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24 Nov 2009 : Column 458

I was never big on science at school, but the theory is pretty obvious-the water is going to go somewhere else. It is profoundly wrong, and dangerous, for the RSS to propose that 14,000 houses be built in my area. The people who put the strategy together do not live there and obviously have not studied it, because they do not know what they are talking about.

It is not just in my area that there have been objections to the RSS. The Secretary of State will know that in the south-west region there have been 35,000 representations about that document, for very many different reasons. The document is fairly technical, and is not necessarily something that people wake up with in the morning. People do not normally get involved in responding to the RSS, but 35,000 have.

David Taylor: Is it not being disingenuous to the point of dishonesty for the hon. Gentleman's party to suggest that abandoning the RSS will somehow lead to a nirvana in which people will decide how many properties are needed and where they should be built? He suggests that there would never be a problem again if that were to happen, but that was never the case in all the years of county structure plans that lie behind us. At some point, and if necessary, Governments will always impose their will on counties preparing structure plans to ensure that the number of houses needed are built in particular locations. To suggest that those days are going to return and that all will be well is barmy. The hon. Gentleman has not said that, but his party has.

Mr. Robertson: I am not sure that my party has said that. As I understand the policy, it is to scrap the regional assemblies and the RSS process. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that will not necessarily be absolutely perfect or a utopia, and I am sure that I will still have disputes and arguments with my Front-Bench team or local councils, but at least I will know who I am arguing with and what the process is. To me, that is far more honest than the system that we have now.

The people of the north-east were asked whether they wanted elected regional assemblies, and they said no. What have the Government done? They have carried on devolving powers to regional assemblies that are unelected. That cannot be the right way to go.

Because of all the interventions, which I have been very glad to take, I have spoken for far longer than I intended. I shall end with two very quick points, the first of which has been mentioned. Since the floods in my area, some people have not been able to get insurance and others have had to pay vastly increased premiums. As the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said, some have had to cover extraordinarily high excess payments. I had a telephone call today about someone with an excess of £20,000 on his house. In effect, that means that that person is not insured against flooding, because it would probably not cost more than that to fix the damage.

The insurance industry, of course, is a business that has to fund itself and make itself pay, but I wish insurance companies could be a bit more flexible and understanding. I do not know whether the Government can help in that regard, or whether they have had discussions with the industry. I presume that they have, but a bit more flexibility and understanding would not go amiss.

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My final point has to do with water supplies. I do not know what the situation is in Cumbria, but we in Tewkesbury lost our water supplies as a result of the floods. Some people were without water for up to three weeks, and the entire county came very close losing its electricity supply. I understand that the problems in Gloucestershire amounted to the largest peacetime emergency that this country has ever had, but can the House imagine how much worse it would have been if we had lost our entire electricity supply? If it is possible to provide alternative water and power supplies, such systems certainly should be in place, as well as the protective barriers that can be built around those utilities.

I send my deepest sympathies to the people of Workington. I can put my hand on my heart and say that I know what people there are going through. I sincerely hope that they come through the experience with the same spirit and resilience as my constituents did.

7 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) have covered much of the ground that I wanted to cover. I shall focus on the Flood and Water Management Bill listed in the Queen's Speech, because I think that it is excellent. I urge Ministers to give it utmost priority, so that we can get started on it straight away.

Even before the dreadful events of last weekend, many of us have experienced the constant threat of flooding. We had flooding in my constituency in July, and we know that flooding is no longer confined to the dreaded November winter onslaught; it can happen all year round. There has been an enormous amount of flooding across the country; it may not have received the same publicity as the flooding of the past few days, but it nevertheless left people out of their homes for months and months, with all the cost and distress that that brings.

Some of the main issues that we are tackling in the Bill were highlighted by Sir Michael Pitt in his report, following the 2007 flood problems. Many of those problems do not happen once every few years, or once every 100 or 1,000 years, or whatever figure people would like to quote; we have to face up to the fact that they will happen much more frequently. We have to rethink our whole way of planning. Many of the points made about planning are exceptionally important.

One of the main provisions of the Bill-a provision of immediate importance-relates to finding out who is responsible for what. The idea that we are to clarify that must be very welcome to many people. I have constituents who, when faced with rising water, have panicked and wondered who on earth they were supposed to contact. Do they contact the water company, because a pumping station is involved? Do they contact the Environment Agency, because the water is from a river? Do they contact the local authority, because the problem is surface water coming off the highways? If they are extremely well informed, they might even know that the local authority has responsibility for that wonderfully named creature, the non-main river, whatever one of those is.

