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Rivers Hull and Humber (Flood Risk)

Volume 485: debated on Wednesday 10 December 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Tami.)

I have been applying for this debate since the House returned from the summer recess and I am delighted finally to have secured it. The River Humber and River Hull flood risk management strategies have caused alarm throughout the east riding and I am grateful to be able to put local residents’ concerns before the House tonight.

My speech is split into two parts. First, I want to talk about the River Humber. The Humber estuary is one of the largest tidal estuaries in the country. It is formed at Trent Falls by the confluence of the River Ouse and the River Trent. From that point until the North sea, the river runs between Hull and the east riding of Yorkshire on the north bank and north Lincolnshire on the south bank. What makes the river such a problem from a flood defence point of view is the low-lying nature of the surrounding land. Much of the city of Hull is immensely low lying, with more than 90 per cent. of its surface area below high-tide level.

The principal defences enjoyed by Hull and the east riding are in the form of man-made river banks, some of which, as the Environment Agency has pointed out, are not in the greatest state of repair. As a result, according to the strategy, some 90,000 hectares of land around the Humber are at risk of being flooded if there is a serious storm surge.

The Environment Agency has looked into how it can effectively maintain and improve the defences around the Humber. In September 2000, it published the Humber estuary shoreline management plan, which aimed to develop a coherent, co-ordinated approach to managing the defences for the next 100 years. The plan indicated that a major programme of improvement would be needed to deal with the effects of rising sea levels and to ensure that a proper level of protection was maintained for that period. It stated that in some areas defences would need to be realigned in order to counter the impact of the sea level rises.

In 2005, the “Planning for the Rising Tides” document was published and in March 2007 funding for the first 25 years of work, estimated at about £323 million, was approved by the Government. That formed the basis for the Humber flood risk management strategy that was published at the beginning of this year. In the strategy, the Environment Agency boasts that 99 per cent. of people living around the estuary will continue to receive a good standard of protection from tidal flooding. That means that the defences surrounding their homes and businesses will be maintained.

Most of those defended, of course, are in the densely populated towns and cities, but a huge section of land on either side of the river will be left without defence. Some 11,500 hectares—more than 28,000 acres—in the east riding of Yorkshire alone will be abandoned. More than 2,000 homes around the estuary will be abandoned, including 1,000 in the east riding. A large number of those homes are in the South West and South East Holderness wards of my constituency. According to the Environment Agency, 668 properties will be lost in the Sunk Island area, 62 will go in the village of Kilnsea and 10 will go in the village of Skeffling. The precise nature of that abandonment has been set out in the strategy. When the Environment Agency has decided that it cannot afford to fund improvement work to a defence, it will simply stop maintaining it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the strategy of leaving some houses to flood is totally unacceptable? Does he also agree that the Government should have seen this coming? Is he aware that eight years ago the Institution of Civil Engineers said that Government planning on flood defences was piecemeal and inadequate and that the budget should be doubled?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He reflects the anger and concern of local people, who cannot believe that the Government can suggest the abandonment of so many homes and so much productive land for so little cost in terms of defence. I obviously aim to expand on that issue.

When defence is not maintained, unless home owners are both allowed and able to create secondary defences of their own it will become impossible for them to continue to live or work in the vicinity. Families and communities will be forced to abandon their homes and businesses.

The response from the local community to the strategy has been almost entirely negative. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) and other neighbouring MPs, who have joined local councillors, the National Farmers Union, the East Riding of Yorkshire council and local residents’ groups in opposing the Government’s strategy. The East Riding of Yorkshire council said at a cabinet meeting in August that it “strongly objected” to the implications of the strategy due to the loss of land and property, and to the

“threat to the supply of much needed crops in the East Riding”.

I pay tribute to councillors Jonathan Owen and Jane Evison for the way they have taken the lead in this matter and expressed the concerns of local residents. I chaired a public meeting at the end of last month to discuss the strategy, and more than 100 people turned up to hear from the Environment Agency and to discuss the implications for their properties and businesses.

I turn now to the way that funding for flooding is allocated. Although a householder who needs work done on his house might make a basic assessment of what has to be done and then work out from there how much he is going to spend, that is not how flood defence is managed in this country. Instead, the Government have plucked a number out of the air: after last year’s floods, they came up with the nice round figure of £800 million to be spent on flood defences in 2010-11.

The figure is not based on evidence or related to need, but it is fed in at the top of the complex system of apportionment that the Government, through the Environment Agency, have created. Funnily enough, when one gets past the areas that are urban, highly populated and most often represented by Labour MPs, one finds that there is not enough money left to cover the rural areas. That is why we have the problems that we face today.

