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My second point is again inspired by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood. I may go a little further than he did, although I am not about to suggest any windfall
taxes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) proposed. That must be a first for him, but I shall be measured in my remarks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood suggested that water companies, however they are regulated or owned in the future, could have a greater role to play with regard to SUDS. I think that he is on to something there, because the water companies' greater role in terms of private sewers and so on means that they have the engineering experience needed for SUDS. It would take many local authorities a long time to build up that expertise, so there is a logic in the suggestion that water companies and water authorities should have a greater say about SUDS. A strong case can be made for that.
My third and final point has to do with the basic thrust of the Bill. Those of us who have been affected by flooding know what it is like. There are 88 settlements in Selby, and well over half of them have been flooded at some time during my years as the local MP. I am sure that all of us representing areas that flood have seen people suffering terribly when their houses get flooded. We will have looked at all the various agencies-the Environment Agency, the local authorities, the drainage boards and the water authorities-and wondered which of them was in charge.
I play a small and modest part in the co-ordinating role in my area. Every six months, I chair a meeting at which representatives from the villages affected by flooding have half an hour to talk about the problem as they see it. We sit there all day and between us we try and co-ordinate action and so on.
It is quite a tough job, and I shall give the House one example, involving the village of Saxton in the heart of Yorkshire. A few years ago, the village was repeatedly flooded by surface water flooding. The people there made good use of the discretionary funding from the regional flood defence committee and they put together, from various sources, a pot of money amounting to nearly £100,000. However, they then discovered that improving the drainage in the village meant that they had first to get round the pipes and other equipment blocking the drains that had been put in place by the various local utilities.
We are now making an appeal to the various utilities to remove their services by the time that England play their first game in the World cup against the United States on 12 June next year. All but one have agreed to do that, so, if the funding bodies keep the funding in place, we will be able to put the scheme in place. We are also appealing to the National Grid Company, which has not yet fulfilled a deal that it made with a local farmer to fix the drainage in one of his fields. That shows that an awful lot of co-ordination is involved just for one village. For that reason, the task that local authorities are to take on, and the expertise that they will need, should not be underestimated.
I compare the task facing local authorities with the one that faced them when, in the early days of this Government, the co-ordination of crime prevention became a local authority function for the first time. Local authorities had to do lots of things that they had not done before, and they also had to talk to lots of people whom they had never talked to before. That is the scale of the challenge that we are facing with this Bill.
The all-party flood prevention group was formed after the experience of the floods of 2000. I was a relatively new MP at the time, and I will never forget watching hundreds of troops pass sandbags along a line one Saturday night in a desperate attempt to keep Selby's flood defences from failing. That brought it home to me how big an issue this is for many communities, and I am very pleased that the Bill is before the House tonight. May it have a fair wind in the new year.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to make a short contribution, following my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan). The Bill is important. As a member of the Select Committee, I could make an argument for delay so that we got the totality of the Bill, but it is important that we prioritise the flooding aspects of the earlier Floods and Water Bill and deal with some aspects of water management.
I approach the Bill from three standpoints. First, the Select Committee's pre-legislative scrutiny was a detailed exercise. I have tried to read the papers. We have done our homework and carried out our scrutiny role properly. Secondly, as my two constituency neighbours explained in graphic detail, Gloucestershire will be renowned for the 2007 floods. All of us who were involved in those dreadful days will always remember what that meant for some people and their representatives. As we know, some of the problems continue. I was dealing with floods only a few weeks ago. Thankfully, they were not major but they were still significant. The problem is not ever-present, but it has not gone away.
As a result, my third point of influence is through the work of the people who formed action groups. I shall mention four, although there are more in my constituency-the Painswick Stream group, the Slad Brook group, the Bridgend group in Stonehouse, where I live, and the Shorn Brook group in Hardwicke. Each of those groups has lobbied me and kept me directly in touch with all developments. I have learned that the problem is ongoing. More than anything, we must be honest with people. I shall say more about that shortly.
To me, there are four aspects that we should try to bring together. There are issues of leadership, particularly leadership from the centre, but also at a local level, funding, responsibility and deliverability. The two Pitt reports did an immense service by highlighting a series of recommendations. Pleasingly, the Government are turning the clock forward and bringing into statute the very things that Michael Pitt asked us to do, although most of the recommendations did not require legislation.
At the centre of these efforts we have the double-headed hydra-the Environment Agency and the lead local authority. The decision-making mechanism can be criticised for its vertical structure, but as other hon. Members have said, unless there is clarity, there will always be confusion about who does what.
