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There are some key measures in the Bill that Conservatives have called for and that we will seek to ensure are sufficiently clear and robust. First, the confusing and overlapping roles of central Government, agencies, local authorities and the emergency services, which were evident in the 2007 floods, must be brought to an end. The Chief Fire Officers Association described the
"institutional confusion" that beleaguered the recovery effort then. The Pitt review called for people and organisations to be held to account and for simple structures and clear outcomes. We must have clearly defined responsibilities. We therefore welcome the provisions in the Bill to give the Environment Agency strategic oversight and to spell out in law that, in most cases, the lead local flood authority with clear responsibility for flood defence will be a unitary authority or county council. In fact, that is something that the Government first advocated nearly five years ago, in their "Making space for water" document.
We also welcome the measures to improve urban drainage and create requirements for new developments to incorporate sustainable solutions. For too long there have been barriers to establishing such systems, which, as the Conservative party's quality of life review highlighted, have the potential to reduce flood risk from surface water. By requiring new development to focus on permeable paving, ponds and soakaways, we can help to respond to the pressures of climate change, which will lead to more spells of prolonged rainfall.
We also welcome the emphasis on information sharing, so that local flood authorities can better co-ordinate their responses. We will want to ensure greater transparency on flood information, so that local households and businesses get the information that they deserve. We also support the provisions in the Bill on reservoir safety, although we must ensure that they are framed in a way that does not impose unnecessary burdens on owners of small reservoirs, many of which pose no risk to people at all as they are sited on agricultural land. That is an issue that we will need to attend to in Committee.
We broadly support the provisions on infrastructure in part 2 of the Bill that require large projects to be open to competition, which has the potential to help reduce costs to water customers. We are particularly glad to see clause 42, which deals with the problems of charging for surface water drainage-the so-called rain tax-that have caused so much difficulty for scouts, guides, places of worship and other community groups, which were faced with unacceptably high bills. The oversight role of the regulator still needs to be looked at, but overall the proposal is welcome. Back in July, we called on the Government to give companies the discretion that they needed to protect such groups and ensure that new charges were properly monitored by Ofwat. It took Ministers a long time to act, but I am glad to have encouraged them, because they got there in the end and I congratulate them on that.
There are, however, some aspects of the Bill on which we seek clarity from the Government. Some legitimate concerns have been raised by third parties about whether the Bill, in seeking better to co-ordinate the response to flood risk, is too centralising. The National Farmers Union, for instance, has argued that the Environment Agency's role is "power heavy" but "duty light". The Environment Agency gains a strategic oversight role for flood risk management, which is certainly right in principle, but in practice we must ensure that it is framed so as not to sideline local concerns. As the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee argued, a national strategy is important, but it must not come at the expense of
local knowledge, not least because flooding is, in essence, local. The Committee warned against over-centralising measures, stating:
"We are concerned that the draft Bill establishes a rigid vertical structure, which potentially precludes pragmatic cross-boundary area-based approaches that accommodate local people's views and knowledge."
Flooding is a national concern, but it always impacts locally. That is why, for instance, local drainage boards are so important in harnessing local expertise and concern. It is therefore vital that we get clarity on how the national strategy will be drawn up and on how it will be approved. The Bill requires the Environment Agency to consult widely when drawing up the strategy, and requires the strategy to be laid before Parliament. Democratic oversight of the process will be crucial to public confidence, however, and ensuring accountability for such an important framework will be vital. We would therefore like Ministers to explain more about how they envisage the process of approval working. Will the EFRA Committee be able to scrutinise the strategy before it is agreed, for example?
With regard to how the national strategy is applied, the Government need to be clearer about how it will fit in with local strategies devised by lead flood authorities. The Bill puts a responsibility on local authorities to develop their own local flood strategies, but it also requires those strategies to be consistent with the national strategy. In that case, how much discretion will local authorities have to diverge from the national strategy set by the Environment Agency?
We also want further clarification on the measures in clause 38, which give the Environment Agency the responsibility to weigh up the competing interests of conservation and people's enjoyment of the environment, and the potentially harmful consequences of increased flooding or coastal erosion. That is a difficult balance to strike, but we must ensure that local people are involved throughout the decision-making process and that the process is fully accountable.
