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Hilary Benn: The whole House would agree with the points that my hon. Friend makes, particularly the last one: it is important that drainage systems be properly maintained, because they can become blocked, which affects the flow of water. First, it certainly is the responsibility of local authorities to ensure that when
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they give permission for new developments, the flood risk is assessed, as I have already described to the House. Secondly, it is clear that in future all local authorities will have to think about whether the current design standards for surface water drainage are adequate.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): The Secretary of State referred to the “precautionary boil” notices that have been issued in my constituency. The incident that he referred to took place on Friday, as a result of the flooding of the Cheam treatment plant, and it took 24 hours before a decision was made to issue that “precautionary boil” notice, and a further 24 hours before the message was fully and finally received by all my constituents. Will his review look carefully and closely at what can be done to speed up the decision-making process, not least because by the time that the message finally went out to my constituents, most of the water that could have been contaminated would already have been drunk?

Hilary Benn: Without waiting for the review, I undertake to go away and ask precisely the question the hon. Gentleman has put to me about why there was a passage of time before the information was made available to members of the public. I shall respond to him directly.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will the Secretary of State look at why several recent developments of homes in my constituency have been flooded, and will he ask why the Environment Agency did not insist on more adequate drainage and ditches when the developments were being put in place, to protect new owners from that terrible shock?

Hilary Benn: As the right hon. Gentleman will have heard in answer to an earlier question, we have now given the Environment Agency a much stronger position in the process by requiring it to be statutorily consulted when new planning applications come in. We have tightened the planning guidance—both in 2001 and in 2006—by further strengthening it to make it clear to local authorities that in the end, the planning authority has the responsibility for ensuring that it has weighed up all the risks before deciding to give planning permission.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I am sure that the whole House would like to pay tribute and give thanks to the armed forces, which yet again, at very short notice, have come to the assistance of the civil authorities in an emergency. Sadly, there are far fewer members of the armed forces—both Regular and Territorial—than there were 10 years ago, as a direct result of the policies of the Government and the Prime Minister in cutting the defence budget. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what the units deployed on Friday and Saturday were doing beforehand? Were they on leave—either weekend leave, or leave following a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan? How many were in training for those deadly war zones, to which they may be going soon?

Hilary Benn: I do not have the information in relation to the forces, but the hon. Gentleman will have seen, as I did, the pictures of the RAF helicopters
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lifting people to safety—and Army personnel were heavily involved in the rescue operation at the Walham national grid switching station. I will endeavour to find out the information and provide it to him. I join him in paying tribute to the astonishing professionalism, bravery and skill of our armed forces.

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): My constituency, too, has been hit hard by the floods. Will the Secretary of State ask the independent review to look into whether it is possible to give the Environment Agency a power of veto over proposed developments on the floodplain?

Hilary Benn: Although the review is going to look into many things—some of which we have added in the course of these questions—I do not think that the whole future of our planning policy ought to be part of that. It should be recognised that we have already given the Environment Agency a strong position in the process, and that ultimately, the Secretary of State has the power to call in proposals, having regard to the advice that the Environment Agency gives.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Some unfortunate households in the Ludlow constituency have been flooded twice, and a small number three times, in the past month. The Secretary of State talked about the Bellwin formula being extended from two to six months, which is welcome. I want to ask him about some significant pieces of public infrastructure, such as the bridge at Ludlow, which has had its span doubled in width as a result of the flow of water. That is going to involve a significant engineering redesign, not just a simple repair, and the current estimate for completion is 12 months. That falls outside the six months. Can he confirm to the House today that it will be covered?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, but engineering and bridge works, of whatever nature, fall outwith the Bellwin rules, because those rules cover the immediate emergency clear-up costs. We have extended the time in which local authorities can make claims, because we recognise that the clear-up itself may take quite some time. The issue that he raised would be picked up in the normal discussions between the relevant department and the local authority. If it is a road that the Highways Agency has an interest in— [ Interruption. ] It is not. Well, it would need to be picked up by the existing systems.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Ahead of the main review, will the Secretary of State undertake to sit down with the farming community and others to look at the possibility of relatively short-term improvements in our water storage capacity—involving, for example, balancing ponds, storage reservoirs and even possibly the planned, as opposed to the recent catastrophic, reversion of arable land to floodplain grassland?