I welcome the way in which the Government have set about trying to deal with the charging of voluntary and community groups. Some of us felt that that campaign might not be successful, but the Government have listened. Although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) said, we must make the campaign stronger, I am proud that I can go back to my Stroud groups and say that we have listened and we will do the right thing.
I shall expand on three points that have been mentioned. First, I spend my life trying to persuade people that, far from being a problem, internal drainage boards are a valuable addition to the way in which we organise things at a local level. I think I understand what the Government want us to do through the legislation-to widen the IDBs' realm of activity and to deepen their ability to co-ordinate their activities so that an IDB does not need to be too locally based. We miss a trick if we do not recognise the value of those people on the IDBs, given the way in which they can apply their skills, knowledge and, certainly, local understanding to any flooding situation. I do not mind levying the cost at all. I will go to any of my parish councils and tell them that we should levy a charge so that those IDBs can function, because the preparatory and preventive work that they are so able to carry out is very important.
We have ducked riparian ownership, because it is an immense issue. We have not mentioned it, because, despite including it in the draft Bill, we cavilled even there at the possible repercussions of taking away responsibility from owners. We cannot duck the issue completely, however, and I shall concentrate on one simple aspect that has caused me enormous problems-when the riparian owner has not only failed to do the work, but has been obstructive and unhelpful, and other people have been flooded as a result. The riparian owner may have barricaded their land, built it up so that other people subsequently flood or, in one case of which I know, just refused to operate the sluice gates. When one sees a neighbour being flooded after they have desperately tried to get on to somebody else's property, which has barbed wire around it and barred gates, that is the most depressing thing. I therefore want the Bill to make it clear that we can prosecute such people and use enforcement, so that they at least get the message that that is not good neighbourliness. They should be held responsible for either their inactivity or their improper actions.
We have also skated over the issue of critical infrastructure. People have mentioned the railways, and they are crucial to the issue, because they are a huge conduit for water. If we do not include the railway system and Network Rail, in particular, alongside the water boards, the Environment Agency and all the other public bodies, we will fail to realise how important they are. It has not always been easy to get such bodies to take responsibility. The situation has improved in my area, but some households flooded when the railway organisations failed to take responsibility for their cuttings, so I shall look very carefully at how we can co-ordinate activities and make the strategies more coherent.
I shall leave my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to puzzle over my final point. It is about our raising expectations by putting in place a strategic plan, which in this case is the local surface water management plan. I am very pleased that the Government have encouraged the 70-odd areas that are working through the issue to come up with such plans, but once they are in place it behoves us to find the money to deal with any subsequent problems.
There is a need for honesty. If we are to put in place a plan and the money to fund the action, we should tell people. But, if that is not going to happen for any reason, we must, as I said in an intervention earlier, tell people and households that they will have to look at
their own resilience and take their own measures because we cannot guarantee that, in every eventuality, they will be safe from flooding.
That may be a sour note on which to end my contribution, but the worst thing of all was when we met people who thought they had been promised protection, and it was not possible to deliver that. We need complete honesty in how we go about these matters.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I congratulate all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). I congratulate the Secretary of State on his staying power. The one missing element in the debate was the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies); we wish him very well in his negotiations on fisheries. I look forward to working with him constructively in the forthcoming Committee proceedings. I echo the warm reception that the Bill has received across the House, although all those who contributed took a cautious approach, and I think that there is room for improvement.
The Secretary of State set the tone by relaying the events of the summer 2007 floods. I echo his tributes, and those of all hon. Members, to the emergency services-the police, fire and ambulance services, as well as the Environment Agency, local authorities and the armed forces, and in Cumbria, most recently, the mountain and fell rescue service. In the visits that I have made, I have been struck by the importance of the visibility of those who walk the streets, particularly those from the Environment Agency; they wear a uniform with a badge. It is also important that we recognise the resilience of local communities, most recently in Workington, Cockermouth and Keswick in Cumbria, as well as parts of the Copeland constituency.
The Vale of York is distinctive in that it is about 65 per cent. flood plain; sadly, we are all too experienced in serious flooding. I should like to declare an interest in that I hope that the Secretary of State will soon allow our modest little scheme for Thirsk to go ahead through the Environment Agency. I would like to hold him to account for a comment that he made about the additional funds that were given in 2007 and, most recently, for the Cumbrian floods. Following the summer 2007 floods, our exercise proved that £50 million in out-of-pocket expenses was incurred by local authorities. I have questioned the Secretary of State and his hon. Friends about that. I hope that Cumbria and other communities that may well suffer in future will not be left with such high expenses.
