I am very pleased to have the opportunity to raise the important issue of the recent flooding in Braintree. I am pleased also to see the hon. Members for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) and for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and other hon. Members in the Chamber. I am particularly pleased that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are presiding over our proceedings, as I know that you will appreciate the difficulties that have occurred in the Braintree and Saffron Walden districts. I know that you have been very active in your own part of that district on behalf of those who have suffered from the flooding. I presume to hope that you will agree with some of what I say and what I urge upon the Minister in this debate.
I pay tribute particularly to Braintree district council and its work force for the way they responded to the flooding in the towns and villages of Braintree district, for the devotion that they showed to the task in hand, and for their complete commitment to those who were suffering from probably the worst floods in 100 years in some of the villages along the rivers in Braintree district.
Braintree district is entirely inland, although at one time we had a sea coast; the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford now has that sea coast and we do not. However, the tidal part of the river comes as far as Langford and is a few miles from some of the villages that were affected. I shall not presume to give a scientific opinion specifically on the effect of a high tide coinciding with the heaviest rains that have been seen in probably a very long time—we had a month's worth of rain in 24 hours—but various factors came together, and I hope that we shall receive some explanation in the near future, particularly from the Environment Agency.
As you will know well, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the rivers concerned are the River Blackwater, with its tributaries the Pant and the Brain; the River Chelmer and its tributary the Ter, both of which eventually run into the Blackwater; and the River Colne, which exits into the sea at Colchester. There was flooding on both those river systems, which of course do not stand alone, as each has running into it ditches, dykes and streams. It is a mosaic of causation, producing the near disaster that we had barely a week ago.
In my own parliamentary constituency there are the principal towns of Braintree, Bocking and Witham and innumerable villages, but those that suffered most were the old market town of Coggeshall, Kelvedon, Feering, Silver End, White Colne, Bardfield and Finchingfield. Each of those villages in varying ways suffered flooding more extreme than most of those who have lived there most of their lives have ever known.
Last week, immediately after the floods, I visited the affected areas. My first point of call was Coggeshall, which is right on the River Blackwater. Directly next to it is the tributary Robins brook. As it was described to me by those who were present at the height of the downpour, the water seemed to come first off the fields. However, I think that that was the overflowing of Robins brook, which was flooding West street in Coggeshall.
Members of the parish council were out there with local residents doing what they could to protect the houses on West street. By Sunday evening, they believed that the situation was under control and that the water was going down. But in the night there was a second onslaught when the "back-ditch overflow" of waters coming down from the fields and Robins brook joined the River Blackwater itself, and the Blackwater overflowed. I went to Foundry house, the home of Mr. and Mrs. Norris, soon afterwards. I had been in their kitchen only a few weeks before, but I would have needed waders to get into it this time. The whole ground floor was uninhabitable, as was the case in many properties on the Blackwater.
There has been a long-running problem in Coggeshall that highlights the difficulties with co-ordinating and separating responsibilities. There is a road called The Gravel, with a drainage ditch. The Environment Agency, the county council and the district council all deny responsibility for the ditch, and eventually everyone says that it must lie with the neighbouring owners, but it is difficult to see those owners' deeds unless they specifically volunteer to show them. As many of the properties will pre-date compulsory land registration, it is not easy to ascertain the legal position. That was not the cause of last weekend's flooding, but it exacerbated it, because the water is not running down to the Blackwater at the speed it should. That is a small example of the difficulties of tracing who is responsible for what.
I pay tribute again to the co-operation among the villagers, who tried to help one another. In Coggeshall, Kelvedon and White Colne, I saw people asking each other what they could do to help. To have one's belongings ruined and to be forced upstairs in the middle of the night is completely devastating. People living close to the river had no way of knowing how high it would eventually go.
I have worked hard at trying to understand who is responsible for what. The main river courses are the responsibility of the Environment Agency, and the rivers that I have described are the responsibility of the Environment Agency, save for Robin's brook. It may not be at the forefront of everyone's minds as one of our national rivers, but I note that only the first part of it is the responsibility of the Highways Agency. Beyond West street, presumably the riparian owner is responsible.
The phrase "riparian owner" is flipped out with comparative ease by those who are familiar with these questions. I pay tribute to my old Latin master for the fact that—I hope—I have been able to work out what it means: those who own the land by the side of the river. Of course, there are many owners by the side of the river. There may be 10 good owners who act entirely responsibly, but if there are two less responsible owners, the whole course of the water flowing in that stream can be severely interfered with, with considerable consequences downstream or upstream.
We need greater clarification of responsibilities. The Environment Agency, as the overall body responsible for the flow of water in our rivers and streams, needs to have greater powers and duties beyond the main watercourses themselves. To leave it at the main watercourses is almost like considering a lake in isolation and ignoring the fact that it is fed by a stream.
