House of Commons
Monday 3 March 2014
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
We are determined to crack down on the small number of rogue landlords who neglect their properties and exploit their tenants. We have provided £6.5 million to local authorities and have recently published a discussion paper on improving property conditions in the private rented sector that focuses on tackling rogue landlords.
I am pleased that the Government are taking action on this issue, which affects so many of my Eastleigh constituents. Will the Minister assure me that, as part of the review, he will give adequate consideration to ensuring that rented homes are fitted with life-saving fire and carbon monoxide detectors, particularly as adequate regulations regarding electrical safety in rented houses are sadly lacking?
One of the other major problems facing private sector tenants is the actions of letting agents. There was widespread support for the Government’s commitment to a redress scheme, and for the promise made on 20 May last year by the then Housing Minister to have one code of practice to underpin it. However, the Government now say that they cannot go ahead with one code of practice and must rely on voluntary codes, with agents being part of various bodies and with a test of reasonableness in other cases. Why are we not going to have one code of practice? Is it because the Government did not take the necessary powers under the legislation to enable them to do so?
First, the redress scheme will return to the House shortly, and I hope that it will gain all-party support, because it is extremely important for tenants and landlords. Secondly, the code of practice is currently out for consultation and, at the end of that process, we will see what conversations there have been about what shape it should take.
Will the Minister address the serious problem of the exorbitant rents being charged by private sector landlords, particularly in London, and seriously consider introducing a form of regulation so that ordinary people on ordinary incomes are not driven out of the city in which they live?
The Minister’s remark about 1.1% and 1.9% is confusing. Perhaps he can illuminate for the House what he means. Certainly, the rents that my constituents—a quarter of them live in private rented accommodation, which very often is substandard—are being charged are rocketing as people move from London to Slough, so how much have rents gone up in areas, such as Slough, around the outside of London?
Quite often the media headlines on rent prices are the advertised rate. The figures I quoted are from the Office for National Statistics, and they are the actual figures tenants are charged after taking up a residency, so they are actually the true figures, rather than those advertised in the media.
Pubs (Planning Protection)
We have made it clear through the national planning policy framework that local planning policies and decisions should guard against the unnecessary loss of valued community facilities, such as pubs.
Yes, I do. I strongly encourage all hon. Members across the House to engage with their local communities, and perhaps with the Campaign for Real Ale, to see what pubs need protection and to get that protection in place before there is a danger of them being sold off.
My local borough has lost 15% of its traditional pubs over the past five years, so what is the Minister actually doing about this, or does he agree with his Conservative colleagues that the loss of pubs to luxury apartments and Tesco Metro stores is just the market at work?
I have not heard any Liberal Democrat or Conservative coalition colleagues say that they think that the loss of community pubs is a good thing. In fact, I have heard them say exactly the opposite. That is why we put those provisions in place under the Localism Act 2011, and we all strongly encourage our constituents to take them up. I am pleased that today a new community rights alliance has been set up, comprising CAMRA, Supporters Direct, the Theatres Trust and a variety of civic organisations, precisely to encourage communities to take up those rights and safeguard the assets that are important to them.
18. Given the Minister’s thoughts about the community right to bid, will he congratulate Rob Stark and his team at the Fox and Hounds pub in Denmead in my constituency? They took on a local developer, bought out the site, raised £200,000 from local people and now own the pub. (902767)
I am pleased to join my hon. Friend in congratulating those who now own the pub in Denmead in his constituency of Meon Valley. Not only did they use the community right to bid to protect the pub; they also used a community share issue, another initiative being encouraged by the Government. In that way, communities can not only protect their assets but have a means of raising the funds to give practical application to that right.
I am glad that MPs from the Bristol area are taking such an interest in the future of pubs and the impact of their closure; I do not need to tell the Minister about the effect of the many pub closures across Bristol. What effect does he think the changes to permitted development rights will have on pubs in his area and mine?
At the moment, councils can use an article 4 direction to suspend the permitted development rights within the broad A class; perhaps the hon. Lady and I could encourage the mayor and planning committee of Bristol to have a look at that and also consider the issue of betting shops, for example, which we do not want to spread.
More than £800 million of funding is available for a council tax freeze in the next two years; the total amount of funding throughout this Parliament is up to £5.2 billion. That is worth £1,100 for the average household band D property and represents a cut in council tax of 10% in real terms.
Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming Conservative-controlled Swindon borough council’s decision to freeze council tax for the fourth year in a row? That contrasts starkly with when Labour controlled the council under a Labour Government, when council tax went up by 42% in just three years.
Of course the council should be congratulated on its magnificent achievement; no doubt my hon. Friend’s constituents are very pleased. His council joins the seven out of 10 Conservative councils that have frozen council tax compared with only half of Labour councils. Furthermore, two thirds of Conservative police and crime commissioners froze their council tax, but no Labour commissioners have done so.
Is the Secretary of State surprised, like me, that despite the extra funding Enfield council insists that it has to make cuts to council tax support for the most deprived? It finds enough money to send highly paid directors and Labour councillors off to France to property conferences.
That would not be the property conference in Cannes, by any chance? No doubt that is very enjoyable. It strikes me that my hon. Friend’s council has its priorities all wrong. It should not be attacking the vulnerable, but making sensible savings and protecting the most vulnerable.
Two councils serve my constituency. Conservative-controlled North Lincolnshire council is attracting investment, opening new libraries and freezing council tax, whereas neighbouring Labour-controlled North East Lincolnshire council is closing libraries, spending millions on a new swimming pool when the old one could be refurbished and is unable to resist over-development, particularly in the Humberston and New Waltham areas, because its local plan is out of date. On top of that, it is increasing council tax. I urge my right hon. Friend to maintain pressure on all authorities to keep tax down.
Why does the Secretary of State keep claiming that he is freezing council tax? His actions actually increased it for 700,000 of the poorest working families in this country because of his changes to council tax benefit. Will he now accept that the 10% cut that he imposed hit councils with the biggest number of claimants hardest and made it much more difficult for them to mitigate the effects of the cuts?
We localised council tax support, which had continued to grow under Labour. If the hon. Lady is making a commitment to repay that money and put it back, that is interesting. It was costing taxpayers £4 billion a year. It is important that the most vulnerable are protected and councils have the ability to keep the savings they want and invest them in the community. I urge the hon. Lady to give her own council a talking to and to get it sorted out.
The Secretary of State’s answer is not good enough. [Interruption.] Government Members are inviting me to comment on a constituency issue, but I am sure you would want me to be espresso, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State says there is a freeze, but is it not true that lots of councils, including many Conservative authorities such as that of the Prime Minister, are putting council tax up and that the poorest across the country are getting an increase this year because of the cut to council tax support? When will the Secretary of State admit that it is not a freeze, but a sham?
The hon. Gentleman should, to be frank, wake up and smell the Costa coffee. [Interruption.] I am sure I can do better than that, but I am not entirely sure that the hon. Gentleman can. What we have offered to councils is an opportunity to freeze, but if they want to put up their council tax, that is a matter for them. It seems strange that the increases are just below the referendum threshold. Why do they not show the courage of their commitments and go for 5%, 6% or 7%? I am sure that is what would happen if they were given the chance. We only have to look at Labour in Wales to see council tax going up. Let them show some courage and not be democracy dodgers.
Flooding Risks (Planning Guidance)
We are already looking to see what lessons can be learned from recent floods. There are strict tests to protect people and property from flooding, which all councils should follow, and we will underline the importance of that in new planning guidance to be published shortly.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Given our changing weather patterns, what advice would he give to local planning authorities and, indeed, planning inspectors on the allocation of housing sites that are identified as having future flood risk, in terms of green spaces, drainage systems, house design and, indeed, a need to find alternative sites?
The Government are very clearly supportive of Environment Agency staff and the work it has been doing. That is why we have been funding the Environment Agency to continue to do that work and why we are ensuring that all local councils follow its advice on development.
At Beesands in my constituency urgent work is needed, not just to repair sea defences, but to enhance them. The rocker arm has been sourced, but the work has been held up because of uncertainty about the need for planning permission. Will the Minister meet me urgently to discuss those uncertainties and the responsibilities for access at neighbouring North Hallsands?
I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend. Part 12 of the general permitted development order gives permitted development rights on land belonging to or maintained by local authorities, but there are some restrictions with regard to the scale of such development, so the specific case would not matter. Of course, I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend.
