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10 Dec 2008 : Column 647

Business without Debate

Business of the House (Consolidated Fund Bill)

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.


Flooding (Northamptonshire)

7.1 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I have two petitions to present this evening. The first arises from concern in the village of Isham about flooding. An argument is taking place involving the local council, the county council and Anglian Water about whose responsibility it is.

The petition states:


Planning and Development (Northamptonshire)

7.3 pm

Mr. Bone: The second petition arises from a large public meeting about the overdevelopment of land north of Wellingborough, where it is proposed to build thousands of new homes.

The petition states:


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Rivers Hull and Humber (Flood Risk)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Mark Tami.)

7.4 pm

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I have been applying for this debate since the House returned from the summer recess and I am delighted finally to have secured it. The River Humber and River Hull flood risk management strategies have caused alarm throughout the east riding and I am grateful to be able to put local residents’ concerns before the House tonight.

My speech is split into two parts. First, I want to talk about the River Humber. The Humber estuary is one of the largest tidal estuaries in the country. It is formed at Trent Falls by the confluence of the River Ouse and the River Trent. From that point until the North sea, the river runs between Hull and the east riding of Yorkshire on the north bank and north Lincolnshire on the south bank. What makes the river such a problem from a flood defence point of view is the low-lying nature of the surrounding land. Much of the city of Hull is immensely low lying, with more than 90 per cent. of its surface area below high-tide level.

The principal defences enjoyed by Hull and the east riding are in the form of man-made river banks, some of which, as the Environment Agency has pointed out, are not in the greatest state of repair. As a result, according to the strategy, some 90,000 hectares of land around the Humber are at risk of being flooded if there is a serious storm surge.

The Environment Agency has looked into how it can effectively maintain and improve the defences around the Humber. In September 2000, it published the Humber estuary shoreline management plan, which aimed to develop a coherent, co-ordinated approach to managing the defences for the next 100 years. The plan indicated that a major programme of improvement would be needed to deal with the effects of rising sea levels and to ensure that a proper level of protection was maintained for that period. It stated that in some areas defences would need to be realigned in order to counter the impact of the sea level rises.

In 2005, the “Planning for the Rising Tides” document was published and in March 2007 funding for the first 25 years of work, estimated at about £323 million, was approved by the Government. That formed the basis for the Humber flood risk management strategy that was published at the beginning of this year. In the strategy, the Environment Agency boasts that 99 per cent. of people living around the estuary will continue to receive a good standard of protection from tidal flooding. That means that the defences surrounding their homes and businesses will be maintained.

Most of those defended, of course, are in the densely populated towns and cities, but a huge section of land on either side of the river will be left without defence. Some 11,500 hectares—more than 28,000 acres—in the east riding of Yorkshire alone will be abandoned. More than 2,000 homes around the estuary will be abandoned, including 1,000 in the east riding. A large number of those homes are in the South West and South East Holderness wards of my constituency. According to the Environment Agency, 668 properties will be lost in the
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Sunk Island area, 62 will go in the village of Kilnsea and 10 will go in the village of Skeffling. The precise nature of that abandonment has been set out in the strategy. When the Environment Agency has decided that it cannot afford to fund improvement work to a defence, it will simply stop maintaining it.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the strategy of leaving some houses to flood is totally unacceptable? Does he also agree that the Government should have seen this coming? Is he aware that eight years ago the Institution of Civil Engineers said that Government planning on flood defences was piecemeal and inadequate and that the budget should be doubled?

Mr. Graham Stuart: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He reflects the anger and concern of local people, who cannot believe that the Government can suggest the abandonment of so many homes and so much productive land for so little cost in terms of defence. I obviously aim to expand on that issue.

When defence is not maintained, unless home owners are both allowed and able to create secondary defences of their own it will become impossible for them to continue to live or work in the vicinity. Families and communities will be forced to abandon their homes and businesses.

