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She asked for my "comments, support and help." Let me start by asking about the Government's current plan for the water companies to adopt private sewers. Has that been properly accounted for? The Government
recently claimed that water bills in many areas would be going down by a few pounds per household, yet the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs impact assessment on sewer transfer predicted a cost to water companies for that transfer ranging from £4 to £12 per household, and this is not included in the price review 2009 figures. This will more than offset the decrease in water bills that was claimed. So which is the truth? Are water bills going up and not down, or are the Government planning to dodge this crucial issue?
The Bill talks a lot about risk management, but the definitions appear quite limited on first reading. There is, for instance, no explicit reference to risks associated with critical infrastructure. This was a particular issue in Gloucestershire, where the loss of the Mythe water treatment works to the floods meant the loss of fresh water to thousands of people for up to two weeks, and where the absolutely catastrophic loss of electricity supply-not just, as my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) pointed out, to Gloucestershire, but to more than 500,000 people, and as far away as Wales-was only narrowly averted by the quick, co-ordinated action of gold command, Gloucestershire constabulary and the Army and other emergency services. I must declare a personal interest here, as my wife was a member of gold command.
A key Pitt recommendation was that we address this issue of critical infrastructure and, with some prescience, it referred not only to power and fresh water but to transport infrastructure. I am sure that the people of Cumbria, who have lost road and other communications, would agree with that. Pitt's recommendation 53 stated:
"A specific duty should be placed on economic regulators to build resilience in the critical infrastructure."
The Secretary of State has issued guidance on this issue to the regulators and yet more consultation is promised, but guidance and consultation have been issued before-as long ago as 2004-and we were still terribly exposed in 2007 and again in 2009. Work is being done to address the specific risks in Gloucestershire, and that is very much appreciated-such work may well be done in Cumbria too-but we need to consider whether or not the legal duty that Pitt recommended is necessary to protect the rest of the country and whether or not the Government are, once again, using consultation as a substitute for action.
We must also consider the personal cost. I am talking not only about the trauma and disruption of having flood water destroy and pollute one's home or business, and the human impact of homelessness and lost possessions; after the flood water has gone and the property has been replaced or repaired, the insurance will need renewing. One of my constituents found that not only had his insurance premiums skyrocketed but the excess for flood damage had risen from £50 to £5,000. I have heard figures as high as £20,000 cited by others and in some cases flooding has been excluded as a risk altogether. That is not really insurance in the sense of a collective scheme to pool risk and protect all of us from extreme events. What added insult to injury in my constituent's case was that since the floods the Environment Agency had spent thousands erecting a flood wall to the rear of his property, protecting him and his neighbours from a repeat of the event that flooded their houses in 2007. The insurance issues were resolved in that case, but it raises a number of questions.
First, should insurance take account of work, either at household or local level, that has reduced the risk of flooding? Secondly, should insurance companies be allowed to claim that they are insuring almost everyone and then impose such punitive premiums, excess charges or exclusions that they render someone's policy virtually useless? It makes good business sense to sell well-targeted insurance to those at almost no risk and very little insurance to those at any risk, but that has a high social cost. In a previous decade, some insurance companies used to exclude people who had taken an HIV test. As happened then, do we not now need a collective solution that takes account of a social need? Do we not, thus, need a solution that excludes from insurance only those at a genuinely very high risk of repeated flooding where no steps have been taken to defend them or their property, and that supports the good principle of shared risk for everyone else?
Mr. Laurence Robertson: Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that insurance companies should not be increasing the premium to the extent that they are doing and increasing the excess? As he rightly points out, if the excess is as much as £10,000 or £15,000, people are, in effect, not insured. They are going to pay for the damage in any case, so why does the premium have to go up too?
Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. These companies are getting a double benefit, especially if flood defences have, in the meantime, reduced any risk of the flood being repeated.
Mr. Drew: I complete a triumvirate of Gloucestershire MPs. One of the other problems here is the myth that somebody can shop around elsewhere for insurance cover. We all know of examples where people have been flooded and although their existing insurance company has stayed with them-of course, putting the premium up as it does so-no other insurance company would ever touch them. Such people are entirely reliant on that remaining insurance company, which can be deleterious to their position.
Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman is entirely right, and the situation he describes reinforces the need for some kind of intervention in the market. All these steps make business sense for individual insurance companies-in a sense, they are only doing what businesses do naturally-but we clearly need to find a better collective solution.
The last question that all this raises is what is the long-term plan for those who really cannot be defended against flood, coastal erosion or natural hazard. In fairness, I could not possibly suggest that the insurance industry and its other customers continue to pick up the tab for properties that we now realise are not going to be viable in the long term, but are their occupants simply to be left uninsured with a property of collapsing value? My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) has been a tireless champion of the rights of people placed unexpectedly in this kind of situation from faster than expected coastal erosion in his constituency. As the Secretary of State has mentioned, an innovative approach to householders at long-term risk will now be tried there and elsewhere in which householders sell and lease back their homes. My hon.
