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That is not to say that we should not consider-as was suggested by the right hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley)-a range of options, including managed retreats. However, we should not simply accept that all agricultural land will be flooded in preference to other risk management options. The protection of people and property and of valuable and productive agricultural land is essential. I should point out that 89 per cent. of farmland in the fens is grade 1 or grade 2. It provides 37 per cent. of vegetable production, 25 per cent. of potato production, and 17 per cent. of sugar beet production, and employs 27,000 people. It is not waste land. It is not land that the country can do without. It also saves billions of pounds of imports and incalculable
food miles, ensures food security and reduces carbon emissions. The loss of such land would have extremely detrimental consequences.
In the limited time available to me, I want to highlight the issues that I think should be examined in more detail in Committee. There clearly needs to be a review of any plans that are established, but the dates involved must be very specific, as must the synchronisation of national and local revisions, in order to remove any uncertainty. The review of the shoreline management plans and the coastal strategy is causing enormous problems in relation to economic diversification and job creation in Lincolnshire.
I hope that the Secretary of State will tell us how the proposals in the Bill relate to European Union directives, particularly the water framework directive, and what is meant by local plans being consistent with national plans. I hope that that does not mean an imposition from the centre that conflicts with local desires and priorities.
As other Members have said, internal drainage boards fulfil an integral and focused role in providing drainage to protect not just agricultural land but people and property. I was delighted to note that the Government had listened to, and acted on, the suggestions in the pre-scrutiny report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and had withdrawn their proposals for the redefinition of responsibilities, governance and funding arrangements for the boards. However, there is continuing concern about any future plans to move to proportional membership. Relating membership to funding streams would give much more power to the county council and other local authorities and less to those who farm and produce the food. Local farmers and their representatives must continue to play a key role.
The drainage levy also needs to be examined. It used to be reimbursed 100 per cent. by central Government, but that is no longer the case. There is concern about, in particular, the possibility that boards will not be able to manage and maintain their assets and their plans for capital programmes, especially when it comes to replacing or upgrading vital pumping stations. If there is insufficient funding or-I do not think that this will happen in Lincolnshire, but it may happen elsewhere-local authorities find ways of moving funds back to other central funding mechanisms, particularly given the present macro-economic climate and the fiscal deficit, we could experience severely detrimental effects such as reduced spending on drainage, reduced maintenance of waterways, little effort to keep local rates down, and a loss of local knowledge, expertise and input.
I must inform the Secretary of State that he did not respond adequately to my intervention on the reimbursement of local authority funding. He did make the point that the cost of sustainable drainage systems will be reimbursed by central Government, but he did not go further than that, so perhaps in his winding-up speech he will put on record whether the costs of all the additional responsibilities being put on local authorities will be met by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, or whether local authorities will have to meet the costs themselves or reduce services elsewhere.
As highlighted by the Conservative party spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), there is real concern about
clauses 38 and 39 and the apparent ability of the Environment Agency to override local concerns and compulsorily to purchase land that may be valuable agricultural land without there being any appeal mechanism in place. I very much hope that this will be looked at in Committee.
It is essential that the Government take into account Members' concerns, ensure that proposals are fully funded so that there is no additional burden on the council tax payer, and insist that local solutions form an integral part of all flood-risk management strategies.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Bill as a constituency MP, for reasons that I shall touch on later. However, I am also chair of the all-party group on water, and we have produced our own report-it came out slightly before "Future Water". Other Members have referred to Pitt, Cave, the price review 2009 and the Walker report. I am pleased that this Bill has been brought forward before the Christmas recess, as that gives it a strong chance of reaching the statute book, and it must do so.
This Second Reading debate is taking place in a week in which there are important discussions about the change in our climate, which we see, and different and volatile patterns in water management, flooding and drought. That the Bill is to be given a Second Reading now is also a just tribute to the recent events in Cumbria.
The Bill covers flood issues, and other Members have referred to the fact that it will enable the Environment Agency to create national flood and coastal erosion risk management strategies. Under clause 9, lead local flood authorities will be able to create flood risk management strategies. For reasons to which I referred in the Queen's Speech debate, that will be very welcome in my constituency, as it will be in all the other constituencies already mentioned in the debate. The Bill gives the EA and local authorities powers to carry out flood risk management works more easily.
In respect of drought, the Bill will enable water companies to control non-essential usage of water more easily. In particular, it contains provisions on the use of hosepipes for activities such as washing cars and gardening, which are particularly relevant in the summer months when water is scarce.
