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Environment Agency

Volume 559: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2013

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. It is so good to see you.

First, I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who I know has just returned from a stunning victory in Europe over fish. I know that he is slightly tired, so I am even more grateful to see him here in Westminster Hall today, fresh from his victory. Today we will try to add a little more triumphalism to his record of achievements.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Minister, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for this chance to debate the future of the Environment Agency. I certainly applaud their review of the agency and I know that a lot of colleagues are taking it very seriously. As my hon. Friends said at the time, the review is a chance to take a fresh look at how the agency does things. In that open spirit, I want to focus today not so much on what the agency does but on what it fails to do.

Hon. Members may know that the Environment Agency is just 16 years old; in many ways, it is a juvenile. Many of my constituents who are still mopping up after the recent floods regard the agency’s lack of action as—dare I say it?—almost juvenility in itself. There is not the time today to highlight every single human tragedy that has happened or the appalling damage that has been done; I cannot do that. It is also not possible today to give a completely accurate account of the total cost of floods on the levels. However, it is plainly ridiculous to put what has happened down to a quirk of nature, or to an overdose of the “wrong type of rain”, as Lord Smith of Finsbury, the agency’s chairman, informed us all. I am sorry, but I was really rather offended by that.

Much of the overflow of water was manageable, if not preventable. Dare I say that floods are not unusual in Somerset? Flood prevention has been a priority of ours since Roman times, although I was not the MP at the time. Even in the middle ages, a period of history better known for the black death than for engineering excellence, people managed to drain a large part of the moor by building elaborate embankments and causeways. Parliament became heavily involved from 1791, when it needed to pass an Act to dig King’s Sedgemoor drain in order to let excess water flow out into the Bristol channel.

For hundreds of years, we have been fighting battles with floods and holding our own against the old enemy. And for hundreds of years, whatever Lord Smith may think, we have had this stuff called “convective rain”. I hate to disillusion his lordship, who no doubt is a very sensitive soul, with a neatly-furled umbrella and a dislike of getting his feet wet—as we have discovered—but he is no expert on the weather. Convective rain has been gushing down Somerset rivers for centuries. If he examined the historical records, he would find that the floods of 1607 were caused by the very same type of rain.

I noticed that Lord Smith was awarded an academic doctorate for his excellent dissertation on the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. If Coleridge was alive today, he would be my constituent. The great man was inspired to write his greatest and longest poem while overlooking the harbour in the very beautiful village of Watchet. However, Lord Smith needs to take what Coleridge said in one of his poems more seriously:

“Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.”

Down the A39 at Williton, which is near to where those words were written, the highway turned into an impassable river. Out at Blue Anchor, in my constituency, there was havoc in caravan parks and on Exmoor itself there was very serious flooding in Dulverton. Many Members here today will know that the ancient clapper bridge at Tarr Steps was completely wrecked in the floods, although it has now been rebuilt. Tarr Steps is also known as “the devil’s sunbathing spot”, but, as I say, it was swept away by the floods. This cannot continue.

Rivers overflow, and down on the levels the consequences of what happened in the floods can still be seen today. I obviously do not blame the Environment Agency for the rain, but I wonder what it failed to do before the cloudbursts started. It is surely an essential task of a body such as this one to keep the waterways running freely. Rivers have a nasty habit of silting up—that is why we dredge them. However, the Environment Agency no longer dredges rivers such as the Tone and the Parrett, both of which flow through my constituency and that of the Minister of State, Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), because it says that it cannot afford to. This is something that requires urgent forensic scrutiny by my hon. Friend the Minister’s Department.

If we are seriously in the business of protecting the environment, the cost of regular dredging should never be regarded as a capital expense, because dredging has to be done; it is not an option but a necessity. Moreover, dredging is not even expensive, given the reality of what we are looking at. The Environment Agency itself calculates that the cost of desilting the risky bits of both the River Tone and the River Parrett every year for the next 20 years is less than £5 million. In my view, that is chickenfeed. The Environment Agency’s own calculation of the cost of emergency pumping and road closures during this year’s flooding alone was £4 million, and that was just in my area. The agency has done its homework. The price of flooding over 20 years in Somerset—in Somerton and Frome, in Taunton Deane and in my constituency of Bridgwater and West Somerset—has been worked out at £15 million. It is an absolute no-brainer to dredge, but the agency keeps telling us that it has not got the money to do so. I must say that not only this Government but former Governments have been reluctant to offer additional relief to sort out this problem. I am sorry, but that cannot go on.

