Previous Section Index Home Page

15 Dec 2009 : Column 840

One of the principal purposes of the Bill is to ensure that organisations know what bit of flood risk they are responsible for managing and that local people know that, too, so part 1 of the Bill will enable a wider range of approaches to flood and coastal erosion risk management and clarify responsibilities for all sources of flooding. The Environment Agency will take a strategic role, including developing a national strategy for flood and coastal erosion risk in England, and a similar role in Wales will be taken by Welsh Ministers. County and unitary authorities will take the lead in ensuring the management of local flood risk and developing plans to deal with it. Resilience and other approaches that minimise the impact of flooding and coastal erosion will be an important part of the plan, and the Bill makes it clear that all authorities can use these as well as, of course, providing flood defences and flood warnings.

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): Can the Secretary of State confirm that his Department will cover all the additional costs that will be incurred as a result of the additional responsibilities that many county councils will take on?

Hilary Benn: As I have already indicated, I will say something in a moment on that very point. I know that it is a source of concern that local authorities have raised.

The lead local authorities will also take on responsibility for surface water flooding, which is a responsibility assigned for the first time in law-for sound reasons that I am sure the House will accept. That is really important, as the Environment Agency estimates that in 2007 two thirds of the 55,000 properties affected were damaged as a result of surface water run-off overloading the drainage system, as opposed to rivers overflowing.

The Bill will encourage all local authorities, the Environment Agency, water companies, internal drainage boards and others to work together in tackling flood risk. Part 1 will introduce duties on those bodies to co-operate and share information and will provide for improved accountability through local authority scrutiny committees.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): Will the Bill, in its somewhat reduced form, still enable water companies to take the lead on enforcement against illegal connections? Problems in my area are often caused by an illegal connection of clean water to the foul water sewerage system, or vice versa.

Hilary Benn: No, it will not, because we have had to shorten the Bill so that we can get the most important things through.

Part 1 of the Bill also recognises the important role of district councils and internal drainage boards. They will retain their works powers in relation to ordinary watercourses. Part 1 will also place duties on the flood risk management authorities to contribute to sustainable development when managing flood and coastal erosion risk, and regional flood defence committees will have their remit extended to coastal erosion. Schedule 1 to the Bill will give new powers to local authorities, the Environment Agency and internal drainage boards in England and Wales to protect physical features that they do not own, but which can play an important role in flood protection or in avoiding coastal erosion.

15 Dec 2009 : Column 841

Mr. Drew: On the issue of internal drainage boards, I welcome the increased flexibility that the Bill will introduce. Those boards are advantageous because of their localness and their knowledge. If there is any way at all in which we can boost their influence and their ability to deliver, this is the right time to do it. Will my right hon. Friend take that on board?

Hilary Benn: I acknowledge my hon. Friend's comments about the work of the internal drainage boards. Over the summer, we consulted on other changes, as he will be aware, but they are not in the Bill, for the reason that I gave earlier.

Schedule 3 to the Bill will help to manage the risk of surface water flooding by encouraging the construction of sustainable drainage systems-or SUDS, as they are known-for new developments and redevelopments. County and unitary authority approval will be required for the drainage proposed for any new development, and the approving body will then be responsible for maintaining the SUDS on new developments serving more than one property.

All net new burdens on local authorities will be fully funded. As I indicated a moment ago, on funding SUDS maintenance in the long term, we will publish a clear way forward that takes account of the circumstances faced by local authorities and developers, and that will happen in time for the implementation of this Bill. The aim is to reassure local authorities that they can implement SUDS in the knowledge that there will be no gap in funding.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is being generous; I apologise for interrupting his flow. Recommendation 39 in the Pitt review stated:

Why has that statutory duty not been included in the Bill?

Hilary Benn: I explained earlier to another hon. Member why that was the case: we do not think it necessary simply because, first, fire and rescue services already provide that function-we saw that during the 2007 and 2009 floods-secondly, because the Government's then adviser, Ken Knight, did not think it necessary, and thirdly, because we have given additional support, finance and training assistance to the fire and rescue service so that it can continue doing the very good job that it does, which is to help people when they are in difficulty.

Local authorities will need to build their skills to carry out these new roles, so we are working closely with local government, professional bodies and training providers, investing more than £1 million to support that effort.