The response from the local community to the strategy has been almost entirely negative. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) and other neighbouring MPs, who have joined local councillors, the National Farmers Union, the East Riding of Yorkshire council and local residents’ groups in opposing the Government’s strategy. The East Riding of Yorkshire council said at a cabinet meeting in August that it “strongly objected” to the implications of the strategy due to the loss of land and property, and to the

I pay tribute to councillors Jonathan Owen and Jane Evison for the way they have taken the lead in this matter and expressed the concerns of local residents. I chaired a public meeting at the end of last month to discuss the strategy, and more than 100 people turned up to hear from the Environment Agency and to discuss the implications for their properties and businesses.

I turn now to the way that funding for flooding is allocated. Although a householder who needs work done on his house might make a basic assessment of what has to be done and then work out from there how much he is going to spend, that is not how flood defence is managed in this country. Instead, the Government have plucked a number out of the air: after last year’s floods, they came up with the nice round figure of £800 million to be spent on flood defences in 2010-11.

The figure is not based on evidence or related to need, but it is fed in at the top of the complex system of apportionment that the Government, through the Environment Agency, have created. Funnily enough, when one gets past the areas that are urban, highly populated and most often represented by Labour MPs, one finds that there is not enough money left to cover the rural areas. That is why we have the problems that we face today.

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One of my appeals to the Minister is that he look at the system again in a fundamental way. Would it not make more sense for the Government to produce a rational, sensible and proportionate cost-benefit ratio that could then be applied across the country to defend existing homes and businesses? That would be better than putting an artificial sum through an artificial apportionment process, and then finding that the entire way of life in rural areas and communities was destroyed as a result.

To secure funding for a project, the Environment Agency must apply to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That is what it did in May 2006, following the publication of the document “Planning for the Rising Tides”. The agency was given approval in principle for flood defence work around the Humber worth £323 million over the next 25 years. That has been much trumpeted, and I have heard Ministers state that they have approved funding worth £323 million in the area—except that is not what will be spent, because it turns out that the approval is only “in principle”. For a project to be funded, it must meet a specific points score assessment, and the Environment Agency has said that £43 million of the total about which the Government have boasted will not gain approval. The fact that that £43 million will not be spent is the reason why, over 25 years, 1,000 homes in the east riding of Yorkshire and many thousand acres of land will be abandoned.

The priority scoring system is immensely complex. People whose homes and land are threatened can be forgiven for struggling to understand it, and I should be interested to hear whether the Minister feels that he understands it fully. I have read the various briefings from DEFRA and spoken to the Environment Agency on a number of occasions, and I confess that I still struggle to work out properly and truly how the system works.

In simple terms, however, the maximum score that a project can get is 40 points, and to qualify for funding it must gain at least 26. One of the main problems is that the system has a rather artificial way of valuing the components when the score is allocated. For instance—and as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire will be fully aware—the system removes from the market value of agricultural land the notional amount created by farm subsidies. Although the Prime Minister has been known to trumpet his interest in food security, the points system that I am describing artificially depresses the market value of farm land and thus leads to a low points score for rural areas.

Soon after the Humber strategy was published earlier this year, I spoke to the local flood manager from the Environment Agency, Philip Winn, to try to get to the bottom of the numbers and understand what was really going on. We are talking about 28,000 acres in the east riding of Yorkshire. I asked a local valuer what the average land value was at the time, and he said, “About £6,500 an acre.” I used my rudimentary mathematics to put the two together, and worked out that we are talking about £180 million-worth of land. There are some 1,000 homes concerned, with an average value of about £150,000; it appears to me that that comes to a value of about
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£150 million. If we put the two together, we see that we are talking about assets of more than £300 million, at today’s value—and that is just for the east riding section covered in the Humber strategy.

When I asked Mr. Winn how much of the £43 million that the Government were not going to spend could be attributable to the east riding properties concerned, he agreed that it would be about £30 million. The Government are saying that they will not spend £30 million over 25 years—about £1.2 million a year—to defend £330 million-worth of homes and properties. That is looking at the matter purely as an accountant would, and ignores entirely the rightful expectation of communities and families that the Government will be on their side, and will be prepared to look after them. It makes no sense economically, socially or environmentally to abandon those lands. I hope that the Minister responds on that simple level, and does not blind us with science—something that the Environment Agency is normally rather adept at doing.