I am also slightly worried about the way that the views of my hon. Friend the Minister on this matter have been reported. A recent BBC news report implied—it is the BBC—that he had told them that it was not worth dredging the Tone and the Parrett because they will simply silt up again. Yes, of course that is true; we accept that. However, it is also precisely why we should regularly dredge rivers.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I regret to tell him that a similar point of view was communicated in a letter in response to an inquiry from one of my constituents. Where would we be if the fact that rivers will just silt up again after dredging was a good enough reason not to dredge in the first place? What if MPs took the same attitude to their own personal hygiene?

I will leave the last part of my hon. Friend’s intervention to himself, but he is absolutely right otherwise. I know that he is doing a sterling job for his constituents and this is a joint effort, because unless we come up with a proper, forward-looking policy on dredging that the Environment Agency must lead—or the Government must order the agency to lead it—we will continue to have this problem and I am afraid that, as Members, we will see it happening again.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the significant challenges is the Environment Agency’s lack of authority? In my conversations in connection with the flooding in Britford, which is on the River Avon just south of Salisbury, there seemed to be a lot of confusion about exactly what powers the Environment Agency has and about the conflicting motivations of different landowners in their engagement with Natural England and the Environment Agency—to different degrees—meaning that, at the end of the day, there is a complete lack of ownership of the problem and a lack of clarity about how the problem will be resolved in the future.

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I must say, first, that one of the issues that I have not touched on today is the role of Natural England; as he knows, there is a review going on. Secondly, this agency that we are discussing is quite simply an “Environment Agency”. One of the debates that we need to have in the future is whether or not it should still be called an “Environment Agency”. Should the “environment” part be split off, and should the “agency” part be reinvented? However, that debate is not for today and I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of my concerns in that regard.

I am ashamed to say that, for 20 years, there has been no dredging of the Tone or the Parrett; silt has piled up on silt. In real terms, almost half the capacity of the River Tone to carry floodwater through Taunton down to Bridgwater has been lost. However, I am glad to say that it has not been lost for ever. The problem can be solved, even though it has been ignored. It is a miracle of nature that floods such as the recent ones have not occurred on a regular basis. I am afraid to say that, at this stage, the name of the game is negligence.

In the proud old days of the Somerset Rivers Catchment Board—similar boards existed elsewhere—local people could pretty well tell the time of the year by the dredging. The board hired a fearsomely efficient engineer called Louis Kelting, who made sure that all the necessary work was done. Mr Kelting even brought in Dutch experts, and the Dutch know a thing or two about water. I am indebted to 83-year-old Bob Heard, one of my senior constituents in Bridgwater, for bringing Mr Kelting to my attention. Mr Kelting was awarded the OBE for his efforts, so he must have been right. The innovations that he introduced probably saved many lives and protected the levels from many disasters. Many of his drainage schemes are still in operation today, but not the dredging schemes.

When the rain fell so hard and fast last year, and at the start of this year, I am afraid that the Government were not of any great help. “We were very concerned”, and that is not my conclusion but that of the National Farmers Union. The NFU points out that the farmers on the moors and the levels lose £900 for every hectare of grassland that is put under water, and that applies to anywhere in the country. Having met a lot of my local farmers, I know that that is true. They are really upset at finding that a lifetime of work is now under water for more and more of the year.

I pay tribute to two villages, Moorland and Fordgate, which have put up with more than any village should have to, in any constituency. They have been stunning. They feel forgotten, in some ways ignored and in other ways expendable. I have heard them use the word “negligence” too, and say some quite rude things about the agency.