Last year, developers proposed 618 construction projects on land the Environment Agency deemed to be at particularly high risk of flooding. Does the Minister still accept the recommendation from the 2009 practice guide to planning policy statement 25 that, for new developments, the best way of reducing flood risk in the area is to control the water at source through sustainable drainage systems? If so, what is he doing to monitor and encourage the use of SUDs in new developments?
The hon. Lady is right that SUDs can offer a very effective way of dealing with flood risk. I am sure she will welcome, as I do, the fact that the latest figures show that the estimated number of dwellings built within areas of high flood risk in England is now at its lowest rate since records began in 1989.
Services for Families with Young Children
Every part of the public sector has to do its bit to pay off Labour’s record deficit. We have been clear that councils should make sensible savings, and not take the lazy option of cutting front-line services. That is why we have protected the early intervention grant of £2.5 billion —up £100 million for 2014-15.
I would say to the hon. Lady that apart from the fact that, at the end of November 2013, there were 3,055 children’s centres and 501 additional sites open to families and children—providing children’s centre services as part of the network—local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure that they have sufficient children’s centres to meet local need. It is quite right that she keeps the pressure on her council to be sensible about the savings it makes, and to make sure that it puts money into the right front-line services, and does not waste it in useless bureaucracy and management.
Given that a quarter of all Government expenditure is delivered via local government, does my hon. Friend agree that it is important—indeed, essential—for local councils to play their part in reducing the huge deficit we inherited from the previous Labour Government?
My hon. Friend makes a very fair point. Councils should look to curtail the £2 billion of fraud and error in the system, and the £2 billion of uncollected council tax, to make sure that they are able to provide the front-line services that residents rightly deserve.
Cheshire West and Chester’s adoption and fostering services have recently been rated the best in the north-west. The council has achieved that by working and combining resources with two Labour councils, Halton and Knowsley. Does that not show that if councils work together to reduce costs, they can improve services as well?
My hon. Friend gives a very good example not just of cross-party work, but of bringing different agencies and authorities together with the kind of shared, structural approach that delivers a much better service for less. That is exactly what residents want, and it is the right way to spend taxpayers’ money.
At the end of last year, the Government announced a £1 billion business rates support package, which includes a £1,000 discount for smaller shops, pubs and restaurants, and a 50% discount for businesses taking on long-term empty shops, and which doubles small business relief for another year, helping just over 500,000 small businesses.
My hon. Friend is quite right. I enjoyed visiting Deal recently to see the success that it has made of its high street, with small independent shops working together with the town council and the local authority. The £1,000 discount will be important, particularly to those small independent shops, and it comes on top of the national insurance benefit that they will get from April. That means that they will have a lower cost line and therefore be able to take more income that they can use to reinvest and, I hope, to employ more people, and so see Deal go from strength to strength.
The reality is that, despite what the Minister says, business rates have risen by £1,500 on average since the last election and are due to rise by a further £270. It is the straw that is breaking the back of many local businesses. When will he really do something about it, instead of just bluster?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, because it allows me just gently to remind him that, under the Labour Government, I do not remember any Opposition Members looking completely to review business rates or to do something about them—unlike this Government, who have just announced a £1 billion package, particularly to help businesses in and around our high streets to go from strength to strength, because we care about our high streets and the communities they serve.
Representations have been received from a range of organisations, including the Chief Fire Officers Association. We recently published a discussion paper on property conditions in the sector, which invites views on whether smoke alarms should be mandatory in privately rented accommodation. The deadline for comments is 28 March.
I first draw attention to my interest that is declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Given the overwhelming evidence that smoke alarms save lives and given that the cost of installing a smoke alarm with a 10-year battery is between only £15 and £20, will the Minister stop hiding behind the regulatory burden excuse that is all over the consultation paper to which he referred and accept that we need the mandatory installation of smoke alarms in private rented housing as soon as possible?
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I am not hiding behind anything. A consultation is happening and the deadline for comments is just 25 days away, so I think that we can wait until then. He is right that there has been a dramatic fall in the number of deaths in the home as a result of fire. It is at its lowest level since records began.
On Christmas day in 1984 in my former constituency of Bury North, nine people, including four children, were killed in a house fire on Massey street due to the combination of a lit cigarette, somebody falling asleep, the presence of foam-filled furniture and there being no smoke alarm. Does my hon. Friend agree that, no matter what great advances there have been in fire safety over the years, every time a family go to sleep without a smoke alarm, they are at risk? There is no reason not to pursue having mandatory fire alarms in rented property as soon as possible.
I have much sympathy with what my right hon. Friend says. We all have a role to play as parliamentarians. Every six months when the clocks go back or forward, the Department uses that opportunity to remind people to check the smoke alarms that they have in place, and to remind householders and landlords that having a smoke alarm in place is good practice. We are having the consultation and it is possible that we will take further measures, but let us wait another 25 days.
Where there are horror stories, local authorities have powers to act. They can serve an improvement notice on a landlord. If a landlord does not take action, the local authority can take action itself. The consultation document looks at other measures that might be put in place. For instance, when equipment in a property is found to be defective, perhaps the redress should be a rent refund for the tenant. That would probably concentrate landlords’ minds.
Given that people are four times more likely to die in a fire if there is no smoke alarm installed in their home, have we not got to the situation where, if a private landlord does not install and properly maintain an alarm in the home, they are breaching a common law duty to properly look after their tenants and could be sued for breaching that duty of care?
My right hon. Friend is asking me to look back at my notes from more than 20 years ago about the law of tort to see whether that is the case. We are considering whether such powers should be introduced. I understand that smoke alarms are not mandatory in social housing either, so perhaps there are two houses to be put in order, as it were.
Fire and Rescue Services
9. What assessment he has made of the effect of spending reductions on the work of fire and rescue services. (902758)
Fire and rescue authorities are best placed to assess and manage their services. They do that through integrated risk management planning. Thankfully, fire and rescue authorities now attend 46% fewer incidents than 10 years ago. They are certainly in the position to best allocate their resources according to local risk.
The number of fire calls to Cleveland fire brigade has risen by more than 54% in the past year and the number of deliberate fires has increased by almost 60% from 1,390 in 2012-13 to more than 2,200 in 2013-14. Does the Minister agree that the Department’s cuts, with £4 million cut so far and a further £5.96 million to come, to one of the most high-risk fire authorities in England are hindering the brigade’s ability not only to respond, but to prevent fire-related incidents?
I do not agree with that comment at all. Putting aside the fact that fire authorities were protected from cuts in the first couple of years, it is interesting that the hon. Gentleman makes that comment about Cleveland which, despite his claims, has managed to almost double its reserves over the past couple of years. Perhaps it should spend more of that money on front-line services.
The unfair local government funding formula means that counties such as Derbyshire are disproportionately affected by the Government’s cuts. Will the Minister look again at funding for rural authorities to ensure that Derbyshire’s excellent fire and rescue service will not be jeopardised, and can continue to save lives?
The settlement this year was fair to rural and urban authorities, and we had a strong debate on that in the House. The Government have put an extra £11.5 million into supporting rural areas. The hon. Lady’s fire authority has managed to increase reserves by £3 million in the last couple of years, so clearly it is finding that it has enough funds.
The Minister will know of the disquiet about the decision of Cambridgeshire fire and rescue service to make its chief fire officer redundant and then to reappoint him almost immediately. Will he assure the House that he will issue robust guidelines to ensure that such practices are not repeated?
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. As he knows, I have written to Cambridgeshire fire and rescue service. The road it has gone down is questionable with the level of cost for the chief fire officer, but it must make those decisions locally. The Government have made their position clear, and I will soon respond more widely to the issues as part of our response to the Knight review.
Two years ago, Wiltshire fire and rescue service was given the opportunity to raise an extra 10p per week per household in the local council tax and it was one of the lowest cost fire services to council tax payers. It is even proposing to merge its back office with that of Dorset fire service, such is its commitment. That being the case, can the Minister find a way to repeat the invitation to Wiltshire fire and rescue service so that it can protect front-line fire and rescue services, which have been hard at work during the recent floods?
The fire authority, with many others, has done great work during the floods both locally and with mutual aid. We should all be grateful to them for that work. In terms of the de minimis, we did that last year. It was not put in place this year, but obviously we review such matters annually.
Excluding London, the West Midlands, West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester fire and rescue services are experiencing the worst cuts despite having the highest number of incidents. Will the Minister assure me and the House that there will be no impact on response times?
