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I could go on about worries about loss of experienced civil servants and skills in the Department, but that would be extremely tangential to the points made by the right hon. Gentleman. We want to avoid a reoccurrence of the concerns that he raised. Therefore, in closing, apart from reiterating the importance of transparency, I want to ask the Minister what processes the Department will now follow to ensure that the evidence is gleaned from the right hon. Gentleman, if he has it, and that it is properly investigated. We need to find out why and how information appears to have been distorted through the process in question, and whether that was by accident or intent. It is important to understand it, and I hope that the Minister can offer us not only an explanation but some reassurance.

3.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Peter Luff): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) on securing the debate. He was kind enough to say some generous things about me, and I say them back to him. He is a gentleman whom I respect very much, and we have worked together for many years in the House—for more than 20 years, to be precise. All that I would say to him is that I think there is a scandal in logistics, but it is not the one that he thinks. I shall come on to that.

I reject the right hon. Gentleman’s underlying assumption. He sees a conspiracy where there is none. The suggestion of fattening up for some kind of killing is just wrong. We had an opportunity to discuss these matters yesterday, but he pulled that meeting, having had a meeting with Neil Firth and colleagues. I think that he has misrepresented what he was told at that meeting, although I was not there, so I cannot be sure. From what I heard, he got a very different story from the one he has reported to the House today.

Mr Llwyd: I do not accept that. I had a note-taker with me, and I referred to the notes taken.

Peter Luff: In that case, I will make the specific rebuttal now. It is true that the right hon. Gentleman was told that mistakes are likely to be made. There are 8,000 deliveries a day across the logistics operation. If 99% of them go right and 1% go wrong, that is 80 a day that go wrong. That is a lot of anecdotal attacks to make on an organisation that is basically being well run. He was told that mistakes are inevitably made, but against a background of 8,000 daily deliveries, it is unfair to assert some kind of systematic error, inefficiency or corruption. That is the problem that we have.

I will study the detailed assertions made by the right hon. Gentleman. I will not be able to respond to them all during the debate. I shall write to him and to the other hon. Members who have participated in the debate, as best I can, as I look at the matters individually, though I think that I shall be able to satisfy him on all questions—at least if he is prepared to be open-minded about the answers. I assure him that if any company or Ministry of Defence official has acted inappropriately, it will not be tolerated, and action will be taken. We have a zero-tolerance policy on those matters, as I know from several occasions during my two years in my post.

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I would say to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) that there is an inefficiency and fraud hotline at the Ministry of Defence, so that anyone with a concern about inefficiency or fraud can ring up, completely securely—whistleblowing is entirely encouraged in the Ministry of Defence—and make the allegation. I am aware of no such allegation of impropriety in the logistics organisation being made on the hotline. If someone has gone to the right hon. Gentleman with specific allegations that is their democratic right—I do not want to stop them doing that—but I wish that they had come to me through the fraud hotline and enabled me to address such concerns sooner, if they exist.

Alison Seabeck: Did the Minister, before today’s debate, ask specifically whether any calls had been put into the fraud hotline on this matter?

Peter Luff: To be fair to the hon. Lady, I did not ask. I will check that, but I am sure that they would have been drawn to my attention had they been made. It is a fair question to ask, and I cannot give her a guarantee. There has been no Cabinet Office involvement, though; I assure her of that.

I will not arbitrate on Donnington and Bicester today. I have been to Bicester. I shall go to Donnington in July. I shall be even-handed, entirely, I promise both the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). I shall not be arbitrating there. I think that I shall be able to give the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View the reassurance that she wanted on all the fundamental points she made in her speech, because this is a bipartisan issue.

Successive Governments over decades have dealt with problems with logistics, which is often the Cinderella of defence, and to which insufficient political attention is often given. That is one reason why I welcome the debate. It is good that the subject should be exposed in the House, and good to have the opportunity to record some of the remarkable achievements of people who work in logistics, often in adverse circumstances.

I think that I detected in the speech of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd—if I am wrong I apologise to him straight away—an underlying hostility to the role that the private sector can play in delivering defence outputs more effectively. We, like the previous Government—it is a bipartisan policy—have found that using the private sector appropriately enables significantly better outcomes to be achieved for defence. Many of the things that we are doing in the logistics operation build on decisions made by the previous Government. We understand the role that the private sector can play.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that no information that it is proper to put in the public domain, within the limits of commercial confidentiality, has been concealed. Detailed information is available, for example, on each and every contractor involved—I think that 17 are on the list—including exactly how much money they are paid and exactly what they do. I have written to members of the Public Accounts Committee with that information. I have the schedule here, and if we have time before the Division in the House is called, I may even read out all 17 names, what the contractors do and how much they were paid in 2010-11. I shall make sure that the information is available to the right hon. Gentleman after the debate.

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No information is concealed. Indeed, the National Audit Office rightly goes over logistics regularly, and another NAO report is due out in the fairly near future. If the NAO has not spotted such things as the right hon. Gentleman is concerned about, and all the information is genuinely available, I am frankly suspicious about whether the allegations have any foundation. However, I will double check. Question after question has been answered, and nothing that it would be improper to conceal will be concealed. Some information, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View was kind enough to note, sometimes must be kept private for reasons of commercial confidentiality. That is frustrating for politicians and democrats, but sometimes it is important. However, we shall be as open as we possibly can.

I listened carefully to the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd and will address some of his points in my speech—I have already done so in part; but I want to explain a little more about logistics commodities and services at Bicester, and the wider operation, to put his remarks in context. The organisation provides remarkable support to the UK armed forces, particularly to those serving on deployed operations, not just in Afghanistan but particularly there. LCS Bicester is one of three main storage and distribution depots for non-explosive stores, operated by Defence Equipment and Support. The other two are LCS Donnington, in Shropshire, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Telford, where I am going in July, and LCS Dulmen, in Germany. The role of those sites is to receive, store, maintain, issue and distribute non-explosive matériel on behalf of the UK armed forces and other Departments.

Last year, the National Audit Office published a report called “The use of information to manage the logistics supply chain”. In that report, the NAO—it is not I, a Minister, saying this, but the NAO—acknowledged the improved performance of the MOD’s supply chain and its effectiveness in supporting our forces in Afghanistan. In particular, the NAO’s report noted that the operational supply chain is more complex than the standard industry supply chain, which is not something that people often acknowledge.

To pick up on the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, the UK’s delivery performance is comparable with that of commercial operators. We are doing as well as the commercial sector, which is a great tribute to all those involved, and a significant achievement. That is why I am suspicious about the allegations made by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd.

