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The hon. Gentleman is talking a great deal of sense. I was simply making the point that, if at all possible, we need to get people back into their homes quickly and not lose focus on those issues. After all the attention given to the floods of 2007 and to the Cumbria floods, I fear that there is a risk that, as the House moves on, we forget that hundreds-and in the case of Cumbria, thousands-of people are still unable to live in their homes. I am simply arguing that we need a
concerted attempt to get them back into their homes as soon as possible, which is a matter not for legislation but for effective action.
The need for legislation reveals something of a paradox. Climate change is affecting our weather patterns and we can expect a future where our winters will be wetter, with increased river flows and higher sea levels. That will lead to more extreme weather and more flood events. At the same time, we will see more water shortages as demand on this precious resource grows. Not only is it essential to ensure our communities are more resilient to flooding so that we can cope better when we have too much water, but we must all start to conserve and value water more so that we can adapt to the reality of having less of it. That calls for better management of water at every level.
As we look to improve the Bill in the weeks ahead, we must ensure that we are making it easier for people to manage water. Frequently, that will mean allowing local communities to use their local knowledge and expertise to minimise flood risk. By its nature, water is difficult to manage and defending against flooding can be expensive. With huge pressure on resources in the years ahead, difficult decisions will need to be taken. Sometimes it will mean ensuring that adequate hard defences are in place to provide security for the long term.
At the invitation of the Environment Agency, I recently visited the Thames barrier to see the excellent work that goes on in protecting this capital from flooding. When the designers originally agreed the project in the 1960s, future rising river levels were anticipated, so it was deliberately over-engineered. As river levels have risen, barrier closures have increased through the decades. The barrier was closed four times in the 1980s and 75 times in the current decade. That is a testament to British engineering skill and planning foresight, and on latest estimates the barrier should keep London safe until at least 2070.
The barrier is also a symbol, however, of the growing threat from flooding and of defence and the foresight we need to help protect our communities. We have a duty to ensure this country's environmental security and this Bill is a sensible step in that direction.
Mr. Elliot Morley (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I would like to add my welcome to this Bill, which is an important measure that follows on from a series of reports published after severe flood events going right back to the late '90s. I remember being involved in the 2000 floods and in the Carlisle floods, where my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) played a distinguished role, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) during the recent floods in his area.
While it is certainly true that one extreme does not prove a climate change, what we have seen is an increase in the number of extreme events in this country and an increase in periods of severe rainfall. It is certainly the
case that the percentage of properties flooded by surface water run-off seems to have increased. In that context, I think that the Select Committee's report, along with the Pitt report and the Bill, makes very sensible proposals.
In general, floods have been dealt with very efficiently. That is not to say that there is no room for improvement, and it is not to say that there has not been some confusion, particularly over who is responsible for non-main water courses and for surface flooding. I know that the Select Committee has considered that issue before, and it is addressed in the Bill. There has been a much more enlightened move towards a range of options in regard to flood and water defence.
We have already discussed "soft defence". I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) was saying that a future Conservative Government might divert money from people's homes and properties to defend farmland. There will of course be choices to be made about the allocation of budgets, but that does not mean that farmland cannot be used to defend people.
My constituency contains Alkborough Flats, Europe's largest managed retreat. The land was bought by the Environment Agency, but it is still farmed by the local farmer and his work force. It is designed to flood once in 20 years in the event of a surge down the Humber, the Trent and the Ouse. The crops would be lost in that particular year, but in the meantime it can operate productively. In the Ancholme valley in my constituency, where there is a serious flooding problem, the Environment Agency proposes that farmers should unite. It is possible that their crops will be flooded every few years, but they could receive compensation in those years. Various formulas could enable them not only to continue to operate commercially, but to play their own role in flood defence.
Mark Simmonds: The right hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the importance of appropriate managed retreats-there is one at Freiston Shore in my constituency, which he has visited-but is he aware that many farmers do not think there is enough emphasis on the importance of protecting grade 1 and grade 2 agricultural land for our food production?
Mr. Morley: I have heard all the arguments. Farmers in my constituency make similar points. It is a question of balance, is it not? It must be said, in all fairness, that there have been changes in farming practice over the decades. In some instances, there has been a move away from sustainable traditional farming, particularly in wash lands and water meadows where there used to be summer grazing, towards extensive drainage pumping and a shift to monoculture. All that, incidentally, has taken place at public expense: all those pumps and drains were financed by the taxpayer. But a balance must be struck between sustainable agriculture-the importance of food production-and sustainable flood management, and I believe that the Bill paves the way for that. There are issues that it needs to address further, but it is a welcome step forward.
