Skip to main content

Flood Defence (South Derbyshire)

Volume 450: debated on Tuesday 24 October 2006

I make no apologies for returning to flood defences and environment-related issues in South Derbyshire, which is a subject on which I have had two previous Adjournment debates. That reflects the character of my constituency. Its geography is that it is a low-lying area around the path of three rivers—the Trent, the Dove and the Derwent—with numerous smaller water courses that also cause risk of flooding at certain times.

Faced with the significant flooding of 2000, which was initially thought to be close to a one-in-100-year event, many communities received a sharp wake-up call. Flooding occurred in a number of villages, as a response to which fluvial studies were commissioned on each of the three rivers both to establish the level of risk that might be experienced by communities that lie adjacent to them and to define what remedial measures could be taken to protect those communities in the future. Every congratulation needs to be given to the work of the Environment Agency in that respect.

The studies have varied somewhat in character over time. The Trent study was the first to be carried out and was completed with a full range of options of flood defence, including some that were alarming, involving the sacrifice of at least one village in my constituency to protect others. Fortunately those options were not proceeded with, but the study nevertheless comprehensively assessed both the risks that the affected villages faced and some of the options that could be taken to address them.

The Dove study has been delayed to some extent by spending cuts. I also understand that the full options analysis to test the various defence measures that could be taken will not be carried out to the same level of depth as those considered in the Trent study. However, a large portion of the work relating to the part that lies within my constituency has been completed, and I shall return to some of the issues that that has raised. The Derwent study is still to be completed, and affects a small part of my constituency.

The work, particularly on the Dove, has involved highly complex and advanced predictive modelling, married with local data collection, involving the assembling of photographic material and memories from villages that have been affected. The contractors Halcrow and the Environment Agency deserve every congratulation on the thoroughness with which they have addressed the problem and on the importance of the study that they have produced.

The places affected on the Derwent include the small community of Ambaston, which has some flood defences already, and the environs and smaller communities around the village of Shardlow. The Trent affects Shardlow too, which lies close to the point at which the Trent and the Derwent join, as well as Swarkestone, Barrow upon Trent and Willington, while the Dove affects Hatton, which is a large village, the smaller communities of Scropton and Egginton, and the edge of the large village of Hilton.

As a result of the experience of 2000, in which all those villages either were cut off from the outside world for a period or experienced large-scale flooding, which was particularly true in Hatton, there is a high level of interest in the subject in those villages, and understandably so. The memories are still clear and the consequences of failing to take appropriate measures to defend against floods are obvious to people in those communities. Many of them have established active flood defence committees.

The district council has taken a strong leadership role, bringing together affected villages to discuss flood defence issues collectively with the various agencies involved, for which it deserves congratulations. The council has also demonstrated a strong commitment to capital expenditure in the area and has been an active partner of a major project in Hatton.

The Trent study demonstrated significant risks to all the four villages that I listed and indicated that projects at Swarkestone and Shardlow, where the defences needed to be revised, were potentially viable. A cost-benefit analysis for the defences that were suggested was applied to all the communities. Swarkestone and Shardlow passed that process and went into a list of projects that the Environment Agency was prepared to consider funding.

Since then one small defence has been erected around a part of Willington, although only after persistent lobbying by me and some villagers. Further study has, controversially, reduced the area of risk supposed to affect the community. That raises the issue of the interaction between the Environment Agency and those seeking large-scale planning consents in my constituency. I have raised those concerns with the agency, as it is worrying that a large-scale development, backed up with the resources that can be brought to bear, has managed to change the Environment Agency’s mind about the level of risk that a community faces. I shall return to that briefly.

The Derwent study is still anxiously awaited in Ambaston, which narrowly missed being flooded in 2000. There is a flood bank around the community, but those who live there are pretty sure that it is inadequate. I should like the Minister to say whether the spending cuts that have been made in the Environment Agency this year have slowed down the progress of the Derwent study.

