Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of building major new housing developments on functional flood plains in the context of climate change; and whether they intend to amend planning law accordingly.
My Lords, I am delighted to have secured this debate, which is very timely given the Environment Bill currently before the House and the planning Bill due imminently. I look forward to all contributions from noble Lords, not least my noble friend the Minister who will respond from the Front Bench. I am very aware that these issues relate to dual responsibility, not just to the Ministry of Housing but to Defra. My noble friend will be as aware as I am of the impact that floods have had across North Yorkshire and the whole region on many occasions. I refer to my interests in the register and note that I am co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Water Group and vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities.
The Library prepared a note today setting out why this is such an issue. Some 5.2 million properties are at risk of flooding, and there is a fear that that may double. The definition of a functional flood plain is
“land which would naturally flood with an annual probability of 1 in 20 or greater, or land that is designed to flood in an extreme flood.”
The Environment Agency has stated that
“as of 31 March 2019, 121,000 residential properties were in areas at high-risk of flooding from rivers and the sea, and 458,000 were in medium-risk areas. 239,000 residential properties were in areas at risk of flooding from surface water, with a further 395,000 at medium-risk.”
I have been campaigning on these issues for a number of years. They include such issues as ending the automatic right to connect water supply to major new developments, building more appropriate housing, ending the practice of building on functional flood plains, using more natural flood defences such as the Slowing the Flow at Pickering pilot project—which is a brilliant example of land use management in the interests of protecting communities downstream from flooding—and using SUDS and other sustainable drainage to prevent sewage spills into existing developments. Implementing other conclusions from the Pitt review of 2007 and giving water companies the status of statutory consultees on planning applications for major new housing developments would also help. There is a role for building regulations to make houses more resilient to floods and ending the combined sewer overflows.
The floods of 2007 brought substantial damage to Pickering and other parts of North Yorkshire, and the new phenomenon of surface water flooding. It is not generally understood that it is impossible to obtain insurance for houses built after 2009. Developers are meant to build houses that are not subject to flooding; if the houses then flood, the householders are ineligible for insurance. I hope that my noble friend will commit to keeping this under review and holding the developers to account.
I hope that my noble friend can also explain the obsession with building executive-style housing of three, four and five-bedroom houses, when there is an obvious need for starter homes of one or two bedrooms, which are equally in demand for those starting a career or employment and those facing retirement. I am thinking in particular of the farmers who will be invited to take retirement through the environmental land management schemes in the Agriculture Act; there is nowhere for them to go. This is an acute problem for tenant farmers and the whole rental and owner-occupier market.
Will my noble friend undertake to liaise with the Minister at Defra as regards catchment management control as the best way of tackling flood management and identifying areas prone to flooding? There are many bodies with a role to play; I am looking at the drainage boards, local authorities, farmers, landowners, district councils and others. I pay tribute to the work of drainage boards in this regard in low-lying rural areas and welcome the fact that the Environment Bill looks to create new ones and permit possible future expansion of internal drainage boards where appropriate.
I would like to highlight the importance of regular maintenance and routine management of river systems across a catchment and the damage caused where none is done. I make a plea to my noble friend and his counterparts in Defra for increased revenue spending to bolster resources with the use of properly skilled, experienced engineers. This would keep rivers, surface water systems, gullies, SUDS, insulation flows, and so on, clear of debris and would reduce the flood risk.
The environmental land management schemes have a role to play under the provisions of the Agriculture Act in rewarding farmers for public good, of which flood prevention and flood alleviation will be crucial: for example, by storing water temporarily to prevent communities downstream from flooding. However, as my noble friend may be aware, there is a problem with the Reservoirs Act possibly thwarting this. In that vein, I welcome the recent report on reservoir safety, published by Defra in March and drafted by Professor Balmforth, which focuses on the need for a better system of risk assessment of reservoirs rather than simply categorising them by size.
