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Flood And Coastal Defence Policy

Volume 401: debated on Wednesday 5 March 2003

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Jim Fitzpatrick.]

1.31 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

I am pleased to open this debate, which gives hon. Members an opportunity to discuss flood defence, a subject of particular importance to many people—[Interruption]—including, belatedly, the Opposition.

The Government have a good story to tell on flood and coastal defence, and a good record. Given the nature of our country—the number of our rivers and the fact that we are an island—we have effective structures in place. The Environment Agency, our lead body, is an effective organisation, and our system is based on river catchments, which is the most appropriate way of ensuring the delivery of flood and coastal defence, but we also integrate our approach effectively with issues such as the forthcoming water framework directive, environmental issues, diffuse pollution issues and biodiversity.

I pay tribute to all staff involved in the recent flooding incidents—most notably that of January 2003—including those who work for the Environment Agency, local authorities, internal drainage boards, British Waterways, our emergency services and many local community groups. Many of them worked through the holiday period and gave incredible support, dedication and unstinting service in dealing with those floods.

I concur with my hon. Friend's tribute to staff at the Environment Agency, community groups, parish councils and volunteer search and rescue people, but does he agree—I raised this matter with him in Westminster Hall on 4 February—that there is a question concerning the amount of resources available to emergency planning officers throughout the country? I would contend—as would the Local Government Association—that there is a total lack of funding within the civil defence grant. I understand that the total civil defence grant—

Order. I would contend that that is overlong for an intervention. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will catch my eye later to develop his point more fully.

I understand the gist of what my hon. Friend says, and he did make that point in Westminster Hall. I said at the time that he was absolutely right: there is a need to overhaul and review the procedures for emergency response, which is a Home Office lead responsibility. The co-ordination of flood events and other civil emergencies is part of its responsibility. I know my hon. Friend's concerns about this and that he has been working with his community groups. I will draw his points about the need for adequate funding to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Home Office.

The Minister mentioned that it is Government policy to have catchment areas and integration on rivers, but that is not happening at present. There is a massive flood prevention scheme at Bewdley on the River Severn that has shoved all the water down to my constituency. The Minister has not got there yet; what he says may be an aspiration, but when will it becomereality?

It is reality because it is based on catchments. There are three key criteria applied to any flood defence scheme. The first is the impact on the environment. The second is technical: whether the scheme works effectively and, within that, whether there are any implications for other communities in the area that must be taken into account. The third is a cost-benefit analysis. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the implications of one scheme for other communities are taken into account.

I am grateful to the Government for their response to the consultation exercise, but does my hon. Friend agree that a river is a drainage system, draining the entire catchment from source to sea, and that it would be wholly illogical to place the cost of carrying flood water away from upland areas to those living downstream by imposing a flood plain levy? Does he agree that drainage is a public good—one of those things from which everyone benefits, and to which everyone should contribute?

Drainage is a public good, and my hon. Friend is pre-empting what I am going to say about the funding review. The debate today is an opportunity for hon. Members to respond to that. I understand his point: drainage is important for the whole of our country, and it is for that reason that the recommendation of the funding review was that the bulk of flooding and coastal defence expenditure should continue to come from the Exchequer. We as a Government accept that. Some people get direct benefits in relation to the defences that are provided and there has always been a partnership approach between local and central Government, with central Government paying the bulk of the expenditure.Within the review, there were a number of recommendations about additional sources of funding, on which I shall expand in a moment.

My hon. Friend was right that a flood plain levy was one of the suggestions. We are looking carefully at the recommendations of the report, but the idea of the flood plain levy in the consultation was almost universally unpopular. I can reassure him that a flood plain levy is a very low priority for the Government and we would like to consider other issues.

I want to stress the positives in relation to flood and coastal defence and the improvements that we are constantly striving to make. However, I know that, despite our successes, there is no consolation to anyone who has suffered from flooding. I want to make that clear and express my sympathy to those who have been victims of flooding. We are not complacent and we are striving to make the system better. I shall touch on what we are doing today.

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend is doing, but does he acknowledge that, sadly, areas such as Hemsworth are subject to flooding by human excrement because of the lack of drainage? In his expenditure review, will he look at enhancing the expenditure on such matters by private companies such as Yorkshire Water?

That issue will not form part of this funding review, which deals with funding for flood and coastal defence. However, my hon. Friend makes a very important point that enables me to stress that the sources of flooding are not simply fluvial. For example, run-off from fields and roads, and small ditches belonging to riparian owners, can contribute to flooding, and sewer flooding is indeed a major problem. We, along with the Ofwat regulator, are embarking on a price review of the investment programme for water and sewerage companies for the next five years. I know that sewer flooding is an issue of particular importance to many hon. Members, and I want to reassure them that in my talks with the regulator, following the Government's initial submission, I have asked that more priority be given to addressing that issue in sewerage companies' future forward programmes. I know that many hon. Members will welcome that approach.

The Minister will undoubtedly be aware that flooding is a very emotive subject in the county of Essex. This year, Essex commemorates the 50th anniversary of the great flood of 1953, which killed almost 100 people in the county. He will also be aware that central Government funding for flood defences in Essex has recently been reduced, and that this, too, is an emotive issue, given our history. Will he therefore agree to meet me and a delegation from Essex county council, so that we can debate the issue of flood defence in Essex? Perhaps we can persuade him to look again at one or two of these important points.

As hon. Members know, I am always willing to meet them to discuss their individual constituency problems, and to do what I can to address them. I do not know the details of the Essex budget, but what I do know is that budgets in individual areas fluctuate from year to year, depending on the schemes that have been approved, and on the schemes submitted by the regional flood defence committees. Of course, the responsibility for deciding on local priorities rests with the regional flood defence committee, which, along with the Environment Agency, decides on the priorities and submits the scheme to Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Our job is to provide grant aid, and to make a technical evaluation of individual schemes. If the hon. Gentleman will write to me with his concerns, I shall be only too happy to see if I can address them.

If hon. Members will give me time to develop my speech a little further, I shall be happy to take interventions.

We will have the opportunity to discuss that issue. Indeed, the point that I was about to make is that we have increased resources substantially. The House might be interested to learn what has happened since we came to power in 1997. Back then, annual expenditure was some ¤310 million. After increases in successive spending reviews, we are now set to spend ¤564 million by 2005–06. That is an increase of ¤254 million—or more than 80 per cent., in cash terms, in less than a decade. That is a considerable increase.

Adequate funding is important, but flood defence is not just about spending money. We also have to put in place the means to target investment where it is most needed, to get the best value for taxpayers' money, and to ensure that our aims and objectives are achieved. They include the production of a set of high—level targets for flood and coastal defence bodies to follow; strengthened guidance to local planning authorities on building on flood plains; better procedures for appraising schemes, to ensure that taxpayers' money is well spent; and new scheme appraisal and priority score techniques, to ensure that the priorities are open and transparent in the allocation of funds for individual schemes. We also want to reinforce the strategic approach to flood defences by developing the shoreline management planning initiative, and by introducing new concepts of catchment flood management plans and coastal habitat management plans. As hon. Members have said, and as we accept entirely, it is important to address food management on a catchment basis.

We also want to look at new technology, designs and innovations, such as temporary community defences, which can be erected temporarily in particular areas when there is a flood risk warning. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) has raised issues such as this in general terms, and in relation to his constituency. He might be interested to know that we have approved a £600,000 DEFRA grant for the purchase of temporary community defences in the Severn area. Worcester is one of a number of areas that will be included in the pilot trial scheme for such defences.

I want to say a big "thank you" to the Minister on behalf of the people of Worcester, and in particular on behalf of Worcester Action Against Flooding, a pressure group that is meeting tonight. It will be mightily impressed by his announcement, and the champagne will certainly be flowing tonight in Worcester.

That is the best kind of flowing to have in discussing these issues. Many organisations, and in particular those that are part of the National Flood Forum—a body that I regard very highly—are considering these matters. I have to be honest and say that, although we are increasing funding and looking at different solutions, sadly, for all sorts of technical reasons, in some areas it will be very hard to find an effective engineered solution. Although such temporary defences will not be the answer in all circumstances, they may be in some. We certainly want to extend such provision further in order to give communities flood and coastal defence.

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said about increased resources, but what about the smaller schemes in villages such as Colwinston, in my constituency, which fall between the Environment Agency and the local authority? Such places can raise their own money—often, it is private sector money—but sometimes it is not quite enough. Is he thinking of any schemes to help them to get additional funding when they have shown their own initiative?

That is a very interesting suggestion. Indeed, I have encountered communities and individuals who have put up their own money to provide their own flood defences. Incidentally, they have to go through the same planning and appraisal process to ensure that they will not impact on other individuals or communities. I warmly welcome local community initiatives to try to raise funds. As my hon. Friend says, they sometimes fall just a little short, and I undertake to discuss this matter with the Environment Agency and the regional flood defence committees, to see whether some initiative might give financial support to those who are prepared to meet a proportion of the funding. We have examined one or two such schemes on a pilot basis. The particular circumstances must be considered, and the idea needs some thinking through, but I can assure him that we will discuss it.

I am interested in the suggestion that the Minister made, before he moved on to temporary flood prevention measures, about new plans. I am concerned that the creation and implementation of new plans will drive back much of the work that has already been done in some areas. A brief example is what happened in my constituency in 1994, when such a plan was drawn up. That plan still has not been implemented because of new regulations piled on new regulations.

I do not know the details of that plan, but it may well have come fairly low on the regional flood defence committee's priority scoring league table. Although the plan may be regarded as desirable, it may have a relatively low score. If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me with the details, I will be very happy to provide him with some more information.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving money to Worcestershire but, as he said, value for money counts as much as anything. In that context, why has he rejected the concept of helping self-help schemes, which seem to offer very good value for money?

We have considered a pilot scheme in partnership with a local council. Self-help schemes are designed to protect individual houses, which is fine, and the protection of individual homes is the responsibility of householders. The commitment for across-the-board grant aid for self-help schemes could be large and open-ended, and would divert money from larger-scale community defences, which protect a lot of homes and property. A balance therefore has to be struck. We take the issue seriously, however, and the hon. Gentleman may know that the Department has put money into the evaluation of various self-help devices and the establishment of a kite mark of standards so that people know that the devices have been tested and that they are buying something effective.

I welcome the innovation by many companies, including British companies, which have produced a range of products to assist people to protect their homes. The National Flood Forum has set up flood fairs—people in flood-risk areas can go along and see some of those devices being demonstrated and explained, which is useful and effective. We take such developments seriously. The support that we can give is limited but, where we can give it, we are certainly willing to do so in the way that I have described.

Yesterday, I announced the Government's conclusions on the flood and coastal defence funding review. The full written statement was given to the House yesterday morning, because I wanted to give Members an opportunity to read and think about it before raising their concerns in today's debate. I am happy to set out the main points of our response.

I thank the Minister both for giving way and for his courtesy in giving the House that statement, which was useful. Will he tell us what will require primary legislation and what can be done by regulation? If there are matters requiring primary legislation, will they be incorporated in the Water Bill?

One or two issues will require primary legislation, but those in our announcement, particularly the reorganization of regional flood defences and local flood defence committees, will be included in the Water Bill.

To recap, in our response we accepted that the majority of the service should continue to be funded by the Exchequer. I have outlined the way in which expenditure has grown under this Government, but, to meet the challenges ahead, we need to investigate alternative sources of funding, recognising that there has always been an element of shared responsibility in funding, especially when the beneficiaries are identical to those of the flood defence service. That will reduce at least some of the burden falling on the general taxpayer, who may receive little or no direct benefit from flood defences—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett).

I confirm that the Government are continuing to investigate alternative sources of funding identified by the review group. We are paying attention to the idea of a development connection charge—a tax to be paid by developers in the flood plain. I know that new taxes and charges are never popular, and shall certainly bear in mind the issues that were raised when we consulted. I should stress that no definitive decision has been made about a connection charge, as there are many details that have to be considered and resolved. However, we are giving thought to the issue.

I took careful note of the report on flood and coastal defence by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to which I pay tribute. I have always held the Select Committee in high regard, and DEFRA takes its views seriously and tries to respond to them. The Select Committee called for streamlining and simplification of the institutional arrangements for flood and coastal defence. We concluded that the Environment Agency should take responsibility for all rivers creating the greatest flood risk, which will help to provide a much greater consistency of service across the country. Those rivers, responsibility for which is currently split between the Environment Agency, local authorities and internal drainage boards, will be redesignated as main rivers and brought under the control of the agency. We expect day-to-day maintenance and work on those rivers to be contracted back to the local authorities and IDBs if they are willing to take on that work and have a good track record on delivery.

We have retained IDBs—the former Select Committee on Agriculture recommended their abolition—and recognise that many of them do a good and effective job in draining land in areas of special drainage need. The Government's statement outlines a number of measures that we want to take to ensure that IDBs do their job in a way that reflects wider interests, including nature conservation and flood defences for people and property. I shall investigate ways of making the boards more accountable by, for example, bringing them under the ambit of the local government ombudsman, and I want to add impetus to the project to make the boards more efficient and better able to cope effectively with the full range of responsibilities now falling to operating authorities.

There are some very small IDBs, and there is a strong case for the smallest ones to consider mergers or working within consortiums, which have already been established successfully in many parts of the country.

As someone who has participated in the various Select Committee considerations of this matter, I applaud the Government's response to the need for organisational reform to deal with flood defence. Ordinary consumers of flood defence services will now have a much clearer idea about who is responsible for the services on which they rely.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which has taken an interest in the matter and looked at it in detail.

I would like to make progress and do not wish to take up too much time. However, I am glad that we have a little more time for the debate than we expected—[Interruption.] Well, on that basis, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

I am grateful to the Minister for arguing himself into giving way. Part of my constituency is covered by an IDB. When we suffered some exceptionally heavy rainfall, the performance of IDBs in relation to the water courses for which they were responsible was generally better than was the case for bodies with responsibility for other rivers. Accountability can therefore be a good thing, but we do not want uniformity to lead to a reduction in the protection standards achieved by IDBs. If the operating authority is going to be the Environment Agency, will it contract out duties quickly and non-bureaucratically in a way that allows IDBs to do substantially the same job as they do now, because they often do it very well?

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. To avoid contradiction, perhaps I should put on record my vice-presidency of the Association of Drainage Authorities. I am a strong supporter of IDBs—my constituency, like those of many hon. Members in the Chamber, relies on them very much. There are some tiny IDBs with tiny budgets, and we need to look at their efficiency and delivery of service. We expect the Environment Agency to contract a lot of work back to IDBs and local authority, but only if they deliver the work efficiently. That is an important consideration and it will be treated seriously, as hon. Members would expect of all decisions made by the Environment Agency. We expect the vast majority of IDBs to be capable of delivering such a service.

Does my hon. Friend have a view about the optimal size of IDBs? In my constituency, there are twoIDBs—one is a reasonable size and has a reasonable budget, and the other, the North Gloucestershire internal drainage board, is very small. Does my hon. Friend have a model for what he would consider a good, viable size of IDB with a budget that would allow it to do the necessary work to prevent flooding?

In all honesty, I must point out that the optimum size of an IDB will vary according to where it is. Many IDBs have given the matter a great deal of thought. I want them to consider the matter themselves, taking into account the guidance of their own associations. Considerable savings could be made by merging IDBs, or through the consortium approach. I know that my hon. Friend would welcome those savings, as she will welcome my announcement today that IDBs will come under the remit of the local government ombudsman. That will resolve some of the problems that otherwise come to my Department.

I turn now to the question of the Environment Agency's flood defence work, and how that is funded. We propose to change that funding. Subject to the passage of amendments to the Water Bill, the agency's work will be funded by a single stream of DEFRA block grant. That block grant will embrace the current DEFRA capital grant, which currently has to be awarded on the basis of individually approved schemes, and the revenue funding that currently goes to the agency from levies on local authorities. That will greatly simplify the present funding arrangements and provide much greater certainty of funding for longer-term planning.

I thank the Minister for giving way, and I am grateful to him for the interest that he has taken in flooding in my constituency, and especially for his visit to Robertsbridge. However, the picture elsewhere in Sussex is not so happy. The Sussex flood defence committee feels that the Department has led it down the garden path. It believes that it was promised 75 per cent. match funding from DEFRA if the county council raised the levy by 7 per cent. Only 65 per cent. was forthcoming. Will the new funding formula give the Sussex flood defence committee a better deal? So far, its experience has been pretty shabby.

I disagree. No formal funding arrangements would be made on the basis that the hon. Gentleman described. Funding should be provided by local authorities on the basis of the flood and coastal defence needs of their communities and areas. The level of grant has been increased by this Government. It has been set at different levels according to the priorities and needs of different areas. We take into account the needs in Sussex, and they are reviewed every year. I shall take that into account in future.

My constituents and I are grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure that he will recall visiting Gowdall and other parts of my constituency several times. When the Environment Agency builds flood banks, that often requires work on people's land, and sometimes even in their gardens. Outbuildings and garages occasionally have to be demolished. Could local residents make a case for compensation in such circumstances?

This is a complex matter. I am aware of phase 2 of the Gowdall flood defence scheme, and I have visited the village three times in connection with the floods of 2000, so I know it and the details of the scheme very well. It appears that, over many years, some permanent structures such as garages have been built into the flood bank. People should give careful thought to what they build into flood banks but, because the structures are so long standing, I understand that the Environment Agency considers that there might be a case for compensation, in some circumstances, if they have to be demolished or removed. I assure my hon. Friend that the agency is looking at the matter. I am sure that the residents of Gowdall will be pleased about the significant additional expenditure being made on raising the local flood defences. I concede that the village was severely affected in 2000.

The idea is to simplify funding arrangements, to give more certainty to the Environment Agency so that it can adopt longer-term planning in connection with regional flood defences. As for delivery, we are also planning to streamline the current structure of regional and local flood defence by creating a single tier of committees. It is expensive and inefficient to run two committee tiers, and one committee often ends up second guessing decisions made by the other. Again subject to the passage of amendments to the Water Bill, we propose that the local tier of committee be abolished.

However, we recognise that local input is important. Local priorities and views must be taken into account, so we also propose to split some of the larger regions into, say, two or three smaller areas. Those areas will be served by a single-tier committee, but there will be more of them, thus ensuring that local accountability and involvement are maintained.

We are also changing the way in which DEFRA goes about considering proposed capital schemes undertaken by the Environment Agency. In particular, we will consider proposals at an earlier stage of development. That will avoid committing resources wastefully on schemes that are unlikely to be approved for grant. We will try to identify preferred options, and then put them out for consultation. We also try to involve our engineers at an earlier stage in the development or proposals, so as to speed up the appraisal process.

I have to be honest with the House: flood defence provision is complex. The point has been made that we must ensure that one scheme does not impact on another. For that reason, a scheme has to go through the planning process, and often through a very detailed technical appraisal. I do not want to give the impression that putting in flood defence schemes, especially the major ones, will necessarily be a speedy exercise. In some cases, it can take quite a long time. I do not want to mislead people, but we want to try to ensure that unnecessary delays because of departmental bureaucracy are minimised.

I want to come to my concluding remarks, but I give way to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Little hampton (Mr.Gibb).

The Minister will be aware that the Chichester flood relief scheme sends water down the Pagham rife through my constituency when there is a danger of flooding, and that the Environment Agency last year missed the seasonal window of opportunity for installing sluice gates in the Pagham reserve. Will he assure me and the people of Pagham that the agency will not miss the window this year, and that it will install the sluice gates this spring and summer?