Surface water was a major problem in my constituency in 2007, when there was extensive flooding in the town of Kirton in Lindsey. Let me record my appreciation for the funds that the Government provided for recovery following those floods. The additional funds for North
Lincolnshire council enabled it to increase the number of drains, to replace inadequate drains, and to install a proper outlet in the surface water drains at the bottom of the hill, where the town is. That could not have been done without those extra funds from the Government.
There are people on North Lincolnshire council with experience of flood management, but there are not many of them, and they are nearing retirement age. I agree with the suggestion by the Local Government Association that if local authorities are to play a more proactive role in flood management and flood planning-which I strongly support-there will have to be some support for skills, so that there are people to deal with surveys, flood risk assessments and engineering advice. My council had to bring in consultants to handle some of the technical problems, and it would be much better if that could be done in-house.
I do not have a strong opinion on two-tier councils. My local authority is unitary and therefore has responsibility for these matters, and I think that that works very well. However, where there are two-tier councils I believe that district councils need to be involved as much as possible, not least because they are the planning authorities and planning cannot be divorced from flood management. That will require some thought.
I am pleased to note the commitment given to sustainable urban drainage, of which I have always been a great supporter. I have seen one or two schemes around the country, and I think that they work very well. I believe that it is possible to gain environmental enhancements from SUDS. They can make an area look nice: green space can be used, soak-away areas can serve as paths or cycleways, there can be ponds, and there can be all sorts of different designs. There is, however, the issue of who pays for the maintenance, and it is one of the issues that have blocked the development of SUDS.
It was a great step forward to create a committee to approve and supervise SUDS, but I am still not clear about who will pay for their upkeep. There are various options, but the issue will need to be clarified in Committee. One suggestion is that those with SUDS will not have to pay drainage charges to the water companies, but someone will have to pay for the upkeep in one way or another, whether it is the water companies-which have the advantage of maintenance skills-local authorities or developers.
Along with others, I warmly welcome the clause that deals with the question of lower drainage charges for community groups, which has been raised by many Members and in the all-party parliamentary group on water, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and I are both members. I am glad that the Government have responded and are dealing with the problem. The Scunthorpe bridge club, which has tremendous support from the community-it is an ideal community group-recently moved into a former factory with a large car-parking area, and received a very large bill for drainage. Community groups are not really in a position to deal with bills like that.
There are many omissions from the Bill, but I understand the reasons for that. I am glad that it has been presented, and that it is being given its Second Reading now so that it can be included in the business programme. I know how difficult it is to secure slots in the programme,
and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done very well to ensure that it has reached this stage so early.
I know that it is impossible to produce a comprehensive Bill dealing with a number of controversial issues in a short period, but there is one issue that I hope my right hon. Friend will consider: the issue of water bill arrears. It would be possible to introduce fairly simple changes to give water companies the right to know where people had moved to so that they could pursue arrears. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs said that the Conservatives would support such a move, so it is clearly not controversial. I do not think it right for the arrears of people who can pay, but will not pay, to be added to the bills of the majority of water customers. A simple measure allowing water companies to track down customers who could pay but have not done so would be very welcome.
Overall, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the Bill. I also welcome the report of the Select Committee, which went into the issues in great detail. I believe that these measures will help flood and coastal management. Although it is impossible ever to stop floods, it is certainly possible to minimise the risk.
It is also impossible ever to stop coastal erosion, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) observed, people should not be misled by suggestions that it is possible to defend the whole of our coastline. Not only, in some cases, is it not cost-effective-we should not duck that issue-but in some cases there is no technical solution, and we must recognise that. Instead, we should be working with coastal local authorities and communities and looking at how we can minimise the impact on them. Sadly, however, that does not necessarily mean there is a solution for every part of our coastline; we should be honest about that.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): My test of the Flood and Water Management Bill is whether it will help Warden Hill. It is important and right to sympathise with people in Cumbria, to remember the loss of life and to celebrate the extraordinary response of the emergency services, volunteers, friends and neighbours to both the recent floods and previous ones. We all share those sentiments. However, the real test for this Bill is whether all the strategic overviews and lead responsibilities-the national risk management strategies and flood risk management functions-will actually deliver for people in Gloucestershire, Cumbria, Yorkshire and all the other parts of the country that have now experienced severe flooding not only from river flooding but from surface and ground water flooding, or that now face increased flood risk.
We must make no mistake about this: the risk will increase. The Secretary of State has been in Copenhagen, pressing, I hope, for a tough deal to tackle global climate change. We should all thank him and other delegates from all over the world, and wish them well in their efforts and hope that they succeed, but tough deal or not, we have to face up to the reality of the effects of
climate change that are already locked into the system. Scientific evidence to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is clear. It says:
"Basic theory, climate model simulations and empirical evidence all confirm that warmer climates, owing to increased water vapour, lead to more intense precipitation events even when the total annual precipitation is reduced slightly, and with prospects for even stronger events when the overall precipitation amounts increase. The warmer climate therefore increases risks of both drought-where it is not raining-and floods-where it is".
