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13 Jan 2009 : Column 193

Between 2005 and 2010, United Utilities will have invested more than £160 million to solve sewer flooding in the north-west. Although United Utilities, like other water companies, cannot confirm investment plans for the next price review period because it is in negotiations with Ofwat, we look forward to those plans coming forward, subject to Ofwat’s consideration of them, so that we can look at them in detail. Ofwat sets price limits for the water companies. During the periodic review, it considers proposals from water companies such as United Utilities to increase investment in the public sewerage infrastructure.

Let me deal with the issue of building in areas of high flood risk and the relation with policy planning guidance in PPS25. PPS25 is entitled “Development and Flood Risk” and seeks to ensure a number of criteria, including that development is located away from flood risk where possible; inappropriate development in flood risk areas is avoided; flood risk is assessed so that it can be avoided and managed; and flood risk is taken into account at all stages in the planning process. I will return to some of our proposals and how we will take the process forward in a moment. However, it is important to recognise the guidance against which the current planning and policy guidance sits.

An important issue that my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble and for Chorley have both raised relates to the impact of water rates on organisations such as churches and other places of worship, third sector groups and sports clubs. That is a valid concern, and I have had a number of letters on the subject as well. We are aware of the issue, and we are considering the representations and trying to find a way forward, recognising that the potential impact on some of those organisations—albeit during the transition period while the measures are being phased in—could be significant. I am keen, as a Minister, to look at that to see whether there is a way forward, without making cast-iron pledges at the Dispatch Box today.

I understand that, in recent history, the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble has experienced the impact of flooding. In January and October 2008, about 120 homes were affected, largely in New Longton and Much Hoole, with the main problem being surface water and the over-topping of drains resulting in flooding. Surface water flooding is a serious issue and, as such, it was announced in the Government’s response to Sir Michael Pitt’s report on the summer 2007 flooding events that we are proposing new legislation in March and April 2009 to support local authorities in this leadership role for managing local surface water flooding. That will included new duties on them to fulfil the leadership role. There will be a new duty to take direct responsibility for managing flooding from surface run-off and groundwater, and new duties on other organisations to co-operate and to provide information that will help the local authorities to understand the risks posed and to put in place arrangements to manage them. Building strong and constructive partnerships with other organisations that have responsibilities for parts of the local flood risk management infrastructure to take forward joint action will be a key aspect for local authorities to develop as part of their leadership role.
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Many hon. Members have commented on the need for clarity among the various agencies, and I shall explain what more we are doing on that in a moment.

The full response to the Pitt report was published on 17 December by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Government are taking action on all 92 recommendations in the review, covering a wide range of issues including how to improve flood prevention, how to reduce the impact of flooding, how to cope better when floods happen, and how to help areas to recover more effectively from such events.

The review set out new strategic roles for the Environment Agency and for local authorities to prevent and prepare for flooding from all sources, and the Government are now putting those in place. Many of the more important changes will require new legislation, in order to be fully effective, and I shall return to that issue in a moment. However, there is much that can be done in the meantime. We have written to all local authority leaders and chief executives to encourage them to start delivering on the programme set out in our response to Sir Michael Pitt’s review.

We are also providing significant funding to help to support the implementation of Sir Michael’s recommendations. This includes £15 million from the Pitt fund, and an estimated total of £12 million that local authorities are expected to spend in this area from existing budgets in 2009-10 and 2010-11. The Government have also announced that we will bring forward £20 million of spending on flood and coastal management from 2009-10 to 2010-11 as part of the fiscal stimulus package.

As well as taking action on surface water, further key points of the action plan include an extra £8.5 million for the Environment Agency in its new role as the organisation with overall responsibility for flooding, to make flood warnings available to ex-directory households, to improve how potential surface water flooding is predicted and mapped, and to help the agency to implement the other recommendations. A £7.7 million flood forecasting centre, run by the Met Office and the Environment Agency, will be created to improve the country’s ability to predict and respond to flooding by providing a single national forecasting and alert service, and to help emergency responders to prepare for and respond to flooding.

There will also be £5 million to help people to protect their own homes better, through installing flood protection measures such as door boards and air-brick covers. Those are simple, practical measures. They will help, for example, in cases where it is not possible to provide protection through larger community-level defences, such as in parts of my hon. Friend’s constituency.

That is not all the work that we are undertaking. As we announced previously, we increased Government investment in flood risk management in 2008 to £650 million and, given the record £2.5 billion that will be invested over the current three-year spending period, we have more than doubled the investment of the late 1990s. It is not just a matter of numbers, as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley implied it was, as it is about the lives and well-being of real people who live with the risk of flooding.

Through various measures, we have now significantly reduced flood risk to more than 125,000 homes in the past three years alone, but there is more to be done.
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Over the next two years, we will offer an improved standard of protection against flooding or coastal erosion risk for 145,000 more homes, including 45,000 of those at the greatest risk. We are making solid progress, but I accept that there is more to be done and that we must not rest on our laurels.

Without any reference to the floods and water Bill that will be so important, let me say in conclusion that hon. Members will accept that we will never be able completely to eradicate the threat of flooding, but that I am confident that we are much better prepared today
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for the challenges we will face in the coming months and years. I am sure that the policies that we are putting in place will help us to improve our ability in future to cope with flooding events, both nationally and locally in areas such as the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley and others.

Question put and agreed to.

7.36 pm

House adjourned.

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