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That is what people face, and they are absolutely frustrated. They may have to phone around on a Sunday afternoon, without having a clue where they will get their help from. It is worse than that; even when the emergency state-the actual flooding moment-is over, they have the frustration of spending months trying to find out who is supposed to repair the flood defences, dredge the river, and check whether the pumping station works. That is extremely complex, which is why many people come to me. We have had to go around trying to sort out who is supposed to do what. Clarity is essential, and the sooner we have it, the better. The sooner we all know exactly who does what, and where their responsibilities extend to, the better. That has to be sorted out as soon as possible.

Looking to the future, we need to be very cautious in our approach. We have to think of the worst. We cannot have our grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, looking back and saying, "Why on earth did they build here? What possessed them to do so?" When I look at the addresses of many people in my constituency, I see Welsh words that mean willows and marsh. The minute I see such words, I think to myself, "How absolutely lunatic we were to put buildings in those places!" We really have to stop.

In my constituency, a further danger is posed by the coast. We have a magnificent view; we look out over the Gower peninsula. A person could not want a nicer place to put their house than looking out over the magnificent scenery, across the Burry inlet. However, we have to look at the maps and think about coastal erosion. What is the point in putting a house in a place where coastal erosion may well be an additional problem, or where there is a tidal lock because the house is so near the sea, meaning that nothing can flow away? We have to look at what is underneath; we cannot just look at the surface and think, "Let's build here because there's a fabulous view."

We have to be brave. Obviously, we cannot move every single bit of infrastructure straight away. We cannot move every single water supply source or electricity substation immediately, but we have to plan to move them. We have to plan to get those vital bits of equipment out of floodplains. We also have to stop putting buildings on floodplains. Sometimes, it is tempting to put them there. We all would like a particular new facility-a school or a hospital-in a particular location, but we have to think twice. We have to say, "Perhaps we need to think of the future, and think whether this will be a safe place in 30 years' time." Otherwise, we are creating problems for ourselves, and for the people who will move in. We have to think about that in advance, rather than waiting for those buildings to be flooded.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The hon. Lady makes important points that apply to both England and Wales. Sometimes, part of the problem is that the plans produced by the Environment Agency are not extraordinarily accurate. A hospital extension in my constituency was ruled out at one time because the site was on a floodplain, but further examination showed that it was completely safe. We have to give the public confidence that the maps are accurate and really reflect the situation; otherwise, planning decisions will be arbitrary and people will not be able to trust them.

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Nia Griffith: One of the difficulties is that people's faith in the maps has been undermined, because they have seen inconsistencies. I have to say that those inconsistencies are sometimes driven by motivations much more along the lines of those mentioned earlier, when reference was made to some local authorities and greed, and authorities looking to develop much more than they need to. There has been a problem, but I understand that a lot of the maps have been redrawn. We have very sophisticated systems, but we need to ask people with local knowledge for advice, too. People may have seen fields flooded, and may know that there are regular occurrences of flooding in an area.

We should also look at the effect that building in one area immediately has on another. In urban areas, we might be talking about concreting over a garden. However, when vast new housing estates are built, we have to think about where the water will go. That is yet another problem that we have to think about in advance, so that we are not paying for repairs when we could have avoided the situation in the first place.

Mr. Binley: This whole business has been going on for years. One need only go to the Nene valley and notice where the churches were built to see that people in mediaeval times knew exactly what ground to build on, and not build on. We have become too arrogant; we have forgotten most of that, and build on floodplains time and again. I support what the hon. Lady says. We have to find some way of stopping that.

Nia Griffith: Absolutely. My constituency happens to have that tricky combination: short, steep hills next to a coastal plain. Any geologist, geographer or hydrologist will say that that is classic flood country. The rain comes down the slope very quickly, so we have to look at all sorts of areas that are close to the river banks or that are likely to flood with water from those slopes. We need to do a lot of work, and should be much more cautious about what we build where; we should think first.

I move on to a problem that, though small, is of enormous significance to those affected, and that will be addressed by the Bill, namely the adoption of private sewers. The problem is terrible for those whom it affects. It has certainly affected people in my constituency, in places such as Cleviston park, Derlyn park and Dolau Fan road. When something has gone wrong, residents there have found, to their absolute horror, that they are on what is called a private sewerage system. They did not know that because they have paid-some of them for as long as 40 years-what were water rates and are now water charges in the same way as everybody else. They have paid and paid, like everybody else; of course, the sewers for which they are paying are taking some of the local authority's water off the local authority's highways.

Suddenly, when something goes wrong-it may be a blockage, because the pipes may not have been of the best quality-the system is discovered to be completely weird, but certainly not wonderful, with pipes doubling back on themselves in people's back gardens, and crossing from one garden to another in an absurd way. That has left people such as my constituents with bills of around £2,500 for one simple break to be repaired. They have to pay that in addition to paying the water rates that they
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have paid for years. The Bill will end that practice and make sure that, after the 2003 survey, which included a mapping exercise of all the private sewers across the country, water companies will be forced by legislation in 2011 to adopt all the systems on estates that have not been properly adopted in the past. That will be of tremendous importance to those people.