I note that the Minister did not answer the question. The Chief Fire Officers Association says that the cuts will have a profound impact on operational response. The Minister’s policy encourages a significant increase in the number of retained firefighters. He will know, as will the House, that despite the fact that retained firefighters do an excellent job, they do not sit in a fire station waiting for an emergency call. I will give the Minister another chance to answer and to tell the House what assessment he has made of the impact of his cuts and his policies on response times.
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s comments about the retained fire service. She should be aware that they do a phenomenal service throughout the country. In many areas they are the bulk of the service, and during the recent strikes—I note that she did not ask the Fire Brigades Union not to strike, nor did she condemn it—they were the backbone of keeping this country safe. They have done a super job. We are all in the fortunate position of seeing fire response times reacting; call-outs are falling to their lowest level for 10 years because of the service’s great prevention work. The fire service’s key work is prevention so that it does not need to respond in the first place.
Will the Government consider putting the flood and rescue work of fire crews on a statutory basis, and will he thank them for their excellent work in the recent winter floods? I recall the young man who died of hypothermia in the Hull floods in 2007 because none of the emergency services had the requisite cutting equipment to free him.
The current legislation recognises the fire sector’s response to flood work. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004, the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 and the 2012 fire and rescue national framework detail the role and powers of fire and rescue authorities in respect of emergency response and rescue, including flooding. My discussions with fire chiefs have revealed that that is what they are happy with; they like the current situation.
I hope that Members on both sides of the House will support the fact that this Government have published guidance strongly encouraging councils to prioritise members of the armed forces and their families for social housing. In December we issued guidance on ensuring that local homes go to local people.
That guidance seems to show remarkable common sense, but what further steps can my hon. Friend take to ensure that housing associations and local councils that allocate housing publish precisely the criteria on which they do so, because they should be answerable to the electorate?
Our new guidance will ensure that only those who have lived in the area for two years or more, or those from a well-established local association, can put their name down on the housing waiting list. The guidance also encourages councils to be more open and transparent about who is applying and how the housing is being allocated in their local area to strengthen public confidence in the allocation system.
Next month marks the 40th anniversary of local government reorganisation, when the word “local” was diluted. Does the Minister agree that localism means local councils making local decisions that should not be subject to diktat from central Government?
Neighbourhood planning is proving to be one of the Government’s most popular reforms. Nearly 1,000 communities across England are working on neighbourhood plans, and all eight of the plans to go to referendum thus far have commanded popular support.
The pre-submission draft of Coton Park neighbourhood plan in my constituency is now ready for approval. It covers 950 properties. The team of residents who are drawing it up, ably led by Jill Simpson-Vince, are able to be close to the economic factors and have identified a number of key issues in respect of transport and social well-being. Does the Minister agree that Coton Park sets an excellent example of how a well-run neighbourhood plan process can give people a real say in improving their local areas?
In 2010, Northamptonshire council leaders rightly decided that the best way to get a local plan in place quickly was to stick with Labour’s west Northamptonshire joint planning unit. Can my hon. Friend confirm that if they should wish to get rid of this undemocratic body once the local plan is completed, I hope in March this year, they need only write to his office requesting that it be disbanded?
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local authorities on making sure that the best is not the enemy of the good. She is absolutely right that the constituent authorities would need only to write to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to ask for the order to be revoked.
Will the Minister congratulate residents of Barne Barton in my constituency on the work they are putting in, with the Ministry of Defence, to get the neighbourhood plan together? Locally, the Ministry of Defence is really helpful with very sensitive land issues. However, there is a clear lack of understanding of the statutory remit as regards what is in and what is out in relation to neighbourhood plans. Will he therefore undertake to talk to colleagues in other land-owning Departments, and will he ensure that the Defence Infrastructure Organisation is included, because it clearly has problems with this?
The protections for green-belt land in the national planning policy framework are as strong as they have ever been in any planning policy. Green-belt land can be revised to meet other needs only by local authorities through the local plan process, and it can happen only after intense consultation and in exceptional circumstances.
22. Kirklees council has restarted its local development framework process, but it does not expect to have a local plan in place until early 2017. Until then, unscrupulous developers are using the void to build on provisional open land. Will the Minister clarify whether the council can do anything to stop those developments, which are against local wishes in many cases? (902771)
First, no development should go ahead unless it can be made acceptable—unless it can be shown to be sustainable according to policies in the national planning policy framework. That gives my hon. Friend’s local authority lots of grounds to check whether a development is acceptable. Secondly, it is not good enough to have a local plan in place in 2017. This is the beginning of 2014, and the local authority should get a move on.
Council Services (Liverpool)
Councils must continue to play their part in tackling Labour’s budget deficit. Liverpool will have a spending power per dwelling of £2,595 per household, some £500 more than the average for England.
So no real assessment, and certainly no cumulative impact assessment. Has the Minister seen today’s Liverpool Echo, which highlights the human cost of the Government’s 52% cut to our city’s budget? With a further £156 million of savings to find, will the Minister say what exactly he believes will be left to cut?
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman goes back to Mayor Anderson in Liverpool and reminds him that he should be using his £136.5 million of reserves properly, and collecting uncollected council tax that currently costs every tax-paying household in Liverpool £500. Perhaps the mayor should also address the fact that he spends a quarter of his net budget on cultural events, including £650 a day on a Labour spin doctor, a £90,000 car, and £2 million on Beatles memorabilia now worth £300,000.
Social Housing (Rent Arrears)
The Homes and Communities Agency reported in February that the median level of arrears among larger housing associations in the third quarter of 2013-14 was 3.9%, an improvement on 4.1% in the previous quarter.
There are currently lots of data about arrears, and lots of rhetoric. We have not yet completed a full year, but the Homes and Communities Agency has looked at larger providers, 92% of which say that 95% of the rent they should have collected has been collected.
23. Two thirds of households in England affected by the bedroom tax have fallen into rent arrears, and Newcastle is having to set aside money to pay for bad debt that should go on building houses. At the same time, many of my most vulnerable constituents live in fear of falling into arrears. Why will the Government not have a heart, see sense, and repeal this terrible tax? (902772)
I, too, am concerned about those vulnerable people, so I asked about what was happening in Newcastle. Rough sleeping is down by a third, and homeless acceptances are down 26%. The number of families in bed and breakfasts for longer than six weeks has remained static: latest figures state that there are no people in B and Bs for more than six weeks.
Houses in Multiple Occupation
15. What assessment he has made of the frequency of the use of article 4 directions by local authorities to restrict the concentration of houses in multiple occupation in residential areas; and if he will make a statement. (902764)
Local authorities must inform my Department whenever they make an article 4 direction. We are aware of 47 directions issued in relation to houses of multiple occupation.
My constituents in Selly Oak ward in Birmingham are plagued by the constant conversion of three and four-bedroom family homes into seven and 10-bedroom houses of multiple occupation, without any regard for the impact on their lives. Does the Minister agree that planning officers in Birmingham have a route to tackle that through article 4 directions, and that they should stop making excuses and get on with it?
Right to Buy
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent sales figures in Harlow, which are already four times higher than they were forecast to be for the year. The reinvigorated right to buy scheme has helped more than 16,200 social tenants to become home owners since it was reintroduced or reinvigorated in April 2012. We are legislating for further right to buy discounts and to reduce the qualifying period from five years to three. We are also putting in place a right to buy agent service that will support tenants through the home buying process.
Does my hon. Friend agree that an essential component of social justice is to allow lower earners to own their own home? Is he aware that 74 residents in Harlow have supported my online RightToBuyHarlow.com website to get on the housing ladder? Will the Minister outline how he is communicating with tenants to make even more of them aware of the right to buy opportunities?
The Government remain absolutely committed to ensuring that tenants are aware of, and understand, right to buy. We have sent more than 1 million leaflets to social landlords, and our website had 100,000 visitors in the past month alone. We are continuing to campaign with tenants to ensure that they know their rights on how they can secure their own home.
I am sure the supplementary question will be very good, Mr Speaker.
I would like to update the House on the Government’s ongoing work on flood response and recovery. The Somerset levels continue to face significant flooding, and the threat from extreme high levels of groundwater will remain for some months in parts of the country. However, across the country local recovery efforts are well under way. I can reassure the House that the Government are determined in their efforts to support all those affected to get back on their feet. The Government have today announced a £2 million package to encourage holidaymakers, from home and abroad, to see for themselves that areas affected by flooding are now open for business.
We have made a number of changes. First, we have given local authorities the freedom to be able to do that. Under the previous regime they did not have that freedom. Secondly, rather than pretending that food banks do not exist, we have allowed local authorities and various Government agencies to signpost them.
