Thursday 8 September 2011
[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
Flood and Water Management
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Richard Benyon.)
Welcome to the Chair, Mr Walker; it is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship. I also welcome the Minister, whom we look forward to hearing from later.
I am delighted that the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has secured this debate. I thank my fellow members of the Committee for their hard work on the report and its conclusions. We had some powerful evidence, reflecting the importance of this important policy area and the human consequences when flooding occurs. I should also like to record our thanks to our expert advisers for their help in preparing the report and subsequent work, particularly our current work on the natural environment White Paper.
The Committee published its report in December 2010. We had many written memorandums of evidence and a number of evidence sessions. The fact that it is our first report of the new Parliament demonstrates the importance that we and the Committee attach to water and flooding issues. To help hon. Members, particularly the Minister for his summing up, I will focus on the points of concern that have emerged from the Government’s response and on matters outstanding from both our Committee report and, indeed, legislation pending since the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 was passed.
Water and flooding are key issues raised by constituents with MPs. I am sadly all too familiar with flooding, both in my former constituency, Vale of York, and my current constituency, Thirsk, Malton and Filey. The report reflects the fact that UK weather presents us with twin challenges of flooding and drought, as well as challenges to the water industry and consumers that include affordability and the rising cost of water bills and many other bills. As consumers of water, our constituents need assurances that they will continue to receive consistent, clean, affordable supplies. As householders and businesses, they need to be confident that their properties can be protected as far as is reasonably practicable from risks of flooding.
The increasing likelihood of severe weather events such as floods and drought is also a challenge for the farming community. Many farmers and landowners are involved in managing flood risks, which comes at some cost. I will share with the Minister concerns that have been raised in the run-up to today’s debate. In preparing our report, the Committee received evidence from the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association. In particular, the NFU is concerned that land should not be seen as a free resource, particularly if used as temporary storage for water in times of flood, causing loss of crops as well as other losses.
Water has been a key issue to the EFRA Committee. The previous Committee, on which I also had the privilege to serve, looked into the response to the 2007 floods and the Flood and Water Management Bill, which was enacted in 2010 and was considered to be the essential first step in putting in place a comprehensive and consistent framework for managing flooding and early work on key aspects of water management. I should perhaps declare an interest, because I sat as a shadow Minister on the Bill Committee and followed its passage extremely closely.
I will sum up the challenges that remain. Partnership funding for flood defences has come on stream for the first time this year.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. I know Workington and Maryport extremely well, and our hearts go out to those colleagues, particularly in Cumbria, who suffered in the floods. If he will permit me, I will mention the role that farmers, landowners and, in particular, internal drainage boards play in dredging and maintenance. In the visits that I have made over time to areas that have been badly affected by flooding in my constituency, other parts of Yorkshire, Cumbria and elsewhere, I have heard anecdotal evidence of an absence of maintenance and dredging. I was shocked to hear recently that Cod beck, which caused the flooding in Thirsk and where flood defences have still not been built—the Minister might put that on the wish list that he will take away with him today; we are still anxious to get the flood defences built in Thirsk—has not had any maintenance for the past two or three years.
I might go further than my Committee colleagues and our conclusions in the report. I would like the internal drainage board to be allowed to agree a programme of maintenance and dredging with the Environment Agency. On the recommendations, it was the wish of Sir Michael Pitt that there would be an annual maintenance and dredging programme on the Environment Agency website, which the public would be able to see. We have established, however, that the moneys given by internal drainage boards to the Environment Agency, not least in my own region, are not being used for dredging, for a number of reasons. I want that money to stay with the IDBs for a programme agreed with the Environment Agency, but for the IDBs to use their resources and their engineers to maintain main watercourses.
I am a vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities, which has contacted me to express its disappointment that no new internal drainage boards have been created yet. I know that the subject is close to the Minister’s heart, so when he sums up, will he tell us the position on the creation of new internal drainage boards? All those bodies have a role to play, but it should not be the Public Bodies Bill that sets out the legislative provisions; they should all form part of the water Bill, which we anticipate keenly.
I support that request and wish to reinforce the recommendation in the Committee’s original report. On IDBs, the Government response says that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is
“considering what changes should be made to funding arrangements”.
I hope that that review will happen sooner rather than later. IDBs do a fantastic job from the ground up, with a real understanding of the topography of areas such as Holderness, which I represent. I want local people to be able to hold the money and commission effective flood protection, whether from the Environment Agency or another body. I am convinced, as is my hon. Friend, that putting it in the hands of local people rather than the agency will be more cost-effective.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point and for his invitation, which I was able to accept, to visit some of the areas that had been affected in Beverley.
Partnership funding for flood defences, which was introduced only this year, will of course be limited to the amounts that can be raised. The level of funding is the key to the success of our report and the message that we gave, as well as the success of the 2010 Act itself. I have a direct question for the Minister on the business of funding, particularly the levy-raising powers. I and many other hon. Members represent deeply rural constituencies. A concern has been expressed that, where there is not an established local levy, there may be constraints on the amount that can be raised. The Minister must realise that there is a limit to how much any individual local authority can afford because, as we note in the report, budgets have been reduced as a result of the comprehensive spending review.
We welcome the fact that regulations on the transfer of private sewers and lateral drains have proceeded, but the Minister must respond to the concerns expressed in our report, which are reflected across the country, about how we can recover the costs, which are either non-funded or underfunded. It will be helpful if the Minister responds to the water companies’ direct concern about that.
Colleagues would be disappointed if I did not mention sustainable drainage systems. We need to know the commencement date for the relevant provisions of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. Are we really looking at a delay until 2012, and if so, do we as parliamentarians accept that? I put it to the Minister that we do not. I do not think it would be appropriate to have a phased introduction of sustainable drainage systems. The country is crying out for sustainable drainage systems to be introduced with a specific target date—I hope, by the end of this year. When will the regulations be laid and what consultation period is required? The time needed for preparation makes those provisions coming into effect this year a very tight timetable, and there is concern that they will be postponed until next year.
I want to place on the record my views on misconnections and the ending of the automatic right to connect. Sir Michael Pitt was extremely clear and categorical on that. I am not sure that we have reached an end to the automatic right to connect. I would like to make water companies statutory consultees on the same basis as the Environment Agency is. Many water companies have loose arrangements with the planning authorities, but it is important that we enshrine that in law. Water companies should be made statutory consultees on any future planning applications to limit potential misconnections as far as possible. I touched on the maintenance of watercourses in response to the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham), but I repeat that we need as many engineers as possible and that we should use the internal drainage boards where they exist.
The hon. Lady is making a compelling case on many fronts. Planning and misconnections are a considerable problem around the country, and a number of misconnections have been made in my area, but would creating an obligation for water companies to be statutory consultees in relation to planning applications make a difference to the builders putting in the equipment? The rules are very clear: they should connect to the appropriate foul water or surface water sewer. The key surely is to have better monitoring afterwards through building regulations and to ensure that the plans and specifications have been followed.
I think we need both approaches. The system is failing because of the lack of consultation with water companies. Because they are not statutory consultees, they are being asked to link up to new developments where they do not think it is appropriate. One example is a proposal to build 300 houses in Filey on an area that is prone to flooding; the water company has said that there will be great difficulty in connecting, but I do not see where the planning inspector can overrule the local authority. The Committee’s key message was that more than 5 million properties in England are at risk of flooding—that is a Government and insurance industry figure—and, at the same time, the UK faces increasing economic and environmental challenges to securing clean, reliable and affordable water supplies.
The natural environment White Paper, “The Natural Choice: Securing the Value of Nature,” has been well received and, as I say, the Committee is doing a substantial piece of work on it, but we are severely disappointed that the water White Paper has been delayed. Despite its importance, it has not been published within two months of the natural environment White Paper. I had the opportunity to express our concerns to the Prime Minister and to say that the Committee does not want any slippage in the introduction of the water Bill, which will be as important to the water industry as the Water Act 1989. I know it is not within the Minister’s gift, but I hope that the Government business managers listening will make time available early next year for that substantial piece of legislation. I also hope that the Minister will be able to assure hon. Members today that we will receive the White Paper—no doubt, with great interest—well before the turn of the year. We want an holistic approach to flood and water management, and the natural environment White Paper and the water White Paper both have a substantial contribution to make.
The extended parliamentary Session—the first to run for 18 months—must not be used as an excuse to delay the introduction of legislation if the regulatory changes are to be made without disrupting the water price-setting process. The Minister has an opportunity to set out this afternoon the Government’s timetable for finalising the provisions of the 2010 Act that have not yet been commenced.
It is an understatement to say that the White Paper is eagerly anticipated, and we look forward to receiving it without further delay. Many strands of work are involved: we expect it to look at the Cave review of competition, the Walker review of household charging, the Gray review of Ofwat and the implementation of EU directives such as the water framework directive. Time will not permit me to go into many of the concerns that have been raised about the directive, but suffice it to say that many of the water companies and, indeed, many farmers and landowners are extremely concerned about how it will take effect.
There is good news. Since our report was published, we have had the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs consultation on water affordability, which followed up from the Budget statement on 23 March. That demonstrated that the Government are committed to supporting households with water affordability pressures and households in areas with particularly high water bills, such as the south-west. I am sure my hon. Friends from that area will have plenty to say on that.
We also welcome the reforms to the WaterSure scheme, the approach to social tariffs and the options for additional Government spending to provide further support. Water companies would find it incredibly helpful if the Government—obviously, not DEFRA but another Department—could, on a confidential basis, give the details of people on benefits to the water companies, so that they can earmark and target those most at risk and those who would most benefit from a social tariff. The consultation closed on 17 June, and we now expect the Government to introduce their proposals.
The natural environment White Paper will make a clear contribution to valuing water more effectively. We heard from a number of witnesses in June and we will look further at the matter in the autumn. The national ecosystem assessment that was published in June shows that there is a great body of work to build on.
I know that the Minister would be disappointed if I did not express my disappointment at the failure of the Pickering pilot scheme for flood defences to go ahead. The Woodland Trust and others are enthusiastic about more natural means of flood defence, such as the planting of trees to slow the water down. I hope that the Minister will not feel constrained and will tell us today where we are on reservoir provision. I make a plea on behalf of many constituents, and I am sure many in the House as well: time after time, the Environment Agency seems to get carried away with over-engineered, over-expensive and over-fancy flood defence projects that fall flat on their face at the first hurdle. That is why we do not have the flood defences we need in Thirsk or in Pickering. The Pickering pilot project was innovative and looked at more natural means of flood defence, but it will not now go ahead. The money, particularly from the local authority, is ring-fenced only until next year. I am sure that the Minister would think that it was tragic if we were to lose that project for ever because of delay owing to the Environment Agency not knowing that the flood storage system it had in mind constituted a reservoir.
I again express the Committee’s support for sustainable drainage systems. Local authorities have expressed concern that they be properly resourced, and the Minister has the opportunity today to set their mind at ease. They have to be given the financial resources they need. I have mentioned water companies being statutory consultees.
I wonder whether the Committee looked at bringing in national flood protection standards. As soon as flooding moves out of the public eye, and in the face of financial difficulties, funding tends to be cut, with a long-term deleterious impact. Holland has statutory national flood standards, which trigger investment and ensure that standards are maintained. Do we not need some fundamental reworking of protections in law to force Governments and funding bodies to ensure that we have a sustainable system? I fear that if we go for a period without severe floods, we will create the conditions for worse floods in the future.
I will take that opportunity to bring forward my comments on floods insurance. There is an urgent need for the Government to agree with the insurance industry that when the statement of principles expires in 2013, there will be an insurance regime in place. Flood protection and resilience measures taken by householders and businesses should be reflected in a lower premium. The Government and the insurance industry both have a role to play in reducing premiums where that work has been done.
A number of challenges remain. Central to the White Paper is taking forward the three reviews that I referred to earlier: to ensure regulatory stability; to keep down the cost of capital while ensuring maximum efficiencies in the industry; to introduce changes to charging and embed the wider value of water prices in a way that is acceptable to consumers; and to meet a raft of environment challenges, including EU requirements. Of all the directives—on water framework, on urban waste water and on river basin management requirements—it is the water framework directive that is causing most concern. In the Committee’s view, there is strong evidence that it does not offer an effective means of delivering environmental outcomes within such tight resource—that is, funding—constraints. As ever, we need to work with our European partners to find agreement on how to improve the framework directive regime.
