Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Ms Butler.)
I welcome the opportunity to raise the issues of flooding and drainage in my South Ribble constituency. The constituency lies on the Lancashire plain between Preston and the River Ribble in the north, and Southport in the south. The land is flat and low-lying, and much of it has undergone rapid residential development in recent years. Since the 17th century, hundreds of hectares of land in the Banks and Hesketh bank area have been reclaimed from the Ribble estuary. In addition, an inland mere, which stretched from the village of Rufford to the coast, has been drained. All in all, some of the best arable land in the country is in my constituency, but its future productivity relies on a good, well-managed drainage system.
Over the past 10 years, there has been a steady increase in the frequency of flooding and drainage problems. Since the summer, I have held two public meetings: one in New Longton, attended at a few days’ notice by about 60 people, and one in the village of Banks, attended by over 100 residents. Although my constituency is coastal—some people might say that it is estuarial, as it lies on the Ribble estuary—the main problem is not tidal flooding but the inadequacy of various watercourses, drains and sewers in coping with periods of heavy rain. Responsibility lies with four public bodies in addition to local landowners. The Environment Agency has responsibility for the main river watercourses, and there is concern that the switch of emphasis in funding has led to cuts in the maintenance of watercourses. Local district councils—in my case, South Ribble borough council and West Lancashire district council—have powers to ensure that local landowners maintain ditches and watercourses on their land. The use of that power is critical, as it is not uncommon for a landowner to face flooding as a result of a blockage in adjacent land, even though that land is not affected.
Lancashire county council, as the highways authority, is responsible for highways drainage, and United Utilities is responsible for the sewerage system. At both public meetings, issues were raised that illustrate the way in which the responsibilities of the various public bodies are interlinked. Without a close working relationship, tackling any of those issues becomes even more difficult. Following the highest recorded rainfall for 60 years, there was extensive flooding to properties in Chapel lane and the surrounding area in New Longton on 21 January 2008. Lancashire county council has explained that the drainage system in Chapel lane is relatively complex, relying on a combination of private ditches and culverts, highways drains and public sewers. A short-term remedial action programme was put in place, and plans were drawn up to replace a number of drains and culverts, including private ones. Unfortunately, on 26 October 2008, floods occurred once again. In a few weeks’ time—and I am grateful to Lancashire county council—a major scheme costing more than £100,000 will begin, including private drains as well as the replacement of the highways drains. However, drains from the Chapel lane area eventually flow into private drains further down the channel, and South Ribble borough council has played a key role in ensuring that the private drains downstream are unblocked and adequate when the work is completed in the Chapel lane area.
In Banks, residents raised a series of problems in various parts of the village. Much of the village is below sea level, and many of the incidents have arisen because sewers and drains had become blocked. I received a letter from United Utilities last week that gave detailed information about the numerous blockages in the sewerage system and the inadequacies of the system as a whole in many areas. United Utilities pointed out that tackling the problem of inadequate sewers would require additional investment and that properties that suffered internal flooding were its highest priority. United Utilities works on a five-year investment programme, and the limit for its expenditure is set by the regulator. The next programme is due to start in 2010, but Ministers must bear in mind the fact that if we limit that investment programme we will reduce the opportunity to tackle the problem.
As the regulator does not allow the company to put prices up, we ought to ask United Utilities to pay less to its shareholders so that it can make more investment in the proposed schemes. Does my hon. Friend not agree that that is another way forward?
There are various ways in which we could look to get more funding for front-line work improving the sewers, and the profits made by United Utilities is one such way. The Government need to recognise that as floods and the drainage system problems get worse, reliance on a fixed level of funding to tackle the issue means that we will not be able to keep pace with the increasing problems. I am aware that my hon. Friend has significant flooding problems in his own constituency, not least in the village of Croston, which I know well.