One of my appeals to the Minister is that he look at the system again in a fundamental way. Would it not make more sense for the Government to produce a rational, sensible and proportionate cost-benefit ratio that could then be applied across the country to defend existing homes and businesses? That would be better than putting an artificial sum through an artificial apportionment process, and then finding that the entire way of life in rural areas and communities was destroyed as a result.

To secure funding for a project, the Environment Agency must apply to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That is what it did in May 2006, following the publication of the document “Planning for the Rising Tides”. The agency was given approval in principle for flood defence work around the Humber worth £323 million over the next 25 years. That has been much trumpeted, and I have heard Ministers state that they have approved funding worth £323 million in the area—except that is not what will be spent, because it turns out that the approval is only “in principle”. For a project to be funded, it must meet a specific points score assessment, and the Environment Agency has said that £43 million of the total about which the Government have boasted will not gain approval. The fact that that £43 million will not be spent is the reason why, over 25 years, 1,000 homes in the east riding of Yorkshire and many thousand acres of land will be abandoned.

The priority scoring system is immensely complex. People whose homes and land are threatened can be forgiven for struggling to understand it, and I should be interested to hear whether the Minister feels that he understands it fully. I have read the various briefings from DEFRA and spoken to the Environment Agency on a number of occasions, and I confess that I still struggle to work out properly and truly how the system works.

In simple terms, however, the maximum score that a project can get is 40 points, and to qualify for funding it must gain at least 26. One of the main problems is that the system has a rather artificial way of valuing the components when the score is allocated. For instance—and as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire will be fully aware—the system removes from the market value of agricultural land the notional amount created by farm subsidies. Although the Prime Minister has been known to trumpet his interest in food security, the points system that I am describing artificially depresses the market value of farm land and thus leads to a low points score for rural areas.

Soon after the Humber strategy was published earlier this year, I spoke to the local flood manager from the Environment Agency, Philip Winn, to try to get to the bottom of the numbers and understand what was really going on. We are talking about 28,000 acres in the east riding of Yorkshire. I asked a local valuer what the average land value was at the time, and he said, “About £6,500 an acre.” I used my rudimentary mathematics to put the two together, and worked out that we are talking about £180 million-worth of land. There are some 1,000 homes concerned, with an average value of about £150,000; it appears to me that that comes to a value of about £150 million. If we put the two together, we see that we are talking about assets of more than £300 million, at today’s value—and that is just for the east riding section covered in the Humber strategy.

When I asked Mr. Winn how much of the £43 million that the Government were not going to spend could be attributable to the east riding properties concerned, he agreed that it would be about £30 million. The Government are saying that they will not spend £30 million over 25 years—about £1.2 million a year—to defend £330 million-worth of homes and properties. That is looking at the matter purely as an accountant would, and ignores entirely the rightful expectation of communities and families that the Government will be on their side, and will be prepared to look after them. It makes no sense economically, socially or environmentally to abandon those lands. I hope that the Minister responds on that simple level, and does not blind us with science—something that the Environment Agency is normally rather adept at doing.

I want to consider Sunk Island, and perhaps bring the numbers to life. More than 600 homes are due to be abandoned on Sunk Island. Under the system, however, its total priority score was just 17.2—well short of the 26 points required for funding. That was due mostly to its poor economic score, which is calculated by dividing what is known as the present value benefit by the present value cost; one then arrives at the benefit-cost ratio. “PV benefit” refers to the amount of money that it would cost to rebuild flood-hit homes. “PV cost” refers to the amount of money that it would cost, over 100 years, to maintain the flood defences. For Sunk Island, the total PV benefit was £59,151,000, and the total PV cost was £10,642,000. That left a benefit-cost ratio of 5.56. Owing to the complex scoring system, that corresponded to a final economic score of 10.12.

However, the total value of land and property on Sunk Island is much greater than £59 million. According to the Environment Agency, there are 6,812 acres of land in the Sunk Island area. That land is among the most productive farm land not only in the UK and Europe but the whole world. If the average acre is worth £6,500 and we multiply the figures, we get a total of £44,278,000. In addition, there are 685 properties on Sunk Island that are due to lose flood protection. If we give a value of £150,000 a property, we arrive at a figure of more than £100 million. If we add the two amounts together, the total PV benefit is £147 million. That provides a benefit-cost ratio of 13.8 and a final economic score of 20.

