Previous Section Index Home Page

As the hon. Gentleman can well imagine, I shall be pressing Ministers to find ways to proceed where legislation may be necessary, but legislation will not be needed to implement much of what was in the interim report of Anna Walker's review-confusingly, two Walker reviews are taking place at the moment. Our Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team has a big strategic role to play in supporting the climate change discussions that the Department of Energy and Climate Change will lead on, and I am pleased that, as part of that, we have a water Bill that deals with some important
24 Nov 2009 : Column 452
matters. I shall return to those in just a moment. I hope that the other important work, which has been running in parallel, can also be developed where appropriate.

The interim report was promising, but I know that there has been substantial engagement with the consultation on it. Much water has flowed under the bridge, and I hope that proposals that are even more radical than some of the very good ones that were in Anna Walker's interim report may result. The Flood and Water Management Bill addresses some important lessons arising from the problems encountered during previous floods that were similar to those causing such devastation in parts of the country, in particular in Cumbria.

Prevention is better than cure, and as chair of the all-party group, I welcome the work done in the run-up to producing the Bill. The 2007 floods caused major disruption, particularly in Hull, Doncaster, Leeds and the Severn valley, caused £3 billion of damage, affected 55,000 properties and resulted in the loss of 13 lives. Sir Michael Pitt's report in the wake of those floods made it clear that we needed to change the legislation governing how we manage floods and our water systems. The Bill contains important measures to implement some of what he and the Cave report said needed to happen.

The Bill is also important to the insurance industry, because without it, the industry will be less and less willing to insure-we all know that that is already a problem-and there will be increasing reliance on, and costs for, the Government. Many more people are finding that they cannot get insurance and, thus, the Bill is important. It will also ensure that all involved in the water, flooding and coastal erosion systems have clear roles and responsibilities. I do not imagine that I am the only MP who has faced small flooding issues in my constituency involving many stakeholders. One such situation has been going on for many years in Laira avenue, in my constituency, and I frequently have to bring together the council, Network Rail, a housing developer and the water company, because nobody plays that role well at the moment. From this Bill onwards, local authorities will have a strategic role to play, which should make dealing with such circumstances much more straightforward.

Martin Horwood: Does the hon. Lady also regret that nothing in the Bill addresses the crucial problem that people's insurance premiums can go sky high and their excess charges can go stratospherically high even though flood defence work has been done in their locality or even, in some cases, on their own property? Does not something need to be done of the order that was done in respect of serious medical conditions to legislate, level the playing field and return to the principle of pooled risk? I hope that hon. Members pardon the pun.

Linda Gilroy: I recognise the issue that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. It might well sit more easily with some of the issues that will emerge from the Walker review report, which will undoubtedly need some form of legislation. The issue that he raises will be debated at various points of our consideration of the Bill, and it is important that something is introduced at an early stage to deal with it.

Importantly, the Bill will ensure the delivery of large and unusual infrastructure projects. I often think that the water Minister has the most difficult job, because
24 Nov 2009 : Column 453
although many Ministers have difficult jobs, standing up to one's knees or neck in water one day and then a month or two later being in the same part of the country trying to explain away drought is a very difficult ask. The work that has gone into preparing what is in this Bill to deal with some of the risks associated with major projects that can help to address some of that is important.

The Bill also changes the powers to amend the non-essential uses of water that can be subject to hosepipe bans. As increasing pressure comes on parts of the country in times of drought, that, too, is important. I am also pleased that the Bill will, crucially, give water companies the power to introduce concessionary schemes for surface water drainage charges to amateur sports clubs, scout groups, Churches and other community groups, thus putting an end to the so-called rain tax. I understand the principle behind why it is so important to try to make transparent the costs involved in dealing with water run-off from roofs and concrete partly in order to avoid some of these floods that cause our constituents such distress.

This Queen's Speech sets out, at a critical juncture, the strategic and the tactical approach on a range of important issues, most particularly dealing with climate change. This country played an important role, through the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hull, East-

Mr. Prescott: Yes, not the Kingstown.

Linda Gilroy: Not the Kingstown. I am glad that it is our Front-Bench team who are charged with, once again, playing a key role in these so very important discussions. I am sure that whatever bones of contention we may have, we all wish them well in that work and in the work on the Bills set out in the Queen's Speech. They complement that very important work.

6.40 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), who spoke so excellently, said that she sympathised with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs because nobody had touched on the issues that are his responsibility, but when he sees me in the Chamber, he is well aware that I will talk about flooding, which is very much his issue.

The debate is wide ranging. One can talk about energy, as many hon. Members have, and about climate change, farming and many other issues. I would have an interest in speaking on all those things, but because of the shortness of time and the number of other hon. Members who want to speak, I shall contain my remarks to flooding.