The Bill also tackles surface drainage issues. My right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) waxed lyrical about that, as other Members have done on other water matters. The Bill will enable water companies to offer relief to community groups on surface water drainage charges, which has been much campaigned for. I welcome that for my constituency, as much as other Members have done for theirs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) waxed lyrical about private sewers and sewerage-if one can wax lyrical about that topic. The mandatory build standards outlined in the Bill are greatly to be welcomed, but I heard what my hon. Friend said, and I hope that Ministers will have heard his pleas.
Other Members have mentioned a variety of other topics, and future contributors will no doubt mention still more. No doubt, a further Bill will be forthcoming
in future years to deal with the need for the sort of consolidating legislation that others have advocated. That is not an excuse for failing to introduce this measure. It is narrower in scope, but it is significant, particularly at this point in the legislative cycle. If this Bill had not been introduced, my Front-Bench colleagues would have been harangued by people from all parts of the House for not doing so, especially in the context of events in Cumbria. It is good that we are getting on with these measures.
I would like the Bill to cover one issue arising from the Walker report. Hon. Members who know well the campaign of 20 years' length that I and other Members have fought would probably expect me at this point to mention the south-west's unique affordability charges. I shall mention those in passing, although the Secretary of State will be pleased to hear that that is not the issue that I expect to see in the Bill. I simply acknowledge that Walker stated:
"Having looked at the particular economic, social and geographical circumstances of the South West Water area, the review team concluded that:
Current high bills in the South West Water area relate to the poor state of the sewerage assets at privatisation".
"Dealing with the historic issues would address the root cause of the issue directly and could be addressed through a specific one-off adjustment or through annual transfers funded by government or, with a different set of fairness challenges, other water customers"
"Ofwat would be best placed to consider the options for implementing a one-off or other adjustment, and advising ministers accordingly".
I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), for having referred this speedily to the regulator, so that it can get on with examining the matter.
However, the issue that I wish to discuss in the minutes available to me has been raised by a number of other Members-I am talking about water debt. Unpaid water bills last year resulted in water debt of more than £1.25 billion, which was an increase of more than 13 per cent. on the previous year. About 44 per cent. of household water debt is held by customers in rented accommodation and a high proportion is a result of what the industry terms as "leavers"-people who have gone. There is no requirement on tenants or landlords to provide information on the user of the water-the person responsible for the water charges.
"As a priority, the Water Industry Act 1991 should be amended to provide for a named customer and clarify who is responsible for paying the water bill; the 'liable person' should be the property owner unless they discharge their liability to the water company by providing tenancy information correctly and in a timely manner".
That recommendation could help to deal with the significant problem of debt from household customers, which costs the rest of us, including many low-income customers in my constituency and across the United Kingdom, £12 on every bill.
Debt in the energy sector is about one fifth of that in the water sector, despite the considerably higher bills. In comparison, the levels of debt in the electricity and gas sectors have remained broadly static, according to Ofgem.
The number of energy customers repaying a debt at the end of 2008 was 1.3 million in respect of electricity and 0.8 million in respect of gas. In the water sector, more than 5 million customers are in debt, which suggests that as well as there being some people who struggle to pay those bills, particularly in my water area, many simply will not pay.
There is something that can be done about it: we can give better powers to the companies to follow up those debts. A key problem is knowing who to bill, especially with short-term private rental properties. Landlords could be required to provide information on their tenants and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will listen to the number of views that have been expressed on both sides of the House. The Government as well as water users who are paying for this debt could benefit from the measure, simply because there will have to be an interim review to take account of the expected investment of taking on private sewers-I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood has returned to his seat. The cost will be considerable and has not been factored into PR09, and there is therefore a win-win situation for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State if he ensures that by the time we get around to such an interim review, the matter of debt is on its way to being resolved by what should be a fairly straightforward amendment to the Bill.
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I am sorry that I missed the first two speeches of the debate, including that of the Secretary of State, but I was in the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice. I want to make a few brief comments arising out of the catastrophic floods in many parts of my constituency in 2008. Of course, we had a rather worrying reminder of them in 2009, which was fortunately not so bad.
The catastrophe was worst in Rothbury. Most people were aware of the situation in Morpeth, of course, because it featured so much on the national television, but in Rothbury large numbers of people were out of their homes for many months as a result of the floods. Other communities, such as Powburn, Warkworth, Kirknewton and Felton, were affected. Many farms and farm businesses were flooded, with nearly 1,000 animal carcases requiring removal. Many roads were blocked and communities in the Ingram valley were virtually cut off.
I want to emphasise the significance of the key element of the Bill, which I see as the role of the Environment Agency in taking the lead in dealing with the management of floods and with the flood threat. At times, that would not have been easy to say, because the Environment Agency has not always been popular in my constituency, particularly when people have seen it as the body that stopped them doing the simple practical things that they felt would reduce the flood risk to their properties, such as moving gravel banks or putting in barriers. However, as a consequence of what happened in the floods in our region, the agency has changed its approach in a helpful way and has combined its efforts with those of other agencies to move things forward.