I hope that the Minister can tell the communities that I represent why there is such a discrepancy between their understanding of the value of their homes, and the land on which they live, and the notional numbers that the Environment Agency uses. I do not necessarily expect the Minister to be able to provide every answer this evening, but I would be grateful if he could provide me with figures for every single area in my constituency that has received or been refused funding. I am convinced that the system artificially depresses the value of land, and I would be grateful if the Minister could put my mind at rest, and show that that is not the case.

He should, it is true. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I invite the Minister to visit the east riding so that he can hear from local communities and get some understanding of their worries and concerns.

The Environment Agency has commissioned further studies of the area’s flood defences and is due to publish the results in spring next year. I know from speaking to Mr. Winn that the agency will look again at the issue of Sunk Island, which I have pressed hard, as have local residents. I am also told that the priority scoring system may be changed in the future. Perhaps the Minister can tell us this evening how that will work. I hope it will be to the betterment of the rural communities that I represent.

I return to the topic of food security. If the warm words are to mean anything, surely we should ensure that agricultural land is given a higher economic value in the points apportioning process than, for example, a garage. At present, the opposite is the case. If the Government’s approach to food security is meaningful, they will review the formula and ensure that it better reflects the importance of productive farmland to the UK.

Another issue that has come up time and again is compensation. Many people who bought their properties five, 10 or 15 years ago and who now face the prospect of having to abandon them, did so when the official Government policy was to hold the line and defend the coastline. Are those people not entitled to some form of compensation? The former Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, now the Minister for Borders and Immigration, the hon. Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), said in September that it was “morally right” to help victims of tidal flooding when the damage was linked to climate change. He said:

“If people have bought a house and the situation has changed, then clearly it is morally right that they should be helped.”

Does the Minister agree with that statement? Perhaps he will tell us this evening.

I shall speak now about the River Hull flood risk management strategy. The agency has been working on the strategy for a number of years. It has concluded that in the upper level of the River Hull catchment, it can no longer justify the existing defences. It wants to cease to provide the pumping stations which for many years have provided security and protection to my constituents and those of my right hon. Friend. There is enormous concern among local people about the threat to homes and land. We all recognise that urban areas must take priority over rural areas, but we want decent protection for all. After the Minister has visited my constituency, he might want to visit Holland, where even the most sparsely populated rural areas have a standard of protection higher than that currently afforded by the Labour Government in this country to central London.

The Environment Agency has yet to publish a full draft strategy and has no plans to do so until summer 2009. Three weeks ago, however, the East Riding of Yorkshire council arranged a drop-in meeting to discuss the strategy at Beeford. More than 300 concerned residents turned up and expressed their grave concern about the fact that for the estimated cost of £16 million over a long period, the Environment Agency said that it was no longer worth the candle and not worth defending those people and their homes. Can the Minister confirm that he supports that strategy? Will he tell the hundreds of people who turned up at Beeford that their interests and concerns are to be ignored by a Government quango in the form of the Environment Agency?

With reference to the middle catchment area, can the Minister tell us how many properties he thinks will be saved as a result of the creation of a flood storage area, which threatens so many homes and so much land in the area? How does the cost of that facility compare with the cost of maintaining flood defences? At the public meeting, the Environment Agency was criticised for using flood maps which, according to local residents, did not truly reflect the situation on the ground. Many of those people had been flooded last summer, so they were hardly ignorant of the threats to them.

In closing, I ask the Minister to ensure that the River Hull and the River Humber strategies work on a common basis and are better joined together. If the Government insist on the policy of abandonment, what will they do to ensure that local communities can better defend themselves? How will they be able to work together to do so? Will he also address the issue of the Environment Agency, which comes in from afar and seems to find it rather an irritation to have to deal with local people and listen to local concerns? Does he plan any changes to the governance of the agency to ensure that local people, the voices of rural England so often forgotten, can be heard by large Government bureaucracies that make life-changing decisions which undermine the very way of life of the people whom I represent?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) on securing this important debate. The issue of flood and coastal erosion risk management is vital, not least for constituents, including the hon. Gentleman’s, in areas at most risk from flooding, who have experienced first hand the consequences of flood events and coastal erosion. We are aware that the hon. Gentleman’s constituency has had experience of such erosion, flooding from rivers and sea and surface water drainage, and I am grateful that he has raised those issues today.

The Government place great importance on those issues. In fact, we have increased investment in flood risk management to £650 million this year. We have more than doubled the investment levels of the late 1990s to a record £2.1 billion, which will be invested over the current three-year spending period. In representing his constituents, the hon. Gentleman assiduously put forward the case for further extending defences—that, of course, is not for ministerial decision here today—and outlined the costs that would come with that. The same points could be replicated with reference to many parts of the coast, in the north, south, east and west. I emphasise again that we have doubled investment since the late 1990s. For reasons that I will come to, I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench colleagues will join him and say that they would increase the funding even further and guarantee the homes, businesses and agricultural land of every constituent in every constituency throughout the whole country.