The Minister needs to respond to conclusions 45 and 46 and recognise the role of farming and agriculture in flood defences. There was a clause permitting arrangements for financial support for flood protection measures, and the Minister himself has acknowledged that proper compensation is owed to landowners. How will the role played by farmers be recognised? We are concerned about the transitional arrangements for the phasing out of regional development agencies. What are the arrangements for future payments under the rural development programme for England for those types of protection measures? There is concern about who to apply to. The RDA teams are still in place, but do farmers apply to DEFRA or to a regionally located unit? We need clarification.
These are challenging times for all those involved in flood and water management. We welcome the Government’s taking an holistic view and their attempts to link the strands together, but we have expressed concern about resources, reservoir safety regimes and the need for their reform, SUDS and flood insurance. I welcome the opportunity afforded by today’s debate and look forward to hearing what other hon. Members have to say and the Minister’s conclusions. What is most important, however, is the cross-party support and recognition of how significant floods are to local constituencies, and how much work we still need to do to prevent future floods from happening.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, and a great pleasure to follow the hon. Lady, who used to be the hon. Member for the Vale of York and is now the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh). In 2010, we spent many hours together in Committee scrutinising the Flood and Water Management Bill.
For those of us from Wales, the situation is complex, particularly in the context of devolution. Many hon. Members will remember that there were various sections in the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 that would be introduced when the then Welsh Assembly Government had had the chance to make the necessary measures in the process of what were then known as legislative competence orders. Since then, Wales has had a referendum and the Welsh Assembly Government have enhanced powers.
I am pleased to say that one of the first measures under those new powers has been the enactment of the adoption of private sewers, which was announced by the Welsh Government Minister John Griffiths and will come into effect on 1 October. We all know how important that is for many householders who, in the past, have often found themselves facing totally unexpected bills because they were unaware that they were on private systems. The adoption of their sewers will be a tremendous bonus for them. Residents in areas such as Cleviston Park in Llangennech, Dolau Fan in Burry Port and Derlin Park in Tycroes will join with many others across the country in being very pleased that they will be brought into the system of adopted sewers and will not have to face bills that people just two streets away do not have to face.
The issue is particularly complex, because the boundaries of the Dwr Cymru Welsh Water area and the Severn Trent area are not coterminous with the border between England and Wales. That presents us with another issue, as there is clearly a need for careful and close working between the Welsh and the UK Governments. Coupled with that, obvious geographical features, such as the Severn estuary, will necessitate continued close working.
On water charges, we are all familiar with the fact that south-west England is in the most difficult position and has the highest charges, but people are not necessarily aware that Wales comes second in all the comparison tables—Welsh Water is the second highest charger. The reasons are complex, are historical and geographical in nature, and go back a long way. Basically, Wales faces problems similar to those in south-west England: it has long coastlines with beautiful beaches, which people from all parts of the UK come to enjoy, and yet there are areas with a relatively sparse population, so it is difficult to make the challenge of meeting environmental standards for those beaches match up with the income that can be generated from the local residents.
I welcome the fact that the Committee has gone into detail in the report on ways forward, but there are no easy options. As the Minister said to the Committee, we cannot end up with a situation in which someone on a very low income in one part of the country subsidises a millionaire in the south-west, and nor is it a straightforward matter of seeing the solution as one for single area or one stretching across several areas. I urge the Government, however, to give the problem of water poverty urgent attention and to take into account the fact that the high prices in Wales are an historical feature and that some discussion is needed about a mechanism that might help consumers in Wales who find themselves in difficulties. For example, some type of national structure, falling under the remit of UK taxation or the responsibilities of the Department for Work and Pensions, would work for a clear-cut case. If it is not so clear-cut, we still need to give the issue special consideration and to think what we can do. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2009 reported that DEFRA should
“examine how changes might be made to the way water industry investment is paid for when it is directly and expressly for the purpose of improving environmental standards for national benefit.”
My constituency is on the northern side of the Burry inlet—the southern side will be more familiar to many people as the Gower peninsula, an area of outstanding natural beauty. Our difficulties in the inlet have resulted in infraction procedures on EU water directives on waste waters, shellfish waters and habitats. The fact that the UK is not in compliance with EU directives is clearly of national significance.
In areas where we have a national responsibility and where we must protect our heritage, we must provide investment to maintain the standards that everyone wants to enjoy on cleaner beaches, with better water quality in our inlets, particularly where we have a precious shellfish industry, as we do in the Burry inlet. We need to ask at what point something should be dealt with on a national scale, rather than on a local water company-area scale. I make an urgent plea for the White Paper to provide a clear indication of how the Government will manage the challenge of providing enough income for the necessary investment in infrastructure at the same time as ensuring that families who find it difficult to pay their water bills do not face even greater bills. The Government must find a way of balancing that extremely difficult sum and, in doing so, take Wales into consideration and work closely with the Welsh Government.
In posing that conundrum, does the hon. Lady have any sympathy with the idea of solving it by transferring responsibility for flood protection to water companies? After all, they specialise in raising large sums of money from the markets for long-term infrastructure investment to deliver a guaranteed service level, regulated by a regulator, at the lowest possible cost. Could that be a solution—a way of getting all water-bill payers to contribute to a standard of flood protection that would then be guaranteed and could be regulated to ensure that everyone was given protection in the long term and, hopefully, at the lowest cost?
That suggestion would probably exacerbate some of the difficulties. The historical reasons for the current situation would have to be taken into consideration. Are we suggesting, for example, that flooding in certain areas would be the responsibility of particular water companies, although there is inequality in places where the flooding happens and in the amount of investment that has already been put into flood management systems? I am not sure that the suggestion would work well.
The other difficulty, which I was going to mention, is the whole issue of planning. If water companies are to take responsibility, they must first be given some power. The inclusion of their opinion as statutory consultees is crucial to future planning and development, because they know where overload is and where problems are likely to occur. Sadly, we have seen developments on which the companies have not been consulted, and things have gone wrong. However, the problem with the water companies taking complete responsibility at this point is that they are not responsible for what has happened historically, as there has been an enormous amount of development in many areas that are quite unsuited to it. There could be considerable difficulty with the model proposed by the hon. Gentleman.
I am trying to understand the objection, which I do not quite get. We recognise that we have haphazard standards at the moment and have had haphazard historic investment bearing no relation to need or risk, and that we want a decent standard for everyone. We need to find a mechanism for delivering that, sharing cost on the most equitable basis that we can, delivering it as quickly as we can while we have a Government who have no money. I do not see that the hon. Lady’s objection is an objection to the proposal. If we could bring it in, if it was politically acceptable, everyone would be brought up to a decent level in a way that spread the burden across bill payers. Is that not desirable?
The idea would merit further examination, but we need to look at the quite considerable sums that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has put into some flood management schemes in the past few years, and ask ourselves whether, if they were to fall on one particular water company, they would work. We would need to look at that in more detail. At present, I do not have the necessary expertise to go into it, so I shall leave it to the hon. Gentleman to prove his case and produce the statistics to show what he wants to suggest.
Moving on, insurance is immensely important, for everyone in Wales as well as in England. For people who have been affected, who face difficulties and who have suffered repeated occurrences of flooding, we need to ensure that appropriate discussions are held with insurance companies, who should do everything that they can. I urge the Minister, when he introduces the White Paper, to go into that issue in considerable detail. I would be pleased to hear whether he has had any recent discussions on insurance with the insurance companies for people who live in areas that have been repeatedly flooded.
I have mentioned planning. Not only is it imperative that water companies should have a say in planning, because of the types of connections that can sometimes be made and because of their understanding and knowledge of flooding patterns, but it is imperative that local authorities should have due regard for the flood maps produced by the Environment Agency. I am afraid that far too often local authorities such as my own, Carmarthenshire county council, grant planning permission for areas that are in C2 floodplains, when plenty of other land is available. Carmarthenshire is a large rural county, with some small towns and one large industrial town, my town of Llanelli. There is no excuse in that sort of area, even with a large coastline, for going ahead and building where there will clearly be difficulties for the newly moved-in residents.
Nor is there any excuse for building on slopes, which immediately increases the pressure on people living immediately below them. The increased water flow into the sewerage system creates an additional flood risk for those living a bit further down the slope. When making planning decisions, every local authority has a clear responsibility to avoid increasing flood risk. In 200 or 300 years’ time, people will wonder how on earth we could have been so mad as to build in such places when we already had the maps and the knowledge and had found the infrastructure wanting. It is therefore important that local authorities behave responsibly.
On that note, I look forward to hearing from the Minister how far his thinking has got, when we will see a White Paper and what thoughts he has on charging, insurance, flood prevention and flood defences.
Thank you, Mr Walker, for inviting me to speak in this timely and important debate. It is important because my constituents are dealing with the issues created by the Severn estuary and because of the work that the Select Committee has accomplished, which we are considering.
I want to look at the situation in my constituency from two directions: the Severn estuary and the Slad valley. The Severn estuary is the most important, because it has raised a number of key issues, which my constituents are concerned about. The first is the solutions being imposed from afar when localism and more community involvement would be much preferred. In that respect, we are talking about a long-running process, which has been under way ever since local people around the Severn estuary in my constituency first discussed a strategy after the Environment Agency produced its proposals. The second issue is the use of farmland adjacent to the estuary. The concerns are therefore largely about land use and the lack of consultation, and I will touch on both.
We have had an interesting discussion about insurance, and I will touch on that before I go on to the meat of my remarks, because that issue, too, has been raised by constituents. The flooding map would suggest that the whole village of Frampton On Severn is vulnerable to flooding, which it is not, and large parts have not been flooded for long periods or, indeed, ever. Why should the map be so misleading? It is largely because the map shows what would happen if there were no flood defences. However, there are flood defences, and that needs to be made clear. Insurance firms and the insurance industry in general need to be aware of the fact that flood maps show what the situation would be without defences. However, there are defences, which operate perfectly well in Frampton, so the village has no worries about being flooded. It would be a great step towards allaying residents’ fears if we could give more meaning to these maps and bring insurers’ attention to the reality of the situation.
To return to the Severn estuary, it is obvious that there are flood risks, because flood defences are already in place; some are in need of repair, some need adjustment and some need to be completely reshaped. There is no dispute that flooding is a risk. What we are disputing is how the strategy will unfold over the next 10 to 50 years. Essentially, three sequential tests will be applied to the strategy, and they all raise key issues, which we should consider.
The first test is economic and is all about the value of the territory being defended—whether it is farmland or land for housing and development. There are concerns about planning, but we are talking about the situation that exists now. Some areas of land along the Severn estuary in my constituency have an agricultural value but no developed value. That needs to be carefully considered, because it is necessary to ensure that public money is spent wisely. Huge sums would not necessarily be invested in defending just agricultural land.
That raises the issue of production. No planning system considers what would happen to land or to a factory if it were flooded or not flooded, but a lot of people in my constituency are rightly concerned about quality farming land being removed from production. That needs to be carefully considered by all concerned.
If the economic test is failed, there is the “make do and mend” approach, which my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) referred to indirectly, if not directly, when she noted that some farmers protect their own land. The existence of that option needs to be set out more explicitly as one of the range of options that are available.
The second test is the legal test and has something to do with habitat. At the end of the day, we have a commitment to ensure that new habitats exist after flooding. Where areas that are flooded hosted wildlife and so forth, we have to retrench and find new habitats. That raises two critical questions: what kind of territory are we really thinking about and how far do we consider the entire basket of options? That raises the question of where the habitat should be and how much should be provided.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the biodiversity offsetting provisions in the White Paper that the Government released earlier this year go a long way towards addressing this question? They propose a very commercial way of proceeding, but they can bring real biodiversity benefits by looking at an offset bank and ensuring that appropriate provision is made elsewhere. I thought that was one of the great features of the White Paper.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it is an important feature, but the question remains who will provide the habitat on what is, effectively, a peninsula. The Environment Agency has made it clear that that will be decided through agreement and consultation, but we still have to answer the question of where we should allow or encourage the conversion of farm land into habitat areas. That is still the issue. There is still a legal test. In that context, the question for the Minister is how much land he wants and how much DEFRA will agree to. That has implications in terms of the European Union’s attitudes and regulations. The legal test is therefore important, and it must be framed in a way that everybody understands.
The third test is the community test, which I have mentioned. It is critical because local people must feel part of the process; they must feel engaged and that their expertise and local knowledge are applied appropriately. That is where we have run into trouble to some extent in the processes that I have already described, relating to the Severn estuary. The Environment Agency has rightly recognised the concern and alarm and has, as it puts it, taken time out. Everyone will consider where we are, and the options that are on the table. Of course the time out will end at some point, and there will be some options and choices.
