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25 Jun 2008 : Column 306

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and Sir Michael Pitt and his team for their report. I understand that Sir Michael made special efforts to ensure that the report was so straightforward that even MPs would read it. He has achieved that and deserves credit for doing so. I also salute the work that has been done at local level through the emergency services over the past 12 months, and we should record our appreciation.

It is true, as the report says, that the 2007 floods were exceptional. Sir Michael describes them as the “most expensive” in the world in 2007, so they were an extraordinary occasion. However, as the Secretary of State said, they will become more common. In that context, is it not outrageous that in one of the world’s richest countries there are still 4,700 households out of their homes? Is the Secretary of State convinced that every stop was pulled out to get those people back in their homes, given the trauma of being out of their homes for a year or more? Given the urgency of the situation, why is the Secretary of State talking about draft legislation in the next Session, which would involve actual legislation in 2010 or beyond? Why are we not legislating rapidly? We would all be willing to comment on drafts now, so that we can get on with it. Where is the urgency in this very urgent situation?

In terms of the funding, I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement of £250,000 to plan for a national flood emergency exercise. Can he confirm that one will go ahead, because I would warmly salute that. Householders have some responsibility and a national exercise would educate all of us. Can he confirm that it will go ahead and when?

On the issue of money, the Secretary of State talked about the budget going up in 2010. That is a long way away, so is he convinced that the Department’s budget for flooding is adequate now, given that we are likely to face the same risks over the coming 18 months.

My final concern, as always, is about DEFRA’s weakness, and that of other Departments, on the issue of flooding. The critical issue in this case is housing. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Government’s target of 3 million new households by 2026 stands? Is he aware that that would mean more building on the floodplains? In my constituency, in Yate in Chipping Sodbury, the local council has earmarked housing development in flood risk areas because the Government are imposing absurd targets. Will he and the Minister for Housing bang some heads together and get rid of those absurd central targets so that local people can plan sensibly and not be forced to build on floodplains. Sir Michael says that that should be the absolute exception, and he is absolutely right.

Hilary Benn: I echo the hon. Gentleman’s praise for the clarity of Sir Michael’s report and the practical way in which he went about his task. Today, Sir Michael has presented us and the nation with a guide to why we need to do better in the future, and how we can do so. Today’s discussion is part of the process of making more people aware of the steps that they need to take—an awareness that will grow as a result of the coverage that I hope his report will receive today.

Why are 4,716 households still out of their homes? Principally, the answer is that their homes are still drying out. If anyone has any ideas about how that can
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be done more quickly, I am sure that insurance companies and those householders will be keen to hear them. Some people might be out of their homes because they have insurance problems—we think that about one in eight of those households did not have any insurance at all—and one lesson that we need to learn is that people cannot afford not to take out insurance.

Why have I set out such a timetable for the legislation? First, we believe in pre-legislative scrutiny. Secondly, Sir Michael’s report has been published only today and we need to think through the consequences of his detailed recommendations, which we have just seen, so that we can update the legislation, some of which goes back to the 1930s. We will have a floods exercise, but it will not be immediate, for the simple reason that we have had quite a lot of flood exercises in the past year: they have been real floods. The purpose of the exercise will be to test the national flood emergency framework, when it is in place, to see whether we have dealt with all the issues that have been identified. The budget is rising from £650 million this year up to £700 million and then £800 million. The Environment Agency will say that it needs time to plan, to gear up and to prepare the new flood schemes. We will, of course, need to do more about such schemes in future.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about housing, but as Sir Michael says in his report, the planning guidance is very clear. The responsibility is on the local authorities and we have made clear what their responsibilities are— [ Interruption. ] It is. In the end, the local councils that give permission for building or refuse it will bear the responsibility. However, the Environment Agency has been given a statutory right to be consulted because, after all, it is the expert on flood risk.

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) (Lab): May I repeat the appreciation of Sir Michael Pitt and of my right hon. Friend’s response? I also appreciate the commitment to early legislation. May I reassure my right hon. Friend that in Sheffield, at least, there was no institutional chaos and gold command worked extremely well? May I put two questions to him? First, in the midst of the damage and hurt caused, can we not take heart that in civil society the fact that individuals and communities came together to help and support each other was a signal that our country can go forward with pride in terms of what people are prepared to do for and with each other? Secondly, will my right hon. Friend talk to our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health about the need to monitor and support those with emotional and physical needs that arise from the floods, which could have a long-term detrimental effect, particularly on the frail and very old?

Hilary Benn: May I echo what my right hon. Friend had to say about the effectiveness of the emergency response in Sheffield and his comment about the extent to which neighbour has helped neighbour in these terrible and trying times? Out of this terrible adversity has come community spirit—a spirit that has had key responsibility for the progress that has been made.