Yes. My understanding is that the agency can meet the deadlines for the work on the Pagham sluice gates. To be fair to the agency, in any scheme one is likely to come across unforeseen circumstances sometimes, such as geological ground conditions, water conditions, delays with contractors or even court cases with contractors. Such problems are not unknown. I know that the agency was confident that local communities were not at risk, even though the Chichester scheme sluice gates were not in place. I have visited the Chichester a number of times, and I was very pleased to turn the first sod when it began. I am glad that it is now in place.

I am grateful to the Minister, who is beleaguered by hon. Members. He has not mentioned the contribution that agri-environmental schemes can make to catchment management. I have raised the matter of water retention before, but is thought being given to soil management? Very often, compacted soil prevents water from flowing through to aquifers, and therefore being retained, before it goes into the river system. Is the agri-environmental review addressing that issue?

It certainly is. I touched on the matter briefly, in the sense that our general approach to flood and coastal defence involves the soft solutions as well as the hard ones. That is, we want to look at sustainable solutions that involve working with the forces of nature. That means using salt marsh, sand, various gravels and pebbles, and even agricultural land in flood defence schemes. We are issuing soil codes as part of the entry level pilot schemes. We want those schemes to include the various codes produced by DEFRA and which are based on good agricultural practice. In that context, we want to minimise soil compaction, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, and the run-off from fields that can cause flooding problems for people.

We recognise that agri-environment schemes could well be part of the range of measures that we can offer as coastal and flood defence solutions. The salt marsh option, for example, is part of our country stewardship option, and it is being used in a number of small schemes around the coast. We take such matters into account, and there may be greater scope for their use. However, once soil and the water tables are saturated—and agricultural land this winter probably reached its full water-carrying capacity by the end of December—the land can take no more water. Any further rain simply runs straight off into the water courses.

That is the situation that has faced us all this winter. The combination of those factors led to the flooding incidents in December and January, in conditions that were very similar to those in 2000. We have to take such matters into account.

Is there anything that my hon. Friend can do to speed up the publication of the Ouse catchment study, which is being carried out by the talented staff of the Environment Agency at its York office? It is now two years since the devastating floods in York which affected 600 properties. The consideration of new flood defences to protect some of those 600 properties is dependent on the conclusions of the study, so naturally the people concerned want the study to be published as soon as possible.

I understand my hon. Friend's concern and I have followed the progress of the study. It is a sophisticated study,looking at York and the whole catchment in relation to the best approaches to deal with minimising flood risk down the whole of the Ouse in Yorkshire. My understanding is that the Environment Agency will be able to draw some conclusions from the scheme this summer. That will help guide it towards the necessary options. If the scheme demonstrates that there is a need for further investment in York defences, I am sure that the regional flood defence committee will take that into account in the normal way. I should emphasise that York is protected to a high standard at present, but it is important to look ahead. Part of the Government's approach is to look ahead with investments in flood warning schemes, improved weather forecasting and the Foresight programme, which is led by the Government chief scientist and is trying to look ahead for 50 or 100 years in relation to changing weather patterns and their potential implications.

I know that one or two other Members wish to intervene, but I should like to bring my remarks to a conclusion. I hope that I will have the opportunity to answer their points at the end of the debate.

The series of measures that I have outlined today will streamline the flood and coastal defence service. Subject to the passage of facilitative measures in the Water Bill, which has had its Second Reading in another place and will shortly come to this House, we will be able to implement these measures relatively quickly. We will do so in consultation with other interested parties. I am glad to see the warm response that the proposals have received from the Environment Agency and the Association of British Insurers.

We will produce a proposed implementation plan on the Department's website which will also give some indications of time scales and the process for implementing the changes. We plan to review the measures after they have been in operation for three years. We do not want to disturb the arrangements for flood and coastal defences because their provision is a long-term business that requires long-term investment and stability in relation to delivery. We want to take account of developments and currently emerging issues, such as the implementation of the water framework directive and the Government's wider regional agenda and developments on new funding streams, and, of course, the way in which the IDBs react to the proposed changes.

I look forward to the debate and I hope to respond to as many points as possible. I believe that what I have outlined will be an improvement in the delivery of flood and coastal protection. It is part of our commitment, demonstrating that while we have a good record, we are not complacent about what we are doing or how we are delivering it. We are seeking ways to improve it as part of the constant investment we are making in reducing the risks of flooding to the British people.

2.13 pm

Prior to this debate there were three resolutions which could have run for two and a quarter hours. Bearing in mind the large number of hon. Members who wish to take part in the debate, I am sure that we are all grateful for the expeditious dispatch of those resolutions, which took a total of some five minutes, allowing us rather more time for this important debate.

Some 50 years ago, on the night of 31 January 1953, the North sea flooded and a disaster took England by storm. Wind speeds of 125 mph were recorded before the tidal flood descended on the east coast. Some 307 people died, 24,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and over 30,000 people were evacuated. Nearly 200,000 acres of land were inundated and 100 miles of road and 200 miles of railway were seriously damaged.

Speaking on 30 January this year at the 1953 floods conference in Norwich, the Minister assured his audience that the Government were committed and on track to meet the challenges of flood and coastal defence today and tomorrow. He contrasted 1953 with today, stating:
"we do live in different times—not least because we are better at warning people. In 1953, there was no national warning service. Emergency plans were hampered by poor communications."
I suggest that the Minister may be accused of a certain wishful thinking in the light of the flooding disasters of Christmas and new year 2002–03. Despite 136 flood warnings, 645,000 properties were flooded and many were left stranded without communication as the Environment Agency's website was overwhelmed by excessive demand. Apparently the problem was 40 times worse than in the year 2000 and was not merely a matter of excessive water flow, but also one of sewage and drainage surcharge—a particular unsavoury phenomenon.

Flooding is often mentioned in the same breath as such admirable words as "sustainable", "strategic approach" and "integrated management". Yet how much of that did we see over the new year's flooding, and how far is it being put into practice in the Government's long-term vision for flood and coastal defence? Climate change, tilt and sea level rise mean that the UK will be increasingly subject to higher rainfall and risk of flooding, both along the coast and inland.

I start by welcoming the Minister's announcement yesterday to increase funding significantly, with a rise to ¤560 million by 2005, which is to be paid through a direct block grant to the Environment Agency. This at long last allows for longer term planning.

It is a matter of concern to my constituents and constituents in many towns and cities which are subject to flooding whether the hon. Gentleman's party gives a commitment to maintaining this level of funding for flood defences should it return to Government.

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman allow us to get back into Government first. [Interruption.] We will not have too long to wait, I trust.

Both the money and the direct block grant make a step in the right direction towards a much more modern, efficient system of flood management. However, it is not enough simply to invest money. We also need to invest thought. Our thinking must be driven by an understanding of sustainability that is holistic, giving due consideration to the environmental, social and economic needs of our communities.

Much more needs to be done—the Minister touched on this—to champion new approaches to flood defences and to streamline institutional arrangements. I acknowledge that, at long last after six years, the Government have taken a significant step towards that with yesterday's announcement. However, I remain concerned that DEFRA's consultation on the flood and coastal defence funding review,which examined the funding mechanisms for flood and coastal defences, explicitly excluded from its scope
"emergency planning and emergency funding arrangements".
The Minister informed me in the Westminster Hall debate on 4 February, column 50, that a review of emergency planning had been delegated to the Home Office, so I sincerely hope that the two Departments can, for a change, demonstrate coherent government over the issue.

I have spoken a number of times in this House, warning the Government about the dangers of the multi-tiered system of responsibility. Before yesterday, operational responsibility for flood defences continued to rest with the Environment Agency, the internal drainage boards, local authorities and maritime local authorities, riparian owners, the water companies, the Highways Agency and many other interested parties.

That was hardly conducive to an integrated, strategic and streamlined approach, with the flexibility to recognise and react to specific local needs. It was, as it will continue to be until the changes are implemented, a recipe for arguing over responsibility until a problem escalated into an expensive and damaging disaster. I am thus delighted that the Minister appears to have taken up my proposal for the establishment of a single executive operating authority, funded by a central grant and able to require action to be taken in the event of an emergency, and later to apportion responsibility and costs. In that way, instead of a problem developing into a disaster while the parties argue about which of them is responsible, swift remedial action can be taken and blame and costs apportioned afterwards. There is no doubt that we need one body with the right and the might to enforce action, and I trust that will now be provided.

As I understand the Minister's statement yesterday, the Environment Agency has been given full responsibility for the major risk rivers, with power to contract some operational flood defence work back to competent local authorities and internal drainage boards. I welcome that. However, if the Environment Agency is to become the executive operating authority, there must be an appeal system against its decisions. The organisation could have a vested interest in its adjudications, so it is essential not only that it act impartially but that it be seen to do so and publish proof of that.

It also seems that overall responsibility for coastal defences will remain with local authorities. How will such local responsibility dovetail with the newly acquired powers of the Environment Agency in the general chain of command? Has the Minister considered instituting a statutory duty for operational authorities to carry out flood and coastal defence activities, rather than their present permissive powers? What is wrong with the Scottish example, where local authorities have a statutory duty of flood prevention?

The Minister has proposed the abolition of the local committees in favour of a definitive list of regional committees, and the draft Water Bill also included provision for the empowerment of regional flood defence committees. How is a region defined in that context? Would such provisions mean that, in the interests of regionalism, we should be sidelining internal drainage boards, which are often a valuable repository of local knowledge and experience? How will the Government ensure that decision making does not become too remote from local circumstances? How effectively will the process function when catchment areas overlap both regional and national boundaries?

Furthermore, when will the Government realise that floodplains contain areas that provide general economic and environmental benefit to the greater community—not for capital gain by the development and building industries, but as water-absorbing land that can reduce the risk of flooding elsewhere? Currently, more than a quarter of new property, by value, across England and Wales, including £80 billion worth of property in and around London alone, is built on floodplains. How many more millions of households are to be exposed to increased flood disasters, lack of insurance cover and a drop in property value, which will render their homes a worthless asset? Why are the Government putting more people at risk from flooding, while simultaneously planning to increase taxes to pay for more crucial flood defences?

The hon. Gentleman presents a somewhat unsophisticated argument. The main threat is not to the houses constructed on floodplains, as they are often well defended and raised above the floodplain, but to surrounding properties that are not so defended.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's second point. The Deputy Prime Minister's proposals for the Thamesmead area will do considerable damage not only to that area but to the properties that surround it. Why should properties that have not been subject to flooding be caused to flood in the future owing to excess building?

Why are more than one in three applications to build homes on floodplains being approved in defiance of the advice of the Environment Agency? Last year, the Government approved 288 of the 758 planning applications to which the Environment Agency objected. On appeal, a further one in five was passed, again against the agency's advice. Perhaps the Minister would comment on the proposition that it is hardly unreasonable to ask that the agency, and indeed the water companies, be treated as statutory consultees on developments in a floodplain and that their advice be adhered to unless there are good published reasons to disagree.

I should hate the hon. Gentleman to think that the Environment Agency always got everything right. In my constituency, the whole of Southport PR9 is classified as a floodplain and under threat of flooding not from the sea, because we have an excellent sea wall—indeed, sometimes there is some difficulty in finding the sea—but from the river, even though we have no history of flooding from any river. None the less, organisations such as Marks and Spencer refuse insurance to people in the PR9 area because the Environment Agency is using a bad map.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. The Environment Agency's first mapping was purely topographical. The agency did not ask the I DBs or other bodies which areas were at real risk of flooding. Maps produced by Norwich Union were far superior to those of the Environment Agency, and the agency recognised that it was at fault.

As I understand it, the agency's objections to the planning applications were not based on crude projections taken from an inaccurate map; they were well founded objections that were ignored by the Government. It would be sensible for the agency and the water companies to be treated as statutory consultees on developments in floodplains, as I pointed out earlier.

Would the hon. Gentleman support my proposal, which I understand that the Government are keeping as a reserve option, that any application in a floodplain to which the Environment Agency objects should automatically be referred to DEFRA for decision rather than being determined locally?

I am dealing with that point. If those bodies were statutory consultees, they would have to be consulted.

I now come to the Deputy Prime Minister's regeneration scheme for the Thames gateway region. That scheme will put another one million people at risk from flooding. More than 58 square miles are below the level reached by high tide and parts of Thamesmead lie 12 feet below high tide. As we know, the Thames barrier may not last as long as predicted, owing to tilt and rising sea levels, and is currently subject to a far greater proportion of closures than intended under its original design. As a consequence, development in the south-east will require major added investment to protect vulnerable areas from increasing coastal and fluvial flooding. The Minister has told us that he is considering a new tax on property developers who are planning to build on floodplains to pay for the erection and maintenance of flood defences.

The Thames gateway is currently defended to a one in 1,000 standard for flood defence, which is extremely high. It is true that, at some point, the Thames barrier will need to be upgraded or replaced because of its design limitations. That has been built into forward investment.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the floodplain connection charge. Planning authorities can ask developers to contribute directly to flood defence schemes as part of their development. That provision already exists under planning policy guidance 25. The idea is that the levy would contribute on a national scale to flood warning systems and the ongoing maintenance of flood protection schemes in all areas that are at risk.

I thank the Minister. I understand those points and will deal with them later. As he knows, however, the one in 1,000 figure is disagreed to by several other authorities. The fact is that if one builds homes that lie 12 ft below high tide, one runs a considerable risk. The consequence of all this development in the south-east will be that we have to invest considerable new sums of money to protect vulnerable areas from increasing coastal and fluvial flooding.

Will developers play a part in raising the revenue to deliver increased funding to the Environment Agency? Who will be required to pay for the increased drainage costs? Will it be householders, who do not want ever more urban sprawl, local authorities, who are opposed to building on floodplains, or the water companies, who will simply pass on the extra costs to their customers? How far has the Minister considered a supplementary one-off "connection charge" on all development projects that are likely to have an adverse drainage impact on a particular catchment? The funds raised from such a levy could be used to improve flood protection in the area, with money contributing to flood forecasting and early warning systems, floodplain mapping projects, emergency planning and post-flood clear-up strategies.

How can the Minister square all his admirable intentions with the determination of the Deputy Prime Minister to continue and increase building on floodplains, covering ever more of the midlands and the south-east with bricks and mortar? It seems that we are being treated, yet again, to an example of joined-up government in rhetoric and contradictory policies in action.

Can the Minister guarantee that planning policy guidance note 25 will be enforced to ensure that appropriate development and flood mitigation measures for new development and for neighbouring existing properties take place?

Why is so much house building being planned for these areas, given that in the north of England housing is being left derelict or destroyed and existing infrastructure is being wasted? Is it because there is such regional inflexibility that there is ever greater pressure for inappropriate development? The priority should be jobs in the north, not urban sprawl in the south. Surely it is time that the development of floodplains was capped and that the Minister spent more of his energy and resources on soft defences and the encouragement of sustainable land management practices that assist water retention and maintain hedges and ditches to act as buffers.

Why are flood defence moneys and agri-environment funds not linked to ensure that landowners can he paid for flood mitigation practices? Inland hard and artificial defence structures often shift the problem upstream or downstream, and are far less cost-effective than a softer approach. High fluvial flood defence embankments in fact produce external costs by displacing floodwater downstream and preventing valuable environmental functions such as groundwater recharge. Instead of that piecemeal approach, the whole river catchment should be considered, not just the areas that are prone to flooding. In some cases, water can be stored upstream in washlands, providing the same flood defence function as more traditional approaches, but with the additional benefits of creating wildlife habitats, helping to meet biodiversity targets, and providing social amenities to local people. A similar attitude to the coastal flood threat could also reap both environmental and economic rewards.

Building higher and higher defences against rising sea levels is not an efficient use of part of the United Kingdom's coastline. The realignment of coastal defences could save the taxpayer money, provide natural flood buffer zones and safeguard important inter-tidal habitats, such as salt marsh, against the threat of coastal squeeze. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—I pay tribute toit—has identified many realignment possibilities around the UK. That can result in shorter defence distances, which at present cost an average of£3,000 per km per year to maintain. In north-east England, it could cut the length of wall from 88 km to 56 km and create at least 1,500 hectares of salt marsh, with the potential for a valuable fishery. New areas of salt marsh and similar habitats could help to absorb the impact of winter storms and rising tides, resulting in less ongoing spending on maintaining harder defences, yet still protect property further inland.

Before I leave the question of coastal defences, I have to mention the plight of Happisburgh, because it illustrates how coastal erosion is destroying homes and livelihoods. Worse, it threatens to obliterate entire communities. Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) visited Happisburgh, which is on the north Norfolk coast. The Minister would not recognise that coast, which he visited in 1998, because so much of it has been eroded by the sea. Erosion has accelerated at a rate that exceeds anything predicted by Whitehall or by independent experts. An entire community feels frightened and abandoned by Government. The plight of Happisburgh mirrors that of other villages and small towns on the south coast of England, for the Government have recently changed the formula for assessing bids for new coastal defence works. Happisburgh would have qualified under the old system, but is now in effect being told that nothing can be done. Indeed, the local council told my hon. Friend that even a town the size of Cromer would find it hard to qualify for coastal defence works under the terms of the new formula. I am sure that that cannot be the Government's intention. Will the Minister explain what value the Government place on the survival, not only of individual buildings or businesses, but of an entire community? Will he confirm that they will look again at the formula?

I am of course familiar with Happisburgh, as the hon. Gentleman says, as I am with all coastal issues. There is a contradiction in his comments. He supports soft defence, which I am pleased about—it appears to be something of a policy U-turn—but soft defence requires a dynamic coastline, and a dynamic coastline means recognising that erosion has taken place for centuries. Local authorities are the lead bodies for coastal erosion issues. The scheme that was submitted to us in DEFRA was withdrawn by the local authority because it had problems with local objections and land ownership issues. It is a matter for the local authority, and we will judge its application on its merits when we receive it. Of course, I am sympathetic to the situation in which people in that community find themselves.

There is a considerable difference between letting local farmland drop into the sea and compensating farmers for it, and letting whole communities fall into the sea. The Minister did not answer my question about the changes in the new formula, but he may care to consider it.

I urge the Minister to ensure that the criteria used to identify areas that qualify for flood defences be reevaluated to take into account all the impacts and costs associated with flooding. That point has been made forcefully to me by Norwich Union. I congratulate that insurance company, which has done much more work on flooding than any other commercial organisation. It remains concerned that February's change to the scoring system did not clarify whether the cost and benefit evaluations took account of social and health costs, which can be significant. The risk is that some communities will not receive schemes because they are not prioritised correctly.

Will the Minister review the distinction that was made in the Coast Protection Act 1949 between coastal defence and river flooding? If the sea breaks through at Happisburgh, it could surge right through the Norfolk broads, causing irreparable damage to the national park. Despite that danger, the Environment Agency has apparently told local people that it cannot get involved in their campaign for coastal defences because its remit is limited to river flooding. There seems to be a serious lack of joined-up thinking.

Earlier, I referred to Castlehaven, and I accept that its case is not as bad as that of Happisburgh. However, in all such cases, does my hon. Friend agree that twists and turns in policy and designation, and the length of the process, can delay the implementation of proposals that local authorities are prepared to make? That can cause great stress to residents.

I agree with my hon. Friend's point, but I would admit that the Government are, at long last, moving towards reducing the number of different conflicting organisations that have an input to such cases. I agree that the planning system is a cause of considerable delays.