T4. We heard how much success there has been in neighbourhood planning across the country, but a great many communities that are a lot smaller than average would love to indulge in some sort of neighbourhood planning. Will the Minister consider introducing neighbourhood planning-lite for such communities? (902776)
We have, I think, now reached the point where there has been enough experience of neighbourhood planning with enough different kinds of communities for us to learn lessons and to ask whether there is not a version of neighbourhood planning that might be more easily accessible and quicker for some communities. We are doing that work, and we are very keen to hear from any hon. Members and communities with their thoughts on how we can achieve that.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the Leeds city region will become a combined authority in April, but at present York cannot formally join because its boundary is not contiguous. On 28 October 2013, I asked the right hon. Gentleman if he would respond to the city region’s proposal to deal with this. He described it as wholly sensible and said:
“I am confident we will have a resolution before Christmas.”—[Official Report, 28 October 2013; Vol. 569, c. 690.]
However, in a written answer last week the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) said that
“we are now considering consulting before the summer on a Legislative Reform Order”.—[Official Report, 24 February 2014; Vol. 576, c. 120W.]
Given the clear assurance that the Secretary of State gave me, will he gently say to his hon. Friend that he should get a move on?
I did not specify which Christmas I meant. However, I gave the right hon. Gentleman an undertaking, and it was a proper undertaking. Various legal obstacles were put in our way, but we intend to consult, and, subject to the position being legally satisfactory, there will be a resolution. Given that I gave an undertaking from the Dispatch Box to resolve the matter, I will not lightly do otherwise.
I am grateful for that assurance. I hope that the Leeds city region will now see things speeding up.
Let me turn to the profoundly unfair way in which the Secretary of State is treating local government. He tells us—and we heard it a moment ago from the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis)—that spending power per household is the proper way in which to compare council funding. Can the Secretary of State confirm that, as a result of the plans that he has set out, within four years local spending power will be higher in Wokingham than it will be in Leeds, Sheffield or Newcastle, although they face much greater pressures? Most people would say that that is unfair and impossible to justify. Why does the Secretary of State think that areas in greater need should receive less?
The right hon. Gentleman will recall that it was on the urging of the Labour party that we adopted the spending power regime. He will also recall that we moved from a need element to a consequence element. Those who are prepared to have houses built and to provide additional facilities to improve their tax position will benefit. We have moved from a system of the begging bowl to a system in which consequences follow economic and entrepreneurial activity.
T5. The Secretary of State will be aware that Rugby borough council is not just freezing council tax but reducing it by 3%, while Warwickshire county council is raising it by 1.9%. However, the county council has chosen now as the time to present proposals for a unitary authority. Given those contrasting approaches to the setting of council tax, can the Secretary of State suggest any reasons why my constituents would consider the unitary proposals to be a good idea? (902777)
I said before the last general election that any authority official who came to me with a proposal for a reorganisation would be met with a pearl-handled revolver that I kept in my desk. It sounds as though it is time to oil the thing again.
We have no intention of carrying out a reorganisation. Any spending on a reorganisation is a fundamental waste of taxpayers’ money.
T2. When his party was in opposition, the Prime Minister described homelessness and rough sleeping as a disgrace. Last week the Department published figures which showed that since 2010, rough sleeping had increased by 37%. How would the Minister describe that record? (902774)
Rough sleeping in the country overall has increased by 5%, and it has fallen by 3% in London.
T3. The Secretary of State recently announced that in response to the recent floods in the south and south-west of England, the Bellwin formula threshold would be ignored, and the Government would pay 100% instead of the normal default of 85%. On 19 February, the Prime Minister announced that people who had been forced out of their homes would be exempt from council tax for the duration. I have a huge amount of sympathy for those people who have been affected by flooding, but, in the interests of fairness, will the Secretary of State confirm that the same proposals will be extended to cover the authorities and households that were affected by flooding in the north of England in 2012? (902775)
The sums relate to those affected in the north of England and the rest of the country just before Christmas of last year. I concede that we have made a fundamental change to the system. It probably was long overdue. We will be consulting about the long-term. For the sake of clarity, I should say we have not changed the threshold; all we have done is disregarded the amount paid for the education authority and for fire, which means the threshold effectively drops.
T10. May I again thank the Secretary of State for coming to Pagham last week?On another matter, many park home residents, including many in my constituency, are frequently charged unreasonable management fees by unscrupulous site owners. This Government tightened the legislation to give extra protection to residents so far as pitch fees are concerned, but there is less protection in respect of management fees, which some site owners are now using instead of the pitch fee to extract unreasonable sums of money from their residents. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State look into this issue to see what further protections can be introduced to protect park home residents from predatory site owners? (902782)
The Government have introduced a whole range of guidance and rules associated with protecting residents on park home sites, including stopping owners of sites undermining sales on sites, and making sure fees on a site can be introduced only after the exchange of a statutory form; the individual tenant can then seek an arbitrary intervention if they need to. Other steps, such as to do with the rules associated with a particular site, can be taken only after consultation with the tenant. One of our interventions serves as an example: up until now a tenant could not purchase gas bottles from anywhere but on-site; they can now purchase them wherever they want to.
T6. In Redcar and Cleveland, between 2003 and 2007 the Tory and Liberal Democrat council raised council tax by 25%, and they raised the chief executive’s pay by £60,000 from £83,000 to £143,000 in just four years. Does the Secretary of State support local Tory and Lib Dem councillors doing that? (902778)
I would take the same position if it were a Labour council: it is a matter of local choice. What we have done is create a situation where those kinds of choices have to be made before the electorate, and the electorate have to come to a view on them. Prior to that, councillors in what would formerly have been described as smoke-filled rooms could decide these things among themselves without any transparency before the electorate. I think the hon. Gentleman should trust the people.
Adult victims of human trafficking are looked after centrally through an excellent scheme run by the Salvation Army. Unfortunately, child victims of human trafficking are left to local government to look after and are quite often re-trafficked within a week of being rescued. Will the Secretary of State look at the possibility of removing that role from local government and bringing it under a central plan, as we do for adult victims?
I will take on board what my hon. Friend says, but may I just reassure him that this Government have allocated £4.1 million to tackling rogue landlords, and human trafficking is one area in which the authorities are intervening, so work is being done on that?
T7. Residents, constituents and firefighters from across Newcastle are writing to me shocked and angered by the proposed closure of Gosforth fire station. Before the Prime Minister was elected to office, he promised that front-line services would not be impacted, but this Government are cutting Tyne and Wear fire authority’s budget by 23% by 2017. How on earth does the Secretary of State believe it can lose a quarter of its funding without that having an impact on front-line services?
This body has had a cut of a couple of per cent. in spending power for each of the past couple of years, and has built up its reserves and been able to spend that on extra training facilities when the Government already have a training facility. The hon. Lady should put pressure on that fire chief to make sure he is making his decisions based on local risk. The local risk decision is one that only the local fire service can make.
My constituents in Shipley are sick to the back teeth of Labour-run Bradford council imposing decisions on them against their wishes and their interests, particularly in planning. It is perfectly clear that the council cares only about its heartlands in Bradford, rather than Shipley. My neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) is, helpfully, now a Minister in the Department. Not long ago, he said that we should look at having a local authority for just the Keighley and Shipley constituencies, thus taking us out of the Bradford district. I agree with that, and I am sure my constituents do wholeheartedly, so how can we make progress on that, particularly given his elevated position?
T9. Given the financial realities faced by local councils, many valued facilities such as libraries, community centres and swimming pools are being closed. The Localism Act 2011 gives an opportunity for groups to register such facilities as community assets, but that often just buys time, with more obstacles being placed in the way. What assurances can the Secretary of State give to streamline the process of community asset transfer, so that these vital community facilities do not close? (902781)
I had the opportunity of being briefed by the hon. Gentleman on this local issue. When local councils are transferring an asset it is immensely important that they do not see this as primarily a commercial issue and go for the maximum amount. He has within his constituency a way of ensuring that the two swimming pools are kept open and run efficiently, and that the green belt, which he mentioned earlier, is not threatened. That seems to be a very logical thing to do.
Reigate and Banstead borough council is very close to approving a core strategy, after five years and three iterations, that is, frankly, in violation of the national planning policy guidance on the green belt. Will my right hon. and hon. Friends examine this situation as a matter of urgency?