We are also keen to consider in more detail schedule 1, which relates to the designation of features that could have a significant effect on flood management. The Bill enables the Environment Agency, a lead local flood authority, a district council or an internal drainage board to designate a structure if they believe that its existence or location affects a flood or coastal erosion risk. Following such a designation, the owner of the feature may not change it without the consent of the responsible authority. It is right that assets that could have a serious impact on flooding should be properly accounted for and managed responsibly, but we need to look closely at the implications of the Bill's drafting. Network Rail, for example, has raised concerns about the designation of its assets, and we will be keen to ensure that proportionality is maintained so that this process does not become complex or costly, and that an appeals procedure is in place.
Beyond concerns over where the Bill might prove too centralising, we also seek clarity on the costs arising from certain provisions. We will seek more details from the Government of the costs that will fall on local authorities in taking on their new responsibilities, because that is worrying them. With council finances stretched,
local authorities will need reassurance that additional duties can be afforded without increasing the burden on council tax payers.
"We recognise that longer term funding must be in place from around 2018, and are considering a number of options to address the funding of SUDS maintenance in the long term."
"The Department will ensure that any increased costs to local authorities are fully funded to avoid upward pressure on council tax."
Despite assurances that medium-term costs will be covered by plans to transfer private sewers to water companies, it is by no means clear that that is the case. The Local Government Association has said that these assumptions are based on seven-year-old data from only 12 per cent. of local authorities, and so are hardly reliable. The provisions might also lead to water companies being hit twice: once for the cost of the sewer transfer and again for the long-term costs of maintaining sustainable urban drainage systems. These are sensible proposals to help to manage the risk of flooding posed by surface water drainage, but in the current economic climate, the Government need to give more detail on how they will be funded, rather than simply relying on historical and incomplete data, and on potential solutions that might emerge in the future.
We welcome this legislation, but, in some respects, it does not go far enough. It will fall to a future Government to bring forward further legislation to cover those aspects that have not made it into this Bill. It was clear from the draft Bill, when it was published in April, that Ministers originally intended to legislate for elements of the Cave and Walker reviews into competition and affordability. The consultation paper said:
"The UK Government and Welsh Assembly Government will each assess"
"Where they believe it necessary to legislate to implement any changes as a result of these reviews they each intend to do so as part of this Bill."
Many of Professor Cave's recommendations on abstraction trading, competition and legal separation will require legislation. Over a year after his interim report, which made a number of recommendations-accepted in full by Ministers-it is disappointing that this rare opportunity to legislate for them is being missed. The recently published Walker report contains a number of recommendations that link directly with the aims of this Bill, particularly the elements relating to efficiency, which could help to change the way people think about their water use and help to reduce the risk of the severe shortages that would require the temporary bans legislated for in the Bill. Referring to the consultation on the draft Bill, DEFRA implied that greater efficiency measures, including duties on companies, could be forthcoming in the Bill, but it will fall to future legislation to introduce them.
The water industry is desperate for measures to tackle the rising problem of water debt, which the whole House should be concerned about. The problem disproportionately
impacts on those low-income families who pay their bills and subsidise non-payers by £12 a year. Simple measures in the Walker report to provide for a named bill payer could have been introduced in this Bill, and would not have unduly slowed its progress or jeopardised the vital flooding measures.
Such confusion firmly underlines the need for a new, joined-up approach to the water industry, which is why we are committed to introducing a White Paper to bring together the Cave and Walker proposals and take the opportunity of the current break in the regulatory cycle to make sensible changes to the way in which water companies are regulated, and put customers at the heart of the industry.
We need to do more between floods, rather than just reacting to them when they happen. Reviewing our natural water flows and cycles, and slowing water down, will help to reduce flood risk. We therefore support calls made by many non-governmental organisations, including WWF, for an approach to flood management that places a much greater focus on the use of natural processes. That can have great benefits, as it can increase the storage capacity of the land and act to slow water down, both of which are important in militating against flooding.
In my constituency, the Pulborough brooks serve as a natural flood defence. The River Arun's flood defences failed earlier this month, but because the brooks have been preserved as a nature reserve managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the water has been allowed to dissipate, keeping it away from residential areas, roads and infrastructure. Systems such as those, reliant on environmental measures, have the added benefit of improving our ecosystems and providing new habitat for wildlife.
Given the connection between natural flood defence, river management and wildlife, I appreciate the concerns of bodies such as WWF and the RSPB when they argue for a greater emphasis on the water framework directive in the Bill. The wildlife trusts have estimated that a greater use of natural systems, alongside hard defences and appropriate development, could save £30 billion by 2080. However, using natural systems to help to alleviate flood risk cannot be code for abandoning coastline communities or for casually allowing productive farmland to be sacrificed, especially without proper consultation. We must protect valuable farmland.