The defence equipment and support logistics commodities and services operating centre, of which MOD Bicester is a part, is key to the successful delivery of those services. The defence inventory is huge, complex and comprehensive. As at 31 December 2011, the gross book value of the inventory, excluding explosive stores, was about £29 billion. That represents 500,000 different line items, covering everything from clothing to medical supplies and engine parts. Those items are distributed to approximately 3,500 sites across the UK and around the world. Up to 8,000 issues are sent every day—some 1.2 million every year—ranging from small washers to aircraft wings. That is indeed a huge and complex operation. Given the sheer volume of items moved by the organisation—I am in no way complacent, because we do not tolerate error, either—it is inevitable that some mistakes will be made.

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Turning to one mistake in particular that the right hon. Gentleman has made much of in the past, there is an appropriate saying: a lie is around the world while the truth is getting its boots on. Let us look at those boots once more. An item that should be routinely requested is sometimes marked as urgent by the unit itself; or items may be sent individually when they could be packaged together. That is normally the fault of the requesting unit.

In the specific case of the boots couriered to a unit in Northern Ireland, which the right hon. Gentleman raised at Prime Minister’s questions, that is exactly what happened. The unit used the wrong process to order the boots. It realised the mistake too late. I am not going to allow civil servants to override front-line decisions and say, “We do not think that is urgent. The officers in charge might think it is urgent, but we disagree.” That would not be right. The responsibility lies with the unit to use the appropriate requesting process.

What happened in this instance was a regrettable mistake, which the unit tried to correct too late. It was not corruption; it was not fraud; and it was not improper. It was a straightforward human error. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not repeat his assertion. I am entirely satisfied that there was no fraud involved at all. The mistake was made by the Army, which it regretted and tried to correct.

I cannot guarantee that such mistakes will not happen again—we are all human beings who have feet of clay and who make mistakes—but I am absolutely confident that this is not a systematic problem. The right hon. Gentleman made that assertion in his speech, but I dissent from that view firmly and absolutely.

LCS Bicester is a well-run operation, which I am sure is also true of Donnington. The restructuring of the former Defence Storage and Distribution Agency—DSDA, of which LCS Bicester was a part—has produced significant savings. The FDSCi—future defence supply chain initiative—report, which followed the DSDA restructuring, was published in November 2009 by the previous Government and presented to the House, and I would be happy to send the right hon. Gentleman a copy. It forms the basis of my remarks today and represents more information in the public domain, which I hope will reassure him.

Between 31 March 2008 and 31 March 2012, the operating costs of DSDA and its defence equipment and support units fell from £285 million to £231 million a year. That represents a reduction of nearly 20% over four years. When calculated on a like-for-like basis, taking into account inflation, the cost of improved service and other exceptional one-off costs, the saving is 26%. That is an impressive achievement for which the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View should take her fair share of credit, on behalf of the previous Government, who initiated some of the changes.

Similarly, the cost of transporting MOD equipment has fallen by 21% over the same five-period period. I repeat that I have the detailed information on the use of companies and couriers that I would be happy to share with the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd. I will resist the temptation to read them all into the record, because it is a long list. I am surprised that he highlighted Palletways in particular. I assure him that there are people on the distribution list who get paid more than Palletways. Again, on a like-for-like basis,

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allowing for the impact of inflation and so on, the saving on the transport costs is 29%. It is 29% cheaper in real terms, which is a big achievement. A key performance is the average cost per transaction—the processing of an issue of receipt. The equivalent cost has fallen from £103 per transaction for the financial year ending 31 March 2008 to £79 per transaction in the year ending 31 March 2012. That is an increase in efficiency of 23%. Those are good and impressive figures.

Over the same period—I appreciate that this is a good news, bad news story—manpower numbers have reduced by more than 2,100 posts and the service to the customer has significantly improved. The average customer wait time—this is a really impressive statistic—has fallen from about 49 days to four days. That is an important figure, considering that our armed forces are heavily committed in operations in, for example, Afghanistan. I pay an even-handed tribute to both Bicester and Donnington in that respect. The operation of LCS Bicester and the two other main storage and distribution depots is a genuine success story. If there were an hon. Member for a German constituency and if they were present, I would congratulate him or her as well, although storage and distribution represent only one element of the management of our equipment.

We are proud of the spares and equipment availability in operational theatres such as Afghanistan, as it ensures that commanders are not constrained in conducting their missions. The same could be said for the manner in which we supported Operation Ellamy in Libya, which was another success for a logistics operation. Support for such operations must be our first priority.

Nevertheless—this is the scandal to which I alluded in my opening remarks—there is no disputing the fact that the defence inventory is, and has been for many years, too large in both value and volume and that any avoidable delay in reducing it will create many future challenges. We have to deal with the issue. There are a number of reasons for this situation. Many items are bespoke and have been purchased in bulk, based on an estimate of need stretching across several years, even decades in some cases. Other items are purchased with a view to ensuring that sufficient stocks are available to deal with a sudden surge for a short-notice or large-scale military deployment. However, that is far from the whole story.

There is a legacy—I am not making a point about the previous Government—of under-investment in the information systems to track and manage stores. The truth, as I said during my opening remarks, is that logistics is the Cinderella of defence, and that is manifest in this case. It does not seem to be a priority for investment, but it should be. Too often, the Department is unable to locate with confidence what it holds. It thinks and is reasonably sure that it has something, but it just cannot prove it to accounting standards quality when it should be able to. Moreover, it has often held too much just in case something happens.

I visited some of the warehouses in Bicester recently—I met my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury immediately before I saw them—and they are jaw-dropping. Stuff is being held that simply should not be held and it should be disposed of. The £29 billion stock holding is far too high. Too much inventory is stored for too long and at too great a cost to the taxpayer.

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This is not just a British problem. Army surplus stores exist around the world. The situation seems endemic to defence, but we must cope with it. The inventory is large and it is growing, and we are determined to tackle it head-on. We have not been idle. The Department is making progress in improving inventory disposal through the stock transition programme, which was set up to meet Treasury targets to reduce inventory holdings in our main storage and distribution depots. We have arrested the rate of growth—it is still growing—in the defence inventory as a result of those disposal measures, and we are committed to bringing purchasing activity under much stricter control.

In December 2010, I announced to the House the introduction of the future logistics information services project, which represents a step-change improvement to the quality of logistics information available to the armed forces. It will ensure the long-term delivery of operationally essential logistics information to both the MOD and industry, and the significant financial efficiencies will contribute to the Government’s strategic deficit reduction programme, without reducing operational capability.

