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House of Commons
Session 2009 - 10
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Flood and Water Management Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Christopher Chope, Mr. Eric Martlew
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta (City of Durham) (Lab)
Drew, Mr. David (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Grogan, Mr. John (Selby) (Lab)
Horwood, Martin (Cheltenham) (LD)
Irranca-Davies, Huw (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
Kumar, Dr. Ashok (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab)
McIntosh, Miss Anne (Vale of York) (Con)
Morden, Jessica (Newport, East) (Lab)
Reed, Mr. Jamie (Copeland) (Lab)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Smith, Chloe (Norwich, North) (Con)
Turner, Mr. Andrew (Isle of Wight) (Con)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Williams, Mr. Roger (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)
Wright, David (Telford) (Lab)
Mick Hillyard, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 12 January 2010


[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Flood and Water Management Bill
10.30 am
The Chairman: Good morning. In the room there are hard copies of some background papers, which were initially only circulated by e-mail.

Clause 1

“Flood” and “coastal erosion”
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I beg to move amendment 131, in clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out lines 5 and 6 and insert—
‘(1) “Flood” includes—
(a) any case where land not normally covered by water becomes covered by water, or
(b) any case where water has rested just below the surface.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 82, in clause 1, page 1, line 12, after ‘waters,’, insert—
‘(da) groundwater.’
Adds groundwater specifically into key concept of flooding, makes it consistent with local provisions and beyond doubt in national ones.
Amendment 83, in clause 1, page 1, line 12, after ‘waters,’, insert—
‘(da) surface water flooding from whatever original source,’
Amendment 84, in clause 1, page 1, line 14, leave out subsection (3).
Miss McIntosh: I welcome everyone to the formal sittings. I am delighted that we are under way and I am sure we shall be able to make brisk progress.
The Minister and the Committee will be aware that there are already several definitions of “flood”—pluvial, fluvial, surface water flooding and below-surface water flooding.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr. Chope. It is difficult to hear and I assume the people at the far end of the room will not be able to hear a thing. We could all move down.
The Chairman: We shall have the fan eliminated, so that people can hear. Miss McIntosh, please speak up in the meantime.
Miss McIntosh: I shall speak more slowly, to make the time pass.
Mr. Drew: We are getting very old.
Miss McIntosh: I could not possibly comment on the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.
I am delighted to be moving amendment 131. The Minister and the Committee are aware of several definitions of “flooding”. The purpose behind the amendment is simply to convince them that the definition in the Bill is defective. The definition of “flood” in subsection (1) only relates to
“any case where land not normally covered by water becomes covered by water.”
I would love to know the background to that definition, which the Minister might like to share. It is completely innocuous as it stands, but it does not go far enough. I hope the Minister and the Committee will look favourably on what we would like to do, which is to expand the definition to cover, in addition,
“any case where water has rested just below the surface”.
The reason for that emerged from the evidence session last Thursday, when we heard that damage to property begins at 300 mm below ground level—that was established in 1977—and that soil structure is affected by waterlogging, which can have adverse impacts on foundations of infrastructure, most notably road and rail infrastructure but also property infrastructure. I would like to return to property infrastructure separately. Vegetation and crops cannot survive in conditions in which high ground water levels persist——which is 500 mm below the surface, as established in 1992. By omitting to include the below-surface level and failing to acknowledge that flooding begins before water reaches ground level, a considerable risk could be placed on infrastructure across England and Wales as well as the damage to property, whether homes or land.
One of the Government’s own top scientists has said that the biggest challenge we face is climate change, while another said that the biggest challenge is food security—I forget which was the Department’s and which the general Government chief scientist. On both issues, clause 1 serves a useful purpose by improving climate change and increasing food security. The omission of our amendments would prevent the relevant authorities from even considering sub-surface flooding when weighing up the costs and benefits of flood-alleviation schemes, projects and action. In many instances, that may make the difference between a favourable cost-benefit assessment and failure, resulting in many potentially essentially schemes being sidelined. Are the Committee and the Minister agreeable to considering our definition as presented in amendment 131:
“any case where water has rested just below the surface”?
In any event, will the Minister concede that floods should be redefined to include waterlogging or saturation of soils within 500 mm of ground level?
I have related most of my remarks to infrastructure such as roads and railways, but I hope that the Minister will concede that secondary flooding is a serious issue. That is particularly the case in Hull. I visited Hull and saw that for myself. I gather that in other cases—I cannot remember whether in Plymouth or Portsmouth—secondary flooding is horrendous and poses all sorts of problems for the houses affected, and for clean-up and insurers. It can come back months after the initial flood. Our purpose in drafting the amendment to broaden the definition is to recognise flood scenarios that can create real damage to property, infrastructure, vegetation—farmers cannot recover the costs of damaged crops—and, most importantly, to the numerous poor households that are subject to secondary flooding. I hope that the Minister and the Committee will consider our amendment favourably.