Friend seems to have secured social justice for his constituents, with the support now of the Government and of the Environment Agency, but what about other people's constituents who are facing unexpected long-term risk and who are not on the coast? On that issue, as on the others I have mentioned relating to insurance and household risk, the Bill is silent.
Another way in which individual risk could be reduced and the insurance bill minimised is through a better, faster and much more specific system of flood alerts. The Government have instituted the new flood forecasting centre, which is an impressive office in Clerkenwell, bringing together expert skills from the Environment Agency and the Met Office. That is a very impressive start, but the Met Office's modelling and tracking of rainfall is advancing in leaps and bounds and can now predict very heavy rainfall on a very localised basis, down to a resolution of just 1 km. The current flood alert system is based on much broader, generalised flood alerts, delivered-as I remember from 2007-for days in advance. They are obviously a good thing, but a much more specific and targeted warning, even a few hours or less before a localised high rainfall event, would give people vital minutes in which to save their personal possessions. I would like to hear the Secretary of State's views on flood alerts and on whether or not the Bill should include a mandate for a much more ambitious scheme that could save individual property and save us collectively millions of pounds.
May I also ask whether other Government policies are not actually making the situation worse? Let us return to my Warden Hill test. I have in my possession a flood catchment study map that clearly shows the contribution that nearby green fields in Leckhampton make to the retention of water in the landscape. Expensive flood defences are being built in Warden Hill, but how crazy would it be to build on those green fields and create an even greater flood risk all over again? Yet after a local visit lasting only a few minutes, Government inspectors included precisely that area in the Communities Secretary's proposed changes to the draft south-west regional spatial strategy and earmarked it for thousands of houses. My neighbour, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury, will know that in Tewkesbury, which is not far away from the area I am discussing, a whole new housing estate at Wheatpieces has already been given the green light in a very high flood risk area.
In a parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), confirmed that 135,000 dwellings have been built in flood risk areas in the past 10 years. According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, across the country 27,000 hectares of green belt land is at risk of development. By definition, such land is right next to urban areas, and years ago the Foresight study rightly identified creeping urbanisation as a key factor in increasing flood risk. In one of his less robust moments, Sir Michael Pitt suggested that the current planning guidance, planning policy statement 25, should be maintained but kept under review.
We need to go much further than that, because PPS25 is hopelessly site-specific. The Environment Agency is often placated by a balancing pond here or there, and even when it does maintain opposition to a development,
its advice is often ignored or overturned. We need to introduce planning policies that are created by local authorities working together, with the involvement of local people, including farmers-not by regional quangos. We need policies that address water issues on a landscape scale and with real force in planning law. The sustainable drainage provisions in the Bill are welcome, but they are wholly inadequate to deal with the scale of problem we face. As the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs pointed out, the piecemeal approach in the Bill is simply not ambitious enough and the connected issue of spatial planning must be addressed.
Mr. Todd: The hon. Gentleman is touching on a subject that I have addressed in the past: whether or not the Environment Agency should, in effect, be given the powers that the Highways Agency has in relation to planning applications that have a bearing on a highway for which it is responsible. Where it objects, the application may not be determined; it cannot simply be placed before the local authority for a decision. Would a similar power, admittedly one backed up by a rather more robust Environment Agency-I have concerns about the firmness with which inappropriate developments are resisted in my own area-not be a helpful addition to the armoury?
Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman raises a very interesting point. The interlocking responsibilities and the right of appeal against decisions by national authorities such as the Environment Agency and the Highways Agency are important. There is an important emphasis, however, to be placed on local decision making and local formulation of these policies, too, and that is what I am trying to express.
Landscape-scale planning policies developed at a local level could include targets for the protection and restoration of water channels, rivers and wetlands. They could help to defend prime agricultural land for local food production, which has been mentioned several times already, for biodiversity and for landscape features such as moorlands and ancient forests. They could make a really important contribution to upstream management of water in the landscape, working with nature, as my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who is no longer in his place, rightly pointed out in an earlier intervention. Such a radical change to planning law would obviously require more thought and, yes, more consultation, so it would be challenging to incorporate it into this rather limited little Bill.
