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5 Feb 2008 : Column 214WH—continued

Mr. Thomas: If time allows, I shall explain the process that has led the Government to take their decisions. My hon. Friend will know that there was a consultation process on the overall issues facing the post office
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network and that we are now moving on to the detailed implementation of the decisions that were taken.

Before I come to those specific points, however, let me add by way of context that the Post Office is also being challenged by significant changes in people’s lifestyles. Eight out of 10 pensioners, for example, have their pension paid into a bank account. Last year, 500,000 people a month renewed their car tax online, and we estimate that about 1 million people a month will do so this year. Other changes, such as direct debit and competition in the bill payment market, have also affected the number of people using post offices. In addition, it is cheaper to pay a benefit or pension into a bank account than to pay them into a Post Office card account or use a girocheque.

Let me now move on to how the network change programme is being managed, which my hon. Friend raised in his intervention. The Government announced in May that the Post Office would be drawing up 47 area plans based on groupings of parliamentary constituencies to identify post offices for closure. In drawing up those plans, Post Office Ltd must take into account a number of factors, including local demographics and the age profile of communities in the areas affected, the impact on local economies, the availability of public transport, access issues in respect of proposed office closures and the nearest alternative branches.

As I said, the Government undertook a 12-week national public consultation before finalising the broad forward strategy for the network. That consultation confirmed the principle of the need for changes and the broad extent of their scale and distribution. The Government do not play a specific role in proposals or decisions for individual post offices. Such decisions are made by Post Office Ltd in light of the responses to consultation and are subject to a four-stage appeals process involving Postwatch.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): I represent the southern part of the city of York. One of the post offices under threat is Fulford post office, whose owner offered to pay the Post Office a sum equivalent to whatever savings it would make by closing that post office. I raised the issue in a meeting with the Prime Minister in Downing street earlier this month, and he said that such proposals should be considered. I wrote to the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs asking for his views on whether proposals from businesses, or perhaps councils, to subsidise post offices could be considered. I simply ask the Minister to prompt his hon. Friend for a reply.

Mr. Thomas: I shall of course bring that point to my colleague’s attention and ensure that my hon. Friend receives a reply.

Post Office Ltd wrote to Members of Parliament in July about how the local consultation process would
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work and how they would be involved. Post Office Ltd and the Government have made it clear from the outset that the size of the network would have to be reduced. Local consultations, which are taking place now, are about how, not whether, that will be done.

Post Office Ltd has been seeking input from Postwatch and sub-postmasters, as well as local authorities on occasion, in developing its area plan proposals before it goes out to public consultation. There will then be a six-week consultation period about the local plan proposals before Post Office Ltd makes its final decisions.

Local views are having an impact on the way the programme is being implemented. For example, I understand from Post Office Ltd that an average of 10 per cent. of its original closure proposals have been changed following input by local authorities and other stakeholders during the planning stage—that is, before formal public consultation. In addition, Post Office Ltd has reversed its original proposals in some cases as a result of the six-week local consultations.

According to local circumstances, Post Office Ltd may decide not to seek an alternative closure or may propose an outreach service, rather than the original outright closure proposal. Where an alternative closure proposal is made, however, Post Office Ltd will hold a further six-week local consultation on the new proposal, and there will be no more than one such additional set of proposals in the area covered by each plan.

There are two factors to take into account when assessing the profitability of a particular post office, and hon. Members may want to be aware of them. First, we must consider the business done in a post office and the level of payment from Post Office Ltd directly to that branch. Secondly, we must consider the cost of the central support from Post Office Ltd that is attributable to a branch. On that basis, three out of four post offices cost Post Office Ltd money to keep open.

To restructure the network in a balanced way and meet the access criteria, some busy post offices that nevertheless make losses for Post Office Ltd and which have alternative branches nearby will have to be closed. That perhaps helps to explain some of the difficulties that my hon. Friend the Member for City of York highlighted with the proposals for post office closures in his constituency.

Post Office Ltd has confirmed that the average saving for the Post Office from closing a branch is about £18,000 per annum. On request, it is prepared to share an estimate of the total individual branch saving with the relevant Member of Parliament on a confidential basis.

My hon. Friend made a series of points, which I shall bring to the attention of the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs. I shall also bring to his attention the request that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) made for a reply. I hope, however, that I have helped to set out some of the context for the decisions on post office closures in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for City of York.

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Flood Defences (South-West)

1 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I feel almost a fraud standing up again before the Chamber to discuss the chances of flooding, but in Somerset we know flooding better than most. I am also delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) is here to represent Dorset amply—

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): Amply?

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: Yes, we are ample. It means that we float if the water gets too high.

