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13 Jan 2009 : Column 187

As the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) said, several of us have in our constituencies villages and areas that are affected by flooding for one reason or another. I agree that the number of agencies involved sometimes leads to confusion. It would be useful if the Environment Agency acted as an arbiter when United Utilities or the county council says, “It’s not our responsibility—it’s somebody else’s”, and we cannot determine whose responsibility it really is. There should be far more transparency and clarity so that those under the threat of flooding are able to get it sorted out whenever that is possible.

A number of villages in my area have been affected by flooding in the 16 years that I have been the Member of Parliament there. My own village has not been affected by flooding, but there is a brook that runs through it and we have had to try to get it cleared because it is amazing how quickly the foliage grows. When I wrote to the county council on behalf of local residents, I was told, “It would be a cosmetic exercise and we haven’t got money for those.” Fortunately, it eventually got sorted out with the assistance of County Councillor Albert Atkinson. The maintenance of these watercourses is vital. The Government say that they want to do a lot of public spending to help the economy, so this would be exactly the right time to prioritise that. Once a brook or a water course has been cleared, it is far easier to maintain it than to try to get it sorted out when it has been let go for a few years. The operation is far more expensive when it is completely overgrown or there has been a blockage.

As the Minister will know, flooding is awful for residents. It is a constant worry when they are not flooded and a complete nightmare when the rains come suddenly and their homes are damaged. I could name a number of villages in my area that have been affected during my 16 years as Member of Parliament. I once went to Bolton-by-Bowland post-flooding and spoke to several villagers there. One’s heart sinks and one’s eyes fill with tears when one sees the anguish on their faces, with their homes completely destroyed and the clean-up that has to take place. If a village is hit by flooding time and again, residents often have an insurance problem—companies do not want to insure them or the premiums go right through the roof.

This is a vital issue that needs to be properly addressed. I agree with the hon. Member for South Ribble that we must look again at the planning system. In some cases, planning permission seems to be given in areas where the locals know that land is affected by flooding. Locals ask, “Why has planning permission been given for that?”, but in some cases there is apparently no choice. Unless there is going to be proper drainage that can be proven to be effective, homes should not be built.

I hope that the Minister is able to give some assurances not only to South Ribble but to the wider area of Lancashire constituencies. It is a fantastic county, but we get more than our fair share of rain, and therefore the problems that are associated with it.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Although we are not short of time, the debate is technically about flooding and drainage in South Ribble, which is presumably a constituency that has carefully defined boundaries. I
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am not absolutely conversant with the course of the Ribble, but I am prepared to call the hon. Gentleman on the basis that it touches various Members’ constituencies.

7.9 pm

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. To help with the geography, my constituency adjoins South Ribble and I am affected by its problems, so let me start by saying that geographically I suit these purposes.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) on bringing this debate to the House. It is critical that we take account of west Lancashire and South Ribble. The River Yarrow comes from Chorley and it feeds into the constituency of South Ribble. My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble mentioned the village of Croston, which is in my constituency. After the next election, tragically, that most beautiful of villages will be moved out of Chorley. It has suffered from flooding in the past, and I know that it will be put into good hands, and that the fight to protect Croston will continue. In the past, the Government have made good investment through the Environment Agency, but the village still experiences the problems of flooding.

The brooks that feed into the River Yarrow feed into the area, and none more so than one called Eller Brook. The problem with that brook is that it is a feeder. We know that there are problems, which brings us back to the point raised by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans): who maintains the brooks, and why are they not being maintained? The biggest problem is the role of local authorities. District authorities have a responsibility for small brooks, but they say, “Not me, guv. It is somebody else.” That is the problem. The Environment Agency says, “Not me. It is the district authority.” The district authority says, “We don’t think that we agree with that. It could be the county council.” The county council then says, “Not really us. What about United Utilities?” It is buck-passing. That is the biggest problem that we face.

Mr. Borrow: Would my hon. Friend agree that the idea of getting agencies to work together is crucial to stop that buck-passing? It happens in district areas, and in our part of our Lancashire we also have to deal with what happens when the problem is tackled well in one district but not in the next. That can have an adverse effect, to put it bluntly. If problems are not dealt with well in Chorley, that will have a bad effect on South Ribble because we are a bit downstream, and we are likely to get floods if the problem is not dealt with in Chorley.

Mr. Hoyle: I totally agree, and that is the point. We have to ensure that we reflect the right image and have the best practice. Authorities have to share best practice to ensure that the people of South Ribble do not suffer because of neglect taking place in Chorley or in other districts. I take that point on board; it is part of the key issue.

