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River Parrett

Volume 404: debated on Wednesday 7 May 2003

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11 am

I am delighted that I have been able to secure this debate on the Parrett catchment project, although I note that hon. Members are fleeing from the vagaries and excitement of it.

The River Parrett gurgles through the very heart of my constituency. It has a natural tendency, not surprisingly, to overflow. It is not rocket science to understand why. The river snakes through some of the lowest-lying land in England. Everyone knows it, and for centuries everyone has managed to control it—until now.

Today, the people who live and farm anywhere near the Parrett have good reason to be scared. They cannot leave it to the agricultural community to tame the floods, because farmers and drainage boards no longer have the prime responsibility to do that. People dare not rely on district councils, which have tiny budgets and a very much smaller say, and they certainly do not trust Somerset county council, with very good reason—I suspect that the Government do not trust Somerset county council either—all of which leaves the River Parrett laughing. It has become a victim of muddled over-management. The old drainage boards are too local, the district councils have the knowledge but not the cash and the county council has more money but less brain, so the Government have invented a new quango—the Parrett catchment project.

Anyone with a grain of common sense—I know from many debates that the Minister ha.s many—would leave the river to the experts in the Environment Agency. It ends up doing the donkey work such as dredging, fencing, repairing and planning. However, instead of being left to get on with it, the poor old Environment Agency must tolerate the intervention of the wretched new quango.

I brought with me a little catchment project of my own, fresh from the Parrett, in what looks like a specimen bottle. I am offering this bottled sample as a prize to the Minister if he can produce any plausible explanation for the existence of the Parrett catchment project. I am sorry that it is only half full—I assure hon. Members that I have not drunk the rest.

The quango was established in 2000 under the chairmanship of Humphrey Temperley. That name should ring bells—probably alarm bells—in Somerset. Yes, it is the same Humphrey Temperley who ran the county council until the electors decided that they had had more than enough of him. Was that the end of Temperley? Sadly for Somerset, it was not.

I am reminded of a children's skipping rhyme that was very popular in Bridgwater:
That is the problem. The rhyme may be silly, but it is perfectly true. Just when we thought it had been unseated, the substantial Temperley posterior reappeared in another comfy chair, on the Parrett catchment project. What does the quango do? What is it for? Why do we need it or him?

I have been trying in vain to discover the role of Humphrey's new baby. It organises an enormous number of forums. It claims to have won a bid for European funding. It makes fact-finding visits to Europe. Actually, Mr. Temperley was last seen finding facts in the Ruhr valley. I do hope he was not wearing lederhosen.

The Parrett catchment project also spends an inordinate amount of money and time talking. It talks to English Nature and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which is fine. Such organisations are vital and are well worth talking to because they can draw on their ideas and experience. However, it is not necessary to create a quango to open obvious lines of communication.

The Parrett catchment project commissions research—quite a lot of it—and generates paperwork. I have heard it said that the project has produced enough paper to build an entire dam for a flood prevention scheme at Bridgwater, and I can believe that from the amount that is sent to my office. It also boasts influence within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. When Mr. Temperley is not fact-finding elsewhere, he can often be seen attempting to bend the Minister's ear. if he keeps his nose clean, the Parrett catchment project might one day earn him a knighthood. He could then become Sir Humphrey and say, "Yes, Minister" until the cows come wading home through the floods.

Hon. Members may not know or even want to know that the Parrett catchment project is now a national leader. The River Parrett is the first river in the country to have a catchment flood management plan. It was chosen specifically by DEFRA and will set the trend for flood management throughout the country. Is that relevant to the Parrett catchment project? No, although I have no doubt that Mr. Temperley will submit another mountain of paperwork commending the plan and complicating it simply to justify his existence. He may even include some glossy photographs—he always does—of his fact-finding missions to foreign parts, with or without the lederhosen.

The catchment flood management plan is the work of the Environment Agency—the professionals. The Parrett catchment project did not write the plan and Mr. Temperley's role is that of an irrelevant irritant. He irritates my constituents because he and his organisation are a waste of public money. If anyone from ITV is watching this debate on the monitors, I would like to suggest a new programme starring Humphrey and his useless Parrett catchment project. I have come up with a working title: "He is a nonentity. Get him out of here." Pithy at the moment—perhaps.

