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Flood Defences

Volume 530: debated on Wednesday 6 July 2011

It is a privilege and pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, as my immediate constituency neighbour and someone who is familiar with the problems of flooding in Yorkshire.

I am delighted to have secured this debate on the implications of the potential delays to planned flood defence systems. In the short time available, I want to focus on a technical point and relate it to my constituency, North Yorkshire and Yorkshire and the Humber, areas with which I am familiar. I hope to put to my hon. Friend the Minister a once in a lifetime opportunity. I am sure that there are occasions when he lies awake in the middle of the night wondering what he can do, in what one hopes will be a long ministerial and parliamentary career, to make a difference. I suggest that he has an opportunity here and now to make a difference to a large number of people not only in Pickering, Thirsk and North Yorkshire, but in the rest of the country.

The Minister is familiar with the background to the scheme, and I am delighted that the Secretary of State had the opportunity to visit Pickering and see the work on the “Slowing the Flow” project. The Minister will know that the original £6 million scheme for flood defences at Pickering was rejected by the town and the district civic society, but, eventually, in April 2009—with confirmation in 2010—funding for the Pickering pilot project was announced. It is a unique, pioneering scheme, with Government bodies working closely with communities, where there is not an established pot of money. There are particular difficulties with the course and nature of the river upstream of Pickering, which, as you will be aware, Mr Bayley, is where the beautiful North Yorkshire Moors railway is located. The innovative and pioneering scheme involves creating buffer strips along water courses, digging ditches and blocking moorland drains, as well as planting trees.

The scheme was created with the compliance of the landowner and in partnership with the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission, Durham university, as an academic partner, the North York Moors national park authority, Natural England and Ryedale district council, primarily driven by Pickering town council and the local floods group. There was extreme shock, surprise and disappointment when in June, at the eleventh hour—the technical aspect of the scheme that I want to discuss was due to start this summer—the scheme was put on hold and effectively cancelled, as the cost was deemed to have undergone a staggering increase from an initial £1.3 million to a total of £3.2 million. That was alleged to be due to the requirements of the 1996 guidance to the Reservoirs Act 1975, which is the focus of my questions to the Minister and of my call for action.

The guidance states that the bunds must be able to withstand a one in 10,000 year flood event. However, one local, who is expert in the matter, has said:

“While I appreciate that more detailed modelling and info was constantly coming to light to influence the res engs decision, the fact remains that the critical factors of bund capacity of 85k m3 and the number and proximity of properties at Newbridge remained constant throughout.”

You almost could not make this up, but I did not appreciate before preparing for the debate that a community is 10 properties. Were there only nine properties at Newbridge, the scheme would proceed apace. There would be no cause for delay or concern about the reservoir. Newbridge has been there for far longer than the proposed scheme.

One option—not my favourite—would involve the compulsory purchase of one of the dwellings or properties at Newbridge. That would be the most regressive and least favoured option, but it shows how daft it is that some of the definitions, such as the number of properties that form a community, lead to perverse decisions. As my constituent goes on to say:

“I just cannot understand an anomaly within effective legislation that allows this.”

That is a reference to the fact that the interpretation of the Reservoirs Act 1975, through the guidance, is either woolly or misleading. Although it appears on the one hand that high-risk criteria are precisely laid down, there appears to be a get-out clause to lower the classification to low risk. My constituent concludes:

“I shudder to think what these obligatory Res Engineers are being paid”—

that is his personal comment, I hasten to add—

“but there is something seriously wrong when their interpretation can vastly alter the design criteria from one month to the next when all the physically present criteria remain constant…unless the application of common sense is overtly permissible.”

I wish to make progress.

I do not want to use the debate to apportion blame. I want to use it in a constructive way to urge the Minister to remove the barriers to this project and to other projects. There are similar difficulties in Thirsk, and the common thread of the flood defence schemes is that part of the project in both Thirsk and Pickering allows a storage bund to be created. However, that is now being defined as a reservoir under the Reservoirs Act 1975. My conclusion is that the projects are being over-engineered with structures that are too complicated, and falling foul of the iniquitous 1996 guidance note to the 1975 Act. Clearly, there is a gap between aspirations for individual projects, such as the Pickering pilot project and the Thirsk flood defence scheme, and the ability of the Environment Agency and others to deliver on such schemes.

