|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Action is needed to end this scandal. It is a classic example of what happens when we devolve power to the lowest level. This place is full of former councillors who love everything being devolved to the local level. The problem is that we have these tiny district councils because no one has bitten the bullet and brought in good-sized unitary authorities, which we should have across the country, including in my area, saving the taxpayer at least £200 a year on a band D property. If we had that system, my authority would have the ability and money happily to take on Tunnel Tech in court but, having lost £8 million in the Icelandic banks debacle through its bad financial management, it is too terrified to take anybody to court about anything, so Tunnel Tech gets away with it. This little authority is up against the big multinational, and it is terrified. The problem needs to be resolved, whether through regulation or the wise counsel of the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers. I do not suggest an entire Bill on mushroom composting because, important though it is, it is perhaps not the highest priority for the country at the current time-although it certainly is for those 1,000 residents. I am looking for even more support from the Secretary of
State. I congratulate him on his diligence in working on this over the past year, but we will need a final push to sort out the problem once and for all.
The House will be pleased to know that for the sake of brevity I will not say too much about the issue of Warm Front, which I have raised over the past five years with the Secretary of State, his team, and his predecessors. Suffice it to say that the scandal of Warm Front contracts undermines, once again, the confidence of constituents such as mine in the whole concept of environmentalism. In theory, it is a brilliant scheme; in practice, half of it is a brilliant scheme, but the other half is racked with labour costs. I had a case this week, with constituents being charged £4,500 to put in one boiler and two radiators. I can get tradesmen and tradeswomen to do that for £900 or £1,000. My constituents expected to pay £1,000 of that £4,500. We will ensure that they do not, but the taxpayer is still paying £3,500 for that simple little job. The scheme needs to be properly tightened up. I suspect that a Warm Front Bill will not emerge from amendments that I attempt to introduce, but it remains a very important issue.
Bob Spink: While the hon. Gentleman is talking about fuel poverty, will he address the problem of prepayment meters? The electricity supply companies have done well so far, but they need to go a lot further. Will he look to the Government to make further progress so that we remove the obscenity of the poorest people paying more for their electricity?
John Mann: As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point on behalf of his constituents, mine and others. Those in private rented accommodation are often ripped off the most, and I know that, as ever, Ministers will be listening to his wise counsel.
I echo most of the comments that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) made on flooding. I will not repeat them, but it was a superb contribution. I recall sharing flood telephone conferences with him, during which we pushed for and got a responsiveness from Government that we found admirable and a good example to Departments on how to respond in times of crisis. Ministers should be congratulated on that.
I was delighted to hear the Secretary of State announce that the concept of speaking of floods as one-in-100-year or one-in-30-year happenings is to be changed. That was a profound announcement, and I attempted to say something on it but my intervention was unfortunately not taken. Perhaps we can tease out more of what it means. Those numbers determine where flood defences and money go and what local authorities feel obliged to do, and they have a significant impact on the planning process and decisions on where new houses and other buildings are unwisely built.
My house was a little flooded on one occasion, but nowhere near as badly as my neighbours' and other people's. Things change over time, and I have shipwreck timbers from when the river came all the way up into Bassetlaw. The Pilgrim Fathers went to America on a boat from Bawtry. Planning for flooding clearly needs to be overhauled, and the change in the language used will simply and easily create a new understanding. Of course it will not provide resources-that will require
Treasury moneys-but there is nothing more frustrating for someone when their house and their neighbours' houses are flooded than to be told that it is a once-in-100-year event when they can plot exactly when it last happened. The change will be a major step forward, and I hope that the ministerial team will expand on it.