The issue is not just about big numbers, but let me turn to why not all areas can be defended. As the hon. Gentleman will recognise, there is a great diversity of coastal types in this country. There is no one uniform approach to coastal defence. He will know that coastlines recede or advance with changes in current, wind and tide. Even in the face of his aspirations for his constituents, I tell the hon. Gentleman that it would be unrealistic to expect the coastline to be maintained in all places as it is today. The Government response to the pressure cannot be to commit to building ever-higher and stronger defences in every place. Instead, the operating authorities must look at the range of options and avoid burdening future generations with the cost of maintaining unsustainable defences. We have to develop responses appropriate to the area at risk, and, whenever possible, achieve sustainability by working with, rather than against, coastal processes.

Furthermore, the Government and lead authorities have the responsibility to ensure that the investment of taxpayers’ money is justified by the benefits; if the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench colleagues were in government, they would face the same challenge. Let me point out that the policy is not new—far from it; it was recognised in the Government strategy of 1993.

The issue is not only about big numbers and investment. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, it is also about the lives, livelihoods and well-being of real people who face the threat of flooding and coastal erosion. It is right that with the investment programme we have significantly reduced flood risk to more than 125,000 houses in the past three years. However, there is more to do. In the next two years, we aim to offer an improved standard of protection against flooding or coastal erosion risk for 145,000 more homes, including 45,000 of those most at risk. As we have seen in the past three years, we are making solid progress, but we also know that there is more to do. We cannot rest on our laurels. That is why the Government are rightly developing this long-term investment strategy for floods and coastal erosion. We are considering the funding needs and pressures for the next 25 years and how the greatest value for money can be achieved in how that investment is delivered. Through individual flood strategies such as the Humber flood risk management strategy, with all the difficulties, challenges and controversy that they involve—people will have concerns; rightly, as their own homes and livelihoods are being affected—we will be looking to establish long-term solutions.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned other matters related to not only coastal erosion but flooding. We are also continuing our work on the draft floods and water Bill, and our intention is to present it for pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation in spring 2009. That Bill will be our opportunity, and the hon. Gentleman’s, to examine how we consolidate the many flood and coastal erosion risk management-related entries on the statute book and make them a proper, joined-up, holistic, coherent strategy to deal with the issue in the interests of our constituents. It will allow us the opportunity to bring together the regulatory regimes on flood defence and on coastal erosion and to ensure a co-ordinated approach that clarifies roles and maximises joint working between all the bodies, agencies and communities involved in flood and coastal erosion risk management, and leads to effective protection on the ground and in the communities that we represent.

Why was that draft Bill not part of this Queen’s Speech, given that after last year’s floods there was a real sense of urgency and yet there is now practically no chance of its becoming law before the next general election?

With the hon. Gentleman’s support, when we introduce it we will get it through in a good shape, but without undue haste. There is always a question of which Bills are introduced. I will be helping Lord Hunt in another place to deliver the marine and coastal access Bill. [Interruption.] I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for that Bill. We are committed to its delivery. Some good support and some tough decisions will be required to make realistic progress.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares our view that it is not beneficial or practical to protect every acre of land and every inch of coastline, particularly when we all know that climate change is increasing storminess, wave heights, and incidents of extreme heavy rainfall. Our focus must rightly be on risk management—on balancing likelihoods and consequences and ensuring that the considerable investment of taxpayers’ money is used to best effect. Any investment must be in return for significant reductions in the likelihood and consequences of flooding and coastal erosion, and it must be made in the places where the benefits are greatest. However, even record levels of investment cannot prevent all exposure to flood and erosion risk, so the answer cannot be simply to pour ever-increasing sums into building higher defences. We must also consider how we can reduce risk by adaptation.

I note the hon. Gentleman’s kind invitation, and I hope that I can take up that offer. As he knows, the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), recently visited the area, but if I have the opportunity, I will take it up.

Having said all that, I am not suggesting that Government support will dwindle. We recognise the importance of this issue and the effect that it has on people and their livelihoods. Ultimately, we want to ensure that places that have experienced floods, such as Burstwick and Hedon in the east riding of Yorkshire, benefit from a joined-up, effective and equitable system of managing excess water. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Environment Agency is in the process of mapping a means that manages the risk of flooding from the sea and main rivers through the Humber flood risk management strategy and the River Hull strategy. The Humber flood risk management strategy—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).