The Pickering bund scheme has highlighted a lack of clarity about high risk and lower risk in the 1975 Act, and, therefore, a major disconnect between legislation and guidance. There is little guidance beyond the matter of actual reservoirs. It does not seem sensible to build bunds to withstand a flood of biblical proportions, when communities downstream of 8,000, 10,000 or 14,000 properties are being held back by a community of 10 properties. Those communities downstream, in that eventuality, would already be both evacuated and in any case devastated. I agree with another of my constituents that that massively over-engineered standard is denying Pickering residents protection from repeated and frequent flooding. Will the Minister confirm that the return periods are based on data since the late 1980s? In that case, one in 10,000, or 235 cubic metres per second, can barely be described as an educated guess. On what basis were the figures reached? Pickering starts to flood at 12 cubic metres and seriously floods at 15, but in 2007 there was approximately 29 cubic metres. At 235 cubic metres—the one in 10,000 years risk—the town would be devastated and possibly extinct. The Flood and Water Management Act 2010 contains no specific provisions for bund schemes of this type.

I turn next to the personal liability of reservoir engineers in the event of structural failings. It would be totally impractical to ask the two reservoir engineers to risk their personal liability, as it would result in hugely over-cautious, over-engineered and therefore over-priced structures. Liability needs to be shifted from the individual to a public body such as the Environment Agency—or, in my view, the Environment Agency’s political master, the Minister.

Well over £1 million has been wasted in Pickering, and it has produced nothing. We do not want more feasibility studies, consultants or modelling unless specifically needed for a bund. There is a scheme on the table, which everyone believed would work, and there is a great desire and the practical and political will to make it work.

I shall take this opportunity to put a number of questions to the Minister and to tell him of a number of possible solutions that I have identified. The “Slowing the Flow” project in Pickering has been hampered by the fact that although it is a demonstration project, and although part of it is already under way—I have mentioned the creating of buffer strips, the digging of ditches, the planting of trees and the blocking of moorland drains—I am told that no engineer has yet quantified the volume of water that will be retained. That is staggering, given the work that the Conservative party did in opposition, the fact that the Department recently produced its natural environment White Paper and the work undertaken by a number of water companies.

I wish to make progress.

“Slowing the Flow” was always a demonstration project. Implementation requires a major policy change by the Environment Agency, from highly expensive hard defences to affordable simplicity. We should keep things as simple and unstructured as possible, working with nature as closely as we can. However, that appears to be outside the engineers’ and the agency’s comfort zone. Where is the expertise? Is the answer in the White Paper? Is it already known by the water companies? If it does not exist, it should be developed. Is the Department minded to develop it?

The key to this debate is whether the Minister has the power to vary the 10,000 and 25,000 cubic metre thresholds. I understand that the reservoir guidance notes drafted by the Institution of Civil Engineers and agreed by the Department and the Environment Agency can be varied. Schedule 4 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 amends the Reservoirs Act 1975. New section A1(6) of the 1975 Act states:

“In making regulations under subsection (5) the Minister shall aim to ensure that a structure or area is treated as large under the regulations only if 10,000 or more cubic metres of water might be released as a result of the proximity or communication mentioned in that subsection.”

New section A1(7) of the 1975 Act states:

“The Minister may by order substitute a different volume of water for the volume specified in subsection (3) or (6).”

This is the thrust of my debate. The project could probably go ahead if the Minister were to be bold and use that power of variation. He could also instruct the Environment Agency to replace the dam at Mill lane with an automatic sluice. In the longer-term, he could ask Yorkshire Water to consider storing water underground through enlarged sewer pipes. He could even instruct the Environment Agency to compulsorily purchase one of the 10 properties at Newbridge. I have been reliably informed that the chances of finding extra money or exploring local authority options through the flood defence committee or through development gain are minimal.