I should like to draw together some of the strands of the debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who spoke very eloquently, referred to the definition of risk and the continuing role of adaptation. I would like to add to the list that he and others gave. We need a review not only of bridges and other critical infrastructure, which I understand has not yet been completed, but of all main roads and trunk roads. The M1 came very close to closing as a result of the summer 2007 floods. In a visit to the constituency of the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham), I was shocked to see the damage to one small road in Cockermouth, before a full audit was done.
I think that everyone welcomes the strategic overview and role that the Environment Agency will be given, but it is very prescriptive. The fact that there is no appeals mechanism in relation to some of its prescriptive roles and powers is worthy of exploration in Committee. We must also consider how the draft strategy that the agency is to publish will link in with other elements. My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) talked about the need for a more integrated approach between the county and unitary authorities, and said that the district councils must not be excluded because they were the planning authorities. I am a particular fan of the internal drainage boards. I must declare that I am a vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities, an appointment of which I am particularly proud. Those boards have the necessary local expertise and skills, and, recently, the funds. We need to explore ways in which the internal drainage boards, the Environment Agency and the water companies can work more closely together.
The Secretary of State may think that I am playing devil's advocate here, but while my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State set out clearly our role and that of local communities, I believe that there are certain matters on which the water companies have a further role to play. One is sustainable urban drainage systems, and I hope that the Secretary of State is minded to agree to our proposal to adopt the Scottish law definition of SUDS. I do not see any reason for having one definition north of the border and another south of the border, given that it is comprehensive. It is important that we identify where SUDS are, who currently owns them and who maintains them. That has not yet been achieved in the Bill, and we need an audit. From a cursory first reading of the Bill, I believe that the water companies have a prominent role to play in taking the lead responsibility for SUDS once we have established those facts. They have the skills and resources to do that in a way that local authorities may not.
I entirely endorse what the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) said about sewers, which we cannot talk about often enough. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) for his work on sewers when he was a Minister. We need a definite plan and proposal for the adoption of private drains and sewers, and again, we need an audit so that we know where they are and who owns them. It comes as a bolt from the blue when householders find out that their drains are private. They often find out only because their drains are flooded. We need a deadline for that, and I hope that the Secretary of State will oblige.
It is right that the water companies should adopt private drains and sewers and be made responsible for them, but regrettably the Secretary of State and the Department are completely wrong in their sums. I do not believe that the savings that they have estimated are accurate or that local authorities are currently paying out anything like the sums that they believe. We need to be grown-up and revisit that, and water companies need to be prepared and know exactly what they are in for.
Pitt was extremely clear about the ending of the automatic right to connect. The regulations under planning policy statement 25, which a number of hon. Members have mentioned, cover building on flood plains. I believe that water companies should have the badge of statutory consultees, but also that their advice, like that of the
Environment Agency, should be acted upon. There should be some comeback when a planning authority proceeds to ignore that advice, if water companies are adopted as statutory consultees under the Bill.
To recap, I believe that water companies have a key role to play in sustainable urban drainage systems, planning changes to end the automatic right to connect and the adoption of private drains and sewers. I welcome the opening up of the tendering process to bodies other than water companies in clause 36, but I do not understand the logic of excluding water companies. I hope that the Secretary of State will review that.
There have been a number of contributions about sustainable development, natural alleviation schemes of water retention and working with nature. I pay tribute to the pilot scheme that has been authorised in Pickering. I have aspirations to represent Pickering in a future Parliament, so it is particularly close to my heart. Other pilots have also been rolled out, including by the right hon. Member for Scunthorpe in his previous ministerial capacity. If the Pickering scheme is deemed to work, with mini-dams along the railway line, trees upstream and bottlenecks removed downstream, it will be a great way forward and other parts of the country will benefit.
I have great sympathy with those who have said that river catchment area management needs to be examined more closely, and there is work that we can do on that. As regards the crucial role of the fire and rescue service and statutory responsibility, which the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and others mentioned, Pitt recommendation 39 was very clear that the Government should urgently put in place a fully funded national capability for flood rescue, with fire and rescue authorities playing a leading role, underpinned as necessary by a statutory duty. We are not quite there yet, and I hope that the Secretary of State sets out exactly where we are when he responds.
The Bill's provisions for information sharing should be more specific. There should be much more access to the various mappings. I understand that the Secretary of State is prepared to open Ordnance Survey mappings, but what about those of the Met Office, the insurance industry, district councils and water companies? However, there should be a provision setting out confidentiality criteria-the confidentiality of anything that is commercially sensitive should be respected.
Resource, funding and skills are causing great alarm-witness the contributions made this evening. We need to look again at what the balance between local government, local authorities, the Environment Agency and water companies should be. The Secretary of State is aware that I do not believe that either the Environment Agency or the local authorities can find the necessary resources from their existing funds. That matter is causing great concern, and I hope that he addresses it this evening.
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