The serious downside of the whole saga is that there is now a crisis of public distrust. The Minister knows what I am talking about. He had first-hand experience just a few months ago when he came to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook) in Somerset and faced angry protests and banner-waving because folk are no longer able to trust or have faith in the way in which flooding is controlled in both our constituencies.

The problem is to know who is in charge. We know that the Environment Agency does very good work, so why not leave the matter to the agency?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for this debate. The Environment Agency's work could be better done if it had slightly more money because lack of funding is, to some extent, holding it back. Will he be pressing the Minister for extra money for the agency, which does such good work from Bridgwater?

My hon. Friend has, as usual, hit the nail on the head and I am grateful for all his support during our short time in Parliament. It has been an interesting time because we have had two floods in both our constituencies. The problem is funding. The Environment Agency is professional and needs resources to manage the area that receives water from Exmoor—my hon. Friend and I both live with that—which goes into Dorset and across Somerset through two choke points. One is in my hon. Friend's constituency and one is in mine: the Parrett and the Tone.

My hon. Friend has spent many hours on this matter. He will continue to do so and long may we continue to work together on it. However, why not give the power and the money to the Environment Agency? Why not take flood management seriously by removing the flood of irrelevant paperwork from the catchment project? While the Minister is at it, he might as well look at some of the other stupid inconsistencies. Last Friday, a farmer came to my surgery. He was extremely angry and brought along some top brass from the National Farmers Union to back him up. That farmer's problem is typical of the discriminatory way in which flood management works. If the water becomes too high in the river, the only thing to do is to let it out, but on flat land, such as in Somerset, it cannot be let out willy-nilly, so the same places and the same poor farmers get soaked more or less all the time. However, they do not receive a brass farthing in compensation. The Environment Agency does not have the power or the budget.

The farmer who came to see me is even worse off: his land has been flooded consistently and he has now had word that his integrated administration and control scheme grant is being taken away or substantially cut, because those responsible for it are not prepared to support farming on land that goes under water continuously. It is bad enough for that man to watch his fields disappear; it is bonkers to punish him as though he had flooded them deliberately—he has not. A percentage of his IACS grant has been or will be removed, because his land has been consistently flooded. Just to let the Minister know, that farmer is on the banks of the Stowey, which probably says a lot to both of us.

There have recently been threats by some farmers—although not, I hasten to add, in my constituency or in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton—who are prepared to take the law into their own hands and do some active flood management of their own. At one point, with tempers running as high as the water, there was an active movement to shut the sluice gates on the Stowey, which would have threatened Taunton. It is not acceptable for people to reach that point in this day and age—for any of us. Many farmers have had enough. A lot of ordinary people who know the lie of the land are worried. Many sensible Somerset souls want sensible decisions from the Government for change. The Minister experienced that himself on a visit to my hon. Friend's constituency.

On Sunday, it is the annual River Parrett festival. I urge the Minister to give visitors something proper to smile about. I urge him to take the John Cleese role and tackle the Parrett catchment project head-on. Why? This project is deceased; it is no more. If it had not been chaired by Humphrey Temperley, it would be pushing up the daisies. It has gone to meet its maker and join the quango choir invisible. This is an ex-Parrett project, or at least it should be.

11.11 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs(Mr. Elliot Morley)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on securing the debate. There are clearly important issues relating to the carrot—I mean Parrett—catchment plan. I am getting mixed up between dead carrots and dead parrots.

As the hon. Gentle man stated, I have visited the area many times. In my ministerial capacity, I have talked to local people, local farmers and the Environment Agency in the area. I was pleased to inaugurate the Baltmoor wall opening. That was a considerable investment to protect many homes and important communications and roads in the area. I know the history of the area and that there have been tensions, particularly in the past, between the priorities of, for example, farmers and the desires of conservationists in respect of an internationally import ant area. That is recognised by all concerned.

The Parrett is an important river drainage system and an important part of the community. We recognise the need to integrate the international importance of nature conservation in the area with the equally legitimate flood defence needs of householders, farmers and other landowners. In that sense, it is desirable to bring communities together to try to achieve a common understanding of the different priorities. Incidentally, the Parrett catchment project is not a Government quango, but a local initiative. I support the idea of bringing people together in that way. I have been to some of the project's meetings, listened to presentations and heard some of its ideas, which have a great deal of merit.

