Flooding (Lewes)

New Schedule 1 – in the House of Commons at 12:19 am on 16th June 1999.

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

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 12:20 am, 16th June 1999

I welcome the opportunity to raise the problems of flooding in my constituency and especially in Seaford. Each problem is different, but there is a common thread: lines of responsibility are not clear, so action that everyone agrees should be taken is left undone. My central call to the Government will be: please acknowledge the problem; please undertake to rectify it; and, in the meantime, please knock some heads together to ensure that the very real problems are not allowed to drag on any further.

Mr. Lembit Öpik:

Is my hon. Friend aware that we have also had serious flooding problems in Montgomeryshire? Does he accept that the issues that he is raising call for a strategy across the United Kingdom, including Wales?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I certainly agree that we need a national strategy.

Let me deal first with the problems in Cliffe high street, Lewes, which is one of the town's main shopping streets. Regular flooding occurs, with water invading private properties and the church of St. Thomas à Becket, the oldest church in the historic town. The cause is an ancient culvert that has silted up and for which no body will accept responsibility.

I have had sight of correspondence initiated by my constituent Mary Chandler, who is church warden at St. Thomas à Becket. It will be instructive to run through it. In October 1993, she wrote to the highway authority, East Sussex county council, after flooding to the church had occurred. It told her a month later, having investigated the matter, that it was the responsibility of the National Rivers Authority—which has now been superseded by the Environment Agency—and its agent, Lewes district council.

In December 1993, Lewes district council wrote to say that the county council was wrong and it was a matter of surface water drainage, which is the responsibility of Southern Water. Sensibly, my constituent suggested that the NRA, Southern Water and the two councils should get together to sort the matter out. No such meeting took place at that point, but, throughout 1994, the church continued to flood, the NRA continued to maintain that it was a matter for Southern Water, and Southern Water continued to maintain that the culvert was not a public service water sewer and therefore not maintainable at its expense, suggesting that the district council use its powers under the Land Drainage Act 1991 and the Public Health Act 1936.

By May 1995, the district council was suggesting that it might be a matter for the riparian owner. The various bodies were by now talking to each other and some without prejudice work had been done by both the county council, in respect of the culvert, and the NRA, in respect of the discharge point into the River Ouse; but the church was still flooding.

By the beginning of 1997, the Environment Agency and the two councils had appeared to conclude that Southern Water was responsible, and I understand that a letter to that effect was sent by the agency to the company on 17 April 1997; but the position was not accepted by Southern Water in its reply of 25 July. Meanwhile, the church flooded again on 23 June and on 8 October 1997.

Some basic work was done on 9 October by Southern Water to alleviate the problem. Meanwhile, Ofwat had been dragged into the matter and declared that it was unable to resolve the issue. The matter was brought to my attention on 4 July 1998, when Mary Chandler attended one of my surgeries. I immediately wrote to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and received a reply from the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), offering sympathy and telling me that there was a difference of opinion between Southern Water and the Environment Agency. I think that I had already worked that one out.

The two sides met again shortly after the Minister's letter and agreed on a closed circuit television survey of the channel in principle, but they could not agree who should pay for it. Meanwhile, the church continued to flood, including on Christmas day 1998.

I then tried writing to the chairman of the Environment Agency, Lord De Ramsay, who, in his reply dated 25 February this year, gave me some interesting and useful information about the history of the culvert, but could offer no real solution.

I am also indebted to another of my constituents, Bruce Yorke, for the valuable historical information that he has been able to give me. He makes a reasonably convincing case that the county council might be responsible. I shall be happy to send the Minister a copy of his letter if that would be helpful.

What is the latest position? East Sussex county council has written to me this week and it says: The County Council sought legal opinion in 1996 regarding responsibility for the culvert. This indicated that there was enough evidence to show that it was a public sewer and not the responsibility of the then Southern Water Authority. The Environment Agency, in a note to me dated 11 June, denied that it is responsible and suggested that Southern Water should pick up the responsibility. But it also offered to work with various parties—Southern Water, the district and county councils—to share responsibility and clear the culvert.

However, Southern Water does not take that view. It says: a Queen's Counsel has advised that the problem culvert is still a land drainage channel, probably the responsibility of the Environment Agency. It concludes: it would seem appropriate for Lewes District Council and East Sussex County Council to join in efforts to solve this matter.