The difficulties with sewers, as I mentioned, are related to the amount of residential development. Many of the villages have old sewerage systems that could barely cope with the number of properties that existed 20 years ago, yet the planning process has no mechanism to stop the building of new developments unless adequate sewerage facilities are in place. New estates are tagged on to the system, which overloads an already stretched system. When heavy downpours put pressure on the system, sewage in the streets and problems in people’s houses are not uncommon in villages such as Banks. We should not have to put up with that. All these issues are linked.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when the local authority receives planning applications, particularly in respect of areas of land that are known to flood regularly, the onus should be on it to place proper responsibility on the developer to ensure adequate drainage? The last thing people want is to buy a brand new house and experience flooding the first time there is heavy rain.
Those issues were discussed at length at the public meeting that I held at Banks. Representatives of West Lancashire district council, United Utilities and the Environment Agency attended the meeting. Although the Government altered the rules a few years ago to ensure that the planning authority takes into account the concerns of the Environment Agency about flooding on the flood plain, and can refuse planning applications on that basis, I do not think that the planning authority has the same powers in relation to concerns about the sewerage system. My view, and the view that came over strongly at that meeting, not least from people connected with local authorities, was that some powers should be given to local authorities, if necessary within certain limits, to stop new development if the sewerage system is not adequate.
What is clear and has been highlighted in reports on flooding in other areas is the need for properly co-ordinated systems to be set up between the various agencies. In my area, that would be United Utilities, the Environment Agency, Lancashire county council as my highways authority, and the district councils. They all need to give high priority to flood prevention works. Although in many cases the work that they have to do may seem fairly minor and unimportant, failure to carry out that work can undermine a bigger programme of work undertaken by one of the partner organisations. There must be much more emphasis from the Government on the need to tackle these issues.
In west Lancashire, the various agencies now have a programme of working closely together. That needs to be pushed even more strongly, and I urge Ministers to realise the importance of such programmes and to ensure that agencies work more proactively together, rather than doing their little bit of the jigsaw without understanding how it fits into the wider picture.
I shall speak briefly about the problems in agricultural areas. I am concerned that funding is being directed from farming areas. There needs to be some recognition of the importance of first class arable areas, such as those in my constituency. It is crucial that the Environment Agency maintains its watercourses. A significant area of land is shrinking in my constituency, and in areas such as Johnsons Meanygate in Tarleton, flooding has taken place because there is insufficient gradient left to take the water away and there are no pumps to enable the water that used to go down the watercourse to be pumped into the next stretch of the watercourse. The Environment Agency is reluctant to invest in new pumping systems and I know of the NFU’s concerns about the maintenance of existing pumping systems in my constituency. Again, this issue needs to be borne in mind by Ministers in their dealings with the Environment Agency.
About 30 years ago, several hundred hectares of land in the Ribble estuary was reclaimed from the sea at Hesketh Outmarsh. This was the last major reclamation scheme in the area. Last year, about half of this land, 170 hectares, at Hesketh Outmarsh West, was returned to salt marsh under a scheme supported by the Environment Agency and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. This is the largest single managed realignment of the coast in England. The sea wall was breached last year, and, using old photographs from the 1970s, ditches were dug to recreate the original channels. In time, we will have a new bird sanctuary in one of the key estuaries for migrating birds in the country. The salt marsh will also act as a recipient for flood water at high tides, safeguarding communities further up the River Ribble.
There remains, however, concern among some farmers and the NFU over the impact of the scheme further up the catchment area as the main water course, Hundred End gutter, will be fitted with a lock-down system during high tides. The Environment Agency has done modelling work to show that the new system will not increase the risk of flooding upstream. The NFU and local farmers should be invited to see and discuss this modelling work, because it is crucial that everything is done to ensure that local farmers have confidence in the changes that are taking place. I know that we cannot guarantee that no flooding will take place in future because we have been unable to guarantee that with the existing system, but there is a real fear among a number of farmers in the area that the changes will make things worse. I have had lengthy discussions with the Environment Agency and I would welcome its setting up a meeting to discuss the detailed data and the modelling process with local farmers and the NFU to try to win confidence that the system will work.
