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Flood Defences

Volume 543: debated on Wednesday 18 April 2012

It is a great pleasure to be holding this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. We are running slightly late because of the Divisions in the main Chamber, but such is the way of parliamentary life. I thank the Minister for making such progress on the issue of flooding in my constituency. He has brokered a useful dialogue between the Environment Agency and the various communities in the area, particularly those along the Severn estuary, and we are immensely grateful to him for that achievement.

Before I put one or two questions to the Minister, I want to talk about three aspects of flooding: consultation on the policy drivers behind the actions being proposed along the Severn estuary; the implementation of flood attenuation in the valley in my constituency; and, finally, insurance.

Stroud is a beautiful place, but it is vulnerable to flooding, especially in the vale, which is flat, and along some of the valleys, which are quite steep. Indeed, we have a variety of characteristics that can cause flooding. We must bear in mind the issues relating not just to Severn estuary flooding but to surface water flooding, which is a problem in my constituency.

Let me turn first to the Severn estuary. With localism in mind, it is important that villagers, farmers, property owners, dwellers and anybody who will be affected by the changes proposed by the Environment Agency should feel that they have had their say, that they are being fully consulted, that they are part of a dialogue and that their concerns are being properly covered. As I have already said, the Minister’s actions have led to such a consultation.

None the less, there are policy drivers behind this complex issue which interest many of my constituents. Not least of course there is the issue of the habitat and the scale of the need for it, which is effectively conditioned by various policy drivers. Concerns have been expressed in my constituency about the new information, new changes and new facts that are now on the table. People would like more clarity and consistency in how the Environment Agency operates. That is not to say that the Environment Agency has not been extraordinarily helpful in many ways, and I personally have a good relationship with its team. I also know that it has honoured its commitment to have people effectively working as communications officers, keeping the local community informed. The Environment Agency has also answered a number of questions posed by the action group, Severn Voice, about the concerns.

Let me stress though that there is a need for the Environment Agency to be absolutely clear about its understanding and interpretation of the policy drivers behind some of the actions being proposed. It is well understood that sea levels might well rise and that measures have to be considered and planned. However, it is equally important to recognise that owners of farmland, houses and so forth need to be treated properly and fairly in the overall scheme of things.

We have an obvious and persistent problem with Slad valley. Water comes streaming down the valley and ends up in Stroud, causing difficulties and hardships for owners of a small number of properties. A group called Vision 21, which is led by Julian Jones, is working hard on the issue of attenuation. It has proposed using various old mill ponds further up the Slad valley as storage areas for when there is a lot of water. The water can thus be dealt with in a managed way without allowing it all to collect at the bottom and cause mayhem. Coupled with that is the proposal for better irrigation and better land use management. Various landowners have expressed interest in such schemes not just because they would prevent flooding in Stroud and Stonehouse but because they would improve drainage and irrigation further up the valley.

It is worth noting here that there would be the opportunity for small-scale hydro power developments, which we have already managed to achieve in one or two parts of my constituency, and that is excellent. There would be further opportunities for such developments if we had a flexible way of dealing with water storage and so forth.

I ask the Minister to encourage the Environment Agency to be less controlling and less directive and a little bit more open-minded about the possibilities that exist in the Slad valley so that flood attenuation can be properly implemented. Such a scheme would be a useful and valuable experiment in this important area. Moreover, it would provide a good example of working with the environment and with the history of Slad valley, with all its mills. The area has all the characteristics of a fantastic place.

We must combine the empowerment of local people with careful planning, which should be conducted through the auspices of the Environment Agency, as interesting, new and innovative measures to deal with water management and flood control are introduced.

I have a similar situation in my constituency. Landowners would like to have the flexibility to do more to protect local sea walls. I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we need flexibility and that much of this matter needs to be resolved by the Environment Agency. I urge the Minister to see what he can do to remove some of the barriers that prevent landowners and local residents from taking the actions that my hon. Friend has highlighted.

My hon. Friend is right. Removing barriers to deal with other barriers is an interesting concept, but it is absolutely right and quite in line with my approach to the conduct, behaviour and plans of the Environment Agency. It is also in line with the general feeling that the Environment Agency does not always get down to the local level and respond to local needs and local requirements in a flexible enough way.

I will move on to the third issue that I want to talk about, which is home insurance. We have a real problem, because the flood maps available on the Environment Agency website sometimes suggest that people’s homes will be flooded when actually they will not. Also, the maps do not reflect the consequences of natural barriers and, even more importantly, man-made barriers. There are one or two areas in my constituency that prove that point quite well. People could look at a flood map and think to themselves, “Well, the whole place is doomed”, but actually it is not doomed because there are canals and other barriers that will prevent flooding. In fact, the areas that I have in mind, such as Frampton on Severn, have not been flooded in that way, so the flood maps need to be up to date and homeowners need to be assured that they are devised in such a way as to reflect what will actually happen and to show a proper understanding of the type of flood defences that I have just described.

