Previous Section Index Home Page

In 2004, the situation got to a point at which a radical solution had to be found. United Utilities, the local council and the Environment Agency, with the support of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural
15 Dec 2009 : Column 877
Affairs, came up with a co-ordinated plan to reorganise and re-engineer the way they worked-the establishment of a local community flood forum, elected by and on behalf of the community and funded and resourced by United Utilities. That body was important in developing an investment plan to deal with all the flooding problems. Investment needs were identified for engineering solutions or, where those were not possible, for mitigation solutions. The forum engaged with and involved the community at every stage.

This year we have not had a major flood in the community, because of the multi-million pound investment that has taken place with the engagement and involvement of the community, United Utilities, the local authority and the Environment Agency. Next February the next phase will take place, following further consultation with the community flood forum. There will be a further range of investments to improve even further the potential of engineering and mitigation solutions in communities where flooding is likely in the next few years. That next phase is preventive.

All that was achieved with the help of my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley). When he was a Minister, he and I persuaded Ofwat in 2005 to change its arrangements and take sewer water flooding in communities more seriously. Frankly, however, Ofwat has not had its eye on the ball in the past decade. On every occasion, it has underestimated the number of houses that can be affected by surface and sewer water flooding. It has not taken seriously enough the capacity of the insurance industry to turn a blind eye to the continuing problem on many occasions.

The Bill is important in ensuring that we implement much of Sir Michael Pitt's inquiry. I gave him written and verbal evidence about the experiences of our community in Wigan. In 2005, as a Minister, I wrote a report on how we should better co-ordinate investment in Carlisle following the flooding, to ensure that there was a structure to deal with flooding from the River Eden and to bring together all the investment strategies of Cumbria county council, the city of Carlisle, the regional development agency and the Government. That all needed to be put together in a co-ordinated way, with the involvement of the community and under the leadership of the city council, not only so that there were preventive measures for the future but so that from the carnage that took place in Carlisle in January 2005, there would come restructuring, reinvestment and reinvigoration in the city.

It is important that the lessons are learned from all such events, including those in 2007 and this year. The Bill must ensure that each and every community has the ability to ensure that it has all the agencies working together effectively. We must consider the potential of using the model of community engagement and involvement that we have created in Wigan, and seeing whether it can be effectively replicated in other areas to ensure that communities have ownership and control in all circumstances. They must have a way of engaging with the utilities, local authorities and the Environment Agency to handle these matters.

There is much to be said, and I reserve the right to return to many points on Report, but I know that other colleagues wish to contribute, so I shall finish with insurance. I know that the Government came to an agreement with the Association of British Insurers on a
15 Dec 2009 : Column 878
code of practice and all that goes with it. Welcome though that is, I have constituents who are still being refused access to insurance products. We still do not have a system of shared risk in place in Britain. There is shared capital risk, for instance through my constituents supporting people in Carlisle and Cumbria, and quite rightly so, but there is no shared insurance risk. The greater the risk of properties flooding, the more individuals and communities are left bereft of proper coverage.

In 1982, as a young local councillor, I helped persuade my council and the insurance industry to introduce a tenants and leaseholders insurance scheme. It was the first in the country, and now hundreds of schemes on that model are operating effectively and providing insurance cover for every tenant who wants it, paid through their rent in an affordable and accessible way. As the years go by, we have to find a way of having an affordable and accessible insurance system paid through people's water rates, so that we can share the risk. The ability to pay must be paramount, and people must have insurance cover in all circumstances so that we share the risk and the cost of investment. Unless we have such a system in place, hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens will be unable to be insured in the decades to come, through no fault of their own. We need such a radical solution.

I have made a written submission about that scheme to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris), and his officials are coming to my constituency soon to meet tenants and the local authority to discuss how it operates. If we can operate it effectively now for housing insurance costs, without undermining the marketplace, why can we not do it in relation to the flooding problem? What problem do ABI members have with doing that now? The problem will not go away, and it will be exacerbated in the years to come.

Everybody should have the right to affordable and accessible insurance, and the risk should be shared. If the Bill cannot ensure that, we should be looking to find other means of ensuring that it happens. Without it, the cost to the public Exchequer of uninsured properties and families will be not millions but billions in the years to come. We need to sit down with the insurance industry, be tougher and come up with a workable set of proposals. Although Sir Michael Pitt decided in the end against the introduction of such a scheme, the evidence is there in his report that it can and will work. We must ensure that we introduce it. If my hon. Friend cannot give us a decision about it this evening, I hope that we can return to the matter at some stage during the Bill's passage and put pressure on the ABI. What has happened so far is welcome, but it is not radical enough and does not go far enough. It will no go far enough until every community has affordable, accessible insurance so that if it is flooded, the consequence is not a total loss of business or family income and a disaster that takes years and years to recover from.