To make sure that the community test is given a fair chance to work, I am pleased that the Environment Agency has decided to appoint an engagement officer, with the specific task of ensuring that our communities—our farmers and the local people—will be properly consulted when the time out period comes to an end and options and choices are agreed. Of course, DEFRA has a key responsibility because, in the end, when it agrees a strategy the moneys will be released, so the question is a political one, as much as it is a function of the Environment Agency.
In concluding the part of my remarks that focuses on the Severn estuary, I want to emphasise the importance of the economic test in relation to respecting the value of land and acknowledging the issue of agricultural production. As to the legal test, I want it to be clearly understood that we must be sensitive and sensible about identifying suitable areas for habitat and making sure we consider a sufficiently wide area, so that any landowners who want to move in that direction can do so without threatening those who do not. That is a critical issue.
I want to touch on some other points, one of which is localism and the question of local knowledge and aspirations. There is a long valley in my constituency, called the Slad valley. It is famous as it is where the Woolpack is—the famous haunt of Laurie Lee. It is a great pub, and I invite all hon. Members to go there.
At the top end of the valley there is the beginning of the mills, water storage systems and so forth, and at the bottom is Stroud, which gets flooded. Of course there are ways to protect houses, and many have opted for protection, although not all, and certainly not enough. Our community, and people in the Slad valley, are keen for the problem to be solved further up the valley. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton has alluded to the same points, because I know that such things are being carefully considered in parts of Yorkshire. That emerged in the all-party group on flood prevention some months ago. I want to underline the importance of properly consulting organisations, to enable their ideas to be incorporated. I am also delighted, therefore, that the Environment Agency is willing to meet all the various partners and actors.
A point that needs some amplification is the role of internal drainage boards, which are important and do a huge amount of work. It is interesting that the one that covers most of my territory also covers a huge industrial area in the Avonmouth sector. Of course the work that it does there effectively finances the work it does on the agricultural side. We must be mindful of the cross-fertilisation approach that is used in all sorts of public protection measures. The internal drainage boards are a good example. First I put in a plea for recognition of the value that they bring to such management issues; and secondly I urge the boards, wherever they exist, to co-operate whenever they can with the other organisations.
I thank the Minister for agreeing to meet a contingent of my constituents to discuss the situation in the Severn estuary. They were going to come here today, but they are still more excited to have a direct meeting. I have had many meetings, with a huge number of people representing many different interests, but the key point that they want to get across is that they want to be consulted. They want their local expertise to be recognised, their local knowledge to be understood, and their homes and farms to be properly considered in the context of the three tests, which should be properly respected and understood.
I am delighted to speak in the debate, and congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) on initiating it. She chairs the Select Committee with great aplomb, and I know that the matter is exceptionally dear to her heart. I was surprised only that she curtailed her remarks as she did. I expected at least an hour from her.
I look forward most of all in the debate to hearing from the Minister about the progress that has been made since the Government responded to the Committee earlier in the year. The Committee’s report was published last year following a series of welcome and ambitious commitments from the Government: safeguarding clean, reliable and affordable water supplies; protecting households and property from the risk of flooding; and reforming the water industry and making it more resilient, efficient, sustainable, innovative and affordable. The report provided the Government with a comprehensive and holistic approach to delivering on those commitments. Of course we should, in this debate, be assessing the progress that has been made. Instead, I am afraid we must reflect on a number of broken promises and missed opportunities.
A water White Paper was promised for June. In April the Minister revised that commitment and promised that it would be published in the autumn. Unfortunately, the latest business plan of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs now promises publication in December, nine months after the Committee’s report, and we are still no clearer on how the Government plans will encourage the retrofitting of sustainable drainage systems, how they will ensure that customers’ views will be taken into account during the price review process, and how investment in the water industry will be better managed to avoid the boom and bust cycle that so badly harms the supply chain. There is also uncertainty about the future of metering and water efficiency in households, social tariffs to reduce the impact of rising bills on low-income customers and the future of competition in the water industry. Publication in December would leave only four months for the Government to meet their commitment to introduce any new legislation required as a result of the White Paper by next April. I hope that the Government’s ambition will not be scaled back in the fight against a tight time scale.
Since our report, the Government have also severely cut capital funding for flood defences. When we consider that we need to increase investment simply to maintain the current level of protection, that is cause for considerable concern. As the Committee pointed out:
“To cut back significantly on flood defence infrastructure spending could be a classic example of short-term savings leading to much greater long-term costs.”
The Government have also failed to provide any assurance on the provision of flood insurance beyond 2013. The natural environment White Paper, which was excellent in many ways—we adverted to some of it earlier in the debate—also missed a valuable opportunity to set out how, for example, agriculture and land management could play a stronger role in reducing flood risk and improving water quality. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to update us on each of those issues, so that we may leave this afternoon’s debate with a much clearer idea of Government policy on the future of flood and water management. I shall try to deal with each of those issues.
I also want to discuss some of the priorities for the forthcoming White Paper. Ever since privatisation, capital expenditure in the water industry has been concentrated towards the middle of the five-year funding cycle. That has led to financial and managerial inefficiencies in addition to instability in the supply chain, ultimately resulting in higher costs for consumers. It also leads to the migration of skilled resources out of the sector to more stable industries. That has created a severe and worsening skills shortage in the water industry.
The White Paper must help to bring to an end the effect of that five-year asset management planning cycle. It should also explore the link between the price review and innovation. In the current investment period, companies are looking for tried and tested technologies with payback within three years. Some water companies have disbanded their research and development departments as they are not currently funded by the price review. R and D is now conducted on an ad hoc basis rather than in a co-ordinated way.
The water sector faces a period of huge challenge in coping with the implications of climate change, and in reducing its own carbon emissions. It can ill afford to be locked into a short-term investment cycle that stifles and inhibits innovation. The White Paper must set out how the Government will restructure the water industry properly to incentivise and encourage companies to invest in innovation, particularly in treatment processing, energy efficiency, leakage prevention, and water efficiency.
Competition can help to stimulate that innovation. Competition in the water industry is not an end in itself, but it is a means of improving services for customers, particularly the most vulnerable, and improving environmental outcomes.
In the White Paper, the Government gave a commitment to respond to the Cave review, and I would welcome an update from the Minister on how the White Paper will ensure that greater competition will meet those challenges. It would be helpful if the Minister clarified whether the Government’s one-in, one-out rule, which prevents a regulation from being introduced unless another is scrapped, will apply to any legislation proposed in the White Paper. If so, perhaps he will share the Department’s thinking on which regulations might be scrapped in the event of any legislation coming forward in April 2012.
We talked much about sustainable drainage systems in another area on which the Government gave a commitment in the White Paper. When sustainable drainage systems are successfully implemented, they can make a significant contribution to reducing the risk of flooding by increasing the capacity of land to absorb water. They can also reduce the risk of water contamination, and increase the sustainability of water use. The provision of SUDS for new developments and, where possible, for existing developments is widely supported throughout the House. However, evidence to the inquiry revealed widespread concern among local authorities about their ability to fund the adoption and maintenance of SUDS. The Government’s response to the Committee stated that DEFRA would fund local authorities for the costs of maintaining adopted SUDS and SUDS maintenance in the “short term.” Will the Minister say how long he expects that “short term” to be? That is important for local authorities.
In November, the Prime Minister said that flood defence spending would be protected, and would be “roughly the same” as under Labour. In fact, capital funding for flood defences to protect homes has fallen from a baseline figure last year of £354 million to £259 million. We now know the meaning of the phrase, “roughly the same”. It means give or take 30% according to my mathematics. In fact, it is a 27% cash cut to the budget, and a 32% real-terms cut when inflation is taken into account.
After the floods in 2000, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had people from Norfolk and other areas to No. 10 Downing street and made expansive commitments on flood protection. However, the pressures of political life being what they are, flooding moved out of the spotlight and those promises disappeared along with the floodwater. It is an historic happening for Governments slowly to cut long-term infrastructure investment when it is not in the spotlight. Does the hon. Gentleman have any thoughts on how to create a long-term sustainable structure which, regardless of the political cycle, ensures that our constituents are properly protected from flooding?
The hon. Gentleman points out that at various periods during the previous Labour Administration the flood budget was raided, but he must acknowledge that overall there was both a real-terms and a cash increase in that budget. He is absolutely right that from time to time that budget was raided and cut as necessary in the political cycle, but overall it was increased. The Minister knows that I have the greatest respect for him and the work that he is trying to do in this area, and I know that he understands the importance of the matter. The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) talked about small cuts, but this is not a small cut. It is a 27% cash, or a 32% real-terms cut in this period. That is a huge amount.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. I was not trying to suggest that he is not being proper in challenging the Government. My point is that historically Governments tend to raid the flood budget when under the pressure that they inevitably suffer. The last Government was much better at spending money than the present one, but it turned out that so much of that money could not be sustained, and we could not afford it. He should not boast about that too much. What we should focus on is how to create a long-term situation so that whoever is in government and whatever the state of public finances our constituents will have a guarantee that that political cycle will not get in the way of sensible, stable support for flood defence in their homes.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have talked about introducing minimum standards, and we must move towards consensus, because that is in everyone’s interest.
The Government have given a commitment to deliver 15% efficiency savings in Environment Agency flood defence budgets, but that leaves an overall reduction in those budgets of 17%. I would be grateful if the Minister provided us with an update of his assessment of the impact of that reduced funding settlement in relation to the Government’s flood programme, and the flood defence work that the Environment Agency has programmed for the next three years. Will he also provide an indication of how the 15% of efficiency savings in the Environment Agency has impacted on that work?
Despite those funding reductions, the Committee noted the Government’s commitment fully to fund local authorities in their new roles under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, and that they would provide direct grants of up to £36 million a year to lead local flood authorities. That is welcome. Each lead local flood authority would receive at least £110,000 a year, with the authorities tackling the highest levels of local risk receiving up to £750,000 a year. However, the communities and local government special grants settlement for 2011-12 highlights that the most that any lead local flood authority received this year was not £750,000, but £260,000—that was in Kent. Of the 152 lead local flood authorities, 144 received less than £200,000. To allow for local flexibility, those grants are not ring-fenced. On average, central Government funding to councils will fall by 26% over the next four years. I understand the constraint under which the Government are operating.
Indeed, I take on board the party political knockabout that we can have. Local authorities have been put in an extremely difficult position. By not ring-fencing the funds, the Government cannot be sure that they will go into flood defences. It is therefore important to find out from the Minister how the Government plan to review local authority spend on flood management, and how they propose to hold local authorities to account for the money they have been given to spend in that area.
I acknowledge that that is not just a matter for central and local government. The Committee concluded that it was right for beneficiaries such as developers to help fund new flood defence schemes. In light of that, will the Minister confirm how funding through the new flood and coastal resilience partnership funding arrangement will be focused on those communities at greatest risk? How will the Government identify those communities and ensure that their protection is achieved in practice? As discussed earlier, the Government’s draft national planning policy framework should also be amended to address how planning should apportion the costs of providing flood defences for new developments between public agencies and private beneficiaries.
The Labour Government’s statement of principles guaranteed universal flood insurance coverage for homes in affected areas. That guarantee runs out in 2013, and was based on the understanding, following the Pitt review, that Government should have
“above inflation settlements for future spending rounds.”.
We know that that will no longer be the case.
The Government’s response to the Committee’s report committed to updating the Committee on progress with implementing
“a roadmap to take us beyond 2013.”
I would be grateful if the Minister took this opportunity to update hon. Members on precisely what the roadmap beyond 2013 might look like.
Water saving through greater efficiency will become increasingly important, especially in parts of the country where climate change and population growth will lead to significant constraints in supply. The Building Regulations 2010 introduced a new minimum water efficiency standard for new homes. The potential consumption of potable water by persons occupying a dwelling should not exceed 125 litres per person per day. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government have plans to increase the minimum water efficiency standard in future revisions of the Building Regulations 2010?
As the Committee noted, metering plays a key role in helping to reduce water demand. More widespread introduction of metering will mean that there are winners and losers and some, including groups of vulnerable customers, could see significant rises in their water bills. Social tariffs can help to ameliorate the impact of rising bills on low-income customers. The Government’s response to the Committee stated that they were preparing
“guidance on company social tariffs under Section 44 of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010.”
Will the Minister confirm when that will be published as it is of great interest and importance to many poorer constituencies? The regulatory framework under which water prices are set must also be reformed to include stronger water efficiency targets for water supply companies. The water White Paper should be clear on how that will be taken forward.