Flood maps are a key issue. I have discussed them with the Association of British Insurers, which has also noted that it is important to keep them up to date. I have suggested that the Environment Agency might like to be more thorough in updating its maps and that it should do so more often—that is effectively the message that I have received—and if it did so, it would be of great assistance. It is also very important for individual insurers to have access to the correct information, so that people who need to gain access to home insurance can do so on the basis of information that is indeed accurate.

That brings me to the new approach that is needed following the statement of principles on flood insurance, which I know is coming to an end. Clearly, that issue is exercising both the insurance industry and, obviously, homeowners. They need some information, guidance and encouragement on how that process is going and where we can expect to be in terms of home insurance in flood areas. That information and guidance would be extremely useful.

In essence, what we are looking for is more transparency and more accuracy in flood mapping, so that home owners, insurers and anybody else who is interested can have more confidence in the maps that they are looking at.

Those are the three key issues. First, it is basically a question of communication and ensuring that people are involved and included. Secondly, it is a question of being innovative and confident about the options that are available, including encouraging the Environment Agency to set those things in motion or at least to allow them to happen. Thirdly, it is a question of having more information for everybody concerned, to give them confidence and comfort as appropriate.

Having made those three points, I will end my remarks by reiterating my thanks to the Minister, both for being here today in Westminster Hall and for the work that he has already done in the interests of people in my constituency who are vulnerable to flooding. I also reiterate that I fully intend to pursue this matter and ensure that we get some solutions that are lasting and worth while.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing this debate and on proving, yet again, that he is one of the most assiduous of our colleagues in raising such issues on behalf of his constituents. I am very keen to respond to the points that he has made, but before I do so, I want to touch on those made by another assiduous colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who talked about the Environment Agency and the sea defences in Essex.

I assure my hon. Friend that that is a matter of real interest to me. I want to ensure that all interested parties work extremely closely together on those defences and that any perceived or actual difficulties in securing and protecting farmland and properties are overcome. A protocol is in place to ensure that the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association work closely with the Environment Agency.

My hon. Friend has had meetings with all concerned, but I want to keep in touch with her and ensure that every effort is being made. I came across difficulties further north from her constituency when I came into this job. A few months later, I found a completely different attitude that was based on the concept of total environment but that was really just close working together of the parties involved. I give her the assurance that I will visit her constituency in the future if I can do so, so that I can see things for myself and try to take matters forward.

With sea level rises, climate changes and extremes of weather, we will have a lot of these debates in the House and I want to ensure that everything is being done as properly as it can be, that any protocols that exist are working and that we work closely together to resolve these issues, because they are of fundamental importance to the lives of our constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, who secured this debate, represents one of the most special parts of this country and one that I have some familiarity with. I find the Severn estuary, including the area of his constituency that is adjacent to the Severn estuary, to be one of the most mystical and beautiful places, with some wonderful farmland. There is no doubt that there are some communities in that area that look at issues such as climate change and sea level rises with a degree of concern for their future. I remember the village of Arlingham, which is surrounded on three sides by the River Severn. We have in mind communities such as the one in Arlingham when we try to plan for the future. I understand that we have to get the language right and that we do not create undue concern, or even undue scares, but at the same time we have to address the real issue of sea level rises and the impact that it is having.

My hon. Friend made a very sensible point about the rational view that most people have about these matters. They just want to ensure that all forms of government are doing what they can, when they can, to assist them. I hope that what I am about to say will give them the necessary reassurance. I will go on to talk about the Slad valley and the concerns about insurance that he raised.

Work on the Severn estuary flood risk management strategy is ongoing at community level. A draft strategy was prepared and put to the public for consultation last year. The aim was to establish the most effective and sustainable way to manage flood risk in the estuary during the next century. The Environment Agency is currently reviewing and assessing all responses to its consultation on the draft strategy. It will not implement the strategy as it stands. Instead, it is actively involving the local community in considering the future options for managing flood risk in the Severn estuary. As part of that approach, it regularly meets Gloucestershire NFU to ensure that landowners are involved in developing the strategy for the area.

Where the Environment Agency can no longer justify maintaining the current standard or line of defence, it will work with those affected to consider the other options, including landowners maintaining their own defences. Also, in circumstances where managed realignment or habitat creation could be an option, the agency will seek to work with those affected and implement schemes with their agreement. In the future, the agency plans to go to public consultation again. It will take forward the draft strategy for the Severn estuary once the proposals have been discussed in detail.

I should say that the current defences and planning are based on perceived sea level rises, but they are designed in such a way as to be extended as time goes on and if sea levels rise faster than expected. That is a really important point for my hon. Friend’s constituents; the approach is called adaptive management. What concerns people is when they see arbitrary lines drawn on maps that reflect perceived sea level rises that might or might not occur. We have already seen some variation in the predictions of sea level rises that were made some years ago; those rises have not happened. We want to ensure that we base the information on sound knowledge and evidence.