I want to consider Sunk Island, and perhaps bring the numbers to life. More than 600 homes are due to be abandoned on Sunk Island. Under the system, however, its total priority score was just 17.2—well short of the 26 points required for funding. That was due mostly to its poor economic score, which is calculated by dividing what is known as the present value benefit by the present value cost; one then arrives at the benefit-cost ratio. “PV benefit” refers to the amount of money that it would cost to rebuild flood-hit homes. “PV cost” refers to the amount of money that it would cost, over 100 years, to maintain the flood defences. For Sunk Island, the total PV benefit was £59,151,000, and the total PV cost was £10,642,000. That left a benefit-cost ratio of 5.56. Owing to the complex scoring system, that corresponded to a final economic score of 10.12.

However, the total value of land and property on Sunk Island is much greater than £59 million. According to the Environment Agency, there are 6,812 acres of land in the Sunk Island area. That land is among the most productive farm land not only in the UK and Europe but the whole world. If the average acre is worth £6,500 and we multiply the figures, we get a total of £44,278,000. In addition, there are 685 properties on Sunk Island that are due to lose flood protection. If we give a value of £150,000 a property, we arrive at a figure of more than £100 million. If we add the two amounts together, the total PV benefit is £147 million. That provides a benefit-cost ratio of 13.8 and a final economic score of 20.

I hope that the Minister can tell the communities that I represent why there is such a discrepancy between their understanding of the value of their homes, and the land on which they live, and the notional numbers that the Environment Agency uses. I do not necessarily expect the Minister to be able to provide every answer this evening, but I would be grateful if he could provide me with figures for every single area in my constituency that has received or been refused funding. I am convinced that the system artificially depresses the value of land, and I would be grateful if the Minister could put my mind at rest, and show that that is not the case.

Mr. Greg Knight: The Minister ought to come and visit.

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Mr. Stuart: He should, it is true. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I invite the Minister to visit the east riding so that he can hear from local communities and get some understanding of their worries and concerns.

The Environment Agency has commissioned further studies of the area’s flood defences and is due to publish the results in spring next year. I know from speaking to Mr. Winn that the agency will look again at the issue of Sunk Island, which I have pressed hard, as have local residents. I am also told that the priority scoring system may be changed in the future. Perhaps the Minister can tell us this evening how that will work. I hope it will be to the betterment of the rural communities that I represent.

I return to the topic of food security. If the warm words are to mean anything, surely we should ensure that agricultural land is given a higher economic value in the points apportioning process than, for example, a garage. At present, the opposite is the case. If the Government’s approach to food security is meaningful, they will review the formula and ensure that it better reflects the importance of productive farmland to the UK.

Another issue that has come up time and again is compensation. Many people who bought their properties five, 10 or 15 years ago and who now face the prospect of having to abandon them, did so when the official Government policy was to hold the line and defend the coastline. Are those people not entitled to some form of compensation? The former Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, now the Minister for Borders and Immigration, the hon. Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), said in September that it was “morally right” to help victims of tidal flooding when the damage was linked to climate change. He said:

Does the Minister agree with that statement? Perhaps he will tell us this evening.

I shall speak now about the River Hull flood risk management strategy. The agency has been working on the strategy for a number of years. It has concluded that in the upper level of the River Hull catchment, it can no longer justify the existing defences. It wants to cease to provide the pumping stations which for many years have provided security and protection to my constituents and those of my right hon. Friend. There is enormous concern among local people about the threat to homes and land. We all recognise that urban areas must take priority over rural areas, but we want decent protection for all. After the Minister has visited my constituency, he might want to visit Holland, where even the most sparsely populated rural areas have a standard of protection higher than that currently afforded by the Labour Government in this country to central London.

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