8.8 pm

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. The Bill will be very helpful if the Government listen to the comments and thoughts in hon. Members' contributions and take them forward for further consideration in Committee.

15 Dec 2009 : Column 879

I wish to focus my comments on flood risk and water management in the planning process. It is absolutely right that they have a prominent place in it, and the Bill gives us the opportunity to develop it further. Many of our constituents assume that the availability of water and the ability to dispose of waste water are part of the process, and that the importance of not building on flood plains is integral to the process when it is decided to build new houses or commercial developments. It is right that the Bill looks at how we can put the emphasis on the prevention rather than the cure for such problems, although that does not take away from the comments that have been made tonight on the losses suffered by families and communities who have experienced the dreadful nature of flooding, particularly in recent months.

The Bill provides an opportunity to make water and flood management integral to the planning process. Clause 9 provides the opportunity for lead local authorities in England to develop, maintain and monitor a strategy for local flood risk management in their areas, which includes

and to put in place an assessment of local flood risk management-clause 10 does the same for Wales. However, a number of questions have been asked about that enhanced role for local authorities, particularly on the apparent rigidity within the Bill concerning the boundary areas within which local authorities can operate their new ability to look at water and flood risk management. Additionally, the Select Committee said that the way in which the Bill was currently drafted potentially precluded a more pragmatic, cross-boundary approach to planning when it comes to water and flood issues.

In my own constituency in north Hampshire, infrastructure management is not bound by borough or district boundaries or hemmed in by county boundaries. We regularly look at how we can plan our infrastructure management across not only one county boundary but two. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), the Chairman of the Committee, said in his contribution today, water knows not political boundaries. Will the Minister say how we can ensure that the important provision in the Bill to help local authorities to have a more active role is not curtailed or hemmed in? There is probably a need to think further about how the Bill can be more flexible to reflect existing local operations.

The importance of local knowledge is another matter that hon. Members have spoken about in the debate. The encouragement of borough and county councils to be involved in flood risk planning will give councillors and their local residents the ability to ensure that proposed plans include local knowledge, including a community's experience of floods over many generations.

Does the Minister feel that, within the devolution of responsibility for flood and water management to local level-borough or county-there is a lack of read-across between the Bill and the policies of some of his colleagues in other Departments? I am thinking particularly of his colleagues who set house building targets in the Department for Communities and Local Government. It is good that the Bill devolves the management of such important issues to a very local level, yet house building, which is one of the things that flooding most impacts, is still
15 Dec 2009 : Column 880
primarily dictated by his right hon. and hon. Friends in Whitehall-I am talking about decisions on the number of houses that are going to be built and where they will be built. I have experience of that in my constituency.

Obviously, if house building is dictated centrally, it is difficult for local authorities to avoid building on greenfield sites, which results in the flooding problems that other hon. Members have talked about. Indeed, building on flood zones is very much against the will and wishes of local councillors and local residents, including in the east of Basingstoke in my constituency. There is also very little that local authorities can do about building on brownfield sites, which can be the cause of so many problems, including surface water run-off. Those problems read across to other areas of Government policy, and they need some firm consideration before the Bill passes through the House.

As the Secretary of State said, the Bill has to be in a slimmed-down form so that it can progress speedily, but we should not let it be a missed opportunity on insurance-other right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned that. There needs to be a better alignment between insurance companies' perception of flood risk and the actual flood risk. Perhaps the experience of my constituents living near Petty's brook in Chineham, a ward in my constituency, is not atypical-other hon. Members will have had the same problem. Insurance companies perceive that there is a greatly enhanced risk of flooding, even though people in that area have had quite rigorous reassurance from local authorities and the Environment Agency. Will the Minister consider whether local authorities could have a role in monitoring that and in pressing insurance companies to ensure that they are correctly assessing risks and not inflating them in a way that is not in the best interests of our constituents?

Clause 27 deals with the incredibly important issue of sustainable development. The Government could provide some important clarity on this matter. The clause requires lead local authorities to take account of the natural environment when ensuring that development is sustainable. There is an opportunity in the clause for the Minister to issue guidance on how local authorities might interpret that and clarify what they mean. Some clarity could be found in the consultation, which mentions the opportunity better to link planning and water quality management under the water framework directive. There is an opportunity for a more integrated approach to water management, which the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) touched on. We cannot think about one aspect of water without thinking about the others-we cannot look at supply without looking at disposal-yet the Bill does not explicitly deal with that. I am sure that the guidance provides an opportunity to do so.

The reason why the Bill is particularly important in my constituency is that we have just undertaken a water cycle report at the request of the south-east regional authority. The level of house building in my constituency was called into question because of the inability of the River Lodden to deal with the considerable levels of pollution within it. Unfortunately, the report shows us that the level of house building will do nothing to reduce pollution in the river. Such things need to be taken into consideration far more in future house building targets. The Bill gives an opportunity to make it clear that local authorities have an obligation in their new role as managers of implementation. That would add to the impact of the Bill in our communities.

