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Climate Change (Flooding)

Volume 468: debated on Thursday 6 December 2007

1. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that measures are put in place to deal with the likely effects of climate change, with particular reference to flooding. (171730)

The Department has always encouraged operating authorities to take account of climate change in their planning of flood management measures. Our guidance was last updated in October 2006. It recommends a precautionary approach, but it is of course kept under review and will be further updated as the science develops.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but I want to remind the House of the terrible damage suffered by my constituents in the June floods. I contend that the scale of the flooding would have been significantly reduced if the upland catchment area adjacent to my constituency had been in a sufficient condition to hold the water as nature intended. Will he commit the Department to extending programmes designed to restore upland blanket bogs so that they can fulfil their proper role as an important part of our natural flood defence system?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I know very well the part of the world to which she refers. I can go further than she asks. Together with the Environment Agency, as part of our “Making space for water” policy, we are researching the impact of moorland gripping—the name given to the draining of moorland peat bogs by digging ditches alongside them, as part of the wider land management agenda and consideration of its effect on flood risk. Early indications show that it can help, but not always. It is not quite as straightforward as that.

The Minister will understand that resources are to be a key element in the delivery of the Government’s flood prevention policies. Taking into account Sir John Bourn’s critical appraisal of the Department’s financial management structure and the £270 million of internal savings that it will have to make, as well as the fact that its administrative budget is £50 million overspent and that there is a £300 million disallowance fine hanging over it, what guarantees can the Minister give the House that the money that is designed to increase expenditure on flood protection will be delivered over the next three years?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, and recognise the work that he does for the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I can give him those reassurances. Of course, we have to balance our books, as he would want us to. That is the proper thing to do. I can assure him that despite the need to balance our books we can deliver the increases in flood defence expenditure, both capital and revenue. Importantly—this is something else for which he has called—we will do so with a long-term framework, as that is critical to the protection of the public.

In Germany, in four of the main Länder that are prone to flooding, local authorities have the powers to insist that planning applications will not even be looked at unless they contain flood protection provision. The Netherlands, a country with the highest level of flood protection anywhere, is now talking about surrendering 1 million acres of land back to the sea and having buildings that must be flood compatible. In each case, developers are made liable for the flood damage to which their buildings are prone. Is the Minister seeking to deliver any similar powers to local authorities in the forthcoming Planning Bill?

I thank my hon. Friend for the question, and recognise and commend the work that he is doing. We have talked about that work and I look forward very much to its production. The answer to the question is that we have planning policy statement 25, which gives powers to the Environment Agency to look at plans. We are monitoring the local authorities’ performance in that area to see whether it is sufficient. Clearly, there is a lot more to do and we will bear in mind his point about the lessons from Germany and the Netherlands.

The Minister also knows my constituency, having made a few sneaked visits to it. He knows that it contains many small villages with brooks and rivers. Some of them have drainage systems that are antiquated to say the least and some have suffered flooding in the past. Will he ensure that all the agencies, especially local authorities, which are responsible for cleaning up brooks and smaller rivers in rural areas, always allocate sufficient funds to proper cleaning so that unnecessary flooding does not happen when there is heavy rain?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I do, indeed, know his beautiful constituency—I know Byrne and Sons well.

There are different operating authorities, depending on the circumstances. For example, they could be water companies, drainage boards, local authorities or the Environment Agency. As part of the Pitt review, we have asked Sir Michael to make recommendations on how we can better co-ordinate matters to ensure that the policies are carried out and that drains are maintained for flood protection and the benefit of biodiversity, which is, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, among the most beautiful in the United Kingdom.

Yesterday, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs visited Lyon to examine the approach taken there to sustainable urban drainage. It was a useful visit—it is good to see the Chairman in his place this morning. We were impressed most by the comprehensiveness of the approach to tackling flooding, and the research money invested in finding preventive measures. Can we learn something from Lyon? What are the Government doing to ensure that we take the best from international examples?