The agency is, like all such organisations, perhaps a victim of its own peculiar changed responsibilities. In the days of the Somerset River Catchment Board, everything was so much simpler. It was about water management, land drainage, flood prevention, food production and protecting the communities, which we represent. From 1930 to the 1970s, the people who looked after water management operated under more or less the same strong management structures. They raised money locally through the drainage boards and other organisations and were accountable to local councillors and local people, including Members of Parliament. The efficiency of their operations was consistently improved. To put it crudely, it worked.

Then in 1973 came the creation of the Wessex Water Authority and the culture changed. The WWA was accountable directly to Government and it also had to toe the line, as the Minister will know rather to his cost, to Brussels in the background. Britain became part of Europe. The WWA suddenly found itself having to raise standards for clean drinking water as well as looking after the wildlife habitats of an increasing number of protected species.

The Environment Agency inherited a dog’s breakfast of a portfolio and deserves some sympathy for that, but it seems to have become immune to some of its own illogical behaviour. For example, Steart, near the Hinkley Point nuclear power station, is a small, flat place at the mouth of the river Parrett, where the river trickles into the Bristol channel. We are talking about 1,000 hectares of land, much of which is below high-water level at spring tide. In the 1700s, the Steart peninsula was cut off from the mainland altogether. Even today, the Parrett’s low-water channel regularly shifts. Steart’s defences now rely on what was built back in the 1950s. The system creaks a bit, but it works.

The Environment Agency now wants to spend £31 million of taxpayers’ money on a scheme that will not protect Steart from the sea. It wants to sink the peninsula for habitat creation, saying:

“There is a significant need for additional intertidal habitat on the Severn Estuary to meet the Environment Agency’s international obligations and offset losses due to coastal squeeze.”

This is because Bristol port, which is not that close to me, wants to reclaim some marshland 40 miles away to build a new container port. So Bristol’s birds are to be offered a new nesting place in Steart. We have tried to tell them to come down. The whole process is nonsense. The cost of flooding Steart would pay for dredging the Rivers Parrett and Tone for 30 years. But in an agency with 11,500 people on the payroll and an annual budget of £1 billion, it is probably no wonder that everyone fails to sing from the same hymn sheet.

Criticism of the agency is nothing new. The Public Accounts Committee produced a damning report about its activities some years ago. Even the most moderate body, the Angling Trust, which represents people who go fishing, is currently getting very angry with the agency for not taking proper account of fisheries when it issues licences for hydroelectric power. So the agency is being got at by Europe, bird lovers, fish fanciers and a few politicians like me into the bargain. More pain than gain, perhaps. Or as Lord Smith might put it, the wrong sort of pain.

On the river at Avon, which of course is outside Bristol, is an old mill by a weir at Avoncliff, which was bought for restoration in 2009. The new owners wanted to rebuild it and make it work, producing power from the water wheel. Fabulous. Of course, they had to apply for a licence to extract the water and they paid the fee to the Environment Agency, filled in the forms and waited. Weeks turned into months; no licence came. Then the Environment Agency awarded a water extraction licence to another applicant and told the owners of the mill that there was “no water available”. The owners went to judicial review, went to court, won the case, proved that the Environment Agency had deliberately withheld information and the judges made the agency pay all the costs—our money. A happy ending hon. Members may think, but not quite. It is almost a full year since the judges ruled against the agency and ordered it to issue a water extraction licence, but it still has not done so. This story does not inspire my confidence in an organisation that has become top heavy with responsibilities and seems to be run by people far too light on real substance in the subjects they are meant to cover.

My constituents, and many others throughout the country, have suffered badly in recent floods and they have lost faith in the agency. I ask the Secretary of State, through my hon. Friend the Minister, to visit Bridgwater and West Somerset—he said he would—meet some of those who have had problems and see the situation for himself. While we await the outcome of his important review, this is the only way that any confidence can be restored in what people feel is a failed system. I look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister’s replying and, perhaps, giving us some reassurance and some answers.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for securing this debate on such an important issue. He made his position clear, even to me in my sleep-deprived state. I hope that I can answer some of the points that he made.