The House will recall the awful moment, during the 2007 flooding, when there were fears that the Ulley reservoir might fail. Schedule 4 will introduce a risk-based approach to reservoir safety to improve the way we handle such matters. I am conscious of the concerns that reservoir owners and users have expressed, but the aim is to provide proportionate regulation that reflects the danger that reservoir failure might pose to human
15 Dec 2009 : Column 842
life-that must be the overriding consideration-regardless of the use to which the reservoir is put. In many cases, however, we expect to reduce the regulatory burden.

Part 2 of the Bill will give powers to the Environment Agency, local authorities and internal drainage boards to undertake environmental works related to flood risk that are in the best interests of nature conservation, the preservation of cultural heritage or people's enjoyment of the environment.

A more variable climate has implications not just for flooding. Members will recall the very recent years of drought in the south-east. It is important that we consider how we can manage a shortage of water as well as too much of it. The remainder of part 2 therefore deals with the most important and urgent matters relating to water management. It will enable the Government to review and update water companies' powers to prohibit or restrict certain non-essential domestic uses of water in times of drought. It will also provide for new regulated entities to finance and deliver the very large, or unusual, water infrastructure projects that we might need in the future to address the challenges of climate change and population growth. That will ensure that water customers are protected from new risks associated with the delivery of such projects.

Schedule 5 will amend the special administration regime for the water industry to align it with the general insolvency regime applicable to other companies. The Bill will also fulfil the Government's commitment to legislate to protect community and religious groups and sports clubs from unaffordable rises in their water bills because of unreasonable surface water charges. It will allow water companies to introduce concessionary schemes.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know of my interest in horticultural businesses, as secretary of the gardening and horticulture all-party group, and I declare an interest accordingly. On draught and the problems associated with the last one, would it not be sensible to introduce a code of conduct to protect the industry and gardeners from what was seen last time as a blanket ban? It could, and should, have been a phased ban.

Hilary Benn: I appreciate my hon. Friend's point, and I know of his close interest in the horticultural industry. The purpose of this part of the Bill is to give us clearer powers to do the right thing in the right circumstances. However, I can give him an undertaking that we will wish to consult those affected, as necessary, according to the circumstances.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his Department's excellent work in dealing with usurious charges of water companies against community groups and for the help he has given to churches and scout groups in my constituency. Will he give me an assurance that he will not hesitate to use his powers, under clause 42(5), with regard to water companies that level usurious charges against groups such as the Birch community group in my constituency? That would enable such groups to benefit from the excellent work done by him and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies).

15 Dec 2009 : Column 843

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his kind words, which I echo, about the DEFRA civil servants, and I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who has worked very hard on this matter. Given the united view in the House and country, I find it hard to imagine that water companies will not do as desired. It is not a problem in some cases because there are some sensible schemes in place, but where there have been problems, the Bill will make it clear that there is a solution.

Part 2 of the Bill will abolish the Fisheries Committee in Scotland, ending the duplication of functions and removing an unnecessary burden on business.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Hilary Benn: Given that it is the right hon. Gentleman, I shall give way.

Mr. Jack: I am most grateful. Before the Secretary of State moves on to the Scottish Fisheries Committee, may I take him back to the previous point? The affordability issue in respect of certain social activities within our constituencies has been fixed, but the Bill still lacks a response to Anna Walker's report. One issue that continues to trouble people in the field of water is affordability. Will the Secretary of State tell me what steps his Department will take-if necessary, outwith the Bill-together with Ofwat to continue to pursue issues connected with water affordability, particularly in relation to the further development of social tariffs?

Hilary Benn: The right hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. As he will know, we have only just had the final report of Anna Walker's review. There is a great deal for us all to think about, including the Government, and we shall respond in due course. I am acutely conscious of the issue that he raises and the impact that it has on many people, and I shall be happy to talk to him further about how we might pursue the matter, once we have formed a view on what to do.

Part 3 will provide for existing legislation to be amended, by way of secondary legislation, to simplify procedures and standardise provisions within different statutes. That is to pave the way for consolidation and for the single unifying Act for floods legislation that was explicitly recommended by Sir Michael Pitt and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

As Members will be aware, owing to the shortness of this parliamentary Session, it has been necessary to prioritise. However, when taken with the regulations implementing the EU floods directive, the Bill will implement the most important provisions on flooding, including the recommendations of Sir Michael Pitt's report that require legislation.

I am grateful for the broad support expressed for the principles in the Bill, and it will no doubt be carefully scrutinised in Committee. However, the most important thing we can do is to ensure that it proceeds as quickly as possible, so that the House and society can show that we are doing all we can to help to prevent flooding. That is why the Bill matters, and I commend it to the House.

