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Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that if last summer’s very heavy rains had fallen slightly further south, the disaster area would have been the Somerset levels? I share the representation of that area with my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger). One contributory factor would have been the unresolved tension in the Environment Agency between its drainage responsibilities and its environmental duties. In Somerset, that tension means that the agency does not dredge, clear and maintain the inland rivers properly, even though they are essential for drainage. Will the new strategic authority resolve that difficulty in favour of giving priority to land drainage? In that context, will he
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ensure that the agency works better with the existing local drainage boards, which is where much of the practical expertise lies?

Hilary Benn: The right hon. Gentleman is making really important points, particularly his last one. Part of what I have said today is indeed about getting together all those who have responsibility, as Sir Michael says, to sort out who is going to do what.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s question about drainage and clearing, the truth is not always as simple and clear-cut as some may argue. If we speed up the flow of water in one place, we may just make it arrive faster somewhere else and add to the problem downstream. That brings me back to the point that I made in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping). We have to consider the totality of the impact and ensure that we are doing the right thing to minimise the risk of flooding. It is very important that the Environment Agency works with local communities to explain the process by which it reaches decisions on that, so that at least there is understanding on all sides of what we are trying to achieve by working together.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments today and his promise that legislation will be introduced to bring into force many of the report’s recommendations. However, I must say that I find it unacceptable that a year on, people are still living in temporary accommodation. That is not just caused by the need to allow houses to dry out. In many cases it is to do with loss adjusters and insurance firms. What can be done to speed up that process, and what will be done to ensure that drains, ditches and dykes are kept clear, to minimise the impact of floods, particularly in rural areas?

Hilary Benn: I share my hon. Friend’s concern about the families who are still out of their homes. As she rightly identifies, the bulk of the problems are to do with insurance. It is notable that of the 4,716 households affected, I think only 173 were families in local authority or registered social landlord accommodation. That tells a story about where the difficulties lie. It is also worth remembering that 18 months after the terrible floods in Carlisle, one in 10 households were still out of their home. We need to acknowledge that it takes time for homes to be ready.

On my hon. Friend’s second point, as I said to the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) a moment ago, it is important that we get the balance right and that everyone who has responsibility works together.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I have two questions about urgent matters. First, given that hundreds of my constituents and more than 2,000 people in Hull and the east riding are still not back in their homes, will the Secretary of State visit Hull and the east riding? Today, the Hull Daily Mail and the East Riding Mail launched their “Back Home” campaign, and his visit would be appreciated locally.

Secondly, I wish to ask about flood rescue. Pitt suggests in his recommendation 39 that

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Can the Secretary of State assure the House that if this has not already happened—my perception is that it has not—he will ensure urgently that fire and rescue services hold the proper safety equipment in case such a disaster happens again?

Hilary Benn: I would be happy to accept the hon. Gentleman’s invitation. We will just need to sort out a date. On his second point, he will be aware that some fire and rescue services already have flood rescue capability and have trained their personnel, even in the absence of a statutory duty, and others do not. As I saw for myself during the floods last summer, an effective system of mutual aid is in place so that resources, boats and trained staff can be provided where they are needed. We will consider carefully Sir Michael’s recommendations on the matter, and our response will be included in the plan that I have promised the House.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): Many of the communities in my area that were flooded last year will welcome the Secretary of State’s commitments today. Does he agree that if only the agencies would take care of their own responsibilities, we could obviate some of the risk even now? In that regard, will he remind local authorities that they ought regularly to clean gully grates to allow the land drains to drain away? Many areas in my constituency were flooded simply because the grates were silted up. More particularly, will my right hon. Friend get to the bottom of why Hague Hall beck, in South Elmsall in my constituency, is still not being cleared of rubbish and is badly silted up—or at least ensure that someone else gets to the bottom of it? That would bring great security and reduce the anxiety of people like Mrs. McCusker, who lives there.