The final matter that I want to raise concerns the impact of the new drainage rates being introduced by United Utilities on places of worship. As I understand it, places of worship have paid water rates based on a water meter and surface drainage rates have been linked to the metered water charges. Since April 2008, the drainage rate has been replaced by a charge based on the area of land and buildings that require surface drainage. I have had representations from many churches, including New Longton Methodist, King’s Free Methodist in Penwortham, St James church, Lostock Hall, and the orthodox congregation based at the former Leyland Lane Methodist chapel in Leyland. While new charges are being phased in—we are in the first year of the three-year phasing process—the increase in charges is huge for most places of worship.
I have had a meeting with representatives of Ofwat who set the rules for United Utilities when it moved on to the new charging system. I have also seen the guidance that Ofwat was given by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is clear to me that my hon. Friend the Minister needs to look again at the matter and give Ofwat and, in turn, United Utilities, the power to set up a different system of charging for places of worship. By their nature, they tend to use little water and have paid little in water and drainage charges in the past. Those that have provided off-street car parking for their worshippers now find themselves faced with huge bills.
To sum up, I should like the Minister to consider the issue of United Utilities’ investment in the future, which is crucial, the planning process and how we can ensure that we do not add further properties to inadequate sewerage systems, which is what is happening all over the place at the moment. We need an assurance from the Environment Agency that priority will be given to good agricultural areas and that it will continue to maintain and look after water courses and, where necessary, put in fresh pumping systems and maintain existing pumping systems. We need to ensure that there is continued and improved co-ordination between the main agencies. I ask my hon. Friend to be prepared to look again at the issue of drainage rates for places of worship.
I intend to make only a short contribution to a very useful debate.
As the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) said, several of us have in our constituencies villages and areas that are affected by flooding for one reason or another. I agree that the number of agencies involved sometimes leads to confusion. It would be useful if the Environment Agency acted as an arbiter when United Utilities or the county council says, “It’s not our responsibility—it’s somebody else’s”, and we cannot determine whose responsibility it really is. There should be far more transparency and clarity so that those under the threat of flooding are able to get it sorted out whenever that is possible.
A number of villages in my area have been affected by flooding in the 16 years that I have been the Member of Parliament there. My own village has not been affected by flooding, but there is a brook that runs through it and we have had to try to get it cleared because it is amazing how quickly the foliage grows. When I wrote to the county council on behalf of local residents, I was told, “It would be a cosmetic exercise and we haven’t got money for those.” Fortunately, it eventually got sorted out with the assistance of County Councillor Albert Atkinson. The maintenance of these watercourses is vital. The Government say that they want to do a lot of public spending to help the economy, so this would be exactly the right time to prioritise that. Once a brook or a water course has been cleared, it is far easier to maintain it than to try to get it sorted out when it has been let go for a few years. The operation is far more expensive when it is completely overgrown or there has been a blockage.
As the Minister will know, flooding is awful for residents. It is a constant worry when they are not flooded and a complete nightmare when the rains come suddenly and their homes are damaged. I could name a number of villages in my area that have been affected during my 16 years as Member of Parliament. I once went to Bolton-by-Bowland post-flooding and spoke to several villagers there. One’s heart sinks and one’s eyes fill with tears when one sees the anguish on their faces, with their homes completely destroyed and the clean-up that has to take place. If a village is hit by flooding time and again, residents often have an insurance problem—companies do not want to insure them or the premiums go right through the roof.
This is a vital issue that needs to be properly addressed. I agree with the hon. Member for South Ribble that we must look again at the planning system. In some cases, planning permission seems to be given in areas where the locals know that land is affected by flooding. Locals ask, “Why has planning permission been given for that?”, but in some cases there is apparently no choice. Unless there is going to be proper drainage that can be proven to be effective, homes should not be built.
I hope that the Minister is able to give some assurances not only to South Ribble but to the wider area of Lancashire constituencies. It is a fantastic county, but we get more than our fair share of rain, and therefore the problems that are associated with it.