One of the logistics information systems that will be managed under FLIS is the management of the joint deployed inventory, or MJDI—I love these acronyms—which is now up and running and has reached its initial operating capability. MJDI will bring huge improvements, enabling the entire deployed inventory—the inventory that is overseas on service—to be seen on one system. It will encourage better use of stock, which in turn will lead to reduced repeat demands, lower stock levels and saved costs in storage and transport, all generating improved operational performance. Importantly, it will enable operational commanders to make informed decisions based on accurate and timely information.

To give a specific and important example, a four-year Bowman radio equipment asset management improvement programme was introduced in 2010. Since then, we have made good progress and a coherent and auditable inventory baseline has been established. It is not rocket science, but it is hugely important and we are doing it. Process improvement in the way in which the data are captured and managed will in future enable the Department to identify and track assets more effectively. This is really important stuff.

We recognise the importance of having a comprehensive corporate strategy to tackle the myriad complex issues, and have commissioned the development of a strategic plan for the management of the defence inventory. It is intended to deliver the correct conditions to incentivise and mandate improved inventory purchasing and disposal behaviours. We have a lot of attics at the MOD, and they are too full of stuff. We need to get rid of stuff, as well as acquire stuff more thoughtfully. The strategic plan is a significant piece of work and it has just completed phase 1 of its milestone.

The financial savings and efficiencies secured by LCS Bicester and all the storage and distribution sites over the past five years are impressive, but, as I have already said, there is a long way to go if we are to provide the best possible support to military operations and maintain the agreed quality and service to our armed forces.

In response to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View, in August 2010, I announced that DSDA would renounce its agency status and that a new organisation,

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the logistics commodities and services operating centre, which brings together the key commodities purchasing, storage and distribution elements of the Department into one organisation, had been created. LCS Bicester is part of the LCS operating centre. The primary role for LCS is to provide support to military operation and force generation by undertaking procurement and inventory management of all non-explosive commodity items, including food, clothing, fuel and medical supplies; the storage and distribution of those commodity items, together with all other non-explosive stock across defence; the disposal of surplus MOD equipment and the operation of the British Forces Post Office.

LCS is currently developing a transformation project, which aims to consider how we can improve further our inventory management and stock control, rationalise current stock holdings—we are trying to thin them down, rather than fatten them up—and improve and rationalise storage infrastructure. That will include releasing surplus for disposal, which will be of interest to the hon. Member for Telford and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury. The project will also seek to improve commodity procurement and logistic processes, and optimise the size of the LCS organisation itself. The storage infrastructure requires investment to improve its condition and to rationalise the numerous dispersed locations.

Should the programme be taken forward—frankly, I expect that it will be—the first step will be to initiate an assessment phase, to explore the alternative delivery models available and whether they represent value for money, which I think addresses one of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View. The work would explore two options for delivering support in the future: industry integration and an in-house developed value for money benchmark. That review will consider all existing facilities. I emphasise that it is far too early to say what the implications will be for individual sites and that no decisions have been made.

In advance of the work at Bicester, however, a planning application for the retained footprint and for the sale

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and development of surplus land has been submitted to Cherwell district council, to prepare the way to the approach to defence logistics and to secure the value of the surplus land.

We must not forget that it is the people who work at LCS Bicester, Donnington and the other sites associated with it who make logistics operations succeed. The efficiencies and improvements that have been implemented at those sites are testimony to the quality of the people whom we employ, and I am grateful to them for what they do. I have met many of them and know that they are focused on providing the best support to our service personnel deployed on operations. I fully understand the vital role that they play. They are rightly proud of what they have achieved, and they continue to achieve a great deal.

I am enormously grateful for the commitment and dedication of all those who work to ensure that our armed forces receive the best logistics support possible. It is our job to ensure that the right framework is in place to make it work. That challenge has been ducked for too long—for decades, not just in recent years. Indeed, arguably we are addressing decades of neglect in these issues, and it will take time to deal with them. The change will come, but it will come slowly and incrementally. I am determined that we should improve the way that we do things.

If the criticisms made by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd contain any significant truth, I will, of course, want to address them very honestly and frankly. We need to do the best we possibly can to ensure that our armed forces can fight and defend our freedom as effectively as they have done in the past.

Mr Dai Havard (in the Chair): I suspend the sitting until 4 o’clock or until such time as we can reconvene if Divisions take place in the House.

3.40 pm

Sitting suspended.

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High Speed 2 (Scotland)

4.19 pm

Lindsay Roy (Glenrothes) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for this short debate, Mr Havard. I thank hon. Members for their attendance this afternoon and for their possible participation but, given the short time, I hope there will be only a few interventions.

To assist, I will briefly set out what I plan to cover. First, I will make a short reference to progress made in other countries, but principally I will put forward a case for the extension of High Speed 2 to Scotland, highlight some of the underpinning issues and, finally, pose some fundamental questions to the Minister.

High-speed rail is almost 50 years old, having been initiated in Japan in 1964, from Tokyo to Osaka. In its first year it carried 23 million passengers. Thirty years ago, France, Spain and Germany followed suit with HSR connections between and within those countries. There has been a quantum modal shift from aviation to rail, which has brought economic and environmental benefits. In those countries, passenger percentage to rail has increased dramatically and overall numbers have mushroomed. In addition to addressing capacity shortages successfully, new HSR demonstrated what can be achieved with economic growth and regeneration. In France, for example, HSR not only supported growth in already highly competitive cities such as Lyons, but improved the economic potential of previously declining urban centres such as Lille. There has been a big dividend to those cities and to Paris itself, and expanded tourist travel to Mediterranean countries.

Throughout that period, sadly, the UK seems to have existed in some kind of time warp, which beggars belief. The UK seems to have suffered from a condition called simultanagnosia, more commonly referred to as vision blindness or, as we say in Scotland, “cannae see the wood for the trees”. Despite the undoubted success of HSR in many countries over the past 30 years, successive UK Governments have been reluctant—indeed, remarkably resistant—to grasp the opportunities and undoubted dividends that HSR can bring. The only UK investment in HSR is the 69 miles from London to the channel tunnel.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): The fact that the UK has been so slow to adopt more high-speed rail is surely a strong argument for starting to plan work for HS2 to Scotland. If it is left somewhere down the line for planning to start in 15 years, it will be the end of the century before HS2 goes to Scotland.

Lindsay Roy: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I could not agree more with his sentiments. There is huge potential in opening up the gateway to continental Europe, but we have failed so far to fulfil that potential.

It was refreshing to read in the coalition’s programme for government in May 2010:

“We will establish a high speed rail network as part of our programme of measures to fulfil our joint ambitions for creating a low carbon economy. Our vision is of a truly national high speed rail network for the whole of Britain.”

