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5 Feb 2008 : Column 221WH—continued

1.14 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): Miss Begg, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this debate about flooding, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on securing it. I have always found him to be a Member who raises such points on behalf of his constituents in a non-partisan way, and today, he has made some valid points. I shall try to answer his questions, and I shall agree where I agree, and disagree where I disagree. If he wants to discuss specifically the issues that Mr. Storm, the hotelier from Minehead, raised, and if I can cut through the waffle, to use the hon. Gentleman’s words, for the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who represents the village of Charminster, I shall do so. The hotel trade in that part of the country is very important, and the hon. Member for Bridgwater raised not a trivial but a very important matter.

I respect the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge of the issue. I know from my dealings in this job over the past few months that he is intimately involved in such issues, and as he rightly said, the geography of his constituency has coped with them for many hundreds of years. He also recognised and made the point that I want to make: climate change will make matters worse, even if we secure the international agreements that we, all of us, want. From the damage that has already been done, we know that the situation will get worse, and we must never forget that. However, we are discussing adaptation, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his praise of the Environment Agency staff on their behalf. It is an agency, not a Department, and its staff do not often have a voice, so I am grateful on their behalf to hear his words.

Sir Michael Pitt’s interim report, which was published before Christmas, did not get as much attention as I anticipated and hoped. Sir Michael is one of the country’s best people in that field. His experience as a civil engineer and in dealing with politicians is, if not unsurpassed, certainly up there with the best, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks on that subject, too.

We have debated previously the £15 million flood-risk management budget cut. My only defence is that it was a revenue cut, not a capital cut, but it is of course a serious issue. It resulted from financial pressures on the Department owing to animal welfare problems, and I can with confidence say that the revenue and capital budgets for the Environment Agency are being increased, although I shall not crow about it, because the difficult question for me, or indeed anybody in my position, is how much is enough.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of Mr. Temperley. I do not wish to bring party politics into the debate, but the hon. Gentleman did not tell us which party Mr. Temperley had represented at county level. Does the hon. Gentleman wish to enlighten us?

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Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I believe that he is a Liberal Democrat. However, he is in Devon; he is not a Somerset county councillor.

Mr. Woolas: I thank the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point. His central question, which he asked with some frustration, was, “Can we please have a joined-up national plan?” The answer is a resounding yes. That plan is my precise objective, and I shall briefly outline its context.

We face increasing numbers of flood situations. Most recently, two weeks ago, the actual flooding was less than we had feared, but it was a very serious situation, with about 15 severe warnings in place. The defences worked, and all of us were pleased, not least hon. Members representing constituents who were most affected. To be flooded once is dreadful, but to be flooded twice, or repeatedly, must be awful, and I have visited many people who have suffered in that way. The tidal surge on the east coast in November 2007 was, again, not as bad as feared, but had it over-topped the defences, it would have been very serious. It was not a lucky escape, because the defences held, but the situation caused great concern.

What changes are we putting in place to improve the management of flood risk, including reducing the risk of flooding; increasing the preparedness of communities, business and areas; and improving warning systems, and emergency responses should the worst occur? The strategy was put in place before last summer’s events—I am not crowing about that, because my immediate reaction to the Pitt interim review was to accept all 15 recommendations. I think that the official Opposition and the hon. Gentleman supported that approach. We had previously published our cross-Government strategy, “Making Space for Water”, and we now have the Pitt review.

To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, we will clarify and improve the management of risk nationally by giving the Environment Agency an overview of all forms of flooding. At the moment, coastal flooding and river flooding are its responsibility, and it is important that we bring surface water flooding into that. As the hon. Gentleman knows, flooding is never as simple as just rivers overflowing or surface water flooding; it is a combination of both. As the right hon. Member for West Dorset said in relation to villages in his constituency, the interactions between flood areas are important.

