has touched a chord. All of us would wish to remember not just the loss of life, but, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith), said, the loss of possessions, the intrusion into homes and those removed from their homes for some time.

In particular, I hope that the Minister will comment on the losses in rural and farming communities, where insured losses are estimated at £10 million, but where uninsured losses will probably reach £15 million. I join those who have paid tribute to the emergency services.

The Chief Fire Officers Association labelled the non-joined-up thinking after the flooding as “institutional confusion”. Will the Minister say that there should be an end to the confusion and that there should be one lead body and lead Department? At the moment, too many Departments are involved—DEFRA, the DCLG, the Department of Health, the Home Office, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the Treasury and, potentially, the Cabinet Office, through its resilience responsibilities.

Let us consider also the local response by district and county councils, unitary councils, internal drainage boards, environmental health services, social services, private insurance companies, the Environment Agency, the Highways Agency, and the police, fire, ambulance and health services. If we learn nothing else from the tragedy of the most recent floods, can we please end this confusion and have one lead body? I would argue that one of the emergency services—the
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fire service would seem to be a good start—could work with and co-ordinate everyone else. We need also one lead Department.

Will the Minister ensure that we learn those lessons? My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) has mentioned already the flood alleviation scheme in Pickering in his constituency, but a further three such schemes in north Yorkshire have not gone ahead, about which the Minister should perhaps feel a little embarrassed. One is in Thirsk in my constituency. Another scheme would have benefited the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) and residents living in Hedon and Burstwick, near Hull. The Hull tidal surge barrier was perhaps the biggest such scheme and would have helped the whole of the Hull area.

On 18 January, a press release on the Environment Agency’s website promised that those schemes would go ahead. For his own benefit, the Minister might like to find out why the schemes for Pickering, Thirsk, Hull, Hedon and Burstwick did not go ahead. I think that it detracts from the excellent work of the Environment Agency and all of the emergency services when we learn that those schemes were due to happen this year, but did not proceed.

Furthermore, will the Minister look at the abysmal and flawed warnings that are often given? The Environment Agency relies on very modern equipment and asks people to refer to its website. From the houses that I saw in Toll Bar, however, I do not think that a home computer was top on the list of priorities for home furnishings. For the most part, people did not have access to home computers. Many people, if they were not at home, did not receive flood warnings, either by phone or mobile phone.

Can we consider an updated system, such as the one that worked very well after the floods in 2000 on the outskirts of York—in areas such as Rawcliffe in the Vale of York—where parish councillors acted as voluntary wardens and went round giving flood warnings? I understand that in Toll Bar, the police were wandering around giving flood warnings as the floods were actually entering people’s homes. That is another lesson that we have to learn. We need the most modern and effective system for reaching people in time so that they can evacuate their homes and take their possessions with them.

On planning permission, the Environment Agency is a statutory consultee, but will the Minister take the Government one step further and give it the power to block planning applications in inappropriate places such as on functional flood plains? It simply is not fair that the owner has to be aware of it, and I do not think that it is relevant to make the developer liable either, which was a question put to the Prime Minister today. Let us consider the Thames Gateway, where it is proposed to build houses and blocks of flats on stilts. If we know that they are going to flood, is it really fair to invite people to live in them? I ask the Minister to look very carefully at how those planning decisions are made.

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