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Flooding: Defence

Volume 697: debated on Wednesday 9 January 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they are taking to improve the conditions of the internal rivers and their flood plains in England and Wales.

My Lords, we are committed to sustained investment in effective management measures for the alleviation of flood risk, the improvement of water quality and the enhancement of amenity and ecology where those are necessary. All those activities are based on risk.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his Answer. I am a riparian owner in north Oxfordshire, which is classed as a low flood-risk area yet saw some of the worst of the flooding in 2007. The Environment Agency shows more concern for the bats, voles and otters than it seemingly does for the management of our river systems, unlike the National Rivers Authority, which used to do such an excellent job. Is not the Environment Agency conflicted in carrying out those two delegated tasks? Do not the needs of humans come before wildlife?

My Lords, I understand the annoyance of the noble Lord, and I have seen his correspondence with the Environment Agency regarding his situation, but I do not think that his conclusions are accurate. The Environment Agency policy is based on risk, and its defences protected at least 100,000 people during the recent floods. Some 95 per cent of flood defences are in good order, and during the recent floods 99.8 per cent of those defences held. New defences that it put in place last summer protected 7,500 properties from flooding in the Burton-on-Trent area. There is an alleged conflict between the role of the Environment Agency and others in clearing the watercourses, but some of the easy answers are not always so easy, such as arguments about further dredging, which can actually make matters worse. If you are not careful, you will cause flooding in areas up-river. There is a balance to be struck, but I have looked at this and visited flooded areas—some of my initial reactions have been similar to those of the noble Lord—and the fact is that the Environment Agency is doing a good job and has our full confidence.

My Lords, given the fact of sea-level rise, it is widely recognised that the Thames Barrier will not fulfil its reasonable function much beyond another decade. Can the Minister tell us where the Government are in terms of upgrading the barrier and where that money will be found?

My Lords, I cannot, except to say that it is well known that at some point the Thames Barrier will have to be either replaced or reinforced. The timescale is, I think, rather more than a decade, although the barrier is being used more than planned. There is no doubt that work has to be done some time within the next 30 years. When I looked at the Question, I asked about internal rivers and what the alternatives were, but I have not been briefed on coastal areas and sea-level rises, I am afraid.

My Lords, when the noble Lord answered a question of mine a while ago, he said that if ditches, dikes and streams were kept clear, towns and cities would be flooded. He now seems to have changed his mind and says that areas upstream of these places will be flooded. Can he explain why there will be floods if watercourses are kept clear? Is not the problem that the drainage systems in towns and cities are not built to accommodate all the housing and factories that are affected there, rather than keeping the watercourses clear?

My Lords, no, I have not changed my mind. The work of the Environment Agency and other related organisations is actually based on risk. They have analysed the country; they look after some 40,000-odd miles of riverbank with huge capital programmes and are putting their efforts where the risk is greatest. It is true in some urban areas that surface water is the greatest problem, which relates to there being too much tarmac and not enough concern being given at those urban levels. That is not really the work of the Environment Agency. Some areas are classed as low-risk and, therefore, these days the agency may not do as much work there as it used to do—as in the case raised by the noble Lord who asked the Question, and he knows why that is so.

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that the key to reducing flood risk was in the proper engineering and maintenance of watercourses? If that is the case, what funds have the Government made available for that task and are they considered adequate by the agencies and authorities concerned?

My Lords, to the best of my knowledge, yes. As is known, capital expenditure has been doubled in the past 10 years to £650 million in 2008-09 and will go up to £800 million in 2010-11. I am reliably informed that if it was £1 billion, the authorities could not spend it next year; there is a programme for this activity. We have the interim report of Sir Michael Pitt following the lessons learned from the floods last year. Later this summer there will be a final report. We have accepted all the recommendations—there is no argument about that. There is more work to be done, and there is no doubt that an increase in capital expenditure on flood defences is needed.