I look forward to reading the lessons from the Select Committee. My hon. Friend’s account shows the value of Select Committees’ work. Indeed, his point was made yesterday at the meeting of the all-party group on water, especially by representatives of UK Water Industry Research. Of course, we can learn lessons; that is part of the review. I remind the House that the Government were consulted on such matters before the floods, in case anyone suggests that there has been a knee-jerk reaction—that would be completely unfair and uncharacteristic.

My constituency experience shows that, when flood protection systems are rightly put in place to protect our towns and cities, farmers consequently find that their land floods more frequently. Do the Government have any plans to introduce procedures whereby farmers are compensated for that to cover the obvious economic impact?

We are, of course, familiar with that issue. The use of meadows and fields, low lying and upland, in a co-ordinated flood management programme is part of our strategy, and it raises difficult questions about economic impact. Our policy is to use such land as part of a co-ordinated plan. Such usage is normally, although not always—I know of some instances to the contrary in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency—part of an agreed plan, where the land floods in any event.

Is not one of the most significant issues to arise from this summer’s flooding the inability of urban sewers to deal with flash flooding? What steps are being considered to deal with that problem, bearing in mind that the financial costs will be significant over a long period?

My hon. Friend, as ever, raises the most important point. There are two answers to the question. First, I am sure that the House agrees that we must not lose sight of the cause of the problem, which, in the long run, is climate change. That is why the Bali road map is so important for our country. Secondly, if the question was simply maintenance of drains, it would be straightforward; the task would be expensive and difficult, but straightforward. However, the capacity of drainage is also a problem. That is why the Government’s approach is to ensure, first, increased funding and, secondly, a long-term framework to effect a generational improvement in infrastructure.

Given that millions of people are at risk from surface water drainage, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) pointed out, what progress has the Department made on its previously announced policy, in response to “Making space for water”, to put the Environment Agency in an overarching strategic role over all flood risks?

Considering the £3 billion of losses that we now know occurred during the summer as a result of the flooding, are Ministers confident that the increase in the budget that has been announced fulfils requirements? For example, are the costs of the repairs to flood defences being met from the new budget or will there be a separate allowance? Is it the case that flood defence projects—

The hon. Gentleman raises some important points. We took the decision to delay the publication of our water strategy document until after Sir Michael had reported. That was a dilemma, I confess, but we thought it the right thing to do, so that we could take the lessons on board.

The hon. Gentleman is right: the estimated cost of the floods is £3 billion—I think that that is the domestic impact, not including the business impact. Again, that shows the need for climate change mitigation. As Sir Nicholas Stern reported, it is more expensive not to act than to act. Whether the level we chose is the right level, I do not know—my crystal ball is cloudy on that point. We do not know what the level of floods will be. However, I am aware that the £800 million that we allocated is even more than the figure of £750 million that Association of British Insurers suggested before the summer floods. However, all Governments would always want to spend more, because such decisions are difficult.

The whole House will sympathise with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) on the damage suffered in her constituency and with people up and down the country. The Minister has said that funding will be increased, but is he saying that it will be increased everywhere except Yorkshire and the Humber? In his reply to me of 20 November, he admitted that there had been a cut in construction industry contracts of more than £8 billion over a four-year period. When he decides to visit the internal drainage board area, will he take the opportunity to go to the Bentley Ings, which takes the water from Sheffield and was instrumental in this summer’s massive floods at Toll Bar? Those river defences are cracking. They have had emergency repairs, but they need full repairs. Does he accept that the issue is to do with physical infrastructure as well as water retention, and will he ensure that there is a commitment to Yorkshire and the Humber, as well as other parts of the country?

I read the Yorkshire Post regularly—Saddleworth being in Yorkshire—and I saw the hon. Lady’s report. The serious answer to her question, however, is that she missed two crucial points in the parliamentary answer that she cited, which I signed off in the full knowledge that it would result in a press release to the Yorkshire Post. First, the amounts given refer to contracted expenditure, not direct expenditure by the Environment Agency. Secondly, she missed out the fact that the figure was a lot higher the year before and that over the years it has increased significantly. Expenditure did indeed contract in the years that she mentioned, but that is in the nature of engineering schemes of that sort. They cannot be turned on and off, and the budget has been increased.