In giving evidence to the Committee, the Environment Agency estimated that costs associated with implementing the water framework directive up to 2027 could be between £30 billion and £100 billion, depending on the approach taken. Despite that level of investment, the UK was likely to see only 26% of rivers achieving “Good Ecological Status” by the water framework directive target date of 2015. The Government’s response to the Committee highlighted that it was possible, within the terms of the directive, to set lower standards of compliance. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government have plans to make use of that option? If so, it would be extremely deleterious. Do the Government have any plans to implement the “polluter pays” principle more accurately, so that customers do not have to foot the bill for cleaning up pollution for which they are not responsible? Domestic water customers currently pay some 82% of the costs of implementing measures to meet WFD requirements.
Together with other members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I welcome the focus placed by the Government on flood and water management. They seem, however, to have lost their way over the nine months since the report was published. An ambitious water White Paper and the commencement of provisions in the Flood and Water Management Act that have not yet been effected, must be a priority. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about how the Government plan to move the issue forward.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate and to follow speeches that are as excellent and thoughtful as those we have heard so far across the Chamber. I pay tribute in particular to my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) and her Committee for the excellent report that has been produced.
On 25 June 2007, this country suffered some of the worst flooding in modern history, and my constituents in Beverley and Holderness were some of the worst affected. All four towns in my constituency, Beverley, Hedon, Withernsea and Hornsea were affected, and at one stage Hornsea was cut off by the floods. Almost every hamlet and village was affected; thousands of my constituents had their homes flooded and were forced out. Although Hull attracted press attention as it too was devastated, the East Riding of Yorkshire was equally appallingly hit.
Although we are discussing the technicalities of the floods, the human cost must never be forgotten. Let us consider from a historical point of view how we, the country and the media would view a catastrophe that saw thousands of people removed from their homes, for months if they were lucky, and years if they were not, and how seriously we would regard such an event if it were caused by something other than floods. In a way, the country and the media failed to recognise just how devastating were the floods in east Yorkshire in 2007 and elsewhere.
The memory of people living with their marriages on the edge as they sat in a tiny caravan—I shall not name the place as that may identify the people involved, but I saw people who were absolutely haunted for months afterwards, with their lives wrecked by the flooding as they sat in a tiny caravan and stepped out into mud. They were involved in permanent disputes over their house with changing underwriters and people from the insurance companies. Notwithstanding the fact that insurance companies in general did a good job, that human picture stays in my mind and makes it important that we get things right.
That is why I am keen to try to find a way of providing long-term solutions. The nature of politics, not least the pressures faced by the coalition Government, given the financial catastrophe that they inherited, mean that funding for long-term issues such as flooding tends to get reduced. It gets reduced even in good times. When the previous Government were spending like there was no tomorrow, after there had been no flood events for a few years, the spending got cut. In a tougher time, we can expect that pressure to be even greater. How do we create a situation with the guarantee of stable, solid and sensible investment to protect people? That is my central question. I have tried to think about the issue, bearing in mind the many people whom I met in my constituency in 2007. The answer I came up with is that what we have now is not suitable. It is not simply about getting new documents, unless that involves legislation and setting down a definitive standard that can be enforced in court. Unless we have something like that, we will see the same cycle again—the money will not be put in place, and when a one-in-50, one-in-75 or one-in-150-year event comes to an area, people will suffer in the same way they did in the area I represent.
As the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee makes clear, when all costs are considered, it makes no sense from an economic point of view not to make such an investment. However, because of the silos of departmental budgets and the pressures in the political cycle, that money is not invested and we pay a higher price as a result. We therefore owe it to our constituents, not just from the human point of view, but from a basic, sensible economic management point of view, to create a structure that does not allow the money to be pulled away as soon as the spotlight moves on. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister may be able to discuss that today.
I have not done detailed work on what the implications would be of a transfer to water companies. It just seems to me that water companies such as Yorkshire Water, which has plant, people and responsibilities all over my constituency and all over Yorkshire, are capable of raising money from the markets for long-term investment in order to deliver a standard that a regulator ensures is met and to do that in a way that does not impinge on public finances. They are in a better position to deliver that certainty for the lowest possible cost than other models that immediately present themselves. I urge the Minister to think about that, because notwithstanding the good work that went on under the previous Government, albeit that it was a little slow, and the good work that is going on under the present Government which, funnily enough, also seems to be rather slow, I am not convinced that my constituents will not be affected badly again in future.
On the positive front, I would like to praise the Environment Agency. Craig McGarvey, whom I have dealt with a great deal in my local area, has been open. I certainly expressed a lot of criticism of the Environment Agency and the way in which it behaved, the way in which it treated people and the way in which it talked to them, as well as what it did from a practical point of view. However, people from the agency have worked hard to listen to people, to come out and be available. They have given up their evenings to talk and engage with people; and from Pasture terrace and Willow grove in Beverley to Burstwick, Hedon and a number of other places, serious improvements have been made to reduce flood risk.
I pay tribute to East Riding of Yorkshire council, which did not rush to judgment but set up a flood review panel. It spent months doing the work; it thought about it deeply; and it has encouraged parishes to come up with their own emergency plans and to think deeply about how they can minimise risk. Much good work has happened in Beverley and Holderness, and I am delighted that that is the case.
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I also pay tribute to the fire service. Again, I had been extremely critical. The floods happened on 25 June. Fire officers were doing 12 or 14 hours in floodwater, rescuing people. That happened to be in June. It happened to be the case, when they went in with fire kit on, which was completely unsuitable for flood work, that they did not freeze. If it had happened in February, they would not have been able to stay in the water as they did so heroically, doing 12-hour stints, looking after people. They would have had to come out, possibly after 40 or 45 minutes. People would have died simply because they did not have the kit to go in the water. I was ferocious in my criticism of how we got ourselves in that situation then, and the service listened and has invested and trained up its staff and they have the kit. We can be assured that if such an event happens again, we will have trained firefighters, with the right equipment, who can go in, effect rescues and protect people’s lives. If the floods had happened in February instead of June, people would have died as a result. That will not be the case in future.
Many positive things have occurred. If we do not look at a transfer to the water companies, I would like the Minister to reflect on the situation in the Netherlands, which has larger regional boards as opposed to our internal drainage boards. I visited the country once with the all-party coastal and marine group. People there have tax-raising powers, as I recall, but they have to deliver statutory protection standards. When we visited, we found that their rural areas had a higher guaranteed standard than central London. They looked for one-in-1,250-year flood protection for their rural areas and one-in-10,000-year protection for their urban areas. Of course, they have a completely different history and culture around flooding, given that the whole country is pretty much at risk of flooding and they carved it out of the sea in the first place. However, if we want people to be given proper protection, we perhaps need to implement such flood protection standards. They might need to be different in different places, but people should know that if they build behind a certain line or they have a house there, they will have protection that is maintained over time, whoever provides it. I hope that that will happen.
I know that, as Opposition Members have said, the Minister has spent a lot of time considering and understanding this issue. Across the Chamber, we have enormous confidence in him. We not only hope but expect that he will introduce a long-term settlement that means that the people who suffered so much in 2007 and in years before and after that will not suffer in that way again. That will be because of the Benyon settlement. Whatever the cynicism of people about the motives of those of us who come into public life, we do so in the hope that we can make a significant positive difference that affects the lives of thousands of people for the better. What better monument to the career of my hon. Friend than that he should provide the long-term Benyon settlement on flood protection and prevent the misery that blighted the lives of my constituents in 2007 from happening again in the future where it can be avoided?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I commend the EFRA Committee on its excellent report and on bringing it to the attention of the House in this debate. I particularly commend the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh).
Water is a scarce resource. We may not feel that that is the case, given the recent downpours that we have had. However, as the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) said, the debate should not just be about defences, but about the use of water and about water management. Water is a scarce resource in this country, despite its being surrounded by water. If I may, Mrs Main, I will take this opportunity to advertise the fact that this very Saturday I will be doing a walk for WaterAid along the Suffolk coast, raising money for people who really do have very little water.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) gave a very thoughtful speech on the national flood standards, referring to the Benyon settlement or the Benyon formula. Perhaps there will be many arguments about that in future as there are about the Barnett formula.
I want to refer to a few paragraphs and recommendations in the Select Committee report. I will begin with recommendation 22 about the abstraction licensing regime. I made—well, it was not an error, but I drew the attention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the potential drought in Suffolk earlier this year and I wish that I had shut my mouth because we had so much rain in the summer it was untrue. However, I do not regret doing that because it did make things happen. [Interruption.] It did not make it rain, but it ensured that the Environment Agency worked with local farmers to ensure that Suffolk was one of the few areas suffering such arid conditions that was not declared an official drought area. They worked together in a co-operative way, and I was delighted with that.
The particular issue in Suffolk was abstraction from rivers. That was where we had the biggest problems—the biggest threat. The flexibility of licensing that is recommended is important, and I hope that the Minister will consider carefully widening the times of the year when water can be abstracted or stored and how it is used and captured. It seems ridiculous that when we are having downpours, we are not allowed to capture some of that water in our reservoirs.
The report also discusses tradeable rights. I think that such trading does happen now, but perhaps not in a formal way. Certainly in my constituency, farmers can use one another’s licences, but they have to secure agreement from the Environment Agency and Natural England. We all know the joy of trying to ensure that people work together, but that has worked and the people to whom I have referred pay one another. It may not be a formal scheme, but an informal scheme does operate.
We must be careful lest we end up with what happens under the fishing regime. People begin to buy and trade quotas, and they end up having rights to quotas and perhaps licensing arrangements that they never use themselves—they just use them as a financial asset. That would be a great mistake.
The grandfathering regime is referred to in the report. Of course, that exists now. It may not sound very conservative, but I am not talking about nationalisation of licensing or water rights. However, if people are to be rewarded, we should ensure they have actually been using their water rights and that they have not been sitting idle. It is possible that people are becoming a bit wealthier and may not have used their rights for some time.
On water storage, I understand exactly what the Committee says about the transfer from the regional development agency and the use of funds from the rural development programme for England. However, I still do not have full details from the East of England Development Agency about what is being done. I know that something has been done, but it is important that we are able to invest in water storage. Whether it is reservoirs or local schemes, I want to support it.
I return to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. I am not going to talk about funding for flood defences, as that has been eloquently discussed. Councillor Andy Smith from Suffolk Coastal district council and I have met the Minister, so he already knows of my concern that we seem to be relying on his common sense in setting up the regional flood risk committees. Authorities that have responsibility for coastal defences are not automatically included. I fully appreciate the assurances that the Minister has given me, and I realise that he will continue with that, but we will not always have the benefit of the Benyon effect. I hope that the Minister will be at the Department for some time; however, I do not want to limit his ministerial ambition.
I turn next to the practicalities of the necessary coastal defences. The Minister has visited Suffolk Coastal on a few occasions, and he is well aware of the schemes that have been proposed. I would like to thank him publicly for what seems to be a significant change in the approach of the relevant agencies. My feedback from councillors and landowners is that the Environment Agency and Natural England have—dare I say it?—a can-do approach. I am not sure of the reasons for the change, but I put it down to the Minister and his ministerial team. There is certainly a fresh enthusiasm. We have less money, and we cannot always gold-plate everything, so we have to be pragmatic, and some of that is coming through.
Recommendation 12 is on internal drainage boards. Much has been said about them already, and I support many of those comments. I agree that they could be used more, and I would welcome a localist approach if they wanted to take on more tasks. I believe that most of them have a local authority presence. I know that there is talk about oversight, and whether the boards are reporting to the Environment Agency. I like to think that county or district councillor members of IDBs are playing a full part. I realise that not all boards have filled those vacancies with councillors; I would encourage them to do so. I genuinely believe that IDBs can often do a lot of the work much more cheaply. It never fails to amaze me how a project’s costing is scoped out. Although some of that has changed, we should recognise that not all defences need to last 100 years, and that we could be looking at generational life of 25 to 30 years. We should use the IDBs whenever we can, as they do such a good job on other matters.
There is another problem that keeps coming up in my constituency. I have to be careful how I phrase this, but the Environment Agency says that it will not stop landowners defending their parts of the coastline. The same goes for Natural England. To some extent, however, they do stop hard defences being erected, although they will manage soft defences for a few years. The Benacre estate at the top of my constituency is losing land every year to erosion—I have forgotten the exact amount but I think that it is about 15 acres—but it is not allowed to use hard defences.
