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"We recognise that there is currently no incentive for highway authorities to install sustainable drainage systems because the cost of highway drainage is met by water customers."
That is the kind of risk factor which, if it is teased out at the planning stage of the development of the risk strategy, we might be able to mitigate, but it requires a burden shift in terms of funding. We see the same questions recurring about resources and who has the money to deal with these complicated issues. In Committee some of the real-world challenges posed by flooding should be tested out.
In the Bill, the implications of climate change are a feature to be examined in the context of the development of the strategy. One of the things that increasingly worries me, and which the sad events in Cumbria underscore, is that a once in 1,000-years event can occur. I was asked about this in the context of our existing flood defence systems. In a city such as London, the highway drainage system is scoped to deal with a one in 30-year event. What would happen in London if a once in 1,000-years event occurred? We would have catastrophic flooding, but can we afford to scope up our drainage system by a factor of 30 to cope with that? The answer is probably no. That is why we must be honest when we look at what we can and cannot do, and prepare accordingly.
The Bill is silent on the critical infrastructure but-coming back to the question of risks and picking up the point made by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood)-that can be incorporated in the risks and therefore encompassed by the strategy of the Environment Agency. If the Bill deals with the risks of reservoirs, the question of the integrity of bridges needs to be re-examined.
Cumbria taught us a rude and painful lesson. Structures which we thought were impervious to the effects of flooding certainly were not. A new dimension of community disruption occurred which none of the previous flooding events in this country had illustrated. Although the Bill is silent on that, the powers and the responsibilities, particularly of county highway authorities, should be re-examined to make sure that there is a duty upon them to re-examine bridge structures regularly to determine whether they are capable of withstanding the type of event that occurred in Cumbria.
One of the aspects that we should reflect on, which emerged from the evidence that we received, is that in the areas that we represent, all of us have a much more articulate constituency of members of the public who are now infinitely better informed about every aspect of flooding. They know about water courses, they have local knowledge, and they are vociferous in arguing their corner. They are a very important part of the process that the Bill deals with. If we as politicians do not recognise the human dimension-the public dimension-all our discussions about flooding, water charging and so on will be the poorer. We must acknowledge the role of the informed member of the public and make certain that they are properly involved in the consultation processes for which the Bill provides as part of the strategy that the Environment Agency is to introduce.
I conclude by saying that I, too, am delighted that the Bill deals with the surface area water charging regime. However, I have one concern. The Bill rightly identifies one group of people who can benefit from positive discrimination. I support that, but on the issue of the affordability of water, individual citizens may look slightly jealously at that part of the Bill and say, "What about us?" In supporting the intent of the Bill, I hope that whoever forms the next Government will return to the question early in the next Parliament and complete the task that the Bill begins.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), I should give notice that after his speech, the limit will be reduced to 10 minutes in an effort to ensure that those who have been waiting will get a chance to contribute.
Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), the Chairman of the Select Committee. In view of your strictures, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall be relatively brief.
The Government have been criticised tonight, first for not acting quickly enough on the Pitt recommendations, and secondly for not having a broad enough Bill. I think the Government have brought forward a Bill that is well focused and important. Above all, it can be passed within the next 12 parliamentary weeks; it is important to do the business.
Those who have spoken about the Cave and Walker reports should reflect on the fact that affordability and competition are difficult issues. Those who have been involved with abstraction licences for many years, such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), know how difficult they are and how difficult it is to get a response from the National Farmers Union allowing them to go forward.
I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. Such issues would be difficult to tackle in total during the passage of the Bill, but would he not accept a simple amendment of Ofwat's remit to allow water companies to produce social tariffs to help some of our
least well off constituents? That would be a simple measure which I am sure we could manage in the months ahead.
Paddy Tipping: That would not be a simple amendment, and social tariffs are not an easy issue. Those of us who will be involved in the Energy Bill know how difficult it is. Such issues will be dealt with not in Committee, but by secondary legislation. The EU flood regulation measure is before the House by way of a statutory instrument. It includes maps and assessments of flood risk, and it is disappointing that it looks as though the House will not have the opportunity to discuss those matters.
The essential point of today's debate has been about the 2007 floods. They focused our attention not on river flooding, which had been the discussion in the past, but on surface water flooding. Right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken have made it very clear that there are no easy solutions to the problem, but in the course of my work either in Nottinghamshire or on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee people have said to me, "Oh, it's simple: you just keep the drains clear." Given the volume of intense rain, however, drains will not be able to cope in the future. We are living in a different world and in a different environment, and that is why the points that the right hon. Member for Fylde made-about being clear with people, working with them and giving them an understanding of the risk-are so important.
It is also important to introduce a set of responsibilities, and the Bill defines them. I am a great supporter of the Environment Agency, and I believe that it has the flexibility not to act in a centralising way, because people in their areas know the problems. If they are allowed to work together, they can find the solutions, too, so the notion of lead authorities is important. In my local authority of Nottinghamshire, the county council, as the agency with responsibility for highways, will take the lead, and I know that it will work closely with the district councils. In some areas, local authorities are able to propose solutions, but it is important that they have the resources to do so. I am not as confident as some of my Front-Bench colleagues that the measures in the Bill-the savings that will be made from the adoption of private sewers-will be sufficient to enable local authorities to make major progress. Nor am I confident that local authorities have the skills, because many councils lost those skills at the time of water privatisation, so there is a big training responsibility that needs to be taken forward.