My hon. Friend rightly referred to who is responsible. Is it a question of private ownership? The Government have to look at that. Historically, private clearance of ditches does not take place and the Environment Agency ought to have new powers so that in cases where private owners of a ditch or sewer are not dealing with a
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problem, the agency has the power to clear the blockage and charge for it. It is a matter of ensuring that we all benefit, and the Minister may want to take that point on board.

My hon. Friend rightly touched on another key point about United Utilities and other water companies, and when I consider it, it worries me more than anything. They are caning the churches, sporting organisations and charities alike. We are talking about surface water, which God provides for nothing, but United Utilities and other water companies want to charge the Church for what runs off the roof. The churches already, quite rightly, pay for sewerage and for the water that they use. But water companies such as United Utilities have arbitrarily told churches that they owe a certain amount of money. There is no proof that the water is not soaking away, or that it is going into the sewer. The obligation should be on the water company to prove whether that is the case, but it has made the churches liable. That has got to be stopped, and the situation needs to be rethought.

United Utilities has not done any impact study. It has introduced huge charges that will close churches throughout the north-west, and other water companies will close churches throughout the country—my hon. Friend referred to the churches in South Ribble. I say to the Minister that the effect of the charges will be wholesale closures, despite the fact that there has been no impact study. No thought has been given to the consequence of these thousands of pounds of charges. On average, each church will have to pay an extra £3,000. Where will they find that money? They will find it from the congregations. Why have we allowed the water companies to do that?

The previous Secretary of State said that the water companies should not impose charges on churches, so we must remove them. They are totally unacceptable, and I have not heard any customers say that it is right to charge the churches. Nobody agrees with it, and the time has come for the Government to stand up, put the water companies in line and not allow them to make the charges; otherwise, there will be wholesale decimation of churches throughout the country, which is not what we want. We want the Government to support the churches, sporting organisations and charities that have suddenly had charges imposed on them. It is a big issue, and it will not go away. On the Downing street website, I think that it has the fastest growing number of objectors. We need to consider it quickly.

I thank the Minister for his time, I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble for allowing us to join in the debate.

7.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) on securing the debate and on the way in which he has led the discussion in his constituency, with public meetings and meetings with utility companies, the Environment Agency and others. He has done sterling work on behalf of his constituents and kept them informed. I am happy to respond to the issues that he and other hon. Members have raised.

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My hon. Friend is right that, as we have seen clearly in recent years, flooding is a serious, significant problem that has a devastating impact on all those who are touched by it. As hon. Members will know, there have been a number of high-profile flooding events across the UK in recent times. I am therefore pleased that the debate allows me to reaffirm the efforts that we are making to improve the management of such risks to the benefit of all people across the UK, not least in my hon. Friend’s constituency and those adjoining it. South Ribble has experienced at first hand the consequences of both fluvial and surface water flooding events.

My hon. Friend outlined a number of concerns, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). I shall try to address them as well as provide an overview of the work that is being carried forward to improve our management of flood risks.

I know that various hon. Members have been concerned about the perceived rural to urban shift of resources. I can confirm that there is no intended bias against rural projects in the prioritisation approach adopted by the Environment Agency. Government policy is simply and straightforwardly to achieve maximum benefit from expenditure, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble and others will welcome that. In accordance with that policy, the Environment Agency takes a risk-based approach, directing its resources to the areas of highest risk, where investment yields the greatest benefits. That is a straightforward cost-benefit analysis.

The approach might mean that projects are less likely to go ahead in sparsely populated areas, as they tend to be less beneficial than projects that protect a larger number of people or carry higher asset values for a given cost. It is worth pointing out that when a priority score is assessed, the benefits of a project are compared with its cost. The crucial measurement is of the benefits per unit cost, not the absolute benefit of a proposal.

Mr. Borrow: Will my hon. Friend clarify the priority or weighting that is given to the quality of the agricultural land affected? It is fairly obvious that a lot of the best quality arable land is in low-lying areas that are at risk of flooding unless the drainage is kept really good. If there is not investment in such land, we risk losing acres and acres of first-class arable land.

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend makes an important point. In response to issues that he and others have raised, only last year we reviewed the economic appraisal of agricultural land. It was revised marginally upwards, and we are now considering whether to set specific outcome targets. We actively examine the matter, but we must ensure that there is balance in the prioritisation to ensure that we get the best value for money. We considered the issue only last year, when the appraisal was revised marginally upwards, and we will continue to examine it to see how we can obtain best value for money.