Nothing is achieved in this area unless a wide range of bodies work together. Natural England is crucial, because the body that was refusing consent for practical works was often not really the Environment Agency; it was relaying the views of Natural England. Initially,
Natural England seemed distant from the whole process, but as we got it into joint meetings and meetings with local communities, it began to realise the importance of listening to local people, who could often tell its representatives a great deal that they did not know about the sites of special scientific interest and flood phenomena in the area.
The local authority, Northumberland county council, has a key role both as the highways authority and through its flood responsibilities. So do the national park authority and local people. It is only when we get all those people together, as we have done in village halls and school halls in places such as Ingram and Rothbury, that we can make some progress. People start to have confidence in each other and in the contribution that they can make.
It is important that there should be an appeal mechanism against some of the very controversial decisions that will have to be taken on flood alleviation measures. If a farmer could lose large areas of land, for example, when floods take place-because of deliberate flooding of an agricultural area-there has to be some appeal mechanism to ensure that that is a sensible decision and that the terms offered to the farmer are reasonable.
Generally speaking, it is important that we have a strong lead body that is prepared to take action, because we need large-scale flood alleviation schemes, as are planned for the River Wansbeck, although they are not yet approved for funding. We will also need such schemes on the River Coquet, if Rothbury is to be protected. Alongside those bigger schemes, however, we will need many small, practical, local measures in places such as Rothbury, the Ingram valley and the Glendale area that will significantly reduce the flood risk faced by particular groups of houses. Those small measures require much more modest financing than the major flood alleviation schemes and the big defence works, which can be funded in only a limited number of places where a significant amount of property is affected. It is crucial that organisations work together to bring forward such schemes, and there are genuine signs that all the key authorities in Northumberland are showing that willingness. There is still momentum behind the efforts to recover from the last round of flooding and to prevent a similar impact in the future, and I am determined that that momentum and co-operation should be maintained.
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), who made a measured and passionate contribution that was based on the experiences of his constituency.
It is a pleasure, as secretary of the all-party group on flood prevention, to make a modest contribution to the debate. We might have heard the last words on this subject from my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping)-the same applies to the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack)-but each speech was certainly a tour de force that contributed to our proceedings.
In my 13 years in Parliament, my name has, to my knowledge, been mentioned only once in Cabinet. My sources tell me that a slide presentation was made to the Cabinet earlier this year on flood defences and the work
of the Environment Agency. Perhaps minds were beginning to wander by slide 27, but then they reached the final slide, and who should appear-modesty does not forbid me from saying-but the hon. Member for Selby, sitting on top of the flood defences in Selby on the occasion of their opening. Those flood defences are worth £18 million and protect 3,000 people. I am told by my informant that one or two members of the Cabinet made comments on that last slide; I do not know what they said, but perhaps it was how well deserved the money was, given my constant record of support for Ministers over the past decade.
In return for such confidence from Ministers, I put on record that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his predecessors have ensured that there has been a continual increase in flood expenditure over the years, which has not always been easy. While I take on board all the criticisms that have been made about the current insurance arrangements, some European countries do not have any insurance arrangements at all, so the maintenance of our arrangements represents an achievement, although I wish that the insurance industry was much better at enforcing the terms of the codes. It was also crucial that the Bill came before the House before Christmas so that it could make progress, and Ministers are to be commended on those three issues.
I want to make three points about the Bill, all of which have been referred to, although perhaps not in detail. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood talked about the regional flood defence committees. It is important that those committees continue, so I am a little alarmed by clauses 22 to 26, which deal with such committees. The functions of the committees will be changed and they will become more advisory and less executive. Ministers will also take greater powers to appoint the committees' members. At the moment, about half the membership of a committee is made up of local authority members chosen by individual local authorities. If we are to give local authorities much more responsibility for local management and co-ordination, the least that we can do is maintain their influence.
"the Department wishes to strengthen these committees by ensuring their members are of the right calibre and standing and able to provide effective local input."
I read that as meaning that the man from Whitehall knows best who should represent local authorities on the regional flood defences committees. Alternatively, perhaps it is a way of ensuring that the local authorities are unable to have a good block vote.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State came up to Yorkshire some years ago, and since then he has become an honorary Yorkshireman and a champion of local democracy. When he looks at this matter, I am sure that he will realise that it will be much better if Yorkshire's regional flood defence committee makes the final sign-off on flood defence schemes and so on, and not some anonymous bureaucrat in Whitehall.
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