This is an individual debate, and I am asking for the Minister’s urgent reply. I urge him to go back to the drawing board to find a similar scheme that can use the £1.3 million already on the table and re-examine the engineers’ judgment that category A status applies to the reservoir and the two bunds upstream. Most urgently, I ask him to waive the reservoir guidance notes by using his ministerial discretion and common sense, for which he is well known.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) on securing this debate. On behalf of her constituents, she has raised the subject through every conceivable parliamentary mechanism, and I entirely understand why. I know that the matter is extremely important to her constituents. My hon. Friend was right to say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has visited Pickering. She saw the project at first hand, and returned to the Department impressed with innovative ideas that involved a variety of mechanisms, particularly those that incorporated the natural environment as a flood alleviation and flood resilience asset. I note the presence of right hon. and hon. Members from other areas that face similar problems. The concept of holding back water is vital to a variety of communities and we want to ensure that our legislation supports common sense and is governed by proportionate rules.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton asked a number of questions, and I shall answer some of them before allowing others to intervene. She has submitted some written questions, and she will receive a reply in the next day or so. Today, she asked a question about the number of people who live below a reservoir risk. I understand that it is not 10 properties; the definition of a community in this instance is considered to be not less than about 10 persons who could be affected by a disastrous breach as a result of the under-provision of spillway capacity. That is the crux of the issue. The independent assessment said that the reservoir would require greater spillway capacity. To me and to other laymen, that does not sound a massive issue, but it increased the cost of the project way beyond what was possible.

Certain questions float around, such as what is a bund, and what is a reservoir? A flood defence bund is an embankment designed to prevent flood-water flowing from a watercourse and flooding adjacent land. The water is held up and then released through a controlled mechanism. We have to be compliant with the Reservoir Act 1975, which my hon. Friend identifies as the villain of the piece.

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we are reviewing the guidance. I do not know whether she has seen a copy of it, but I have. It is thick and highly technical. She is right that the independent assessors from the Institution of Civil Engineers who make these judgments are singularly liable. Once the asset is built, it will be the Government who are liable through the Environment Agency. At the moment, however, liability for the level of comfort that has to be achieved rests with individuals, so they want to get it right. There is undoubtedly an incentive for them to be precautionary, but the Government have to ensure that, in our desperate desire to see comfort given to communities such as Pickering, we do not rush measures through that in years to come, with the climate changing as we know it is, may pose catastrophic risks for many people.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Given that this was a pilot project of national significance designed to find out what could be achieved through land management to reduce flooding—an issue of concern in many parts of the country, including my constituency—what implications will the shortcomings that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) rightly identified have for the evaluation of the pilot for other areas?

That is a key point, and I will come on to talk about how we are reviewing the situation, principally in Pickering, and the implications that it will have for other areas.

The Environment Agency is responsible for technical judgments on flow rates and volumes. The Institution of Civil Engineers is the expert, and it is vital that we have such organisations. The Environment Agency has assessed with the panel engineer the volume of water that needs to be stored. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton made a point about powers that I may or may not have to do with variation. Under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, the threshold has been reduced from 25,000 to 10,000 cubic metres. That is the area in which Ministers can apply variation, depending on the circumstances. However, that element of the Act has yet to be formally adopted. When it is, that variation will be in the power of Ministers. Under the current scheme, the Secretary of State and I do not have the power to vary the rates.

I am delighted to be able to help my hon. Friend on that point; someone in the Institution of Civil Engineers has put it to me that that might be suitable for Ministers, but not under the 2010 Act. Its provisions and the reduction in rates caused shockwaves in golf clubs and farms. Those reductions have huge implications for future reservoir building, but that is not the purpose of the debate today. Under the 1998 guidance to the Reservoirs Act 1975, the Minister has the power to make an order proposing the scheme in Pickering. We have to balance removing the risk of river flooding with the slight risk caused by the presence of a reservoir upstream to the communities at Newbridge. He has the power; I urge him to use it before the House rises for the recess.

I recognise the point that my hon. Friend makes and it is now on the record. My officials and I will look carefully at it. However, that is not the information that I had when preparing for this debate, so I will take that point away and get back to her.