The appraisal is based on unit costs, not on absolute benefits, and that should ensure that smaller projects, including rural ones, are considered on an equal footing with larger, often urban projects. Furthermore, as we announced in our response to Sir Michael Pitt’s report on the flooding events in summer 2007, we have allocated an initial £5 million to improve property-level resistance
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to flooding. That will be concentrated on areas that do not stand to benefit from community-level protection schemes. Applications should be made via local authorities, and I am happy to send details of the scheme to my hon. Friend.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about developments without adequate planning for drainage. Water and sewerage companies are not statutory consultees in the planning process because problems with water supply or sewerage are already material considerations in planning cases, and they should be given that weight. I know that developments are proposed in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and if a local planning authority believes that a development would give rise to a water supply or sewerage problem, the authority should consult the relevant water company. When such problems cannot be resolved, the local planning authority should refuse permission for new housing.

Developers should work closely and at an early stage with water and sewerage companies so that new water supply and disposal infrastructure is timed to coincide with the development that it serves.

Mr. Hoyle: Obviously, there are two interests. First, water companies have the benefit of extra water rates, and local authorities gain because they receive extra council tax. The problem is that they work together to give planning permission. If they refused planning permission and there was an appeal, which they lost, would they have costs awarded against them?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I am happy to clarify that point in a moment, but if adequate supply and disposal of water cannot be provided, the local authority has jurisdiction to refuse planning permission.

Water companies are statutory consultees on regional spatial strategies and local development plan documents. Under the plan-led system, planning applications are determined in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations signify otherwise. The current system works well, albeit with the occasional glitch, so the Government have no plans to make water and sewerage companies statutory consultees. However, if evidence emerged that the current approach was not working effectively, we would consider the matter further. We keep an active eye on it.

On ditch maintenance, more than half of all flood assets in England and Wales are owned and managed by third parties—organisations or private individuals other than the Environment Agency. To address that risk, the Environment Agency has put in place risk-based policy and guidance to help its maintenance teams to work consistently with owners of third-party flood assets throughout England and Wales. When fully implemented, that policy and guidance will put the Environment Agency in a position where all third-party owners will be aware of their obligations to maintain standards of flood assets within a set time scale, and the Environment Agency will take over the assets when it is in the public interest for it to do so.

Furthermore, under the Land Drainage Act 1991, the erection or alteration of any mill dam, weir or similar obstruction to the flow of any watercourse, requires Environment Agency consent prior to the commencement of works. Therefore, if landowners wanted to undertake
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any work that is likely to cause a temporary obstruction to the flow, they would require Environment Agency consent.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble also mentioned the Hesketh Outmarsh West scheme. I understand that local people and those landowners affected are worried about the impact of the recent works completed there, which involved the Environment Agency undertaking substantial repairs to the primary sea defences. The work was done in conjunction with the managed realignment of former private defences—I have spent some time this week with colleagues from the Environment Agency looking at the issue in some detail—and the creation of 168 hectares of tidal salt marsh habitat. The work has raised the condition standard considerably and now offers a robust defence against tidal inundation in that location. Hundred End Gutter, the main drainage watercourse from the hinterland, has had a new larger tidal outfall constructed where it passes under the repaired primary sea defence.

I can reassure my hon. Friend and his constituents that the computer modelling, which he referred to, of the watercourse system to the rear of the refurbished sea defence was carried out for both the existing and the new arrangements. The intention was to ensure that the replacement outfall is suitable to discharge extreme high flows during periods of heavy rainfall. The modelling results indicated only a minimal difference to existing upstream flood levels, even when the system was locked out for periods during high tide cycles. However, I am glad to announce that I have already contacted my colleagues in the Environment Agency, who have confirmed that they would be more than happy to facilitate a meeting with my hon. Friend, farmers, the National Farmers Union and others—

Mr. Hoyle: And neighbours.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Indeed. That will allow us to review further the concerns expressed. I encourage my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble to contact the Environment Agency’s offices directly to take that forward.

Let me address the issue of foul flooding. Ofwat is an independent economic regulator, as my hon. Friends know, and Ministers do not have the authority to instruct it on how to set price limits to deal with foul flooding or otherwise. However, in the principal guidance to the director in the 2004 periodic review of price limits, the Secretary of State said that the Government would work with the regulators to improve the co-ordination of approaches to address all types of flooding risk in the most cost-effective manner. I will return to that in a moment and outline some of the proposals that we have recently introduced.

On United Utilities and its investment in capital projects, I am not a spokesman for United Utilities, but I am advised that—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I gently remind the Minister that he should address the Chair? I know that it is tempting to address the Member whose Adjournment debate it is, but he must address the Chair.

Huw Irranca-Davies: My apologies, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you can see, I have a tendency to turn with my body rather than with my neck, so it is not easy for me to turn both ways, but I fully appreciate what you have said.

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