The discussion is taking place in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the context of the current triennial review of the Environment Agency and Natural England. It is clear that the priorities that the Environment Agency deals with are important to society. It is critical that we have a strong, resilient delivery arrangement in place to achieve our ambitions. This review, which is expected to reach conclusions in the spring, is a unique opportunity to look at the work of both bodies and to consider how we can deliver my Department’s priorities effectively and efficiently.

My hon. Friend raised critical issues regarding the agency’s role in relation to flooding, and I shall respond to some specific concerns. First, I should like to emphasise and get on the record how much I sympathise with the distress caused to communities across Somerset by the past year’s extreme weather. I visited the county and met many people when they visited me in DEFRA, as well. I particularly appreciate the hardships experienced by the farming community, as it struggles to cope with exceptionally prolonged periods of heavy rain last year.

The Environment Agency has been active throughout this period, and I pay tribute to its staff for their tireless work and professionalism through difficult times. I visited staff in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) at the time of the floods, around Christmas, and saw people who had not had a Christmas and had been working night and day—people taken from all the agency’s departments to try to assist with that difficult job. I appreciate what they did.

The agency has spent more than £1.9 million since last April on maintenance and operational activities specifically to address the impact of flooding on the Somerset moors and levels. I am pleased that Somerset county council has recently announced that it is setting aside £200,000 to help local landowners and residents to tackle the flooding by clearing roadside gullies and ditches.

Agency staff have been out on the ground, meeting local people, keeping them informed and seeking to address their concerns. They are working with local drainage boards and others to assess the costs and benefits of various options to improve the future management of floodwater in the area, including dredging the rivers Tone and Parrett. I understand that the results of this work will be presented to the regional flood and coastal committee in April.

I recognise that there are real concerns in Somerset and elsewhere about dredging and channel maintenance and whether the Environment Agency is doing enough. My hon. Friend and I live in a world where perceptions are reality. I understand his point. The perception in his constituency and neighbouring ones is that more could be done. I want to deal with that point, but I also live in the reality of the financial climate in which we live, and I have to ensure that every penny that we spend on flood defences and flood protection is spent as professionally and with as much value for money as possible, because it is not his money or mine; it is our constituents’ money.

Dredging is one of the options routinely considered by the agency when deciding how best to manage flood risk. However, each area is different and the agency needs to focus its investment on activities that will contribute most to reducing potential flood damage. In some areas, that will mean dredging. In other areas, different options such as maintaining flood barriers or pumping stations will be a more effective use of taxpayers’ money. As my hon. Friend rightly says, we need to look forensically and objectively at the contribution that dredging would make to managing flood risk on the moors and levels compared with other options, and we need to reach conclusions in that light.

The agency is working in partnership with the National Farmers Union to consider what more can be done to help farmers undertake maintenance, gain access to information and advice, and manage their flood risk. The agency is also seeking to gain value for money by delivering multiple objectives.

My hon. Friend mentioned the scheme at Steart, and my information is that the cost is not £30 million but £20 million, which is perhaps a case for another debate— I hope not, because we have already debated it, but I could perhaps discuss it with him in the margins of a vote one night. The scheme at Steart is an example of seeking to gain value for money. I understand that the defences around the peninsula were in poor condition and coming to the end of their effective life. Improving those defences on the old alignment was neither economically viable nor sustainable, and to have done so would have cost some £1 million per property protected. I have to consider people in places such as Morpeth, Sandwich, Exeter and many other parts of the country who have suffered prolonged flooding. We want to ensure that every single penny of the £2.3 billion that we are spending on flood defences in this financial period is spent properly.

The need to create habitat somewhere in the Severn to meet our obligations under the habitats directive presented an opportunity. By realigning the defences on the peninsula, the agency has been able to continue protecting the village and its access from flooding, while meeting our biodiversity objectives, which is a win-win that enables the village to be protected and agricultural use to continue over much of the site.

I am aware of the complex Avoncliff case, and the agency is working actively with the applicants to resolve it as soon as possible.