I want to discuss public information. I welcome the facts that householder comprehension of flood risk is said to be on the increase and that the Environment Agency is advocating more self-help. Yet I wonder whether that increase in comprehension is enough. In its "Home and Dry" advice pack, launched on March 5, Norwich Union states:
"more than 90 per cent. of homeowners in some of the country's high-risk flood areas admit they haven't even taken the simplest of steps to protect their property—such as moving valuables upstairs—and say they don't really know what measures they can take."
In addition, 67 per cent. of the people surveyed in February this year were worried that not enough is being done about flooding and that sufficient progress has not been made in the past 12 months. Property owners must be made fully aware of the threats that are associated with living on a high-risk floodplain, and encouraged to take precautionary measures on a seasonal basis. For instance, I would have thought it logical—although it seems hardly to occur in practice, even in new homes—that electrical connections should be placed at a higher level above the floor.

We can all disagree over the causes of global warming. However, what is indisputable is that the dual spectre of coastal and inland flooding looms increasingly large. The exercise of those forces of nature is out of our control, but the minimization of their impact lies in the hands of the Government. Although they cannot turn back the tide, stop the rain or reverse rising sea levels, they can do much to protect us from what is foreseeable today and may become a catastrophe tomorrow.

Reform is undoubtedly the key to environmental protection and value for money. Moreover, the implementation of the Association of British Insurers' statement of principles on the provision of flooding insurance, which applies from January of this year, is dependent on Government action. Even that commitment still leaves upto 200,000 homes in the most high-risk areas without flood insurance. Ultimately, if the insurance industry considers that it can no longer provide cover for certain domestic properties and small businesses, the onus will be on the Government to provide cover as the insurer of last resort. Flood prevention is actually the cheap option. The Treasury has to learn that. The delivery of a policy that looks beyond sandbags to a long-term preventive strategy is essential before the next disaster catches us as unprepared and underfunded as we were in 1953.

Order. May I share a thought with the House? Perhaps 180 minutes or so are left in the debate for Back-Bench contributions, but 17 Back Benchers are trying to catch my eye. There is also another Front-Bench contribution to come. I am aware that many hon. Members wish to raise particular matters as well as making general observations on constituency concerns. Perhaps everyone will bear that in mind.

2.44 pm

Having had two opportunities to ask questions directly of the Minister during his speech, I am prepared, in order to allow other hon. Members to make speeches, to make this the shortest speech that I have ever made in this Chamber.

Order. The hon. Member has taken the Chair by surprise—just as the Chair obviously took the hon. Member by surprise. I am sure that everyone appreciates his forbearance.

2.45 pm

I shall try to be brief to allow other hon. Members to contribute. [HON. MEMBERS: "Sit down!"] I promise not to take in excess of half an hour, as did the Conservative Opposition spokesman; and I will give way to the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) if he wishes to intervene.

I thank the Minister for his usual courtesy in presenting his case today. He allowed numerous interventions. He always gives way to local hon. Members and responds as best he can. He also meets local hon. Members and we had the courtesy of a written ministerial statement, which is in Hansard, for us to see before today's debate. I am sorry if those comments are unhelpful to him, but that is how I feel. I hope that they do not damage his prospects—especially as there may be some vacancies for promotion in the Cabinet and elsewhere in future.

Yesterday's written parliamentary statement, which the Minister has amplified today, is well balanced. It acknowledges that changes had to be made to flood arrangements. The arrangements were archaic and anachronistic, and they prevented proper flood defence measures from being brought in as soon as possible, which is what all communities wanted. Change was long overdue. The Liberal Democrats made the same proposals—although we would not be so arrogant as to call them our proposals. The ABI also recommended the same proposals. It may be that the Government will pay more attention to the ABI than they will to other people who argue for change. However, whatever the reasons, there have been sensible changes that will go a long way towards improving flood defences. The environment block grant to the Environment Agency is a sensible and long overdue measure. I also welcome the change that will give the Environment Agency responsibility for all rivers with the greatest flood risk. I take it that, by risk, the Minister is referring to the consequences for houses if they are flooded, rather than to frequency with which flooding may occur.

I pay tribute to the RSPB, which is very knowledgeable about flooding. It too has argued for these changes and will doubtless welcome the Minister's comments, just as I have welcomed them. Other hon. Members will welcome them too. It is sensible to streamline the present approval processes for flood defence schemes and to bring DEFRA engineers in earlier.

The Minister rightly concentrates on the flood-defence aspects of particular works—that is his job. However, I hope that he will acknowledge that flood-defence works often provide an opportunity for amenity improvements for local communities. For example, the construction of improved flood defences can provide river walks or other developments along riversides. They can enhance conservation areas; but they can also damage them if the materials used are not suitable. What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to see what tie-up there can be between his objectives and the ODPM's objectives, to ensure that both can be met in the introduction of a particular scheme?

My hon. Friend might also be interested in the tie-up between the Highways Agency, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), and the Environment Agency because road schemes can often act as water-retaining measures, sometimes to the advantage of communities, but sometimes—as with Ilchester Mead in my constituency, where the A303 causes floods—to their great disadvantage. It is very difficult to convince the Highways Agency that correcting those problems is its priority, because its priority is building roads, not stopping floods.

I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes an important intervention. Joined-up government is needed across Departments to look at those matters, but sometimes things work in reverse: the Highways Agency is currently advocating a scheme for the A27 in my constituency that was described as the worst possible environmental option when it was proposed previously, but the agency is justifying the scheme because it will have less impact on the floodplain. So those in the Highways Agency sometimes invoke that argument to save money when it suits them and ignore it when that suits them.

I should like to ask the hon. Gentleman about the Environment Agency's progress in my constituency. This is particularly relevant to him because the Welsh Environment Agency takes care of flood defences in my part of England, and, as he will know, it is run by the Welsh Assembly, which is run by the Liberal Democrats in coalition with the Labour party, so I am curious to see how he reacts when he hears that those on the Lugg internal draining board say that they are extremely unhappy with the agency's progress. What would he say to them?

I am not familiar with the position in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and I am sure that he is capable of arguing his case very articulately in the House and with other colleagues. Cross-border matters are an issue. Water does not respect boundaries between counties, flood defence committees, nations or whatever, and we shall have to address that in considering the Water Bill and different legislation for Scotland and England, so the hon. Gentleman makes a valid point.

Perhaps we know all this, but it is worth putting it on record that we are having debates about flood defences not simply because the system has been faulty for so long, but because we are facing climate change of significantly increasing proportions. Average surface temperatures on the earth are 0.6° C higher than 120 years ago. The 1995 intergovernmental panel on climate change predicted that global temperature would increase by between 1° and 3.5° by the end of this century, and models project an increase in sea level of between 13 and 95 cm between 1995 and 2100. Those are all those significant figures that affect this country, but they often affect developing countries far more.

Under those circumstances, it is incumbent on the Government not simply to put money into flood defence, which they are now doing, and to have a coherent strategy, which is now coming, but to ensure that their other policies that affect climate change are in line with the Minister's desires to minimise its impact, thus reducing the call on moneys for flood defences. So he will be disappointed that last year, for example, the amount of energy generated from renewable sources in this country dropped from 3.3 to 3.1 per cent. of all energy generated, notwithstanding the energy White Paper.

The Minister will be disappointed that carbon dioxide emissions from aircraft are due to double between 1990 and 2010, and the Department for Transport propose to do nothing about it. He will be disappointed that road traffic reduction targets have been abandoned, and we are now back to predict and provide methods for road building. He will be equally disappointed that the Kyoto protocol has not been signed by the United States Government, and our Government seem keener on discussing other matters with the US Government, rather than environmental issues and climate change.

The Government need to address the issue on a cross-departmental basis, and all the good work that the Minister and his colleagues in DEFRA may be doing is undermined if other colleagues in other Departments that have impacts on climate change are not following sensible policies and, in fact, are making matters worse for the Minister at DEFRA.

I will not run through the various problems with flooding that we have in this country—they are well documented and the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire referred to some of them—but I will refer, as the Minister will understand, to the position in Lewes. He would be disappointed if I did not, and I must do so given the horrendous impact of the floods in my constituency in 2000.

I welcome the fact that we are now approaching a stage where a start will be made on the Mailing Brooks scheme in the town. That was announced a couple of days ago.

The Minister confirms that that happened yesterday, and I very much welcome that scheme, as it will go some way to relieve the considerable anxiety about flooding in my constituency. However, there are still problems in identifying a proper funding mechanism, notwithstanding the announcement that the Minister has made today. For example, I refer him to a letter that I received on 7 March from Peter Midgely, the Sussex area manager at the Environment Agency, in which he says:

"Elliot Morley has provided more funding for flood defence, but given the complicated nature of the level grant settlement, a further discussion with the Sussex Flood Defence Committee is necessary before I can give the exact figure, which will be sent to Lewes in the coming year."
He is unclear exactly how much money he has, despite the announcement that the Minister made some time ago that extra money would be forthcoming, and he is in the best position to know, yet does not do so.

I have also had representations from Councillor Roger Thomas of East Sussex county council, as other Sussex Members may have done. I see the hon. Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry) nodding, and I suspect that he has received a similar representation. Councillor Thomas was concerned about Sussex flood defence funding for 2003–04, and says in a letter to Peter Midgely:
"It is extremely disappointing that DEFRA has decided that the 75 per cent. grant rate will not be applied and that the rate will remain at 65 per cent. for 2003–04"
I will not read the whole letter, but he and other members of the flood defence committee were led to believe very strongly that the 75 per cent. rate would apply and they based their calculations on that only to have the rug pulled from underneath them at the last moment. That is how they see it anyway, and if we are to achieve co-operation between the different bodies involved—local authorities, DEFRA, the Environment Agency and others—we need some certainty about the financial arrangements in which they work. Clearly, those financial arrangements have not worked very well in Sussex this year from the point of view of the members of that flood committee.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire mentioned Happisburgh, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who is taking a very close interest in the issue, has asked me to raise it in the House this afternoon. He is currently either speaking or intending to speak in the debate in Westminster Hall—one of the casualties of our double Chamber system. He has asked me to reiterate the fact that nearly 300 people have written to him about that issue.

My hon. Friend has taken up the matter with the Minister and asked for a meeting—I hope that the Minister will agree to that—and he has asked me to pass on his view that the people of that area feel neglected and that no investment has been made in protecting their community. I shall not go into the details for soft defences and managed retreat, but there is a strong feeling in that community, and the issue needs to be addressed. Clearly, that has not been done satisfactorily so far.

I can certainly confirm that, as with all Members who have a pressing constituency problem in relation to coastal defence, I will be happy to meet the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and discuss those problems. However, I want to deal with another problem: there has been misinformation about Happisburgh. The responsibility for drawing up the scheme lies with the local authority, as the lead authority. It is true that we have new criteria to assess flooding and coastal defence, but I am pretty sure that the original application that was made and then withdrawn used the old system and that the local council's advisers were concerned about some issues, so we have not been able to give proper consideration to any scheme proposed by the local authority to defend Happisburgh. Of course, if the local authority can put together a scheme that meets the three criteria—technical, environmental and cost benefits—we will consider it, but those criteria must be met.

I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention, as well as for his willingness to meet affected parties. It is good that he put that on the record, and I shall draw it to the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk.

Will the hon. Gentleman press the Minister, as I have done, to look again at the criteria, so that they include the social, economic and environmental impact of the new demands, because they may well damage existing communities?

I imagine that the Minister will take those criteria into account—it would be extraordinary if he didnot—but the hon. Gentleman has put his view on the record, and I am sure that those issues will be part of any review by the Minister.

I want briefly to mention the insurance situation and to welcome what—at least in retrospect, if not at the time—has been the constructive attitude taken by the ABI, which has provided a two-year window of opportunity, which the Government have taken and the ABI has responded accordingly. The detailed mapping that Norwich Union and others have undertaken—like the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire, I pay tribute to the work that Norwich Union has done—has been welcome. It is clear from that that for about 200,000 properties, there is a major flood risk and insurance will be difficult to obtain. Some of those properties may have been bought in the knowledge that such a risk existed, and the price may have been discounted accordingly. It is not the function of Government to subsidise people in that situation. However, given the increasing flood risk as a result of climate change and other factors, a small number of properties will be adversely affected, with no prospect of getting sensible insurance cover. Will the Minister comment on that when he responds to the debate?

I refer to the cost-benefit analysis conducted by the Environment Agency under Government guidelines to determine what flood defences are justifiable in a particular area. I have raised the matter before, and the Minister will know the strong concern in Lewes and elsewhere that the formula applied grossly underestimates the value of properties affected by floods. Had a realistic formula been applied to houses in Lewes—I am sure the same is the case elsewhere—a higher level of flood defences would have been justified on the Department's own criteria.

As matters stand, some areas of Lewes are not getting the flood defences that they consider appropriate, and the same applies in Uckfield, where the formula adversely affects the constituency of the hon. Member for Wealden. Will the Minister examine the formula to ensure that a proper value is put on properties to guarantee that the flood defences considered are in line with the properties' value, rather than with some artificially low value that has been applied following the floods of 2000?

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire mentioned soft measures. In Lewes the Environment Agency has been quite good at producing plans for the centre of town that have identified solid, architecturally robust flood defences. To my surprise, the agency has been less good at negotiating with farmers and those affected downstream to identify land that could he used for overspill, thereby reducing the need for hard defences, which may not only disfigure a town, but be expensive for local communities and the Department. What steps is the Minister taking to encourage the Environment Agency to look at its procedures in respect of soft measures to see whether more could be incorporated and to speed up the process by which they are implemented?

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the soft engineering measures that can be included with flood prevention is reed bed technology to overcome some of the enormous problems with sewerage, which are not disconnected from flooding problems? Too often we look for hard technology answers, when there is a much simpler way that we could work with the environment, rather than against it.

I agree. I hope the Minister will respond to that intervention when he sums up.

In conclusion, I thank the Minister again for his statement. The Government are moving in the right direction. The new measures that have been suggested and the extra money are welcome in tackling the flood defence challenges that we all face.

3.3 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt the flow of the debate, but this is the first opportunity that I have had today to raise the matter, although I advised the Speaker of it this morning.

On 4 March I received an answer from the Northern Ireland Office concerning the granting of work permits for the Movie Star cafée in Belfast and the contacts that the Department for Employment and Learning had with Work Permits (UK) on the application made for a group work permit. The reply stated:
"When processing work permit applications for Northern Ireland the Department for Employment and Learning applied the same criteria as used in Work Permits (UK).As no guidelines existed in respect of pole dancers, it was only after querying this aspect with Work Permits (UK) that DEL"—
that is, the Department—

"treated the application in question on the basis of an entertainment application."
This morning's mail included a response from the Home Office, which states:
"Work Permits (UK) was not consulted by the Department of Education and Learning on the issue of permits for pole dancers. Work Permits (UK) does not issue work permits for overseas nationals to work as pole dancers."
The reply goes on to make it plain that even for dancers, they would have had to be of a very high standard before a work permit would be granted. I therefore believe that, intentionally or unintentionally, someone has been misleading me and, as the matter is now on the record of the House, the House has been misled. I seek your guidance as to what action could be taken.

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that this is the first that I have heard of the matters that he raises, which he clearly considers very serious. I suggest that in the first instance he has a word with the Table Office and sees what its reaction is to the problems that he is experiencing. He can then decide where and how to pursue the matter from there.

3.5 pm

I am grateful to be called so early in the debate. I begin by apologising to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the Minister and to the House for the fact that I shall have to leave before the end of the debate for a public meeting in my constituency, where flooding will be one of the issues discussed.

Let me begin with a little background to the problems of flooding in my constituency. As the Minister is well aware, in October 2000 there was severe flooding in Uckfield and flooding in the surrounding villages of Buxted and Isfield, and also in Hellingly on the Cuckmere, rather than on the Ouse. There was an intense period of incredibly heavy rain. It had not been raining for very long; the problems were caused by the amount of rain over the previous day or so. The results were dramatic. Many people will remember from their television screens the sight of a lifeboat in Uckfield high street. Although it caused some amusement to find a lifeboat inland, we should not forget that one person was washed away and almost drowned. There could have been significant loss of life, had the problems been worse.

The frustration in the constituency arises because two and a half years on, there is no serious sign of progress. The Minister will well remember his visit to Uckfield shortly after the floods, and his promise at that time that action would be taken to reduce the risk of flooding again. He knows that shortly afterwards, the Prime Minister called to Downing street councillors from the areas affected by flooding and he, too, made a personal assurance that the issue would be addressed. There was some jocularity in the House recently when my remarks were interpreted as implying that the Prime Minister had promised to stop it raining. We know that he walks on water, but even this Prime Minister would not promise to stop it raining. However, he promised to take action to minimise the risk of flooding affecting those communities in future. It is a great disappointment that two and a half years down the line, nothing concrete has happened.

The Environment Agency has been trying to drive matters forward, and I join the Minister in paying tribute to the staff, particularly Peter Midgley, who seems to have been taking lessons from the Minister in dealing in the most emollient and caring manner with those difficult and frustrating issues. Peter Midgley has genuinely been seeking to address matters, but he is working with his hands tied. At the end of the day, it is a question of money. If he were given millions of pounds more to spend this month, he could spend millions of pounds more this month.

We all accept that many of the measures that we would like to see implemented would take a long time to assess and evaluate, but there are some cheaper measures that could be introduced quickly. If the funds were available to the agency, that could start straight away. I accept that there is a limit, but I do not believe that it has been reached. Will the Minister speak to his ministerial colleagues about whether a national emergencies fund could be set up, perhaps through the national lottery? The great frustration after the floods of 2000 was the incredibly lengthy process of evaluating every scheme that was proposed. It would be much better if there were a fund, independently administered, and run by people who knew how to say yes, rather than always saying no, hold on or maybe. In the circumstances, when there is a national emergency such as the horrific floods that occurred throughout the country in October 2000, we need money to be quickly available.

It is my contention that most of the positive developments have been local. In particular, I pay credit to the work of the Cuckmere valley flood forum. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and I have both attended meetings of the forum, which works in a positive way in bringing together different parties to try to find agreement on the way forward. While there are difficulties in respect of some of the solutions that are being considered for the Cuckmere, we would all pay tribute to the forum for allowing the issues to be dealt with in the most constructive way possible.

I also pay tribute to the local authorities. Wealden is very keen to make progress. The district authority has put money to one side for work to start straight away, but it is being held up because the Environment Agency says that it needs to take that work into account as part of the whole scheme of things and cannot give it the go ahead. My plea to the Minister is that, where alternative sources of funding are available, he should look to see whether some ideas can be fast-tracked. That does not mean cutting out the necessary work that has to be done; once we know that funding is available from a local authority or elsewhere, he should see whether it is possible to short-circuit, or rather cut short, the system so that those schemes can be carried out more rapidly.

I am happy to consider how local authorities can apply funding as quickly as possible, but issues of flood defence must go through technical and environmental assessment, as well as cost-benefit analysis. The money aspect may be less important, but the technical aspect is very important. The problems of Uckfield are not simply a matter of money, as I think the hon. Gentleman accepts. In 2000, when I stood with his predecessor on the bridge at Uckfield, we agreed how difficult it would be to try to resolve the problem because of the pinch point where the bridge and mill are situated. Nevertheless, I understand that the Environment Agency is to proceed in the very near future with work designed to improve flow at the bridge and will do what it can, bearing in mind physical restraints and technical problems, to improve the situation.

As always, I am most grateful to the Minister for that assurance. If I may, I shall return to that issue in a moment.