On the Dove study, since 2000 Hatton has received around £1.5 million of defence expenditure for a range of projects. A major flood bank has been erected in one part of the village and substantial work has been done on the brook that runs round the edge of the village. Severn Trent Water has also been persuaded to spend quite a lot of money improving the sewage system in the village, because people in the community there faced the double horror not only of having their houses flooded, but of a large amount of sewage flowing back into their homes. More minor works have been carried out in Scropton, which were thrown up as a result of detailed study of how the flood had behaved in 2000.

The 2000 event was seen as perhaps close to a one-in-100-year event at the time. However, since then studies have demonstrated that it was not nearly as infrequent an event as that. There is a complex system of brooks and rivers in my constituency, which means that the answer is not quite the same everywhere. However, it seems likely that, generally speaking, the frequency would be around one in 45 or 50 years—in other words, a frequency that insurers would find unacceptable, given their concerns that villages should be protected to a level of one in 75 years, and preferably one in 100 years.

Even after the new defences at Hatton, a significant proportion of the village would be vulnerable to a one-in-100-year flood event, while Scropton would be extensively flooded. Outlying properties in Hilton would flood, as they did in 2000, and the entirety of the small village of Egginton would flood, with its current old defences being wholly inadequate.

I want to raise some generic issues with the Minister, which he discussed with me once before. To what extent do the admirable studies that the Environment Agency commissions feed into bids for capital expenditure in the future? The point applies particularly vividly in my constituency, but the studies do not apply uniquely to South Derbyshire; I expect that they have demonstrated everywhere else substantially greater need than had been anticipated. That should put down markers for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affair’s bid for the Environment Agency’s resources for capital works projects into the future. I should like to know about the methodology: are people feeding the data from the studies into future capital expenditure predictions?

The Dove study shows continuing extremely high risk. It is fortunate that my constituency is not a major urban one, in which some of the likely solutions could not apply. In some cases, such solutions would involve improving existing defences and increasing the ability of water upstream to displace into surrounding fields. The area that I am discussing is primarily rural, and it should be possible to examine how to displace water in that way and improve the drainage systems in communities further upstream. The water flows down to my constituents from such communities and it should be possible to find ways of improving the performance of drainage systems to reduce that flow.

Significant revenue expenditure will be required to assess the risk around the Dove and work out which communities should be protected. In my view, all the ones that I have listed should be. Significant expenditure will also be required for the design of appropriate solutions, but such requirements come against a background of Environment Agency cuts and a bidding process for the next public spending round. My anxiety is that such projects, in revenue terms—DEFRA has rightly protected the Environment Agency’s capital budget—may be threatened or slowed down by the cuts that have already taken place. I understand from the Environment Agency that budget cuts already appear to have had some small delaying effect on the Dove study. Clearly, that will produce anxiety in the communities affected.

Let me summarise what I want addressed. Have the spending cuts that have been made had any impact on the progress of the Derwent study? I notice that my constituency neighbour, the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), is in the Chamber; he may have some interest in aspects of my speech. What impact have the cuts had on the Derwent study and its analysis of flood risk and defence needs, particularly in respect of the section of the Derwent that lies in my constituency? What progress has been made on projects—especially those related to the communities of Swarkestone and Shardlow—already favoured by the Environment Agency in the Trent study?

What methodology does the agency use in dealing with planning applicants who have a clear interest in suggesting that flood risk is rather lower than has been predicted heretofore? There has been considerable anxiety in Willington that a major developer interested in developing the former power station has persuaded the agency that its development will have a lesser impact than the agency itself predicted. The developer appears to have succeeded, and that has produced a certain cynicism about how the agency operates in respect of those seeking planning consent.

Given the Environment Agency’s financial position, how will the assessment and project design of schemes in the Dove study be proceeded with? Finally, how will an Environment Agency that is clearly under pressure of budget reductions into the future bring all the tasks together? Given how they have been imposed, the cuts are likely to produce a short-term focus on expenditure, particularly this year, and potentially into future years.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) on securing this debate. He takes a close interest in flood risk management issues, about which we have spoken on previous occasions. I know that what we are debating is important for his constituency and many places elsewhere. I thank my hon. Friend for his positive comments about the Environment Agency’s work to ensure the effective management of flood risk in South Derbyshire and the surrounding areas. I shall respond to all his points.