I draw my noble friend’s attention to the conclusions of the Pitt review which to date, as of June 2021, have not been adopted. In particular, recommendation 10 calls for
“The automatic right to connect surface water drainage of new developments to the sewerage system”
to be removed, or at least to amend that right to connect to a public sewer, making it conditional on meeting requirements in design, construction and the guidance code for adoption. We should also oblige local authorities and other highway agencies to seek to prevent, in maintaining, upgrading or building new infrastructure, untreated run-off from roads and other open surfaces from being discharged into water courses, such as was used successfully in the US Clean Water Act, to ensure a more sustainable management of surface water. That is the most unacceptable form of combined sewer overflow, which could be prevented.
Recommendation 20 of the Pitt review asked that
“The Government should resolve the issue of which organisations should be responsible for the ownership and maintenance of sustainable drainage systems.”
That is a particular problem for retrofit. Going forward, I accept that SUDS have a crucial role to play, but the question of who is responsible for them and maintaining them after construction is key to their success. Recommendation 21 says:
“Defra should work with Ofwat and the water industry to explore how appropriate risk-based standards for public sewerage systems can be achieved”—
for example, through a greater use of SUDS and more natural flood defences such as “slow the flow” schemes.
I will end with some questions to my noble friend and recall some of the recommendations of the report that I was involved with, Bricks & Water. Basically, we called for extra funding to be provided to local planning authorities to ensure that new development is located in accordance with the National Planning Policy Framework and to pursue enforcement action against developers who do not comply with planning conditions.
Given the uptake of property flood resilience measures and continued development within the flood plain, will the Government either extend the Flood Re scheme to cover residential buildings constructed after 1 January 2009 or put an alternative scheme in place? Further to Defra’s recent consultation on the amendments to the Flood Re scheme, will the Government extend this remit to offer discounted insurance premiums to home owners who have installed property flood resilience measures and provide funds for home owners to build back better after a flood?
I have further questions in conclusion for my noble friend. Can he provide further detail on the process of planning policies and processes for managing flood risk, which may need to be strengthened, and how he intends that they will reduce flood risks? Will the Government commit to further strengthening planning policy to prevent new development in areas of high flood risk, such as functional flood plains? Will the Government commit to consultation on inclusion of property flood resilience measures within building regulations as part of the ongoing review?
It is not just North Yorkshire, Pickering and the Vale of York as well as the whole region of Yorkshire that has suffered these substantial floods; it is also the case with Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire and other parts of the country. Therefore, I end with a call to my noble friend and the Government that, based on the experience of floods that we have seen in successive years, we should build appropriate houses in appropriate places and end the practice of building inappropriate houses in inappropriate places. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate these issues, and I look forward to other comments in the course of the afternoon.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, on getting this debate and on showing her expertise and knowledge in this field. In particular, I commend her report Bricks & Water, which raises many of these issues.
This Session of Parliament has seen rather a contradictory approach by the Government in this area. On the one hand, we have the Environment Bill and the associated preparations for climate change in COP 26, along with a general recognition of the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change. On the other hand, we have a planning reform Bill that is likely to dilute or omit protections and adaptations that are needed due to man’s intervention and climate change.
We know that substantial numbers of houses are prone to flooding and that extreme events such as massive storms and sea surges will be far more frequent. We know that surface flooding and the breakdowns in drainage and sewerage systems are already with us. However, we are still not taking the measures needed, and the problem is becoming worse. We need to ensure that developers and the construction industry do not add to the problem and that local authorities do not see building on flood plains or flood-prone areas as an easy way in which to meet their affordable housing quotas or to provide up-market riverside dwellings to raise the tone of the neighbourhood.
Frankly, we need an absolute ban on building on category 3 land, at the very least. At present, the only brake on such developments beyond the individual planning processes is the role of the Environment Agency, which has responsibility not only for mapping the flood risk but for general guidance on developments in flood-prone areas—and of course, that is where you find the experts on total flood systems and river systems management, as the noble Baroness indicated. Of course, it is a statutory consultee in such planning proposals, but, frankly, that does not work.