The county council has also been keen to work on the process. It has done good work in trying to keep the ditches clear, but as the hon. Member for Lewes and my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) have said, it is extremely frustrated this year that what it thought was a genuine commitment has not been met. It was believed that, if the contribution was raised by a certain proportion, the Government would match 75 per cent. of the funding, but that has not been carried through. If that is not the Minister's interpretation of events, perhaps he could write to us to explain his interpretation so that those facts can be clearly established.

I welcome the decision to give the Environment Agency responsibility for rivers prone to flooding and to contract local authorities for some of the work on maintaining them. As the Minister is aware from our recent meeting, there is frustration that the Environment Agency does not seem to have been doing enough to clear trees along the banks and remove fallen trees, supermarket trolleys and other junk in the rivers, when more could be done to prevent flooding in future.

At new year, we again had some minor flooding in Buxted and very nearly had flooding in Uckfield. I went every couple of hours to look at the situation in Buxted. It was shocking to see how much could change in only two hours: the river would rise from a small stream to something more akin to a raging torrent some 6 ft higher. It was easy to see how the floods in Buxted had occurred. Inevitably, the problem was lots of water coming into the village. When it could go under the bridge, it did so, but when it reached a level at which it could no longer go under the bridge, it went around the side and started flooding the neighbouring properties.

It does not take rocket science to understand what the solution might be. We must either enlarge the bridge—we all know that that would merely pass the problem downstream to Uckfield—or do more in terms of upstream storage. There is great frustration in the village of Buxted that the Environment Agency, with Government endorsement, has turned its mind against the idea of upstream storage with regard to those local rivers.

The frustration in Buxted turns to anger when we look at the plans for Uckfield. Again, there is no intention to consider upstream storage. As the Minister said, there is the possibility of enlarging the bridge, but the Environment Agency's principal response, which is endorsed by the Government, is that the industrial estate built on the floodplain should be moved, and other houses built there. We could stand here for ever debating the rights and wrongs of historic building on floodplains. If we could start again from the beginning, we would say, "No, we should not have done it", but we cannot; we are starting on the basis of decisions made 20 years ago.

When the industrial estate was built, it was approved by all the authorities—the rivers authorities, the predecessors to the Minister's Department and others. They all considered the proposal and decided that it was reasonable to build a large industrial estate on the site. The estate is the largest in East Sussex, employing some 1,500 people, and moving it is simply not an option. The nearest site that would be available is only about a quarter of the size. As a result of relocating to that site, we could lose 1,000 jobs in Uckfield, so the majority of jobs on the current site would have to be lost if that route were taken.

Even if that proposal goes ahead, who will pay for it? When we came to see the Minister, he made it clear that the Government could not be expected to do so. I wonder whether his new tax could be used to pay for relocating buildings judged to have been built in the wrong place. Looking at his reaction, I suspect that he already has other plans for that money. Similarly, my constituents cannot be expected to pay. If we tell those businesses that their premises are essentially worthless because of their location and that nobody will take them over, they will simply be unable to afford to relocate elsewhere in the community. The only solution would be for those businesses to close, which would be a devastating blow to a community such as Uckfield.

In addition, houses are being built in those communities, notably at Olive's meadow. The Minister may say that there are not many houses, as only 17 or 20 are involved, but people have invested their life savings and brought up their children in those houses. They are places to which people have intended to retire and may be their nest eggs for when they need some funds for their later years. To say that the homes are valueless and cannot be sold because the Government have deemed that they should not be located where they are would be a terrific and awful blow to the people who live in them. I ask the Minister to look again to see whether more can be done. Will he also tell us where else in the country the primary recommendation for a solution to flooding problems has been moving buildings on the flood plain? It is my impression that Uckfield is the only place where that course of action has been proposed as the solution.

I do not want to detain the House unduly, as I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. I accept that residents must do all that they can to prevent flooding and I join colleagues in paying tribute to Norwich Union for its work in highlighting how that can be done. Ultimately, however, it will have to be the Government who address the problem at the most fundamental level. It is two and a half years since the floods that did so much damage. As I said, in Uckfield, nothing has so far been done.

I hope that the Minister can give us additional assurances as to how that process can be speeded up. In October 2000, we had meetings with the Environment Agency followed by meetings with him in Uckfield to consider the problem. The Environment Agency came up with its recommendations in July 2002. At the end of 2002, the Minister's Department approved the building of a working model enabling us to see the effects of different solutions. By the time that that model has gone out to contract and physically been built, a further six months will have passed, and it will be even longer before the actual measures can properly be evaluated, so the earliest time when we can expect specific proposals and realistic alternatives will be at the end of 2003. The awarding of the contracts would then happen some time in 2004, after which it would take a year or more for them physically to be built. We are therefore looking at a period of five years-plus from when the flood took place to when a solution will be put in place.

For many reasons, I hope that the Minister is not in his post in 2005, primarily because I hope that the Conservative party will be in government. However, if a Labour Government are still in power, I hope that the Minister will continue to hold his position, as he understands the issues and, if there is another flood in Uckfield, I want it to be him who returns to the town and explains why, in the course of five years, nothing has been done. It is appalling that every time we have heavy rain, my constituents are caused tremendous concern. I urge the Minister to do more.

3.19 pm

As the hon. Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry) said, it is always a pleasure to have a debate to which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary replies, because he is so knowledgeable and gives informed and concise answers.

Before I go any further, I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if occasionally I do not realise where I am in my notes. I lost my spectacles this morning and I am wearing those of my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen).

In 1985, when I was pregnant and had a three-year-old child, I returned home from a half-term holiday to find a fire engine pumping gallons of water out of my house. For three months, my family was disrupted while we lived upstairs. It was not quite as dreadful as the scene in "Angela's Ashes" where the family goes upstairs to Italy, but it felt grim at the time. For example, the kitchen was not in use because the electrical goods had gone. I shall not forget that episode, and my child, who is now 21, never forgot that her birthday celebrations were held upstairs.

Thousands of people had such an experience in the floods of 2000 and 2001. Indeed, the Association of British Insurers suggests that 1.8 million homes are at risk from flooding. Our climate is increasingly stormy, and the weather is expected to get 30 per cent. wetter by 2080, so the problem will remain well into the future. However much the Government try to do, we cannot fight mother nature and what God may do with his storms.

Given that we can do something but not everything, people who fear the possibility of flooding will welcome the Government's announcement of an 80 per cent. increase of £255 million by 2005, and changes to organisation such as the streamlining of administration, the Environment Agency's new river basin, catchment area approach and the direct block grant that it will receive.

I understand that if the Scottish equivalent of the Environment Agency is asked about future planning development in a flood plain, it is almost mandatory to take its view into account. It is not simply treated with due respect. When the Environment Agency gives local authorities a view on proposed development and flood risk, the planning authority can simply ignore it. Does my hon. Friend hope to add to the weight of the Environment Agency's views in the planning process through the proposed streamlining?

My constituency is known as the land between the Severn and the Wye. That is a blessing, albeit mixed. It is prone to severe flooding. I am grateful that my hon. Friend has visited the constituency when flooding has occurred in the past. He has met many parish councillors and constituents and been helpful. I also pay tribute to the Environment Agency's work in the tidal Severn flood management strategy and along the Severn generally.

I pay especial tribute to the Environment Agency's handling of constituents who believe that the answer to the problem is to dredge the Severn, as was done in the past. It makes practical sense and is logical to some extent to take the sand out of the bottom of the Severn and dump it on the side. We thus have a bank to save us from the Severn flooding and we lower the draw of the estuary. I am grateful that the Environment Agency has patiently, carefully and courteously explained that the dynamics of the River Severn are much more complicated and that one would have to dredge night and day ad infinitum to gain even the slightest benefit.

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that in places such as Worcester on the River Severn that are approximately 6 m above sea level, the river would have to be dredged by 5m? That would make the Severn tidal all the way upstream to Worcester and thus cause huge environmental and other disasters.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who, through the all-party group on flooding, invited a well informed hydrological engineer to speak to Members of Parliament. He explained to those who, like me, have a modest interest in and knowledge of geography, why dredging is not the answer for the Severn.

I am grateful for the work that is being done on the Severn in my constituency, especially on Lydney docks flood defence, a scheme that costs £5.5 million. It goes from Lydney to Aylburton. During the terrible floods in 2000, the industrial estate flooded badly and threatened the working day of Watts Industries, a major employer, in Lydney. The work that is being done means that that should not happen in future.

I am also grateful for the work that was mostly completed by 2003 on upgrading and improving the maintenance of the River Severn between Westbury and Minsterworth. I understand that one last part needs to be completed at Minsterworth, and that that should happen by 2004. I hope that it is completed on time.

The Environment Agency has also undertaken work, which is important for local householders, on an improved early warning system for three new areas: Gloucester to Westbury, Westbury to Aust, and Aust down the Severn. There are different dedicated lines from which householders can get information about flood awareness and the possibility of flooding.

The Environment Agency has also run a flood awareness campaign, comprising a roadshow, a bus and radio advertisements. It tells the public about checklists, available information and the actions that people can take to help avert a flood intheir homes.

The hon. Lady has a rather rose-tinted view of the work of the Environment Agency. Did she try to access its website on 3 or 4 January? She would have found that it had crashed completely. A few days later, she would have found that parts of the website that claim to be updated every 15 minutes had not been updated for several days. My constituents' view is less rosy.

I do not have arose-tinted view, but I want to note the Environment Agency's work and response to the problem of flooding on the Severn.

I have one or two worries. In Gloucester, a scheme costing more than £500,000 over two years will complete repairs. However, in the long-term, there is a proposed £20 million scheme for Gloucestershire and other work in the Severn estuary that will start in 2009. My constituents are concerned that the work that is to be carried out in Gloucester might result in all the good work that has been undertaken in the section between Minsterworth and Westbury being made vulnerable, because the water has to go somewhere, and if we are stopping it going into Gloucester, it might be pushed further down the river. I would like reassurance from the Minister that the work that is being done to save households from flooding in Gloucester will not be to the detriment of my constituents further down the river.

If it is not going to flood in the Forest of Dean, it is not going to flood in Stroud either. Seriously, the water has to go somewhere, and it is clear that the way to form a solution to this problem is to look at this part of the Severn and come up with an estuary solution based on which areas can be allowed to flood. I hope that if and when this proposal is put together, the Minister will bring all the relevant Members in on it.

Yes, it is important that the MPs adopt a catchment approach to dealing with flooding in the area.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned the role of the Highways Agency. The A417 between Gloucester and Maisemore, which the Minister has visited with me, floods regularly. If only we could raise the level of that road a little, it would act as a flood defence against the Severn while keeping the route into Gloucester open. Could we consider a joint project between the Highways Agency and the Environment Agency?

I have come to the point at which the rose-tinted spectacles come off. I am very concerned about the internal drainage boards. I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me so much time last week with the clerk and the chair of Chaceley parish council, who came to raise their concerns with us. I sat on the then MAFF Committee that made the recommendation to abolish the internal drainage boards, and I recognise that in the proposed streamlining the intention is to retain them. When the boards are small, it is possible for them to spend at least 50 per cent. of their money on administration rather than on the real job of maintenance. I am also worried about how the boards hold proper elections when they are so small, about minutes being circulated to the people who are paying towards the work of the boards, and about their accountability. I wonder, too, whether they cover the whole of the area that they are meant to cover, or whether they give preferential treatment to certain landowners in particular areas, as seems to be the case with the North Gloucestershire internal drainage board.

I am very pleased to hear that the Minister has decided that the boards will now be covered by the local government ombudsman, but people can take a case to the ombudsman only after the inefficiency and incompetence have occurred. What measures is he putting in place to monitor the work of the boards to ensure that they spend public money efficiently and competently and that they are truly accountable? Many of us are worried that the boards can differ so widely—just as parish councils can—and that some are very good and some are terrible. I would like to hear from the Minister about any further measures to make them more accountable. I was delighted to hear about the extra resources and the streamlining. It is important, though, that the Government should meet their commitments and that they intend to do so on time, so that people do not have to suffer as I did in 1985.

3.33 pm

In a dry summer, 20 per cent. of my constituency is under water. Every winter, that figure is significantly higher, and occasionally—as in 2000 and 2003—agreat deal more of Spelthorne is under water. We had a very useful Westminster Hall debate on flooding in the Thames valley, and the Minister said then that he would make time available for a debate on the Floor of the House. I thank him for doing just that. During that earlier debate, I said that I had no wish to play the blame game, and I say that again this afternoon. What I want to do is to try to get him to do more than he is already doing.

Most of these debates tend to focus on rivers, but as the Minister has said, there are two separate issues: rivers and sewers. They are interconnected, but they raise very different issues. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) rightly recounted what it was like to have her house flooded. I, too, have had that experience. With all respect to the people who have had river water in their house, that is as nothing compared with having the contents of someone else's toilet in one's living room. Whenever we have these debates, we should spend as much time asking ourselves what we intend to do about sewer discharges as we spend discussing river flooding.

Much of what the Minister said related to money, but one of the big problems of sewerage flooding is illegal connections of surface water drains to the foul sewers. He did not pick up on that point. That problem could be addressed without the expenditure of large sums. Does my hon. Friend agree that that would be a good starting point?

I do indeed, and I shall deal with that a little later. The thrust of much of what I want to say is based on the contention that many inexpensive steps could be taken, in addition to the major schemes that most debates focus on. Indeed, some measures would cost nothing.

Before we discuss what we intend to do about the problem, we should establish the facts, certainly about what happened in the lower Thames earlier this year. There is a raging debate—rather like the raging torrent that occurred—and assumptions are made so often that they are now bedded deeply into the minds of my constituents and those in neighbouring constituencies.

Three things are being blamed. For those who do not know the intricacies of the Thames, the Jubilee river scheme is the flood relief scheme that keeps Maidenhead dry. Most of my constituents are convinced that it causes more houses in my constituency to be flooded. The Minister shakes his head, but the Jubilee river figures large, the Thames barrier figures quite a bit and the lack of dredging gets mentioned.

The Minister has studied some facts, and he has come to a conclusion. He kindly wrote to me on 22 February about my request for information. He said:
"Given all the work done to date it is clear to me that the Jubilee River is not responsible for flooding and it is really not logical to claim otherwise."
He may well be right, or he could be wrong. I am not suggesting either that he is right or that he is wrong, because I have not seen the facts that he has seen. The message that I want to give him is that, however correct he may be—even if he is 100 per cent. right—a simple statement merely asserting that will not do.

I accept that it is important that people have an opportunity to consider the facts. My conclusion is based on measurements of the Jubilee river taken by the agency upstream and downstream, which show no significant difference in the performance of the river, and on the hydrological modelling of the flooding both before and after the flood event. The agency will rightly make that information publicly available, so that people can quite properly see why the Jubilee river is not in itself a major contributor to the flooding that people have experienced.

That is the point I am trying to draw from the Minister. Many of my constituents would argue, "The Minister would say that, wouldn't he?". The Environment Agency will come along and say exactly the same, and my constituents will argue, "Well, it would say that, wouldn't it'?", and the local MP may stand up and say the same thing, and the response would be, "Well he would say that as well, wouldn't he?"

Does my hon. Friend agree that we are touching on a problem raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed)? There is no court of appeal higher than the Environment Agency, and it does not seem right that it should be judge and jury in its own case. That is why my hon. Friend's constituents and mine in Medmenham and Marlow are justified in calling for an independent inquiry.

I am sure that that is one commendable solution. We need an inquiry or some other form of independent verification, so that we can tell sceptical constituents that it is not only people with a vested interest who say that the Jubilee river was not to blame: independent experts say the same. That is why I commend Spelthorne, Runnymede and Elmbridge borough councils, which have taken it on themselves to engage an independent expert. I applaud them for that. I would be eternally grateful if the Minister could see his way to paying some of the cost of that—he would expect me to ask that. I invite him to join us in trying to convince people of the truth, whether it is what he says or something else.

May I stress a point made in an earlier intervention? The modelling was done on behalf of the agency by independent consultants; it was not done by the agency itself. It would be a bit much to ask the agency to pay for even more independent analysis.

With the greatest respect, I would suggest that if the model was wrong in the first place and produced a certain answer, if it was still wrong it would give the same answer. I am merely asking the Minister to join us in trying to find some independent means of convincing my constituents of the truth, whatever if may be.

The same applies to the sewers: we must establish the facts. My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) made one of the obvious comments when he said that there were unauthorised connections. When constituents ask, "What are they going to do?". or indeed, "What are you going to do?", we must pluck up courage to say, "One thing we might have to do is disconnect your downpipes from your patio and put them somewhere else."

In my constituency, which has combined sewers, a Victorian legacy is part of the cause of the problem. Close to a river everything must be pumped—gravity plays no great role—and if pumping is inadequate, something must be done. We must ask how much more development we can put into existing infrastructure without its causing a problem elsewhere.

We must decide what action to take. It is all too easy to say that we need another grandiose scheme—another Jubilee river, for instance—but the years go by. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry) pointed out, if we are not careful we find that five or 10 years have gone by and more floods are happening. There are certainly minor things that the Government can do.

I think that the Minister should look again at planning guidance note 25, and do more to protect open spaces. We keep having this debate about flood claims, and I think we must now say that enough is enough. My constituency still maintains a reasonable amount of open space next to the Thames; there is enormous pressure for that to be built on, and the Government are putting enormous pressure on us to build more houses in the south-east. Given that every part of my constituency that is not liable to flooding has already been built on, we know where the pressure will inevitably lead us. Protecting the flood plains must be one of the Government's priorities—and it will cost them nothing, as all that is needed is a new planning guidance note.

The Government must also go back to the planning process. A planning Bill is currently before the House, and it cannot be beyond the wit of the draftsmen to come up with a clause giving the Environment Agency power to direct rather than recommending refusal. Time and again, when I ask why this or that happened in my constituency, the agency tells me, "We objected—we said what would happen and it happened, but someone overruled us." When I learned about planning all those years ago as a councillor in a coalmining community, what was then the National Coal Board had power to direct refusal if something built near a mine might fall down it. I do not see why the Environment Agency should not have the same powers.

I agree. Moreover, there is always a problem when local authorities make their own judgment about planning permission. It is not unknown for them to act against an Environment Agency recommendation because they have a vested interest.

Indeed. I objected to the right to determine one's own application as an exception to the rule 20 years ago, and I have objected to it ever since. Control must be handed to the Environment Agency when there is a risk of flooding.

Another inexpensive step that the Government could take is persuading people to take up the offer of a warning scheme. I was amazed to learn how few of my constituents had signed up to what is, in fact, a very good scheme. The more we do together, the better. The Government, the Environment Agency and local councils can all help to publicise the scheme, and financially it will be a relatively painless operation.

There is one other little thing. I discovered to my horror that among my constituents there are at least a few thoughtless people. The county council has road closure powers. It puts up a sign. The Government refuse to fund Surrey police adequately to enforce it. People remove the signs, drive large four-wheel drive vehicles down flooded roads and flood houses that until then had not been flooded. I urge the Government to look hard at doing something about the road closure powers and the penalties for those thoughtless individuals who could not care less about other people's property. Again, that is not an expensive thing to do.

The other thing that must happen is that the Government, and other people, must provide more money. In 2000, after the floods, the Government provided £16.3 million as emergency relief. How much will be provided this time? I hope that it will be more, but it should be at least the same. Why is the flood committee grant for the lower Thames, which was £1.1 million in 2003–04, being cut in the coming year to £300,000, after we have had two flooding episodes recently? Why does the flood committee have reserves of £17 million? I assume that that money was given to it to spend on flood defence, not to put into a high-interest account in Zurich or wherever it is kept. It should spend it. Why has it not spent it?