I have announced the detailed form that the Environment Agency’s new role will take on the coast, and I am considering the form that it should take inland. As with the coastal overview role, the inland changes will be informed by consultation—but not too much consultation, because I have to get my plan in place. Both inland and on the coast, the Environment Agency will continue to work in partnership with local authorities and the water companies, and with internal drainage boards and other authorities in some areas, as part of its long-term planning and risk management.

Part of the challenge of putting together the national plan is to try to have better prediction of flood risks from surface water. It is a complicated matter and I take the view, which I am sure is shared across the Chamber, that the best is the enemy of the good, but we have our best scientists, including the Met Office, working on maps of flood risks from surface water. We also have
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15 pilot projects, as one would expect, to help identify improvements in surface water drainage. We shall be making a range of announcements on how to manage surface water drainage in the latest leg of the strategy, which will be published shortly. Some of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Bridgwater will be answered. I cannot predict the local allocation of funding, because it is a matter for the Environment Agency, but I think that he will enjoy his breakfast next week.

In addition, we aim to encourage better resilience and resistance of buildings and emergency infrastructure—a point that hon. Members across the House have made. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) present. He made that point to me when I was in his constituency. We have a £500,000 pilot project with local authorities in six areas, exploring the feasibility of providing some form of financial assistance to households in areas where community defences cannot be justified to make their homes more flood-resilient. As one would expect, we are also working with the insurance industry to consider ways to encourage the public to make greater use of flood resilience.

As I have said, I do not wish to crow about the funding, but we have increased it significantly. The balance between climate change mitigation and adaptation is important, but we have to take decisions to improve flood defences. With the Environment Agency, we have a programme to develop a long-term investment strategy—a national plan that can be put in place over a number of years so that the public and Members know the plan for their areas and can see the timetable for it. I am considering a 20-year timetable overall, but that is not to say that we have to wait 20 years; we are working on it now.

Current spending levels for flooding and coastal erosion are some £600 million, which is double the amount 10 years ago. I pick that time at random and for non-partisan reasons, but it is a fact, and facts are stubborn things. It will increase further to a minimum of £650 million next financial year, £700 million in 2009-10 and £800 million in 2010-11. Before the summer floods, the Association of British Insurers, a much respected body, called for capital expenditure of £750 million. Of course, the question is how much is enough. I cannot look the constituents of the hon. Member for Bridgwater in the eye if they have been flooded and say, “I have spent enough money”—I accept that—but I am responding to his call to ensure that there is a joined-up national plan.

I shall continue properly to appraise and prioritise that public investment of £800 million to ensure that there is maximum benefit. I recognise that the criteria by which the money is allocated is a highly contentious, highly charged political decision, which is why the balance between consultation and waffle, as the hon. Gentleman put it, is important. However, we do have the new criteria.

On the local allocation, the Environment Agency has published indicative allowances. Of course, it has been waiting for the comprehensive spending review, and it is
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not for me to determine the exact local allocations, but I hope that when the figures are published in the next few days, the hon. Gentleman will be able to return to his constituents with some satisfaction and say that he has pushed the Government in the direction in which he wishes us to go. I am sure that it will not be far enough for him, but I respect the seriousness of the matter that he has raised.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: As I have said, I welcome everything that the Environment Agency does. I accept that there will never be enough money. The worry is the money that is spent badly, not the money that is spent well. I cannot fault the defence schemes that the Minister and the Government have put in place. They are extremely good and doing what we ask; there are new sluices, new rhines are being dug out and so on. My point is that the Government should not spend money unnecessarily. We know the problem. Do not ask us what the floods are; we know that they are rain and seepage. We know that they are water. We do not need to tell people that. We need a common-sense approach, which I will welcome when the money comes through.

Mr. Woolas: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that serious point. Sometimes the experts are right, sometimes the public are right and normally it is something in between. It is particularly pertinent to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency that alongside the flood risk management—the flood defences and the measures that we need to put in place, both concrete and policy-wise—there must be improvements to the quality of river water.