Flooding is a traumatic experience. It is costly in material terms, in its disruption to people’s lives, and—because of the stress and worry that it causes—psychologically. In recent years, we have made a great deal of progress in improving our management of flood risk and in understanding and taking account of the possible future impacts of climate change. We estimate that between 4 million and 5 million people live in areas at risk of flooding, and that they have assets totalling some £250 billion. The probability of flooding is likely to increase as a result of climate change and the rise in sea levels, and the cost of the damage that it will cause will increase along with national wealth and further development in the areas at risk. That represents a huge challenge for the Government, operating authorities such as the Environment Agency and those at risk.

It might be helpful if I explain some of the overall mechanisms that are in place and the division of responsibilities between the various agencies and organisations. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has overall policy responsibility for flood risk in England, and we work in partnership with the Environment Agency, which is the principal operating authority for managing those risks. The agency’s flood risk management activities are largely funded by DEFRA and operate within the framework of policy guidance that we provide to all operating authorities. Operational responsibility for the programme to manage risk rests with the operating authorities.

The measures to manage the risk include the building and maintenance of defences to reduce the probability of flooding, but go beyond that to embrace a range of approaches for reducing the consequences of flooding. They include flood awareness campaigns, flood warnings and emergency planning, and seeking to avoid increasing risk through inappropriate new development.

We cannot prohibit all development in areas at risk of flooding, but where new development is necessary we must ensure that it is appropriate and safe and does not increase the flood risk elsewhere. My hon. Friend made a number of comments about that. He might be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government intends shortly to publish strengthened planning policy guidance for planning authorities on development planning and flood risk.

Among other things, the Environment Agency has been made a statutory consultee for planning applications in flood risk areas. A new direction is to be issued. It will allow proposals for development that planning authorities intend to approve, against Environment Agency advice given on flood risk grounds, to be called in for consideration by my right hon. Friend.

That is extremely welcome, and follows advice that I gave the Deputy Prime Minister when he directed this area of policy some four or five years ago. Will the Minister apply that also to the workings of the inspectorate that determines applications refused by local authorities, very often on exactly those grounds? Slightly alarmingly, it does not always stick to that sort of guidance.

I shall certainly look into my hon. Friend’s comments. I welcome his acknowledgement that we have made a step forward, and I agree with him.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the Government’s strategy as a result of their consultation “Making Space for Water”, and how we are taking it forward. Among other things, we are currently consulting on extending the Environment Agency’s role in the strategic overview of coastal flood and erosion risk. It is not a subject for debate today, but it is an important area.

We have set up an innovation fund to encourage the development of novel solutions for managing flood risk, and it offers great opportunities. In addition, we have identified 15 sites for possible pilot projects to help develop improvements in integrated urban drainage. We also aim to encourage better resilience and resistance of buildings and emergency infrastructure, and are exploring whether it might be practicable to provide some form of financial assistance to make homes more flood resilient or resistant in areas where community defences cannot be justified. We are considering a range of options for helping communities adapt to the threat of increased erosion or flood risk, particularly in coastal areas but in other areas as well, where traditional forms of defence may not be cost-effective or sustainable.

My hon. Friend asked several questions about budgets and prioritisation. I shall deal with them before addressing the specific concerns that he had about some villages in his constituency. The first point is that total Government expenditure on the management of flood and coastal erosion risk this year will be some £580 million, up from £310 million in 1996-97. That is a 35 per cent. increase in real terms. Of course there are increasing demands, and the floods of 2000 raised awareness of flooding. Much work has been done by the Environment Agency on producing fluvial strategies and on developing shoreline management planning processes along the coast. That work has increased the demand for expenditure on flood defences, but it is important to recognise the 35 per cent. real-terms increase in budgets. The large programme that we are funding through the agency and other operating authorities continues to maintain and improve standards of protection for communities across the country.