Does the Minister accept that a basis for funding fire services that does not take into account the specific risks in an area such as Cleveland, which has the highest concentration of COMAH—control of major accident hazards—sites, means that the funding settlement is neither fair nor safe?
No, I would not agree with that. Local risk is something that local fire chiefs will base their budget plans on, and those will be approved by the fire authority. Again, I remind the hon. Gentleman that Cleveland’s fire authority cannot be short of money because it has managed to increase its reserves in the past couple of years.
The only sport that is equally participated in by girls and boys is swimming. I do not know whether the Secretary of State can swim, but unfortunately many young people in this country still grow up unable to swim, which poses a threat in later life. Can he tell me how many swimming pools in this country have been closed since this Government came to power? If he is not able to give me a precise number now, perhaps he could write to me later.
It has to be said that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is hiding his light under a bushel, because I am advised that he is a most accomplished swimmer. As he has chosen not to inform the House of that fact, I am generously doing so on his behalf.
Obviously, the local council should be looking through its local plan, if it has one. The policies were published last August, with a guide to local authorities about their powers. I encourage them to use them, as they are simple and clear for both residents and councillors. I am also happy to meet my hon. Friend if he wishes to have a further conversation on this.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last week we learned that insurance actuaries had been able to obtain 13 years of hospital medical records on every NHS patient in the country. A report on the use of the data said that the 188 million records were at individual episode level, and the hospital data obtained had many identifiers, including diagnosis, age, gender, area where the patient lived, date of admission and discharge. On Thursday, in a debate in Westminster Hall, the public health Minister, who is in her place, said that she wanted to put it on the record that the data released to the insurance actuaries were publicly available, non-identifiable and in aggregate form. The Minister’s comments on the data released are at complete variance with the reported facts, which were also discussed extensively at the Health Committee last week. There is now a further damaging story in the news that that released patient data were made available online. I understand that the Health and Social Care Information Centre has today had to ask a company to take down a tool that used that hospital patient data online.
May I ask you, Mr Speaker, whether the public health Minister has sought your permission to correct the record from Thursday’s debate. Furthermore, has the Health Secretary asked to make a statement about NHS patient data being made available online?
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I thank you for giving me the opportunity to respond directly. In responding to the Westminster Hall debate on Thursday 27 February and in relation to the points made by the hon. Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) concerning the release of information to the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, I did say that the data that were used were
“publicly available, non-identifiable and in aggregate form.”—[Official Report, 27 February 2014; Vol. 576, c. 212WH.]
I was made aware on Friday 28 February that the information I had to hand during the debate did not include the latest clarification received from the Health and Social Care Information Centre. I therefore wrote to the Chair of the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess), on Friday to inform him of that. I have today formally written to him and the Members who were present at the debate to correct the statement, and I have copied that to the House of Commons Library.
The correct position was that the faculty requested pseudo-anonymised information and said it would publish it only as anonymous information with all identifiers stripped out. My assertion that the data provided to the faculty were anonymised and publicly available was therefore incorrect, for which I offer my apologies to the House, the shadow Minister, who is in his place, and Members who attended the debate. In handling this request, the NHS information centre did not treat this as a request for sensitive information.
Once again, I thank you, Mr Speaker, for affording me this opportunity and I apologise for the fact that my comments during the debate provided an incorrect impression of the actual events.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for what she said. It does seem to constitute a most full apology to and an explanation for the benefit of the House. We will leave the matter there. [Interruption.] We will not have a “further to” I am afraid. This matter has been fully addressed. If Members have totally unrelated points of order on completely different subjects, we will hear from them—in other words, for the avoidance of doubt, on matters not appertaining to that which has just been said. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) intends to embark on entirely new terrain.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As you know, I have been in this House a reasonable length of time, but something happened to me last Thursday that I do not recall having experienced before. I tabled a question, which in the preliminary agenda was signified as being question No. 7 for the next day. It was a question about my calling for the setting up of a royal commission on the link between climate change and flooding. By the time I got here on Thursday, the full agenda for the day—the Order Paper—had eliminated that question, and transferred it elsewhere. It was clearly a question to a climate change Minister. Why did it disappear and who allowed it to disappear?
What I would say to the hon. Gentleman, who has indeed been in the House for a goodly number of years—it will be 35, to be precise, on 4 May this year—is as follows, and I hope that he will take it in the appropriate spirit. It is entirely a matter for Ministers as to whether they make transfers. The transfer that took place, though immensely disagreeable to the hon. Gentleman, was entirely orderly, and I conclude by saying in the friendliest possible way to him that there are Members who do have something about which to complain but are disinclined to do so and there are Members who sometimes have very little about which to complain but make a very considerable meal out of doing so. It is my firm conviction that the hon. Gentleman has precious little about which to complain, and he is doing his best to make a very large mountain out of an extremely small molehill. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is chuntering from a sedentary position about what I did when I was a Back Bencher, but that was then and this is now.
[2nd Allotted Day]
supplementary estimates 2013-14
DEPARTMENT FOR ENVIRONMENT, FOOD AND RURAL AFFAIRS
Managing Flood Risk
[Relevant Documents: Third Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on Managing Flood Risk, HC 330, and the Government response, HC 706.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2014, for expenditure by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:
(1) further resources, not exceeding £313,194,000 be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 1006,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £77,312,000 be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £145,464,000 be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Claire Perry.)
I welcome this opportunity to open this estimates day debate on managing flood risk. To put today in context, this is the day of the memorial service in honour of Nelson Mandela; it is a week after the visit by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to address both Houses of Parliament; and it is a day on which the future of Crimea and the rest of Ukraine remains very uncertain. In its own way, though, what we meet to discuss today is equally international and portentous in its nature, as we have seen some of the most damaging storms, most likely emanating, we are told, from the Atlantic on the jet steam and causing immense damage in 2013-14.
I am delighted to welcome the Minister to his place. We were most fortunate to enjoy his company on the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and indeed that of the shadow Minister, when we adopted this report in July 2013. How prescient that report appears with hindsight. We have had record rainfall over the past two years, which has led to the most extensive flooding, cost the economy millions of pounds, and caused disruption and distress to householders and communities across the UK.
Additional capital funding for flood defences is welcome, since we are told that every £1 spent on flood defences to protect communities spurs growth and delivers economic benefits worth £8. However, we concluded that spending on flood defences has simply not kept pace with increasing risks from more frequent severe weather. The Chancellor of the Exchequer must ensure that investment increases by some £20 million year on year. We need that money over the next 25 years to protect homes and businesses better. Maintenance of these defences and the effective dredging of watercourses must be a priority.
I should like initially to set out our overview before I take interventions.
The Committee welcomes proposals for a new Flood Re insurance scheme, to ensure that everyone is able to get affordable insurance. We are told that the scheme will be funded by a small levy of about £10.50 a year on all household insurance customers. The Committee insisted, during the passage of the Water Bill, that safeguards be introduced to keep the costs down. It would be interesting if the Minister confirmed whether the Prime Minister has asked for the band H and certain other exclusions to be brought into the review of Flood Re, as was reported over the weekend.
The Government is an insurer of last resort. We were told in evidence that, if there were a one-in-250-year event, such as the one that we have just seen, in the first two or three years of Flood Re coming into effect, the Government would take over as insurer of last resort. We were also told that, for the first two or three years of the Flood Re scheme, there simply would not be enough money in the pot to fund such claims against it. The House needs to understand the implications of that eventuality.
Delay by the Government and the insurance industry in agreeing the provision of affordable flood insurance has caused householders unnecessary uncertainty. The opaque cross-subsidy in the current statement of principles must be translated into a more transparent scheme with clear and robust governance arrangements. This debate provides a useful opportunity for the Minister to update the House on progress towards state aid approval in Brussels, because the last we heard was that had not been embarked upon, which seems to be leaving it late in the day. It raises other exclusions in addition to band H, such as why the cut-off year of 2009 was chosen, and why small businesses such as farms remain excluded.
With spending on the maintenance of defences and watercourses apparently at its lowest for many years, short-sighted reductions in revenue funding appear to threaten and undermine the benefits of capital investment in flood defences, but I firmly believe, as the Committee does, that we should not rely completely on Government sources, but should look at partnership approaches such as the Pickering “Slowing the flow” scheme in my constituency as well as measures by insurance companies.
That is exactly the point that I wanted to make. We cannot necessarily expect the Environment Agency to fund the totality of flood defences. In Banbury, recently completed flood defences cost £17 million: £9 million came from the Environment Agency, but £8 million came from others, including the district council, Network Rail, Thames Water and local landowners. Many people have a role to play in contributing to making sure that flood defences work, not just the Environment Agency.