The river basin plans, which I know the hon. Gentleman, as an environmentalist supports—just as a shot at a political point, I would be interested to know whether Mr. Temperley was as concerned about them—must be integrated with the flood defence plans. How to protect the natural environment and how to protect the public and agricultural land from flooding are difficult matters. My approach is to be open and transparent and to have national, joined-up plans for both so that Members of Parliament and the public can scrutinise them and say, “Yes, we can go along with this.”

My experience is that local people have a good feel for how flooding works in practice. Remember that I represent Saddleworth, Miss Begg, which is not on a flood plain. At least, if it is, we are all in trouble, particularly those of us in the area also represented by the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), who is present. Local knowledge of how floods occur is important, and things work best where the Environment Agency and the public work well together.

I thank the hon. Member for Bridgwater for raising the matter on behalf of his constituents. I hope that he can examine the plans and return to us in the weeks and months to come with some confidence, and say that we have in place a joined-up national plan that is to the satisfaction of his constituents.

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Free-to-Air Sporting Events

1.29 pm

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): On the other side of the Atlantic, the American presidential election candidates are facing their super Tuesday. In my much more modest way, I am having a super Tuesday here. Any day on which the two Bradford City fans of the House are in the same place—I refer to my hon. Friend the Minister and me—is, indeed, a super day. I have managed to contribute to or be mentioned in four out of the five debates in Westminster Hall today, so it is a super Tuesday. Most importantly, it is almost three years to the day since we last had a debate on this subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed), who is present, made a contribution in that debate, as I hope he will today. That debate was in late January 2005.

There were many surprises in the political and sporting worlds in 2005. In the political world, I was slightly surprised to retain my seat in the general election, and famously borrowed champagne from my principal opponent to celebrate my re-election for the local newspaper. Much more importantly, there was the Ashes victory, which was a great surprise to many people. That was the last time that test match cricket appeared live on free-to-air television in our nation.

Let me remind hon. Members of some of the moments of that summer. We lost the first test to Australia. In the second, we had the sight of Flintoff consoling a dejected Lee at the end of the match, which became the image of the summer. The third test was drawn and we won the fourth by three wickets. The fifth test was at the Oval, and the beauty of it was that everyone could watch Channel 4’s marvellous coverage. The whole nation seemed to stop on that Monday; London was quiet and people were putting up TVs in schools so that the kids could watch it. People were trying to catch a sight of the telly in their workplaces. Every pensioner up and down the land who on that day had nothing else on, and anyone else who was at home could watch it free whether they were rich or poor. It truly was an event of national significance that we could all celebrate.

What happened afterwards? There was the hangover: the realisation that it would be the last live cricket on our TV screens for some years, because cricket test matches were de-listed in the late 1990s. Despite the belief of Lord MacLaurin and the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, now Lord Smith, who were both in important positions at that time, that the England and Wales Cricket Board would still put some live cricket on terrestrial TV, that gentlemen’s agreement disappeared and BSkyB got exclusive rights to cricket.

The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport wrote a report, in response to which the Government promised a review of listed events, which they later clarified would take place in 2008-09. More and more people began to realise what we had lost. The TV viewing figures went down from more than 8 million watching the Ashes test series to an average of 250,000 to 300,000 on Sky. Australia had to tell us that we had got things wrong. Justin Langer, the great Australian batsman, came to Somerset, which is, incidentally, the county of the chairman who negotiated the TV deal, Giles Clarke. Langer said:

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People realised what they had lost. They realised that the Australians will be able to watch the 2009 Ashes live in Sydney, if they stay up, because all domestic and international matches involving the Australian team are listed, but that we will not be able to watch it live in Bradford or Selby.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Will he join me in congratulating the ECB on getting money and funding for grass-roots cricket, mostly from TV money? Does he agree with my personal view that a balance needs to be struck between finance coming into cricket and getting cricket to the widest possible audience on free-to-air TV, so that the next generation can come forward?