I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend’s constituents and of many hon. Members who have taken part in this debate. Members on both sides of the House are committed to representing their constituents at times such as those that we experienced last year, which is truly impressive, and I, as the Minister with responsibility for flooding, appreciate that. In conveying those concerns to me, they are conveying the enormous amount of misery and unhappiness that people are experiencing.

A great deal of work is going on to protect local communities from flooding and to improve our environment, and I want to ensure that that continues. The agency plays an important role in that work and constantly monitors its own performance to learn lessons to help to improve how it operates both locally and nationally. The current triennial review of the Environment Agency and Natural England is considering the roles of both agencies, including on flooding, and the wide range of other services that they provide. In a tough fiscal climate, we must strive for better, more efficient outcomes from our delivery bodies, while being conscious of the Environment Agency’s impact on people’s daily lives.

I commiserate with the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), who have suffered so badly from flooding.

In my constituency of Woking, we are looking forward to the Minister visiting the Hoe valley scheme in April. There is terrific joint working between the Environment Agency, the council and other stakeholders to take several hundred houses out of the floodplain. In some of my smaller villages, such as Pirbright and Normandy, the Environment Agency has helped me to set up flood forums to explore the problems and potential solutions, for which I should like to express my thanks.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I see such examples of good working across the country.

Sir Michael Pitt, in his excellent review following the floods of 2007, said that floods cannot be addressed from my desk in Whitehall or even by some quasi-regional government imposed by previous Governments. Floods must be addressed locally, and the best people to do so are in the lead local flood authorities, which work with the Environment Agency, emergency services and organisations such as the NFU and others that represent key stakeholders. That is the best way to deliver a solution on the ground, close to communities. My hon. Friend points out that involving local communities through flood forums is important because they can give communities superb resilience. I look forward to visiting his constituency and seeing a scheme that I have read about with interest.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury raised an important point about who has the power and responsibility for certain waterways. That is a concern, and I am the first to admit that we have not nailed it yet. My constituency flooded badly in 2007, and in a short distance of about 200 metres, four public bodies, including Network Rail, three landowners and the local parish council were responsible for different bits of land through which waterways ran, as well as water that we wanted to get to a river and out of people’s homes. That is an example of the complexity that we face.

If we need to find a different legislative tool to identify responsibilities more clearly, we must do so. That is not really the case on the Somerset moors, where there is a fair degree of clarity about who is responsible for which watercourses and we just want to get the water away. I have looked at that landscape in recent weeks and seen an inland sea. People have not been able to harvest their crops, feed their stock or drill crops for future years. We have a responsibility to protect people, and we are doing so. We protected 180,000 acres of agricultural land last year, by giving people extra flood protection through flood schemes. We take our responsibilities to farming seriously, and we will work with organisations such as the NFU.

Internal drainage boards are key players, and there is a good internal drainage board in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset; I have met the chairman and other members. I want to ensure that we continue to work with such proven organisations, which have incredible skills and understanding: not just macro-engineering skills but local understanding of which culvert must be opened at a particular time and what flooding can be alleviated as a result.

My hon. Friend mentioned a quote that I apparently made on a BBC programme. The quote was attributed to me, but it may have been taken out of context. I think de-silting rivers may well make a difference; it is just a question of whether we can make that stack up against all the other responsibilities that we and the agency have across the country. I am not an engineer or a hydrologist. There are plenty of people in the agency who are and who do it extremely well, and I will take whatever advice they give me.

The current review provides a unique opportunity to consider how best and most effectively to support and encourage reforms to the organisations involved. I am impressed by how the agency is led. Lord Smith might not come from the same political direction as my hon. Friend and me, but he leads the agency well. We are openly considering how the organisations are run, and it is a transparent exercise. The triennial review is important for the future of the Environment Agency and Natural England, particularly for the outcomes that they deliver, whether flood defences, environmental protection, the improvement of biodiversity or all their other responsibilities.

I will continue to discuss the issue with my hon. Friend and with any hon. Member from whichever party to ensure that we get it right for their constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.