On my right hon. Friend’s second point, I am happy to give him the assurance he sought. I know that that requirement was discussed at the last floods recovery
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meeting and I will follow it up. It is important that we provide support, and continue to do so, to individuals who have been severely affected by what happened to them, their families and their homes.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): I congratulate Sir Michael Pitt on a meticulous report. He assured the Select Committee that he would fully cost his recommendations. The Secretary of State has referred to £34.5 million being put to one side by his Department for the implementation of Pitt. Will he tell us what the full cost will be of its implementation? Secondly, in terms of the skills that will be required in hydrology and flood engineering, what steps will be taken to ensure that not only the Environment Agency but local authorities, with their new responsibilities, will be equipped with the right skills to implement Pitt in full?

Hilary Benn: Sir Michael Pitt has not costed all the recommendations in his report—we will need to do that in preparing the detailed action plan that I have promised to present to the House—but he said that most of his recommendations do not involve more money but are about doing things differently.

On the second, important point raised by the right hon. Gentleman, the Environment Agency, as he might be aware, is already working with the university of the West of England on a scheme to produce the required staff. Some 56 engineers and other staff have graduated, and 52 of them are working for the Environment Agency while others have gone to local authorities. Another 80 are going through the programme. I pay tribute to the way in which the Environment Agency has responded to the need to find more trained people, and I am sure that local authorities will wish to work with the agency and others to ensure that they have the required skills to undertake the responsibilities that they will now be given.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I attended a consultation meeting on Monday of the upper Severn catchment flooding management plan—that just slips off the tongue. One issue that came out of the meeting was how that plan sat with what the Environment Agency has in place for the individual river catchment plans, let alone with the water framework directive. Will those plans be pulled together by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? The Select Committee has views on that. Will those plans be pulled together with the Pitt report? It is important that we have joined-up thinking and action.

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. One clear lesson from what we have all experienced is that we need to look at how all the bits of the river system fit together so that we can understand where the water will flow if there is flooding. The same issue arises in relation to surface water flooding. The purpose of giving the Environment Agency that overview is precisely so that all the bits can be joined up. As it plans its work on further flood defences, it can then take account of what it has identified to ensure that those defences are put in the right place. This is work in progress, and the purpose of the report and of learning the lessons from it is that we can do a better job in the future.

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Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): May I say that people in my constituency will be rather disappointed with a lot of what the Pitt report says on housing? All Sir Michael does is refer back to planning policy statement 25, which was published in December 2006, seven months before the flooding that we are discussing today. Will he also understand that people in Tewkesbury will look on with incredulity at the fact that while we are having this debate the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is considering the draft regional spatial strategy, which proposes building thousands of houses in the area that flooded and close to the power station that almost went down because of that flooding, which would have caused an evacuation of the county? We are rather disappointed with the weakness of that section of the report.

Hilary Benn: We are all thinking of the households—385 at the last count—in his constituency that have been unable to return home. In relation to PPS 25, my understanding as far as Tewkesbury is concerned is that the local authority has applied for growth status. The question is whether, in making decisions about planning applications, we can adequately protect the houses even if they are on a floodplain. After all, this House stands on a floodplain, as do 2 million homes in the country. In London, we are protected by the Thames barrier. Planning authorities have to take into consideration—as the guidance in PPS 25 makes crystal clear—whether adequate protection can be provided when they make decisions about whether to grant planning permission.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Given my right hon. Friend’s comments about fairness, he will be aware of the feeling in rural areas that they are disadvantaged when it comes to resource allocation for flood defences. For example, the Environment Agency is putting a multi-million pound flood defence scheme in place in the Nottingham conurbation, but for villages affected downstream, such as Lowdham and other villages in the Trent valley, the resources are more modest. The Select Committee report suggests that there should be discrete funding for rural areas. Will the Secretary of State look closely at that recommendation?

Hilary Benn: I am aware of the argument that my hon. Friend puts forward. The difficulty with allocating a specific sum is that that must be balanced with the Environment Agency’s overall prioritisation system for deciding between schemes using the additional money that it has been given. Ultimately, the agency will have to consider a combination of factors, including the number of properties that will be protected and a scheme’s economic impact. I am not persuaded that a specific sum for rural areas is the right way forward, but my hon. Friend raises an important point about how protection can be provided under the schemes that meet the criteria and how we can support local communities in doing other things. That is relevant to the question to which I responded a moment ago.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and I have continually raised the problems affecting the Somerset coast and the Somerset levels. Between us, we represent the major part of both areas. After the flooding
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in the seat represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) and elsewhere, the Environment Agency’s funding for capital projects in our constituencies was either slowed or stopped. Will the right hon. Gentleman please ensure, following this report, that capital projects for both coastal and inland areas liable to flooding are reinstated? Unless they are, I am afraid that 1,000 years of history shows that it is only a matter of time before we have another flood. The protections that we have now will not be adequate.

Hilary Benn: I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that I will look into the specific point that he raises, but he will accept that flood defence spending has doubled in the past 10 years. The Environment Agency now has more funding than it had before, and the increase that it is going to get will enable it to carry out more schemes. In the end, it will always have to prioritise between schemes, but I will look into the point and respond to the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory).