The other thing that the Minister needs to do in relation to financing is persuade his colleagues elsewhere to revisit the grant formula for the fire service and for the police in the south-east. Almost no allowance is made in the funding formulae for flood defence work by either police forces or the fire service, and something needs to be done about that.

There is another thing that the Minister needs to deal with in relation to funding. Let us take Thames Water as an example. It tells me that, in its area, it has 5,000 properties that are liable to internal flooding from sewage. It also tells me that it will cost £100,000 per property to put it right and that it is committed to putting it right by 2010. There is a need to spend £500 million. Is Ofwat prepared to sanction that? Do the Government believe that it is right that the customers of Thames Water should meet the whole of that enormous cost? Because so much of it is the result of inherited clapped-out Victorian infrastructure, should not the Government consider contributing to that, rather than just leaving it to the water companies themselves?

As I said earlier, the reason why I speak today is not to try to blame anyone for what has happened. These are acts of God. Understandably, we cannot stop the rainfall when it chooses to come down. I speak to seek the Minister's help. With regard to establishing the facts, can he give us an undertaking that he will publish all the information that he receives about what happened earlier this year? Will he give us his help and fund some independent verification, so that we can check the facts?

On planning for the future, will the Minister ensure that he encourages lots of little schemes as well as one or two big ones? Will he ensure that his plans, which I support, to streamline the bureaucracy and planning process are brought into effect at the earliest possible moment? Because the fiasco over the terminal 5 public inquiry is always close to mind, will he ensure that any schemes that are developed do not get bogged down in the awful planning process that goes on and on and on before anything starts?

Will the Minister ensure that we get adequate emergency grant to cover the costs that have occurred this year, and assure us that we will get adequate funding to do the new flood defence works that have to be done?

As a very last, personal request, either next month or at the beginning of May, I am planning to hold a major public meeting in my constituency. Will the Minister arrange for people from DEFRA to come to explain to my constituents the role that they have been playing and will play in future to ensure that fewer of my constituents' houses flood in future?

3.50 pm

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), particularly as I share his sentiments on the take-up of automated warning systems and on the thoughtlessness of some drivers. In his constituency, the problem is caused by 4×4s; in mine, it is articulated lorries.

I welcome the debate. The floods of 2000—when Worcester had three incidents in five weeks, all of which were 5 m above normal level—gave real impetus to the need to improve flood defences in that county. As a result of the floods, the all-party group was set up after the general election in 2001. It has been successful, in that several of its recommendations have been taken on board by the Government. The increased investment is most welcome, and I was delighted to hear the welcome from Conservative Members. I listened with care to their call for more money and I shall remind them of that in time to come. That is enough partisanship for now.

Acknowledging the end of non-partisanship, does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the problems is obtaining value for the money that the Government make available? Continually revisiting schemes because of changes in regulations is a waste of money.

I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but some schemes that have been changed have benefited constituencies that tend to flood.

I am delighted that the extra funding in the spending review has removed the threat that many of my constituents feared—that they would no longer get household insurance cover. I welcome the response of the Association of British Insurers to the spending review.

I want to concentrate on the challenges facing my constituency, but I shall make a few minor, but more general points. The single point of contact for flood defence has been widely welcomed in the House today, although I do not think that one particular individual first thought of it. Certainly, the National Flood Forum and the all-party group have discussed the issue, as did the Select Committee before that.

The bulk of the cash increases are coming from general taxation, and I want to explore the alternatives that were touched on in the discussion document. On the use of connection charges, I welcome the prospect of those who undertake development in at-risk areas contributing to the wider community for that risk. I look forward to the raising of cash through that route because more cash is needed, as Members on both sides have said. I am also delighted to read that the flood plain levy has, in effect, been kicked into the long grass. Most Members in the Chamber would welcome that.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne mentioned the awfulness of flooding and how dealing with silt left over in one's house compared with dealing with a sewer flood. There is a big difference between the two. Having witnessed more sewer floods than I would like, they are difficult to describe to someone who has not been there, experienced the smell and waded through what can only be described as papier maché. People will understand exactly what is coming up in kitchens and living rooms. I do not know how people can go on to lead a normal life in the house afterwards.

In Worcester, there has been severe sewer flooding in the Waverley street and Cavendish street areas, and I pay tribute to Severn Trent, which has improved the pumping of sewage across the River Severn. With any luck, we will no longer have the problem of water back-filling the old Victorian sewers, which are combined surface water sewers, and coming up into people's houses at low levels.

In January, the Environment Agency presented a pre-feasibility report for Worcester to a meeting of Worcester Action Against Flooding. It covered the 5.5 km from upstream of Barbourne brook, in Worcester, to the confluence of the River Teme. In total, it covers 220 properties that are prone to flooding in one in 100-year events such as the one that occurred in 1947. The Worcester floods that occurred in November and December, which affected some 90 properties, were a one in 50-year event. The Environment Agency has split Worcester into three distinct flood cell locations. My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) pointed out that dredging is no longer an option, certainly for a river the size of the Severn; however, building upstream capacity has been mentioned in the past as a way to protect Worcester.

The hon. Gentleman says that dredging is not practical for a river the size of the Severn. However, dredging is taking place at the bottom of the Severn, in the River Parrett, near Bridgewater, and it is proving quite successful. Would he like to expand on why that is so?

At Worcester, the River Severn is about 6 m above sea level. In order to lower it to a level at which it would no longer flood residences, the bed would have to be lowered by 5 m. To do so would make the Severn tidal at that point, and the risk of flooding would probably be greater, with water coming up from the Severn estuary. For that reason, it is not a practical option. Building upstream capacity would require the equivalent of three Clywedog reservoirs upstream of Worcester, to prevent its houses from flooding. For those who are not familiar with such reservoirs, each one would be 70 m deep and cover 620 acres. Trying to find that capacity upstream of Worcester would not be an option, so we have to look at defences as a viable way forward.

Under existing cost-benefit rules, benefits accruing to Worcester for all 11 cells taken together would be in the region of £1.9 million, for an expense of £5.2 million. It is clear that that is not a viable option, but under the rules that will come in from this April, benefits will rise to £6.4 million, making such schemes viable in the city of Worcester. I welcome that change in the cost-benefit rules, for which the all-party group has campaigned. For Hylton road, in Worcester, a cost-benefit of what was in the region of 0.55 to 0.87, requiring a ratio of at least 1:1, has moved to 1.8 to 2.84. Hylton road has therefore become a viable proposition, in terms of covering the 24 domestic and commercial properties.

I reiterate my welcome for the temporary flood defence grant for the Severn area. It is along places such as Hylton road that pallet barriers or Danish sausage barriers—depending on which the Environment Agency uses—will have a real impact in protecting residents, until permanent defences are found.

The hon. Gentleman is an expert on this subject, but he is perhaps being a little too relaxed about the change in the cost-benefit calculation. If many schemes previously considered financially unviable now become financially viable, surely all that will happen is that many that appear viable will not, in any case, be financed. The change is setting an order of priorities; it is not, I think, guaranteeing that every scheme with a positive cost-benefit outcome will be financed.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; however, I was about to qualify my comments with the word "but". I want to press upon the Minister my real concern not about the new cost-benefit scheme, but about the prioritisation of projects that pass the test. Once the test has been passed, schemes are, in essence, run against each other to establish an order of priority.

If schemes were being assessed today, the Hylton road scheme that I mentioned would qualify as a priority, and would score 24 out of 30 points, with a threshold of 20, so everyone in the Hylton road area would be happy. Indeed, five of the 11 cells in Worcester would qualify, and a further four would be just two points below the threshold. However, under the planned new scheme there is a ranking of 44 points, and the same Hylton road flood defence would score just 5.6. It would clearly not pass the threshold test—even though the cost-benefit test showed that it was a viable financial option—and would not rank as a high priority. I believe that that addresses the point made by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond).

Perversely, Toronto close in the Lower Wick estate, which does not qualify under the cost-benefit rules, achieves the highest priority rating of the 11 cells in Worcester. I suggest to the Minister that there may be something amiss in the way in which prioritisation is dealt with, and I urge him to have a look at that. Under the new prioritisation scheme, the category of people gives priority to the elderly, single-parent households and disabled people. The chair of Worcester Action Against Flooding wrote to Sir John Harman of the Environment Agency when she found out that the cell in which she lives scored 0 in the people category. She said:
"I live in cell 10—we scored 0. To my knowledge (and I don't know everyone by any means!) there are 3 disabled children, I registered disabled adult living on benefits (also a single parent!) and at least 8 people over the age of 75 (one in her 90s) two of whom are disabled!"
Even so, that cell scored nil in the people category. The chair of WAFF has made a good point, and I urge the Minister to look at it.

My hon. Friend has raised two issues. First, if there is a new scoring system, new schemes could be introduced. That is true, but we are spending more money, as I have outlined, so we are planning on the score going down in years 2 and 3 as we will have the capacity to accept more schemes. Secondly, on his detailed points, part of the problem in Worcester is that houses are scattered in some areas. There are also problems with fluvial gravels and the high cost of building programmes.

The new scheme is, I believe, more accurate and has certain advantages. However, I am concerned about some of the examples that my hon. Friend gave, and it would be worth while looking at a town like Worcester to see how the scheme is working and what its effects are.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I know that people in Worcester will welcome his special interest in the way in which the prioritisation scheme works.

In summary, many tributes were rightly paid to the Minister for the work that he has done on flooding and flood defences. He has taken time to talk to Members, including myself, with serious constituency interests. He has been successful in getting money from the Treasury and changing the cost-benefit rules. As of today, he has been successful in getting temporary defences for areas along the river Severn. If he could look at those prioritisation scores and perhaps give them a bit of tweak in favour of places such as Worcester, he will have done everything that a Minister can do to help to keep the people of Worcester dry.

4.3 pm

In a constituency such as Salisbury it would be surprising if flooding were not an issue. After all, the heart of constituency—the city of Salisbury—lies at the confluence of five rivers: the Nadder, the Ebble, the Wylye, the Avon and the Bourne. This winter, 11 villages in my constituency were flooded, some gravely. Some flooded that did not flood in 2002. I have a long association with those rivers and their tributaries. I have an advantage because I have had the honour of serving as a Member of Parliament for nearly 20 years, and have seen Ministers come and go. How delightful that the present Minister has stayed long enough to understand the issues. I wish him well, promotion and all the richness that will come to him one day—but not yet, I hope

I first acquired personal knowledge of the River Avon in 1947, when I fell into it, aged 2. Were it not for the quick action of the Bishop of Bombay, I might not be here today, as it was he who pulled me out. Ever since, I have paddled in the River Avon and its tributaries—for pleasure in my childhood, and dressed in wellies and a Barbour jacket over the new year.

I visited many villages over the new year period—Orcheston, Tilshead, Shrewton, Tisbury, Chilmark, Winterslow, Cholderton, Allington, Hurdcott, Ford, and Pitton. I also visited Downton, of course, as it had the worst floods this year. I discovered that two different sorts of people exist. Some people see a lovely house in an idyllic rural setting by a river and decide that they must live there. They buy the house even though they know that it is going to be flooded. In Downton, I met one such gentleman wearing wellies who shrugged his shoulders and said he knew that it might happen.

Increasingly, people dwell in houses built in rather obviously flood-prone places. One of my favourite examples concerns the poor, sad people who bought a house in a very attractive area, only to discover that it flooded almost every winter. One did not need to be a rocket scientist to work out why that was, as the house was on a very flat bit of land through which a winter bourn clearly flowed. Perhaps they might have known that the house would be flooded, given that flooding looked so obvious on that site, and that the name of the village was Lake. However, the district council at the time thought that it was a good idea to build in that spot.

I heartily endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) said about road closures. I hope that the Minister will liaise with the Department for Transport and, if necessary, the Home Office on the matter. It is appalling to see HGVs pile down little village roads and through villages that are flooded. Bus drivers and even local people are also to blame: they seem not to understand that doing more than about 1 mph in a four-wheel drive vehicle will cause flooding because the wash will raise water levels the vital two or three inches that causes water to go over front-door sills. That really matters. Sadly, on one occasion in 2000, I had to report a police Land Rover for doing exactly what I have described. I am glad to say that that is a rare occurrence.

I should like to take a short trip down memory lane. A remarkable author called Ralph Whitlock was born in the village of Pitton and many years later died in the neighbouring village of Winterslow. In 1988, he wrote a book about life in the villages on the edge of Salisbury plain. I shall quote one passage, which states:
"More than twenty years have now elapsed since the springs last broke in Pitton. The water-table in the chalk has evidently been sinking steadily. New residents tend to be sceptical about the tales of floods, and it is difficult to believe them.
The senior citizens who remember them well regard wet summers and wetter autumns with hopeful anticipation: "I hope I live long enough to see the springs down just once more!" they say. It would, they feel, be a just nemesis falling on those who ignored their advice and built new houses on sites which were once flooded regularly.
But the years pass and the springs stay well below the surface. It is unlikely that they will be seen again."
He was wrong. We need to remember that in the 1960s this country's climate was unusually dry. In that period, many planning authorities and river boards allowed houses and industrial estates to be built on flood plains. That is at the root of many of the current problems.

One of the saddest examples can be found in the village of Pitton. Ralph Whitlock told me that one could tell when it was going to flood there by checking the black stone 4 ft from the top of the well at Box cottage. When the water reached that black stone, the village would flood three days later. Box cottage has gone now. The land has been built over. The well is no more. The village floods, heavily and regularly.

Flooding is a tremendous problem, but some really quite simple solutions have hardly been touched on today. Tom Ridout, clerk of Allington parish council, wrote to me on 10 January. The matter could not have been put better. Mr. Ridout said that changing weather patterns and increased river flows were crucial factors, and added:
"If this calamity is not to recur annually serious forethought and expensive measures must he taken to quickly improve maintenance of the river—dredging, clearing of weed, clearing of banks, raising bunds, raising bridges where they have a dam effect, etc. This will require a national initiative.
At the local level, the parish council are constantly chiding their masters over matters of basic maintenance. Ditch clearing, weed cutting, drain emptying, etc. Though these factors may not have an influence on the full measure of these floods there can be no doubt that regular basic maintenance has a part to play. The local authority are ever ready to issue glossy brochures and send out wordy consultation documents and letters but slow to send men regularly, with tools, to do what needs to be done. Particularly this is so in the countryside where so often the inhabitants are at the very end of the queue for resources."
I therefore commend Wiltshire county council for reintroducing the ancient concept of lengthsmen who are attached to a village so many weeks a year and go round doing just that. It is no good weeping over the fact that our farmers no longer have a surplus of labour who used to spend the growing months ditching. They no longer ditch because there are no longer people to ditch.

On 29 January, Earl Peel, in the other place, asked the Government about the duties of the Environment Agency to clear arterial drains. The Minister, Lord Whitty, replied:
"The Environment Agency is not under any duty to maintain and clean arterial watercourses. Primary responsibility for the maintenance of all watercourses rests with the riparian owners."—[Official Report, House of Lords,29 January 2003; Vol. 643, c. WA164.]
Quite so.

When we had serious flooding in Salisbury I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister and he replied that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had certain responsibilities, as did the Environment Agency and local authorities. I forwarded that to each of my local authorities, saying that that was what the Minister said, and could we all agree on who did what? Of course, we could not.

The district council wrote back to say that it had no statutory duty to prevent flooding, but there were two areas of legislation which give it discretionary powers to take action when problems occurred. In its wisdom, Salisbury district council has set up a working party to look into the whole question of flooding across south Wiltshire, and I commend it for that and look forward to seeing the result. The district council has undertaken various plans.

The county council wrote back to me and said that the Environment Agency had published a study which contains specific relevant areas of responsibility and that it could do no better than enclose a copy. It did not answer the question about what it had responsibility for; it just sent me the Environment Agency handbook. That is fine. Some very good ones are produced by county councils. Hampshire and the Isle of Wight county council has produced a very good flood defence information sheet and the Environment Agency has done some very good work.

I asked the Environment Agency what it was responsible for. The local regional director from Blandford wrote:
"On ordinary watercourses, sewage, highway, and groundwater flooding, we do not have a remit to provide a warning or a defence. Notwithstanding that, we have tried to influence our partners, and, where possible, will provide advice."
That is fine. I then asked the Library of the House if it could point me in the direction of a textbook or reference book which would tell me who was responsible for what. It did. It got the British Library to provide an excellent book published by the Institution of Civil Engineers called, "Land Drainage and Flood Defence Responsibilities". It was published way back in 1996 in the third edition, but unfortunately has not been reprinted since. There is no compendium for people to know exactly what to do. We find ourselves with lots of advice, but when flooding happens no one knows who is responsible for what.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the anomalous areas is the position of riparian owners? In theory, riparian owners are primarily responsible for the maintenance of all watercourses. In the case of the River Thames, for example, it is clearly impracticable. It is unclear where the boundary lies between rivers on which riparian owners are expected to discharge their responsibilities and those where it is broadly accepted that they cannot. Would it not be better now to sweep away the responsibilities of riparian owners in respect of all main rivers?

That is the problem. What is a main river? How do we define when a river is a main river or when it is a watercourse? When is a watercourse a ditch? When does a ditch become a watercourse? Where does a mill leat fall into all of this? There is a real problem here and I urge the Minister to try and sort it out. That sort of detail will help enormously. Above all, if people undertook their riparian ownership duties seriously, it would do a great deal to help.

A different area that concerns me is weather forecasting. I visited the Met Office in Bracknell a couple of weeks ago to learn about the UK weather radar network. It consists of 12 radars owned by a consortium of Government agencies, with the Met Office providing operating support. The radars operate continuously and send back information on rainfall over almost all the UK land area and inshore waters. They measure rainfall rates at five-minute intervals, averaged over three sizes of grid squares. The Met Office can thus feed into its forecasting information about when there will be dangerous flash floods. Such flooding can be accurately anticipated and pinpointed to within a kilometre every five minutes.

That is a huge technological advance and I hope that the Government will continue to expand the network. I know that they want to erect a radome at Dean hill, a prominent hill in my constituency. No doubt the scheme will be controversial, but if it goes ahead the advantages will be enormous. The entire UK weather radar network is of huge benefit to all citizens in alleviating flooding.

Another problem that has not been mentioned is Crown immunity. There are conflicting problems in the villages on Salisbury plain and thereabouts, which are the inevitable consequence of the chalk landscape. In the winter, there is saturation and flooding, while in the summer there is over-abstraction and low flows. I shall explain later why that is important. I have discovered through tabling parliamentary questions that the Ministry of Defence has sunk many boreholes in the Salisbury plain area, yet under Crown immunity, English Nature does not know about them; there is a massive void in its knowledge. However, on a top-secret basis, the Environment Agency has some answers and is allowed to know how much water the MOD is abstracting, although it does not know where the water goes—sewerage patterns in the area are notorious. Twenty-four boreholes are in use by the Army, plus one for emergencies, and substantial quantities of water are abstracted. Crown immunity has gone past its sell-by date in terms of water resources management in the countryside.

The Ministry of Defence is to be congratulated on introducing project Aquatrine, which provides it with water and waste water services throughout the country and seems, for the first time, to have allowed it to count its boreholes. The military's use of water is increasing, however; for example, project Allenby will mean that several thousand more families are housed in and around the chalk areas of south Wiltshire. There will be substantial new abstraction and we shall need careful planning for that.