At the very least, the Bill could give local authorities clear powers, robust enough to be defended at planning appeals, to stop new developments in flood risk areas that they believe would contribute to flood risk. If they choose to give the go-ahead to buildings in flood risk areas, they need the power to impose planning conditions to increase resilience. We have a code for sustainable homes, but why is it still possible to build houses on flood plains with power sockets in the skirting boards? That is just one small example of how we have failed to make even quite simple, limited changes that are necessary. Incidentally, amendments to that code to enforce water efficiency and rainwater use are also long overdue.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD):
I am glad that my hon. Friend is mentioning this point. Not only should we not build in places that will increase flood risk but, if we are going to build in an area that is
likely to have a propensity to flood, it makes sense to design buildings that are resilient. Sometimes, only a minimal change is needed-a few extra feet added to the base structure, for instance, can make an enormous difference to the resilience of a building. For heaven's sake, they knew that in prehistoric times. The lake village in Meare in Somerset records knowledge of how to build on wetland and not have a flooded house. Why have we forgotten?
Martin Horwood: I knew that my hon. Friend had long experience of such matters, but I did not realise that it went back quite that far. He is absolutely right to identify this issue. We know from long-held experience that we should build sensibly, and we seem to have abandoned that needlessly. The Association of British Insurers predicts that, unless Government policy changes, a third of the 3 million new homes that the government wants to see by 2010 will be built on flood plains and:
"Hundreds of thousands of homes could be uninsurable and uninhabitable".
The toxic combination of inaction on planning and inaction on insurance could create a lethal cocktail. The Government's hope that somehow voluntary agreements and the goodwill of the insurance industry are adequate to deal with this threat is just not good enough.
More is also left out of the Bill. It is a water management Bill as well as a flood Bill, but with spectacularly unjoined-up timing, it seems to have missed the opportunity to address the issues of either the Cave or Walker reviews, and it is too late to influence the water pricing regime or water companies' plans now being put in place until 2015. It contains no reform of Ofwat's remit, which is badly needed.
To be fair to Ofwat, it did not write its remit. It is a scary leftover from the high water mark of Thatcherism, when the only sustainability that counted was commercial and the interests of the consumer were regarded as purely economic. Issues such as the environment or social cohesion were simply not part of the equation. Other regulators, such as Ofgem, have already allowed-or been allowed to allow-sensible measures such as social tariffs to help the least well-off customers. It is high time that Ofwat was told to do likewise.
Anna Walker's review rightly pointed out that water poverty was already becoming an issue and that it would become more of an issue if water bills had to rise, if metering became widespread and if the costs of environmental measures such as leakage control and sewage transfer were greater than expected. Walker says that we need
"A package of help...closely targeted on customers with low incomes"
and asks the UK and Welsh Governments to consider updating the guidance to Ofwat. That cannot come soon enough. We do not have to design the whole social tariff system for this Bill, but I hope that it is not too late to, at the very least, change Ofwat's remit to stop it preventing water companies from introducing social tariffs as it does at present. The Secretary of State is looking sceptical, but he should ask the management of Dwr Cymru about their experience of Ofwat in this respect.
Ofwat also needs to be told that the environment can no longer be considered a subsidiary responsibility of its economic duties. The economy exists within the environment, not the other way round. We have to learn to live within environmental constraints and an obvious first step would be to break the link between resource use and company profit. It would not be rocket science to design an environmentally-friendly tariff whereby increased water use compared to historical household levels earned the household a higher bill, but the increased revenue went not into the water company's coffers but straight into water efficiency or environmentally friendly water management measures.
All in all, the Bill is a bit of a drip when we needed a good shower. It does take welcome steps in allocating clearer responsibilities and addressing issues of sustainable drainage and flood risk management, but it leaves untouched major issues of insurance, planning and environmental issues that need to be addressed. The emergency services, the Army, the NHS, volunteers, friends and neighbours have all played their parts brilliantly, and I join the Secretary of State and others in thanking them all. However, the time has finally come for us to do our part, too. The residents of Warden Hill and of the rest of Cheltenham, as well as the residents of Gloucestershire, Cumbria, Yorkshire and the rest of the country deserve nothing less.
Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale) (Lab): I welcome the Flood and Water Management Bill. I am pleased that it will receive a Second Reading this evening and I hope it is not long before it is on the statute book.
At this moment in time, the eyes of the world are rightly focused on Copenhagen and the world climate change summit. I hope that we can decide on substantial and sustainable reductions on carbon emissions this weekend. I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his excellent ministerial team will do all in their power to get the right deal at Copenhagen.
I am aware that some Members of this House and others outside deny climate change and that others are sceptical about the science. I am not one of them. I accept that climate change is taking place. Instead of having the four seasons of winter, spring, summer and autumn, it seems to me that we are moving towards two prolonged seasons: spring and autumn. That assessment is, I accept, much too general, but we do face climate change.
I agree with the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) that we might not be able to blame climate change for the floods that took place in 2007 and for the floods that took place in 2009 in Cumbria. However, unless we address climate change, it is likely that flooding will become a major problem in the future. That is important to me because the most defining geographical features of my Weaver Vale constituency are the River Mersey, the River Weaver and the River Dane, the Bridgewater canal and the Weaver navigation canal.
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