I was a member of the board of the Environment Agency when we were explicitly given these new roles. I remember saying at the time that we were accepting responsibility without power—the privilege of muggins through the ages. I am afraid that that anxiety has been borne out: the Environment Agency has not had the resources to examine anything like all planning proposals, even the large ones. When it does comment or object and call for modifications to developers’ proposals, it can be totally ignored by the local authorities and even by the Planning Inspectorate. The Environment Agency combines expertise in this field with understanding of river and flood responses, yet it has no real power.
I suggest that, on the one hand, the presumption of any proposals for building at least on category 3 flood plains should be absolutely prohibited, and the Environment Agency should have the power to enforce that—or, alternatively, given the Bill that is before us, we could place a duty on the office for environmental protection that there should be no new developments on land that is most subject to flooding and, if necessary, the OEP could overrule the planning system, the Environment Agency and any other public body, if new developments are being given the nod. That is a possible role for the OEP, which would make it effective in this adaptation field.
I have a number of questions for the Minister to answer now or in writing. How many planning decisions in England over the past five years have involved building on flood plains, particularly in category 3 areas? On how many of them had Environment Agency advice been given as a statutory consultee, and to how many did the agency object or put in significant modifications? How many have actually gone ahead?
To go back to what the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, asked, how many of Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations remain unenacted? In more immediate terms, will the Minister and his colleagues in MHCLG insert a new clause in the planning Bill to ban absolutely all building on flood plains or at least in category 3 areas?
My Lords, I am pleased to take part in this debate instigated by my noble friend Lady McIntosh. In case my noble friend the Minister thinks this is a Yorkshire issue, I underline again that while my experience is also Yorkshire-based, the problems of flooding affect, have affected and will affect in future upwards of 5 million properties, homes and livelihoods. The effect both economically and traumatically on individuals, families and businesses is both terrible and long-lasting.
Climate change presents great challenges, and all the preparations and changes to planning laws that we might be contemplating now have to reflect a worst-case scenario over the next 50 to 100 years. Too often we legislate for the short term without fully appreciating the likely extent of the problems that we face in the medium or long term.
Flooding has of course been with us in the past. I remember the floods that affected Ripon and other parts of Yorkshire in 2007, as my noble friend said, when the Skell, Ure and Laver rivers, which all meet there, overflowed and a large number of properties were flooded. More recently, there has been a propensity of flooding in York and parts of Leeds. In the case of Ripon, the 2007 events led to a £14 million scheme that gave some protection to properties. In reaction to those events, there was also determination to make changes to architecture, providing improvements to vulnerable buildings so that they could meet any future threats.
It is on resilience to flooding that I wish to concentrate my remarks. The excellent report from the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, under the chairmanship of my good friend Neil Parish, called inter alia for a more clearly defined flood resilience objective, or PFR. This includes the construction of flood defences but also deals with the pressing issue of the nature of the construction of properties that have received planning permission on flood plains, where the risk of flooding is small but possible in the lifetime of the buildings.
In other parts of the world where flooding is a threat, there are clear requirements that any construction must be undertaken in a way that minimises the effects of flood-water. We need the same approach here. Flood doors, airbrick covers and non-return valves should be part of regulations; underground tanks for excess water or houses on stilts should be part of the architects’ thinking; and sharing knowledge and experience should be more encouraged.
The Select Committee report underlines that few PFR measures have been introduced. The Environment Agency suggested in 2019 that over 200,000 residential properties should have resilience measures added, but currently only 500 properties a year are being enhanced. The insurance companies are keen to see this as well, and in some cases where flooding has occurred are offering sums to ensure that PFR is applied to properties on top of flood-related losses.
What about the future? Local planning authorities are caught between a rock and a hard place—or a potentially flooded place. They are being pressed to approve more and more applications for development, including on functional flood plains, and they feel the pressure all the time. This means that Environment Agency advice on flood mitigation can be overridden by planning authorities. That must be reversed. The agency should be able to veto developments unless they have proper flood mitigation in place. Although the current building regulations have been brought up to date to ensure certain standards of insulation, safety and convenience, they must be amended to include flood protection measures for new properties. I can sense no resistance to such changes from anyone.