We fund the catchment flood management plan for the Parrett. That involves some overlap with the Parrett catchment project, but it is not quite the same, because the catchment flood management plans focus on the most appropriate options in respect of minimising flood risk along the Parrett. That ongoing study also considers coastal issues, such as Steart point, and the various options available to the Environment Agency. In due course, it will consult local people about the preferred option. That will eventually come to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and we shall give it careful consideration in working out how best to use our grants to support various schemes.

I understand that there will always be differences of opinion and emphasis on the approach. It is correct for the hon. Gentleman to say that when I visited Somerset and the Baltmoor project, six householders were concerned about that refurbishment and strengthening of the wall. I believe that they were mistaken, and I made it clear that although the money is designed to protect large numbers of people—homes and properties in Taunton are part of the strategy—we do not ignore people because they are in a community of only six homes.

The residents were wrong in thinking that Hay and Curry moors had been declared a reservoir. I think that they were getting mixed up with the fact that the Baltmoor wall comes under the Reservoirs Act 1975. That is simply because it must meet certain standards, as when the moor is full, enormous pressure is put on the wall. It must stand up to that pressure to ensure that the people who live behind it are protected. That is part of the agency's work.

It is also worth pointing out that the Hay and Curry moors have flooded since the 13th century. We went through a long dry period, in the 1980s in particular, and people sometimes forget about the traditional pattern of the moors. That is also the case with some of the farming patterns. I noted that the farmer concerned was an arable farmer. Going back in time, farming would never have been arable in such an area because of the nature of the flooding. Traditional farming patterns are closely connected with summer grazing and winter flooding, and farmers work in harmony with nature.

For different reasons, there was intensification of agriculture, driven by the Agriculture Act 1947 and, in recent years, the common agricultural policy. Those moves were understandable, but we have moved on from using subsidies simply to maximise food production. These days, our support for agriculture is more sophisticated, and we recognise the range of benefits that it can provide not simply in food production, but in habitat and landscape management and as part of water management of the Somerset levels. That is why the Somerset levels is an environmentally sensitive area and why about £3.5 million is paid to farmers every year for water management. That recognises the patterns of the levels and the impact that they have on farming, as well as the benefits that flooding brings for nature conservation and protection.

The Minister is absolutely right, but my point is that the land does not flood continuously. The IACS is being stopped over the percentage of land that is now being flooded on a frequent basis, rather than the whole thing. The farmers feel aggrieved that they, rather than anyone else, have to take the water on the edge of the Stowey and that the pressure on them to act responsibly is now causing a cost over which they have no control.

I am sure that those issues can be examined in relation to the ESA and our stewardship. We pay an additional £1.2 million in Somerset for stewardship payments, and that is another considerable sum. It is not as if we are not recognising the problems, and I am sure that we will continue to make those payments.

The residents of Hay and Curry moors were also concerned that the improvements to the Baltmoor wall would increase the frequency of flooding. I have written to them to point out that those improvements, together with the improvements at Stan moor and Hook bridge, will lead to a reduction in both the frequency and length of flooding on those moors. I hope that that point reassured those residents, whose concerns were misplaced.

I was also interested in the threats by local farmers to close sluices. Like the hon. Gentleman, I do not believe that that is a sensible position to take. I do not believe that that was endorsed by the internal drainage board that they represent and I am sure that it was not backed by the Association of Drainage Authorities, of which I am proud to be vice-chairman. I have a long connection with drainage boards because they are important in my constituency and in north Lincolnshire. The IDBs have come a long way, and do a good job in most circumstances. I recognise that there are good examples of good practice in relation to the IDBs.

With regard to the Parrett catchment, it is important to try to take into account the range of views expressed, and to take an holistic approach to flood management in relation to many other important issues including the agriculture, rural economy, tourism and nature conservation of the area. The Parrett catchment project makes a useful contribution to the resolution of those issues. Along with our catchment flood management plan and the further modelling studies proposed, we believe that it will introduce plans that will be helpful for the area.