I have one more little suggestion for Ministers. A small number of schools have been flooded-I believe that one in Tewkesbury may have been, and two in my constituency were. There needs to be a better system for ensuring that when a school floods, decisions on rebuilding it are not just insurance fund-led. If they are, we get cheap and cheerful patch-up jobs on the assumption that the school could flood again. If it is in a floodplain, it either needs to be rebuilt higher up or moved slightly-not to another village or another area, but in most cases it will be possible to move it slightly. It may be difficult and expensive, but the power ought to exist for schools in particular, as they are the key public buildings most likely to be affected by flooding. A little amendment to the Flood and Water Management Bill would give Ministers the power to intervene to override the natural tendency of those in officialdom to chase insurers immediately and replace like with like. That can be a weakness, and the power to intervene directly in such cases would be a wise addition to the Bill.
The huge omission from this debate, as it will be in Copenhagen, is population. To my mind, there is no question but that the world cannot continue to expand and expand its population. The notion that Britain can manage with an extra 10 million people living here is nonsense. That has something to do with the immigration debate, but it is far more widespread than that. It is not about the composition of the people here-I have no problem with that, and the more diverse the better, in many ways. However, the increasing number of people and the requirements for housing and other services that go with it, if not irreversible over the centuries, is irreversible within our lifetime and that of the next generation.
I do not want my constituency, rural Bassetlaw, to be a suburb of Doncaster or Sheffield, with ever more housing stuck in for the so-called needed increase in population. I am an economist, and when I question other economists such as those at the Monetary Policy Committee and the Bank of England, they do not want to discuss population. However, it is fundamental, and we must consider where those people who move across the world are coming from. Our immigration is a trickle compared with most countries in the world. There are huge population moves, sometimes led by war but more endemically led by food and water shortages. Those are the key factors that will determine where the wars of the next 30 or 40 years will be.
The British Mountaineering Council, of which I am an active member, is meeting today in this building, and one can examine the big mountains and glacier shrinkage to see the impact on the environment. It is not just about the damage that has been done. One can map out where the water supply will not go when it is reduced, and therefore where the next major wars will be. The Himalayas are the biggest area for the provision of drinking water, so that is a frightening prospect.
Population needs to be part of our equation. It is the great unspoken, and not just in this country. It has an effect on consumables. One of my political opponents, a
Conservative, bemoaned the fact that I had raised locally the point that the situation could lead to the extinction of animals that the world needs for the quality of our life. A good example is that there are virtually no tigers left in the wild. That is a direct consequence of population growth. What kind of world will it be if the animals that we see only on occasion, or through the BBC, disappear because population has crowded them out? That is what is happening, at such a fast rate that there will be nothing left for future generations. That is irreversible, and it should be at the heart of our thinking.
My final point is about the new nuclear power stations. Already, we are hearing that those responsible for one of them want to bring in foreign companies to do the build. In this country's economy, far too much investment has gone to the south and south-east, particularly London. I say to the ministerial team that with new nuclear build, British companies must get the vast majority of the contracts, so as to build skills in this country by using large numbers of apprentices and by upskilling the existing work force. There should not be, as with Crossrail, American competition coming in, cherry-picking the labour, leaving no skills benefit and damaging our economy because of it. We got it right on the Olympics and wrong on Crossrail, and for nuclear power stations it is vital that in the subcontracting we buy British. If we do not, our manufacturing industry and much more will rue the day.
Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) in what may be quite an important moment-his castigation and denunciation of the Soviet Union probably means that old Labour is now dead, and we should probably take a moment to think about that. However, he made some good points.
As the remaining months of this Parliament go by, I am sure that with my Front-Bench hat on I will have time to engage with Ministers and other Front Benchers on issues in the Queen's Speech, but today I shall restrict my remarks to my constituency, particularly at this time when it has suffered from unprecedented flooding, like much of the rest of Cumbria.
When I listened to the Gracious Speech last week, I paid particular attention-because of my brief and other interests-to the reference to the Flood and Water Management Bill, but I did not realise, whatever the forecast might have said, how personally involved I would become with that issue within 24 hours. Less than 24 hours after Her Majesty had spoken, I was waist deep in water in Kendal with my constituents.