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I do not wish to detain the House too long, but I shall come on to look at that. The Government and the Minister have an opportunity to elaborate on this, but the House must be persuaded of the contribution that private bodies can make. The Select Committee has not been persuaded of that. Personally, I think that there are huge opportunities for water companies, but we need to amend the 2014 pricing review to allow that, so it would be useful to have an update. In addition, I should like to know whether the Minister believes that insurance companies will step up to the plate regarding infrastructure spending.
Although I understand entirely the argument about multiple sources of funding for many flood defences, some major defences—most obviously, in my case, and in the case of my hon. Friends the Members for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), the Humber defences—are strategic and, by definition, have to be carried out by a major strategic authority. Under those circumstances, the 1:8 rule and the requirement for other funding do not work. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) accept that strategic intervention should take place on a different scale?
My right hon. Friend brings me to the core of my opening remarks.
We could argue the whole afternoon about how much each side has paid in capital funding over the past two strategic reviews. That argument over capital expenditure is worth having, to the extent that that expenditure has increased, but the Committee on Climate Change—I am sure that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) will rehearse this—concluded that we have to spend some £20 million a year extra. The kernel of the argument is how we define revenue and how we define maintenance expenditure. We do not completely understand where the money is being spent.
If I could make a little progress first, I will then take interventions.
There are a number of maintenance activities which the Environment Agency groups into four main areas. The first is operations: inspecting assets, providing utilities, and operating flood barriers and pumping stations. Some of those have passed from internal drainage boards to the Environment Agency, and have not been maintained since 2004-05. It is important to put that on the record.
The second maintenance activity is conveyance. The Committee was shocked to learn that only £30 million is spent each year in the whole of England and Wales on controlling aquatic weed, dredging, clearing screens and removing obstructions from rivers. We will never know whether regular maintenance and dredging on the Somerset levels by the IDBs or the Environment Agency would have prevented the traumatic flooding we have seen since last autumn and right through the winter.
The third activity is maintaining flood defences and structures, including carrying out inspections and minor repairs, managing grass, trees and bushes and controlling the populations of burrowing animals on flood embankments. My argument is that under the previous Government much of the regular maintenance work was simply not done by the Environment Agency because its political masters, the Government, said not to do it because of birds nesting. I argue that IDBs work with nature and dredge only at the right times of year.
The fourth activity is mechanical, electrical, instrumentation, control and automation—MEICA—meaning carrying out minor repairs to, and replacement of, pumps and tidal barriers.
Does my hon. Friend agree that many places, including Wokingham, experienced flooding because essential maintenance work on ditches, culverts, drains and small rivers, which are relatively low-budget items, had not been undertaken by the Environment Agency? In the previous year the Environment Agency spent £1.2 billion overall and massively increased its staff, but it did not have a penny to protect the people of Wokingham from the floods that have now hit them. Is it not a question of how we spend the Environment Agency’s budget?
I think there is a coherent view across the House this afternoon that when IDBs, district councils and the flood levy from the regional flood committee contribute to the Environment Agency, it is not always clear what work is done. That is something we are here to debate this afternoon.
The hon. Lady said that we will never know what the result of dredging in Somerset would have been. I suspect that we would still have had flooding, but it would have started later, could have been removed quicker and would have been far less extensive. Does she agree that the initial ask we are making of the Environment Agency and the Government—the 8 km of dredging, which is the most crucial dredge—now needs to be under way? The maintenance dredging every year by local authorities and IDBs should not be confined to that area, but should look at other potential problem areas, such as the Great Bow bridge in Langport, and connecting Monks Leaze Clyse through to the River Sowy and the King’s Sedgemoor drain.
I do not have my hon. Friend’s depth of knowledge, so I shall simply refer to Lord Smith’s evidence to our Committee. Page 16 states:
“Lord Smith stated that asset management spend would equate to £169 million in 2012-13, reducing to £146 million in 2013-14 and £136 million in 2014-15. He noted that there were some ‘pinch points’ in specific places such as on the Parrett and Tone rivers. He further noted that no additional revenue or operating funding was being provided to match the new £120 million capital funding announced in the Autumn Statement.”
I refer to the Committee’s conclusion, which my hon. Friend will be aware of, that there should have been some regular maintenance of the Parrett and the Tone well in advance of the floods last autumn.
I cannot speak to the situation in Somerset, but I hope that the hon. Lady would not advocate dredging in every situation. In the early 1990s and early 2000s, the local authority in my constituency sped up water flows higher up the valley, which led to a significant problem further down the valley. Surely we need a whole-valley answer.
The hon. Gentleman will have listened carefully to the four headings that I set out—the different types of maintenance, of which dredging is a small part.
I turn to the flood defence maintenance funding for the coming financial years. It is with some sorrow that I see the reduction in the headline figures for flood defence maintenance, from £172 million in the financial year 2010-11 to £147 million for 2013-14. I hope that in discussing the supplementary budget, the debate will achieve one thing: an increase in maintenance from revenue funding and a more general grasp of the importance of maintenance in all its forms to preventing flooding in future. The Environment Agency’s £147 million maintenance funding for 2013-14 is allocated as follows, in accordance with the four maintenance categories that I rehearsed earlier. I repeat that there is only £30 million this year for clearing watercourses, normally referred to as dredging, which the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) mentioned. For operation there is £44 million, for structures there is £52 million and for mechanical electrical instrumentation control and automation there is £21 million.
The role of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in climate change is narrow; it is about adaptation and seeking to increase resilience. However, it would help to allow the conveyance of water, to slow the flow with land management schemes upstream—dredging, desilting and other means—and to stop fast-growing willow coppice from blocking watercourses in order to allow the water to flow away in Somerset, Yorkshire and other areas across the country, to prevent flooding.
My Committee and I absolutely accept that there is no one-stop option that will prevent all forms of flooding; maintenance, as well as land management upstream schemes, has to be considered.
Does the hon. Lady recognise that there is incoherence at the heart of the Government’s policy on climate change and flooding? The Prime Minister said that money was no object when it came to the relief effort to clear up after floods, but less than two weeks later he was handing huge new subsidies to the fossil fuel industry; when those fossil fuels are burned, extreme weather events, including flooding, are made more likely. Does she agree with the commentator who said today that that is like promising to rebuild Dresden while ordering more bombers to flatten it again?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to say that I believe that there is an incoherence in policy. We import woodchip at huge expense from the United States and other parts of the country to co-fire coal at Drax power station in Selby; I should be encouraging farmers in north Yorkshire and all around the country to grow fast-growing willow coppice trees to co-fire that power station. There are inconsistencies and incoherence in our renewals policy and we should visit those as part of our flood prevention scheme.
We have seen just about every type of flooding possible since autumn last year—coastal flooding, tidal surges, river flooding and overtopping, surface water flooding and, most recently, groundwater flooding. We know that all this has been the worst flooding incident in this country in 250 years, since 1766. This debate is the opportunity for the Department to share how the Government seek to adapt to more extreme weather events and how we are becoming more resilient and building more appropriately. Given what was asked at Communities and Local Government questions earlier, I am not sure that the House is entirely convinced that we are yet building in the most appropriate places—that is, not in areas that have something to do with flooding in their name or that act as functional floodplains.
In 2007, 55,000 houses were flooded in this country. My understanding is that this winter about 7,000 houses were flooded. That is a personal tragedy for every single one of those 7,000, but I am not sure how my hon. Friend can claim that last winter’s flooding was the worst for 250 years. We had the worst rainfall for 250 years, but in the context of 2007, the flooding was nowhere near that scale.
It was the worst weather event that we have had. My hon. Friend’s intervention raises the very interesting question of why the Bellwin formula was not raised for the roads, bridges and houses that were damaged in 2012-13. He is right about the number of houses flooded. I think that more houses were flooded in the whole of the Yorkshire region in 2012-13 than were flooded in total this year. I supported the bid by North Yorkshire county council to increase the Bellwin limit and I will come on to that in a moment.
My hon. Friend also raises the very interesting question—this supports my argument—of where the funding will come from. I absolutely agree that most of the flood defences held and that many more houses would have flooded than was the case. The House should celebrate that, but where will the money come from to repair those flood defences that held this time but that will have been damaged by the sustained bashing from the storm?