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I emphasise the words “truly national network”. I welcome the belated commitment by the Government, and not just the present Government, to the programme, but the current programme seems to lack ambition in both the extent of the network and the time scale for implementation. As my hon. Friend said, now is the time to be bold, decisive and determined to deliver a high-speed rail service that meets the needs of the whole UK, not just south and middle England. Vision without action is sometimes described as daydreaming, so let us be clear that the vision is of an inclusive, first-class, high-speed rail service for the UK as a whole and in a much tighter time scale than has been proposed.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I spoke to him before the debate. He has proposed a powerful case for HS2 to Scotland, and the need for a connection to Stranraer. That is important because it would provide a connection to Northern Ireland from Stranraer via Larne. That high-speed connection would be an advantage for everyone in the United Kingdom.

Lindsay Roy: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. The Minister will no doubt want to respond to his suggestion, because high-speed rail should be for the whole UK, not just part of it.

Any interim measures to speed up conventional transport links on the west coast main line will be welcome, but high-speed rail north of Manchester must be a priority. The second-class hybrid system that was mooted recently will not meet the key objectives of increasing capacity, reducing congestion and reducing passenger travel times to just over 2 hours. Routes to and from Scotland are already significantly constrained, and running hybrid trains will not improve that. Furthermore, if Scotland is not included, Glasgow and Edinburgh will be comparatively further away than their main competitors, which will be served by truly high-speed lines. As the Minister said,

“If we sit back and fail to deal with the capacity time bomb set to explode within the next 10 to 20 years, we will do lasting damage to our economy.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2011; Vol. 534, c. 319WH.]

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this debate, and I take on board fully his point that a hybrid system is wholly inadequate. Nevertheless, there are some issues, particularly for those of us on the east coast, because the suggestion seems to be that in the first phase the hybrid trains would run from Birmingham up the west coast. I am interested in his views on that. Would it be reasonable to reroute services to the east coast via that route because even a 30-minute reduction would make a substantial difference to some of the environmental choices that people make between rail and air?

Lindsay Roy: I thank my hon. Friend for her comment, and no doubt the Minister will want to pick that up. My view is certainly that we must consider not just the west coast main line option, but the whole UK. The case for high-speed rail is central not peripheral, and is overwhelming. US Vice-President Joe Biden reminded us recently that

“Public infrastructure investment raises private sector productivity”.

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Graeme Morrice (Livingston) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I agree that extending high-speed rail to Scotland is central and not peripheral. Indeed, I have made similar comments in the House. It is a UK project, and we are in a United Kingdom, so we have the critical mass to ensure that we can deliver it and that it reaches into Scotland to Edinburgh and Glasgow. Does he share my fear that if we ever faced the prospect of Scotland being separated, this UK project would not happen, and we in Scotland could lose out?

Lindsay Roy: My hon. Friend anticipates part of my argument. I will cover that later.

Turning to public sector infrastructure, there has been criticism about Scotland being overdependent on the public sector. Surely a high-speed link to Scotland would enhance the opportunities for the private sector and provide a greater balance within the economy. In essence, if we want to shape the future, we must create it. There is certainly unanimity in Scotland that high-speed rail that reaches the parts that others cannot reach must be a priority—I believe that is called the Heineken factor.

When the Government announced that HS2 would go ahead, a commitment was given to work with the Scottish Government and others on how to improve capacity between north and south. There is overwhelming consensus for HSR in Scotland across the political spectrum, including transport bodies, local, national and multinational businesses, civic society, trade unions and environmental groups. That unity of spirit and purpose stems from clarity about the perceived benefits.

Fundamentally, high-speed rail will bring three dividends to Scotland. First, there is capacity: as well as providing new services for passengers, it will free up space on traditional lines for freight and local passenger trains, reducing delays and congestion. Increased pressure on capacity is already impacting on service reliability and punctuality. Despite the welcome improvements that might be made, there will not be radical improvement on the existing framework. Secondly, high-speed rail would offer huge environmental benefits, because the modal shift from air to rail will dramatically reduce carbon emissions. It would also ensure adequate air slots for planes from the more peripheral parts of the UK, at a time when our airports are experiencing further congestion. In written evidence to the Transport Committee, Transport Scotland and Network Rail stated, significantly, that

“our evidence indicates that the extension of HSR to Scotland would significantly improve the benefit to costs ratio.”

There therefore appear to be huge dividends for the UK as a whole, and a high-speed rail link would also reduce our unhealthy overdependence on oil fuelled transport—a welcome strategic shift that would reduce relative transport costs.

Thirdly, HSR would contribute significantly to stimulating Scotland’s economy and promoting new business growth and regeneration. It would attract inward investment to Scotland, stimulate industry and be a further catalyst to tourism. The central belt contains more than 3.5 million people, a population similar in magnitude to that of the west midlands and Manchester.

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High-speed connectivity with other major population centres in the UK will be vital to sustain economic activity and promote growth.

Edinburgh is the second most popular destination for tourists from overseas after London, and it hosts a vibrant financial services sector that is the seventh most competitive in Europe. The area is home to a wide array of innovative companies that are investing in research and new technologies such as biotechnology, electronics and renewables. The economy of the Glasgow region accounts for 36% of Scottish exports. Glasgow is the second most popular city in the UK for inward investment, and contains the second largest retail sector. It retains a strong manufacturing base in aerospace, defence and marine industries, and accounts for one in three jobs in the tourism, food and drink and construction sectors.

High-speed rail could play a vital role in making innovative developments in Scotland and ensuring that we champion the business opportunities that we could expect within a new framework. Evidence clearly indicates that the case for high-speed rail in the UK is stronger when Scotland is included. The Scottish Partnership Group, which has representatives from across business, trade unions and the transport industry, reinforces the economic dividends. Iain McMillan from CBI Scotland notes the positive business case for ensuring Scotland’s inclusion in HSR:

“Good transport links and external connectivity to principal markets are vital to Scotland’s economic success. We are encouraged by the report’s focus on ensuring the development of this key infrastructure project, conscious of Scotland’s physical position on the periphery of Europe and the greater consequential need to provide key links to hubs and markets.”

Colin Borland from the Federation of Small Businesses indicates that

“productivity will increase and it will help Scottish businesses to compete.”

Liz Cameron from the Scottish chamber of commerce emphasises that

“we must be beneficiaries, not victims of HSR.”

A host of highly respected companies have added their unqualified support to the extension of HSR to the central belt. They include Dell, Siemens, Barclays and Sistemic, to name but a few. Some 75% of businesses that were recently canvassed were strongly in support of the extension of HS2 to Scotland.