My hon. Friend discussed the reduction this year of the Environment Agency’s flood defence budget. I can confirm that the budget reduction does not affect capital works. We were faced with a need to reprioritise our budgets as a result of unavoidable pressures. Like any Government Department, we must remain within our overall budget. The budget for flood risk has been reduced from £428 million to £413 million, but, as I said, capital works have not been affected. I regret that the reduction has led to some small delays in the Derwent study, but I assure my hon. Friend that work on it is continuing.

My hon. Friend asked about prioritisation of investment. He will be aware that the Environment Agency has a priority scoring system. There is always a need to prioritise when proposals are considered. The programme of improvement projects is driven by the operating authorities, and the projects that come from the strategies are built into an overall programme and then prioritised through an objective prioritisation system. If my hon. Friend would like some details of the methodology, I will ensure that the Environment Agency provides him with it, but I do not have time to go into it today.

For many years, we have encouraged operating authorities to adopt a strategic approach to flood risk and to ensure that solutions are co-ordinated. I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes the fluvial studies that have taken place to date. We are taking them one step further by developing plans to assess flood risk at catchment level by funding a programme of catchment flood management plans that are being developed by the Environment Agency.

I turn now to some of the specific points that my hon. Friend raised in respect of his constituency and, more broadly, South Derbyshire. The Environment Agency has evaluated flood risk from the three major rivers in the area—the Trent, Derwent and Dove—in order to establish priorities. As my hon. Friend said, substantial modelling work was required in several instances, and some of those things take a considerable amount of time.

Following completion of the fluvial Trent strategy last year, construction work is under way at West Bridgford in Nottingham and at Burton-on-Trent. A further project to reduce the risk to more than 16,000 homes in Nottingham is expected to begin in the next three years. I understand that the agency is completing floodbank repairs and other improvements around Shardlow, and that further works are planned for later this year at Great Wilne.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about other villages in his constituency. I understand that the Environment Agency is doing further work to identify options for reducing flood risk in Hatton, Scropton and Egginton. Further investment will depend on the outcome of that work; if viable options are identified, they will then have to be prioritised against investment needs elsewhere. As he knows, there are many competing demands for investment of Government resources in flood and coastal risk management, and there must be some objective system of priorities.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that the tasks that are defined in the Dove study for funding by the Revenue—he rightly explained the prioritisation process—will be completed and will not be delayed by the cuts imposed on the agency?

I have no doubt that work will continue on the Dove study and will in the future lead to the completion of projects, but the priority that is accorded to them will depend on how they score when compared with other projects.

I also understand the point that my hon. Friend made about insurance and the fact that, as a result of some of the studies, it is thought that some areas are not protected to the level that they were before the work was done. That may be an important issue for some constituents. We cannot uninvent knowledge, but we must try to find ways of dealing with the situation if genuine problems have resulted.

I am aware that there is an issue around raising expectations. If we produce strategies, there is a natural assumption that they will be implemented. As I said, we must be careful not to raise expectations, given the overall budget situation. The budget is growing, and we hope that the importance of flood risk management will be recognised in the comprehensive spending review, but we simply cannot fund all the projects throughout the country. We will have to continue to make some tough decisions, and that is why it is important that we have an objective way of doing so.

The Environment Agency is trying to improve the management of public engagement. The engagement of the public in developing measures to reduce the risks that affect them is of key importance. People need to be aware of and understand the risk, how decisions might affect them, how the risk can best be managed with finite resources and how they might be able to prepare for and respond to flood risk and flood events. There are some important issues around public engagement. Through its building trust with communities and making space for water programmes, the Environment Agency will consider ways of increasing participation by the public in the overall decision-making process.

I thank my hon. Friend again for raising these important issues. As I said, the Government have finite resources, but I am well aware of the issues in his constituency and would like to assure him that we will continue to give them serious attention.