Order. Although we are not short of time, the debate is technically about flooding and drainage in South Ribble, which is presumably a constituency that has carefully defined boundaries. I am not absolutely conversant with the course of the Ribble, but I am prepared to call the hon. Gentleman on the basis that it touches various Members’ constituencies.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. To help with the geography, my constituency adjoins South Ribble and I am affected by its problems, so let me start by saying that geographically I suit these purposes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) on bringing this debate to the House. It is critical that we take account of west Lancashire and South Ribble. The River Yarrow comes from Chorley and it feeds into the constituency of South Ribble. My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble mentioned the village of Croston, which is in my constituency. After the next election, tragically, that most beautiful of villages will be moved out of Chorley. It has suffered from flooding in the past, and I know that it will be put into good hands, and that the fight to protect Croston will continue. In the past, the Government have made good investment through the Environment Agency, but the village still experiences the problems of flooding.
The brooks that feed into the River Yarrow feed into the area, and none more so than one called Eller Brook. The problem with that brook is that it is a feeder. We know that there are problems, which brings us back to the point raised by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans): who maintains the brooks, and why are they not being maintained? The biggest problem is the role of local authorities. District authorities have a responsibility for small brooks, but they say, “Not me, guv. It is somebody else.” That is the problem. The Environment Agency says, “Not me. It is the district authority.” The district authority says, “We don’t think that we agree with that. It could be the county council.” The county council then says, “Not really us. What about United Utilities?” It is buck-passing. That is the biggest problem that we face.
Would my hon. Friend agree that the idea of getting agencies to work together is crucial to stop that buck-passing? It happens in district areas, and in our part of our Lancashire we also have to deal with what happens when the problem is tackled well in one district but not in the next. That can have an adverse effect, to put it bluntly. If problems are not dealt with well in Chorley, that will have a bad effect on South Ribble because we are a bit downstream, and we are likely to get floods if the problem is not dealt with in Chorley.
I totally agree, and that is the point. We have to ensure that we reflect the right image and have the best practice. Authorities have to share best practice to ensure that the people of South Ribble do not suffer because of neglect taking place in Chorley or in other districts. I take that point on board; it is part of the key issue.
My hon. Friend rightly referred to who is responsible. Is it a question of private ownership? The Government have to look at that. Historically, private clearance of ditches does not take place and the Environment Agency ought to have new powers so that in cases where private owners of a ditch or sewer are not dealing with a problem, the agency has the power to clear the blockage and charge for it. It is a matter of ensuring that we all benefit, and the Minister may want to take that point on board.
My hon. Friend rightly touched on another key point about United Utilities and other water companies, and when I consider it, it worries me more than anything. They are caning the churches, sporting organisations and charities alike. We are talking about surface water, which God provides for nothing, but United Utilities and other water companies want to charge the Church for what runs off the roof. The churches already, quite rightly, pay for sewerage and for the water that they use. But water companies such as United Utilities have arbitrarily told churches that they owe a certain amount of money. There is no proof that the water is not soaking away, or that it is going into the sewer. The obligation should be on the water company to prove whether that is the case, but it has made the churches liable. That has got to be stopped, and the situation needs to be rethought.
United Utilities has not done any impact study. It has introduced huge charges that will close churches throughout the north-west, and other water companies will close churches throughout the country—my hon. Friend referred to the churches in South Ribble. I say to the Minister that the effect of the charges will be wholesale closures, despite the fact that there has been no impact study. No thought has been given to the consequence of these thousands of pounds of charges. On average, each church will have to pay an extra £3,000. Where will they find that money? They will find it from the congregations. Why have we allowed the water companies to do that?
The previous Secretary of State said that the water companies should not impose charges on churches, so we must remove them. They are totally unacceptable, and I have not heard any customers say that it is right to charge the churches. Nobody agrees with it, and the time has come for the Government to stand up, put the water companies in line and not allow them to make the charges; otherwise, there will be wholesale decimation of churches throughout the country, which is not what we want. We want the Government to support the churches, sporting organisations and charities that have suddenly had charges imposed on them. It is a big issue, and it will not go away. On the Downing street website, I think that it has the fastest growing number of objectors. We need to consider it quickly.
I thank the Minister for his time, I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble for allowing us to join in the debate.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) on securing the debate and on the way in which he has led the discussion in his constituency, with public meetings and meetings with utility companies, the Environment Agency and others. He has done sterling work on behalf of his constituents and kept them informed. I am happy to respond to the issues that he and other hon. Members have raised.