High-speed rail would bring huge economic and environmental benefits to Scotland and the UK, but although there is a strong consensus on the need for HSR, there is, regrettably, huge uncertainty about the future of such a rail link to Scotland. There has been some support for the idea of starting a high-speed link from Scotland at the same time as building from London as a sign of good faith and commitment, but there is a major stumbling block because if Scotland voted for separation, HSR would surely remain on the drawing board. Even if an independent Scotland were to find the resources to finance HSR from Edinburgh or Glasgow to the border, who would pay for the high-speed link from Manchester to Carlisle and beyond? There would be no economic imperative for the UK taxpayer, and no political incentive for UK MPs to extend HS2 beyond Manchester.

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and I agree with every word he said. What concerns me is what will

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happen if the Scottish National party gets its way in Scotland. As a Conservative and Unionist politician, I want a national UK rail network. Is this not a real opportunity for us all to work together? We have had many debates on HS2 in the House, and this is an opportunity for us to ensure that it goes ahead from London to Birmingham to Manchester and to Leeds, and indeed up to Scotland.

Lindsay Roy: Absolutely; I could not agree more. HS2 should be a phased programme, hopefully with an accelerated time scale.

The Scottish Minister for Housing and Transport, Keith Brown, is right about the need for HSR to reach Scotland, but he is clearly stronger in economics than in politics. By implication, he concedes that Scotland would become an economic backwater if it becomes a separate nation, and that it could not deliver a vital link to our biggest export market.

Does the Minister accept that political certainty—in so far as that can ever be achieved—is essential to ensure that any future HSR development comes to fruition as quickly as possible? Completion of HS2 is likely to span the lifetime of several Parliaments, and achieving the vision of a high-speed network will require cross-party political support, a clear commitment from the Government about their intention to proceed north of Manchester, and clarity about Scotland’s position on whether it is to become a separate state or remain within the UK. The key question for the UK Government is whether they would invest beyond Manchester and Leeds if Scotland were to become a separate nation.

What recent discussions has the Minister had with the Scottish Government about high-speed rail? Does she accept the various research findings that indicate clearly that connectivity to Scotland would make the UK business case for HSR stronger rather than weaker, because the maximum dividends would occur with the potential modal shift from air to train? Does she agree that HS2 will bring significant economic benefits to Scotland in particular in terms of inward investment, regeneration and tourism? A two-hour journey time from Edinburgh or Glasgow to London is attractive, particularly in terms of the effective use of precious time.

I have already mentioned the view that without HS2 Scotland could become an economic backwater, and I reinforce the point that although upgrading the west coast main line would be helpful in its initial stages, it is not an overall solution to the problems in the system. Indeed, some would argue that that would be merely tinkering with the system and a token gesture.

To conclude, does the Minister agree that what is now required is a commitment and the tenacity to achieve the preferred network in as short a time as possible? That will strengthen our international economic competitiveness, reduce carbon emissions, transform our internal strategic network and meet capacity demands. For too long we have suffered from what I would call vision blight, and we need such a commitment to take things forward. Surely it is not beyond the wit of the UK Government and businesses to work together with other political parties and businesses to turn into reality the vision of an interconnected high-speed rail network

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that encompasses Scotland and other areas, and provide a commitment to achieve that well before 2033. Given the weight of evidence, I trust that the Minister will confirm her commitment to considering the extension of HS2 in a more appropriate time scale.

4.38 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Havard, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy) on a thoughtful and well informed speech on an important topic. I, too, thank other hon. Members for attending the debate. I agreed with almost everything the hon. Gentleman said, in particular that successfully delivering a high-speed rail network is in large part assisted by and dependent on maintaining cross-party consensus. We are grateful for the consensus that we have seen on this matter to date, and the attendance at today’s debate demonstrates the support for high-speed rail across parties and in different parts of the United Kingdom.

The ability to travel quickly and efficiently between the UK’s productive centres is vital for commerce to thrive and for businesses to create jobs and invest in our country. High Speed 2 is a core element of the Government’s vision for a transport system that is an engine of economic growth, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted. A new national high-speed rail network will deliver massive benefits in capacity, connectivity and reliability, which will help to underpin prosperity right across Britain and leave a lasting legacy for generations to come.

I fully recognise that there is tremendous support for high-speed rail in Scotland. As the hon. Gentleman highlighted, recent evidence for that is provided by the “Fast Track Scotland” report of the Scottish Partnership Group, which comprises a wide range of business groups, local authorities and the Scottish Government. We all share a vision for faster journeys that bring the constituent parts of our island closer together.

The hon. Gentleman focused strongly on the need to take high-speed rail to Scotland as soon as possible. The coalition agreement makes it clear that our ultimate goal is a genuinely national network, with high-speed services from London to the midlands and the north, including Scotland. We see phases 1 and 2 of the High Speed 2 project as the best way to make progress towards that goal. If we look back over our transport history—we can look at the construction of the first railways, the London underground or the motorway network, for example—we see that major networks have invariably been delivered in phases over a number of years. For high-speed rail in Britain to be an affordable and manageable proposition, the only viable option is a phased approach. Our priority is therefore delivery of the Y network, with London to the west midlands as the first phase.

However, the day after we announced our decision on phase 1 of the network, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), was north of the border at a meeting arranged by Transport Scotland to outline the details of the announcement and to discuss the next steps with key Scottish stakeholders; and last month, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State attended a

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round table with Scottish businesses. She also had very constructive discussions with Keith Brown, the Minister for Housing and Transport in Scotland. She has agreed that the two Governments will step up their engagement on this issue, with a view to establishing an appropriate division of responsibility and putting the necessary governance in place to work through potential solutions.

Working with the Scottish Government, we hope to develop a mutually agreed timetable over the summer for our plans to consider progressing HS2 further. Officials from the two Governments are due to meet within the next few weeks to start that new strand of work. Care is needed in considering the case for extensions. All relevant evidence and options need to be properly assessed. It would be in no one’s interest if work on possible extensions slowed down progress on the Y network. Moreover, it will be difficult to look seriously at the route of potential extensions until we are much closer than we are now to a decision on routes to Manchester and Leeds—something on which the Government have only just received the advice of HS2 Ltd.

Undoubtedly, therefore, there are some practical constraints on the extent of the work that can be done at this stage, but I assure the hon. Member for Glenrothes and others attending the debate that those practical considerations do not mean that the Government will sit back until the full Y network is completed before looking seriously at how high-speed services could be extended.

