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Volume 473: debated on Thursday 13 March 2008

5. What progress he has made on implementing the recommendations in Sir Michael Pitt’s interim report on flooding. (193655)

6. What progress he has made on implementing the recommendations in Sir Michael Pitt’s interim report on flooding. (193656)

Sir Michael Pitt’s interim report contained 15 urgent recommendations for the Government, their agencies and others to take action. We accepted those recommendations and are implementing them. Sir Michael will report on progress in April and his final report will be published in the summer.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s response. The Government are planning to build 52,000 new homes in north Northamptonshire over the next few years, many of which will be on or close to floodplains. Is he a little concerned that the obsession with new housing is outweighing the Government’s duty to protect people from flooding?

With respect, I would say to the hon. Gentleman that I do not think that there is an obsession with new housing: there is a need for new housing, and that is why the Government are acting. He raises an important question: given that about 10 per cent. of England is located in areas of flood risk, how do we guard against that risk as the new homes are built? That is why we tightened the guidance, not once but twice, most recently in the form of planning policy statement 25. As he will know, the Environment Agency, which is the expert on flooding, now has to be consulted on the matter. I can tell the House that the number of applications for building on floodplains agreed by local authorities contrary to the Environment Agency’s advice has fallen significantly in recent years, precisely because of the way in which we have tightened the guidance.

This is not just about the floodplain itself; it is also about the areas around it. Sir Michael’s report states:

“the greater intensity of rainfall and increasing urbanisation are leading to more flash floods caused by water running off the surface of the land.”

I still do not understand how the Secretary of State can reconcile those comments with his responsibilities for flooding and these centrally imposed house-building targets, particularly in areas such as my constituency. Such areas are very constrained geographically and are significantly affected by flooding, so the effects are not felt only on the floodplains.

I recognise the issue that the hon. Lady raises. I know that there was some flooding in her constituency in January, and I am advised that it resulted from a combination of surface water and river. I gave the answer to her point in answer to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). This is about the guidance. The first issue is whether we can adequately defend an area. The second point to make is that it depends on how that is done.

One of the very practical changes that we made when we published the water strategy recently was to withdraw the present ability of house owners to pave over front gardens with impermeable paving without planning permission. In future, if people want to concrete over their gardens in a way that does not allow the water to soak away, they will have to seek planning permission, but if they use permeable paving they can decide for themselves.

Surface water flooding is a real problem, as the events of last summer brought home to all of us, not least in Hull and elsewhere. We have to bring together all the bodies that have responsibility for surface water flooding, and we are consulting on giving the Environment Agency an overview. Local authorities also have an important part to play. We need to think about how we develop in future so that we can build the homes that are needed and deal with the problem to which the hon. Lady draws attention.

Sir Michael Pitt’s report described the diverse group of organisations with overlapping responsibilities for flooding activities, such as local authorities, water companies, drainage boards and so on, and recommended that the Environment Agency be given the lead responsibility for all water management activity. Does the Secretary of State accept that recommendation? Will it require legislation to put it into effect and, if so, how quickly can that be done?

We are indeed consulting on that precise point. Depending on what arrangements we subsequently seek to put in place, legislation might be required, but—as I said in answer to the earlier question—we will in the end need to ensure that all the bodies with responsibility work together more effectively. Some of the functions may be given to local authorities, for example, because those tasks can best be undertaken by them. However, that will be within an overall framework in which someone will have responsibility for bringing together all the things that need to be done so that we can deal with the problem.

In a press release dated 4 February, the Department announced that it had put aside £34.5 million that it said might be needed to implement Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations. When the Select Committee probed the Minister for the Environment on whether the Department had done a back-of-the-envelope costing on the total cost of the 72 recommendations, he looked a little uncomfortable. A month has passed since we asked that question: has the Department now costed those 72 proposals? Will more than £34 million be available should it be needed to implement Sir Michael’s recommendations fully?

My hon. Friend has never looked uncomfortable, so I find that hard to believe. This is a question of prudent planning. The right hon. Gentleman will recognise that we do not yet know what Sir Michael’s final recommendations will be. It would not be sensible to allocate all the increased money that we are putting into dealing with flooding and not leave anything to one side to respond to what Sir Michael has to say. We have made a judgment and announced the sum. We will consider what he has to say, and decide how we can use it most effectively.

The Secretary of State still has some outstanding issues to deal with from the Pitt review, including who is responsible for drains, and what constitutes a drain. Can he clarify whether the £34.5 million is additional to the £800 million, and whether it will be spent on physical defences? How much of the money will be top-sliced by DEFRA before it reaches agencies such as the Environment Agency?

The sum of money is part of the increase that we are making available. We have put it on one side for the reasons that I set out in answering the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who chairs the Select Committee, and we will apply it when we have seen Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations. Because we have put more money in through the comprehensive spending review, the Environment Agency has been allocated sums from that increased amount, which will allow it to get on with building more flood defences over the next three years.

The Select Committee is conducting an inquiry into flooding, as the Secretary of State is aware. We have taken evidence from people such as Sir Michael Pitt. In his interim report, he referred particularly to the effects of surface water flooding, which were seen at their worst in Sheffield and parts of south Yorkshire last year. Does the Secretary of State agree with the recommendation that local authorities ought to have direct responsibility for tackling that, perhaps under the overall supervision of the Environment Agency? I have considerable reservations about the recommendation made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) that the Environment Agency should be the overall supremo responsible, because I do not think that it will be able to tackle the problem in that way.

It is for precisely the reason set out by my hon. Friend that we are consulting on the best way to ensure that an overall look is taken at the question of surface water flooding and to work out what the exact allocation of responsibility ought to be. I have already made it clear in answer to an earlier question that I think that local authorities have an important role to play. In the end, we have to come up with a mechanism to ensure that there is co-ordination and an overview, so that there is one plan that everyone will work on implementing together.