We must try to ensure that, where the risks of flooding are new and presenting themselves for the first time, the insurance industry responds positively to small and medium-sized enterprises that might not be able to mitigate their losses or be eligible for government assistance. The Flood Re scheme to smooth residential property insurance cover is of help, but we all know of the distress caused by flooding and its long-term effects, which can never be fully compensated.
I conclude my remarks by again paying tribute to my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering. The flood defence scheme to which she referred in Pickering itself was cleverly designed to slow the flow of flood-water through the headwaters on Pickering Beck. It was promoted and supported by my noble friend with great enthusiasm and energy. An equal display of enthusiasm and energy by the Government in their flooding and planning policies would be most welcome to us all. Naturally, we expect nothing less of our noble friend the Minister.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, my friend from the other side of the Chamber. I support what she and the noble Lords, Lord Whitty and Lord Kirkhope, said. Quite honestly, it is ridiculous that anybody builds on flood plains. I could understand it if we were skilled at building on stilts, an idea alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, and skilled at accessing places on water, but building the sort of houses we build on flood plains is madness.
We all know that flooding is becoming increasingly severe and is expected to get worse and worse as climate change worsens. The Climate Change Committee warned just last week that the climate is changing,
“as studies into extreme weather events show that human-induced climate change has increased the likelihood of some observed UK precipitation extreme events linked to significant flooding impacts.”
That basically means there will be more flash floods as rain hits us harder and faster than we are used to, so we are likely to see more flooding. The Environment Agency has estimated that the number of houses built on flood-risk areas will double to 1 million homes in the next 50 years, and I think that will be a gross underestimation unless the Government change something quickly.
One argument the Secretary of State for Housing, Robert Jenrick, put forward for building all these new homes was that it would help young people on to the housing ladder. I do not know how many young people can afford a house in the south-east of England, but I suspect not very many. Of course, developers do not care. They get the money for the houses regardless; they just want to build as many homes as they possibly can as quickly and as cheaply as they can.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, talked about starter homes, community land trusts and affordable homes. These are options we must look into and be more serious about. For some reason, although the Government talk about them and set up ways to have them, they never seem to happen. We cannot solve Britain’s housing crisis—it is not just in Yorkshire but is a national crisis—by building shoddy homes in dangerous places, which is what this is. We need high-quality, safe, energy-efficient homes situated in ecologically sound places. That means that they stay dry. If the Government live up to their stated environmental ambitions or have the slightest bit of common sense, the way forward is obvious: we simply do not build on flood plains.
This should not even be a debate. I hope the Minister will state the obvious today— that will not happen—but I fear we will get some woolly answer about consultations and things happening in due course. It is a national problem that we cannot fix once these houses are built, because they will not be safe, dry or good to live in and, as several noble Lords have already said, it will be impossible to insure them. Once again, the Government are building for failure, and I do not understand why any Government would do that.
I congratulate my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering, not only on securing this debate but on her very good introductory speech on this matter. I refer to my interests as set out in the register, particularly those relating to wildlife and conservation: I am on the advisory board of River Action and chairman of the Essex Climate Action Commission.
My noble friend and other noble Lords have raised many pertinent points with which I would agree. Flooding obviously causes misery, as well as expense. As we have heard, particularly from my noble friend Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate, the matter of insurance is a real problem for many people. I also emphasise that I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb: the idea of building on a flood plain would, to most people, seem a complete no-brainer. Why would you want to do that when there is that risk, particularly when you do not have to? However, as has been said, local authorities and others are under pressure to find new areas for homes.
We have heard how my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering worked very hard regarding the flooding measures. There are also natural flood reduction measures that can be considered, but they are not the only answer.
I mentioned that I am chair of the Essex Climate Action Commission; we have been looking at how many existing houses are already potentially at risk of flooding due to climate change, not least because of the rising sea level. That is something else that must be borne in mind.