Sheila Gilmore: We are all very conscious that the Government have come in for criticism. People have said, “Why bother taking high-speed rail to Birmingham when it will lop such a small amount off journey times?” Given that the real benefits, both economic and environmental, will come when we get the extension to Scotland, is there not a great deal of value in progressing those plans as quickly as possible, because that will reinforce the argument for the first part of the scheme?

Mrs Villiers: As I have said, we are certainly prepared to start considering the future development and expansion of the network while still in the process of delivering the initial phases. The question has often been asked, including by the hon. Member for Glenrothes today, about who would pay for what were there to be extensions. It is too early to start to design funding packages, although I am sure that hon. Members will be aware that the devolution settlement gives the Scottish Government the responsibility for funding rail infrastructure that is north of the border.

The hon. Gentleman also expressed concern about the impact that a vote for separation and division of our nation would have. I agree that such a huge constitutional change would make it much more difficult to deliver major improvements to our transport network, if only because of the distraction that it would cause. If the entirety of the Government machine is focused on separating itself from the rest of the United Kingdom, that will inevitably have a detrimental effect on efforts to stimulate the economy and to improve the transport infrastructure.

We have already begun work with partners north of the border to ensure that Scotland gets the most out of our current plans for HS2, as well as to explore fully Scotland’s future aspirations for even faster connectivity.

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We should not underestimate the benefits that Scotland will get from the Y network, which we are already taking forward. It is a fact that the benefits of HS2 will extend far beyond the cities directly served by the Y network. HS2 Ltd’s estimate of the £44 billion economic boost that high-speed rail could produce is a cautious one, and the boost will be felt in Scotland and the north of England as well as in the south.

HS2 will increase capacity and enhance connectivity all the way to Scotland by relieving pressure on the most congested, southern end of the west coast line. The seamless transition of trains on to the east and west coast main lines from the Y network will deliver faster journeys to destinations the length of Britain. Completion of the Y network is expected to slash the journey time between Edinburgh and Glasgow and London to about three and a half hours. That will deliver very significant connectivity and economic benefits. We want those benefits to be delivered as soon as possible—a number of hon. Members mentioned the time of delivery—which is why we are exploring options for bringing forward formal public consultation on phase 2 of the Y network. We will set out our proposed timetable later this year.

Lindsay Roy: The evidence indicates quite clearly that a quantum modal shift from air to train would be achieved if the journey time could be two to two and a half hours. With a journey time of three and a half hours, there would still be a propensity to go for air transport.

Mrs Villiers: I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. Given the experience with high-speed rail in the rest of Europe, I think that a journey time of three and a half hours will make rail a very attractive alternative to flying, particularly when one factors in the increased time at either end of an air journey. There is quite an intense debate on the issue of an air-to-rail switch, but experience in the rest of Europe shows that a high-speed rail journey of three and a half hours is generally an attractive alternative to the plane.

The claim by opponents of HS2 that better, faster transport between north and south will see economic activity pulled into London and away from the UK’s other great cities is misguided. I have every confidence that bringing Edinburgh and Glasgow closer to London with the Y network—a journey time of three and a half hours—will be a real boost for those cities, as well as for the cities of the midlands and the north of England. That confidence is based on the evidence from our European neighbours, who began their high-speed rail journey a generation before we had even started arguing about the first 67-mile stretch of track from the channel tunnel. The hon. Gentleman expressed concern about how slow Governments have been to take up that challenge.

Faster journeys will see more extensive modal shift between air and rail as the train becomes the mode of choice for more travellers, countering the allegation made by opponents that HS2 is not green. High-speed rail is already greener than flying, but the difference between the two modes will widen as we clean up our sources of electricity generation.

A crucial point to underline is that we are not pursuing HS2 just because of the positive benefits that we believe it will generate. The case for HS2 also rests on the pressing need to head off big problems that are heading

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towards us and will affect the whole of Britain. The simple fact is that the demand for inter-city transport capacity is growing strongly and has been for many years. If we fail to deal with the capacity pressure that we will face in future years, we will do lasting damage to our economy and competitiveness.

I emphasise that HS2 does not mean that we will stop investing in and improving our current transport networks. We fully recognise the importance of continuing to enhance our existing rail network, and that includes improving links between England and Scotland, not least because of how determined we are that the benefits of the Y network must be felt well beyond the cities that it serves directly. We have therefore embarked on a major programme of rail improvements, including the inter-city express project, which will create new jobs in the north-east and deliver a new fleet of trains for the east coast line. Those trains will start operating in 2018, offering faster, greener, higher-capacity and better-quality services, boosting fast-line capacity from Scotland into King’s Cross and cutting journey times.

On the west coast route, the long-awaited new Pendolino carriages have started service on the Birmingham-to-Scotland corridor. The Manchester-Scotland route is also due to get new trains, with delivery complete by May 2014. The new east coast timetable introduced last May increased the number of through-services between—

Mr Dai Havard (in the Chair): Order. The time for this debate has been exhausted. Thank you very much.

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Flood Defences

4.50 pm

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): It is a great pleasure to be holding this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. We are running slightly late because of the Divisions in the main Chamber, but such is the way of parliamentary life. I thank the Minister for making such progress on the issue of flooding in my constituency. He has brokered a useful dialogue between the Environment Agency and the various communities in the area, particularly those along the Severn estuary, and we are immensely grateful to him for that achievement.

Before I put one or two questions to the Minister, I want to talk about three aspects of flooding: consultation on the policy drivers behind the actions being proposed along the Severn estuary; the implementation of flood attenuation in the valley in my constituency; and, finally, insurance.

Stroud is a beautiful place, but it is vulnerable to flooding, especially in the vale, which is flat, and along some of the valleys, which are quite steep. Indeed, we have a variety of characteristics that can cause flooding. We must bear in mind the issues relating not just to Severn estuary flooding but to surface water flooding, which is a problem in my constituency.

Let me turn first to the Severn estuary. With localism in mind, it is important that villagers, farmers, property owners, dwellers and anybody who will be affected by the changes proposed by the Environment Agency should feel that they have had their say, that they are being fully consulted, that they are part of a dialogue and that their concerns are being properly covered. As I have already said, the Minister’s actions have led to such a consultation.

None the less, there are policy drivers behind this complex issue which interest many of my constituents. Not least of course there is the issue of the habitat and the scale of the need for it, which is effectively conditioned by various policy drivers. Concerns have been expressed in my constituency about the new information, new changes and new facts that are now on the table. People would like more clarity and consistency in how the Environment Agency operates. That is not to say that the Environment Agency has not been extraordinarily helpful in many ways, and I personally have a good relationship with its team. I also know that it has honoured its commitment to have people effectively working as communications officers, keeping the local community informed. The Environment Agency has also answered a number of questions posed by the action group, Severn Voice, about the concerns.