I represent Tewkesbury, which I am proud to do, and obviously two and half years ago we had the most horrendous floods, as did other parts of the country, and because of that, and because the problem is obviously very difficult, I deeply sympathise with the people of Cumbria. I spoke to the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) for just a few minutes yesterday and he is obviously working extremely hard. He sounded-I say this in the nicest possible way-absolutely exhausted by his efforts. However, he is unstinting and is carrying
24 Nov 2009 : Column 454
on doing the work that he needs to do. I pay tribute to him and to all the other people who are working so hard. I also send my deepest sympathies to the friends and families of those who have lost their lives. We lost three people in Tewkesbury because of the floods and it has a devastating effect.

I say this respectfully, but anybody who has not been involved in any way or who has not been to visit people who have been flooded can fully understand the devastation that it causes. In Tewkesbury, people were living in caravans for more than a year because of the floods. That was remarkable in itself, but what was in some ways even more remarkable was the spirit and resilience of those people. Everybody whom I went to see just before Christmas of that year said, "Oh, don't worry about us. We're okay. We're not as badly off as some people." They were living in caravans-young people, old people, children and people who were seriously ill-and the flooding had a devastating effect, but their spirit and resilience were not broken. I am sure that that will be the case in Cumbria.

Let me speak briefly about flooding and flood prevention. I agree with my hon. Friend that legislation often does not put things right. It is important to recognise that it is not the end but the beginning of the process. I think that that was the point that she was striving to make when she spoke so excellently a few minutes ago. That said, I want the Government to introduce the Flood and Water Management Bill early in this Session. It has been trailed for a long time and I hope that it is introduced fairly quickly, because of course a general election is coming up in not too many months. Even if we run to the latest time, that does not give us an awful lot of time to carry out the legislative programme that the Government want to introduce. I hope that the Bill comes forward quickly. One slightly good thing to come out of the tragic events in Cumbria might be that the Bill will be given parliamentary time very soon.

It is also important that the Bill is given sufficient time to be considered. Far too often, we rush legislation through when we really do not need to. An awful lot of time is wasted in this House and we should give more time to considering the legislation in detail, particularly in Committee and on Report.

Linda Gilroy: I simply want to agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to have more time, particularly on that Bill. It would also be good to have an early Second Reading debate in the light of the circumstances that prevail this week.

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. To be honest, introducing the Bill in recognition of what is taking place in Cumbria is the least that we can do for the people who are suffering there.

Another reason I want to introduce the Bill early is that I fear that it is somewhat lacking. I am afraid that I am not as enthusiastic about it as the hon. Lady is. It seems very strong on requiring people to produce reports, assessments and all these other buzz words. I am not sure that there is the detailed requirement for action that we need.

One of the actions that we need was briefly mentioned by my hon. Friend. When we had the floods in Tewkesbury and Gloucestershire, one of the great difficulties that we
24 Nov 2009 : Column 455
had in trying to help people and to get things fixed was determining who was responsible for which waterway. It was very difficult, if not impossible, to determine who was responsible. There were two reasons for that: partly, those involved genuinely did not know; and, once they had accepted responsibility, they had to pay to put it right and they claimed to be short of money. For those two reasons, defining responsibility was very difficult. However, it was crucial and we must address that. I am not sure that the Bill does so fully. I hope that it does, and perhaps if there is sufficient time in Committee we can explore that and the Bill can be strengthened at that stage for that reason.

It is also important to ensure that whoever is responsible for which waterway does not just repair things when something has gone wrong; it is important to maintain the waterways on an ongoing basis each and every year. That simply is not happening. I was not flooded in Tewkesbury, but my house was full of people who were. They lived further up the hill than I do, so they should not have been flooded. However, a drain was broken. The problem did not show up when there was ordinary rainfall, but it did when there was heavy rainfall. The drain had not been maintained and we then went into the process of working out who was responsible for it. The county council denied responsibility, but it was then proved that it was its responsibility and it had to fix it, but it was too late-the family had already been flooded.

We must have maintenance as well as repair work. Of course, repair work is involved in maintenance. Nobody would have a car that they never serviced and expect it to run for ever until it got to the point where it absolutely broke down. The job is far more expensive then than if services are carried out every 15,000 miles or so. We would not do that and we should not do it in this respect, either.

Another issue that I want to mention is one that I have brought up many times, which is building houses in flood-risk areas. Whenever we raise the issue, locally or nationally, we hear the old theories, such as whether it is a flood-risk area or whether it has flooded in the past 100 years. On the one hand, we are told that we are experiencing climate change, and I am not denying that, but if we are experiencing climate change, we cannot use the old figures of once in 100 years, once in 500 years and once in 1,000 years. We cannot have it both ways. We do not know when the rain will fall in the way that it did in 2007 or the way that it did in the past few weeks.