In Wales, powers can be drawn down by the Welsh Assembly Government, and we very much look forward to that. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), has been closely involved in work with the relevant Minister from the Welsh Assembly Government to make sure that that happens. It should be simpler for Wales, as it has only two main companies-Welsh Water and Severn Trent Water-with which to negotiate, so that should happen very soon. I was somewhat shocked at a public meeting that I called not very long ago to hear how proud Welsh Water was of paying a dividend of £21 per water-charged household throughout Wales. That was a very nice dividend, but those of us who are comfortably off could probably have done without that £21, because we would not have noticed if it had not been returned. However, Welsh Water balks at the thought that it might cost £5 to £30 per household to absorb the costs of sewer adoption. Everyone at the meeting thought that that was quite absurd: one minute, the company was giving back money, but the next it was saying, "Well, we don't know how the negotiations will go with the Welsh Assembly Government. We don't know whether we can adopt those sewers, as a certain amount of money might be added to the bill-perhaps £5 to £30.

Mr. Roger Williams: The hon. Lady has been very generous in giving way. I very much agree with her. Some houses in my constituency have been subject to sewer flooding, and I have always said that it would be far better not to pay a dividend of £21 or £22 a year, and instead to ensure that the affected houses are safeguarded from that occurrence, and to take up the sewerage systems that the hon. Lady has mentioned.

Nia Griffith: Indeed. I very much agree. It is extremely important that we keep up the pressure, and I urge Ministers to do so, to make sure that legislation is imposed on those water companies and they do not try to wriggle out of their obligations or postpone them-action must take place in 2011, and we must not let it drift around the place. That is a completely different issue, however, from tackling water poverty, where we seek to operate a sliding scale or provide help where it is needed instead of paying a blanket dividend.

The Bill will therefore be extremely important in dealing with something that we said was extremely important in the Climate Change Bill-the issue of adaptation. We always thought that it would be something right at the end of the Bill, but when we are rushed for time it can be difficult to give something full consideration. However, the Flood and Water Management Bill makes a commitment to try and put something in place and to begin the process of dealing with adaptation. We need to take that more seriously, and make sure that we design a country so that, in 200 or 300 years' time, residents say, "Yes, this was the right place to build," and not, "How stupid or foolish they were to do that all those years ago."

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7.13 pm

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), who raised a number of important issues, particularly the need for clarity on different responsibilities, which I encountered in my constituency when it was difficult to assess who was responsible for the clean-up after flooding that occurred as a result of building works. Even more importantly, we should make sure that we do not build in inappropriate places. There are great examples in history of houses and palaces built next to water courses. Indeed, I live in a 400-year-old barn, which was built in Huish-an Old English word for "damp"-next to a spring, and it is still standing somehow. There are examples of how that can work, but all too often the reverse happens, and those houses are devastated by flooding. The hon. Lady therefore made some important points, as indeed did my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), who spoke about the need to ensure that development is appropriate.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to today's debate. I shall probably redress the balance in favour of environmental issues, as opposed to the energy issues that dominated our initial proceedings. The Flood and Water Management Bill in the Gracious Speech gives us an opportunity to deal with important issues relating to development, and I shall develop that theme. This is a timely debate, and I echo the comments made about problems experienced in Cumbria, Wales and many parts of the country, and the devastation that the floods have brought to local communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury said that it is probably difficult for someone to appreciate the true impact of flooding until they have experienced for themselves losing all their belongings or their home. I hope that the people who have been affected receive all the support that they need, and I pay tribute to the heroic work of the emergency services in the past week.

Recent events have heightened our awareness of the natural limits that the environment imposes on every single community, so we must keep a careful eye on the implications of climate change. Water has always played a fundamental role in all communities, which were set up because there was a water source close at hand. That water source has nurtured our communities, enabled them to grow and has shaped them in many respects, too. Moving water about and storing it is expensive. Cleaning it is costly and subject to technical limitations. When I began to read the Bill, I felt that it was just scratching the surface of the issues that arise when we look at water management and flooding. I echo the comments made by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that the Bill is a slimmed-down version of what is needed.

If we are looking for consensus, however, we can find it on the need for sustainable development. Environmental concerns should play a considerable role in helping to determine the way in which our communities develop in future. The Bill in the Gracious Speech should not be a missed opportunity to reinforce that even further. There has been much talk today about making tough decisions-the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change used that phrase on several occasions. He also urged us to believe the science, and to make sure that we are convinced, as issues arising from climate change will affect the way in which our communities will have to
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operate in future. I challenge the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who is sitting on the Front Bench, on whether all his colleagues are convinced about issues of sustainability and environmental sustainability.

When we begin to look at work that has been done, particularly on planning and development, we can see that there is a great deal of paperwork on environmental sustainability. Indeed, the new Bill specifically establishes the need for a

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