I want to give some thoughts to my noble friend the Minister that might be worth looking into. The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, of which I have been a member for a long time, has produced a useful piece of work called A Blue Recovery. One of the many things in that is how new wetland cities have been created—particularly in China, but there is no reason why we should not look at that here. We can think back to the garden cities that were created quite a few decades ago now. I think the idea of wetland cities might be very appealing. We might be able to do flood reduction, and it could be a nice place to live. To go back the idea of just putting up a lot of houses—never mind the affordability, which is a crucial matter—I have found that, once people have got into those alleged “starter homes”, a lot of them want to move out of those estates as quickly as possible. If, instead, you created a whole new town or city based around waterways and wetlands, it would be good for biodiversity, flood prevention and, critically, carbon capture.
I just say: please, we must not build on flood plains, but let us also think of other innovative ideas that might help.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, on this important topic. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, on securing this important debate and for outlining comprehensively the case for addressing housing developments on functional flood plains in the context of climate change and the whole role of planning in relation to that.
I recall that, under the then chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, the EFRA Select Committee in the other place, of which I was a member, had an inquiry on this specific issue and took evidence in relation to Flood Re and sustainable drainage schemes. Particular reference was made by the noble Baroness, as chair, of the whole area of non-implementation of the Pitt review, which was shortly after 2012. It is interesting to note that these issues are still pertinent. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, had submitted an amendment to the Environment Bill which urges the Secretary of State to make provision by way of regulations to approve and promote sustainable drainage systems and natural flood defences.
The Government, by way of strengthening the Environment Bill, should ensure that proper and adequate controls are put in place so that effective mitigation measures ensure that major new housing developments are fully protected and episodes of flooding are avoided. It is worth noting that we are now experiencing warmer, wetter summers and warmer winters—undoubtedly the result of climate change. Heavy rainfall with large amounts of surface water has already caused problems for housing estates constructed on functional flood plains.
I realise that this issue is devolved to the devolved Administrations, but I would like to give an example from my former constituency where I reside. From a Northern Ireland perspective, last summer we experienced very heavy rainfall in Newcastle, which is at the foothills of the Mourne mountains where the rivers flow directly into the Irish Sea. This is a coastal town and the dwellers experienced much inundation of water. Some have now lived in other properties for a considerable time while waiting for their houses to be renovated and improved or while waiting on the necessary insurance. Because of that heavy rainfall, rivers flowing into the Irish Sea burst their banks and have overcome roads, footpaths and houses, causing considerable damage and distress.
My colleague, the Minister for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland, has accelerated a flood alleviation scheme, on which work has already started. Previous flood alleviation schemes in this town, which were initially successful, simply displaced water, which resulted in last year’s flooding episode. It is important to ensure that the latest scheme is resilient and resistant to the displacement of water to other locations. Therefore, the National Planning Policy Framework is key. It states that:
“Where development is necessary … the development should be made safe for its lifetime without increasing flood risk elsewhere.”
It is important that housing, both private and social, is provided where there is a clear need as long as it meets environmental standards and is resistant to flooding waters. That is why construction on flood plains should be opposed unless there is a specific need, and then it should be carefully circumscribed by planning regulations. Sustainable drainage schemes should be availed of. Like other noble Lords and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, I ask when the PLP review will be fully implemented, and when will a planning Bill be published that will deal with these particular issues?
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, for giving us the opportunity yet again to raise our concerns about concreting over natural flood plains. I declare my interest as a vice-president of the LGA. I am currently working on the Environment Bill, where both water management and recycling are high on the agenda. My speech is largely recycled from previous contributions.
The truth is that your Lordships continue to make very valid and cogent points about the dangers of building on flood plains, but the Government continue to ignore this. Many years ago, a developer put in an application on the Somerset levels. This was rejected by the local district council, but the developer appealed. The then Secretary of State overruled the district council and allowed the development. This was before the catastrophic floods of 2014, when the Somerset levels were on every TV news bulletin.
Ministers and opposition spokespeople visited in their droves and royalty came, complete with wellies—although, to be honest, they really needed waders. They came to look at the plight of those whose homes had been flooded—a miserable experience. Some of those flooded were in new houses, some in homes which had been there for a considerable time. The ancient village of Muchelney was completely cut off and could be accessed only by boat. It took several months for the water to completely recede and some sort of normality to return.