There has been a long history of investment in flood defences in the levels and moors, particularly on the River Parrett and its tidal embankments, and that investment continues. DEFRA provided £3 million in grant to the Environment Agency for the strengthening of flood defences on the lower River Tone at Baltmoor wall, as I mentioned, and Stan moor bank; I opened those defences in January 2003.

We also recognise the problems on the Steart peninsula that are being considered by the Environment Agency, and we support its efforts to find a solution that meets local needs and takes account of wider environmental interests, at a realistic cost. I went to the area to examine the proposals and the challenges, and I think that all concerned will benefit from what is proposed. There is much local interest in and support for the proposals.

We recognise that there is a need to increase the programme of flood defence capital works in Somerset, and have taken account of that in our allocations. The allocation to the agency's Somerset levels local flood defence committee for grant-eligible expenditure has increased from £3.5 million in 2001–02 to £5.35 million in 2002–03. Grant eligibility depends on the capital programmes that are put forward in a given year.

We also recognise that there is a great need to work with local people and flood management bodies to seek solutions; I know that the Environment Agency has asked for that involvement and welcomes it. However, the question of how to engage people needs to be addressed.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said about the Parrett catchment plan. He made some amusing points. It is not for me to interfere with the Parrett catchment project, because it is not a Government body or a quango but a local initiative. However, I strongly support local initiatives. I believe that the best way to make progress on such matters is often to involve local communities, local interest groups and stakeholders in formulating their ideas on the best way forward. Technical and professional advice is also available from the Environment Agency, local authorities and statutory bodies such as English Nature. We also cannot ignore the professionalism of bodies such as the wildlife trusts and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which often employs locally based experts and consultants; we are keen to engage with those experts, and listen carefully to their point of view.

Recently, the general principle of flood defences has changed a great deal. These days, in our approach to flood defence, in line with DEFRA's commitment to sustainability, we look for a sustainable approach to flood defence and water management. That might, on occasions, mean moving from traditional hard engineering to more environmentally friendly approaches and utilising soft defences, such as sand banks, forestry, upper river catchments for waterretention programmes, soil management regimes and working with farmers. There is the potential in our agri-environment budgets to give financial support to such approaches as part of a coherent management plan.

Careful consideration should be given to whether the proposals coming from some of the plans and consultancies are cost-effective and whether downstream benefits would be obtained from their implementation. On protecting Taunton, for example, there is the issue of the flood banks. If a lot of money were spent upstream on water retention, forestry, or water management, which might be justified in reducing the peak of the water going downstream, much money might be saved by not raising the banks. If all the money were spent upstream, however, and all the money were needed to raise the banks downstream, the economic case would be undermined. Those are the kinds of technical issues that we in DEFRA must evaluate and they are also the kinds of things to which various groups and organisations on the Somerset levels and in the Parrett catchment are giving careful thought.

One relevant issue is whether or not there should be an engineered sluice on the Parrett: I visited the proposed site again and there may be a case for it. We at DEFRA have a completely open mind about that. A sluice will be an expensive investment, but expense is not in itself a deterrent, as long as it gives long-term benefits. The current evaluation and hydraulic modelling will take into account major investments of that kind. If there is a justification for those, we will consider them in relation to the grant aid that we offer for flood defence schemes. But that must be considered properly against the range of the scheme's potential benefits and costs.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly stated, the water and river management of the Somerset levels also has social, historical and cultural connections. Those are important too. That area is a major tourist attraction; it brings in many people who enjoy it and admire its special nature. During the winter months it attracts many people who go to see the floods and the wildfowl—there is a lot to see. The nature of the area is wonderful when it is flooded in winter and spring. Many farmers have diversified to take advantage of the tourism trade and I am glad to say that there has been support for a range of rural businesses from DEFRA, through rural enterprise schemes, marketing and processing grants. I am pleased to see such innovation in the area, and that people are benefiting.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns. It is important that there be proper involvement, transparency and accountability. Above all, we must engage local communities and local people and try to take into account the whole range of priorities and concerns. The benefits of the Parrett catchment project lie in bringing people together and, despite the hon. Gentleman's comments, there is merit in that structure and we should encourage it.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.