My hon. Friend has raised some important points about the Slad valley. Flood defences form a major element of how we manage flood risk, but they are only part of the solution. As my hon. Friend knows, 1,602 properties in his Stroud constituency are at risk from river and tidal flooding. There is currently no cost-effective way of further reducing the risk at the community level by way of major schemes, but the Environment Agency is still keen to take an active approach to managing flood risk in the community. On average, £190,000 a year is spent on maintaining the existing system of culverts and mills in the Slad valley to make the most use of the existing assets.

The Environment Agency was this very week removing vegetation and fallen trees, which could have caused blockages, from river channels. A considerable amount of ongoing river channel and culvert maintenance work takes place to keep the river systems flowing effectively, and that work is supplemented by individual property protection and resilience grants, which have been made available to the communities along the Slad brook and in Bridgend. So far, 10 properties from Slad have taken up the offer, which is still open.

A further proposal is being developed by the Slad brook action group, to which my hon. Friend referred, which is working closely with local authorities, the Environment Agency and a local water environment group—Water21—to encourage and construct land management measures upstream of Slad to reduce and slow down water run-off. By slowing down water in certain circumstances, we can protect a great many properties. I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said about using existing assets, some of which were created more than a century ago, in a modern and innovative way to ensure that we provide cost-effective defences for people’s homes. We must never forget that we are talking about the most important asset in people’s lives—the roof over their head.

The Environment Agency has £300,000 of local levy money to implement land management measures. It is also working closely with the local authority on development planning to address flood risk management in the Slad valley on an incremental basis. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Environment Agency will continue to work with local people and groups, and with him as their local representative, and that we will consider any measure that we can fund with others, or that we can assist any organisation in providing, to protect people for the future.

I hear what my hon. Friend says about using such areas to test innovative ideas that can be used elsewhere. There is good cross-working in the Environment Agency, and we have an understanding of how to deal with the kind of flash floods that are now a feature of our lives because of changes to the climate. We must be aware of the fact that no one is a repository of all the wisdom here, and I can assure my hon. Friend that we will work closely with his constituents to use best practice and come up with new ideas that may assist us with the problem.

My hon. Friend raised the important point of insurance. I recognise that insurance for properties in flood risk areas is of concern to many people. The Government have continued to listen to, and closely involve, organisations that represent insurers and communities at flood risk. We are in the advanced stages of developing a new shared understanding, which sets out more clearly what individual customers can expect from their insurers. An announcement will be made in the near future to reflect the continued responsibility of the Government and insurers and their commitment to ensuring that insurance for flood risk remains widely available.

We are actively exploring value-for-money ways to target support at households that might struggle with premium increases. It is also worth putting on record that the Government’s prime responsibility here is building flood defences, whether for coastal erosion or for surface water or fluvial flooding. We must continue to invest, and we are spending a lot of taxpayers’ money— £2.13 billion over this spending period—to protect people’s homes from flooding. There are many things that we can do with insurers, and we are working closely with them to achieve those aims.

The debate has raised important issues. Engaging with local communities, developing innovative solutions to flood risk management and protecting the most vulnerable from flooding, whether through new defences or insurance, are key principles of our new partnership funding system. The reforms provide improved transparency and greater certainty for communities about the potential funding from the general taxpayer for every flood and coastal defence project. They also allow local areas to have a bigger say in what is done to protect them. Therefore, over time, local ambitions for protection no longer need to be constrained by what national budgets can afford, and innovative, cost-effective solutions will be encouraged, in which civil society may play a greater role. With contributions under the new funding system, combined with efficiency savings, the Environment Agency and other risk management authorities are on course to exceed their goal to better protect 145,000 households by March 2015.

My hon. Friend referred to flood maps, and I want to get this on the record as well. The Environment Agency updates flood maps every three months. The data are provided to all local authorities and to the Association of British Insurers, and they are on the Environment Agency’s website. We are considering new approaches to communicating the information. I understand the frustration that many constituents feel—mine included—when they are wrongly assessed, usually over the telephone and often on a postcode basis, as being at flood risk, when the insurance company or the broker has access to the information. We are not talking about national secrets; we are proud to share the information, particularly when new assets are constructed. We must find better, more innovative ways to ensure that we inform people. Some insurance companies are good at uploading the information but others are not, and we are working closely with a number of organisations to achieve a better result for people at flood risk.

Managing the risk of flooding to communities remains an absolute priority for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and we do it not only by trying to minimise the chance of flooding in our communities, but through reducing the impacts should flooding occur. Our new approach to funding allows local communities to have greater control over how flood risk is managed in their area. Maintaining existing flood risk management systems, as well as investing in improved protection, reduces the chance of floods affecting our communities. Flood insurance is an important element in reducing the impacts of floods on communities and in giving reassurance and peace of mind to those at risk. The Government remain committed to ensuring that cover for flooding remains widely available once the statement of principles agreement with the insurance industry comes to an end next year.

I shall end where I began, by assuring my hon. Friend that I will continue to work with him to ensure that the issues that he has raised are worked through and that we can face the future, which is uncertain because of weather patterns and sea risk, on the basis of the best knowledge available through open and clear consultation. In that way, we can achieve the best result for his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.