There are an estimated 5.2 million properties in England at risk of flooding. The Environment Agency says that if the current rate of planning applications on functional flood plains continues, this could double in 50 years. The Somerset Levels are not the only area in the country prone to repeated flooding, as we have heard. The Environment Agency website has detailed maps of where functional flood plains are, so this is not a mystery to planning authorities.
On the district council where I was a councillor, all planning applications had spaces for the Environment Agency, highway authority, et cetera, to make comments on the application. Often they left them blank or merely had no concerns. All statutory bodies are extremely busy, and the Environment Agency in particular has to respond to emergencies on a regular basis, especially now that climate change has radically altered our weather patterns. It has not helped that Defra, in its wisdom, has cut the Environment Agency budget. I believe it is time for the Government to make it a legal requirement for the Environment Agency to respond to all planning applications of more than five homes, where they are likely to be situated on a functional flood plain.
It would, of course, be helpful if local authorities were given the power to refuse all applications on flood plains, regardless of their merits, unless significant flood prevention schemes were part of the application. Developers believe that a likely occurrence of once in 200 years means they can ignore guidance. There are many communities in which a “once in 200 years occurrence” has happened twice in the last 20 years.
The Somerset Levels are very definitely functional flood plains. When severe rain is predicted, there is a plan for which sluice gates will be opened, in what order and when. Sometimes the whole area is flooded if the rain is persistent over a long period of time. The whole object of flooding the plains is to keep a safe level of water in the River Parrett and prevent the town of Bridgwater flooding. That objective has been fulfilled for many years, but for how much longer if more homes are erected? Perhaps those homes will be erected on platforms via stilts and residents will buy boats instead of cars to keep in the spaces under their homes.
The Government’s proposed planning Bill has come in for considerable criticism; I have a premonition that at some stage I will be speaking during its passage. It is time that the Government had an overall strategy on how they are going to manage water, safely store it during winter for use during the summer droughts and deliver the number of homes needed without building anywhere near flood plains. Can the Minister confirm whether there is such a strategy? This must be a strategy that local people with knowledge can contribute to and not one that is cobbled together from on high.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and others have raised very significant issues. I hope the Minister is listening. It is unacceptable for London’s city-dwelling civil servants to produce policies which have devastating effects on rural areas. I am sure he is aware of this and will be taking note of our comments.
My Lords, I add my appreciation to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, for creating the opportunity for us to take part in this debate, which is extremely close to my heart. My first crisis as leader of Leeds City Council was dealing with the impact of Storm Eva around Christmas 2015—the worst storm to hit Leeds since the mid-19th century.
It is hard to really get across just how much the impact of these events hits at the time, but the lasting effects are truly devastating. When he is able to do so, I recommend that the Minister visits Leeds to see the work that we have done since that time. Our flood alleviation scheme brings together a combination of the most advanced technology in Europe with natural flood alleviation measures, which we have heard so much about today, and the Pickering model for Leeds, going right up into the Yorkshire Dales, with extensive tree planting and other land-use management measures. The issue remains that so many people are still at real risk of flooding in future. It is not an accident that there are so many voices from Yorkshire here today. One thing that we have managed to do in Yorkshire is to bring together a whole range of different constituencies to look at all the measures that we can take to address this issue.
It is now over a year ago that the chief executive of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan, gave a very stark warning about the risks of housebuilding on flood plains. We are very disturbed to see that the Government have failed to take any action that we can see up to this point. All the comments today go further to get across just how serious the situation is. We have heard about the number of properties at risk of flooding, which equates to one in six properties, and the projections into the future are very stark indeed, if serious action is not taken. One thing that we do know is that, combined with sea levels on the rise, more extreme weather events are likely to take place. So why are the Government still allowing completely inappropriate buildings on flood plains? It simply has to stop—and it is my firm belief that the power to do so is within the Government’s hands.