Let us look at the case that my hon. Friend raises, because it is important to understand the history. I apologise to other hon. Members who might wish to intervene, but I have only a few moments left. My hon. Friend called this debate and I want to be able to answer her points. Last September, an independent reservoir engineer was appointed to assess the proposals in the context of the Reservoirs Act 1975. The Act is designed to ensure that public safety is maintained. The engineer acted in accordance with guidance produced by the Institution of Civil Engineers. At that stage, the engineer identified the reservoir as a category A reservoir. That classification means that a breach of what could be an 85,000 cubic metre reservoir could seriously endanger a community—we have already discussed what constitutes a community. As a result, it is only right that the highest standards of public safety apply. At best, a failure would increase the level of flood-water, thus defeating the purpose of the scheme. At worst, a catastrophic failure would result in human tragedy. The engineer agreed necessary design standards that should apply in this case to maintain public safety.

In March, new modelling led the engineer to conclude that a higher design standard was necessary. In May, a second opinion was sought, again from an independent reservoir engineer. The second opinion confirmed that the Institution of Civil Engineers guidance on the 1975 Act had been correctly applied and that a higher standard was needed. That led to a redesign that incorporated the higher design standard of the spillway, to which we referred earlier. Inevitably, that pushed up costs. Despite the significant local investment already on the table, the shortfall in funding amounted to around £2 million. Frustratingly, at that level of cost, the scheme is not cost-beneficial under the Treasury Green Book rules. It is not my view that the guidance is wrong. That said, the case does underline the sense in reviewing the guidance. That is a firm assurance that I can give to my hon. Friend today. A review on highly technical guidance—I have already referred to the complexity of the document—is not a quick fix, and will require broad engagement. In the mean time, I welcome efforts to reassess these proposals.

The reservoir is clearly an important part of the plans for the area. That said, I know that many of the innovative approaches that my hon. Friend has described are continuing in parallel. It may well be that we can fairly quickly achieve a different scheme that complies with the Reservoirs Act 1975 and has a sensible cost frame and a sensible cost-benefit analysis result. All the work going into reviewing the guidance will not affect the implementation of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. If it does, Ministers will have the power to apply other criteria to assess whether, on the balance of risk, it is right that these schemes should go ahead even with the lower threshold.

The reservoir is clearly an important part of the plans for the area, so I genuinely applaud the real openness and innovation. There has been engagement with the local authorities, local landowners and many other partners, and leadership from my hon. Friend.

The Environment Agency and local partners are working hard to reassess the designs and to drive down costs. Other options that were originally put forward are also being discussed. Once consideration is complete—I expect that to be at the end of July—the agency is eager to continue working with local partners to explore what can be done while maintaining public safety.

I am sure that the Minister will listen carefully in this case, as he did when he enabled me to have a flood scheme in Teignmouth, for which I am extremely grateful.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for coming to this debate; not all hon. Members come to debates to give a thumbs up. The difficulty with flood defences is that we only know that they work when issues are not raised because problems have been resolved. I know that the issue is a burden for the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) and the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery). There are serious problems affecting communities around the country. We are changing the way in which we approach flood funding.

My point relates to the potential delays. We now have funding from Northumberland county council, as well as the Environment Agency. Will the Minister see whether we can progress the Morpeth flood alleviation scheme as a matter of urgency?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the scheme is being progressed as a matter of urgency, following meetings on the subject, and thanks to the forceful way in which he puts his case—as does my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton. There are no national secrets here. There is no impediment other than the need to find a sensible way forward that can be afforded. As my hon. Friend rightly points out, her local authority—and that of the hon. Member for Wansbeck—has put forward some more money to ensure that the scheme can operate. I will go through any proposal that my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton brings forward. We will consider all the points that she has made and ensure that the absolute powers of the Minister are understood. If we can make a difference at this stage, prior to the change in the guidance, we will make it, but my understanding is that that will require the implementation of an element of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which we are keen to see taken forward.

My hon. Friend says she wants a result before Parliament rises for the recess; she wants to be able to give her constituents the assurances that they need. I can promise her that I will give every assurance that I am able to give. I will work with officials and local people in her constituency to ensure that we achieve the result that they all want, which is a lifting of the burden of the threat of flooding from their lives.

Sitting suspended.