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentioned reservoir safety, but is he aware that the main reservoir serving Northampton has been infected with cryptosporidium? As of this morning, a quarter of a million people have been left unable to drink their tap water, so will he endorse the advice from the health authorities that to protect their health, people should make sure that they do not drink untreated tap water? Will he also call on shops and supermarkets to make sure that they keep adequate supplies of bottled drinking water, and that they keep the prices down? Finally, will he ensure that his Department learns all the lessons from what has happened? We will not know for up to two weeks exactly what has happened and what needs to be done, but will he ensure that adequate steps are taken to make sure that the reservoir is made completely secure, so that people can rely on having safe drinking water?

Hilary Benn: I am aware of the problem that has been identified at the Pitsford reservoir, which serves large parts of Northampton, and of the advice that has been given to local residents that they should boil tap water before drinking it. I shall of course look into the circumstances of what has happened there but, if a problem arises with drinking tap water even when it has been boiled, the water companies have a responsibility to provide bottled water, as happened during last summer’s floods in Gloucester and elsewhere. The companies must provide at least 10 litres of bottled water per person per day, but one of the recommendations in Sir Michael’s report is that we should see whether that figure is adequate.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): First, I must declare an interest, in that my constituency home is next to a river and is therefore a flood risk. The Secretary of State has talked about the importance of insurance, but when I purchased the house in 2005, I at least had the benefit of knowing that there is an understanding in the insurance industry that companies will continue to underwrite their existing flood risk policies. I wanted to transfer the previous owner’s insurance policy to me, which meant that I had to go to a higher level of the company involved. Insurance is essential for everyone
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who owns a home in a flood-risk area, as a mortgage cannot be secured without that protection for the home’s capital value.

I have not had a chance to read the report, so what does Sir Michael say about insurance? More importantly, what is the Secretary of State’s view? I enormously welcome the approach adopted by the insurance companies, but it is very important that the understanding to which I referred earlier remains in place. If it does not, millions of people risk incurring an enormous loss in the capital value of their principal asset.

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. We are still in discussions with the Association of British Insurers. He will be aware of the statement of principles that has ensured the provision of insurance cover to large parts of the country. Fundamentally, the deal is that the insurance industry will continue to provide that cover, in return for increasing Government investment in flood defence. I announced last summer that that investment will reach £800 million by 2010-11, and that is slightly more than the amount for which the ABI called immediately before last year’s floods. We hope to put discussions about any changes to the statement of principles to bed before very long, and we should also acknowledge the incredibly hard work that the insurance companies have done over the past year. They dealt with four years’ worth of claims in about two months.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I welcome the statement and the Pitt report. We need even more funding for inland and coastal flood controls, as those are one of the major elements of adapting to climate change, which is already well under way. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that enough time will be set aside in the Public Bill Committee considering the Climate Change Bill for a thorough discussion of the part of the Bill that deals with adaptation? Will he reconsider and give adaptation equal prominence in the Committee, and make sure that it is not merely relegated to a Sub-Committee?

Hilary Benn: How members of the Committee divide up their time is a matter for them, but there is no doubt that the consideration of the Bill in another place left it stronger in the way that it deals with adaptation. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the tenacity with which he has pushed this issue.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I was going to ask about the problem of skyrocketing insurance charges, and I hope that the Secretary of State will deal with that later. However, he deserves a third chance to answer the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) and the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson). Will he explain precisely how a local council can challenge housing that it believes will exacerbate flooding, when the rigid numbers at national level will not change? They are handed down through regional spatial strategies on a very specific basis that has the developers laughing all the way to the inquiries.

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Hilary Benn: I can only say, for the third time, that the planning guidance is crystal clear, and that the responsibility rests on the local authorities—

Martin Horwood indicated dissent.

Hilary Benn: Local authorities must have regard to the expert advice from the Environment Agency when they consider whether the homes that are built can be adequately protected from flooding.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and the Pitt report. I thank my right hon. Friend for the extra funding being given to the Environment Agency’s flood defences. It means that work on the £9.7 million defence of Ings Beck in the Wakefield area will start early next year—although that is too late for the residents of Rufford street, who were flooded last year.

I return to the point about the provision of information. The report contains some excellent recommendations on how local authorities can work with communities on prevention, but what about the aftermath of flooding? Two people telephoned my office after the Government handed out compensation in the wake of last year’s floods. In the first call, a woman said that a neighbour had told her that she could not get compensation because she was not insured. That was completely wrong. In the other call, a man of Pakistani origin said that he had not realised that such compensation was available. When the Government are giving out resources, is it not incumbent on councils to make sure that everyone who has been flooded gets the information that they need afterwards?

Hilary Benn: First, I am glad to hear about the progress on the flood defence scheme to which my hon. Friend referred. Secondly, I agree completely about the importance of making sure that there is adequate and timely information. One of the many recommendations in Sir Michael’s report has to do with how that can happen more effectively in future. One of the most important things that the Government did in the wake of the flooding was to give local authorities a sum of money through the flood recovery grant and then leave it entirely up to them to decide how that money should be used to respond to the needs of their communities and residents. That was exactly the right approach: we did not hem it in with restrictions but said, “There’s the money—you go and decide how to use it.” That is a really good example of how the Government ought to help local government and communities when things are tough.

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