The name "Environment Agency" is in some ways unfortunate, as residents often think that it is a department of the county council—because we have an environment committee or an environment department—which has created a confusion in the public mind about who is responsible.
Let us consider the forecasting of the coming flood. In earlier times, our forebears would have studied the bird movements, the changing leaves and other signs of approaching heavy and wet weather. Now we have satellites, which show on our television screens banks of cloud and rain moving across the continent of Europe. One would have hoped that predictability was much more accurate than it once was and that we could say when the heavy rain was coming, where it was going, and how severe it was likely to be. We have made advances in that direction and we rely on automatic telephoning to those properties at risk.
I am concerned, however, that properties further back from the high-risk areas may not have the necessary degree of warning. I was formerly attracted to the idea of the siren, and there is still a case for that in certain places. But I was speaking to Councillor Arthur Mascall from Earls Colne, who formerly worked in matters of flooding and water control. He advised me that, in former times, they had what were effectively street runners or wardens who would advise all the neighbours of the imminent danger; rather like when, in the political times before telephoning canvassing, we had street wardens and knockers-up. Probably we need the same sort of approach in smaller communities to alert people at an earlier stage than happens now.
The Environment Agency should now instigate an immediate appraisal of why the water came so fast and went so high so quickly. There are various speculations upon which I cannot comment because I do not have the knowledge. However, it is conceded that the A12 was pumped off at some point during the rain and that the water was pumped off into the Domsey brook, which runs into the River Blackwater adjacent to Kelvedon, which was badly hit by flooding. I am assured that the amount of water going into the Blackwater from the brook would not have substantially affected what occurred, but I am not in a position to say whether that is or is not so. We need clear answers, because these questions are being put to me.
It has also been put to me that we might assess the situation if we were to create flood parks: a phrase I have not heard before. These are flood plains artificially created to drain off water when it is coming in at a particular speed. I am told that when Harlow and Basildon were built as new towns, they were constructed with such flood parks in place to control the flow on the rivers adjacent to them.
We need to look at as many measures as possible, and we need a clear plan for dealing with future flooding of the kind that we have had in Braintree. This needs to be costed; at this point, it would be appropriate to ask the Minister to intercede with the Chancellor and to ask for more funds to be made available for flood control.
A matter on which the Government have made considerable progress is planning guidance, and the recommendation in PPG 25 that local authorities should not grant planning consents on the flood plain. My district authority tells me that it has not granted such consents within the last decade or so, but all of us will know of situations—certainly within memory—where properties clearly have been built on the flood plain. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to go further: where such a consent is now granted, there should be an automatic call-in to the Secretary of State to consider that decision before it becomes effective. We can do little about properties that have been in the flood plain for hundreds of years, other than to do what we can to protect them by way of flood defence. We would be foolish to grant consents for more properties to be built in such hazardous positions.
An interlocking issue is the sewer system which, in many areas, is decades old—sometimes 100 years old. In rural areas and small towns, the sewage system was built when the population and the volume of water used in households were much smaller. When the rains are heavy, the water will find its way into the sewers and out again, thus creating the health hazard of sewage splattered across and inside people's properties.
Moreover, citizens—and motorists in particular—should exercise some common sense when flooding occurs. I have been given two or three examples of high vehicles and four-wheel drive vehicles creating waves in flooded roads and streets powerful enough to blow open cottage doors and let the water rush in. I hope that the people responsible for dealing with flooding can devise systems that mean there are wardens available to control traffic and minimise the risks that I have described. The damage to some of the cottages was certainly caused by irresponsible action of the type I have described.
To conclude, I recently met representatives of one of the major insurance companies. For the moment they are holding the line, so to speak, and my constituents tell me that claims are being dealt with expeditiously. However, the problem put to me is that flooding, if it happens every year, ceases to be a risk and becomes a certainty. Such a certainty cannot be insured against, and thus cannot be mortgaged. A property that cannot be mortgaged cannot be sold. Action therefore needs to be taken to identify those properties most at risk, in order to ensure that the difficulty that I have described does not come about.
Flood control is a relatively modest expenditure, compared with the whole of Government spending, although it is large in personal terms. My constituents feel that a good winter will put the matter fairly well down the list of priorities, but that a bad winter will put it high up the list. We want a good winter, but we want the question to be high on the list of priorities.
Since last Sunday, my constituents have listened to weather forecasts and studied the skies with greater concentration than before. I hope that their foreboding is not fulfilled, and that we are spared further flooding for the rest of the winter. I know however that my hon. Friend the Minister will look at these matters with attention, so that the worst may be avoided in future.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Hurst on securing this Adjournment debate. He has made some important points on behalf of his constituents, and raised some important matters. I wish to put on record my sympathy for all his constituents who have suffered in the recent flooding. In addition, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I understand that your constituency of Saffron Walden was affected, as were areas in the constituencies of the hon. Members for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), who are also present for the debate.