It is important also to mention the two types of bodies that have been an unsung presence in today's discussion. They are the regional flood and coastal committees and the internal drainage boards. The best internal drainage boards are really very good, but the pattern throughout the country is patchy. The strength of internal drainage boards, however, is that their members know the solutions, and if they are prepared to engage and work with other parties, they will make progress.
I am pleased that regional flood and coastal committees are going to continue. There had been some discussion about their future, but their levy power is important, because it provides the committee with a sum of money that belongs to itself, enabling the introduction of innovative solutions and steps that the Environment Agency would not be able to take. In the Trent valley in Nottinghamshire,
for example, funds from the regional levy have enabled the introduction of adaptation measures, which would never have been on the Environment Agency's list of priorities.
Another important issue, which has been characterised in today's debate, is the notion of working with the environment. We must continue to move away from the belief that concrete is the solution to everything. Farming practices can make a real difference, and we need to work in upland areas to ensure that peat bogs are not denuded but are the sponge-the moss-that soaks up water. The notion of working with the environment really is important.
However, it is also important that we recognise the power of the environment-the power of the sea. I was slightly concerned by the comments of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), who seemed to imply that one could always protect the coast. That is quite manifestly wrong. The notion of managed retreat will have to be discussed openly and rationally with local people, who clearly have major concerns. It is no good saying to them that there will be environmental and conservation benefits from such an approach. There will be, but we will have to talk to people very openly about the cost and the fact that things are going to change. It is no good promising that all farmland can be protected. It helps nobody at all, and if that is the Opposition's policy they need to reflect on it.
I have long been an advocate of sustainable urban drainage systems. They can make a big impression on and difference to the landscape, but we need to remember that SUDS are very different: there are high-technology solutions and softer, grassland solutions. We need to be aware of the connection between SUDS and the existing drainage system, too. There is not an either/or choice, because the two interrelate. We must have further discussions with people such as the Home Builders Federation about that relationship, and we need to be absolutely clear that SUDS will continue to cost money in the future. We need to make it clear also that local authorities should be responsible for SUDS, because they have the planning powers and they are good at looking after recreational areas and open spaces. None the less, there is an argument for involving water companies, but they are conspicuously absent from that aspect of the Bill.
I promised to keep my remarks brief, but I shall say a few words about sewers, which have not been discussed today. Clause 41 makes it clear that new developments will have to involve the adoption and maintenance of sewers of a sufficient standard. Members with a long memory of the issue will remember that we had a voluntary arrangement, but that simply has not worked, so the statutory powers in the Bill are quite important. We must ensure that there are no problems in the future, and the clause includes a new code of practice, but it needs to be discussed with others. It is not an easy issue; it is a technological issue. There is a view among builders and developers that it has not been sufficiently discussed, and, as we are talking about introducing the measure next year, in 2010, such discussions need to take place.
I do not want rhetoric; I want reality. I want action on the issue, and the Secretary of State promised action. We need it, because all over the country, including in my constituency in Nottinghamshire, householders are affected by private sewers. When their houses and gardens are flooded by foul sewers, it is a dreadful experience.
We need to ensure that those sewers are adopted. The Secretary of State says that he will do so, and he will, but he needs to get on with it. We were promised not only a consultation on private sewers, but their adoption by 2011. However, I say to my right hon. Friend, at whom I am pointing to reinforce my statement, that that consultation has yet to appear, and we were promised its appearance by Christmas. I want private sewers to be adopted by 2011, but unless the Secretary of State and his officials put their foot down, that deadline will retreat into the distance.
This debate might be my final chance to discuss environmental issues in the House, as it might be for the right hon. Member for Fylde. I have campaigned for more than 20 years to have private sewers adopted, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe has helped me. I therefore say to the Secretary of State: make my day, make the promise, publish the consultation tomorrow and ensure that private sewers are adopted by 2011.
I should like to start by thanking the Secretary of State-I suppose belatedly, although I am sure that I said the same thing at the time-for all the help he gave to and interest he took in Tewkesbury at the time of the floods. He was extremely helpful. He readily came over to visit and was always available on the phone. That help was much appreciated by my constituents, and again I thank him for it.
I am not taking it personally that I am the first speaker on the Conservative Benches to have his time curtailed; I think that it is probably because I spoke in the Queen's Speech debate on this issue. However, I make no apology for returning to it today because it is so very important.
I want to run through a few aspects that are lacking from the Bill or that I would like strengthened. Of course, as has been said from the Front Bench, Conservative Members support the Bill. We welcome its early introduction after the Queen's Speech in the hope that we can get it through before Parliament is dissolved for a general election. However, if we are to take advantage of its introduction, there are changes that should be made; I am sure that those decisions will be made in Committee.