Hilary Benn: I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has already talked to the Environment Agency about Hague Hall beck, but since my hon. Friend has mentioned it, I shall follow that up. I understand that one of the pilot surface water drainage projects is in my hon. Friend’s area, and we have been funding it precisely so that we can understand better what needs to be done to ensure that local authorities fulfil the new responsibilities that I shall be giving them. In the end, it is about bringing together all those who are responsible for how water drains away, so that there is clarity about who is looking after what, and if one organisation is clearing in one place, the next organisation in the line is clearing in another.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): May I take the Secretary of State back to the comments about long-term investment in flood defence? In my constituency in Chesterfield, three rivers flooded last summer—the Rother, the Hipper and the Whitting. The Rother and the Hipper flooded about 500 houses. Plans for flood defences for those two rivers have gone ahead very quickly in the past year, but the Environment Agency has told public meetings in Chesterfield that even when the extra money for flood defences comes along in three years’ time, Chesterfield will be competing with places such as Sheffield and Hull. Can the Secretary of State say how long my constituents should wait—three years, six years, nine years?

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Hilary Benn: I am sorry that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the answer that I am sure he would like to hear. I am glad to hear that two of those schemes are going ahead. As I indicated in answer to an earlier question, there is more money, but in the end the Environment Agency has to prioritise from among a lot of competing schemes across the country. It is right that it should decide which schemes will go ahead. My job is to give it the money to help it to do that.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to give local authorities responsibility for surface water management plans. When localised flooding hit my constituents in Beighton last year, they were affected not only by surface water but by culverts overflowing and back-flowing, by a river overflowing and by a manhole cover blowing off a sewer and sending sewage into their homes. There has been some progress since, through the various agencies working together, but there are still some issues of disagreement about what to do. I wonder whether local authorities should be given a slightly wider remit to pull together all the various utilities and organisations, to ensure that we get a comprehensive approach to trying to prevent such events in future.

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. That is exactly what is required, and it is what the proposals that we will put in place will do, so that local authorities can undertake that task.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): The Secretary of State rightly praised the joint working of local emergency services in their response to the floods last year. Does he share my concern that that
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joint working could be undermined in future by the regionalisation of some emergency response services such as fire control centres?

Hilary Benn: No, I do not accept the concern that the hon. Lady expresses. In the end, those decisions have to be taken on the basis of what will be most effective in enabling the emergency services to do their job. All I can say from my personal experience last summer is that the way in which the emergency services worked together, giving mutual aid and sending pumps across the country, shows that there is an effective system in place. I am quite confident that no changes will be made that would affect or impair the emergency services’ ability to continue to do an outstanding job of helping people when there is trouble.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): I have 13 reservoirs in my constituency, so I very much welcome the investment in reservoir safety and the forthcoming legislation. Although it is of course necessary to invest in hard flood defences, does my right hon. Friend not agree with Natural England that it is also necessary to invest in the capacity of our upland catchment areas to manage water effectively in the first place, to reduce the incidence of water surging downstream and damaging cities such as Sheffield?

Hilary Benn: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. If upland peat bogs stay wet and do not get drained, they are better able to absorb water, and it does not flow as quickly downstream and flood many hon. Members’ constituencies. This is a good example of thinking in the round about what we do with water and how we make space for it, and Sir Michael’s report will help us to do that.

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Vehicle Safety (Loads)

2.10 pm

Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen) (Lab): I beg to move,

On 1 November 2006, Valerie Taylor, a 63-year-old retired lecturer from my constituency, tragically lost her life in a road traffic accident that could have been entirely avoided. While she was driving from Rossendale to Liverpool to take her partner to hospital, an articulated lorry carrying nearly 40 tonnes of scrap metal overturned on a public highway at the Rocket Island roundabout and landed on Valerie’s car. The first police officer on the scene, Sergeant Frank Rennison, described the scene as “utter carnage”. Valerie Taylor died instantly as a result of the vehicle crushing her car.

One of the main reasons the lorry overturned, killing Valerie, was the irresponsible way in which scrap metal had been loaded on to the vehicle. There is a code of practice on the safety of loads on vehicles, but it is not mandatory so it is often ignored. If legislation regarding the loading, carrying and transport of scrap metal was tighter, the irresponsible loading of lorries might stop, and tragic accidents such as that which took the life of Valerie Taylor could be prevented.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is now on the Government Front Bench, said in a recent written answer:

If tragic accidents such as that which claimed the life of Valerie Taylor are to be avoided in the future, surely it is essential that we have a mandatory code of practice on the safety of loads on vehicles. The Bill would put such a code in place to regulate and change the way in which scrap metal and other items are loaded on to wagons and carried on our public highways.