As I said in my question to the Secretary of State during the statement yesterday-it is important to repeat it-PC Barker lost his life protecting the lives and safety of civilians. At times of difficulty like this, we always praise the emergency services, and we are right to do so. We should not forget what risks they run at such times, and PC Barker's tragic death underlines that. On behalf of the whole House, I wish to express my immense sympathy and gratitude to his family, and indeed to the whole constabulary.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), who is no longer in his place, remarked that people do not really understand the issues of flooding until they
have seen them for themselves. That is a strong point, because I saw both sides of the issue last week. On Thursday morning I was in Kendal as the River Kent was bursting its banks. On the Aynam road side of the river, one of the warehouses had been lent by its owners to Operation Christmas Child, which-as other hon. Members will be aware-is a project in which the community, especially local schools, works to put together shoeboxes of Christmas presents for orphans in eastern Europe. That warehouse was right next to the river and was likely to flood within half an hour. I joined some 25 to 30 people who were busily emptying about 10,000 of those boxes into the back of a lorry so that they could be driven to safety. We succeeded, which was wonderful. I then walked down the road with a family who had been helping, and we were full of the spirit of camaraderie that difficult times engender. We reached their house, which had just flooded, and the mood changed instantly. They went from feeling that community spirit-which undoubtedly exists at such times, so much so that it could almost be bottled, no pun intended-to abject misery through being affected personally.
It is important to pay tribute to that community spirit. When I was on the other side of the river, earlier in the day, at Edgecombe court-a block of sheltered flats-I was helping to move some of the residents to higher floors. I expressed sympathy to them as we helped to move their stuff upstairs, but I was mostly slapped down, because as they said, they had lived through a war and this was nothing. That spirit is prevalent throughout the county and we need to pay tribute to it.
The Flood and Water Management Bill is late. We could have had it a year or two ago, but it will be welcomed throughout my constituency. After I had been in Kendal on Thursday morning, I went up to Burneside. Many people will have seen the torrent there when the Kent burst its banks and rushed through people's living rooms. Further up the road in Staveley, where the Gowan burst its banks and rising water levels affected people living on Main street, the problems could have been dealt with by some of the measures in the Bill.
Many parts of my constituency remain under water and they are what we might call the tourist honeypots-Bowness, Ambleside and other areas in central and southern Lake district. As I left home yesterday morning, Lake Windermere was significantly bigger than usual. It is the biggest lake in England, but it has a tiny drain into the Leven to the south and it is taking longer to empty. Many of the businesses in Bowness and Ambleside are still under water and they will need specific support as they seek to recover.
The impact is also high in places such as Backbarrow, where a bridge was lost, causing great inconvenience. The loss of so many bridges has not only been tragic, in the case of PC Barker, and inconvenient, causing communication difficulties, but has meant the loss of important parts of our heritage, which have been literally washed away. Earlier in the debate, we heard about people who expressed scepticism about climate change. I just ask them to look around. Very few people in Cumbria this evening will need much convincing that climate change is both real and the result of human activity. The good news is that if we caused it, we can solve it. As we look to mitigate and deal with climate
change, we must keep in mind that common endeavour-that wartime spirit evoked by the residents of Edgecombe court-but we must also adapt. The Flood and Water Management Bill is part of that.
While we have suffered immensely in south Lakeland, we feel tremendous solidarity with our fellow Cumbrians in Cockermouth, Keswick, Workington and other parts of the north and west of the county who have suffered even more in many cases. Like us, they refuse to be cowed by this devastation and are determined to rebuild their communities, including residential properties, the communications network and businesses.
Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): We all have sympathy for the hon. Gentleman's story, but can he clarify his view of the Flood and Water Management Bill? Does he agree with the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which has been critical of the Bill? It said:
"The current draft is a confusing mix of measures, many of them poorly drafted; a patchwork that seeks to address individual identified problems, rather than deriving from a coherent and comprehensive strategy to implement the vision set out in 'Future Water'."