One of the ironies of the situation is that the Hampshire Avon is one of the cleanest and most beautiful rivers in the country and has been designated a special area of conservation, yet in winter there is emergency dumping of sewage in rivers. This winter that occurred at Hanging Langford. What is the point of going to the trouble and expense of designating a special area of conservation, where there is a river of the highest quality in Europe, if we allow water companies to discharge sewage in that river?

One Monday morning, the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust phoned me to ask for help in dealing with a huge sewage discharge next to the Hanging Langford wildlife reserve. The matter has been pursued by several agencies, but it illustrates the problem. I warmly welcome the SAC strategy, but there are enormous manmade problems that cannot be disaggregated from flooding. Flooding causes substances to enter watercourses that destroy delicate environments, and it is humans who cause the trouble. For example, hormone-disrupting substances—that is, the pill—are one of the greatest problems in the River Avon SAC, and do great damage. They desex the fish and even the flies. The fish cannot live because the flies do not breed. The whole cycle is grotesque. It is our fault that that is happening, and we need to address it.

In the end, we are talking about the use of water, the cost of treating and disposing of water, and our attitude to that. I am concerned that we are obsessed with keeping down the price of water at the cost of the environment. That makes me greener than the greens, I suppose, but I intend to be pretty horrible about the water consumers' body. I was very disappointed to see that the review by the "WaterVoice" newsletter representing water customers, which most Members of Parliament will have had in their post in the past couple of weeks, wants to delay the environmental schemes. It says:
"We recognise that, because of legislation, there are still environmental schemes that need to be carried out, but we believe there is scope to defer some schemes beyond 2010 in order to reduce the impact on customers' bills."
That is wrong, and Ofwat is wrong. We should be prepared to pay more for our water to have better water quality where it counts. We can either go with the grain of nature and ensure that future generations enjoy the valleys and rivers that I loved, and indeed fell into, in my childhood, or we can play around with nature and destroy that heritage.

4.21 pm

My constituency sits in one of the largest inland counties in the country, so it will be no surprise to hon. Members that I do not intend to talk about coastal defence. The one image from my constituency that many hon. Members will know is the great iron bridge that spans the River Severn in the Coalbrookdale area. I want to talk about Ironbridge and the communities around the Ironbridgegorge, and the devastating impact of flooding in that area.

Hon. Members will know the image of the bridge; they will also know the image of the coracle, which is the craft of the upper River Severn. One of the last great makers of the coracle, Eustace Rogers, recently died. He could never tempt me into a coracle. Several friends of mine who have gone into a coracle have very quickly gone into the River Severn. I do not intend to try that out. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) might do so during the summer months, although he does not know that yet.

The Ironbridge gorge is a fantastic sight. It is a world heritage site—indeed, it was the first industrial world heritage site ever to be declared—and it provides an economic engine for the county of Shropshire. Several museums sit alongside the river, including the museum of the river itself and Blists Hill, the museum of iron. In recent years, Shropshire has had serious problems, especially relating to the rural economy. One of the things that has helped it through those troubles has been its ability to draw tourists into the area. The Ironbridge gorge and the iron bridge itself represent a magnet for tourists. Of course, it is also a living community. Some 4,000 people live within the boundaries of the world heritage site and several businesses operate in that locality. It draws people into Shropshire who then go on to visit places such as Shrewsbury, Cosford aerospace museum and other parts of our wonderful county.

Alongside the image of the great iron bridge of which hon. Members will be aware is the image of the significant flooding that has happened in recent years. Flooding is nothing new in the lronbridge gorge. The greatest flood that took place there was in 1795. I am not sure who the Member of Parliament was at that time; perhaps he paddled a coracle. In terms of recent floods, during the last century there were fairly significant floods in the gorge in the 1940s, the 1960s and throughout the 1990s. The autumn 2000 flood was a one in 50 incidence flood that was quite devastating in the locality. Many of my constituents recall how awful it was and the impact that it had on the museums and local businesses. It took several months—eventually, it may take years—for the gorge to recover all the trade that was lost owing to the many people who stayed away during that period. Some properties in the gorge flood on an annual basis and the geography of the gorge is so problematic that we may never be able to protect them.

The problem is that the River Severn meanders on its floodplain before it reaches Ironbridge, and is then channelled into a steep-sided gorge with no floodplain at all. The rises in water level are dramatic during a flood. Shrewsbury is our main warning that we are going to get flooded. If Shrewsbury gets hit, it is guaranteed that Ironbridge will get hit as well. Experience of floods has prompted the creation of a strong local group to try to draw agencies together. The Ironbridge Gorge Community Against Flooding group is superb. The chair of the group is fantastic and so is the secretary—Jemma McLay-Fortune—who does an enormous amount of work to assist residents and to work with the range of agencies involved. We also have an excellent councillor in the area—Louise Lomax. Other hon. Members have talked about officers from the Environment Agency. Peter May, who works for the agency in the midlands, has been superb. I will return in a few moments to some of the issues that he has raised with the local community.

We have good interagency working. The local authority has worked extremely well with the Environment Agency and DEFRA, but also with Severn Trent Water, to try to alleviate some of the worst effects of flooding in the Ironbridge gorge. I want to thank the Minister for the commitment that he has given to meet residents from Ironbridge in the next few weeks, and for his commitment this afternoon to fund temporary barriers and measures. I assume that one of the areas that will benefit from that, in relation to the wider Severn catchment area, will be Ironbridge.

There is a system in Europe that we hope to pilot, whereby a number of pallets are laid on metal stanchions. We hope to create a burn along areas such as the wharfage in Ironbridge, to alleviate some of the worst effects of flooding. Such a scheme would not stop the one-in-50 style flood of autumn 2000, but it would prevent some of the less severe flooding that frequently occurs in the Ironbridge gorge. As I have said, that could be only a temporary or partial solution to the problem. Many residents in the gorge will still regularly suffer from flooding.

I hope that the Minister will think a little more about support for individuals in the form of defence funding. We had a flood fair in Ironbridge last year but it was not especially well attended. I do not think that residents are aware of the types of product that are on the market to defend their properties. A much stronger push is required on that issue. Some innovative products can be put in place in people's homes. There are blocks that can go over doorways, and ways in which basements can be secured to stop flooding. We have to support local people in purchasing those innovative products, which are produced by many companies in the United Kingdom.

I welcome the fact that the Severn gorge area is a test case. Throughout the catchment area, we are trying to model what happens in floods. Many communities such as Shrewsbury will benefit from more permanent solutions; others, such as Ironbridge, will not. We have to understand the dynamic of the way in which permanent and temporary measures sit together and to understand what will happen during a significant flood. We may find that areas with temporary measures may not be able to cope. They may need more permanent defences.

I would like to touch briefly on the cost-benefit analysis that is being used by DEFRA and the Environment Agency to assess flood risk. I welcome the commitment in recent months to change the cost-benefit analysis. However, I am worried that it continues to downplay the impact that flooding can have on local businesses and specific sites. The Minister has acknowledged that worry. Several months ago, he wrote to me and said:
"The unique status of the Ironbridge Gorge as a world Heritage Site clearly poses a challenge in both assigning it an economic value and determining how this is accounted for in the cost/benefit analysis."
In the wind-up speech, I would welcome some comments on whether the Minister has thought about the way in which issues such as world heritage status can be drawn into the cost-benefit analysis and the way in which the impact on businesses is being considered. As I have said, places such as the Ironbridge gorge are an economic engine-house for counties such as Shropshire. They draw people into what are, as I have said, living communities. We have to consider the impact that flooding has on those communities.

I should like to say something following the representations that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members have made about the heritage issue now, in case it slips my mind in during the winding-up speeches. Heritage is a criterion in the new scoring system that will start in April, so heritage sites will be a consideration. Of course the problems of Ironbridge, as he well knows, go much deeper—literally deeper. Again, fluvial gravels are a problem, and there are real technical challenges in providing a cost-benefit solution. I very much hope that the temporary solutions that are being paid for in the Severn area—Ironbridge is one of the areas under consideration—may at least, as he says, help to alleviate the problems. Of course, in the onging catchment studies, we will look for further solutions to try to improve the situation.

I am very grateful to the Minister for that response, and I welcome the fact that heritage will be drawn into the criteria. We need to focus on the range of support services provided by local authorities in areas that flood, such as the gorge. Telford and Wrekin council has produced an excellent pack for residents that contains information on what the agencies can offer and what support is available.

It is important that we consider temporary defences not just as a sandbag replacement policy, but as a more effective system than that, and we should monitor and evaluate it properly to find out whether we need to provide more permanent defences as time goes on. I welcome the Minister's comment in relation to heritage, and I look forward to working with him and Ironbridge residents to explore how that will impact on a perhaps re-evaluated cost-benefit model in the coming months.

I want to close by reflecting on an issue that has not been discussed extensively this afternoon: how we can try to alleviate flooding through agricultural processes. We have seen significant change in the style and structure of farming policy and strategy in this country in recent years. Hedgerows have been removed and there is a totally different style and technique of farming. I should like to ask the Minister to reflect, perhaps in his winding-up speech, on how we can promote better agri-environmenal schemes to reduce run-off from land, and on how we can perhaps subsidise and support farmers and landowners to improve the use of their land, so avoiding significant run-off into rivers, such as the Severn, which has such devastating impacts downstream in areas such as Ironbridge. In summary, to coin a phrase, much done—much still to do.

4.32 pm

I, too, will concentrate on fluvial flooding, some 150 dwellings in my constituency having been affected by flooding along the River Thames earlier this year. I should like to express my sympathy with all those of my constituents who were so traumatised by that event, coming just two years after what they all thought, in October 2000, was a once-in-a- lifetime experience. Sadly, that was not to be.

As the anger that many residents initially felt has given way to a more analytical desire to understand what has happened, I should like to draw out and bring to the Minister's attention some issues that were brought to my attention in correspondence and two very large public meetings, which I chaired, attended by more than 500 people and representatives of all the relevant authorities, including the statutory water undertaker and the Environment Agency.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) talked about climate change being the driver for the flooding events that occurred early this year. That may well be the case, but as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire),there are considerable concerns along the lower Thames that other, man-made factors may be at work and may also contribute as well as climate change, which we all recognise is inevitably a factor.

I would tell the Minister—my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne also made this point—that there is a considerable credibility issue about statements made by the Environment Agency. Well meaning, well intentioned Environment Agency officials attended the meetings in my constituency and stated very clearly that they did not believe that the operation of the weirs on the River Thames, the Thames barrier or the Jubilee river had in any way negatively impacted on the situation that my constituents experienced. Yet the people who were affected this time were, in many cases, affected much worse than they were in October-November 2000,but the flood event was much less extensive on this occasion than it was in October-November 2000. The Minister shakes his head. I speak with a certain degree of heartfelt knowledge, as in October-November 2000 my house, which is located on a tributary of the Wey, was seriously affected by flooding. In January this year, areas back along the Wey towards Guildford were not affected at all, while the flooding along the Thames in Chertsey and Egham was particularly severe.

That is right, although it could be explained from the areas of downfall and run-off. While that may be the case on particular tributaries of the Thames, I must make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that the levels in the Thames in 2003 were worse than in 2000. In fact, such levels had previously been recorded only in 1947.

The Minister is right, but the level in the Thames is not a natural phenomenon. The level in the Thames is controlled by weirs and by the operation of the barrier. Therein lies the problem. Constituents of mine and of my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne are not yet convinced that the actions of the Environment Agency in operating those devices along the Thames were not a contributory factor.

I shall put to Ministers some of the issues that arose at those two large public meetings, and try to draw out of them a couple of more general themes that may have wider applicability than the flooding effects in Egham and Chertsey. Maintenance of rivers was a major theme—the maintenance of the Chertsey Bourne, the lack of clearance of the river and the division of responsibility between the Environment Agency and the local authority. Part of the Chertsey Bourne is a main river; part of it is not. That creates confusion in itself. I take it that the Minister's announcement about the Environment Agency having responsibility for high flood-risk rivers applies not just to large rivers, but to all rivers, even smaller rivers like the Chertsey bourne, which pose a serious flood risk to dwellings—in the case of Chertsey, 60 or 70 dwellings were affected on the last occasion.

Of course, concerns were expressed about development in the floodplain. I heard hon. Members speaking about the Environment Agency having much stronger powers to prohibit development in the floodplain. I do not disagree with the sentiment, but I suggest to the Minister that if that is to happen, the Environment Agency's act will have to be sharpened up. I think I am right in saying that at present the Environment Agency objects as a matter of course to any development occurring within the area shown by the agency's map as the indicative floodplain, yet we all know that its maps are far from accurate. If the agency is to have stronger powers, they must be based on very much better data than it has at present.

I mentioned the active intervention of the Environment Agency in the management of the river. Constituents of mine who live on the River Thames and know the river well experienced some rather unusual occurrences this January, in particular over the weekend of the 4–5 January—a sudden drop in the level of the river. That was after the flood event had occurred. I have not yet heard from the Environment Agency a satisfactory explanation for that sudden and significant drop in the level of the river. Other hon. Members have mentioned dredging. The Thames is no longer subject to the kind of dredging programme that went on for many years, and the level of the river-bed has visibly risen in some areas, particularly on bends of the river.

I should like to ask the Minister about the cost-benefit analysis model that is used in relation to fluvial flooding. A number of people who attended those meetings could not understand how it worked. It is abundantly clear from the figures provided by the Environment Agency that it is not aware of all the dwellings that are affected by flooding. Not everybody claims insurance when they are flooded. Sadly, some people do not have any insurance on which to claim. The discrepancies between the figures given by the EA and those given by the local authorities and residents groups made it clear that not all flooded dwellings were coming to the EA's attention. Can we be sure that the cost of flooding is being properly evaluated if it is clear that at least some flooded dwellings are not being counted? Can the Under-Secretary give an assurance that the cost of increased insurance premiums for all residents of an area when postcode-related premium settingoccurs—an on-cost to the whole community—is being properly taken into account in the cost-benefit analysis?

Does the Under-Secretary recognise that there is a problem of public credibility in respect of the Environment Agency's multiple role? It is the promoter of schemes such as the Jubilee river, and it is also the operator of that scheme, as it sets weir levels and decides when and how to open the Jubilee river and bring it into use. Yet it is also the regulator and, as someone else has said, the final court of appeal. Has he considered whether the need to restore public confidence in the system might call for a split between the roles of regulator and operator, which would ensure that the EA works in relation to the operation of rivers just as does in relation to the statutory water undertakers—a function that it does not carry out, but supervises and regulates?

Is the Under-Secretary aware of another conflict in the Environment Agency's role, of which I became aware only by virtue of comments made by its personnel at the public meeting that I was chairing? I refer to the fact that the EA has a statutory duty to maintain the navigability of rivers such as the Thames. On the reach of the lower Thames that I am talking about, navigation is done almost entirely for pleasure. The duty to maintain navigability means that the target normal water level in the river is allowed to fluctuate only over a very narrow range. People who have lived on the river for many years tell me that, in the past, when heavy falls of rain were expected or taking place, it was accepted practice to allow the river level to fall in autumn and early winter in anticipation of heavy run-off during the winter season. That no longer happens, because of the EA's statutory duty to maintain navigability of the river. That issue needs to be considered; some correction may be needed in the form of legislation to create a clear set of priorities in which flood prevention comes ahead of navigation.

I want to mention one more issue that has not yet been raised: the impact of waste landfilling on the absorbency and permeability of the ground. Most landfill takes place in areas where gravel has been extracted. By definition, most of that land is situated in floodplains, and there is a great deal of it in my constituency. The modern practice is to clay-line waste disposal sites, which means that they become huge, impermeable voids in the water table—large areas of water absorbency capacity that have been removed from the equation. That is almost certainly a factor in my area. The EA pointed out to me that no statutory agency has responsibility for flooding that is occasioned by flows of ground water, as opposed to fluvial waters.

I understand the calls that have been made for public inquiries. I share the scepticism of my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne about the appropriateness of holding a full public inquiry into the events of January 2003 because of the delay that that would inevitably involve. Like him, I welcome the action of our local authorities in commissioning some independent expert research, but it will take much more than that to restore public confidence.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will take on board the key point that public confidence in the Environment Agency is low, certainly on the reach of the Thames that I have discussed. He should consider whether the Department can do anything, perhaps through splitting roles, to help restore confidence and thus give the public a greater sense that the serious threat to their well-being and livelihoods is being properly controlled and managed.

4.45 pm

My constituency is about as far inland as one can get, but the River Dove and the mighty Trent flow through it. My hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) mentioned heritage. If it were not for the quality of the water in Burton on Trent, we would not have such fine beers.

I welcome the extra funding and the greater responsibility that is being placed on the Environment Agency. However, I accept that all bodies need to continue to work together to deal with flooding problems because they do not derive from one source. Other hon. Members have referred to sewage flooding; that means that the sewerage companies are involved. This week, I had a site meeting in Rolleston-on-Dove in my constituency, which representatives from the highways authority, the Environment Agency, the local borough council, the Severn Trent sewerage company and the local parish council attended.

I pay tribute to all those who work to prevent flooding recurring, especially parish councillors who try to be the watchdog for their villages. Representatives of the local landowners were perhaps the only people who were not at the site meeting. We need to work with them on clearing the drains and ditches that run through fields and can create a backlog and cause flooding.

Whether flooding occurs in an individual property or a large group of properties, it is a terrible event for the people who live there, especially if sewage is involved. In the floods in 2000, approximately 40 properties were flooded in my constituency. However, we were within 2 in or 3 in of flooding in 7,000 properties in the town centre. The flatness of the land in Burton on Trent means that that would have happened if the flood defence barriers had been breached. Indeed, reports on local radio and elsewhere suggested that the bridges had gone, and the evacuation began in the town. That caused great problems on the roads. There was a need to evacuate some streets that were closest to the river, and that happened.

I have great sympathy for the people in the 40 houses that were flooded and those who suffered elsewhere, and I want to ask about the new priority scoring system. As I said, we were within 2 in or 3 in of having 7,000 properties at risk. We are in the "one flood in 100 years" category. I am worried that climate change may necessitate further improvements to the flood barriers in Burton on Trent.

If the flood defences in Burton had not been repaired and maintained before 2000, they would have been breached. I understand that improvements were not made on the standard that was established more than 30 years ago. In other words, we were not making the standard better than it was 30 years ago. Burton-on-Trent is protected to the one in 100 standard, but we came very close.

What calculations have been made of the effect of global warming? Are we changing our assessments owing to the likely increased risk? No one wants to scare the local population, but everyone should be aware of the risks. I am pleased that there was a local flood fair in my area recently, although it was not attended by as many people as we would have liked. There is a need to raise the awareness of people in towns such as Burton on Trent of the potential for flooding, without frightening them. There is also a need to ensure that the money is spent on protecting the areas in which many properties are at risk.

I welcome yesterday's announcement that the Environment Agency is to be given a block grant. I am sure that that will provide continuity and allow the agency to plan and develop schemes better in the future. The one disadvantage that it will bring is a loss of some democratic control, and I would like to ask what mechanism will be put in place to ensure fair distribution in all regions and areas—including Burton on Trent under—the new funding system.

4.51 pm

I shall be very brief, as I know that many other hon. Members wish to speak. It is not surprising that a lot of Members with constituencies on the Severn—our longest river—have spoken, and I am pleased to join them. We in Wyre Forest are very grateful to DEFRA and to the Environment Agency for the beginning of the very effective flood defences that we have, and I am grateful to the Minister for the reassurance that there is quite a good chance that the next phase will be completed on time.