My hon. Friend is right that, as we have seen clearly in recent years, flooding is a serious, significant problem that has a devastating impact on all those who are touched by it. As hon. Members will know, there have been a number of high-profile flooding events across the UK in recent times. I am therefore pleased that the debate allows me to reaffirm the efforts that we are making to improve the management of such risks to the benefit of all people across the UK, not least in my hon. Friend’s constituency and those adjoining it. South Ribble has experienced at first hand the consequences of both fluvial and surface water flooding events.
My hon. Friend outlined a number of concerns, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). I shall try to address them as well as provide an overview of the work that is being carried forward to improve our management of flood risks.
I know that various hon. Members have been concerned about the perceived rural to urban shift of resources. I can confirm that there is no intended bias against rural projects in the prioritisation approach adopted by the Environment Agency. Government policy is simply and straightforwardly to achieve maximum benefit from expenditure, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble and others will welcome that. In accordance with that policy, the Environment Agency takes a risk-based approach, directing its resources to the areas of highest risk, where investment yields the greatest benefits. That is a straightforward cost-benefit analysis.
The approach might mean that projects are less likely to go ahead in sparsely populated areas, as they tend to be less beneficial than projects that protect a larger number of people or carry higher asset values for a given cost. It is worth pointing out that when a priority score is assessed, the benefits of a project are compared with its cost. The crucial measurement is of the benefits per unit cost, not the absolute benefit of a proposal.
Will my hon. Friend clarify the priority or weighting that is given to the quality of the agricultural land affected? It is fairly obvious that a lot of the best quality arable land is in low-lying areas that are at risk of flooding unless the drainage is kept really good. If there is not investment in such land, we risk losing acres and acres of first-class arable land.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. In response to issues that he and others have raised, only last year we reviewed the economic appraisal of agricultural land. It was revised marginally upwards, and we are now considering whether to set specific outcome targets. We actively examine the matter, but we must ensure that there is balance in the prioritisation to ensure that we get the best value for money. We considered the issue only last year, when the appraisal was revised marginally upwards, and we will continue to examine it to see how we can obtain best value for money.
The appraisal is based on unit costs, not on absolute benefits, and that should ensure that smaller projects, including rural ones, are considered on an equal footing with larger, often urban projects. Furthermore, as we announced in our response to Sir Michael Pitt’s report on the flooding events in summer 2007, we have allocated an initial £5 million to improve property-level resistance to flooding. That will be concentrated on areas that do not stand to benefit from community-level protection schemes. Applications should be made via local authorities, and I am happy to send details of the scheme to my hon. Friend.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about developments without adequate planning for drainage. Water and sewerage companies are not statutory consultees in the planning process because problems with water supply or sewerage are already material considerations in planning cases, and they should be given that weight. I know that developments are proposed in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and if a local planning authority believes that a development would give rise to a water supply or sewerage problem, the authority should consult the relevant water company. When such problems cannot be resolved, the local planning authority should refuse permission for new housing.
Developers should work closely and at an early stage with water and sewerage companies so that new water supply and disposal infrastructure is timed to coincide with the development that it serves.
Obviously, there are two interests. First, water companies have the benefit of extra water rates, and local authorities gain because they receive extra council tax. The problem is that they work together to give planning permission. If they refused planning permission and there was an appeal, which they lost, would they have costs awarded against them?
I am happy to clarify that point in a moment, but if adequate supply and disposal of water cannot be provided, the local authority has jurisdiction to refuse planning permission.
Water companies are statutory consultees on regional spatial strategies and local development plan documents. Under the plan-led system, planning applications are determined in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations signify otherwise. The current system works well, albeit with the occasional glitch, so the Government have no plans to make water and sewerage companies statutory consultees. However, if evidence emerged that the current approach was not working effectively, we would consider the matter further. We keep an active eye on it.