Meanwhile, the church continues to flood, most recently earlier this month. Not only has the church been affected; local residents have suffered too. One lady tells me that her property is now badly affected by damp and that her valuable grand piano is at risk.

The problem has gone on for at least six years, with continual flooding of an historic church, damage to other properties and numerous calls to East Sussex fire brigade, which has been superb, as always. Public money has been spent, not least as a result of all the fire brigade call-outs, but six years on we still have no solution—not for technical reasons, but because of a demarcation dispute. We are little further on than we were in 1993.

This really must be sorted out. In the short term, will the Minister intervene to knock heads together and to require that the problem be solved without any further delay? I hope that he will do that. Let the parties argue afterwards about who should pay. My constituents have suffered long enough.

I have spent a long time on that specific example because I owe it to my constituents and because I suspect that if this is happening in Lewes, it must be happening elsewhere as well, and be a problem for other hon. Members.

I come now to the second and in some ways potentially even more serious problem which I raised during another hon. Member's Adjournment debate on 24 February 1999, since when nothing has happened to deal with the problem that I then identified for the House.

I refer to two connected issues in my constituency. The first is also in Lewes, also, as it happens, in Cliffe high street, albeit at the other end, and also caused by unsatisfactory and muddied lines of accountability and responsibility. It relates to the banks of the River Ouse, which flows through the centre of Lewes and which is marked in Lewes by the lovely Cliffe bridge.

The Environment Agency has identified work which needs to be undertaken urgently and has warned that if it is not done the river walls are at risk of collapsing. Those walls are right in the middle of town, abutting listed buildings. Were they to collapse, the effect would be serious, not just for the property owners but for the town itself.

I visited properties abutting the river on Monday in the company of Peter Midgely, the area manager of the Environment Agency. He impressed on me yet again his concern and that of the Environment Agency about the position.

The second matter relates to the sea defences at Seaford. That work has been undertaken every year by the Environment Agency, but this year it is not taking place. A press release issued by the Environment Agency on 9 December 1998, said: essential maintenance will halt. The Agency will be unable to carry out work at Seaford which it considers is essential to the security of the Ouse Valley. It is also essential to all those properties along Seaford sea front that have now been left defenceless and at the mercy of the waves.

The problem has arisen because the Environment Agency is the specialist body responsible for identifying works, but local flood defence committees fund them—or not, as in this case. So essential sea defence works at Seaford have simply been stopped. The start date of the works at Lewes, far from being accelerated because of the condition of the walls, were already late and now have been put back a further year.

In a letter dated 15 February, Lord De Ramsay, chairman of the Environment Agency, wrote: We have an overall shortfall of some £4 million in the funding which flood defence committees have made available for 1999–2000 … Under current arrangements for funding flood defence the agency has no powers to interfere in the democratic process whereby Flood Defence Committees approve their levies. So the Environment Agency blames the flood defence committees, while East Sussex county council, which supplies some of the committee's members, blames the Government and says that levies from external bodies should be ring-fenced and taken into account in the Government's funding and capping decisions. I hope that the Minister will address that point in his reply. That is a ludicrous arrangement. The Environment Agency has responsibility without power, while the flood defence committees have power without responsibility.

I shall repeat a point that I made on 24 February, to which the Minister on that occasion did not have time to respond. Either the flood defence committees should be abolished and their work passed to the Environment Agency, or they should take on the relevant responsibilities that rest with the agency. The present arrangements are a hotchpotch and do not work. There is also a need to clarify the respective powers of the Environment Agency, the county councils and the district councils. I spent some considerable time last year trying to sort out another flooding problem in my constituency, in Plumpton. It dragged on for far too long, mainly because of the unclear legal position of the three bodies involved.

However, I return to the problems in Lewes. What happens if the river wall collapses? Who is responsible? I raised this matter with John Crawford, chief executive of Lewes district council and a qualified lawyer. In a letter dated 1 March, he said: It is still not clear to me what specific obligations arise if a local flood defence committee refuses to levy for the amount of money required to fulfil the Environment Agency's recommendation to them that certain works must be done to avoid flooding. I hope that the Minister will deal with that point also.