My hon. Friend will be aware that in Norfolk the vicious tidal surge of 5 and 6 December reached record levels along parts of the coast and in King’s Lynn in particular. Is she aware that the tidal defences held up remarkably well? There have been some breaches, which the Environment Agency repaired very quickly. Does my hon. Friend agree that managed retreat anywhere along the Norfolk coast would not be an acceptable policy under any circumstances?
I will come on to the role that farmers can play. Ever since I was the MEP for the whole of the Essex coast for five years, I have not been a big fan of managed retreat and have never been persuaded that it is a good thing.
We should recognise the money that the Government have very generously provided. I believe it is £2 million for tourism and £10 million for farms, but it would seem that we need an extra £20 million year-on-year increase in flood management capital funding over the next 25 years to keep pace with the increasing flood threat. I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend the Minister’s response as to the Government’s view on why that might not happen.
Another great development would be more flexibility to transfer money between capital maintenance expenditure and activities. I also urge my hon. Friend the Minister to grab this opportunity to review either the Treasury Green Book or the Environment Agency’s point-scoring system. We heard evidence that the cost-benefit ratio for household protection schemes is 5:1, but that for all other assets it is 18:1. This is, therefore, a good opportunity to address that. During Prime Minister’s questions some two or three weeks ago, the Prime Minister said from the Dispatch Box that all flood funding was up for review. Did he mean a review of the scoring system, which is long overdue? Although it was visited in a modest way in 2010, I believe it should be reviewed from top to bottom.
We concluded that the current model for allocating flood defence funding to protecting property is biased towards urban rather than rural areas. In fact, our report argues that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has failed to protect rural areas and that there is a risk to food security as more land becomes at risk of flooding.
I attended the National Farmers Union farming conference last week. The NFU states that 58% of the most productive land—that is, grade 1, farmed English land—is within a floodplain. Our report states that 14% of agricultural land in England and Wales is at risk of flooding from rivers and the sea. A drop in our food self-sufficiency raises a long-term question over ongoing food security.
I am very pleased that the hon. Lady is making a point about the difference between rural and urban areas. There is a further complication when it comes to Somerset, in that people assume that it is a traditional floodplain, but it is not: it is reclaimed, inland sea. It is the great mere of Somerset. Therefore, all of the equations that would work elsewhere do not work when every single drop of water has to be pumped up and over to a river that is higher than the surrounding land.
My hon. Friend makes his local case very powerfully, and I commend him for doing so.
How points are scored needs to be revisited. It is important to give a higher value for the benefits of agricultural land and of the protection of land to secure future food production. The big question is about ensuring that reduced regulation on farmers and landowners can allow them to remove vegetation from river banks. Now that we have had six months of the seven pilot schemes for the vegetation removal process, I would go so far as to urge the Minister to end the pilots and to roll out the process across the country, so allowing farmers to remove vegetation from their river banks.
I want to say a word about the role of internal drainage boards.
Order. Just before the hon. Lady moves on to the subject of drainage boards, may I gently say—I am listening to her speech with close attention, as I invariably do—that I am cautiously optimistic that she is approaching her concluding remarks? I say that not because of any lack of attention or interest on my part, but because several other Members wish to contribute to the debate, and I know that she will be as eager as I am to hear their contributions.
Indeed. That is the purpose of the debate, Mr Speaker.
I am vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities. The Select Committee concluded that drainage boards are best placed to remove the vegetation and to carry out the maintenance that has been mentioned. Indeed, we are grateful that the Government have looked favourably on this opportunity to allow IDBs to use their local knowledge and resources, and to undertake more of the investment. We believe that there is a lost opportunity in relation to funding from private bodies that DEFRA—
I will stick to Mr Speaker’s strictures about reaching my conclusion sooner rather than later.
There is an opportunity to lever in more than 15% of contributions from other sources. Will the Minister tell us how the Government intend to do that? Do they intend to use common agricultural policy funds to encourage farmers to undertake flood prevention measures by rewarding them through EU agri-environment schemes or by paying proper compensation for flood storage, flood alleviation and other such schemes? Innovative funding should stretch to allowing water companies to invest through the price review, as I have said. I am a big fan of SUDS, and I believe that sustainable drains should be introduced by the autumn at the absolute latest. Most of Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations have been adopted, but not, I note, those on ending the automatic right to connect and about sustainable drains.
I want to place on the record our commendation of the volunteers, flood wardens, police, fire, ambulance and Environment Agency staff and all those who responded to the floods.
There is scope for the Bellwin formula to be overhauled and reviewed radically. I have mentioned how the Yorkshire and the Humber region, particularly North Yorkshire, has not benefited from the formula. We recommend that the Bellwin scheme be amended to enable local authorities to secure central Government assistance to repair and reinstate roads and other infrastructure damaged by flooding. We also recommend a review of local authorities having to incur costs of at least 0.2% of its annual revenue budget to qualify for Bellwin funding to make it fairer by measuring the impact on the local community. I add that there should be a review of the cap on spending, which I understand hampers the ability of district and county councils to raise any further contributions towards a local levy.
Finally, we were told by the Association of British Insurers that this was a one-in-250-years event. It said that the cost to date has been £426 million, of which £14 million has already been spent. We welcome Flood Re, but there are too many unknowns. We need to know more about the cross-subsidy, what the final figure will be and—I repeat—from which budget the funds will come and what progress has been made on state aid should the Government act as an insurer of last resort for a similar one-in-250-years weather event. It is obviously extremely important that the military played a role in the recovery stage during the recent floods. However, the Government are silent over which budget is covering that military activity. It would be extremely helpful for the House to know that.
Last month in Brighton and Hove, local emergency services, utilities, the city council and other stakeholders worked together with admirable determination to help the residents who were at significant risk of groundwater and surface water flooding.
It has become clear that the overall pot of money for which local authorities have to bid for flood protection projects is far from adequate. It would help if the process for applying for funds were simplified. I would like to know whether Ministers are considering improvements in that area. This winter’s events have also shown that we need long-term policies and investment to address all types of flooding, including not only coastal and river flooding, but groundwater and surface water flooding.
Despite the limited increase in investment in flood defences, funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will still be about £1.4 billion behind what the Environment Agency says it will need between 2015 and 2021 just to stop the flood risk getting even worse. It is clear that, as well as reversing the cuts to the Environment Agency budget and investing properly in flood defences, we must factor in climate change projections on the future cost of extreme weather. As the current approach ignores that, the Committee on Climate Change warned recently that the spending plans would result in about 250,000 more households becoming exposed to a significant risk of flooding by 2035.
Many hon. Members have raised the cost-benefit ratio rule. Currently, projects have to deliver an 8:1 return on investment. Why is that the case, when HS2 must deliver only a 2:1 return? Decent investment would reduce the average rate of return, but it would also reduce the overall amount of flood damage. Will the Government review that rule to help local authorities invest in the flood protection that they know is required?
At the very least, we need a commitment that spending on flood protection will be increased in line with the expert recommendations of the Environment Agency and the Committee on Climate Change. In considering how to fund that, a good place to start would be to redirect just some of the billions of pounds of subsidies and tax breaks that go the fossil fuel industry.
Last week, I received a report from the Sussex Wildlife Trust that sets out an evidence-based approach to flood protection that was produced by the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, which is made up of independent and professional people who are experts in their field. The report reinforces a key lesson that we need to learn from the recent floods: not only that our spending on flood protection is shockingly inadequate and that we must not have Ministers who deny the link between the burning of fossil fuels, man-made climate change, extreme weather and enormous threats to our society—threats that the Government are exacerbating through their inequitable and unscientific climate targets and their obsession with helping big energy companies to extract every last drop of oil and gas that is out there—but, crucially, that there must be a fundamental shift towards seeking to work with nature, rather than against it. Not only would such an approach benefit wildlife and nature, but it is the best way to reduce our vulnerability to flooding and extreme weather events and to increase our resilience.
Dredging is often pulled out of the hat as if it were a silver bullet. Dredging can have a positive effect if it is done in certain places at certain times. In other places, it does not have a positive effect. In the Somerset levels, it could have been done a little earlier, but it certainly would not have massively reduced what we are seeing now. We need a much more holistic response, which is what Sussex Wildlife Trust is talking about.
Is the hon. Lady aware that the defences around the Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire fens are comprehensive and holistic in that they involve not only tidal barrages, but pumping stations, relief channels and dredging? That combined approach protects a vast amount of Britain’s farmland.
