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The Environment Agency has yet to publish a full draft strategy and has no plans to do so until summer 2009. Three weeks ago, however, the East Riding of Yorkshire council arranged a drop-in meeting to discuss the strategy at Beeford. More than 300 concerned residents turned up and expressed their grave concern about the fact that for the estimated cost of £16 million over a long period, the Environment Agency said that it was no longer worth the candle and not worth defending those people and their homes. Can the Minister confirm that he supports that strategy? Will he tell the hundreds
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of people who turned up at Beeford that their interests and concerns are to be ignored by a Government quango in the form of the Environment Agency?

With reference to the middle catchment area, can the Minister tell us how many properties he thinks will be saved as a result of the creation of a flood storage area, which threatens so many homes and so much land in the area? How does the cost of that facility compare with the cost of maintaining flood defences? At the public meeting, the Environment Agency was criticised for using flood maps which, according to local residents, did not truly reflect the situation on the ground. Many of those people had been flooded last summer, so they were hardly ignorant of the threats to them.

In closing, I ask the Minister to ensure that the River Hull and the River Humber strategies work on a common basis and are better joined together. If the Government insist on the policy of abandonment, what will they do to ensure that local communities can better defend themselves? How will they be able to work together to do so? Will he also address the issue of the Environment Agency, which comes in from afar and seems to find it rather an irritation to have to deal with local people and listen to local concerns? Does he plan any changes to the governance of the agency to ensure that local people, the voices of rural England so often forgotten, can be heard by large Government bureaucracies that make life-changing decisions which undermine the very way of life of the people whom I represent?

7.24 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) on securing this important debate. The issue of flood and coastal erosion risk management is vital, not least for constituents, including the hon. Gentleman’s, in areas at most risk from flooding, who have experienced first hand the consequences of flood events and coastal erosion. We are aware that the hon. Gentleman’s constituency has had experience of such erosion, flooding from rivers and sea and surface water drainage, and I am grateful that he has raised those issues today.

The Government place great importance on those issues. In fact, we have increased investment in flood risk management to £650 million this year. We have more than doubled the investment levels of the late 1990s to a record £2.1 billion, which will be invested over the current three-year spending period. In representing his constituents, the hon. Gentleman assiduously put forward the case for further extending defences—that, of course, is not for ministerial decision here today—and outlined the costs that would come with that. The same points could be replicated with reference to many parts of the coast, in the north, south, east and west. I emphasise again that we have doubled investment since the late 1990s. For reasons that I will come to, I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench colleagues will join him and say that they would increase the funding even further and guarantee the homes, businesses and agricultural land of every constituent in every constituency throughout the whole country.

The issue is not just about big numbers, but let me turn to why not all areas can be defended. As the hon. Gentleman will recognise, there is a great diversity of
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coastal types in this country. There is no one uniform approach to coastal defence. He will know that coastlines recede or advance with changes in current, wind and tide. Even in the face of his aspirations for his constituents, I tell the hon. Gentleman that it would be unrealistic to expect the coastline to be maintained in all places as it is today. The Government response to the pressure cannot be to commit to building ever-higher and stronger defences in every place. Instead, the operating authorities must look at the range of options and avoid burdening future generations with the cost of maintaining unsustainable defences. We have to develop responses appropriate to the area at risk, and, whenever possible, achieve sustainability by working with, rather than against, coastal processes.

Furthermore, the Government and lead authorities have the responsibility to ensure that the investment of taxpayers’ money is justified by the benefits; if the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench colleagues were in government, they would face the same challenge. Let me point out that the policy is not new—far from it; it was recognised in the Government strategy of 1993.

The issue is not only about big numbers and investment. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, it is also about the lives, livelihoods and well-being of real people who face the threat of flooding and coastal erosion. It is right that with the investment programme we have significantly reduced flood risk to more than 125,000 houses in the past three years. However, there is more to do. In the next two years, we aim to offer an improved standard of protection against flooding or coastal erosion risk for 145,000 more homes, including 45,000 of those most at risk. As we have seen in the past three years, we are making solid progress, but we also know that there is more to do. We cannot rest on our laurels. That is why the Government are rightly developing this long-term investment strategy for floods and coastal erosion. We are considering the funding needs and pressures for the next 25 years and how the greatest value for money can be achieved in how that investment is delivered. Through individual flood strategies such as the Humber flood risk management strategy, with all the difficulties, challenges and controversy that they involve—people will have concerns; rightly, as their own homes and livelihoods are being affected—we will be looking to establish long-term solutions.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned other matters related to not only coastal erosion but flooding. We are also continuing our work on the draft floods and water Bill, and our intention is to present it for pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation in spring 2009. That Bill will be our opportunity, and the hon. Gentleman’s, to examine how we consolidate the many flood and coastal erosion risk management-related entries on the statute book and make them a proper, joined-up, holistic, coherent strategy to deal with the issue in the interests of our constituents. It will allow us the opportunity to bring together the regulatory regimes on flood defence and on coastal erosion and to ensure a co-ordinated approach that clarifies roles and maximises joint working between
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all the bodies, agencies and communities involved in flood and coastal erosion risk management, and leads to effective protection on the ground and in the communities that we represent.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Why was that draft Bill not part of this Queen’s Speech, given that after last year’s floods there was a real sense of urgency and yet there is now practically no chance of its becoming law before the next general election?

Huw Irranca-Davies: With the hon. Gentleman’s support, when we introduce it we will get it through in a good shape, but without undue haste. There is always a question of which Bills are introduced. I will be helping Lord Hunt in another place to deliver the marine and coastal access Bill. [ Interruption. ] I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for that Bill. We are committed to its delivery. Some good support and some tough decisions will be required to make realistic progress.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares our view that it is not beneficial or practical to protect every acre of land and every inch of coastline, particularly when we all know that climate change is increasing storminess, wave heights, and incidents of extreme heavy rainfall. Our focus must rightly be on risk management—on balancing likelihoods and consequences and ensuring that the considerable investment of taxpayers’ money is used to best effect. Any investment must be in return for significant reductions in the likelihood and consequences of flooding and coastal erosion, and it must be made in the places where the benefits are greatest. However, even record levels of investment cannot prevent all exposure to flood and erosion risk, so the answer cannot be simply to pour ever-increasing sums into building higher defences. We must also consider how we can reduce risk by adaptation.

Mr. Stuart: We would love to see you.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I note the hon. Gentleman’s kind invitation, and I hope that I can take up that offer. As he knows, the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), recently visited the area, but if I have the opportunity, I will take it up.

Having said all that, I am not suggesting that Government support will dwindle. We recognise the importance of this issue and the effect that it has on people and their livelihoods. Ultimately, we want to ensure that places that have experienced floods, such as Burstwick and Hedon in the east riding of Yorkshire, benefit from a joined-up, effective and equitable system of managing excess water. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Environment Agency is in the process of mapping a means that manages the risk of flooding from the sea and main rivers through the Humber flood risk management strategy and the River Hull strategy. The Humber flood risk management strategy—

7.34 pm

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).

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