Mr. Grogan: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is all about balance. Every other major sport such as golf, rugby union, rugby league and football has that balance. They insist on having some live exposure on free-to-air TV. It is about live rights, is it not? Live matches really quicken the pulse. However, they also sell some of their rights to satellite or subscription TV for money to invest in grass-roots sport. He has made my central point for me: it is all about balance.

I move on to the summer of 2007. There was a big debate in the ECB about whether it had got the issue right. The counties elected the new chairman. It was nine votes all on the first vote, and Mike Soper, who subsequently lost out to Giles Clarke, made the points that the hon. Gentleman just made. He said that cricket might have to give up a small amount of income—perhaps 5 or 10 per cent.—to get wide exposure, but that it would be worth it, as it might also gain from increased sponsorship because of the wider exposure. He narrowly lost out to Giles Clarke.

I have always found Mr. Clarke to be the most amenable of men, but not everyone has said that. Mike Atherton rather criticised him in a profile, but Mr. Clarke was unrepentant. He said:

He is perfectly in order to defend his position, but to get Sky this year costs £438. Many children in Bradford, Selby, Loughborough and Reading will not be able to afford that and may not be inspired to take up the game.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. We have been working together on the issue for nine years. He has taken the lead, and I am always grateful to him for raising it. Does he think that cricket will eventually learn from what rugby union went through when it put the Six Nations on to Sky? The viewing figures were almost exactly the same as those he has quoted for cricket. They reduced to 200,000 or 300,000 and rugby union lost sponsorship because the exposure was not there. Rugby as a whole lost out because our English
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rugby heroes, who did not do so well on Saturday, were no longer out there being seen by millions of people. Instead, they were seen by a few hundred thousand. Getting the balance right requires a combination of the two.

Mr. Grogan: My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. There are two ways forward. There are rumours that despite the Government’s commitment to reviewing the list of events, the ECB is already negotiating its sports rights beyond 2010. I remind hon. Members that cricket is now settled until 2009. The 2009 Ashes series will definitely be exclusive to Sky, but what comes after that is up for debate. If the ECB comes up with another exclusive satellite TV contract without any cricket on live, free-to-air TV, there will be an outcry. I hope that Ministers will make that clear to both the ECB and Sky in private discussions. It would be opportune and prudent of the ECB to wait until after the Government’s review of listed events before letting any more contracts. There is plenty of time to do that.

There will be all sorts of debates about what could be added to, or taken from the list. Many cricket supporters realise that the world has moved on, but the Ashes series has national resonance. It meets all the criteria that were listed last time when Lord Gordon, my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), Steve Cram and others reviewed the list of events. It is interesting that in making its case for de-listing, in the late 1990s, the ECB said that with televised audiences of cricket averaging only 2 million, it was difficult to argue that test matches command large TV audiences. How wrong it was when the Ashes came along.

Listing the Ashes and, some have suggested, the Lords test, would be one way of compromising. I know that there is great disquiet at the Marylebone cricket club that one of our national games at the national headquarters is no longer seen live on TV. Those are some changes that could be made, but I do not want to concentrate only on cricket, because many other sports are covered by the listed events.

Listed events, particularly coverage of the Scottish football team, are becoming a huge issue in Scotland. You will recall, Miss Begg—whether with pleasure or regret, I do not know—that England lost out to Croatia in the European football championship. Days before England lost and the nation was blighted, there was a similar tragedy for Scottish football fans.

All of Scotland’s away matches for World cup qualification were sold by IMG to Setanta Sports. I have nothing against Setanta—I am a subscriber myself—but, given that Sky covers the games in Scotland and Setanta has the games that are played away, that means that Scottish football team games will not be live to free-to-air viewers in Scotland for the foreseeable future. Indeed, the team will have to qualify—I gently suggest, Miss Begg, that that does not happen all that often—for the European championship or the World cup before the Scottish nation will be able to see it live on free-to-air television. That has created a furore in Scotland. The Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, has spoken about the issue and has referred it to the Scottish Broadcasting Commission.

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