15 Dec 2009 : Column 844
5.59 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): The whole House has seen on the television images of flooded landscapes, but as many hon. Members and the Secretary of State know, it is perhaps only when we see for ourselves the devastating effect of flooding on people's homes and businesses that we truly understand its impact. Man takes charge of so much nowadays that it is sobering to see the awesome force of nature that flooding represents.

Nature's power was evident most recently in the flooding in Cumbria. Although it was inspiring to see the emergency services working so effectively, local communities coming together and people helping each other, that flooding was a timely reminder that it remains the primary duty of the state to ensure the security of the public whenever it can. That will increasingly mean ensuring our environmental security, which is ultimately what the Copenhagen summit is all about. Although we must try our best to secure a deal to mitigate greenhouse emissions, our climate is already changing. The adaptation agenda is just as important, as I said in my response to the Gracious Speech.

The Bill is about enhancing our environmental security and adapting to climate change through better flood risk management. Ultimately, it is about protecting people and their homes. We must never forget the human consequences when we fail in that duty. One victim of the 2007 floods said:

That experience has been repeated in Cumbria, as hon. Members are only too aware.

Nor must we forget the duty that we owe to help communities to recover from flooding when it occurs. The national media may move on, but communities such as those in Cockermouth, Keswick, Workington and Kendal have only just begun to rebuild their lives and move back into homes and businesses. We must ensure that political attention does not desert them in the months ahead. That is why I will be visiting the affected areas again later this week to meet displaced families who will be out of their homes for Christmas, and I know that the Secretary of State has done the same thing recently.

I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House will want to continue to express their concern for the area, and that we will want to pay tribute to the ongoing clean-up and recovery efforts of local authorities and voluntary organisations, which are working hard to make Christmas bearable for the flood victims. There was unprecedented rainfall in Cumbria, but it is important to recognise the good work of the authorities, especially the Environment Agency, which were better prepared because they had learned the lessons of the Carlisle floods in 2005.

Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making some good points, and he is of course welcome in Cumbria. However, does he believe, as I and my Cumbrian colleagues do, that one of the most fundamental answers to the problem is more public money and not less?

15 Dec 2009 : Column 845

Nick Herbert: As the Secretary of State said, difficult choices will no doubt have to be made, but I have said that I believe it to be the first duty of the Government to ensure the security of the people, and that means ensuring their environmental security as well. There will be an ongoing need for investment in flood defences at a time when public spending choices will be difficult, and I think that the whole House recognises that.

We are at increased risk of flooding. Already one in six homes is at risk, and with climate change this risk will increase. Events such as that seen in Cumbria will become more frequent, as will floods on a larger scale. The most devastating floods were those of summer 2007, which constituted the largest peacetime emergency since the second world war. As the Secretary of State reminded us, 13 people died and more than 55,000 homes and businesses were flooded, at a cost of more than £3 billion. Despite the outstanding response to the Cumbria floods, we need an improved national response to protect families and their homes from flooding, and to better manage floods when they occur.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: My hon. Friend is right to say that the operation in 2007 was the largest in peacetime, but will he speculate on how much worse the situation would have been if the flooding had gone that little bit further and the entire county of Gloucestershire had lost its electricity, which it almost did? That is a measure of how serious the situation was.

Nick Herbert: I take my hon. Friend's point. The Secretary of State alluded to the potentially catastrophic effects if a reservoir had been affected, and the same could be said of the impact on critical infrastructure, including the electricity system. Many of us will remember the images of the emergency services desperately trying to protect the sub-station. That is a lesson for us all, and I want to come to the issue of critical infrastructure in a moment.

The Bill takes forward recommendations from the review into the 2007 floods by Sir Michael Pitt. It is now more than a year since the Pitt review reported, with a comprehensive set of more than 90 recommendations. The Conservative party supported those recommendations and we are glad that we have the opportunity to consider legislation to implement many of them. I have consistently urged the Government to introduce legislation, so we welcome the Flood and Water Management Bill.

All Members will be aware that the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs suggested that the Government should wait until the opportunity arose to have a comprehensive flood and water Bill. However, my view-and, I think, that of most hon. Members-is that we should not delay implementing essential measures, and the Government were right to bring the Bill forward. The recent floods in Cumbria sealed that view. We will therefore work constructively with the Government to ensure that the Bill is strengthened and reaches the statute book as quickly as possible.

Next Section Index Home Page