Hilary Benn: I would be happy to meet representatives of the farming community to discuss those issues, because I am acutely conscious of the difficulties that farmers will face, which have already been raised. The farming community can make a contribution, as we recognise that one of the places where water can go is away from built-up areas, but that can have knock-on consequences on crops that have been planted.

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John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): In the second world war people were evacuated from Birmingham to south Worcester and Gloucestershire. We now face a situation in which things may get substantially worse and people may lose access to electricity and water. Emergency planning in Birmingham has considered whether we can evacuate people from Gloucestershire to Birmingham, and we are willing to help. The health of some people may depend on their having access to water and mains electricity. Will the Secretary of State ensure that there is contingency planning, so that if it is likely that people will lose access to water and electricity, they are evacuated to where it is safe, whether that is Birmingham, Bristol or elsewhere—somewhere where they can access clean water and electricity to maintain their health?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he draws attention to the willingness of authorities that have not been affected, and the people who work for them, to extend a helping hand. Contingency planning is already taking place, but I hope that it will not come to that, and that the Walham electricity plant can be protected. However, those with responsibility for managing this emergency are looking at what may need to be done if the worst happens.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The Secretary of State mentioned the Walham national grid switching station, and I support what the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) said. Recent events have highlighted the critical needs of our infrastructure with regard to both electricity and water, and the fact that we are vulnerable at certain pinchpoints. We are not vulnerable to weather-related events alone; I am sure that the criticality of our infrastructure needs cannot have escaped the attentions of those who would do us harm. It is probably outside the scope of the independent review, but the Government should review our national infrastructure as a matter of urgency, to establish how vulnerable we are to all sorts of threats, as this event has highlighted may be the case.

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman is right, and that is why the utility companies are part of the resilience forum structure. But, yes, we need to consider what more can be done to protect crucial parts of our infrastructure from rain, water and flooding.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): Will the Secretary of State’s independent review assess the impact of infill development on our communities? Most of the flooding in my constituency was caused not by rivers overflowing but by the impact of water skating off the roofs and tarmac of houses built inside the fa├žade of Edwardian and Victorian housing, whose drainage is not simply good enough to cope.

Hilary Benn: Yes, it will.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Two detailed points arise from the experience in Wootton Bassett in my constituency, where homes were flooded in Westbury Park. Wiltshire was badly affected, although not quite as badly as Gloucestershire. My first question is about the planning permission that has already been granted for building not only on floodplains but on the flood
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reservoir in Wootton Bassett. That would be a catastrophe if it went ahead. How on earth can we reverse outline planning permission that has already been given? Secondly, one of the bodies—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has already asked one question.

Hilary Benn: I am not aware of the precise details of the case that the hon. Gentleman has raised, but perhaps he would like to write to me with further details—although the matter probably falls within the responsibilities of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point: people who give planning permission in future should reflect on the consequences of what they have given permission for.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware that the Environment Agency offices for the whole of the Thames basin are based in Swift house in Frimley, in my constituency. I wrote to the Secretary of State’s predecessor in April to point out that following cuts to his Department’s budget, seven staff members had been let go in the previous 12 months. Many of my constituents who have been flooded out of their homes for the second time in a year will be asking why, at a time of acute climate change, the Environment Agency is laying off experts in flood management and defence.

Hilary Benn: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is advancing the argument that the events that he mentions have had an effect on the Environment Agency’s capacity to respond to the current emergency. Like all parts of Government, the Environment Agency is having to look at using its resources as efficiently as possible. I seem to recollect that when the James review was published, it suggested considerable reductions in funding for the Environment Agency.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): Further to the answer that the Secretary of State has just given my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), there is significant concern that adequate resources might not be given to the Environment Agency when it has the new duties of scrutiny of planning, The run-off that was described by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) needs detailed consideration in the planning system, not a nod through. Will commensurate resources and staffing be given to the Environment Agency to allow detailed scrutiny of planning in flood-prone areas?

Hilary Benn: I know from my discussions with Sir John Harman and Barbara Young of the Environment Agency how seriously they take the responsibility that they now have to comment on those planning applications under the new powers that we have given them, and am I sure—not least in the light of what we have experienced in the past month—that that is exactly what they will do.