Tim Farron: That is a fair intervention, and I agree that there is a lot wrong with the Bill. It is inadequate in many respects, but it is on the table and it is significantly better than nothing. We will scrutinise it throughout its progress through this House, but we believe that it will be better for my constituents, for his and for the whole country if we end this Parliament with a Flood and Water Management Bill on the statute book. I hope that it will be better than the one in front of us at the moment.
I shall give some reasons why the Bill would be a positive step. The presence of a single co-ordinating body across the country-it makes sense for that to be the Environment Agency-will be a huge improvement. There is far too much confusion and buck passing, and not enough backside kicking, when it comes to preventing flooding or dealing with it when it happens. One area of my constituency that thankfully did not flood this time round is Grange-over-Sands, although it often does flood in the Windermere road area. Fixing that problem is a nightmare, when the Environment Agency, local authorities, United Utilities, Network Rail and others all pass the buck to each other, no doubt because solving it would cost money. I want to see a single entity that has the power, the authority and the resources to knock heads together and ensure that we solve such problems. That single co-ordinating body should have the muscle and the inclination to tackle such problems. I observed this morning that Severn Trent Water was celebrating-or perhaps apologising for-record profits. I think of the record profits that United Utilities and other water companies have been, shall we say, fortunate to amass, thanks to an infrastructure paid for by the taxpayer-an infrastructure that is also elderly, but which they have been far too complacent about.
Again, it was an irony-or a coincidence; I do not know-but six days before the catastrophic floods last week, I was in Burneside with representatives of United Utilities and the Environment Agency, at the epicentre of the floods there. We were trying to deal with flooding
that happens just about every fortnight, never mind once in a thousand years-flooding at a lower level in Burneside, but nevertheless at an appalling level, because it involves foul sewage as well as everything else. The response of United Utilities was, "We know what the problem is. The problem is that the Kendal and Burneside drainage system is inadequate, but it is a low priority to us." The Environment Agency representatives stood there and sort of nodded. However, I do not want the Environment Agency to stand next to United Utilities; I want it to apply shoe leather up backsides to ensure that those things get sorted out. The complacency of the water companies was shown up for what it was just six days later, when the residents in that area had to deal with the devastation.
I also welcome the elevated role of local authorities, as a potential consequence of the Flood and Water Management Bill. It is right that they should have single responsibility for the local flood risk strategy, but they must also have the resources to do that job. One of the other success stories, as it were, in our area that we would like to talk about is that in Kendal, even with a deluge, say, a quarter of the size of the one that we have experienced in the past few days, the Sedbergh road area would have been flooded and about 250 homes would have been under water. Indeed, with that particular deluge, I suspect that we would have had 500 to 700 properties under water. However, that area of Kendal did not flood because two years ago the local district council built the Stock beck flood relief system, which has worked, even in this most dramatic of situations. That came about after I chaired a meeting of about 11 different agencies, sitting them round a table at the Castle Park primary school. It is wonderful what getting people sitting round a primary school table on those low chairs with their knees underneath their chins can do to, let us say, interfere with their dignity and ensure that they address the issues. We banged heads together and ensured that a successful flood relief scheme was built.
However, I do not want to go through the same process every time. I want local authorities to have the power to make things happen, but money is power, and they have to have the necessary resources. If the resources do not follow those powers, they will be absolutely pointless.
I look back on the experience of my constituents last week. I talked to the Environment Agency earlier today about early warning. I appreciate that it has done a tremendous job these past few days and deserves praise for its work. Indeed, it has improved the standard of the warnings going out to people, but many of my constituents either did not receive text message warnings at all, if they were on Aynam road, Lound road or any of the streets off those roads in Kendal, or, in the case of Burneside, they received a text message six hours after their homes had flooded. I understand that that is all down to mobile communications and so on, but frankly we have to look at the issue in future, because that is not a good enough excuse.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|