I realise that we are not debating shoreline management plans today, but they have to connect up. There is no particular compensation for that loss of land. We would not take land away from people living in the centre of the country and say, “You are not allowed to put a fence around that and someone else can come and camp on it and you won’t have access to it”—that kind of thing; I do not want to be controversial—so we should expect compensation for people who are not even allowed to use hard defences on their own land. I do not want to say too much about human rights, but there is a feeling that people are not being allowed to protect their own property.
I understand what paragraph 9 has to say about agriculture. Suffolk is famous for its pigs and potatoes, but if we did not have agricultural land the potatoes could be grown elsewhere or even imported. I am not sure that that is the right policy direction, however; I believe that we should think more about our resilience and the value of food security. I would like a little bit more value to be given to agricultural production in the funding formula.
Insurance is important, as several Members have said. I am slightly concerned that we will not have any more information on the subject until March 2012, just a year before the current agreement comes to an end. However, I have every confidence that the Minister and his officials will secure a successful outcome, so that people can continue to live safely and securely in their own homes.
I wish to make one final suggestion. It is not about legislation or directly to do with floods. The Department has worked well with the new planning policy framework to ensure sustainable development and to deal with water stress, but I return to a point that I have made in the main Chamber about building design. We should encourage people to reconsider the way in which electrics are installed, especially if we have to build in difficult places such as floodplains. I understand that one of the major problems when waiting for a house to dry out, which affects the cost of repair, is the fact that the sockets are at floor level rather than at waist height. Some simple planning guidance or design ideas would save the insurance industry a lot of money and result in lower premiums. I thank the House for its patience.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests that I am secretary to the Fire Brigades Union.
I will focus on the statutory responsibility for flood preparation and flood response, although I almost feel that I should apologise for raising the matter so consistently in recent years. After the 2007 floods, the Pitt review was undertaken; its early recommendations were fairly straightforward, despite what the Committee calls some vagueness. The report recommended:
“The Government should urgently put in place a fully funded national capability for flood rescue with Fire and Rescue Authorities playing a leading role, underpinned as necessary by a statutory duty.”
That recommendation was fairly clear, but, referring to what the report had to say about preparation and rescue, Pitt added that
“the Review strongly believes that a statutory duty is the best means to achieve these outcomes.”
“Whilst it is conceivable that non-statutory approaches, such as those proposed by the CFRA”—
chief fire and rescue adviser, Ken Knight—
“might work, such approaches do not provide the certainty the public expect and the Review believes is needed.”
All the evidence demonstrates that the original Pitt recommendations were correct. Despite some additional moneys being invested in equipment and in some elements of training, the evidence that the Committee received from the FBU was that things had gone backwards rather than forwards. Not enough was being invested in training exercises or in the necessary equipment. It should be blindingly obvious to those who have served in local government that if a statutory duty is not placed upon a particular local government role or function, it is no longer a priority at budget time. Statutory duties always gain priority when it comes to the allocation of resources.
I am pleased that the Committee heard more evidence on the subject, and recommendation 3 reinforces what Pitt had said. The Committee said at paragraph 26:
“We are concerned that the lack of a statutory duty for Fire and Rescue Authorities could jeopardise their flood preparation and response work, given pressures on them to direct their limited funding towards fulfilling nondiscretionary duties.”
We had hoped that the Labour Government would legislate on the matter, but what legislation we had did not deal with the question of statutory responsibility.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his declaration of interest. Is the problem in his view a matter of funding, the responsibility for which no longer lies with DEFRA but with the Department for Communities and Local Government? We stand by our recommendation, but does he think that we should go further? We say that the matter should be included in the funding formula applied to the emergency services. Does he share our disappointment that that has not been done immediately?
The Pitt review identified two areas: clarity of leadership in a particular response and resources, because a statutory duty gives security of access to those resources. I take the view that the statutory duty needs to be introduced as quickly as possible to tackle both matters. There should be more clarity about local government’s responsibilities; flowing from that will be both the resources and the clarity of the approach on the allocation of those resources for both Government and local fire authorities.
Unfortunately, the previous Government failed to legislate, but they set up various exercises and consultations that will eventually come to fruition. After the general election, the coalition agreement made reference to the Pitt review. It committed the coalition to taking forward
“the findings of the Pitt Review to improve our flood defences, and prevent unnecessary building in areas of high flood risk”—
in other words, implementing the recommendation of the Pitt review with regard to the statutory duty. The previous Government undertook Exercise Watermark. Although they did not specifically undertake to provide the analysis for a case study for a statutory duty, we were advised by Ministers responding to parliamentary questions that the exercise would inform the Government’s decision about whether statutory responsibility would be required. The interim report from Exercise Watermark told us that there would be a final report at the end of September. Encouragingly, it also said:
“Feedback from the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) suggested the statutory duty for flood rescue should be co-ordinated by the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) with appropriate funding.”
The interim report indicated that we were moving towards a statutory duty being introduced by the Government.
We then also had the recommendations from the fire futures forum, which advises Government on general safety issues, including fire and flooding. It discussed the options for future reform of the fire service and called for the implementation of a statutory duty, but with some caveats on where the funding for such work should come from.
A consensus seems to have been built up in recent years, stemming from the 2007 floods and culminating in the lessons learned from the 2009 floods, that there should be a statutory responsibility. We simply await the outcome of the final report on Exercise Watermark. Will the Minister confirm whether that report will reach us by the end of September? If not, will he intervene—perhaps in this memorial way that seems to be being pushed to establish his reputation—to ensure that the report is finalised as speedily as possible?
If the report fails to recommend a statutory duty for fire and rescue authorities, there will be many who will be extremely anxious that this is a missed opportunity to clarify duties and responsibilities and to secure funding. If it does recommend a statutory responsibility, I urge the Minister—I am sure that Members in this Chamber will assist him all they can—to lobby others to ensure that there is parliamentary time to enable such legislative activity to take place.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) on securing the debate. I also congratulate her and her Committee on producing such a comprehensive report. As Chairman of a Select Committee myself, I know how much work goes into reports.
My hon. Friend spoke about the devastation that the floods caused in 2007. In June that year, my Tewkesbury constituency was badly flooded, but that was nothing compared with what came a month later, in July, when the area was absolutely devastated—although, paradoxically, many thousands of people lost their water supplies. Tragically, three people lost their lives and many people lived for well over a year in caravans as a result of the flooding. Some have struggled to get any insurance at all, even when flooding was excluded from the policy. That is how bad things have got. This is an extremely important issue.
As time is limited, I will touch on just one issue, which links in with the DCLG. The Department obviously has a big role to play in the new planning proposals, particularly in areas affected by flooding. The report mentions this in paragraphs 47, 48 and 49, under the heading, “Planning to Mitigate Flood Risk.” We cannot completely remove flood risk. If it rains as heavily as it did on 20 July 2007, we will have flooding. My constituents who live where two main rivers meet and several other rivers run understand that. The point is that where possible, we should not make matters worse—indeed, as the report says, we should do whatever we can to mitigate flooding.
Looking at the proposals that are emerging—I accept that they are from another Department, but I am sure that DEFRA has had its say in them—we see welcome recognition of the problems caused by water displacement. In other words, it is recognised that not only could new houses flood, but their being built could cause other houses to flood. That seems to be a new development. I have struggled to get that message across to Parliament, the Government, the Environment Agency and anybody else: the problem is not only new buildings, but the trouble that they may cause for other people.
The big word in the new planning proposals is “sustainable”. As far as I can read, that means that this generation should not make matters worse for the next. We could take that further and say that, within this generation, somebody who lives in village X should not make life worse for somebody who lives in village Y. Basically, it is about thinking about other people, which I am very pleased about. If we adhere to that then surely we should not have too much development in flood-risk areas.
In the new planning proposals, I am pleased to see recognition of the problem of building in flood-risk areas. Paragraph 149 says that we should
“avoid inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding by directing development away from areas at highest risk… or where development is necessary, making it safe without increasing flood risk elsewhere”.
That prompts the question: what is necessary? Although that comes down to business assessments, housing projection assessments and site-specific assessments, it worries me that we have a sequential test and an exceptional test. That is nothing new—it was in planning policy statement 25, and it has probably been strengthened in the new planning proposals. None the less, I am still worried about who is making the assessments. It certainly is not the people who have to live in the houses who might be flooded or those who might be flooded as a consequence of new houses being built.
The Environment Agency will play a big role in that, which is a cause of concern. I have been a critic of the agency for many years, and with good reason, although I will not go into that now. Over the years, the Environment Agency has improved—I do not doubt that at all—but more work needs to be done to define its role more closely and more accurately, to enable us to assess whether it actually has the powers that it needs, to assess the work that it does and to see how effective that work is. I know of a planning application in my area where the land flooded but the Environment Agency said that that land was okay to build on. It has also said that where water rests perhaps just below the surface, that land is okay to build on. I do not accept that—I do not accept that analysis at all.
We have a bit of work to do in relation to the Environment Agency and I urge the Minister to speak to his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to ascertain what we are talking about when we say that building in flood-risk areas is “necessary”; I am sure that he does so already regularly. We must examine what is “necessary” much more carefully. I recognise that the draft national planning framework is, to an extent, strengthening flood defences, but we need to go a lot further than that. I want to stress that—it is the central point that I wanted to make.
When I say how important it is to build in the right places, I remind Members of the iconic picture of Tewkesbury abbey surrounded by water. I have even spoken to people in Australia who saw that picture; everybody who has seen it remembers it. The words “surrounded by water” are very important because Tewkesbury abbey, which was built at the end of the 11th century, did not actually flood. Deerhurst priory, which is just down the road from Tewkesbury abbey, was built in about the 7th century. Although it is located in a village that flooded, Deerhurst priory itself did not flood. The point that I am making is that in those days people knew how to build and where to build. That is an extremely important point. Everybody recognises that we need growth in the economy, new jobs, new businesses and new houses, but the question is, “Where do they go?” That is the central point that I am making today.
I want to mention a couple of other issues. As has been mentioned already, we need to ensure that all the ditches, drains, culverts and sewers are properly maintained and repaired. We had an incident in my area where two culverts were never joined up and further down the road there was also a broken culvert. Houses flooded on that road for the first time ever, to my knowledge, in June 2007, but then flooded again in July 2007. That is an example of what happens when maintenance is not carried out. Another estate was built up a hill—the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) referred to building at the top of a hill and how it is obvious that the water will run down the hill. The same thing happened in the village in my area where the estate was built, yet we now face the possibility in that very village of more houses being built, which could cause even more problems. The village that I am referring to is Prestbury, which I am working very hard to try to protect.
We must ensure that all the waterways are cleared and maintained. That work will not prevent flooding if we get the kind of rainfall that we had on that day in July 2007, but it will help. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) mentioned, we also need to ensure that any flood prevention schemes that are implemented—we are getting some in my area and they are very welcome—are well designed and actually work.
If we do all those things, if we are sensible about those things and if we apply common sense, we will not prevent all the flooding—I have already said that—but we will certainly convince our constituents that we are taking sensible decisions and that we are doing everything we can to mitigate the worst effects of flooding.
I add my voice to the voices of others who have commended the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) and her Select Committee. The Committee’s report is an excellent piece of work and it is thoroughly welcome.
As a Member who represents a constituency in the south-west, it will come as no surprise to people that I wish to speak today about water charging. The water charges in the south-west are the highest in the country, with an average bill of £517. I am afraid that that figure is rather higher than the one given in the Select Committee’s report, which puts the figure for the south-west at £490. At £517, the average bill in the south-west is 43% above the national average for water charges. Although I understand the points made by the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) on the challenges that she faces in Wales—I absolutely empathise with her—the south-west has 30% of the country’s coastline and 3% of the population, so the burden that we bear is exceptionally great.
Unfortunately, in addition we also have a large amount of sewage pipework inherited at privatisation without the adequate funding to get it into the state that is required. The problem was inevitably exacerbated by the bathing water directives, which were not foreseen and which have created all sorts of challenges for us in the south-west. The problem in the south-west is very significant.
Possible solutions have been considered by a number of different bodies. I commend the Walker report, which came out with a number of very good options. Equally, Ofwat came up with some good options. I will not go into the details of those, because they are well rehearsed in the Select Committee report. I am pleased to say that DEFRA has consulted on a solution. Of the four areas that were looked at, information on three of them was included in the DEFRA consultation. With the interests of the people of the south-west at heart, I will comment only on those options, which I hope will inform the Minister in his thinking when he comes to draft the water Bill, which I, like others, am keen to see sooner rather than later.