Some 44 square miles of my county are well below sea level. Ever since Roman times, Somerset people have battled with the raging tides: we have dug ditches, erected earthworks and put in sluice gates. To put it crudely, we have slugged it out with mother nature for 1,000 years. The first ever steam-driven water-scoop wheels were tried in Somerset, in Middlezoy and Othery, by the western Zoyland drainage board, which built a very impressive pumping station, in 1830, which is still going and doing the same job, believe it or not.

As the Minister is well aware, in Victorian times—not even I was there, but perhaps my illustrious predecessor, Lord King, was—drainage boards were seen as the answer to local flooding problems. They were linked to councils in the area, but it turned out that they had insufficient funds for national foresight to tackle the problem, although, as the Minister will know, drainage boards are having a slight resurgence simply because of the amount that needs to be done.

I dare hark back to Julius Caesar. Fighting against flooding has been met with a drip feed of failure as waters have risen relentlessly. I did not request this debate to criticise the national body responsible for protecting us—the Environment Agency. I have no qualms about the fact that it does its best. It has an impressive and dedicated team in Somerset, headed by Nick Gubta, whom I cannot fault. It does a very good job and I hope that the same applies in Dorset. It is a huge organisation paid for by the Government, but it is not actually answerable to anyone other than the Minister and there is always the danger that its efforts might be overlooked or wasted, which was proved, as all hon. Members must accept, by last year’s floods. As the water closed around Tewkesbury cathedral—we have all seen the photographs—and as helicopters plucked stranded people from roofs, it became obvious that, rather like poor old Julius Caesar, the Environment Agency had been caught with its wellies down.

The weather is unpredictable. When the floods receded in the summer, the Government asked the south-west strategic health authority chief, Sir Michael Pitt, to conduct a review and make recommendations. His interim findings were published just before Christmas, when unfortunately people had their minds on turkeys and Santa, not particularly on flooding. Unfortunately, the impact was lost. However, it is worth repeating a couple of Sir Michael’s recommendations. He said that the Environment Agency should do far more work monitoring ground water levels and identifying areas of special risk, and develop a policy to use temporary water
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barriers. Furthermore, he said that there has to be a proper national plan, which at the moment there is not, as we are all aware. The implication contained in every one of his 15 recommendations is simple: there is a heck of a lot to be done by an agency that, I am afraid, does not have the lolly to do it.

So much of all political debates boils down to hard cash. The Minister will no doubt regale us with the rising generosity of Her Majesty’s Government. If he adds up both central and local government spending, he could probably claim that spending on flood defences has risen by 40 per cent.

Mr. Woolas: A bit more than that.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: Whoopee! Great! However, while the Government congratulate themselves on splashing out, the agency itself is splashing around trying to cope—and facing cutbacks. In the financial year ending April 2007, roughly £15 million was trimmed from its flood risk management budget. That cannot be good. The agency may seem to be getting more money but it is expected to do an awful lot more and to take more responsibility for flooding.

The sums just do not add up. For example, the agency was planning a costly flood defence improvement scheme for parts of my constituency and for high-risk areas all the way up the Bristol channel from the Parrett, including the seats of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), who could not make it today. The agency allocated £25 million for the project, which was scheduled for completion next year, but then a big slice of the work was put on hold, the official explanation for which reads:

Well of course not—nobody does, not even the Minister.

I shall provide the Minister with a couple of poignant examples from my area. The cliff next to a hotel run by Mr. Simon Storm, a constituent of mine, from just outside Minehead, has given way—the baskets on top of the 15 ft of concrete were swept away in last year’s storms. I have written to the Environment Agency, the local district council, the county council and Natural England, but the buck has been passed round and round. All he wants is the existing armour to be rebuilt. That is all; but we cannot get a decision from anybody.

The Severn estuary strategy is not a strategy at all, but a device to allow anyone with the faintest interest in what happens to the Severn estuary to waste inordinate amounts of time and public money talking about it. It has become a waffle shop standing in the way of essential flood prevention. That goes all the way down the Parrett from Dorset, through Langport, to us. I confess that I am getting worried about the growing weight of waffle and the lack of action—there is more talk and less work.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): Another problem is that sometimes the action is counter-productive. In my constituency, the Environment Agency has just designed a plan to alleviate flooding in one village, Charminster, but managed to produce a result that no one else has ever produced in that village—total unity
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among its people. They are united in their opposition to this scheme, for which I and they petitioned for many years, because it was not designed with local people. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful if, in addition to taking forward big programmes, the agency could liaise more closely with local people to ensure that its schemes work?

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is the point I am making to the Minister. It is not done in the right way and money is either moved or abused. As my right hon. Friend says, it cannot be right that a scheme is just put in place. I know that feeling: getting villages in flood plains to agree is almost impossible. So to get them united against a flood scheme is almost unique. I hope that the Minister takes that point on board.