The Chairman: We have had a request to have the air-conditioning turned down or switched off. That request has now been referred to something rather Orwellian called central control, and we hope that central control will respond quickly.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. I wish you well in your battle with central control throughout the proceedings.
We have waited a long time to get to this stage and I am pleased that we are finally here. There is much to welcome in the Bill, and it is very welcome that we have the Bill at all. There is still much to debate, but I put on record my appreciation of the open way in which the Minister and his team have approached discussions.
In clause 1, we perhaps confirm some people’s worst fears about politicians, because we have the opportunity to debate what a flood is for some time. Someone who cannot recognise one has certainly not lived in Cheltenham. Subsection (2) is comprehensive, but there are a couple of issues in the clause that I think we are going to address in the amendments. One, an almost philosophical issue, is the definition in subsection (1):
“land not normally covered by water”.
That perhaps implies that floods are unnatural events, that flooding is bizarre and strange, whereas flooding is part of the natural process of rainfall and tides, and part of the natural scheme of things. Underlying some of the difficulties in the Bill is an attempt to get towards processes that work with nature rather than against it, and that work with natural landscapes and natural landscape features. Perhaps that definition reveals an underlying philosophy that a flood is not natural but something against which artificial defences need to be erected. It will perhaps be more helpful as we go through the Bill to look for opportunities to work with nature and the landscape wherever possible. Ah, peace and quiet at last; the air-conditioning has been turned off.
We then have the different forms of flooding and, as I pointed out on Second Reading, when the water is flowing down your high street it is rather difficult to tell which type of water it is and to whom it belongs. I shall illustrate one problem with the definitions of water by quoting a couple of examples given to me by the National Flood Forum:
“A disabled women of 89 rang the office to say her neighbour had changed the contour of his drive and as a consequence every time it rained the run-off from his drive flooded her home. She went round to complain, he was very abusive and refused to do anything about the situation. The lady rang both the”
Environment Agency and the local authority,
“only to be told it was”
not their kind of flooding
“and there was nothing they could do to help her. Her only form of redress would be to take the very costly legal route.”
In another example,
“A mill owner in south Yorkshire tarmaced a staff car park and after that every time it rained the water ran down the hill side flooding a line of terraced houses. They too complained to the mill owner and got the same reaction as above from him and the”
Environment Agency and the local authority. That tangle of responsibilities and the inability to work out who is responsible for what led Sir Michael Pitt to ask for the clear oversight role—the buck-stops-here role—for the Environment Agency that all of us support. I am slightly worried because we are not sure that, in all cases, the Bill delivers that. It is important that we address not only amendment 131, but amendments 82 to 84.
Amendment 131 deals with the specific concern of the Association of Drainage Authorities, which has rightly said that damage starts below ground level. I am not sure that we need the specific amendment that we are discussing, because there is a definition of ground water at clause 6(4), which says:
“‘Groundwater’ means all water which is below the surface of the ground and in direct contact with the ground or subsoil.”
I should think that that definition—if we can make it explicit in the definition of a flood—covers the concerns of the hon. Member for Vale of York. However, I am sympathetic to her amendment and would happily support it, for the avoidance of all doubt.
Our amendments 82 to 84 would put a few specific definitions of flooding beyond doubt and within the scope of the Bill. The first definition that we are concerned with is groundwater, in a sense making our objective the same as the one behind amendment 131. The specifics that we deal with reflect the reality that many of my constituents in Cheltenham faced when they were flooded. For example, an area called Little Bayshill terrace in Cheltenham is virtually surrounded by the River Chelt, which goes round two sides of that road. That little cul-de-sac ends in a fairly comprehensive wall that is designed to stop the water coming in and flood defences were installed at the entrances to that area, with sandbags also put in place in the event of June and July floods. But it was all as nought, because in many cases the flood water simply came up through their floorboards. That kind of ground water flooding was just as distressing and, in a sense, more frustrating because the people there had put so much effort into stopping water coming in by other means.
We need to be specific. In respect of the overall definition of flooding and the responsibilities for flooding that we are passing to the Environment Agency—
Mr. Drew: The hon. Gentleman will know that the problems with both Mythe and Castle Mead pumping stations were from water coming from below. All the erroneous media reports about the water being about to overwash the barriers were unhelpful, because it was about trying to stop the water coming through from the ground. I sure that he knows about that.
Martin Horwood: My neighbour the hon. Member for Stroud makes an important point. He is right about the Mythe water pumping station. For all the media attention on the flood defences that were being put round the outside, when people spoke about Mythe—[Interruption.] I am sorry; I am confusing that with Walham electricity substation, which people talked about being a few inches from being flooded, although it was water inside the perimeter rising up at ground level and threatening to damage the machinery that was the problem.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): My hon. Friend makes a powerful case for amending the definition. In support of his contention, may I reflect upon my constituency office? It is called Watergate, which should have given us some indication that we might have problems before we took the lease. Flood defence has done much to counteract the fluvial flooding, but we still have flooding from ground water that comes up in the basement. My hon. Friend makes an important point.
10.45 am
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