Flood management is a devolved responsibility and my answer relates to England only, where total Government funding on flood defence has risen from #312 million in 1997–98 to a projected #564 million in 2005–06. That is a substantial increase and is proof of the Government's continuing commitment to maintenance and improvement of flood defences.
I welcome my hon. Friend's reply and acknowledge the significant increase in investment that the Government are putting in. Although I accept that his answer relates to England, I can assure him that the Welsh Assembly has funded a feasibility study in Monmouth which will hopefully lead to flood alleviation measures and prevent further flooding such as that which occurred in the past two years.
I draw my hon. Friend's attention to two main points. Despite assurances from the Association of British Insurers, certain people find that they are insured with a company—with Lloyds as the underwriter—that has not necessarily followed the same agreement with the Government. A constituent of mine, Dr. Jana Horak, was insured by Britannia Building Society and has been refused insurance twice. Will my hon. Friend also consider whether the Environment Agency could have more powers in relation to the tributaries to main rivers, which are often the cause of flooding?
I am pleased to hear that flood defence schemes are going ahead in my hon. Friend's constituency; I am sure that that will be a great relief to his constituents. In that respect, I am somewhat surprised that there is a problem with insurance. The ABI announcement, which we thought helpful and constructive, said that insurance would continue to be provided by ABI's members in areas where flood defences may not exist at the moment but are planned within the next seven years. In fact, even in areas where there are no plans for flood defences, such issues will be looked at case by case. I suggest to my hon. Friend that his constituents should shop around the various companies. I know that a great many companies accept the commitments that the Government have given; they continue to provide that insurance, and we continue to work closely with the ABI. I should also point out that the chief executive of the ABI will speak to the associate parliamentary group on flooding at the Palace of Westminster at the end of this month. That will provide an opportunity for my hon. Friend and other hon. Members to put questions directly to the ABI.
The Minister will recall his visit to Uckfield, in my constituency, two years ago this week, after the terrible flood that caused so much damage there. He will also recall the pledge that he made then, and which the Prime Minister repeated: that the Government would take action to prevent future floods. However, he will know that in spite of the extra money that he has mentioned, the Environment Agency is not proposing any significant plans to prevent future flooding in Uckfield, thereby making many homes and businesses uninsurable. Before we meet the agency next week, will he remind it of those pledges and say that doing nothing is not an option?
I am aware of those pledges. In fact, I visited Uckfield on a number of occasions, and I want progress to be made on reducing flood risk. The hon. Gentleman is doubtless aware that severe technical problems exist in Uckfield in terms of an appropriate flood defence. The narrowing of the river, and the role of the road bridge and of the mill, give rise to difficulties. It is difficult to overcome those technical problems, but despite that the agency is looking at immediate measures to try to improve the flow of water through Uckfield. Of course, it is also looking at a longer-term strategy through the catchment plan study. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that some of the new building that has taken place in Uckfield in recent years has not been carried out on a particularly appropriate site.
Will my hon. Friend convey my deep appreciation to the Environment Agency and the flood defence committee in my constituency, following the horrific floods more than two years ago in South Church and West Auckland? Some #4.5 million was spent, and the thoroughness of their planning and the way in which they consulted local people and local authorities was exemplary and much appreciated.
I am very pleased to hear that comment from my right hon. Friend. I received a very detailed representation from his constituents about the terrible impact of those floods at the time, which demonstrates the social and personal consequences of flooding. I am pleased that the schemes are going ahead, however, and I am particularly pleased about the way in which local communities are being involved in the consultation, planning and discussion of future flood defence schemes. I hope that that is effective and that it reduces the risk that his constituents have faced over recent years.