Could the Government equip local authorities, as the local planning authorities, with the necessary funding and powers to resist unsuitable development on flood plains? They must also include the powers to consider flood-resilient design in all areas at risk of flooding. We have a real problem with repeated cuts to funding for local government across the board, which has led to planning departments across the country with too scarce a resource to be able properly to consider all the complexities of these applications. According to the LGA, what we know is that councils have lost 60 pence out of every pound from central government funding over the last 10 or 11 years. Can the Minister confirm what recent engagement he has had with local authority leaders over the funding of planning departments? Can we insist on future funding flexibility to local government and reflect the increases in line with inflation?
On top of this, the Government’s own National Planning Policy Framework and planning practice guidance on flood risk and coastal change do not even mandate councils not to build on flood plains—they merely request it. Those are the Government’s principal documents giving guidance to councils on flooding and flood plain areas. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government intend to update those documents? This issue is urgent and the Government’s action must be, too. I hope that the Minister can assure the Committee that change will be forthcoming.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering on securing this important debate and campaigning on flood-related matters so ardently. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed this afternoon. The debate has been passionate and very well informed. I am glad to hear that noble Lords share the Government’s commitment to ensure that flood resilience and reducing flood risk is a priority.
Flooding presents a risk to homes, towns and cities every year. The devastating effects of flooding can be seen year on year and, as my noble friend set out in her Question, climate change is a critical consideration in thinking about the future. As the recent UK Climate Risk Independent Assessment sets out, climate change will increase sea levels and associated flooding as well as river, surface and groundwater flooding changes due to altering rainfall patterns. Flooding goes right to the heart of our communities, and the Government take that risk very seriously.
To directly address my noble friend’s Question, our national planning policy is clear: new housebuilding and most other forms of development should not be permitted in the functional flood plain, where flood-water has to flow or be stored. Areas at little or no risk of flooding from any source should always be developed in preference to areas at higher risk of flooding. I cannot comment on individual planning applications or development plans, but our planning policy ensures that only water-compatible or essential infrastructure developments are allowed in the functional flood plain. That should not include new homes.
The National Planning Policy Framework sets out a clear, overarching policy on flood risk: inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding, whether an existing or a potential future risk, should be avoided and, where possible, alternative locations at a lower flood risk should be identified. That is known as the sequential test. Where development is necessary, and where there are no suitable sites available in areas with a lower risk of flooding, the proposed development should be made safe without increasing flood risk elsewhere. This is the exception test. Where these tests are not met, new development should not be allowed.
That policy recognises that it is unrealistic to completely ban all development in flood-risk areas, as currently around 11% of England is in national flood risk zone 3, which is commonly referred to as high-risk. Flood zone 3 is split into two separate zones by the local planning authority: zones 3a and 3b, where 3b is classified as functional flood plain and has the highest likelihood of flooding. Large parts of many major towns and cities comprise land classified as flood zone 3. However, I have to stress that building on land assessed as high-risk is not the same as functional flood plain. Even then, building in flood zone 3 is not common, as less than 0.2% of land use in flood zone 3 is residential. Areas at the lowest risk of flooding can still experience flooding following a very heavy downpour, which is why we have prioritised the use of sustainable drainage systems for all development in areas at risk of flooding.
In addition to the framework, there are further safeguards in place to protect against inappropriate development on areas at high risk of flooding. The Environment Agency must be consulted on planning applications in areas at risk of flooding from rivers and the sea, and in critical drainage areas. Lead local flood authorities must be consulted on surface water drainage considerations in applications for all major new developments. Their comments and advice should help inform the local planning authorities’ decisions on planning applications and ensure that they are in line with the framework policy on flood risk.
The framework is clear that flood risk assessments are needed for all areas where development is proposed that are at risk of flooding from all sources, both now and in future. Appropriate design and risk considerations that include an allowance for climate change need to be included in any flood risk assessment. Allowances that consider future impacts of climate change on flood risk incorporate a precautionary risk-based approach for more vulnerable areas. This means that increased levels of resilience are factored in.
Our planning guidance recognises the need for appropriate flood resilience and resistance measures. Guidance highlights that such measures are unlikely to be suitable as the only mitigation measure to manage flood risk. We are clear that flood resistance and resilience measures should not be used to justify development in inappropriate locations.