Let me stress though that there is a need for the Environment Agency to be absolutely clear about its understanding and interpretation of the policy drivers behind some of the actions being proposed. It is well understood that sea levels might well rise and that measures have to be considered and planned. However, it is equally important to recognise that owners of farmland, houses and so forth need to be treated properly and fairly in the overall scheme of things.

We have an obvious and persistent problem with Slad valley. Water comes streaming down the valley and ends up in Stroud, causing difficulties and hardships for owners of a small number of properties. A group called

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Vision 21, which is led by Julian Jones, is working hard on the issue of attenuation. It has proposed using various old mill ponds further up the Slad valley as storage areas for when there is a lot of water. The water can thus be dealt with in a managed way without allowing it all to collect at the bottom and cause mayhem. Coupled with that is the proposal for better irrigation and better land use management. Various landowners have expressed interest in such schemes not just because they would prevent flooding in Stroud and Stonehouse but because they would improve drainage and irrigation further up the valley.

It is worth noting here that there would be the opportunity for small-scale hydro power developments, which we have already managed to achieve in one or two parts of my constituency, and that is excellent. There would be further opportunities for such developments if we had a flexible way of dealing with water storage and so forth.

I ask the Minister to encourage the Environment Agency to be less controlling and less directive and a little bit more open-minded about the possibilities that exist in the Slad valley so that flood attenuation can be properly implemented. Such a scheme would be a useful and valuable experiment in this important area. Moreover, it would provide a good example of working with the environment and with the history of Slad valley, with all its mills. The area has all the characteristics of a fantastic place.

We must combine the empowerment of local people with careful planning, which should be conducted through the auspices of the Environment Agency, as interesting, new and innovative measures to deal with water management and flood control are introduced.

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): I have a similar situation in my constituency. Landowners would like to have the flexibility to do more to protect local sea walls. I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we need flexibility and that much of this matter needs to be resolved by the Environment Agency. I urge the Minister to see what he can do to remove some of the barriers that prevent landowners and local residents from taking the actions that my hon. Friend has highlighted.

Neil Carmichael: My hon. Friend is right. Removing barriers to deal with other barriers is an interesting concept, but it is absolutely right and quite in line with my approach to the conduct, behaviour and plans of the Environment Agency. It is also in line with the general feeling that the Environment Agency does not always get down to the local level and respond to local needs and local requirements in a flexible enough way.

I will move on to the third issue that I want to talk about, which is home insurance. We have a real problem, because the flood maps available on the Environment Agency website sometimes suggest that people’s homes will be flooded when actually they will not. Also, the maps do not reflect the consequences of natural barriers and, even more importantly, man-made barriers. There are one or two areas in my constituency that prove that point quite well. People could look at a flood map and think to themselves, “Well, the whole place is doomed”, but actually it is not doomed because there are canals and other barriers that will prevent flooding. In fact, the areas that I have in mind, such as Frampton on

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Severn, have not been flooded in that way, so the flood maps need to be up to date and homeowners need to be assured that they are devised in such a way as to reflect what will actually happen and to show a proper understanding of the type of flood defences that I have just described.

Flood maps are a key issue. I have discussed them with the Association of British Insurers, which has also noted that it is important to keep them up to date. I have suggested that the Environment Agency might like to be more thorough in updating its maps and that it should do so more often—that is effectively the message that I have received—and if it did so, it would be of great assistance. It is also very important for individual insurers to have access to the correct information, so that people who need to gain access to home insurance can do so on the basis of information that is indeed accurate.

That brings me to the new approach that is needed following the statement of principles on flood insurance, which I know is coming to an end. Clearly, that issue is exercising both the insurance industry and, obviously, homeowners. They need some information, guidance and encouragement on how that process is going and where we can expect to be in terms of home insurance in flood areas. That information and guidance would be extremely useful.

In essence, what we are looking for is more transparency and more accuracy in flood mapping, so that home owners, insurers and anybody else who is interested can have more confidence in the maps that they are looking at.

Those are the three key issues. First, it is basically a question of communication and ensuring that people are involved and included. Secondly, it is a question of being innovative and confident about the options that are available, including encouraging the Environment Agency to set those things in motion or at least to allow them to happen. Thirdly, it is a question of having more information for everybody concerned, to give them confidence and comfort as appropriate.

Having made those three points, I will end my remarks by reiterating my thanks to the Minister, both for being here today in Westminster Hall and for the work that he has already done in the interests of people in my constituency who are vulnerable to flooding. I also reiterate that I fully intend to pursue this matter and ensure that we get some solutions that are lasting and worth while.

5.3 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing this debate and on proving, yet again, that he is one of the most assiduous of our colleagues in raising such issues on behalf of his constituents. I am very keen to respond to the points that he has made, but before I do so, I want to touch on those made by another assiduous colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who talked about the Environment Agency and the sea defences in Essex.

I assure my hon. Friend that that is a matter of real interest to me. I want to ensure that all interested parties work extremely closely together on those defences and

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that any perceived or actual difficulties in securing and protecting farmland and properties are overcome. A protocol is in place to ensure that the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association work closely with the Environment Agency.

My hon. Friend has had meetings with all concerned, but I want to keep in touch with her and ensure that every effort is being made. I came across difficulties further north from her constituency when I came into this job. A few months later, I found a completely different attitude that was based on the concept of total environment but that was really just close working together of the parties involved. I give her the assurance that I will visit her constituency in the future if I can do so, so that I can see things for myself and try to take matters forward.

With sea level rises, climate changes and extremes of weather, we will have a lot of these debates in the House and I want to ensure that everything is being done as properly as it can be, that any protocols that exist are working and that we work closely together to resolve these issues, because they are of fundamental importance to the lives of our constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, who secured this debate, represents one of the most special parts of this country and one that I have some familiarity with. I find the Severn estuary, including the area of his constituency that is adjacent to the Severn estuary, to be one of the most mystical and beautiful places, with some wonderful farmland. There is no doubt that there are some communities in that area that look at issues such as climate change and sea level rises with a degree of concern for their future. I remember the village of Arlingham, which is surrounded on three sides by the River Severn. We have in mind communities such as the one in Arlingham when we try to plan for the future. I understand that we have to get the language right and that we do not create undue concern, or even undue scares, but at the same time we have to address the real issue of sea level rises and the impact that it is having.

My hon. Friend made a very sensible point about the rational view that most people have about these matters. They just want to ensure that all forms of government are doing what they can, when they can, to assist them. I hope that what I am about to say will give them the necessary reassurance. I will go on to talk about the Slad valley and the concerns about insurance that he raised.