With the world struggling to limit rises in global temperature to 2°, it is clear why our Environment Agency has concluded that flood events currently expected once every 100 years could be happening once every three years by the end of this century. Let us imagine the events at Cockermouth, Tewkesbury, Hull, or even Cheltenham with its 600 flooded properties, repeated in town after town, year after year, and the strain that that will put on residents, the emergency services, local authorities and those responsible for critical infrastructure, as well as on insurance companies, water companies and the Government's flood alleviation programme, and therefore on the bills, premiums and taxes we will all have to pay. The 2007 floods alone cost the United Kingdom £3 billion; the cost to the economy of much more frequent flooding would be unimaginably high. It is absolutely critical, therefore, that in the time we have available now, before the situation reaches that level of perpetual crisis, we sort out all the problems that have been highlighted by the extreme flooding events of recent years-and not just flooding, of course, but droughts, water shortages and coastal erosion from tides and storm surges.
In tackling all these issues, it is essential that we work with nature, not against it, and I have to say that I share other hon. Members' concerns that the Conservative approach set out by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) sounded rather Canute-like in its defiance of natural forces.
Nick Herbert: For the benefit of the hon. Gentleman and other Members who have commented on my remarks, let me explain that I said that there was an opportunity for locally conceived schemes at lower cost that could defend coastal communities, and I gave the example of one in Suffolk. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that community, which took action that would otherwise not have been taken, behaved in a Canute-like manner? If it had not taken that action, the result would have been loss of farmland and other such consequences,
Martin Horwood: I obviously welcome local action to defend communities against flooding, but that was not the tenor of the hon. Gentleman's overall comments. He was clearly suggesting that trying to work with nature and not against it was the wrong approach. That was my impression, and, I think, the impression of other Members.
The natural environment can be our ally, and our tutor, in providing more space for water, better flood risk management, more intelligent planning, more cost-effective strategies and more secure supplies, and in the process we should take the opportunity to enhance and defend native species and landscapes and biodiversity, and serve a wider environmental agenda.
The residents of Warden Hill do not just want less water flooding into their streets and houses and more flood defences-although I should thank Cheltenham borough council for the funding it has managed to obtain for those that are currently planned. Residents want affordable water and insurance bills, a pleasant and sustainable natural environment around them, and future development that does not make their problems worse and necessitate even more expensive flood defences in future, diverting increasingly precious taxpayers' money from other services. Ideally, they also want a bit more warning next time.
How much does this Bill contribute to all these objectives? We might think that after two and a half years of multiple reviews and consultations, extensive pre-legislative scrutiny and expert advice, we would have a truly outstanding and comprehensive piece of legislation-a veritable torrent of good ideas. Sadly, however, what we have in this water Bill is more of a trickle than a torrent. It is flowing in the right direction, but there is not much of a current. It is not big enough or strong enough to tackle many of the problems highlighted by the events of the last few years. It is better than nothing after such a long wait, but it is still a disappointment.
"land not normally covered by water becomes covered by water."
Well, phew, at least we have covered that one. As many hon. Members have mentioned, clause 42 rightly addresses the issue of the rain tax and community groups such as scout groups. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs claimed that as a Conservative win, but I have to say that I do not remember him spotting this any more than the rest of us did when area-based charging was first introduced. This loophole was, in effect, highlighted as a result of a very bad bit of implementation by one water company. Members on both sides of the House supported this revision, and the clause is most welcome.
The Bill takes forward some ideas from the Pitt review. We have national oversight-a "buck stops here" responsibility-for the Environment Agency. We have local lead responsibility for local authorities. Both of these measures are welcome, but although I noted the Secretary of State's brave claim that all new net burdens on local authorities would be fully funded, back in the real world it is far from clear how exactly these provisions are to be resourced, and whether the Bill will truly sort out the bewildering tangle of responsibilities that surfaced in the floods. These are issues that the Bill Committee must explore in a lot more detail.
The issue of the maintenance of watercourses, drains and sewers has been raised time and again by local residents in many Members' constituencies, and certainly in mine. In particular, we should explore whether the linked issue of unadopted sewers is being adequately addressed. Cheltenham resident Bridget Sansom e-mailed me saying that
"during the summer of 2007 floods, there was a backflow of sewage via the washing machine into the kitchen. This is the result of unadopted sewerage and still has not been solved two years on."
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