The first suggestion related to social tariffs. Whatever else we do, we certainly need to get a social tariff in place that works properly. The current tariff, WaterSure, is a good start, but unfortunately it does not protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Come what may, it needs to be reviewed. The suggestion that the social tariff be transferred to a central pot rather than continue to come out of the individual water companies’ pots is a good one. If that happened, I would want the water companies to take a sensible approach locally, to do what is right to meet the particular and peculiar needs in their own part of the world.
The second option considered was rebalancing who pays for what within the south-west itself. Given the overall unfairness of the settlement at privatisation—I am sure that that unfairness was not intended and that it was just one of those unfortunate consequences—rebalancing within the south-west itself is not something that any south-west MP would view with any comfort. Paying south-west Peter by robbing south-west Paul is not the solution, I think. Other suggestions include rebalancing sewerage charges and the business community paying a higher share, but tourism is crucial for us, so any rebalancing of that nature would certainly be most unwelcome—I am sure that the Minister recognises how unwelcome it would be.
I was interested that the third option put forward by Anna Walker in her report was not in the DEFRA consultation; in fact, I was very pleased that it was not in the DEFRA consultation. That option was to cross-subsidise the south-west from water-charge payers in other water company areas. The Minister, in ruling out that option, said that it would be quite inappropriate to take money from an individual in Newcastle who was on benefits to provide a subsidy for a water-charge payer in the south-west who may well be a millionaire. I say gently to him that perhaps he does not fully understand that the average income in Devon is actually £2,964 lower than the national average. Contrary to what too many people believe, the south-west is not a countryside of cream teas and beautiful cows, in which we all sit eating our strawberries and cream. The area is very rural, but we have a number of very deprived areas and the highest number of retirees and pensioners in the country. There is not a large number of millionaires sitting in the south-west, waiting to be bailed out by those in the north who are less well off.
The final option in the DEFRA consultation was one that I very warmly welcome. If I have one message for the Minister today, it is, “Yes, please, that is exactly what we want.” It is the suggestion that the Government put a £40 million subsidy behind South West Water bill-payers, which would effectively knock £50 off each bill-payer’s bill in the region. That would not only be welcome but, in the current circumstances and given the history, it would be the right and fair thing to do, because even though, if that subsidy were given, people paying water rates in the south-west would still have the highest water rates in the country, they would at least be less badly done by than they are now.
We need to look carefully therefore at what we do. It would be nice to see a “Benyon report” suggesting that the Bill include the adoption of the £40 million subsidy but, as the hon. Member for Llanelli pointed out, there is an ongoing challenge for those of us whose constituencies have long coastlines, and that is a challenge for the Government. If I might be so bold, given that two more directives on water quality will come from Brussels sooner rather than later, we should consider the matter urgently, rather than wait for the water Bill after the forthcoming one.
The Government have bravely already looked at the relationship between the taxpayer and the private sector in other areas. They have considered renegotiating some of the private finance initiative contracts that were biased against the taxpayer because the risk had not been properly assessed at the time they were entered into. Likewise, they have looked at the relationship between the taxpayer and the banks. Now might be an opportune moment to look at the relationship between the taxpayer and the water companies. I am sure that there would be all sorts of legal challenges and hurdles to overcome, but that does not mean that it should not be done. For water authorities that face particular challenges as a result of the water quality directive—for example, where the percentage increase would be very difficult for the local community to bear, a cap on above-inflation rises allowed by those companies might be considered in the annual review. That is something for the Minister to think about.
I shall turn very briefly to flooding. The Minister knows very well that it is a subject that is also close to my heart. I have to thank him for what he has done to ensure that I have flood defences in Shaldon and hopefully—subject to planning consent—in Teignmouth. Flood prevention is critical, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton for the careful and thorough analysis she set out at the beginning of the debate. She hit the nail absolutely on the head. If, as evidence seems to bear out, for every £1 we spend now we effectively save £8 in the future, flood prevention must be a key priority, and I am glad that it was presented as such in the national infrastructure plan.
I share some of the views that other hon. Members have expressed about the best solution. In planning policy, although the report makes it clear that it would be inappropriate to ban building on floodplains, developers have done very well from building on such land without having to contribute to the windfall, so there is an argument for reviewing the planning rules and regulations with a view to possible limits on building on flood plain. In insurance, which is the second key issue in the flooding debate, the renegotiation of the statement of principle that will lapse in 2013 needs to involve all parties, and not be seen as a matter for just the Government and the insurance industry. Developers and other beneficiaries of changes ought to play their part.
Those are the key points that I wanted to make today, and I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this crucial matter.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate and I pay tribute to the Select Committee and its Chair for offering this comprehensive analysis of flood management issues. I would like to use this debate to bring the Minister’s attention to a couple of problems with existing flood management arrangements in my constituency.
I also put on record my thanks to the Committee’s Chair for her recent visit to my constituency, and for the time she spent meeting my constituents to discuss many of the flood management issues that I will raise. She learned of the serious flood and shoreline management problems in my constituency, and listened to the many concerns raised directly by Andrew St Joseph, the chairman of the independent farming-led Managing Coastal Change group, and other local farmers and landowners. They very much welcomed her interest in these matters, and are very grateful to her for her time and her visit.
The Minister will be familiar with some of the matters because of my correspondence with him at the beginning of this year about questions I had asked him in the House. In those exchanges, I highlighted the fact that landowners, farmers and people contributing significant sums of money to the Environment Agency for shoreline management felt completely excluded from the decision-making process. I urge the Minister to address that serious problem. Each year, through the general drainage charge, farmers in Essex give the Environment Agency something in the region of £800,000, which is a significant sum that could instead be spent on other investments or by farmers themselves in acting against flood risks. The farmers continue to feel that they are being subjected to a regime under the auspices of the Environment Agency that generates taxation almost without effective representation. For instance, there is no system in place and no channel of communication to enable people who have contributed to the cost of flood management locally to see how their money is being spent, or to make representations to influence that spending. It is therefore understandable that my constituents and those landowners feel totally ignored, while their contribution seems to be going in one particular direction. Could the Minister find the time to come to my constituency—we would welcome him with open arms—to see at first hand the problems and challenges regarding the flood and shoreline management plan? Alternatively, he could perhaps meet my constituents here in Westminster.
My constituents also raised concerns about matters that have already been mentioned, such as the modelling of sea-level rises always being based on worst-case scenario planning across the area rather than on examining the potential impacts at a local level, and about how the plans for managed re-alignment will work. If my constituents had genuine engagement with the Environment Agency, I am sure that those problems could be addressed and that we would have different scenarios and completely different outcomes.
There are also concerns about the dialogue and engagement with Natural England. I was impressed by the positive experiences of my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), which seem to have come off the back of direct action by the Minister as well. I welcome, endorse and praise that, and hope that we can bring something similar to Essex. However, the problem is the discrepancy in the experiences of engagement with such bodies, and I make a plea to that effect to the Minister.
In the Select Committee report, the link between the agricultural sector and flood defences has been clearly highlighted. In my constituency, there are farmers and landowners who want to engage with the authorities on flood management but already feel disfranchised by their experience with the shoreline management plan. They have many anxieties.
In light of the shortness of time, I want to use the few minutes that I have left to say that there is a plea here to get rid of the bureaucracy and red tape—about which we have already consistently heard—between the various bodies and organisations. It has been reported to me that it can take up to two months and reams of paperwork for the Environment Agency to grant permission when it comes to dealing with shoreline management and flood risk, while Natural England can issue 13-month permits for the same applications. There is, therefore, a bureaucracy and streamlining issue here, and I would welcome the Minister’s intervention and some positive views from him about how some of these areas can be simplified so that landowners can work on sea defences. It is all bureaucratic, but I look to the Minister to bring us positive news on that front in the time that we have left. He is welcome to come to my constituency and meet my constituents. I hope that he will take that on board.
It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) for initiating this important debate. It is great to see the Minister here. I echo the words said about what a great job he is doing. His practical background helps in such matters.
I will make some general points. First, I endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), and I reiterate that the west country has 3% of the population and 30% of the beaches. We also have an elderly population whose incomes are often fixed. High water charges are an issue for them, whereas in many parts of the country, water bills do not represent such a major percentage of income as in the south-west.
South West Water does a good job, but will the Minister consider more competition among water companies? My constituency borders Wessex, and Wessex Water customers pay a good deal less for their water than customers of South West Water. Is he considering it? I know that the Scottish model means that there is only one water company, but there are five retailers who buy wholesale from Scottish Water, resulting in competition, not among householders but among businesses. That could affect even bed and breakfast establishments. Would some competition not ensure that water companies deliver at competitive rates? Ultimately, we must secure value for money for our consumers. Also, I know that he has ruled out a national levy, but 3% of the population pay for 30% of the beaches. It should be shared around. I welcome the Government money offered by the Chancellor, and I look forward to what the Minister can do to alleviate the problems with water charges.
Lots of villages in my constituency have flooded, particularly Feniton. I endorse what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and others. The village includes lots of bungalows, and elderly people were stranded in them and had to be rescued from their lofts. That is an absolutely terrifying experience, and there is a social side to it as well as a cost.
Turning to costs, Labour Members made great play of how much this Government have had to cut flood defence money, but it is no good for them to say that when they spent all the money and left us with a huge deficit. We must make the money go further. I make a plea to the Minister—I know that he is already doing this—to ensure that the Environment Agency works with landowners and others to come up with schemes that are not expensive or elaborate but do the job. There are a lot of practical things that we could do to make the money go further. Insurance companies that insure properties in flood risk areas charge the owners huge premiums. Is there any way—I do not know whether it is possible—to tap into some of those resources? We must think outside the box. Other hon. Members have asked how much water companies can contribute in future. Only taxpayers’ money is involved, but we are borrowing so much money just to pay the interest on our deficit that we know that huge sums will not be available.
Perhaps I ought to declare an interest on the matter of managed retreat. I am not a great admirer of it. The Netherlands has been mentioned. If the Dutch practised managed retreat from the sea, they would retreat from their country. The world’s population is growing, and we are going to have to feed that population. Is it right to retreat from land and let the sea come in? People often do not realise the difference between freshwater and seawater flooding. Freshwater flooding does some damage to the land, but it recovers quickly and grass and crops can still be grown on it. Seawater flooding destroys the land so future generations cannot produce food on it.
Working with the Environment Agency and with farmers, we could find ways to save a lot of money. Protection is in place, but with the sea rising, we might need to raise sea walls. We could do so using systems involving earth banks, perhaps, rather than elaborate banks. I urge the Minister to consider it. We live in an age when people are concerned about flooding and their homes, but I repeat that we must also get the best value for money. I know that the Minister is considering ways to do so. I welcome the chance to speak in this debate to present the worries that people have.
On a final point—my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury mentioned this—although the Environment Agency has got better, we use our rivers for too many things. We are inclined to say that they are great for conservation. They are, and we want to keep water levels high, but in doing so, we let rivers and tributaries silt up. Somerset, for instance, has the Rivers Tone and Parrett. At Burrowbridge, the river is virtually completely silted up. One of these days it will rain and rain, and Taunton and Bridgwater will flood, because that water will not be able to get out to sea in time. It is good to keep water penned at conservation levels during the summer, but let us dredge those rivers properly so that the water can get out to sea. It is not hugely expensive, but it is a matter of foresight.
Culverts, ditches and other water channels have been mentioned. Again, I declare an interest, as I farm in an area that has such features. Internal drainage boards are good at managing things, and I know that the Minister is considering how they can do more. If we rethink how we drain our water, we will not have so much flooding. I agree again with my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury: if it rains and rains, we will have floods, but not if we prepare the proper drainage channels. That is what they were designed for, but at the moment, many towns, such as Taunton, have narrow pinch points where the water comes through the town. It all looks beautiful; the only thing is that if a lot of water must go through the town, it will not go through a smaller channel.
All those things should be considered, but I know that with a Minister of the calibre and experience that we have here, we will have no problem. I welcome the chance to raise these issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Main. I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee, who has been typically forthright and diligent in producing an important and thorough report. This is a crucial discussion, and one of fundamental importance to many aspects of communities throughout the country and to our country’s social, environmental and economic future. I pay tribute to the Chair and other Committee members for their work in producing the report.