As my hon. Friend rightly said, there was exceptional rainfall in the catchment area on
That was a rare and dramatic event, and one that we would expect to happen only once every 120 to 300 years. The Environment Agency reported that 72 premises were flooded in Braintree and Bocking, and that most were outside the known flood plain. The River Blackwater at Bradwell and Coggeshall reached levels that would be expected only once every 200 or 250 years.
After such an event, the Environment Agency will undertake a study of what happened and decide whether there are options that can be applied in a sustainable way. I was interested in my hon. Friend's remarks about flood parks and the use of flood plains. In some cases, there may be no easy, technical, engineered solutions to flood defence. I am very interested in some of the work being carried out. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is funding studies of whole catchment areas to examine whether we can use flood plains or reinstate them to take some of the pressure off the peaks of water going down rivers and how we can apply them to flood defence.
My hon. Friend is right about non-main watercourses. They are generally the responsibility of riparian owners. Local authorities have permissive powers to do work on non-main river courses but there is the issue of funding. I recognise that there is a problem with regard to the responsibility for non-main river courses. I give an undertaking to look at who has responsibility for main and non-main river courses. We are proposing to publish a report in the very near future that reviews the funding mechanisms for flood and coastal defence and looks at some of the institutional arrangements. It will not be unreasonable to look at my hon. Friend's points in that review.
After the exceptional floods last winter, the Government immediately made an extra £51 million available over the next three years. In the current financial year, we have made £16.5 million immediately available to pay for the repair and reinstatement of flood defences that were damaged as a result of those floods. I accept that there is an issue of funding. We have commissioned independent studies to give the Government an idea of what kind of financial commitment will be required over the coming years, taking into account the implications of global warming and climate change. We will consider the results very carefully; they will influence the bids that we make in the 2002 spending review.
I accept my hon. Friend's point about PPG 25. It has given local authority planners clear guidance about tighter planning control in relation to flood plains. My hon. Friend is right that although it does not say that there should in no circumstances be development in flood plains—in some cases developers may have to contribute to defences—it also makes it clear that in other cases applications should be turned down because they are not sustainable in respect of the risks that go with them. That has been made clear to the planners.
My hon. Friend referred to sewers and drains. It is worth remembering that in last year's floods, about 40 per cent. of the flooding was caused not by river courses but by sewers and drains backing up and overflowing. There is a need for the sewerage and drainage companies, local authorities and highways authorities to look at the maintenance of drains and consider whether their design is satisfactory. We are talking with them to ensure that we take an holistic approach to flood and coastal defence.
I was very interested in my hon. Friend's point about people driving through floods. I have visited many flood-hit areas, and the point has been made that sometimes, even where the flood water is not that deep and people think that they can get their vehicle through it, they do not understand why roads have been closed off. They forget that driving a vehicle through a flood creates a bow wave which can cause a great deal of damage to people who live alongside the area.
I accept my hon. Friend's point about insurance. We meet regularly with the Association of British Insurers, and are talking to the association about the provision of insurance cover. The Government's job is to reduce risk, and we are doing that, but we also expect the insurance companies to ensure that people have insurance cover. That is an important issue for my hon. Friend Mr. Cawsey, as areas of his constituency were severely hit by last winter's floods. We take the issue seriously and are addressing it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree also raised a point about warnings, and I acknowledge that because some people were outside the previous indicative flood plain, a number of premises did not receive a proper warning. That was because warnings are provided only to properties that lie within the known flood plain, and the floods exceeded that level so properties were flooded that were at much less risk of flooding. I know that that is of little comfort to the people who were affected, and obviously we must review the situation in relation to flood warnings for those people.
I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's comments about sirens and other flood warning methods. I am sure that the Environment Agency will consider those perfectly legitimate points; I will certainly discuss them with the agency.
It has been pointed out that the flooding affected areas beyond Braintree. I recognise that the severe rain caused flooding elsewhere in Essex and Cambridgeshire, particularly in and around Cambridge and Saffron Walden. The Government's sympathies are with everyone affected by the flooding and I am aware that in your own constituency, Mr. Deputy Speaker, areas such as Halstead, the Hedinghams, Great Yeldham, Sturmer and Steeple Bumpstead were affected by the floods. I know that although your duties make it difficult for you to raise these issues in the House, you will certainly raise them with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We take them very seriously and we shall certainly look into all these issues.
I very much regret it when anyone has been affected by floods. No Government can guarantee that floods will not happen. We constantly seek to reduce the risk of flooding and we shall continue to do so. Where there have been these extreme events we shall ask the agency to review the situation and consider ways, if at all possible, to reduce the risk of flooding which hon. Members' constituents have experienced. We shall continue to give our commitment to that task, financially and politically.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.