Does the Minister accept that, of course, the increased contribution to flood defences is welcome in global terms, but the insurance industry is still concerned about the lack of specifics? Will he take note of the example of Scotland, where not only is proportional expenditure on flood defences growing at a faster rate than in England, but there is a statutory obligation to report flood defences? Insurance companies in England are complaining that they have insufficient information about flood defences, which they have to glean from local newspaper reports. As a result, premiums are higher and the threat to insurance cover is greater. Does he not recognise that statutory reporting would give the insurance companies the opportunities that they need to provide competitive premiums, rather than everybody paying higher premiums across the board while some people run the risk of not being covered at all?
I certainly accept that information is crucial in ascertaining risk, and that ascertaining risk determines insurance premiums and insurance availability. I do not close my mind to any of those approaches. The ABI has talked about such measures in discussions with us, and we are willing to consider them. I want to emphasise, however, that we have a good dialogue with the insurance companies and a major forward capital investment plan. We are making our information available, which is very much appreciated—as is the extra money—and we are very much on track to reduce substantially the risk of flooding in this country, although no one, in any circumstances, can guarantee that floods will not happen.
Can my hon. Friend enlighten me on the discussions that the Select Committee had more than a year ago on the idea of paying farmers to allow their land to flood naturally as an effective means of flood protection? In what way might he influence possible changes in the planning system to ensure the introduction of a genuine precautionary principle, so that we do not build on a flood plain and end up with many of the risks that, only too often, have come to fruition?
I was impressed by the quality of the Select Committee report, which considered flood defence strategy in depth. We accept that there is a case for looking at a range of sustainable measures in relation to flood defence. One of them could be reinstating flood meadows and flood plains. Recently, I opened the Washbanks scheme, which is one of the managed realignment schemes whereby landowners have either sold their land or entered into countryside stewardship agreements, as part of a sophisticated and sustainable approach to defending our coast, shores and rivers, which produces an environmental and, in some cases, an economic gain, too.
The Minister will know of grave concerns in many constituencies, including mine, which have, in effect, been designated as at risk from flooding, according to the Environment Agency flood plain maps. That is despite highly efficient internal drainage, good flood defences and no record of recent floods. Surely it is common sense that such assessments take proper heed of such factors, and not just of topography, to assuage the fears of householders, businesses, insurers and economic investors.
It is certainly the case that if people are in a flood risk area, it does not necessarily mean that the risks of flooding are very high. It is important, however, that people who are in a flood risk area are aware of what those risks are. That is part of the Environment Agency's flood awareness campaign. Interpreting that is part of our dialogue with insurance companies. We, with the Environment Agency, are investing in much more accurate digital mapping in relation to flood risk. Again, that helps people to understand the risk, which should mean that people do not face difficulties with insurance cover for the future.
I accept what the Minister says about discussions with insurance companies but, as he will have heard earlier from Mr. Edwards, that is by no means universally successful. I am surprised that the Minister did not mention obliging local authorities to carry out strategic flood risk assessments, which would have been a better answer, if I might say so. The problem with those assessments is that they are largely unfunded, they are not always done in areas where the local authority has the resources or the wherewithal to commit to carry them out quickly, and the maps are still in existence. Until those flood plain maps are withdrawn, economic investors, local people and, as we have heard, some insurers will continue to believe that areas with no risk, in real terms, of flooding—and no record of flooding—are dangerous places to live in, to invest in and to insure. That needs to be dealt with urgently. The Minister has a responsibility to assuage those fears.
The insurance industry is a free-market industry, and people are free to shop around and to get the best quote and the most appropriate cover. It is interesting that the Conservatives feel that we should somehow interfere with that market mechanism.
Local authority assessments are not really suitable for insurance companies in relation to such issues, but digital mapping most certainly is. In my experience, the main insurance companies are well aware of how to interpret the risks shown in flood-risk mapping. I am a Lincolnshire Member of Parliament and I am not aware of widespread problems in obtaining insurance in Lincolnshire. The problem should be put into perspective. More information is certainly important and realistic interpretation is absolutely vital. We will continue our dialogue with the insurance companies and others to make sure that the risks are understood.