For any major developments within flood zones 2 and 3 where the Environment Agency raises objections on flood risk grounds, the local planning authority is required to consult the Secretary of State if it is minded to grant an application against the agency’s objections. This provides the Secretary of State with an opportunity to call in the decision.
In July 2020, the Government published the policy statement Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management, which sets out the Government’s long-term ambition to create a nation more resilient to future flood and coastal erosion risk. This means that we will reduce the risk of harm to people, the environment and the economy. Boosting our resilience will mean that more properties will be protected and communities will be better prepared to reduce the impacts when flooding happens.
The Government are not standing still on this issue. We are assessing the current protections in the National Planning Policy Framework and are considering options for further reform, as part of our wider ambitions for an improved planning system. As part of that, we recently consulted on proposed changes to the framework, including to clarify that the sequential test should consider all sources of flood risk.
We are also finalising our review of our policy for building in areas at flood risk. This will seek to ensure that communities have the reassurances that they need that future development will be safe from floods. The Government are investing a record £5.2 billion in a six-year capital programme for flood defences that will better protect 336,000 properties from flooding and coastal erosion, which will become even more vital in the light of our changing climate.
In summary, my noble friend asks an important question. I can reassure her and the Committee that we not only have incredibly strong protections against the development of new homes on the functional flood plain but that we are working to ensure that these are as effective as possible.
I will now respond to some of the additional specific points that have been raised during the debate. We had a call from the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb and Lady Blake, to have a complete ban on development on functional flood plains. As a Government, we feel that to ban development in flood zone 3 would mean that land that could safely be built on could no longer provide the economic opportunities that our coastal and riverside settlements depend on. That is why we are against an outright ban.
My noble friends Lady McIntosh and Lord Randall and the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, wanted to see sufficient resource for local authorities both to improve flood resistance and to boost enforcements. The Government want to ensure that local authority planning departments are well resourced and that planning professionals have the right skills to make creative decisions and take forward our ambitions, which will be outlined in the forthcoming planning reform Bill. Since 2010, we have provided direct grant support to local authorities and neighbourhood planning groups to help them engage their communities in neighbourhood planning to shape and influence the places in which they live and work.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh also raised the issue of the automatic right to connect to sewerage. The Government’s planning practice guidance already includes a hierarchy for sustainable drainage options that favours non-sewer solutions. The guidance is clear that draining to a combined sewer should be the least-favoured option in new development. Removing the right to connect to an existing sewer does not offer clear benefits over the current arrangements. It is likely to add costs and delay the planning process.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh also referred to catchment management control liaison and asked whether I could liaise with Defra on that matter. In its Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management policy paper, Defra has committed to increase the number of waste management schemes within and across catchments to reduce flood risk and help manage drought risk, and I can assure my noble friend that we will work with Defra on that.
My noble friend also referred to Flood Re and asked whether we could extend it to those homes that were built after 2009. Homes built after 2009 are one of the categories of property excluded from Flood Re, as she pointed out. This mirrors a similar exclusion in the statement of principles, a voluntary agreement between Her Majesty’s Government and the insurance industry that was the forerunner of Flood Re. Measures introduced in 2006 and reaffirmed in 2012 through the National Planning Policy Framework should ensure that homes are built only where appropriately robust flood mitigation is in place.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, also referred to the implementation of the Pitt review recommendations. Defra has informed me that all recommendations from the review were accepted by the Government, and the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 was introduced as a result.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, wanted to know the publication date of the planning reform Bill. It was announced in the Queen’s Speech and will be introduced in the autumn.
I conclude by reassuring your Lordships that the Government are committed to reducing the risk that flooding poses to our communities. We acknowledge that climate change will increase the risk of flooding. We have strong protections in place to ensure that inappropriate developments are not given permission to go ahead in areas of high flood risk, especially new homes. We are working hard to go further via our planning reforms, investing £5.2 billion in flood defences and reviewing flood policy.
My Lords, the Grand Committee stands adjourned until 4.40 pm. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.