We are very sad that neither the Minister nor the Secretary of State can come to inaugurate the flood defences at the end of this month, as we were hoping they would. In fact, I was asked to stand in for them, but I did not really think it was appropriate. I did not know whether one should crack a bottle of champagne over these things, cut a tape, or whatever. So I have suggested that the ceremony should be deferred in the hope that either the Secretary of State or the Minister can come later. The defences are really worth seeing when they are erected, and, as we get something like 36 hours warning of a flood, the speed with which they can be erected is very impressive. There is a flood risk in Kidderminster—although it is much less than in Bewdley—and there are very exciting developments there, including the building of a burn to delay the flow of the Stour and to recreate one of the original marshlands just above the town. I would love to have the opportunity to take the Secretary of State or the Minister to have a look at those developments and to see something that is really functioning.

I would like to add my queries to those made by other hon. Members about what an ordinary watercourse is. The press release and the statement used the term "even minor streams" and I would like to know what the definition is. I hope that the provisions will allow other areas to avoid the kind of Gilbert and Sullivan experience that we had in 2000, when a very minor stream caused serious flooding to a group of houses. The residents of those houses built a sort of dam to protect them, which immediately deflected the flood to another group of houses. In the middle of the night, the owners of the second group of houses crept up and removed the dam. We would like to see that kind of chaos eradicated.

I welcome the Minister's high regard for the national flood forum, which was set up by just three people on the Bewdley residents flood committee. With a generous grant from the Environment Agency, two of those people are now paid a moderate salary. The amount of work that they do, with volunteers, is absolutely amazing. They are involved in research, and they have done many presentations and organised flood fairs throughout the country. They are also creating a database. Their office will be in a converted building that always floods. If anywhere in Bewdley floods, this building does. It will demonstrate how to have an office that is relatively flood resistant. They have huge contact with local firms and individuals. I support their wish to develop their service further, which obviously requires more financial help. They provide a national service of advice for the people who need it.

4.55 pm

Like probably every Member who has spoken in the debate, my constituency has suffered from floods in recent years: in our case, in 2001. We have heard about many famous rivers, including the Thames, Avon, Trent, Severn and Wyre. The rivers that I shall mention may not be as internationally well known as they are, but the main rivers running through mid and north Essex are the Blackwater, with its tributaries the Pant and the Brain, the Chelmer and the Ter.

The question that Members have asked again and again is: where does the river system stop? A large part of the damage in my division was caused by brooks, which run into the minor rivers that run into the main river. Into those brooks run drains and the run-off from fields. The whole system goes back and back, almost like all of us descending from Adam and Eve. We have to go far back to judge where the danger is coming from.

The other issue that a number of hon. Members have highlighted is the division of responsibility between the various bodies. Until we resolve that question, I fear that there will be some delay in finding solutions to many of the problems that we all face. Hon. Members may have heard of a case in Finchingfield in my constituency—if not, they will have after today. It is usually regarded as the most beautiful village in England. It is much photographed, but in October 2001 it was not photographed as an inland village: it was a series of houses under or around a lake. The Finchingfield brook overflowed, and the water went higher than anyone in living memory can recall. My good friend Councillor Ron Hawkins is a local historian, and he can find no record of the waters going as high as they did that year. They went beyond the war memorial, well up on to the green, and flooded the pub, the teashop, the antique shop and residential properties. All of us will be aware that, when flood waters go away, houses are not put back into occupation straight away. It takes many months for those houses to be habitable again.

The difficulty we have with the Finchingfield brook is that the Environment Agency has responsibility only for the area just past the village green, but the brook runs beyond that, and there lies the problem. Unless we deal with the whole length of the brook, we cannot prevent further flooding.

Of late, I have been disappointed with the Environment Agency. After the floods in 2001, I was clearly told that a number of schemes would shortly be introduced, on which action could be taken. I was shown the outlying schemes for certain villages in my division, particularly in Kelvedon, but no such report was published in 2002.Being ever the optimist, I again spoke to the agency in the autumn of 2002. I was shown schemes for the village of Finchingfield, which I was assured would be consulted on after December 2002. I am a patient man, and I did not raise the matter again until February 2003, when I was referred to the regional office in Ipswich. I was told that because the scheme involved a flood park beyond the agency's jurisdiction, it would not be able to carry it out. It was an inexpensive scheme, and on the face of it would not only have solved the problem of Finchingfield and down river to Great Bardfield, but would have had consequences all the way down the river system. I could not fathom whether the agency had a reason not to go ahead or whether it did not wish to go ahead, but officials in the local office told me about the schemes in good faith. Clearly there was an overruling higher up in the system.

I should like to know from the Minister whether the agency currently has power to construct flood parks beyond the line of the main river, which it operates, provided that the construction of those parks provides flood defences within the main river. If the answer is yes, I shall be greatly strengthened in my discussions with the local office. If that is not the case, can it become the case? Otherwise valuable schemes in all our constituencies will be blocked, and no real progress will be possible.

Obviously I spoke about the whole issue of flooding in my constituency after the severe floods of 2001. All of us who represent areas where flooding has been a problem know of the fear that many residents feel at certain times of the year, and the relief when spring arrives and the danger has presumably passed. The trouble is that public bodies take too long considering before they act. Some of the schemes that could solve the problem are not very expensive, but they need to be put in hand promptly rather than being contemplated at length. People should not be fobbed off with the excuse that the problem is not the responsibility of a particular agency or Department.

5.1 pm

I apologise to the Minister for missing the first five minutes or so of his speech.

Many Members have described the distress and anger of their constituents following the flooding early this year. I encountered some of that distress and anger at a public meeting in Medmenham in my constituency, which I attended to find out what local people felt about the flooding that had afflicted Medmenham and Marlow.

I shall try to emulate the tone adopted by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who tried to approach the issue in a bipartisan way. I appreciate that there were very heavy levels of rainfall this year, and that, not being a rain god, the Minister cannot be held responsible for all the difficulties thrown up by nature. I was amused when my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry) said he hoped that the Minister would still be there at the end of the current Parliament. I believe, although the Minister may correct me, that he is already the longest-serving Minister in the Government, but he may well look forward to continuing to serve for as long as my hon. Friend wishes him to.

As the Minister knows, some of my constituents believe that the Jubilee scheme was responsible for the exceptionally heavy flooding. As he also knows, the Environment Agency says that it was not, and proposes to run a hydraulic model downstream to confirm that. There are two difficulties for my constituents. First, the hydraulic model is not being run upstream to where they live; secondly, what if the model is wrong—a possibility that has already been raised today?

My view, for what it is worth, is that the agency may well be right, but let me return to a problem that has surfaced repeatedly today: the agency cannot be judge and jury in its own case. I commend to the Minister the ingenious suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) about the need for re-examination of the agency's responsibilities, and urge him to look again at the arguments for an independent inquiry into what happened. I ask him to respond, perhaps in writing if he does not have time at the end of the debate, to the question of whether he would fund or help to fund any independent examinations upstream, perhaps by some public body, just as some of my hon. Friends want him to help to fund independent examinations downstream.

My constituents are concerned not merely about what has already happened but, naturally, about what will happen. I welcome in that context the announcement by the EA, which the Minister has made known in a written answer, that it will be undertaking pre-feasibility studies to identify options for the alleviation of flooding in both Marlow and Medmenham. I put on record my appreciation for the courteous way in which the EA has always dealt with me in providing information.

I would appreciate it if the Minister let me know in due course what the timetable for that is and what efforts the EA will make to discuss those plans with other bodies. In the written answer, the Minister made it known that the EA would be discussing the matter with the district council but I would be grateful for any further information that the Minister has available.

Many hon. Members have already referred to the difficulties of dealing with flooding when it is dealt with by such a wide variety and number of bodies. As the Minister will know, what constituents want in these circumstances is effectively a one-stop shop, somewhere they can go to with ease to find solutions to the problems that they face. I will want to examine carefully the Minister's announcement earlier about the way in which he is rebalancing the responsibilities of the public bodies for flooding. Since he said earlier that he is always willing to meet any delegation of constituents—

The Minister is now adding" within reason". I hope that, when he says that, he is not indicating that he would not be prepared—I apologise for the double negative—to meet a body of my constituents if they wished to come to see him about these matters. I may make such an approach to him and I trust that he will respond favourably.

5.7 pm

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), although like every other contribution to the debate, his tended to be a bit landlocked. As the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby and, as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, as a chartered civil engineer, I shall take this opportunity to make some general and some specific points. I made the Minister aware of those in advance of the debate in the hope that he could answer some fairly key questions that my constituents have asked me to raise.

While I am on my feet and paying due acknowledgment to the facility of being involved in this important debate on behalf of my constituents who live at the seaside, I remind the House that Scarborough and Whitby is one of the largest rural constituencies in the whole country, certainly in Yorkshire.

In the context of the area of the national park that I represent, it is fairly large. The annual mileage on my car indicates a fairly large constituency.

I have a technical and complicated problem to resolve. I was concerned to find that the journal that I receive every week as a chartered civil engineer, the New Civil Engineer, was not available in the Library of the House. I have taken the suggestion of the Speaker's Office that I provide not only the Minister, but the two Opposition spokespersons, with a copy of a document to which I shall refer later. I want to thank the Speaker's Office and the Library, which will make the document available to other hon. Members, should they need to look at it.

Before I turn my remarks seaward, as it were, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider some of the experiences of those communities in the landlocked part of Scarborough and Whitby. I think immediately of Stepney road in Scarborough or the residents of Golden grove in Whitby, whose lives have been blighted and their health affected by nasty sewage spillages that are still being investigated. I pay tribute to the Environment Agency and to Yorkshire Water, who have done their utmost to try to get to the bottom of the problem. Some of the problems might be associated with an overload—as we have heard today from Members on both sides—in which properties are added to an area and overload the system. We will find out in due course.

I pay tribute to the Minister's immediate team, and to Mr. Reg Purnell, the chief engineer at DEFRA and his team. We have heard many compliments paid to the team, particularly with regard to its work with the all-party group on flooding. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) referred to its contribution. The team is excellent and the level of professionalism is to be admired. Members will understand later why I make that comment.

The Minister is a regular visitor to my constituency and he is welcomed whenever he comes, particularly by members of the fishing industry. With me, he has visited remarkable works along the River Derwent and the River Esk nearer Whitby. However, local parish councils have asked me to ask him whether parish councils could be more formally included in the emergency recovery programme. In the area covered by Scarborough borough council, it can take a long time for sandbags to be delivered to some of the more remote parishes. Often, because of the nature of flash floods in small streams across the national park, the problem has gone from villages such as Lealholm, but the damage has been done. Could a closer liaison be achieved, or could the Minister suggest that local authorities work more closely, and try to get contingency plans in place, with parish councils, which are on the spot and can respond more quickly to emergencies?

We have had serious problems with the so-called "sea cut" that goes into the sea adjacent to Scarborough. The Minister will be aware of that man-made feature, which was constructed by Lord Derwent's ancestors, who drained the family land to help their agricultural pursuits. Recently, the sea cut has been subject to flash floods and the Environment Agency has tried to respond to the flooding in the communities immediately around it.

I urge the Minister and the Environment Agency to remember that the people affected by flooding remember it and, as has been graphically suggested today, they remember those moments when they cannot get on with their lives because of flooding. The more work done to bolster the relationship between the Environment Agency's experts and technical engineers with parish councils, the stronger community bond there will be, so that communities understand the difficult technical issues.

As an engineer, I often tried to solve problems by applying lateral thinking. Given the nature of my work—bridge design and geo-technical matters—I was often cash-strapped and had to work within a very tight budget. That is why engineers seek lateral solutions to some of the problems that they face. With that in mind, I commend the excellent scheme introduced at the estuary of the River Eske, in Whitby. We found it difficult to attract grant for the necessary sea defence work, because the affected area was within the harbour bar. The very good engineering team, with encouragement from me, applied lateral thinking and, with the help of the Admiralty, redefined what was estuary and what was sea. By redefining the cliffs within the harbour bar, which are immediately underneath St. Mary's church and Whitby abbey, we were able not only to protect numerous properties, but to keep alive a very vibrant part of Whitby and to sustain it for probably the next 100 years. Such lateral thinking and the excellent experience of the Haggerlythe, in Whitby, are a tribute to what can be achieved by engineers who work with communities.

The Minister will know that my main purpose in speaking today is to highlight what my constituents regard as a big success: the considerable resources that this Labour Government have provided for the coastline of north-east Yorkshire. For the nation to recognise the need to sustain this attractive heritage coastline for communities along the Yorkshire coast is a fantastic step forward. I pay tribute to the officers of Scarborough borough council, in particular, who have taken a leading role in seeking innovative solutions to coastal defence problems along the wider Yorkshire coast—from the Humber to the north-east, as far as the River Wear. Excellent work has been carried out at Runswick Bay, at Robin Hood's Bay and along the coastline in general. Such projects would not have been possible without the resources that the Government have supplied for the people of the Yorkshire coast.

As if that were not good enough, I also pay great tribute to the abilities of my hon. Friend the Minister, and for his excellent work in persuading our friends at the Treasury, as evidenced in his statement. I am sure that many of my constituents will regard that as a great success, and my remaining comments will make it clear why I say that.

The main problem that I want to bring to the attention of the House concerns the classic landscape of the town of Scarborough. I hope that Members on both sides of the House have been able to visit Scarborough. It is a great conference town, and most people who work in politics get an opportunity to visit it at some point in their careers. The promenade, the classic Marine Drive, is the result of the forethought and foresight of Victorian engineers, and it is a classic example of Victorian engineering. It is a beauty to behold, but sadly, in the decades before I became the Member of Parliament for Scarborough and Whitby, it was neglected. Like many seaside communities throughout the country, the basic infrastructure did not get the attention that it demanded. As I have said, the fact that we have considerable resources to put right years of neglect is a great tribute to the work of the Minister and his team.

It is not just about years of neglect; we must recognise the power of the sea and mother nature. People who live on the coast know that, ultimately, the sea will always win. Although many Members have rightly paid tribute to him today, not even the Minister would claim to be Canute. The sea will always win—I know that as an engineer, and everyone who lives on the coast does too. However, for perhaps the next 50 years, we have an opportunity to protect vital parts of our local economy, and support and protect residential areas in Scarborough. I urge the Minister to recognise that the partnerships that have evolved since 1997 between the local authority, Yorkshire Water, the ministerial team and engineers have failed to give due acknowledgement to the sentiment, affection and high regard that many of my constituents have for that fantastic part of our heritage on the Yorkshire coast.

The Minister was able to support with a 75 per cent. grant works to East pier, Castle headland and the Holms—a coastal protection scheme, the like of which Scarborough has never seen before. Work started in earnest in April 2002, but unfortunately a number of technical problems arose in the first season of operations. I hope that Members will recognise that it is difficult to do any work next to the sea because there are problems with the tide, weather and storms, which can inflict considerable damage as people try to achieve a technical solution. The problems on the coastline that the Government inherited demand considerable attention, technical understanding and lateral thinking. Above all, community members must feel that they are stakeholders in the solution that emerges.

The Minister knows that those works have run into considerable financial difficulty, and I believe that at the beginning of last week the Department received an application from Scarborough borough council, the main promoter or client in the contract for the works, for extra funding of £7.6 million. I hope that the Minister can confirm whether yesterday's ministerial statement on resources means that the consideration of that application can be expedited, or whether the community will have to wait and see whether the final estimated cost of the works will be fully funded by central Government and the Treasury. I trust that he will give a response in his winding-up speech.

Communities in Scarborough, Whitby and other parts of my constituency are waiting to find out whether they will have to use their council tax resources to fill the funding gap caused by the extra costs of those works. The Minister knows that locally we have a strong civic society and an internationally recognized environmental group, the Sons of Neptune. Indeed, he has met some of the individuals involved. They have strong reservations about a small aspect of the scheme, which I shall attempt to bring to the attention of the House and the Minister; otherwise the community in Scarborough will feel that its MP is failing them.

The document to which I referred earlier is available in the House of Commons Library. I hope that the House will consider using visual aids in the near future, so that hon. Members will be better able to consider complicated technical matters such as this.

The scheme involves reinforcing a lot of promenade masonry. Part of it is called a wave return wall, which will run for about 1,500 m along the promenade. The wall will be a considerable lump of concrete. It will replace some Victorian railings that are much loved by local people and the millions of visitors to Scarborough.

The Sons of Neptune and Scarborough's civic society have never been happy with the local authority's plan to replace an elegant sweep of Victorian cast-iron railing with a 3 ft-high lump of concrete around the whole of the town's bay area. They feel that it will blight the area and attract graffiti. They are also worried about health and safety aspects of the replacement wave return wall, and believe that the Minister is giving generous funding for dental work in the face of Scarborough that will never allow the city to smile again.

I hear that accusation regularly. People's affection for Scarborough has shown itself in a campaign of letters—to me, and to local newspapers and radio stations. Last Sunday, objectors to the proposal got local residents to tie ribbons to the railings. More than 1,000 ribbons were tied and, within two hours, almost 400 people had urged me, as their local MP, to ask the Minister to consider the matter.

The Minister must deal with the matter of costs. I know that he has great respect for the technical people involved. I hope that he will urge Scarborough borough council to sit down with the technical experts put up by the Sons of Neptune and the civic society. In that way, the experts and engineers might be able to find some way of restoring the smile to the face of Scarborough. That would reduce the overall cost of the works, and enhance the Minister's already considerable reputation. I hope that he will respond to the heartfelt plea of the people of Scarborough and Whitby when he responds to the debate.

5.28 pm

I am delighted to know that the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) is a chartered engineer. I did not know that. I must say that my constituency is bigger than his—so there.

I want to bring some points to the Minister's attention. He knows that one problem in the south-west is that the Environment Agency sets river catchment areas. I have a unique problem in the Wessex catchment area, in that one end of my constituency creates the rainfall that floods the other end. If the catchment area were slightly bigger, the agency would be able to deal with many more of the problems that it faces, as its funding would then be lumped together.

The Minister will not be surprised that I want to talk about the River Parrett catchment project. As he found out when he visited, many people are unhappy that their homes are being flooded. He will recall meeting a few homeowners who were a little upset. Also, the drainage board has threatened to keep the sluice gates shut. The Minister is aware that that would pose a threat to Taunton. Finally, some landowners are refusing to pay their precepts, because their land is to be used for inland waterways or water holding areas.

Given all that, has not the time come to look at the possibility of getting rid of the Parrett catchment project? The flood defence committees would disappear, but a committee covering the whole of Wessex would take care of rivers such as the Parrett—which in fact rises in Dorset, outside the present catchment project area.

I shall raise briefly one or two other problems. The Minister kindly alluded to the service sector. In Willaton, the water pipes run under the bridge, which has reduced the flow of the river by almost half. Is there any way that the Environment Agency can use its powers to inform statutory bodies, such as water, gas and electric, to move those pipes? In another village, Kilve, that has happened. As a result, once the river is blocked the volume cannot get any more, simply because of the concrete balustrades underneath the bridges.