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4.25 pm

The Minister for Housing (Yvette Cooper): With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement about housing supply. May I start by supporting the statement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and joining the many Members of the House who have expressed their sympathy to the thousands of families whose lives have been turned upside down by the unprecedented flooding affecting wide parts of the country.

The Government are today publishing a housing Green Paper on affordable housing supply, setting out proposals to deliver the homes that Britain urgently needs today and for the future. The House should be proud of the huge steps forward that this country has taken in improving housing since 1997. There has been a two-thirds cut in rough sleeping, a £20 billion investment in social housing that has helped lift over a million children out of cold, poor or damp conditions, and economic stability that has given over a million more people the opportunity to become homeowners—but we also need to respond to new challenges.

Demand for homes to buy or to rent is growing faster than supply, and homes are becoming less affordable as a result. Already many first-time buyers rely on the help of friends or family to get a foot on the ladder. It simply is not fair that their chance of owning their own home should depend so much on whether their parents or grandparents were homeowners before them. It is also not fair that children are still growing up in overcrowded or temporary accommodation, waiting for a settled home. Without further action, housing could become one of the greatest sources of social inequality in the next 20 years.

In addition, we need to respond to the challenge of climate change. Our homes account for more than a quarter of national carbon emissions. We must provide greener, better designed housing for the future. As recent events have highlighted, it is vital to take steps to protect all our communities from flooding, and from the consequences of climate change in the future.

In the face of these challenges, we propose strong action. First, we will build more homes to meet growing demand. The level of house building is at its highest for 17 years, but it is not enough. Moreover, without firm action there is no guarantee that growth will continue, as short-term market pressures mean that some developers have slowed starts this year. We believe that a total of 3 million new homes are needed by 2020, and we need to deliver 2 million of those by 2016. This must include new homes in the north as well as the south, as every region is seeing demand outstrip supply. In parts of the north we need additional affordable homes alongside areas of housing market renewal.

Already locations for 1.6 million homes are identified in current regional plans, with up to a further 200,000 emerging in the new regional spatial strategies and in future revisions to them. This includes 650,000 homes in the growth areas such as the Thames Gateway and Milton Keynes. In addition, 45 towns and cities have already come forward with proposals for additional homes over the next 10 years in new growth points.
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Today we are inviting more councils to come forward to be new growth points, including, for the first time, councils in the north of England. We are also inviting bids for councils and developers to come forward with proposals for at least five new eco-towns.

No one should be in any doubt about the historic scale of this vision. We are proposing the first new towns in 40 years, but with substantial improvements in environmental standards across the board. Further changes are needed to support the delivery of these homes. Providing enough land is vital, and councils need to identify 15 years’ supply of appropriate land for housing, with continuing priority for sustainable brownfield land. We will not change the rules on strong greenbelt protection.

We will introduce additional funding and incentives for councils and communities that are showing a lead in delivering growth through a new housing and planning delivery grant, a new £300 million community infrastructure fund and additional funding dedicated to high-growth areas.

We are consulting on proposals to deter developers from seeking planning permission and then sitting on land without bringing forward new homes. We will also work across the Government to bring forward more brownfield land. I can announce that the Ministry of Defence has agreed to bring forward six sites with the potential for 7,000 homes, including sites at Aldershot and Chichester. The Department for Transport has also identified hundreds of potential sites for new homes.

We will support local councils in setting up new local housing companies with partners to use their own land to build more homes. I can announce that 14 councils have already come forward to support that scheme. They estimate that in their areas alone they have the potential to deliver 35,000 homes on their land, with at least 17,500 of those homes being affordable homes. Better use also needs to be made of empty homes, including those left empty long-term by investors and speculators. Councils already have powers to take action, and we will look at the potential for additional incentives for them to do so.

Secondly, although building more homes is crucial, they must also be better homes and more sustainable homes. In the 1960s, quality was sacrificed in the name of speed, and we must not make that mistake again. Today, our new homes must be part of well-designed and mixed communities with excellent local facilities, which means more family homes as well as parks and green spaces. With the urgent challenge of climate change, they must be greener homes built to the highest environmental standards.

I confirm today that from 2016 all new homes will need to be zero carbon. We are the first country to set such an ambitious timetable, and I welcome the support of councils, green groups and developers across the country who have committed to working with us to make that happen.

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