The situation becomes even more complicated when private frontages are involved. Peter Midgely, Sussex area manager of the Environment Agency, wrote to me on 3 September 1998 about this matter. In respect of the position in Lewes, he wrote: The necessity for flood defence in this area is clear, but the legal position is not. If two such key people, both of whom I hold in high regard, are unclear about matters as basic as that, we have a mess—in terms of accountability, responsibility and legality. That mess threatens the basic river defences in the county town of East Sussex in the middle of my constituency, and all the listed buildings that abut that river. It is a mess that means that essential sea defence works are not being carried out at Seaford. A similar mess has allowed the St. Thomas à Becket church to flood regularly for six years. While the various bodies fiddle, Lewes floods.

There is a very clear role for the Government if they will take it. In the short term, they need to bang heads together and twist the arms of the various bodies to force them to do the work that has to be done and which can be done with no great technical problems. In the medium term, the lines of accountability and responsibility for flooding matters must be recast, so that the incidents that I have described cannot happen again.

I know that the Minister will respond sympathetically to the points that I have raised, and I hope that he will promise me some action.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Secretary (Fisheries and the Countryside), Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 12:34 am, 16th June 1999

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) on securing the debate and raising an important matter of concern to his constituents. I appreciate the problems that they have faced and shall try to deal with them.

It may help if I run through some general responsibilities. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has policy responsibility for flood defence—that is, measures to reduce the risk of flooding from rivers and the sea—and we provide substantial grants for approved capital projects. Responsibility for maintaining flood defences generally remains with those whose property fronts the river or the sea—a point relevant to Lewes. The defence does, after all, protect their property and if they gain the most benefit, it is difficult to see that the costs should be met by the taxpayer. That is one of the difficulties arising over ownership and responsibility.

In many areas, a more collective approach to flood and coastal defence has been adopted and responsibility for making and maintaining defences has been taken on by one of the flood defence operating authorities, particularly where defences provide benefit to the wider community. The largest operating authority is the Environment Agency, which may take on flood defence works on designated main rivers. Local authorities may act on ordinary watercourses, as may internal drainage boards where such bodies have been created in areas of special drainage need. However, in reply to the hon. Gentleman's point about legal responsibility, I must stress that flood defence legislation is permissive. There is no obligation on the operating authorities either to take on defences or to maintain them to a particular standard.

The Environment Agency is required to carry out its flood defence responsibilities through statutory regional or local flood defence committees. The committees are responsible for agreeing the programme of flood defence works to be carried out in their area, based on a business plan provided by the agency. The committees provide the majority of funding for the flood defence programme through levies on constituent local authorities. To reflect these funding arrangements, local authority representatives form a majority on flood defence committees.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's criticism of that system. However, the present arrangements contain an important measure of local democratic input, requiring those who represent the local community to determine appropriate levels of flood defence service and provide requisite funding. Nevertheless, in response to a recommendation in last year's report by the Select Committee on Agriculture on flood and coastal defence, MAFF and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are carrying out a joint review of the funding mechanisms. That will provide an opportunity to examine some of the hon. Gentleman's points and to see whether the current funding mechanism is appropriate, effective and delivering all that it is intended to. I regularly meet representatives of the Local Government Association and flood defence committee chairmen to discuss these matters, and I shall raise the hon. Gentleman's concerns, particularly over spending.

The hon. Gentleman discussed the blocked culvert in Cliffe high street. I understand the frustration that can be caused where problems with flooding are left unresolved because of what may seem to be eternal wrangling between different bodies. The hon. Gentleman will understand, however, that those bodies are anxious not to incur expenditure that does not properly fall to them. I understand that a long culvert takes water run-off from various sources including roads, roofs and gardens. The culvert is prone to blocking and overflowing, particularly during storms.

Responsibility for maintaining the culvert is disputed, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, is the core problem. Without prejudice to the final resolution of where responsibility lies, or the possible need for longer-term work, the Environment Agency is attempting to put together a plan to clear the culvert, in partnership with Southern Water and local authorities. I welcome the agency's efforts and encourage others to support its initiative. I shall take a personal interest in the progress of the project.

The culvert probably goes back to Victorian times. Originally, it was maintained by the local commissioner for sewers—a grand-sounding title. He was the forerunner of the Environment Agency and, to some degree, of Southern Water and the local authorities. There was no clear transmission of responsibility when the various agencies were set up. There is anecdotal evidence of maintenance in the dim and distant past by the agency's predecessor, by the water company and by the local authority.