Work on the Severn estuary flood risk management strategy is ongoing at community level. A draft strategy was prepared and put to the public for consultation last year. The aim was to establish the most effective and sustainable way to manage flood risk in the estuary during the next century. The Environment Agency is currently reviewing and assessing all responses to its consultation on the draft strategy. It will not implement the strategy as it stands. Instead, it is actively involving the local community in considering the future options for managing flood risk in the Severn estuary. As part of that approach, it regularly meets Gloucestershire NFU to ensure that landowners are involved in developing the strategy for the area.

Where the Environment Agency can no longer justify maintaining the current standard or line of defence, it will work with those affected to consider the other

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options, including landowners maintaining their own defences. Also, in circumstances where managed realignment or habitat creation could be an option, the agency will seek to work with those affected and implement schemes with their agreement. In the future, the agency plans to go to public consultation again. It will take forward the draft strategy for the Severn estuary once the proposals have been discussed in detail.

I should say that the current defences and planning are based on perceived sea level rises, but they are designed in such a way as to be extended as time goes on and if sea levels rise faster than expected. That is a really important point for my hon. Friend’s constituents; the approach is called adaptive management. What concerns people is when they see arbitrary lines drawn on maps that reflect perceived sea level rises that might or might not occur. We have already seen some variation in the predictions of sea level rises that were made some years ago; those rises have not happened. We want to ensure that we base the information on sound knowledge and evidence.

My hon. Friend has raised some important points about the Slad valley. Flood defences form a major element of how we manage flood risk, but they are only part of the solution. As my hon. Friend knows, 1,602 properties in his Stroud constituency are at risk from river and tidal flooding. There is currently no cost-effective way of further reducing the risk at the community level by way of major schemes, but the Environment Agency is still keen to take an active approach to managing flood risk in the community. On average, £190,000 a year is spent on maintaining the existing system of culverts and mills in the Slad valley to make the most use of the existing assets.

The Environment Agency was this very week removing vegetation and fallen trees, which could have caused blockages, from river channels. A considerable amount of ongoing river channel and culvert maintenance work takes place to keep the river systems flowing effectively, and that work is supplemented by individual property protection and resilience grants, which have been made available to the communities along the Slad brook and in Bridgend. So far, 10 properties from Slad have taken up the offer, which is still open.

A further proposal is being developed by the Slad brook action group, to which my hon. Friend referred, which is working closely with local authorities, the Environment Agency and a local water environment group—Water21—to encourage and construct land management measures upstream of Slad to reduce and slow down water run-off. By slowing down water in certain circumstances, we can protect a great many properties. I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said about using existing assets, some of which were created more than a century ago, in a modern and innovative way to ensure that we provide cost-effective defences for people’s homes. We must never forget that we are talking about the most important asset in people’s lives—the roof over their head.

The Environment Agency has £300,000 of local levy money to implement land management measures. It is also working closely with the local authority on development planning to address flood risk management in the Slad valley on an incremental basis. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Environment Agency will continue to work with local people and groups, and with him as

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their local representative, and that we will consider any measure that we can fund with others, or that we can assist any organisation in providing, to protect people for the future.

I hear what my hon. Friend says about using such areas to test innovative ideas that can be used elsewhere. There is good cross-working in the Environment Agency, and we have an understanding of how to deal with the kind of flash floods that are now a feature of our lives because of changes to the climate. We must be aware of the fact that no one is a repository of all the wisdom here, and I can assure my hon. Friend that we will work closely with his constituents to use best practice and come up with new ideas that may assist us with the problem.

My hon. Friend raised the important point of insurance. I recognise that insurance for properties in flood risk areas is of concern to many people. The Government have continued to listen to, and closely involve, organisations that represent insurers and communities at flood risk. We are in the advanced stages of developing a new shared understanding, which sets out more clearly what individual customers can expect from their insurers. An announcement will be made in the near future to reflect the continued responsibility of the Government and insurers and their commitment to ensuring that insurance for flood risk remains widely available.

We are actively exploring value-for-money ways to target support at households that might struggle with premium increases. It is also worth putting on record that the Government’s prime responsibility here is building flood defences, whether for coastal erosion or for surface water or fluvial flooding. We must continue to invest, and we are spending a lot of taxpayers’ money— £2.13 billion over this spending period—to protect people’s homes from flooding. There are many things that we can do with insurers, and we are working closely with them to achieve those aims.

The debate has raised important issues. Engaging with local communities, developing innovative solutions to flood risk management and protecting the most vulnerable from flooding, whether through new defences or insurance, are key principles of our new partnership funding system. The reforms provide improved transparency and greater certainty for communities about the potential funding from the general taxpayer for every flood and coastal defence project. They also allow local areas to have a bigger say in what is done to protect them. Therefore, over time, local ambitions for protection no longer need to be constrained by what national budgets can afford, and innovative, cost-effective solutions will be encouraged, in which civil society may play a greater role. With contributions under the new funding system,

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combined with efficiency savings, the Environment Agency and other risk management authorities are on course to exceed their goal to better protect 145,000 households by March 2015.

My hon. Friend referred to flood maps, and I want to get this on the record as well. The Environment Agency updates flood maps every three months. The data are provided to all local authorities and to the Association of British Insurers, and they are on the Environment Agency’s website. We are considering new approaches to communicating the information. I understand the frustration that many constituents feel—mine included—when they are wrongly assessed, usually over the telephone and often on a postcode basis, as being at flood risk, when the insurance company or the broker has access to the information. We are not talking about national secrets; we are proud to share the information, particularly when new assets are constructed. We must find better, more innovative ways to ensure that we inform people. Some insurance companies are good at uploading the information but others are not, and we are working closely with a number of organisations to achieve a better result for people at flood risk.

Managing the risk of flooding to communities remains an absolute priority for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and we do it not only by trying to minimise the chance of flooding in our communities, but through reducing the impacts should flooding occur. Our new approach to funding allows local communities to have greater control over how flood risk is managed in their area. Maintaining existing flood risk management systems, as well as investing in improved protection, reduces the chance of floods affecting our communities. Flood insurance is an important element in reducing the impacts of floods on communities and in giving reassurance and peace of mind to those at risk. The Government remain committed to ensuring that cover for flooding remains widely available once the statement of principles agreement with the insurance industry comes to an end next year.

I shall end where I began, by assuring my hon. Friend that I will continue to work with him to ensure that the issues that he has raised are worked through and that we can face the future, which is uncertain because of weather patterns and sea risk, on the basis of the best knowledge available through open and clear consultation. In that way, we can achieve the best result for his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

5.19 pm

Sitting adjourned.