Is the Minister aware of the forthcoming Somerset flood fairs? Maybe my right hon. Friend has similar fairs in Dorset. They are not a celebration of getting soaked, although it sounds rather like that, but genuine events organised by those worthy masters of meaningless waffle—Somerset county council—dare I say it.

I quote from my invitation:

My right hon. Friend knows that that is how to bring villages together. And what is more they get a free lunch—water included.

The whole thing is being organised for parish councillors so that they can “view exhibits”—as it says in the blurb—which means that entrepreneurs eager to sell inflatable boats, sandbags, mops, buckets and wind-up torches will also be present and ready to extract your money. I am not joking. I have no doubt that some people will find such events useful—good for them, but maybe they ought to get out more. We have known since Caesar that there is a problem, but they have only just worked it out. Most of us, especially in Somerset, know that flood fairs are a waste of money—another example of village unity. We are aware of the dangers of floodwater and climate change, but the poor old over-worked Environment Agency is being dragged along to give briefings, when it has better things to do with its time.

Meanwhile, another bunch of publicly funded wafflers are also hard at it conducting yet another pointless consultation exercise. I shall give the Minister the background to this one. From Hartland Point—in the constituency of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox)—on the north coast of Devon, through my constituency, to Weston-super-Mare, the men with clipboards and sharpened pencils will soon be coming our way to seek our views on flooding. Who is paying for it? Neddy Scag, that is who. Neddy Scag is actually the North Devon and Somerset Coastal Authorities Group, or NDASCAG for short—a tongue twister if ever I came across one. It is, believe it or not, one of 17 voluntary regional coastal defence groups covering the English and Welsh coastlines. I have no problem with that, but they are all engaged in drawing up flood maps and flood plans, and I thought that that was the Environment Agency’s job. Together,
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the collection includes representatives of 105 maritime district councils, English Nature, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the National Assembly for Wales and the already overworked and under-funded Environment Agency. All the chairmen of those unnecessary talking shops get together at yet another waffly forum, the Coastal Defence Forum. Why do we need it? We know the problem. I hope that hon. Members, if they care to, will ask questions of the Minister outside this place to find out what is happening in their constituencies.

Anyway, back to Neddy Scag. The group is headed by my great friend and admirer, Humphrey Temperley, whom I have had occasion to mention more than once in this place before. He has made a career out of flooding. If ever he should sit in another place, Baron H2O would be a suitable title. Humphrey is wet—irredeemably wet. He gurgles when he speaks and squelches when he walks, and he is still chair of the Wessex Regional Flood Defence Committee, or “Werfduck” for short. For that role alone, he rakes in £20,000 a year—“nice work if you can get it,” as Temperley would say.

Mr. Temperley’s philosophy is to immerse himself in waffle. We have a cruel rhyme down in my constituency, which goes, “Humphrey couldn’t get his bum free,” because Mr. T. relishes sit-down meetings. He used to be a county councillor, but having been kicked out of Somerset county council, he has moved across the border on to Devon county council, where he gets another bung. He also chairs the Corporate Forum for National Parks, the Exmoor Consultative Forum, the England Forestry Forum, and the regional development agency’s rural policy group. He is a quango man to his socks—and wellies.

I shall refer to Mr. Temperley’s website, because the tireless waffler has even bigger ambitions. He now wants to be—hold your breath, you’ll need a snorkel for this one—a Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament. The water rises, the plot thickens and the mud goes down the wellies. Apparently, he is very good in 25 different languages, or as they say in Bideford where he lives, “Merde”.

Much of that waffling does not concern me; “I’m not bovvered.” If Humphrey wants to waffle, let him waffle; if he wants to bully, let him bully. But why do we have to pay for another consultation when we know the answer, the Minister knows the answer and the Environment Agency knows the answer? Give us a break and let us get on with the job, because when it comes to flooding, I simply cannot see the point of having so many groups. Why do people like Humphrey want the groups? Why are they so terrified about making decisions that they have to consult on everything?

Sir Michael Pitt’s interim report is out for consultation, and it has encouraged people like Mr. Temperley to do more surveys, but they all cost money and do not tell us anything we do not know. Julius Caesar could have told us. They just waste the time of the Environment Agency, which is where the flooding buck really stops. Sir Michael Pitt, the National Audit Office and the insurance industry have all come to the same grim conclusion: we need a joined-up national plan. I plead for sanity—no more, no less. More cash for the agency would be nice, and less waffle from factions far and wide would be better.

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Floods will happen, we know that, and we cannot change climate change. But we can mount a defence. We can make the decisions now without the paperwork, waffle and, dare I say it, inconsistencies. We cannot soak up the floods with waste reports from bodies that keep duplicating research. Ultimately, the decisions that we should make on behalf of our constituents and the nation will not be made, because the paperwork is causing the haemorrhage in the first place.

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