In theory, maintenance could be partly the responsibility of the owners of properties that lie above the culvert line, which confuses matters a little more. By accident of history, the culvert system has not been taken over by the agency, water company or local authority. Conflicting legal views about maintenance therefore remain to be resolved.

The main culvert is now badly silted and will not pass storm flood flows. After heavy rain, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, there are floods, particularly around St. Thomas à Becket church. I understand that Southern Water is trying to alleviate the problem by temporary chamber pumping. The structural state and, indeed, parts of the culvert line are uncertain. However, as I said, without prejudice to the final resolution, the agency is putting together a jetting exercise to clear the culvert. The agency's partners will be Southern Water, which has agreed to the proposal, and possibly the local authority. The cost is estimated to be around £30,000. If the project goes ahead, work could commence quickly, which would certainly help the situation in the short term. In the longer term, the issues of ownership must be resolved.

The hon. Gentleman referred also to flood defence in Lewes generally. I explained the relationship between the Environment Agency, which develops business plans for flood defence, and the regional and local flood defence committees, which are responsible for determining the level of service and providing the funding. I explained also that maintaining flood defences generally remains the responsibility of riparian owners, unless that responsibility is taken over by an operating authority such as the Environment Agency. One of the problems in Lewes is that there is very little agency ownership of the town's walls and the buildings abutting them. The majority of them are in private, riparian ownership.

In setting its flood defence levy for the current year, the Sussex flood defence committee did not agree the full increase sought by the agency. As a result, the agency's business plan has had to be adjusted and the committee decided that the greatest priority should be given to sea defences. However, there are plans to carry out a strategy study of the flood defences in Lewes in 2001–02. Dependent on that, work on the town walls might start a year or two later. Funding of any such work will clearly be an issue for the local flood defence committee and may need to reflect the respective benefits of the work to the private owners of the town walls and to the wider community. Some contribution from private owners may therefore be appropriate.

The agency cannot normally maintain private frontages if, in a cost-benefit analysis, no clear benefits can be attributed to the wider community. There will therefore have to be an assessment of who will benefit from the work.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Seaford sea defences, which I know he is concerned about. He is right to say that funding by the Sussex flood defence committee this year has been insufficient to fund further work on recycling shingle. However, I can reassure him that the beach frontage is currently in good condition, and provision has been made for low-level maintenance such as reprofiling the beach. I accept that the Sussex flood defence committee will have to deal with that issue, and I emphasise that it must realise that it has responsibilities to the local community to fund such work. The standard spending assessment has been considerably increased in this financial year to assist local authorities with their levy.

I hope that I have given the hon. Gentleman an indication of what action is being taken. The issues are complicated by the confusion about ownership. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that no agency or local authority wants to commit expenditure when it is not absolutely clear that it is its responsibility to do so. Having said that, there are issues that need to be resolved, and I have outlined the action that is being taken on those. I shall certainly raise with the chairs of the regional flood defence committees the wider funding issue, and I shall take an interest in the progress that is being made on raising the money for the work.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Will the Minister reply to my question about what will happen if a local flood defence committee refuses to levy for the amount of money required to fulfil the Environment Agency's recommendations that certain works must be done to avoid flooding?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Secretary (Fisheries and the Countryside), Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I am not a legal expert on this point. I may have to take some advice on it and write to the hon. Gentleman in order to give him a definitive answer. I return to the point that flood defence powers are not statutory but permissive responsibilities. I therefore suspect that, if the funding that the Environment Agency considers necessary is not forthcoming, there are no legal powers to require such provision.

I would stress, however, that I am a great believer in local democracy. The hon. Gentleman has heard me say that before when debating the strategy for providing flood and coastal defence. I believe that local authorities have a very important role to play. On balance, the structure that involves local authorities in determining the level of service and raising funds towards financing it from a precept is the right one. If local authorities do not take their responsibilities seriously and reflect the needs of local people, whom they are ultimately supposed to serve and represent, the argument for a review of the operation of the funding and local authorities' role is strengthened.

As I have said, we have given a commitment to review the structure and funding in the light of the Select Committee report, and we will certainly give consideration to that.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to One o'clock.