The report provides the basis for a great deal of further work by both Parliament and Government. I suspect that important as the report is, this is not the last time that the Committee will return to the issue in such detail. I also suspect that we will have to wait for the long-delayed water White Paper, which is due to be published in December, before we can see comprehensively what the Government intend to do in response to the issues raised by the Committee. I appreciate that the Minister has plenty of questions to answer, so I will be as brief as possible. My first question is this: can he give us a categorical assurance that the White Paper will be published in December this year, and that it has not slipped any further?
The report raises a series of vital issues requiring rapid policy responses beginning with flood management, particularly flood insurance, which many Members have mentioned. Changes to flood insurance for homes and businesses will take effect in July 2013, bringing to an end the statement of principles agreed between the last Government and the Association of British Insurers, acting on behalf of the insurance industry, in 2008. The statement of principles placed clear obligations on Government and industry alike, the most important being the maintenance of investment by Government in flood defences. Following the change of Government, as has been discussed, that has not happened—flood defence spending has been cut by 27%. Although I do not believe that the report under discussion lends itself to some of the more partisan comments that we have heard, I urge those Government Members who have made the point about spending cuts not to pretend that they are not responsible for those cuts. Neither should they pretend to their constituents that they are not their responsibility. The Government acknowledge the 27% cut.
I am grateful for your guidance, Mrs Main. I fear that I would have strayed for some considerable length.
The report highlights a series of concerns surrounding the reduction in funding available for flood defences. It states that
“to maintain the current level of protection in the face of increasing flood risks requires increased investment and the significant CSR cuts will increase concerns that funding on flood defences remains inadequate.”
It goes on to say that
“it is by no means certain that any shortfall in public funding can yet be made up by private contributions. Ministers must spell out how the Government’s aim of focussing public funding on those communities at greatest risk who are least able to protect themselves will be achieved in practice.”
I agree wholeheartedly with the Committee. It now behoves the Government to end this ambiguity, because it is damaging and has dragged on for far too long.
I also urge the Government to understand the detailed effects of their policy as matters stand. The NFU has made a compelling argument in that regard. It notes, with typical tenacity:
“The reality is that regions containing a significant conurbation of housing and business development i.e. a city will create a distortion in the allocation of national flood risk funding. This means that many rural areas...will be likely to suffer a steep decline in flood risk investment as a result of this distorting effect of policy. We believe rural areas within regions will therefore have difficulty in obtaining national funding for new flood risk management schemes.”
The NFU is entirely right and I thank it for the attention it has given the issues and for representing the interests of its members and, more broadly, the more rural elements of our country in a typically forthright and effective manner.
Do the Government accept the analysis that their funding criteria for flood management distort funding away from flood defence schemes in rural areas? If the Minister does not accept that analysis, what is the basis for his contrary view?
The Government maintain that reduced flood defence spending can still safeguard 145,000 properties over the duration of this Parliament. Inevitably, that will mean a greater concentration of available moneys in more densely populated areas in order to achieve greater, and arguably quicker, economies of scale. For less densely populated areas, this represents a gathering storm—less flood defence investment, with potentially more expensive or difficult to obtain insurance cover and greatly inflated excess payments—which could lead to entire communities becoming blighted. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House are aware of that problem.
What specific discussions have the Government held with the insurance industry regarding the effects on the costs and availability of flood insurance in rural areas as a result of this policy change? Have the Government undertaken any assessment of how these policy changes will affect land and property values in rural areas? If so, has the logical modelling been done with regard to how such a policy change will affect not only businesses in these areas, but the cost to their public services?
With regard to the farming industry, surely modelling work has been undertaken on the impacts of different flood management models in rural areas and the consequences of that for agricultural land and food security. Surely the necessary work with regard to these issues has been done. If not, will the Minister explain why? If the work has been done and the answer is yes, will he undertake to make this work available to the public and to colleagues? If the work has not been undertaken, I fear that the Government’s approach to these issues cannot be described as holistic and will inevitably invite failure.
We need, as has been said, a broad and lasting consensus on the policy measures necessary to achieve a fair insurance system whereby flood insurance is available to everybody at affordable rates. If as a country we fail to meet the serious challenges presented by the changing flood insurance landscape, that will result in profound social effects. Governments, of whichever colour, cannot outsource their accountability in this area. It is not fair and it does not bode well for effective, lasting policy if it is left purely to the insurance industry. With one in six homes and businesses in England and Wales at significant risk of flooding, this is without doubt one of the biggest social and economic policy challenges facing the country.
Effective policy implementation will require the substantial buy-in of major stakeholders in this policy field—not just the insurance industry, but the water industry—whose co-operation is pivotal in identifying and implementing effective policy solutions. The companies involved in our water industry could also be pivotal in helping us to address significant parts of the flood policy challenge. I have spoken with the industry and it is clear that there is huge and, in many ways, unrealised potential locked within it that is both prepared and able to help us improve flood management policy. What work has the Minister’s Department done in that regard, and has any work been done on incentivising soft or natural water and flood management schemes to be undertaken by water companies, as opposed to hard, engineered schemes?
Does the Minister believe that that approach would be aided or hindered by further disaggregation of the water industry and by increased competition? We are all aware of the benefits of competition, but we must also be alive to the potential disbenefits of increased competition. Clearly, asset maintenance and investment in new assets in the water industry are a critical part of the economic base of that industry. It is also vital in relation to the practicalities of flood and water management. Does the Minister share my concern that the disruption of the market in the UK could disincentivise investments such as these and thus hinder more effective flood and water management schemes?
The Government cannot and must not believe that they can extricate themselves from this policy area. Paradoxically, the cut in flood defence spending may yet necessitate more involvement, more investment and more legislation from Government, in the shape of the Bellwin scheme and other schemes, and more rather than less involvement and expenditure in the future.
I am sure that we are all aware—perhaps members of the EFRA Committee are more aware of this than others—that the water industry is undergoing a period of marked uncertainty as it continues to deal with a badly structured privatisation, regulatory uncertainty, an increased call for its involvement in social policy, global economic uncertainty, and what I think we can broadly agree is increased customer dissatisfaction. The industry is one of the most strategically sensitive in the UK and any significant policy changes, irrespective of the benefits, are likely to incur some cost to the taxpayer either directly or indirectly through contributions to the Exchequer, or directly through utility bills.
Let us be under no illusion that water management legislation is difficult. We all accept that and understand that effective water management legislation requires a thriving water industry. The water industry now faces three areas of challenge, which are perhaps best understood in three separate chunks: the consumer, the environment and impending regulatory change.
First, on the consumer, customers increasingly demand lower bills or more stable charges and, in addition, expect increased investments from utility companies in flood prevention and water management. The existence of water poverty is real and must be addressed through social tariffs or other means. Secondly, on the environment, effective water management cannot just be about consumers and shareholders. It must be about environmental protection, which, as we are all aware, is not cost-free. I urge the Government to respond in detail to the concerns raised by WWF, particularly those in relation to water abstraction. Thirdly, on regulation of the water industry, Ofwat, as colleagues have touched upon, faces major changes. The industry is a major tax contributor, a wealth creator and a significant employer, yet the consequences of the privatisation as it has been structured—which increase environmental responsibilities and the role of the industry in other social policy areas, such as flood defence, water poverty alleviation and other potential environmental remediation—are potentially massive.
The Committee Chairman is absolutely right to suggest that the industry is facing its biggest challenge for decades—there is no doubt about that. Let us make it clear that these drivers offer scope for major policy contradictions as, although they are discrete, each specific area impacts upon the other. So a credible policy must have the buy-in and involvement of the water industry at a very high level. There is a willingness from the industry to do that. Like all major industries, the water industry seeks as far as is practicable, a core political consensus from us in this room and from us in this Parliament, so that it can plan long-term investments with certainty. Additionally, the industry recognises and seemingly accepts the inescapable social and environmental obligations that are upon it.
Our task is to identify those areas of synergy that will bring together consumer benefit, social and environmental improvement, and economic stability. That should inform our policy approach and I hope it is writ large throughout the White Paper when it appears. There are many more matters raised by the report in need of discussion, but they cannot all be mentioned today. The issues have had a significant airing and have largely been brought to the Minister’s attention in a detailed way. I trust that he will answer the questions that have been raised not only by me but by colleagues. If not, I trust that he will give us some detailed written answers as soon as possible.
It is good of you to chair our proceedings, Mrs Main, albeit for only part of our debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) and her Committee on the priority that they have given the issue, particularly the matter of flooding. I also congratulate them on their report and on raising it so eloquently here today. There is no doubt that these issues are of importance to hon. Members from all parties.
The Government’s response to the report has been published and I hope that my hon. Friend and her Committee will accept that the Government are taking full account of all its recommendations. As she has acknowledged, the Government are in the process of implementing the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 in a proportionate way, having due regard to the need to ensure that the regulatory burden on businesses and citizens is justified. We have already provided much-needed clarity on the roles and responsibilities of regulatory authorities, local authorities and others in flood and water management. We are in the process of developing secondary legislation to address the remaining key elements of the Act: sustainable drainage systems, private sewers and reservoir safety. We will consult widely on our proposals once they have been fully developed.
The Flood and Water Management Act covered all of Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations that required primary legislation, except for producing consolidated floods legislation, which it would not be sensible for us to do in advance of the red tape challenge, where we will seek to repeal any unnecessary legislation. We are aware that other parts of the draft Flood and Water Management Bill were included in the subsequent Act. We are looking again at the need for primary legislation and will only legislate where necessary. Any legislative proposals will be set out in the water White Paper. I say very clearly to hon. Members that we are committed to publishing that White Paper by December—not in December, but by December. If there is any change to that, I will personally notify the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed), my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton—the Committee Chair—and anyone else concerned. However, that is our commitment today.
The White Paper will focus on increasing the resilience of our water supplies to the pressures of demographic and climate change; on reforming the water industry in the light of those challenges so that it is innovative, efficient and customer-focused; and on ensuring that bills remain affordable. I will come on to address some of the points eloquently raised by a number of hon. Members, not just those in the south-west. We would expect any water Bill to be tightly drafted and to focus on water legislation rather than flood management. The Government are committed to increasing the number of Bills that are published in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny, and we will consider the feasibility of doing so in the time available. I hope that my hon. Friend and her Committee will be able to follow that process.
The Government’s new approach to funding flood and coastal defence projects announced back in May, which has been raised by a number of hon. Members, has already scored a number of successes. Instead of meeting the full costs of just a limited number of schemes, a partnership approach will make Government money available to pay for a share of any potential scheme. Cost savings and local contributions will mean that more communities can enjoy the benefits that flood and coastal defences bring. We expect that, in 2012-13, there will be around £20 million-worth of contributions coming in from local and private sources. The new approach is enabling schemes to go ahead across the country that otherwise would not be able to do so, as the outcomes delivered by those schemes were not sufficient to be fully funded by central Government. Through partnership funding, we have opened the door to enable local priorities to be funded, while ensuring that every pound of Government investment is focused on supporting those who need it most, especially those most at risk and living in the most deprived parts of the country. That answers one of the points clearly made by the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner).
Notable successes include the highly controversial and long-awaited scheme in York and Water End. I hope that that scheme will come to fruition this year. A contribution of £1 million towards the cost from the City of York is, of course, hugely welcome. There is also very good news for Sandwich town, which is an example of how partnership working can bring results. The scheme ran into difficulties as a result of the announced closure of the Pfizer research centre. A significant contribution by Pfizer towards the cost of the flood defence scheme in Sandwich town, along with contributions from Kent county council, has ensured that construction should begin next year.
My hon. Friend and other hon. Members raised the vexed issue of sustainable drainage and sewerage. We recognise the need to encourage and support sustainable drainage. An expanding population, changing climate and urbanisation mean that the drainage infrastructure can come under pressure. That leads to increased flood risk, as there is a fast-flowing conveyance of surface water downstream, with little or none of the slow-moving, filtering characteristics of natural drainage. We intend to consult soon on a package of measures to encourage the use of sustainable drainage systems and to remove the automatic right for developers to connect to the public sewer system. In addition to increased flood risk, the pressure on the sewer system to drain an increasing amount of surface water has a significant negative impact on water quality downstream, for example, through pollution caused by overflowing surface water and combined sewers. We are working to encourage improvements in sewer infrastructure and capability through the transfer of responsibility for private sewers from home owners to water and sewerage companies. I appreciate the point that has been made on that work, which has been 10 years in the waiting. Such an approach will be a massive comfort to many households who face enormous bills.