15 Dec 2009 : Column 881

I should have liked to comment on a great many other measures in the Bill, not least the privatisation of sewers and the implications of that for local authorities, which is important, and the aspects that relate to local community organisations, but I shall draw my comments to a close there.

8.18 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I wish to return to the statutory duty for flood rescue, which I raised when I intervened on the Secretary of State. I apologise if he addressed it-I was hanging on his every eloquent word, but I may have nodded off or been distracted.

It is important when we frame legislation such as this Bill that we take into account the views of those who will be at the front line of implementing it. I am one of the founding members of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group. I have therefore tried to consult the FBU on its concerns about the legislation. It is important to take on board its views following the 2007 floods. The FBU met those of its members who had been on the front line dealing with the floods and undertook a detailed consultation on their experiences on the ground. The report that the FBU published as a result said:

Another aspect that came up in the discussions with fire crews was confirmation that they

After the consultation the FBU undertook with its members on the 2007 floods, it concluded that the Government should introduce a statutory duty on fire and rescue authorities to respond to significant water-related events such as flooding, and make the necessary resources available to meet these obligations. That was confirmed by the Pitt review which made the recommendation that I quoted earlier-that there should be a statutory duty placed on fire and rescue authorities for flood rescue in particular. Pitt went on to reject non-statutory alternatives. It said:

It said that other non-statutory, voluntary approaches

Interestingly enough, the Government seemed to concur with those views, and have done so for some time. In the regulatory impact assessment in 2007, the Government backed a statutory duty. The RIA stated that

in major incidents-

So the Government were concerned at that time that without a statutory duty they could not rely on the fire and rescue authorities to respond effectively or to maintain the capability of that response. The RIA also said that

Many, particularly in the FBU, would concur with the Government's view at the time, especially in a financial climate of budgetary pressures on fire and rescue authorities to focus on local needs rather than the strategic investment needed to confront major incidents.

It is also interesting that in 2007 the Secretary of State proposed a statutory duty for flooding as a core duty in section 9 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, but it was not eventually included in the order when it was published in March. The response of the Secretary of State today suggested that the Government have failed to include it in this Bill for three reasons. First, there are existing powers on which the Government can rely to place a duty on fire and rescue authorities. There is a slight difference between awarding a power and placing a duty on an authority, but from the point of view of the practitioners-the front-line workers and fire fighters who were called out time and again in 2007 and again this year-the existing powers are not satisfactory and do not place an adequate duty on fire and rescue authorities. As a result, they worry that once attention is turned away from the issue of flooding, local pressures will prevent the long-term consistent investment required by fire and rescue authorities.

Mr. McCartney: Allied to that is a secondary issue, which affects both the FBU and such fire and rescue authorities as Greater Manchester that are ringed by reservoirs, and that is the lack of transparency and engagement with them over reservoir safety regimes. They are not sure that this Bill will make them technical partners in ensuring reservoir safety, instead of some sort of grace and favour arrangement.

John McDonnell: That is another argument for statutory clarity, with statutory duties placed on authorities on flood rescue in particular, but in other areas as well, so that we know who has responsibility for what and who has the duty to provide. Budgetary pressures at a local level, especially in this financial climate, will be critical. We have had talk of the Thames barrier and the GLC's role in completing it. I was the chair of finance and deputy leader on the GLC when that happened. It was a cross-party project, but we had to beg the Government for funding consistently. In a different financial climate, it would have been difficult to achieve a consistency of investment that would have enabled us to complete that project. Eighteen months after the completion of the Thames barrier, Mrs. Thatcher abolished the GLC, but that is another story.

The second argument against the inclusion of a statutory duty was that Sir Ken Knight, the national adviser on such issues, was not convinced of the need for it. Much as I respect Sir Ken Knight, I do not confer on him papal powers of infallibility. Many other experts on fire and rescue authorities do support a statutory duty, especially those who experienced flooding in 2007 and 2009.

The final argument was that at least the legislation will introduce national standards that will be monitored by the Government. I welcome that. In fact, since 2003, the FBU has discussed with the Government their concerns about the retreat of fire and rescue services from national standards. So this is a welcome approach,
15 Dec 2009 : Column 883
but the national standards in the Bill will be best monitored if there is a duty on the fire and rescue authority with regard to flood rescue. In that way, everyone would be clear about the role that they have to play and the nature of the required investment to ensure that the authorities fulfilled their duties.

I urge the Government to reflect on the views put forward by the FBU and I would welcome further ministerial meetings with the FBU parliamentary group during the passage of the Bill to discuss potential amendments on Report to introduce the Pitt recommendation of a statutory duty for flood rescue to be placed on fire and rescue authorities.

Next Section Index Home Page