Mark Simmonds: My hon. Friend is making a fundamental point. In my constituency in Lincolnshire, a significant percentage of the agricultural land is either grade 1 or grade 2, yet some of it might be left to go back to the sea. That would have a detrimental impact on productivity yields, and on the levels of food that can be produced in this country for consumption in this country.
Nick Herbert: I agree with my hon. Friend's concern. As food security becomes more important to us, we must remember that allowing the degradation of important coastal flood defences will have an impact on coastal communities and result in the loss of highly productive farmland. That is a huge issue to the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association and a matter of concern to local communities. We will want to probe that issue further as the legislation develops.
We must protect valuable farmland and continue to find innovative ways of managing coastal erosion. Consistent with our belief in devolving power, more autonomy should be given to allow coastal communities to defend against the sea when they can. I recently saw the work at Bawdsey in Suffolk, where landowners donated farmland to a specially formed trust, which in turn sold the land for housing, raising £2.2 million to fund the strategically important new sea defence. Thanks to Suffolk Coastal district council, which was supportive, the project was successfully completed earlier this year at relatively low cost, defending a headland that in turn protects many hundreds of acres of farmland. That is a good example of a local scheme in action, and we will need to see more of them.
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): I want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's Canute-like stance on this issue and ask him to set limits to this extraordinary attempt to defy the natural processes. We will have to surrender land to the sea on the east coast-there is no alternative strategy in some cases-and we really must be more honest with some of our citizens who may think otherwise for perfectly understandable personal reasons.
Nick Herbert: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman talk to the communities concerned and put that point of view to them. Their belief is that not enough is being done to protect communities, their houses or farmland and that more could be done at relatively low cost if communities were empowered to take such decisions themselves. I believe that we should take those decisions seriously. Above all, people feel that they are not properly consulted on decisions taken about the maintenance of coastal flood defences and they want to be involved in those decisions and empowered to protect themselves if possible.
Christopher Fraser: Does my hon. Friend agree that there are exceptions for constituencies such as mine, which suffer from coastal erosion, and for parts of the fens, which are below sea level and suffer from flood alleviation programmes upstream? Does he accept that constituencies such as mine do not yet want to be rotten boroughs?
Nick Herbert: I am sure that my hon. Friend would not wish to represent a rotten borough. It is true that decisions taken about whether to defend one bit of coastline or to let the defences go have an impact not just on the communities affected but further downstream or down the coastline. That shows the importance of adopting an integrated approach, but I am arguing that we need to be more respectful of local communities in taking such decisions.
In making communities more resilient to flooding, we cannot rely solely on legislation. Indeed, the majority of the Pitt recommendations do not require legislation. Some, such as the proposal for a strategic, long-term approach to investment in flood risk management, need political will. As the Pitt review said:
"Change will only happen with strong and more effective leadership across the board."
On the issue of critical infrastructure, which my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) raised with me, the Government have been too slow in taking forward Pitt's recommendations to protect such infrastructure from future flooding, so as to ensure that essential utilities are not at risk during times of floods as they were in 2007. Despite being one of Pitt's urgent interim recommendations, a national emergency framework produced to provide information for all tiers of government is not now due until summer next year. The natural hazards team was established only in May this year. Today's progress report on Pitt, which the Secretary of State has just published, lists 171 at-risk sites, but perhaps he will tell us when he winds up when he expects the full audit of critical infrastructure to be completed.
Many of us also have concerns about ongoing construction in areas at risk of flooding. It simply cannot make sense that one in 10 new homes are being built within areas of "high flood risk". We need some foresight by planners and sense from developers, and we must be certain that sufficient flood prevention and flood mitigation measures are in place if any development is to take place in flood risk areas. None of that requires legislation, but it does require sustained attention and focus from government at all levels. The sobering fact is that a year after the 2007 floods, almost 5,000 households were still in temporary accommodation, living in caravans or on the top floor of their homes.
The work of the National Flood Forum in helping communities and raising awareness has been invaluable, and its recent work highlighting the problems of victims of floods or those in at-risk areas in obtaining insurance helped to draw attention to that other significant problem. We must ensure that, when the spotlight turns off an area affected by flooding, the work continues.
Mr. Drew: Does the hon. Gentleman understand the dilemma when a community is waiting for a strategic plan to be put in place and measures to be introduced, as there is not much of an incentive for them to build in their own resilience? The dilemma is that sometimes the cost-benefit analysis may not bear out all the physical work, so all we end up doing is putting people at greater risk in the future without that built-in resilience. Is that not a message that we should all put forward?
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