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Rivers: Catchment Management

Volume 802: debated on Monday 23 March 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their policy on catchment management for rivers, and how this relates to natural flood defences.

My Lords, working with natural processes can help mitigate flood risk, alongside other actions, including traditional defences, especially when considered across an entire catchment. The 25-year environment plan encourages strong local leadership to take a joined-up approach to deliver multiple benefits at a landscape and catchment level. The Environment Agency is currently rolling out a more integrated approach to engagement at the catchment and river basin district scale to secure local involvement.

My Lords, I am mindful that many of those who were evicted from their homes in the winter floods may not be back home yet and have the extra anxiety of coronavirus. One simple measure the Government could take would be to stop the automatic right to connect new developments to antiquated Victorian pipes that cannot take them, and which force the sewage into people’s homes. That unique measure, together with full catchment management, SUDS and soft flood defences such as Slowing the Flow at Pickering, would save many more houses. Can the Minister take the message back to her department, urgently, to stop the automatic right to connect to public sewers?

I am aware of my noble friend’s valuable input and interest in the Slowing the Flow scheme at Pickering and other natural flood management measures; this is not the first time that she has raised this issue. Current planning guidance has a hierarchy of sustainable drainage options that developers can choose from for rainwater drainage. These favour options such as soakaways and sustainable drainage systems—for example, to a local pond or stream—over connecting to public sewers. We need to include the option of connection to the wastewater sewer, as this is a matter of public health. Removing the overall right to connect to an existing sewer would offer no clear benefits and could slow down housing development. But I acknowledge my noble friend’s consistent concerns about this issue, which I will raise again within the department.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the towns served by the River Severn, starting in Shrewsbury, then down through Ironbridge, Bewdley and my own city of Worcester, have been particularly badly affected? Worcester is used to flooding; we lose our racecourse every winter and often, sadly, the cricket ground as well. However, the flooding in Bewdley and Ironbridge is on an unprecedented scale this year. Does the Minister agree that a task force consisting perhaps of the Environment Agency and the local authorities along the line of the river, working together to find a long-term solution, might be a good idea?

The noble Lord makes an extremely interesting point which I am happy to take back to the department. As he will know, this year in England we received 258% of our average February rainfall, with some areas, including his own, experiencing a month’s-worth of rain in 24 hours. I know that a number of people are still not able to get back into their homes. In the short term, we helped by quickly activating the Bellwin scheme, the flood recovery framework and the farming recovery fund. In the longer term, the Government announced in the Budget £200 million for place-based resilience schemes to help 25 local areas take forward wider innovative actions that improve their resilience to flooding. A scheme for the River Severn might fall within that purview.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what level of financial support the Government have provided to develop and apply catchment management policies over the past 12 months?

In the Budget, we announced £5.2 billion for a new six-year flood defence capital investment programme starting in 2021, which will protect 336,000 properties from flooding. Some £120 million has already been announced to repair flood defences which were damaged last winter, along with £39 million to repair the Environment Agency’s network of water supply and water navigation assets, to ensure that waterways remain open and navigable while contributing to flood and drought mitigation. In the longer term, we will set out policies to tackle flooding, and the Environment Agency will be publishing its updated flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy. The Government, as noble Lords will know, are committed to investing in flood-risk management, which continues to play a key role in improving protection for those affected. Since 2015, we have invested £2.6 billion, protecting 200,000 homes with over 600 flood defence schemes.

Is it not clear that matters to do with planning go much deeper now than previously? Some families have been flooded three times in the current year. We know that climate change is coming and getting worse. As someone who sat for a new town in the other place, is it not time for a much stricter review of planning for housing anywhere near any of these rivers or dams, and should we not concentrate our resources much more on garden cities and garden towns to provide decent homes for our people?

My noble friend will be aware from questions I have previously answered at the Dispatch Box that building on flood plains is already banned in certain categories, but the Government are taking a number of measures to encourage new natural flood management schemes. Our current policy is that all options should be assessed for measures to manage flood risk. There are 40 government flood defence programmes that include these new measures, and the Government expect this to increase. We have announced a £640 million investment in the nature for climate fund, which will invest in the natural environment by planting trees to cover an area the size of Birmingham, restoring peatlands, and providing more funding to protect the UK’s unique plants and animals. The Government continue to develop the new environmental land management scheme—a £3 billion scheme that will be the cornerstone of Defra’s new agricultural policy. This will enable farmers and other land managers to enter into agreements to be paid for delivering a range of public goods, as set out in the 25-year plan. Much of this will be involved in the reduction of and protection from environmental hazards such as flooding and drought.

Sitting suspended.