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Flooding: Defence Programme

Volume 740: debated on Thursday 1 November 2012


Tabled By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have plans to reassess the flood defence programme.

In the absence of my noble friend Lady Quin, and at her request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in her name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the flood defence programme is prioritised to protect people and property, especially in areas of greatest flood risk and deprivation. The Environment Agency constantly assesses the projects within the programme to maintain value for taxpayers’ money with a return on investment of at least eight to one. We expect to exceed our goal of 145,000 households better protected by March 2015.

My Lords, will the Government now recognise that it was a mistake to cut funding for flood defence, particularly in the light of the fact that a number of schemes had then to be deferred? Will they now accept the National Audit Office’s advice of October 2011 and increase the funding to the Environment Agency by the £20 million it suggested, thereby protecting householders, businesses and the public purse as well as creating jobs?

My Lords, I am acutely aware of the impact that the recent flooding has had on victims and my sympathies go out to them all. This summer was the second wettest on record. Despite hard times, we protected the flood budgets as far as possible with a 6% reduction in spend over the four years 2011-12 to 2014-15 compared with the previous four years. As a result of the investment that we are making, we expect to exceed our goal of 145,000 households better protected by March 2015. The Environment Agency will deliver real-term efficiency savings of at least 15% in procurement over the spending period and is aiming to increase the number of households receiving free flood warnings to more than 1.1 million.

Is the noble Lord able to update the House on the progress of talks which were being held with the insurance industry as there are now many thousands of households that face the problem of living in properties that are virtually uninsurable at prices that they can afford to pay?

My Lords, we want to reach an agreement that ensures both the availability and affordability of flood insurance. We are in intense but constructive negotiations with the industry and further announcements will be made in due course after more discussions with it and other relevant parties.

My Lords, can my noble friend assure the House that in future housebuilding plans, which are now so extensive, will not be carried out on flood plain land?

My Lords, the Government’s policy, as set out in the National Planning Policy Framework, is to avoid unnecessary building in areas at risk. New homes are not included in the funding formula, otherwise the system would encourage housebuilding on flood plains, so I agree with my noble friend.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that while people are obviously very important, so is food production? Is he aware that in Suffolk there is a serious threat of the estuaries of the Alde, Ore and Deben rivers flooding an area which produces no less than 25% of all the vegetables grown in England? Is he further aware that local farmers are quite ready to take action themselves, and spend their own money, to improve the flood defences? Will the Government encourage this rather than leaving it all to the Environment Agency? It would save quite a bit of taxpayers’ money. I declare an interest as a Suffolk farmer, but not in the area at risk.

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. Defra’s partnership funding approach provides a contribution to the economic benefits of flood and coastal erosion risk management projects, including avoiding the damage to business, agricultural land and infrastructure. It specifically allows the involvement of farmers and others from the private sector as well as local authorities. Many schemes that are justified principally on the basis of protection of households also protect businesses. Many flood management projects reduce the risk to farmland.

My Lords, the previous Government negotiated the statement of principles with the insurance industry to guarantee universal flood insurance coverage for homes in flood-affected areas. I should declare my interest as someone whose home was flooded this summer. That statement expires in June next year. The insurance industry has warned that unless new proposals are published by the end of November this year, it will be too late to ensure that the new alternative is in place by July next year. In response to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, the Minister told us that he would make announcements in due course. Can he reassure us that that will be this month?

My Lords, the statement of principles to which the noble Lord referred did not go to the issue of affordability. In answer to his question, we are in intense and constructive negotiations, and we will make an announcement as soon as we can.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that land management, as the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, has said, and river dredging are very important to protecting properties, businesses and farmland from flooding? In the past, some stewardship schemes have prevented landowners from dredging their ditches and streams, which has caused a build-up because the flood water gets caught in them. Does the noble Lord intend to redress this balance so that there is proper management of the waterways?

My Lords, the noble Countess makes an important point. In 2007, I had first-hand experience of that. The Environment Agency is working extremely hard on exactly that sort of problem.

My Lords, what consideration is being given to the effect of global warming? Is there continuing discussion with those involved? Are there forecasts? What are we looking to expect in that direction?

My Lords, there is constant negotiation between the meteorological forecasting organisation and the Environment Agency. My noble friend is right that we need to keep our eyes on that and we are certainly doing so.

My Lords, could we take this opportunity to extend our sympathy to those who have suffered this week in the United States from the devastating floods and storms?

Yes, my Lords. I entirely agree with my noble friend. I think it is worth taking stock and making the point that we are seeking to learn lessons from what is going on in New York. The Environment Agency has contacted the US authorities already with a view to drawing on lessons learnt.

My Lords, can we be a little less selective in who we send our condolences to and include in our regrets not only the United States but also the Caribbean countries?

I very much agree with the noble Lord. I think I said earlier, but I will repeat, that our sympathies of course remain with our own people who have suffered this summer.