I am very pleased to hear that, but the comprehensive approach that I am talking about must involve a much wider evaluation of how we use land. For example, we must consider what use farm subsidies are being put to and whether they are inadvertently encouraging unhelpful ways of using land. I am referring to something rather larger than the holistic approach the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
First, we know that allowing development on floodplains puts more people at risk. Secondly, we know that compacted soil and damaged uplands channel water downstream faster. Thirdly, we know that climate change is making extreme rainfall events more frequent and intense. I will outline briefly the solutions we need in each of those areas—solutions that work with nature, rather than against it.
The Government’s ongoing attacks on the planning system are a real problem. Sensible, long-term development control in the public interest is being sacrificed at the altar of mindless, short-term GDP growth at any cost. Development on floodplains and in areas of high flood risk, not just now but for the lifetime of a housing development, needs a stronger, more accountable planning system. We must ditch the current approach that casts sensible planning rules and regulations as a barrier to growth and planners, according to the Prime Minister, as enemies of enterprise.
Crucially, we know that not all decisions about development on floodplains are taken by local planning authorities. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government can use his power to call in or recover a planning application. So why is it so difficult to obtain basic information about this from his Department? A written question that I tabled back on 5 February remains unanswered. I hope that the message will reach the Secretary of State and that he will tell us today how many times he has exercised his power to call in a planning application to approve or reject housing or commercial development on a floodplain or in an area of flood risk.
It is simply not good enough for the Secretary of State to point the finger at local councils, nor is it good enough for him to say that 99% of proposed new residential units that the Environment Agency objected to on floodplain grounds were decided in line with Environment Agency advice when the decisions are known. What about all the others? Why will the Government not give us the full picture? The fact that my question remains unanswered a whole month later raises suspicions about whether the Secretary of State has been overruling local authorities or Environment Agency advice and allowing development to proceed in areas at risk of flooding. I hope that that is not the case, but we need to see the statistics and we need to see them now.
A month ago, I also tabled a written question on the impact of recent and future flooding on small businesses.
On building on floodplains, the view from Brighton might be quite different from that in my part of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire where such building is almost unavoidable because the land is drained marshland surrounded by rivers that drain 20% of the UK’s water. We have a desperate need of affordable housing to help local people who want to live locally. The matter is not as simple as just stopping all building on floodplains, which would price more of my constituents out of the housing market.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. His point is reasonable, but in areas that he describes—they are not typical but they certainly exist and he has intimate knowledge of them—the architecture could be different with houses on stilts and resilience in the building process. That is not happening right now, which is why we are seeing so much flooding causing so much misery for so many people throughout the country.
I want to make a little more progress.
Turning to land management of uplands particularly, we need a radical rethink to take proper account of climate change and to reduce the threat to people’s homes and livelihoods, and to food security. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently confirmed that the rules farmers must meet to obtain public subsidies do not cover flood risk. In some cases, the conditions on farm payments may be making the situation worse through over-grazing and removal of vegetation. We must look seriously at whether that is good use of public money, and introduce changes to ensure that such payments are conditional on flood prevention.
The Government must stop their irresponsible use of public money by ensuring that flood prevention is a non-negotiable condition of all farm subsidies. Farmers and land managers know what the slow water solutions are.
I have given way a lot, and I fear that Mr Speaker will tell me to wind up.
We need better soil management as well as better water management, not least because that reduces the silting up of river beds further downstream. Approaches that help more water to remain in the uplands, where there may be peat bogs, rather than going downstream into people’s living rooms, can seriously improve water quality and have the potential to cut water bills for households.
Finally, on climate change, I regret that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is not here because his comments during the debate last week were complacent at best and reckless at worst. If he were here, he could clear up the basic matter of what he thinks is man-made and what is natural when it comes to the increased risk of extreme weather. In the same breath as he mentioned the Met Office, he said that there “might” be either short-term or long-term trends. On what basis does he query the long-term trend, let alone its seriousness? The Met Office states:
“There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.”
If the Secretary of State has the evidence, let us see it. The only supposed authority he offered in support of his views is Lord Lawson—not a scientist of any sort but a staunch defender of the fossil fuel industry and head of a campaign group that lobbies against the Government’s climate change policies.
When talking about what he knows about climate science, why does the Secretary of State choose not to quote a climate scientist? When he has read Hansard later, perhaps he will confirm whether he has read the recent joint report by the leading UK and US scientific institutions—the Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences—which finds that man-made climate change is more certain than ever and will post severe threats to society and infrastructure. Will he agree to meet Sir Paul Nurse and the authors of the report to ensure that his approach to defending the realm takes account of the realities and the risks of climate change?
I accept that the Secretary of State said last week that
“the risk is there to our nation”.—[Official Report, 26 February 2014; Vol. 576, c. 335.]
Let us therefore keep to the theory of risk rather than uncertainty, which, as we all know, is a well-known tactic of obfuscation and delaying action used by those with vested interests, from the tobacco to the fossil fuel lobbies. If we talk about this in terms of risk rather than uncertainty, it is like thinking about what is more important, risk or certainty, when we decide whether to get on a plane, vaccinate our children, or insure our homes and valuable belongings, or even whether to cross a busy road. Does a rational and responsible parent say, “I’m not 100% sure that my child will definitely get a really serious disease, so I’m not going to vaccinate them”? If one has just bought a new house, is the sensible approach to say, “I’m not 100% certain that my house will burn down, so I’m not going to bother with home insurance”? No. Unless we have a science and risk-based approach to protecting UK homes and businesses from future flood risk and extreme weather, the Secretary of State will be failing in his aim to ensure that our citizens are safe.
I also object to the Secretary of State’s view that the climate debate is polarised, as he claimed, between sceptics and zealots. Organisations such as the World Bank, the International Energy Agency, insurance industry bodies, the World Economic Forum and PwC have clearly paid a lot more attention to the science than he has. These organisations, which are not in any way environmentalist, are all warning that if we continue with business as usual and fail to make radical cuts to emissions, we are on course to seeing 4°, if not 6°, of climate change within our children’s lifetimes.
I think the hon. Lady takes issue with the Secretary of State on the wrong point. There is a danger of hectoring. Given such overwhelming scientific evidence, it should be a straightforward matter to bring people on board in seeing that there is a risk that needs to be managed, but the debate has somehow become partisan and divided. Perhaps she, and all of us, could think about how we get our language right so that we create an inclusive approach, and then we can argue about the best response, not divide on the basis of belief.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I suggest that the Secretary of State is one of the first people who ought to be trying to generate that inclusive approach to climate change. Instead, he has been doing exactly the opposite in referring to people as zealots and saying that those who promote a risk-based approach to climate change are completely off the agenda. I entirely agree that we could look at our language, but let us take the fight to where it starts, which is with the Secretary of State’s response to the flooding debate last week.
I can tell, Mr Speaker, that you would like me to conclude very shortly, so I shall be brief. I find it extraordinary that although this debate is about something we can agree on—we all want to reduce the impacts of flooding on the communities we represent—many of us are not prepared to look at the likely causes of extreme weather events of the kind that we have been seeing in recent weeks. If I sound frustrated, that is where my level of frustration is coming from. As the Secretary of State spoke only of adapting to climate change rather than turning off the fossil fuel tap to prevent more climate change from reaching dangerous levels in the first place, perhaps he would like to explain to the House what 6° of climate change might look like, or even what 4° of climate change would mean for the UK, and exactly how he would adapt to those changes. So far we have seen only 0.8° of climate change, but perhaps some people in Somerset, let alone communities elsewhere in the world, might argue that the situation is already dangerous.
If this Government want credibility as regards protecting the UK from the increased risk of flooding and other climate risks, we need radical action to cut emissions in line with both science and equity. That means leaving about 80% of known fossil fuels in the ground, not handing out tax breaks to companies to find and exploit yet more reserves of oil and gas that we cannot afford to burn. It means not just accepting but strengthening the fourth carbon budget in line with the science, to secure the economic and employment benefits of leading the transition to a zero-carbon economy. It means leadership to ensure that action on climate change is not just an issue for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but a top priority for all the Government.
The flooding has led to many words being spoken in the House about resilience, and the importance of taking the right long-term decisions for our future and that of our children, but action, not just words on climate change, is the litmus test of whether or not they are meaningful.
Order. I have not imposed a time limit on Back-Bench speeches, but it might benefit the House to know that there are still 12 right hon. and hon. Members seeking to catch my eye. If Members think in terms of speaking for 10 minutes each, or preferably a little less, it should be possible readily to accommodate all who wish to contribute. The Chair will call the Front- Bench speakers to wind up the debate at approximately 6.30 pm.