On ditch maintenance, more than half of all flood assets in England and Wales are owned and managed by third parties—organisations or private individuals other than the Environment Agency. To address that risk, the Environment Agency has put in place risk-based policy and guidance to help its maintenance teams to work consistently with owners of third-party flood assets throughout England and Wales. When fully implemented, that policy and guidance will put the Environment Agency in a position where all third-party owners will be aware of their obligations to maintain standards of flood assets within a set time scale, and the Environment Agency will take over the assets when it is in the public interest for it to do so.
Furthermore, under the Land Drainage Act 1991, the erection or alteration of any mill dam, weir or similar obstruction to the flow of any watercourse, requires Environment Agency consent prior to the commencement of works. Therefore, if landowners wanted to undertake any work that is likely to cause a temporary obstruction to the flow, they would require Environment Agency consent.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble also mentioned the Hesketh Outmarsh West scheme. I understand that local people and those landowners affected are worried about the impact of the recent works completed there, which involved the Environment Agency undertaking substantial repairs to the primary sea defences. The work was done in conjunction with the managed realignment of former private defences—I have spent some time this week with colleagues from the Environment Agency looking at the issue in some detail—and the creation of 168 hectares of tidal salt marsh habitat. The work has raised the condition standard considerably and now offers a robust defence against tidal inundation in that location. Hundred End Gutter, the main drainage watercourse from the hinterland, has had a new larger tidal outfall constructed where it passes under the repaired primary sea defence.
I can reassure my hon. Friend and his constituents that the computer modelling, which he referred to, of the watercourse system to the rear of the refurbished sea defence was carried out for both the existing and the new arrangements. The intention was to ensure that the replacement outfall is suitable to discharge extreme high flows during periods of heavy rainfall. The modelling results indicated only a minimal difference to existing upstream flood levels, even when the system was locked out for periods during high tide cycles. However, I am glad to announce that I have already contacted my colleagues in the Environment Agency, who have confirmed that they would be more than happy to facilitate a meeting with my hon. Friend, farmers, the National Farmers Union and others—
Indeed. That will allow us to review further the concerns expressed. I encourage my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble to contact the Environment Agency’s offices directly to take that forward.
Let me address the issue of foul flooding. Ofwat is an independent economic regulator, as my hon. Friends know, and Ministers do not have the authority to instruct it on how to set price limits to deal with foul flooding or otherwise. However, in the principal guidance to the director in the 2004 periodic review of price limits, the Secretary of State said that the Government would work with the regulators to improve the co-ordination of approaches to address all types of flooding risk in the most cost-effective manner. I will return to that in a moment and outline some of the proposals that we have recently introduced.
On United Utilities and its investment in capital projects, I am not a spokesman for United Utilities, but I am advised that—
Order. May I gently remind the Minister that he should address the Chair? I know that it is tempting to address the Member whose Adjournment debate it is, but he must address the Chair.
My apologies, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you can see, I have a tendency to turn with my body rather than with my neck, so it is not easy for me to turn both ways, but I fully appreciate what you have said.
Between 2005 and 2010, United Utilities will have invested more than £160 million to solve sewer flooding in the north-west. Although United Utilities, like other water companies, cannot confirm investment plans for the next price review period because it is in negotiations with Ofwat, we look forward to those plans coming forward, subject to Ofwat’s consideration of them, so that we can look at them in detail. Ofwat sets price limits for the water companies. During the periodic review, it considers proposals from water companies such as United Utilities to increase investment in the public sewerage infrastructure.
Let me deal with the issue of building in areas of high flood risk and the relation with policy planning guidance in PPS25. PPS25 is entitled “Development and Flood Risk” and seeks to ensure a number of criteria, including that development is located away from flood risk where possible; inappropriate development in flood risk areas is avoided; flood risk is assessed so that it can be avoided and managed; and flood risk is taken into account at all stages in the planning process. I will return to some of our proposals and how we will take the process forward in a moment. However, it is important to recognise the guidance against which the current planning and policy guidance sits.
An important issue that my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble and for Chorley have both raised relates to the impact of water rates on organisations such as churches and other places of worship, third sector groups and sports clubs. That is a valid concern, and I have had a number of letters on the subject as well. We are aware of the issue, and we are considering the representations and trying to find a way forward, recognising that the potential impact on some of those organisations—albeit during the transition period while the measures are being phased in—could be significant. I am keen, as a Minister, to look at that to see whether there is a way forward, without making cast-iron pledges at the Dispatch Box today.