We have heard a little about house building. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who said that we should not build houses in the wrong places. He also mentioned the way in which houses are built. The famous and iconic picture of Tewkesbury abbey surrounded by water was seen everywhere; people remember it in countries that I have been to all over the world. It is important to point out
that although the abbey was surrounded by water, it did not flood. The Normans started to build the abbey at the end of the 11th century. People knew where to build and how to build in those days; it seems that we have forgotten about those skills. We must try to build houses that are not only flood resistant but do not displace water and cause problems for other houses. I am not sure whether it is entirely possible to do that, although I know that new drainage systems are being discussed; sumps have been mentioned tonight. We must also start to build houses to take account of the power that they will require in the light of climate change. I know that that is a different subject, but we have talked a lot about it, so it is relevant.
Above all, we have to ask ourselves why my Tewkesbury constituency suffered so badly. The regional spatial strategy proposes to build 14,500 extra houses in what is clearly a flood risk area. Those figures are based on what the south-west regional assembly is suggesting and on the Government's projection that we need 3 million more houses by 2026, but there is no scientific basis for making those estimates. When this Government came to power, they said, correctly, that they were going to end the "predict and provide" approach to housing, but they have not only reinforced that approach but regionalised it, thereby taking the decisions away from local people. That is much to be regretted. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), who kindly mentioned several places in my constituency, including Warden Hill, Leckhampton and Wheatpieces, was absolutely right to suggest that those new build figures should be revisited. I believe that they should be scrapped and we should think again about where we are going to build houses. In that respect, I am not satisfied with the Bill because I do not think it will stop the building of houses on flood risk areas.
Another important issue became evident during the fight to save the area-I do not think that it is too dramatic to describe it as such given that some people lost up to three weeks' water supply, we almost lost the county's entire electricity supply and, tragically, we lost three lives. It became obvious to me that it was extremely difficult to pinpoint which organisation was responsible for maintaining a waterway or water feature, whether it be a culvert, a stream, a brook, or whatever we want to call it. As a result, there was a delay in clearing or repairing that waterway, which created great difficulty. One of the reasons why people did not want to accept responsibility for a given waterway was that they would then have the responsibility for fixing it, which costs money. I am glad that several hon. Members have made that point. When we set out to give responsibility to different organisations, as we should, we must ensure that we identify who is responsible for which waterway and that they are sufficiently funded to carry out the work that we require them to do. I am not sure that the Bill goes far enough to satisfy me in that respect.
As has been noted, it is not enough to act only in emergencies. Welcome as that aid is at the time, it is too late by then. We need to ensure that all the waterways are maintained throughout the year. As I said in the Queen's Speech debate, if we drive cars, we should, if we are sensible, have them serviced regularly and not let them break down before we do anything with them. It is the same with waterways: we must ensure that they are
cleared and maintained. We must also ensure-this was not happening before the flooding-that riparian owners of certain waterways carry out their maintenance. As far as I can see, local authorities have not been doing that.
As I said, we lost the water supply and almost lost the electricity supply; some people lost electricity for a while. We need to provide alternative sources of utilities. People in my constituency and, I am sure, in other constituencies, had an extremely difficult time in going without water for so long. The heroic efforts of the armed forces, the emergency services and ordinary volunteers, including children, to get water supplies to houses warmed the heart; nevertheless, we do not want to have to go through that again. I hope that alternative supplies of water and electricity can be set up; at least, we should ensure that places such as Mythe waterworks and Walham electricity substation are properly protected.
There are many other issues that I could raise, but alas I am running out of time and cannot do so in any great detail. On insurance, of course, as I said in an earlier intervention, we must appreciate that insurance companies are businesses that must make profits; we require them to exist, so they have to be financially solvent. However, in some cases they have been unduly harsh on many of their customers by increasing excesses to as much as £10,000 or £15,000-even £20,000 in a case that I have heard of-at the same time as increasing premiums. If somebody has an excess of £10,000 or £15,000 for water damage, they are effectively not insured against that, so why do they have to pay an increased premium? That is most unfair. Although it is welcome that flood defences are undertaken in so many places-several schemes have been completed in my own area-that can sometimes make things worse as regards getting insurance. One or two companies may say, "Oh, that is a flood risk area. Those people are in danger-we won't insure them or we're going to put the excesses up." That is very unfair. I know that the Government have expressed concern about that practice, and I hope that they will carry on talking to insurance companies about it.
Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) (Lab): I first put on record my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his Department for working closely with me over the past few years on flood solutions in my constituency. Like many MPs who represent former mining communities, since the closure of our collieries and the underground watercourse base, I have seen increased flooding in small mining communities year in, year out. By 2002, that culminated in flooding in my constituency not once every 70 years but once, twice or three times a year, affecting the same communities, families and small businesses. Some 90 per cent. of small businesses affected by sewer water flooding never reopen their doors, and they are totally lost to the family and the community. Increasingly, communities had come to feel besieged by their inability to get investment projects that could provide solutions to the problems that they faced. They consequently found it increasingly difficult to get support for the insurance and reinsurance of their properties.
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