Before I come on to the more detailed issues that have been raised, I will mention the important matter discussed by my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) regarding the impact of floods on agricultural land and concerns about food security. Those concerns, which have been raised in relation to coastal erosion issues and coastal erosion flood risk management, are absolutely at the top of DEFRA’s priorities. I reassure hon. Members that the impact of flood management and coastal erosion on farmland will remain an important consideration. However, food security is principally about availability, affordability and access to nutritious and sustainably produced food, rather than having an absolute foot-by-foot, acre-by-acre, hectare-by-hectare analysis of what could be produced here and there. Although the matter is an absolute priority for DEFRA, domestic production and a healthy rural economy are also important. Concerns will need to be reconciled with the need to protect people and property.
The hon. Member for Copeland asked whether we have a level playing field between urban and rural communities and mentioned the impact on agricultural land. Flood funding is allocated on a case-by-case basis and each case has to stand on its own merits. In the floods of 2007, there were damages worth more than £3.7 billion. Approximately 4% of that was in agriculture. I am not diminishing the impact on agriculture—I am a farmer and I represent a rural constituency, and we want to protect farmland for all the reasons that I have just stated—but we also want to protect people and property. That is a balance that Governments down the ages have had to make and we will not shy away from doing so. However, it is important that we get it right and that we are fair by people and by the properties in which they live. We also recognise the important contribution that farmers make to our rural life, to our economy and to the very important points I made about food security.
I think there is, and I will tell my hon. Friend why. I can only speak about this in generalities. My hon. Friend must forgive me if, in doing so, I make it harder for him to apply this, in his mind, across certain communities. We all know that in certain communities, there is a terrific local capacity to take these problems head on. I have communities in which hydrologists live. I have communities that have been flooded where there are water engineers. I have communities flooded where there are people with enormous resources, both financial and intellectual. We have seen communities all around the country with the capacity to put together a partnership funding stream that can work overnight, almost, in terms of flooding schemes. There are other communities where there is not that capacity. That is not to diminish the people who live there at all; they just do not have that capacity. We have to have a system that is mindful that some communities need more help than others.
On that point, may I put on the record the fact that all of us acknowledge that there is still—I know that the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) would not want to give the opposite impression, far from it—real deprivation in rural England and Wales as well?
Of course I acknowledge that; I was coming on to talk about it. Possibly through the unguarded way in which I was talking about affordability in the south-west, I may have—heaven forbid—given the impression that I thought that people in the south-west were all millionaires. Of course I do not think that. I am fully aware of the profile of rural life across the south-west and across other parts of the country. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—there is deprivation in rural areas as well.
Just to add to the Minister’s caution around the question of deprivation, so much of social housing in the past 25 years has been built in areas that are subject to flood risk. The people who live in that housing had few housing options open to them. Through being on housing lists, they were forced into that accommodation. They are particularly exposed to those risks, in ways which people who have the financial ability to choose where they live are not. For that specific reason, it is important that deprivation is taken into account.
The hon. Gentleman is right, and that relates to the issue of insurance as well. I have been taking forward one measure. Housing associations or council-owned housing stock offer an opt-in scheme on contents insurance. I believe strongly that we should encourage people to do an opt-out scheme. Fifty pence a week can give you £5,000 worth of contents insurance. People would be more likely to have that if it were an opt-out scheme. There is so much that we can do to protect.
I am grateful. The Minister talked about capacity in areas. Through him, may I congratulate Ron Smith and Burstwick United, who worked through early difficulties to forge a big society partnership with the Environment Agency to protect the village? The Minister has been invited to come and open the scheme. There are farmers storing the pumps. We have others manning the pumps. Will he confirm today that he will come to Burstwick and celebrate that community’s response to the floods in 2007?
I have developed a habit of agreeing, if any colleague asks me, to go to any part of the country at any time and it causes the people who work in my office palpitations. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that I would very much like to see precisely such schemes where there is flood watch—rather like neighbourhood watch—and where people work together to protect the vulnerable. There are fantastic examples of that around the country. I would be delighted to see that scheme at some stage.
May I quickly address the points that hon. Members have made? The Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, made the point, eloquently made by the NFU, that we should not treat farmers as the providers of free storage of floodwater. We take the contribution that landowners and farmers make towards flood schemes very seriously.
My hon. Friend talked about internal drainage boards. Of course, many members of those boards are members of the farming community. They are also members of the local authorities and members of the community and we value bottom-up community engagement. I am a huge admirer of internal drainage boards. They do fantastic work. I had a meeting this week with IDBs from Lincolnshire to understand how they are coping with the extraordinary challenges they have in that area; so much of it is under sea level. The work that they do is enormous. I want to ensure that the Environment Agency works with IDBs to ensure that watercourses are open and flowing, and that everything is at the standard it should be.
I want to see more of what I saw in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). When I went there a few weeks after I started this job, I did something quite by accident—it was organised by my officials. However, it seemed like a good way of doing government. I got into a car with the local MP, representatives of the local authority, the Country Land and Business Association, the NFU, the Environment Agency and Natural England and locked the door. We drove down, looked at certain features and discussed the problems. When I went back there, I discovered that a different attitude prevailed. The Environment Agency had adopted a “yes, if” approach. Now, one telephone call results in action being taken. My hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) must work as much as she can with me, and with her neighbours in Suffolk, to try to create a Total Environment scheme, and pool activity—and sometimes pool money—to ensure that we can make a similar attitude prevail in her part of the world. It is really exciting to see it working; it means that we have a responsive system.
I have discussed the issue of SUDS. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton talked about the impact of the natural environment White Paper, the water White Paper and the timing. I can assure her that we have made a very serious pitch to ensure that there is adequate time in the next Session. I very much hope that we will get that, because important measures will come out in the water White Paper that will need a legislative approach.
My hon. Friend, not surprisingly, raised the issue of Pickering and is right to do so. That is an important issue for her and her constituents. I can assure her that we understand the urgency of her constituents’ concerns. We are working extremely closely to make sure that we meet local concerns about the shelving of the scheme, understand the impact of the Reservoirs Act 1975, and discover whether we can find alternatives that are cost-effective and which can be brought forward as quickly as possible.
My hon. Friend talked about the problem of over-engineered projects. The Environment Agency’s schemes meet the highest industry standards. They are designed to ensure optimum levels of protection and give an average return on investment of seven to one. There are occasions when we can sit and work out whether we need a Rolls-Royce solution, or whether we can actually make do with a reasonably priced family car solution. I can assure her that we are open to all suggestions and that her concerns are being taken forward.
My hon. Friend made a point about local authorities’ finance for flood and coastal erosion risk management. I can reassure her that the money we have put in has ensured good flood and coastal erosion risk management strategies from the local authorities. All have submitted strategies except one—I will not say which one, but it is not represented by anyone present in the Chamber. We provided the funding, and it is important for the work to be carried forward.
I shall come on to insurance in a minute, but in the five minutes I have left I must also deal with the points made by other hon. Members. The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) raised the issue of planning and building on floodplains. The Environment Agency—in England, obviously—takes the matter absolutely seriously and gives strict advice on planning applications as they are made, and I will ensure that that continues. The Pitt review is unequivocal on that and we must follow its important recommendations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud raised the issue of the Severn estuary shoreline management plan. I recognise that that is an area where things were not got right, and we want to ensure that we do get them right. I am working closely with him, other colleagues from that area and the Environment Agency. I had a meeting with them this week and I want to make sure that we share information with local farmers on a consultative basis. We are talking about something not for tomorrow but for 20, 30, 40 or 50 years’ time. We must have a plan in place that is understood and that people are consulted on—I assure him that I will ensure that we do that. He eloquently set out the challenges that face us as we tackle the problems, and we will carry that forward.
The hon. Member for Brent North talked about funding, as did the hon. Member for Copeland. I do not want to enter a sterile debate. They know that, if we compare the previous period of the Labour Administration with the current four years, the reduction is 8%. They also know that massive cuts were announced by the then Chancellor just before the election. We could get into that debate about where we are and where we are going. However, I can assure them and the House that we have fought and protected our budget in a way that was out of all proportion to the spending restraint that we have achieved throughout the Department and the Government. The priority goes right to the top of this Government, and we will ensure that it works. With the efficiencies that we are getting out of the Environment Agency, we will be able to achieve our aims of protecting 145,000 homes, and I remain optimistic that we can do better.
I apologise, but I really cannot, because I do not have much time left.
The statement of principles was mentioned by a great many hon. Members. We are working hard with the insurance industry and all relevant parties. A number of hon. Members, including the Chair of the Select Committee, came to our flood summit, out of which came three working parties, which will look at the financial risks from flooding, data provision, transparency and sharing, and the customer experience of resilience to flooding. We had a meeting with the Secretary of State to follow up that work, which we are progressing, and we will come forward with the solutions in the early part of next year—that is a real priority for the Department.
It is important to recognise that some houses that have insurance in name barely do so if we take the excess charges into account. We face a great many difficulties, but our understanding of flooding—in particular we have a greater understanding of surface water flooding—is starting to pay dividends. We can now get a picture, almost house by house, of where risk starts and finishes, and of what we can do. Sometimes the risk can be alleviated merely by putting a row of bricks on top of a wall or by blocking an entrance or configuring it differently, but we must make certain that all our plans are joined up. Our desire to protect the natural environment, which is strong, does not mean that we are flooding homes because we are not thinking of things in an holistic and joined-up way. All agencies are seized of that, and I will continue to drive it.
I am rather concerned by the eponymous nature of some of the proposals and the optimistic view that people might have of my abilities. I hesitate to take credit for so much that has been thrown at me, because it has been a team effort. I pay tribute to how the Environment Agency is approaching this important issue, although I can assure hon. Members that I work closely with it.
DEFRA has spent a lot of money on equipping emergency services and other organisations with training and equipment to deal with flood. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) raised the issue of a statutory duty, but that is one of the few areas of the Pitt review that we have not taken forward. We have an open mind about it but, having said that, I cannot see why it makes a difference for a fire and rescue service to have a statutory duty. Every fire and rescue service that I have spoken to, and I have spoken to a lot, has done wonderful work when dealing with flood. We are equipping them and we are training. I am happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman with an open mind about whether a statutory duty would make a difference—the wording in the Pitt review is “as necessary”. Sir Ken Knight, the chief fire officer, has come forward with some proposals, and I would not mind discussing them with the hon. Gentleman in a less formal way, to see whether we can find a solution that satisfies everyone.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and other hon. Members made important comments and gave moving descriptions of flooding in their areas—descriptions I recognise from flooding in my own constituency. I hope that hon. Members from the south-west were pleased with the Chancellor’s words in the Budget, which showed a real commitment to deal with the unfairness that they so accurately feel on behalf of their constituents. I assure them that we are following through on that.
The hon. Member for Copeland made many important points. He talked about whether we were taking an holistic enough view and dealing with the problems upstream. He was absolutely right to say that. It is important that water companies, farmers, landowners, local authorities and the Environment Agency ensure that we use the natural environment where we can to prevent flooding further down.
We will not spook the investor when we come to reform of the water industry. We recognise that around £100 billion has been spent by investors in the water industry in the past 20 years, and we want to see much more of that.
With those remarks, I would like to leave some time for the Chair of the Select Committee.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs Main.
The report was very much a team effort on the part of the Committee, and it was a very good choice to allow us to debate it. The debate has shown the breadth of support geographically and among the many hon. Members present. The conclusion is that much has been done but there is still much to do.
I hope that the Minister will extend the “yes, if” to the gross inconsistency at the heart of Government policy on reservoirs and reservoir safety. That absolute inconsistency must be addressed, in particular if farmers want to use reservoirs for storage, instead of abstraction, which a number of hon. Members might wish to explore. I hope that that will be reviewed.
I welcome the positive comments from the Minister on the role of internal drainage boards in maintenance. If we want an example of the big society, we need look no further.
I am minded to support the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) about the lack of a statutory duty. I have tracked the issue for some time, and we must remember that a young man was killed in Hull because all the emergency services that came, in succession, simply did not have the equipment. In sorrow more than anger, everyone turned to the fire crew to cut that young man to safety, but he died of hypothermia. The reason why the statutory duty is so important is that the money will follow the duty. If we cannot provide that, there will be further deaths, which would be most regrettable.
The insurance issues are time-framed. On planning, we need clear guidance as to how building on floodplains lies with the new national policy framework, but there are many challenges ahead. The Minister singularly failed to give us a date for the water Bill, but we look forward to the water White Paper. On a positive note, I add that we have had a good discussion this afternoon. The Minister is aware of the work that needs to be done, and we are there to support him in any way possible.
Question put and agreed to.