I understand that, in recent history, the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble has experienced the impact of flooding. In January and October 2008, about 120 homes were affected, largely in New Longton and Much Hoole, with the main problem being surface water and the over-topping of drains resulting in flooding. Surface water flooding is a serious issue and, as such, it was announced in the Government’s response to Sir Michael Pitt’s report on the summer 2007 flooding events that we are proposing new legislation in March and April 2009 to support local authorities in this leadership role for managing local surface water flooding. That will included new duties on them to fulfil the leadership role. There will be a new duty to take direct responsibility for managing flooding from surface run-off and groundwater, and new duties on other organisations to co-operate and to provide information that will help the local authorities to understand the risks posed and to put in place arrangements to manage them. Building strong and constructive partnerships with other organisations that have responsibilities for parts of the local flood risk management infrastructure to take forward joint action will be a key aspect for local authorities to develop as part of their leadership role. Many hon. Members have commented on the need for clarity among the various agencies, and I shall explain what more we are doing on that in a moment.
The full response to the Pitt report was published on 17 December by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Government are taking action on all 92 recommendations in the review, covering a wide range of issues including how to improve flood prevention, how to reduce the impact of flooding, how to cope better when floods happen, and how to help areas to recover more effectively from such events.
The review set out new strategic roles for the Environment Agency and for local authorities to prevent and prepare for flooding from all sources, and the Government are now putting those in place. Many of the more important changes will require new legislation, in order to be fully effective, and I shall return to that issue in a moment. However, there is much that can be done in the meantime. We have written to all local authority leaders and chief executives to encourage them to start delivering on the programme set out in our response to Sir Michael Pitt’s review.
We are also providing significant funding to help to support the implementation of Sir Michael’s recommendations. This includes £15 million from the Pitt fund, and an estimated total of £12 million that local authorities are expected to spend in this area from existing budgets in 2009-10 and 2010-11. The Government have also announced that we will bring forward £20 million of spending on flood and coastal management from 2009-10 to 2010-11 as part of the fiscal stimulus package.
As well as taking action on surface water, further key points of the action plan include an extra £8.5 million for the Environment Agency in its new role as the organisation with overall responsibility for flooding, to make flood warnings available to ex-directory households, to improve how potential surface water flooding is predicted and mapped, and to help the agency to implement the other recommendations. A £7.7 million flood forecasting centre, run by the Met Office and the Environment Agency, will be created to improve the country’s ability to predict and respond to flooding by providing a single national forecasting and alert service, and to help emergency responders to prepare for and respond to flooding.
There will also be £5 million to help people to protect their own homes better, through installing flood protection measures such as door boards and air-brick covers. Those are simple, practical measures. They will help, for example, in cases where it is not possible to provide protection through larger community-level defences, such as in parts of my hon. Friend’s constituency.
That is not all the work that we are undertaking. As we announced previously, we increased Government investment in flood risk management in 2008 to £650 million and, given the record £2.5 billion that will be invested over the current three-year spending period, we have more than doubled the investment of the late 1990s. It is not just a matter of numbers, as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley implied it was, as it is about the lives and well-being of real people who live with the risk of flooding.
Through various measures, we have now significantly reduced flood risk to more than 125,000 homes in the past three years alone, but there is more to be done. Over the next two years, we will offer an improved standard of protection against flooding or coastal erosion risk for 145,000 more homes, including 45,000 of those at the greatest risk. We are making solid progress, but I accept that there is more to be done and that we must not rest on our laurels.
Without any reference to the floods and water Bill that will be so important, let me say in conclusion that hon. Members will accept that we will never be able completely to eradicate the threat of flooding, but that I am confident that we are much better prepared today for the challenges we will face in the coming months and years. I am sure that the policies that we are putting in place will help us to improve our ability in future to cope with flooding events, both nationally and locally in areas such as the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley and others.
Question put and agreed to.