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Volume 403: debated on Thursday 10 April 2003

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What discussions have taken place between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on using the planning process to reduce the threat of flooding in urban areas. [107477]

Regular discussions have taken place between Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on flooding issues, for example on new planning policy guidance on development in flood risk areas issued in July 2001, and recently in relation to the Thames gateway proposals.

Does the Minister agree that people who intend to move into areas that are at risk of flooding should be made aware of that risk before committing themselves to such an investment? Is he aware that the CON29 local search form, which is used by solicitors for those seeking to purchase property, does not include a question concerning flooding and erosion? It should include such a question. Does he agree that the home information packs, which will include key information on a property for sale and which are proposed in the forthcoming housing Bill, should include any history of a risk of flooding?

The hon. Gentleman asks several questions that are outside my direct responsibilities. The Government's policy is to discourage inappropriate development on flood plains and to examine plans when they are being developed. PPG25 stresses the need for local planning authorities to examine in consultation with the Environment Agency how flood risk can be taken into account as part of the planning and development control process. There is good cooperation between Government Departments on trying to anticipate where problems will arise and ensuring that the planning process takes account of them. As for searches, I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman's comment but it falls outwith my portfolio of responsibilities.

Is it not the case that planning policy should discourage new development in areas of unsustainable flood risk without blighting existing properties? Does the Minister not agree that the key to protecting urban areas from flood is whole river catchment area management dealing with land use, compaction of subsoil, aquifers and deforestation? That is the way forward and his Department should pursue it.

The hon. Gentleman is right that there are implications for land use upriver from settlements. Measures can be taken within land management and farming practice to affect the management of flood risk. We try to look at the problem in a joined-up way. The Government's policy is to discourage inappropriate development on flood plains. Whether a particular development is inappropriate depends on the quality of flood protection in an area. From the way in which he asked his question, I assume that he agrees that we should not have a blanket ban on development, which should be examined in its context. I agree that looking at the wider implications of land use is important in understanding the specific issues in particular locations.

May I apologise for not having been here for the whole of this crosscutting question and answer session? I was upstairs participating in a debate on a statutory instrument, which the Minister delegated to his deputy. Sadly, I have no deputy to whom to delegate.

The Minister says that the Government do what they can to avoid inappropriate developments, which we welcome. There are currently 2 million houses built on flood plains across England. Perhaps the Minister can explain why the Government forced through agreement on 288 of the 758 planning applications to which the Environment Agency objected last year. Not all those applications involved building on flood plains, but a substantial proportion did.

Equally, can the Minister tell us why the Deputy Prime Minister has chosen to allow the building of substantial numbers of houses on greenfield sites in the south-east of England, which will unquestionably add to the flooding problems?

I indicated earlier that we work closely with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in considering the implications of planning for flood plains. It is neither practical nor desirable to stop all development. The Environment Agency is now required annually to report to DEFRA and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on planning applications that are determined against the agency's advice. We can see from the report that local planning authorities are taking flood risk more seriously, which is a welcome change that reflects the issue's increased profile.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Mr. McNulty)

With the best will in the world, the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) suffers from the casual empiricism of aggregates. We cannot put all these referrals from the Environment Agency together and leave the impression that those that were granted against the advice of the Environment Agency were problematic. That would be deeply irresponsible, as it is to suggest that because the Thames gateway means the Thames and therefore a river and river banks, it is all prow, to flooding, and that we built anywhere regardless of flood risks. That was not the case. Everything that we did in early developments and identification of sites in the Thames gateway was in full cognisance of the facts. We worked with all local authorities in the gateway, whatever their hue, in the context of full and frank consultation with the Environment Agency. Casual empiricism does not sit gently on the hon. Gentleman's shoulders.

I apologise if I have been unable to fit in every intervention that was sought, but, by and large, the session has dovetailed fairly well.

A norm of around 12 questions is becoming established, but I shall give instructions that 15 questions should be published on the Order Paper in future to provide a little more flexibility and we shall see how we get on from there. I repeat what I said at the beginning: any observations from any hon. Members, be they Front Benchers or Back Benchers, would be extremely welcome.