The order in which materials are loaded on to heavy goods vehicles is particularly important for the safety of the loads. I understand that Department for Transport guidelines state that scrap metal cars and comparably large objects should be loaded at the bottom of the container, with smaller bales on top of them. Those guidelines are often ignored. For instance, in the accident that took the life of Valerie Taylor, the load of the heavy goods vehicle that overturned was top-heavy. The lorry was carrying a total load of almost 40 tonnes. As part
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of that load, nearly 13 tonnes of scrap cars were loaded on top of 8.4 tonnes of compacted scrap metal bales.

When European Metal Recycling Ltd, the company that owned the scrap metal, gave evidence in the court hearing following the accident, it admitted that three lorries had overturned in three months. It claimed that it had now changed its policy on the loading of scrap metal, but we still see lorries on our motorways today with crushed cars at the top of their loads. It is claimed that the cars are used as a cover to stop metal from flying off, but that must render the loads top-heavy and unstable. The facts speak for themselves.

The Bill would make it mandatory to load heavier materials at the bottom of a container and lighter materials at the top. It would render the top-heavy loading of heavy goods vehicles illegal, which should prevent such tragic accidents. Almost all of us drive, and the thought that there are no mandatory regulations covering such things should concern us all. The legislative steps proposed in the Bill are necessary to create a much safer environment for all road users. Sadly, we cannot bring Valerie Taylor back to life. However, it would be a fitting tribute to her memory if we were to take this important step to try to ensure that similar tragedies do not, and cannot, occur in the future.

I pay tribute to my late hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich who, as Chair of the Transport Committee, took a keen interest in this issue and took the trouble to discuss it with my constituents. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), in whose constituency the accident occurred, who is now Chair of that Select Committee. My neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), has also been very supportive.

Valerie Taylor’s niece Pamela Woods and Valerie’s friend Pat Hoare have been relentless in their efforts to highlight this problem, so much so that they have persuaded the traffic commissioner in the north-west to conduct an investigation in her role that gives her statutory responsibility for the regulation of commercial goods and passenger vehicles. We await the outcome of her investigation with interest. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Janet Anderson, Norman Baker, Mr. John Heppell, Mr. Greg Pope, Jim Dowd, Kali Mountford, Andrew Miller, Mr. George Howarth, Ian Stewart and Mrs. Louise Ellman.

Vehicle Safety (Loads)

Janet Anderson accordingly presented a Bill to establish a mandatory code of practice on safety of vehicle loads; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed [Bill 126].

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Planning Bill (Programme) (No. 3)

Motion made, and Question proposed,

Second day
Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings

    New Clauses, and amendments to Clauses, relating to functions of the Infrastructure Planning Commission or the Secretary of State in relation to applications for orders granting development consent.

    5.00 p.m.

    New Clauses, and amendments to Clauses, relating to Chapter 2 of Part 9, New Clauses, and amendments to Clauses, relating to Part 11, and remaining proceedings on consideration.

    7.00 p.m.

2.16 pm

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I congratulate the whole team from the Department for Communities and Local Government on being in the Chamber, which shows how important the programme motion is. What they have done to those of us who wish to discuss in detail the Bill and its many important amendments is a scandal and abuse of process.

My hon. Friends will remember that we were against the previous programme motion, but I was not going to object when a simple timing change was proposed to reflect the movement of our second day on Report to a Wednesday. However, at 9 o’clock this morning—perhaps it was entirely my fault that I did not pick this up late last night—I received an indication that there was to be a change to both the timings and, more important, the order of discussion.

I was tempted to argue a couple of weeks ago that there was little common sense in the order of consideration originally proposed by Ministers because the Bill starts by dealing with the infrastructure planning commission. I welcome the fact that we are starting today by dealing with the commission. When I noticed that we were theoretically to have from 12.40 pm to 5 pm to discuss that controversial matter, I was delighted. Then, however, we discovered that there would be two statements today. Although those affected last year by the summer flooding and the loss of child benefit records have my full and total sympathy, I cannot believe that both statements needed to be made on a day when we are discussing one of the most undemocratic Bills to come before the House of Commons. Bringing forward statements when a Government are under pressure is a well-known technique for burying bad news. Some of that pressure might have reduced, but I am glad that there are still some Members of great principle. We hope that that principle will be debated fully in the short time left to us.

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