Mr. Binley: Northampton has also suffered floods and we lost two people, so I understand my hon. Friend's comments about that. However, one lesson that we learned is that floodplain maps simply are not good enough and houses are being built on floodplains. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Ministers need to take that seriously into account because the problem is continuing and is not being stopped? We are making the problem worse for the future.

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right: we can all draw maps, and I have seen maps that are manifestly wrong. We have given photos of flooded areas to the people
24 Nov 2009 : Column 456
who produced the maps that say that those areas do not flood, and planning permission has been granted on appeal for that very land, but the floods in that area will be even worse in the future. We cannot work from some of the maps that have been drawn.

David Taylor: I was on the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs when it reported on the flooding in Gloucestershire and elsewhere a number of years ago. We visited Tewkesbury and I remember well that, as we drove out of the town in our hired minibus, I saw lots of yellow signs saying, "Come and have a look at the river view development." That was ironic in the light of what happened. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that his local authority and others are too quick to lie down in front of powerful developers and to ignore advice from the Environment Agency and others? Should not greater powers be given? Looking back over the past 100 years, it seems that in some cases flooding occurs not once in 100 years, but once in 10 years. We need urgently to update that figure.

Mr. Robertson: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I know the estate that he is talking about. It flooded as it was being built, and then an application was put in to build 100 more houses on that very site. The second bit of the building application has not gone through, but the first did.

I am not willing at this stage to lay too much blame at the door of the local authorities. They know what happens. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) is smiling, but I remind him that no party has overall control of the Tewkesbury authority-I think that that is what he is getting at.

Planning policy statement 25 is insufficient. It says that authorities should not build in flood-risk areas unless this or that is the case, but it is far too weak a document to provide the protection that we need.

Mr. Swire: In his recent statement on the flooding in Cumbria, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said-I paraphrase him-that one problem was the concreting-over of Britain, not least of people's front drives and gardens. Does my hon. Friend agree with me, and by extension, presumably, the Secretary of State, that local authorities must be given much stricter guidance about when to allow front gardens to be concreted over, as very often that just exacerbates the problem?

Mr. Robertson: My hon. Friend makes a good point. However, I think-I will have to look it up-that local authorities have been given that power only very recently.

John Mann: I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not going to ruin a cracking speech by letting off local authorities of all parties. Does he agree that they see all those pounds from council tax and think, "Let's build a few more houses and we can get a bit more in our empire. Let 'em build anywhere." That is what all local authorities think, regardless of colour-and even those that are colourless, like his own.

Mr. Robertson: I certainly would not describe Tewkesbury local authority as colourless. It might have no overall control, but it is certainly not colourless. However, the
24 Nov 2009 : Column 457
hon. Gentleman makes a point that, although slightly different from mine, is important. What he describes is a consideration, albeit a very short-term one.

Bob Spink: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Government should give very firm instructions to their inspectors to be much more robust about planning policy statement 25? My Castle Point borough council, which happens to be Tory controlled, wants to build several hundred houses on the Canvey Island floodplain, where 58 people died in the 1953 floods. Does he agree that it should be prevented from doing that?

Mr. Robertson: As I said, I think that PPS25 is inadequate because it does not provide the protection that we need. The hon. Gentleman is therefore absolutely right.

Mrs. Maria Miller: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that local authorities' priorities in assessing where houses should go are being distorted by the house building targets set by the Government? They are causing a great many problems when it comes to finding the space on which houses can be sited.

Mr. Robertson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and she very conveniently takes me on to the next point, which concerns the pressure placed on local authorities by the regional spatial strategy.

When this Government came to power, they said that they wanted to end the "predict and provide" approach to housing. Like me, many hon. Members will remember that statement. I thought, "There we go. I'm not going to be able to disagree with everything that this Government say." However, they have not only reinforced that approach, but regionalised it. They have reinforced it by making it a requirement to build 3 million extra houses over the next 20 years or so, but how did they know that we would need that many houses in that period? Why has the power to decide how many houses are needed, and where they should go, been handed to the regions? The decisions are almost site-specific, but I do not know who is making them. It is not local councillors, because if it were we could go to them and say, "We disagree with you and we're going to boot you out next time because we don't like what you're doing." We cannot do that with the RSS.

In my constituency, the proposal in the RSS is to build more than 14,000 houses. How on earth can we find space for all those houses when the area concerned is a flood risk? I do not care whether we are just on one side or the other of a line on a map, because that is not what is important. As the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) mentioned, the planning process does not take account of the theory of water displacement.

It is not only a matter of whether the new houses flood. When the hon. Gentleman visited Tewkesbury, the new houses flooded as they were being built, but the other problem is that they also displace water and send it somewhere else. The water in Tewkesbury is, as we speak, resting on green fields. It does that quite frequently, as certain parts of the fields in the town flood several times a year. That is not a problem, but concreting over those green fields causes that water to go somewhere else.

Next Section Index Home Page