There is the additional problem in our area with the drainage boards. I know that the Minister is aware of this. We have a lot of drainage boards across the levels. If he is looking to amalgamate the smaller ones with the larger ones, would he care to think about when a large one is large enough and a small one too small? The reams of Somerset are not ditches; they are quite wide. Many drainage boards have done a good job over many generations. The problem is that if they are too big, they cannot cope because the precepts are set by landowners under the Environment Agency. If the Environment Agency is judge, jury and executioner, we need the ability to say that a certain drainage board has done a very good job over a long period—I am thinking of King Sedgemore, which the Minister has been to see and which has done a remarkable job. Its problem is that the volume of water is now out of proportion to what the Stowey river, which goes between Taunton and Bridgewater, was ever capable of carrying. Could there not be some arbitrary figure—perhaps the Minister himself—who could take on these situations where drainage boards will be deeply upset with the changes that they will have to face?

In these proposed changes there is a possibility of a drainage board going to the ombudsman if it felt that it was being unfairly treated by the Environment Agency. Members can also come directly to me, although I do not have statutory duties in relation to any formal appeal. I will respond to individuals. As for the King Sedgemore drainage board, it threatened to flood the hon. Gentleman's colleague in Taunton. I was deeply unimpressed by that. Given that that was in the middle of a review of the IDBs, it was not the best move either.

I could not agree more with the Minister. The reason why that happened was that the amount of water that the Parrett can carry because of the delay in the dredging meant that the Stowey had to be opened up, so the landowners felt that they were being used as water-holding areas. I accept that, as the Minister said, the middle of a review was not a good time to do that.

Finally I come to the massive problem of coastal erosion. The Minister is aware of the Steart peninsular. We must look at the concept of managed retreat. I have not seen any of that in this. We will have to talk about managed retreat because there is no way, unless we are given a massive amount of money, that we can defend the likes of Steart common. Then there is the problem of compensation for landowners and of a village on the end of a peninsular and what happens if the river Parrett changes its course. The costs will be astronomical. The lesser of evils would be not to lose the whole village, but to have major floods coming into Bridgewater because of the backing up of the water. The Environment Agency needs to look at coastal realignment much more closely. We have heard very little about it.

Another problem off Bridgewater bay, which is better known as the Bristol channel, is that the main sandbanks are now moving down from Weston. I know that the Minister is keen on wind turbines off the coast. We have looked at that in the Severn, including the Severn barrage. I urge the Minister, under the Environment Agency, which will be responsible for this, to look much more closely at the changes that could be done to the coast by the longer-term attributes of, for example, wind turbines or a barrage. The changes in the coastline along there, as the Minister is well aware because of what has been happening in certain parts of my constituency, have been much more profound in the past five years because of the enormous differentials in tide. We have one of the highest tidal races in the world. When it backs up with rain from Exmoor, we know perfectly well that we will have a flood, no matter what we do. If there are any blockages, the problems could be even greater in future.

In my area, we have much low-lying land and land at sea level. If the Met Office projections for the next 50 years are correct, and I have no reason to disbelieve them, Bridgwater could be a metre under water, regardless of what we do. The Environment Agency must be able to finance capital rather than environmental projects, so that we can hold back the river through dredging or higher banks. We need a much longer programme of defence, perhaps extending over 20 years. We should consider such projects under the EA and the proposed new drainage board system, as they could save homeowners and insurance companies from enormous anxiety in the years to come.

5.36 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Unlike the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn), who is half landlocked, I am not landlocked at all, so I shall talk not about flooding, but about coastal protection.

We need to add to the Minister's statement yesterday by extending his observations that flood protection arrangements were too complex and needed streamlining to the arrangements for coastal protection. Does he agree that we need similar streamlining for coastal defence work?

I shall draw some conclusions from a particular case. I have always been told not to do that, but it is appropriate on this occasion. Nine years ago, in 1994, there was a large landslip in Castlehaven at Reeth Lodge, which is no longer seriously inhabitable. In 1996, the local authority lodged a planning application for coastal defence measures. English Nature objected on the ground that there would be short-term and long-term effects on "European features". However, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food agreed that the scheme was cost beneficial.

At that time, there was also a proposal that south Wight should be designated a special area of conservation. English Nature said that Government policy was
"evolving rapidly, especially in respect of biodiversity targets".
That is one of the complaints that I have passed on to the Minister. In 1998, south Wight's candidature for SAC was confirmed. In November 1999, MAFF set new high targets for flood and coastal defence.

The UK biodiversity action plan set five targets, one of which was that 4,000 km of maritime cliff and slope should be retained as unstable. I understand why the targets were needed, but how accountable to the House was the body that set them? Such changing targets were among the many within which my local authority had to operate.

In 2000, the special invertebrate interest group—I believe that means that its members are looking for invertebrates, not that they have no backbone—of the Hampshire Wildlife Trust made an exhaustive study of that cliff area and could find no rare invertebrates, yet in 1996 English Nature had objected to the planning application on the ground that the scheme would damage wildlife.

In early spring 2001, there was a landslip at Undercliff drive on the A3055. One of my constituents, Mr. Cyril Hobbs of Niton Undercliff, wrote to the Environment Agency to point out that the problem
"could have been delayed for some time, possibly indefinitely, if modern soil engineering skills had been applied … Your organisation had a lot to do with ensuring that this didn't happen".
That was because of English Nature's objections to the proposed defence scheme. Later in 2001, English Nature approved the scheme subject to certain conditions that it had set, but Hampshire Wildlife Trust did not withdraw its objection. That meant that there had to be a local hearing, which did not take place until July 2001, and the Minister was unable to announce his approval for the scheme—I thank him for doing so—until December 2001. So we are now seven and a half years from the time the landslip took place. One of the conditions of the scheme was that the local authority should purchase another site to mitigate the loss of the unstable land, but that was not achieved until earlier this year. This month, tenders will go out for the work to be implemented, and it is hoped that it will start in early summer.

I should like to ask the Minister a few questions, and I hope that he will forgive me if I rush through them. First, what is mitigation? In other words, what is being mitigated? Just before the landslip took place, there was no unstable cliff to be mitigated. Since the landslip, other landslips have created new unstable cliff, yet the mitigation is still required to fulfil the conditions of the scheme. Why is it necessary to protect morphology rather than wildlife, and why do the diversity action plans talk about such and such a length or area of coastline rather than talking about the animals or other wildlife that live there? Is it not the case that English Nature has a stranglehold on the process, and is therefore acting as judge and jury? Most local authorities are loth to go to public inquiry where they see the danger of great cost and would prefer, if at all possible, to do a deal with English Nature.

I want to make one final point. DEFRA believes that natural river and coastal processes should not be disturbed until life or valuable natural or man-made assets are at risk. Yet it is only when something happens that it is possible to show that an asset is at risk, and if seven, eight or nine years are then added to the point at which it becomes clear that it is at risk, it is often too late to do anything to protect it. Will the Minister please do something about that?

5.42 pm

It is a privilege to speak at the conclusion of this debate, during which we have heard much that is of great interest. I hope to sum it up by reference to my constituency. The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) reminded us of the floods of October 2001, which also flooded my constituency. Since then, I have had the benefit of being able to explore the detailed policy implications in my own Adjournment debate.

I am grateful to the Minister for the action that has flowed since then and to the Environment Agency for what it has done locally—for example, the study on the River Cam and the River Granta and the standards and protection studies in Bourn, Shelford and Stapleford. Several hon. Members described the difficulties involved in trying to bring agencies together and to explore the demarcations of responsibilities. Those are undoubtedly difficult issues, but they have been addressed in my area through co-operation between the Environment Agency, South Cambridgeshire district council, Cambridgeshire county council, Anglian Water, the parish councils, and flood action groups in villages such as Bourn and Elsworth. A series of villages had regular collective meetings with the agencies early in 2001, before the 2001 floods occurred.

It is remarkable what has been achieved in the space of two years in terms of enlightening parish councils and flood action groups about the resources that are available. For example, the county council organised an exhibition of flood protection equipment. I remember that when representatives of the Environment Agency attended the first meeting they said, "We're here, and we're willing to offer advice of a technical kind, but we haven't got any money." Two years later, we have reached a situation whereby, as a result of those discussions and the work that has flowed from them, the Environment Agency will be instrumental in the delivery of some of the necessary measures. I look forward to that. Many questions cannot be answered today, but, as we go down the track, the test for my constituents will be whether the feasibility studies that have been carried out since 2001 have been turned into practical measures to remove flood risks in a reasonable time—and I think that they would consider two or three years a reasonable time. Whether that can be done will depend on the availability of resources and expertise.

Some things are still missing. One of them, which I have raised with the Minister before, is to do with riparian ownership. Parishes often have a problem in establishing who owns many of their watercourses. When there is a transfer of title, could the Land Registry be required to register the riparian ownership responsibilities alongside the registration of title? That would allow ownership to be more easily examined.

A number of hon. Members have spoken about soft protection measures and, for example, upstream storage reservoirs. In three places in my constituency—Bourn, Elsworth and Bin Brook—such measures could play a major part in the long-term resolution of problems. However, we do not necessarily know how to access resources for those measures. If they depend on Environment Agency grants, and on the prioritisation that goes with them, those places may find themselves way down the priority order. However, if we can find a mechanism for doing things on a small scale—in projects on, for example, watercourses that are not main rivers or are not critical—by accessing agricultural funds, we may move outside the requirements for Environment Agency grants and find a very effective way of combining agricultural and flood defence measures. Such a mechanism could allow us not to have to be at the top of the Environment Agency's priorities pile.

The Minister has published his response to the review. Part of his response was on the question of a development charge. That may be along the lines of the development connection charge, which, in my response to the consultation, I certainly supported. In the Cam catchment area in the Cambridge sub-region, about 2,800 homes will be built each year, and serious flood issues will arise. In Bourn, 47 properties were affected by the previous floods, yet Bourn will have 3,300 homes built pretty much on its doorstep. It does not take a genius to see that some part of the development connection charge should apply to the river catchment area, so that local people can say, "Yes, we accept local developments for economic reasons, but we will also secure some of the infrastructure benefits that will flow from those developments."

A number of hon. Members have spoken about insurance. It is not in the Minister's gift to decide what the insurance industry should do. However, the industry relies on the Environment Agency's data and maps, so they will have to be continuously updated to allow genuine assessments of risk to be made. It will not be justifiable, if corrective measures are put in place, to tell someone who asks about the indicative flood plain that blue areas on the map will incur high increases in premium and excess. It is also important to note that it was a one-in-200 years event that led to the flooding in October 2001. The risks of flooding to some properties can be made very low indeed, which should result in low premiums. We need to be able to argue such points with the help of the Environment Agency's information.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) to seek to catch your eye a second time, given that he was late for the opening of this debate, was absent for much of it, and spoke earlier for more than half an hour? Many hon. Members have raised constituency matters to which they wish the Minister to respond.

It is with the leave of the House that the hon. Member will make his response. I call Mr. Jonathan Sayeed.

5.49 pm

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. This has been a valuable debate. Understandably, most hon. Members have concentrated on constituency concerns. Many of those concerns raise fundamental questions about policy and the practical effects of that policy. I do not intend to detain the House for long, because I want to hear the Minister's answers. However, bearing in mind how many questions of considerable interest there were, I hope that, if the Minister is not able to answer each of them specifically, he will agree, at the beginning of his speech, to write to hon. Members.

We have heard about everything from the Bombay duck in Salisbury to Scarborough's seaside accidental skate park. It has been a very useful debate; some very practical problems need to be addressed, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister. I am grateful to the House for giving me leave to make these remarks.

5.50 pm

With the leave of the House, I wish to respond to the debate.

We have heard contributions from the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr.Sayeed); my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley); the hon. Members for Lewes (Norman Baker) and for Wealden (Mr. Hendry); my hon. Friends the Members for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) and Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn); the hon. Members for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) and for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner); my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster); the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key); my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright); the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond); my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean); the hon. Member for Wyre Forest; my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst); and, last but not least, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley)—not counting a few hon. Members who intervened at the beginning.

Hon. Members are rightly interested in flooding and coastal defence, and it is appropriate that this debate is taking in place in 2003—the 50th anniversary of the devastating floods of 1953, as has been mentioned. Of course, those floods had a significant impact on my own county—Lincolnshire—and 307 people lost their lives in England and almost 1,800 in Holland lost their lives on the same night, but things have changed since those terrible and dramatic events.

When I attended the conference that the European Union and local authorities organised in Norwich to mark the 50th anniversary, I found it chilling that, in 1953, people were drowning in Lincolnshire while people on the Isle of Sheppey were going to bed that same night with no knowledge of the death and destruction that was coming south down the North sea. In fact, the same thing happened in the Netherlands: people were hit while going to bed in the early hours without the knowledge of the terror that was coming.

Of course that was before the days of mass communication and the huge investment that we now have in flood and tidal surge warning systems and weather forecasting systems, which are very important, as the hon. Member for Salisbury rightly stated. It is not likely that we would ever be caught so unawares again on the east coast of England, but there are no grounds for complacency. Successive Governments put huge amounts of money into improving flood defences post-1953, and, as we have heard today, we are determined to continue that investment.

Many very detailed, fair and sensible questions have been asked in the debate, and I shall try to go through them by distilling a combination of the points made by hon. Members. If I miss some of the points that can be identified separately, I will try to write to hon. Members. Of course hon. Members are free to write to me and to table parliamentary questions about points of interest to themselves.

Enhancing the environmental was mentioned, and we look for environmental gain in flood defence schemes. For example, in Malton and Norton, paths with attractive brickwork have been built, improving recreation facilities and the environment, as well as providing new flood defences for the area. We will always try to do that, and we will always be prepared to talk about such contributions if local councils want further to enhance fluvial and coastal schemes.

Climate change, forecasting, renewable energy are all issues, and we accept that there is a cross-Government responsibility and that there is also a case for strong international action. It is also true that some isolated properties and other properties are not likely to qualify for flood defence schemes for various technical or cost-benefit reasons. Insurance companies have agreed to assess those properties on their individual merits. Flood-proofing steps can be taken to minimise the damage done to properties, which may help those people to obtain insurance.

I can tell the hon. Member for Lewes that I understand that the property price issue is being reviewed in relation to the cost-benefit analysis, which may be beneficial. I also understand that there may have been an assumption in Sussex that there would be a 75 per cent. grant, but I am not at all sure that there was ever any promise about that, and the grant remains at 65 per cent. If we increase the grant in one area—we do so occasionally for various reasons—we have to accept that we may have to reduce the grant in another area, so that balance has to be struck.

I accept the case that a number of hon. Members made about upstream storage. The Environment Agency has the powers to include upstream storage as part of flood defence. It has to go through normal planning and land agreements. In relation to Uckfield, that was considered, but unfortunately it was not thought to be a viable option.

Roadworks can be considered for joint funding if there is a benefit in relation to flood defence. I am keen on co-operation with other Departments. I have been speaking to the Department for Transport about the potential for co-operation on schemes—for example, using reclaimed material for roads and removing flood obstacles in floodplains. Those are the kind of issues that we have been exploring with the Department for Transport.

With regard to internal drainage boards, the Environment Agency has a general supervisory duty to make sure that flood defence management operates efficiently. It can use the new subcontracting powers that we intend to give it to bring about changes. Some of those changes might mean amalgamation. Size and efficiency depend very much on local circumstances. We do not believe that if an IDB is bigger, it is automatically better. We need to consider how it operates and how effective it is. There are some good examples in the country, and we want the standard of the poorest to be brought up to the standard of the best.

Many hon. Members mentioned sewer flooding. I acknowledged that that was a serious issue. I am pleased that the sewer companies are taking action to deal with storm discharges and sewer flooding, and I have raised the matter with Ofwat.

On the Jubilee river, I repeat that I do not believe that it is to blame for the flooding of other communities on the Thames. It was subject to independent planning scrutiny as part of a public planning inquiry, and it is subject to independent scrutiny by our own DEFRA engineers, who are independent of the Environment Agency. Although I accept that hon. Members representing communities on the Thames have put their case in a fair and non-partisan way, I think that some communities and some individuals are engaged in a blame game, and I call on them to stop. All the information on the matter should be made available, and I will take steps to ensure that it is, so that there can be scrutiny by local communities.

As regards the invitation to contribute to an independent analysis, I have no objection to local authorities employing their own independent consultants, but for them to say to the Environment Agency, "We don't believe a word that you say, but give us your money anyway" is not a very attractive proposition. The agency has bent over backwards to try and examine the issue independently and make information available. People need to see that and reach the conclusion that the Jubilee river went through all the proper procedures and is not responsible for the flooding.

As a matter of routine, in every area that was flooded in the January incident there will be an examination of the causes of the flooding and the steps that can reasonably be taken to make sure that it does not happen again. That is part of the response to any flooding incident.

I agree that there is a need to raise flood awareness, including getting people on to automatic warning. PPG25 is to be revised in 2004. I agree that the issue of road closures needs to be considered. Bellwin can provide support. There is a definition of watercourses, which we are addressing in the review. I hope to take that further, as clarity is important. The Water Bill will deal with abstraction issues. I do not believe that Crown immunity is appropriate to try and avoid the implementation of the Bill.

The promotion of agri-environment schemes can address flood issues. We want an integrated approach. I support the involvement of parish councils; local authorities are responsible for taking that forward. Design and health and safety aspects of flood and defence schemes are matters for local councils. I recognise the almost unique skill of my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn). We understand his concerns. Additional funding is not automatic, but we will look at the case made to us by the local authority. I hope that he can reach agreement with his local authority, as he has raised some pertinent points. I am willing to continue the correspondence that I have had with him.

The Somerset levels are a special area. The Parret catchment area does a valuable job of bringing communities together. As we all know, there are diverse interests in the Somerset levels. The change in the one tier of flood defence committees may well be a possibility in considering a sort of Wessex approach. I shall certainly take that into consideration. I believe that the proposal for the treatment scheme at Steart point is very good. It is a very exciting scheme and I hope that it goes ahead. Offshore developments will be taken into account. Coastal schemes are very complex. English Nature is our statutory adviser and we take its views into account.

It being Six o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Northern Ireland Assembly Elections Bill

Ordered,

That, in respect of the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections Bill, notices of Amendments, new Clauses and new Schedules to be moved in Committee may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a second time.—[Mr. Heppell.]

Petitions

Fireworks

6 pm

It is only a fortnight since the House agreed on a Friday morning to let through a Bill on firework misuse. Within about a fortnight, people in Coventry were able to collect about 5,000 signatures, which gives a snapshot of scale of the problem. Time is far too short to go into all the details; suffice it to say that many elderly people are experiencing a living nightmare in certain parts of Coventry because of firework abuse. The same applies to pet owners and a large number of families, particularly as the fireworks are sometimes going off at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning.

The petition states:
To the House of Commons
The Petition of the residents of Coventry
Declares that firework misuse is a serious and growing cause of annoyance, distress, nuisance and danger to many people in Coventry; that residents and Councillors have made clear their belief that the existing legislation is inadequate and that an appropriate response is required at both local and national levels; that Category 3 fireworks should be available only to licensed display organisers and not to the general public and that Coventry Council believes that the current registration scheme to store and sell fireworks is inadequate and should be changed to a positive licensing scheme.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons bring forward legislation to enable Coventry City Council to prohibit the use of fireworks between 11 pm and 7 am, and to give it the power to deny or revoke licences to firework retailers in cases where the retailer has a criminal record relating to the sale or storage of fireworks or in other cases where a restriction on the licensing of fireworks retailers would be in the best interests of the safety and wellbeing of Coventry residents; and furthermore enact legislation to prohibit the sale of Category 3 fireworks to the general public.
And the Petitioners remain, etc.

To lie upon the Table.